1. To save the boy and keep the girl
Tuscany's belly was at once the most fascinating and unnerving thing Ren had ever seen.
See, Tusc had always been the skinny kid with the bruised knees and the infectious smile; the girl who hung out with boys, but gagged at the idea of kissing one. Ren had got a jab in the ribs the first and only time he'd ever tried, only escaping death because he had Pokémon cards she wanted, and a KFC Bargain Bucket that was only half-eaten.
Now, her arsehole ex-boyfriend had gotten her pregnant, and it was a step into adulthood Ren could never imagine taking.
Her lip curled. "I'm not going to explode, you know. This isn't some Alien-type situation."
She chuckled as they walked down the pier, the wind tousling her coffee-coloured hair, mixing sickly sweet coconut with sea air and cigarettes. Fairground lights reflected in her eyes as her laugh settled to a small, fractured smile. Fractured, because she was young, her ex was useless and her best friend was a lanky redhead who never had the right words to say. Still a smile, though. She was so fucking strong.
"C'mon." He pulled her over towards the old arcade – a white skull of a building with paint that peeled where it wasn't burnt or vandalised. Ren's own name was carved into its walls God knows how many times, because Dill Bay had a way of making you realise how damn easy it was to die without leaving marks.
He took a long swig of beer and spat his gum onto the damp planks of the pier.
Outside the arcade were a ramshackle collection of carnival stalls, hung heavy with inflatables and overstuffed animals. The stalls were there all year round, scrabbling for business in the dead months, and buzzing with local kids and tourists in the summer. It being July and busy, the air was full of sweat and alcohol and rock and roll, a heady pre-thunderstorm feel to it.
Ren nodded at the Slam Dunk stall, which was all about shooting hoops for crappy prizes. Despite being a lazy toad, Ren was pretty good at the sports that suited him. "I'll win you something. Be all heroic and shit."
She paused, so damn beautiful with her black nails halfway towards her teeth and colours bouncing from her hair. "Why?"
Because he loved her. "Because you're having a tough time and I want to make you happy." Also that.
"Because you feel sorry for me."
That too. "Duh."
"Silly boy." Her face melted into a smile again, and Ren felt the kind of happiness he usually reserved for an empty sea and a freshly waxed surfboard. He cocked his head at the fluffy prizes that dangled around the Slam Dunk like bastardised Christmas tree decorations. They were so ugly, Tusc was sure to like them. She surveyed them all with her hands on her hips.
A young man in a Dill Pier T-shirt and cap stood at the stall, humming along with Highway to Hell. Brown eyes sniped from beneath a dark fringe as he lazily moved a basketball from left hand to right. Those hands were long and slow, the fingers on his left decorated with silver rings, while tiny skeletons danced from his wrist. What a strange creature to be trapped in a suffocating place like this. Slam Dunk should have been driving fast in a roofless car through some epic desert, screaming into the night. Ren should have been next to him.
The boy's eyes snapped to his. "Like what you see?"
Ren snorted beer through his nose. "Um...sure?"
Tusc giggled, linking arms and angling her eyes at the weirdo, smiling sharp. "Kind sir, my beloved plans to win me a prize." She leapt up and kissed Ren on the cheek, leaving a little spot of wetness behind that instantly cooled.
The guy did a little bow, raising his dark eyebrows at Tusc, then turning his eyes to Ren. "What catches your eye?"
Tusc regarded the Slam Dunk display with a quirk of her mouth, pointing up at a stuffed beaver. It sat grumpily between a hoard of Minions and a badly-sewn Pikachu doll. It looked desperately unimpressed with its company. "Gimme."
"I am your most humble servant." Goth guy tossed Ren a basketball and extended a silver-ringed hand. "One pound for four tries. Get the ball through the hoop and win a prize. Easy peasy...lemon squeezy."
He gazed back at the three hoops and rolled a cigarette as Tusc paid, looking so hopelessly bored Ren actually felt sorry for him. So Ren finished his beer and crushed his can and tried to be as interesting as possible.
"We got a bag of firecrackers to light on the beach. I got beer and –"
"You're sweet." The dark-haired boy scratched his neck and peered out at the crowds, frowning. The corner of his mouth twitched as his eyes disappeared into the shadow beneath his brow. "Just throw the ball, kid?"
"But she's pregnant," Ren added. "You'll make me party alone, dude?"
Ren's eyes traced over the dirty pound coin in the guy's hand, up towards the tracklines on his arms. Then his face, the shadowed eyes angled at some spot by the barricades. His dimples deepened.
"Throw. You're up very late and my world is crumbling and shit."
Tusc laughed flatly. "The hell's wrong with a crumbled world, Mr Slam Dunk?" She leant forward, pulling her hood up to look mysterious, