It was primal instinct that had helped Jefferson survive that night. Relying solely on the rush of adrenaline, he let his own two feet carry him to whatever safe haven he could find. All he knew was that he had to get away. The beauty of New York City on a Friday night was that there were people everywhere. Amongst the throng of people, he blended right in as long as he walked inconspicuously. He kept moving, refusing to look backwards, knowing that it meant imminent death. His thoughts briefly went back to Milo. He wondered if Milo had gotten away. If he also had gotten hit. He looked down at his torso. Blood was dampening his t-shirt to his abs. He tightened his jacket and quickened his pace. It was that instinct that led him to the place he had been dreading to visit for two years. The place he lived and breathed before the accident. Tuscany Academy's swimming pool.
Tuscany Academy's swimming center is an architectural masterpiece. One of the few buildings that were modern on campus, it was a chrome, silver, glass structure that resembled a turtle's shell. There were silver bleachers stacked on every side of the wall for people to watch the water polo matches or swim meets. The Olympics sized pool started off at 5 feet but got deeper and deeper up to 13 feet at the very end of the pool. The water would glimmer bright blue under the sun, and look almost obsidian when the lights were off. The air smelled heavy of chlorine. The moment the smell of chlorine hit Jefferson, he felt his consciousness ebb and he fell into a heap on the floor. That was how Hailey found him at 4 in the morning, when she had come in early for morning practice. The last hazy memory Jefferson had as he drifted between consciousness and unconsciousness was Hailey's long red hair matted to her face. Red hair. Red blood. Red everywhere.
When Emily picked up her phone at 4 in the morning from a unknown call, she had hopes that it was a certain boy that was calling her. Those thoughts were quickly pushed aside when she heard quiet, panicky sobs come from the other end of the phone.
"Who is this?" She asked cautiously.
"H-hailey," said the other voice hoarsely. "H-hailey Simmons."
Hailey Simmons was a sophomore at Tuscany Academy. A pretty red head who was famous for her swimming stamina and speed. Emily only knew this because how Mr. Henderson would brag about her during swim season, showing off all the awards she had won for the school. Besides that, she had never really gotten to know Hailey nor spoke with her. As she tried to listen to what Hailey had to say, Emily could barely understand Hailey because of her panicked breathing and sobs.
"Blood," choked out Hailey. "S-so much blood."
"Are you okay? Where are you?" Asked Emily, getting out of bed and putting on her glasses.
"The pool," she said hoarsely. "Please, please hurry."
The phone clicked and Emily rushed to get ready. She tossed on a sweatshirt and changed into the black jeans she wore yesterday. The swim center was fortunately relatively close to the dorm rooms. The annoying part was that there was a long, tall gate that separated the whole swim center and the athletic facility from the school campus. VP Henderson had it installed since the athletic facility was used by the public as well on the weekend. She could go the long way round towards the entrance or, she could jump it. She looked behind her and side to side, making sure no one was watching. She took a couple steps back, started picking up her pace, ran, and made a leap. She caught the gate about midway. She scaled up the gaps in the gate and then swung her legs over the top half of the gate. With a light thud, she landed expertly in the running field of the athletic facility. Emily ran quickly to the swim center where she saw two figures illuminated by the blue sheen of the pool.
"Hailey?" Called out Emily, her voice echoed to the ceiling.
"Emily, thank God you're here," cried Hailey. She was sitting there in her swim suit. Her strawberry blonde hair in an unkempt bun. She attempted to stand up, but her knees were so weak she ended up toppling to the side.
"Is that Jefferson?" Said Emily in surprise as she focused her vision on the lying figure. She jogged over and was shocked to see his blood soaked T-shirt. She knelt over and saw that he had half attempted to cover a wound and stop the bleeding with his jacket. A bullet wound. How the hell did he get shot? And how the hell did he make it all the way here with a bullet in his stomach?
"He needs to go to the hospital," said Emily firmly. "Did you call the ambulance?"
"N-no," said Hailey. "He doesn't want that. He stopped me earlier. He said it's too dangerous."
Emily's eyes narrowed as she processed what Hailey had just told her. "Fine. We still need to treat him."
She ran to the main office of the swim center but was irked to see that the door was locked. She took out the bobby pin from her hair and stuck it into the knob. After a couple twists and turns, the door made a clicking sound and the latch was opened. She rummaged the office for the first aid kit, and then carried it out to where Hailey waited.
"We need to get the bullet out," Emily said as she unlocked the kit. "The longer it stays in there, the higher the chance of him getting an infection." She grabbed the rubbing alcohol and poured the content onto his wound. He was lucky he was knocked out because she knew how much it could burn and sting. She then found a pair of pliers and doused it with the rubbing alcohol as well. Hailey watched in shock. Emily used the pliers to open the wound. Blood spurted out but Emily wasn't fazed. She found the bullet easily since it hadn't gone into his skin that deeply. Then she grabbed the cotton gauze and wrapped it around his torso.
"This is pretty poorly done so we're going to have to get him to see a professional," said Emily, as she put in the final touches of gauze.
"How the heck do you even know how to do all this?" Asked Hailey, wide eyed.
"Trust me when I say that I seem to get into these situations pretty often," said Emily drily, as she thought about James and his wrecked body.
"C'mon," said Emily. "I need you to help me move his body onto the spineboard. Then we can carry that over to Clark."
"Who's Clark?" Asked Hailey confused, as she stood up.
"Clark? Oh. Mr. Graves, the school nurse. He also lives on campus," said Emily as she dragged over the red spineboard, which is typically used for pool emergencies.
"Oh," said Hailey, as she dried her tears. Emily noted how her hands were stained in blood. It was still fresh. She must've blocked the wound with her hands to prevent the bleeding this whole time.
"Go wash up first," said Emily. "I will start moving him first."
"N-no, I can help," said Hailey as she scrambled to her feet. She slipped a little due to the blood on the ground.
Emily shook her head. "I know you can, but help yourself first. Your swim suit is blood stained. Go wash up and change."
Hailey nodded, "thanks Emily." She walked quickly to the bathroom. When she came back, she wore a clean hoodie repping the Tuscany owls and sweat pants. She looked calmer and a little more composed. She hoisted up the spineboard near his feet and Emily guided them to the nurse's room. Emily hoped that it wasn't too late to help him.
"Damn it," complained Clark. "I better get paid over time for this," he said irritably as he redid Jefferson's bandages.
"Please shut it and do your job," said Emily, drily. She did feel a little bad for Clark. He was a relatively young nurse. Probably in his late 20s. And here he was up at 5 AM treating a wounded student when he should be sleeping. He had opened the door half naked, in an 80s band T-shirt and his flannel boxer briefs. When he saw he was in the company of two ladies, who were also minors, he had quickly tossed on some sweats which Emily was grateful for. Now, half asleep and definitely irritated, he was redoing Emily's quick fix for Jefferson with the precision that only a nurse could have.
"You think it's easy with you two looming over me," said Clark as he scowled at Emily.
Emily had to admit it was quite a tight fit in Clark's apartment with four bodies. He also lived in the same dorm building as Emily, serving as their RA. Due to that fact, she had a good relationship with him. To the point where she saw him as an older brother figure. Even so, she had never been inside his apartment. She liked how he did the place. There were plants everywhere, and it was cleaner than she had expected. But it was no time for her to appreciate his home decor. She fixed her attention back onto Jefferson who laid on Clark's dark green couch. He had moaned a couple times but for the most part, he was lying there unconscious as Clark checked his vitals and did a more thorough evaluation of the wound.
"You're lucky I even have my tools in my room," said Clark, as he grabbed his stethoscope.
"You're the best," said Emily dryly.
Clark shivered, "that sounds so weird coming from you."
Emily snorted. He always had to be so wry and jokey, even when things were this serious.
"I'm going to have to take his shirt all the way off," said Clark. "You gonna stand here and watch?" He said wagging his dark brows.
Emily rolled her eyes. "Like I care." Hailey nodded in agreement. She had been holding Jefferson's hand the entire time.
"Well, I really can't have both of you standing right in front of the light source when I'm trying to check out his vitals," said Clark snappily.
"Oh sorry, Mr. Graves," said Hailey.
"It's okay, just go sit in the dining area, and I will let you know when I'm done," said Clark.
Hailey gave Jefferson's hand one more squeeze before walking away.
"Isn't she sweet calling me Mr. Graves unlike a certain someone," said Clark throwing daggers at Emily.
"Clark, please stop yapping and get on with it so we can all go to bed," said Emily.
"Yes m'am," said Clark irritably. "They really ought to make you the headmistress the way you boss me around."
Emily smirked. "You know you love it."
"Nope, I can barely withstand Henderson's insufferable bindings ," said Clark. Emily snorted in agreement.
"Well you're in for a show, hon." Clark hoisted Jefferson up and peeled his T-shirt off him. What Emily and Clark saw caused them to catch their breath and let out an audible gasp.
"Is everything okay?" Asked Hailey from the dining room in a panicky voice.
"Y-yea," said Emily as calmly as she can. Her green eyes betrayed her shock. Wide eyed, she saw a familiar work. Red and gold flames. Just the hint of scales. Jefferson was a Flaming Dragon initiate. When you first join, you receive a tattoo of red and gold flames by their master tattooist. Then, the longer you are part of the organization and the more you do to serve it, the more detailed and powerful the dragon becomes. She hoped it was a strange coincidence. That it was some random ass tattoo a 18 year old had. But she could recognize those flames anywhere.
"Shit, isn't this fucked up," said Clark, vocalizing Emily's thoughts. Emily glanced at Clark and then back at Jefferson.
"You can't say a word about this to Hailey," hissed Emily.
"Nope, definitely not," said Clark. "To think that I would heal two flaming dragons," said Clark, as he looked into her eyes. "What a strange fate," he said. There was a look of mutual understanding between them.
"Indeed," said Emily softly.
Looking at those flames tatted on his chest, it reminded her of her and her younger brother. They got the flames the same day. Her's on her arm. His on his chest. They had both made a choice that was irrevocable. They made a choice to step into the flames and catch on fire. Little did she know that it would cause one of them to turn into ashes. She gripped her hand tightly, feeling welts form as her nails dug into her skin. She couldn't let Jefferson make the same mistake as her. It was as if the past was coming to haunt her. She slid down onto the carpet as she began to wonder where to even begin to solve this mess.
After gathering her scattered thoughts, Emily thought the best way to help herself was to help someone. Hence, Emily had taken Hailey back to her dorm room. Hailey sat in a ball on Emily's bed, and Emily brought her a cup of tea.
"Thanks," said Hailey softly, gripping the mug between her hands.
"No problem, it's chamomile tea. Good to calm your nerves," replied Emily, as she sat next to Hailey. Emily also sipped on her's.
"Not just for the tea," said Hailey. "For coming when I called, and making sure Jefferson is okay. You barely even know me. Thank you."
"Well, that's my duty isn't it. As a prefect of the school, gotta keep you all out of trouble and keep you safe," said Emily, with a smile.
"Still. You're going above and beyond the line of duty. And lord knows Jefferson gave you so much trouble," said Hailey ruefully. "And yet you still helped him." She took a sip of her tea and let out a content sigh.
"He's still a student of Tuscany," said Emily. To think she had thought Jefferson was troublesome enough when he was smoking joints on the rooftop.
"Not technically," said Hailey. "I heard about the check he wrote the school. It's insane. How the hell did he get all that money in such a short time?"
Emily didn't mention what she had just learned an hour ago. She wondered what sort of dirty jobs Jefferson had to do to amass that money as well.
"Who knows," said Emily.
"What if he got shot because he stole it from somebody," gasped Hailey. "I honestly wouldn't be surprised at this point," she said between panicked breaths.
"We don't know that," said Emily calmly, as she rubbed Hailey's back. "We live in NY. Crazy things happen all the time."
"His mom is worried sick," said Hailey. "She's driving down from Buffalo to see him. She's leaving first thing in the morning tomorrow. Do you have any idea how hard she works for him? What she does to keep him at the school? And yet, he doesn't seem to give a damn. Only obsessing over Sofia," mused Hailey. "He was such a talented swimmer. And he gave that all up. He refuses to try again. I can't deal with his bull headedness."
Emily nodded as she listened along. She could tell how much Hailey cared about Jefferson.
"He's lucky to have a friend like you," said Emily. "I can tell how much you care about him."
Hailey turned a shade of bright red. "Well, I have known him forever. We were swimming together since we were pubescent."
Emily nodded. "I heard about what a beast you are in the pool."
Hailey turned an even darker shade of red.
"Thanks," said Hailey. "If you could believe it, Jefferson was even better than me. He was a born champion. I remember when he came to the swim camp that summer. He had such a cheap, worn out swim suit and these bright orange goggles that made his eyes bug out. The other kids called him a toad because of that. But when he swam, he just blew all of us away. He was so confident. So focused. And he only got better and better. But the pressure got to him."
She sighed and took another sip of her tea. "Coming to Tuscany changed him. I thought it would be a better opportunity. He always talked about moving out of his small town and going to the city. I wanted that for him. But it was overwhelming to him," she said, as she teared up. "I should've known better. Henderson just lays more and more pressure on him. More medals. More attention. Or else the scholarship would disappear. He was always so anxious. And on top of that, you know how obnoxious kids at our school are. The flashy cars, the designer clothes, the privilege. I wish I never convinced him to come here," said Hailey through sniffles. "Then maybe all this wouldn't have happened."
Emily hugged Hailey closer. "Hey, you were looking out for him. In the end, his choices are his choices. You're doing the best with what you got."
Hailey nodded, her tears were muffled under the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
"You're gonna be okay," said Emily as she continued rubbing her back.
It's an odd feeling, thought Emily, seeing someone who was missing for two week then returning looking like death, suddenly sitting in front of you as if nothing had ever happened. In fact, had it not been the white gauze that was wrapped around his torso - Emily would have thought it was another ordinary day with Claude Jefferson, the resident bad boy of Tuscany High. Granted, on an ordinary day, she would not be casually sitting with him eating cereal. Emily stirred her lucky charms with her spoon watching the marshmallows turn the milk pink, blue, and green.
She wondered how Hailey felt. Hailey kept looking at him as though he would disappear at any moment. Jefferson was choosing to ignore everything beside the Frosted Flakes in front of him.
"What happened to you?" Hailey tried again.
"Just got caught in something," muttered Jefferson, through a mouthful of cereal.
"Where did you go?" Asked Hailey again, trying to get a straight answer.
"Here and there," said Jefferson. Another vague answer, thought Emily irritably. Couldn't he see how worried Hailey was?
"Well, you mentioned it was dangerous yesterday," said Hailey. "What's dangerous?"
Jefferson's eyes flashed. "Just cool it Hailey, you're being annoying right now."
Hailey's eyes flared up in anger but as if she remembered what she saw last night, she kept her cool. "I'm just worried about you," she murmured.
"Don't," said Jefferson in a cool voice, refusing to look at her. "I'm fine."
There was an awkward silence besides the tinkling of the spoon in the glass bowl. You could cut the tension with a knife in here, thought Clark with a sigh. Why were teenagers so complicated?
"Your cereal is starting to get soggy," said Clark to Emily. Emily looked down at her bowl. Clark was right. She had eaten maybe one bite, or two. Her mind was too preoccupied by what she was going to do about Jefferson and that goddamn tattoo.
She gingerly took a bite. Even soggy, lucky charms tasted delicious. Clark smirked. He knew how much Emily loved sweets.
"Well, I'm going to take Hailey and head to the school now," said Clark. "Emily, I expect you to join us soon. Claude needs to stay and rest."
Hailey looked hesitant, but she slowly got up and put her dish away in the dishwasher.
Jefferson didn't even bat an eyelash at his real name. "Thanks for helping me out but I'm not staying. I'll leave with you."
"Nope, not a chance," said Clark. Jefferson stood up ready to barge out but Clark easily sat him back down, placing one firm hand down his shoulder.
"Look at the state you're in," said Clark dramatically. "A dainty little nurse like me just overpowered you."
"You didn't overpower me," growled Jefferson. Emily rolled her eyes. Of course he's still trying to hold onto his masculinity.
"Tomato, tomahto," said Clark. "I'll see you after dismissal to check on that injury of your's. Don't you dare leave before then," warned Clark.
Jefferson glowered but didn't make an attempt to move anymore. Instead, he shoveled more cereal in his mouth.
The moment Clark and Hailey stepped out, Emily couldn't play it cool any longer. She slammed her glass to the table.
"Why in the world would you join The Flaming Dragons?" Said Emily, her green eyes turned dark with anger. "What the hell were you thinking?"
Jefferson looked shocked for a split second. Then he seemed to relax. "Why wouldn't I join The Flaming Dragons? It's powerful. It's notorious. It pays the bills. It kills time."
"Kill time?" Said Emily, feeling rage boil in her stomach. "It'll kill you," she said solemnly.
His eyes flashed. A look of concern? A look of fear? A look of anger? Emily didn't know, but she needed him to know what he was getting himself into.
"Do you have any idea how serious the Flaming Dragons is?" Asked Emily.
"Didn't you hear me just then? I said it's powerful. Notorious. Of course it's serious."
"Jefferson, it's not some small time hood gang. It's an organized crime syndicate," said Emily. "The Flaming Dragons originate from a notorious Yakuza clan who emigrated to the States in the 60s. They built their organization by dabbling in all the worst things. Drugs. Weapons. Trafficking. Assassinations. Once you join, you kill to stay alive, or you get killed. Trust me when I say it's not worth it," said Emily.
"How the hell do you know so much about them?" Asked Jefferson, his eyes boring holes into her. Emily tried to not get fazed.
"I-I know these things okay," said Emily. "No one joins a gang because they wants to. Organized crime isn't fun. Most of us only do it because we ran out of options. But that isn't the case for you. You have a choice."
"What choice?" He spat out angrily. "I never had a choice. I was dealt a shitty hand, and the one good thing I had - I screwed up."
Emily narrowed her eyes, a sign that she was truly angry. "One good thing?" She repeated. "Are you kidding me? You have your mother. She's been looking for you ever since you decided to run off on your own. She's driving down here as we speak. You have Hailey. She's been by your side since she found you at 4 AM. And you better not be talking about swimming because I heard from Hailey." She felt her breathing go ragged from all the pent up emotions that was released.
Jefferson bit his lips. He looked away from her.
"You're recovered, right? You could swim if you want to," she said calmly.
"I can't," said Jefferson numbly.
"No, it's not that you can't. You won't," corrected Emily. "Why? Is it a pride thing?"
"It's not a pride thing," he growled, his eyes burned hotly before looking distant. He looked bitter, but mostly afraid.
He said nothing. She waited. Her green eyes searched his brown ones.
"You're scared," whispered Emily. It wasn't a question.
He glared at her before staring at his feet.
"Of what?" Emily prodded.
He gripped the end of the table tightly. His knuckles turned white. "That I won't be the same. I would be a disappointment. That I would try my best but never catch up to what I used to be," said Jefferson softly.
Emily sighed. "Jefferson, you're scared of the unknown. You will never know unless you try."
"It's easier to say then do," said Jefferson darkly. "So much was at stake with swimming. My scholarship, my school admittance, my future. It was once just a fucking hobby. Something I just did for fun. Then, it all changed with that stupid scholarship. I kept pushing myself until I wrecked my body. If, only if," he started choking up.
Emily gripped Jefferson's hand firmly. It shocked him how her small hands had that much strength. "Jefferson, listen to me. You're so busy worrying about your future and feeling guilty about your past that you aren't living in the future." Her green eyes met his brown ones. A warmth radiated from her that he had never felt before. Confidently, she said, "Let's take it day by day, together."
She smiled warmly at him. It was an expression he had never seen on the tough disciplinary prefect that he had once known. He gazed at her in shock. Suddenly, he felt his cheek get warm and wet. Weird. He was crying. Why? He felt the tears drop onto his hand and her's. She handed him a napkin and he quickly wiped away his tears.
"I can't go back to school," he choked through his muted tears. "I'm tied to Flaming Dragons now. Like you said, once you join, you kill or you get killed."
Emily smiled reassuringly. "Like I said, let's take it day by day, together. I promise you. I will get you back to school."
Funny. This very stairway was something she used to climb up every day three years ago. Just like she remembered, the fourth stair was a little taller than the others. The poster of the hula girl was still plastered on the wall. It was once as familiar as Tuscany's campus is familiar to her now. The main headquarter for the Flaming Dragon was so inconspicuous, no one would ever guess that this mundane building would hold hundreds of one of the most powerful gang syndicates in the world. On the fourth floor was a karaoke bar frequented by civilians. On the third floor was an office space that was used to imprison those who didn't pay their loans back on time or caused trouble for the gang, the second floor was a training space, the first floor was the restaurant and a speakeasy frequented by socialites and celebrities, and lastly, the basement. The basement was where all the meetings took place. To access it, you had to go through the red door on the side of the restaurant. It took Jefferson off guard when Emily casually walked towards the red door without any guidance from Jefferson.
The basement for most buildings in New York is used as a storage unit. However, in this case, the basement was probably the most opulent area in the whole building. It was designed to look like a traditional Japanese dojo. There were tatami mats on the floor. Painted calligraphy on silk scrolls lined the hall. There was a mahogany chair at the end of the hall like a throne where two guards flanked. Above the chair were three swords, representing the three generations worth of leaders that came before. The last time Emily had been in the room there had only been two swords hanging there.
After reaching the end of the stairwell, there was a traditional paper sliding door and a cabinet to tuck your shoes in. They had walked into the lion's den. Just behind that thin paper door stood what Jefferson dreaded and what Emily loathed. Jefferson's footsteps faltered. Emily smiled reassuringly at him. She reached for the door handle but he stopped her. "Wait for me here. I'm going to try by myself," he said. She nodded. His expression turned hard, and he slid open the paper door.
"Ah, I was looking for you," said a soft but deadly voice. Emily's hands curled into fists when she heard his voice.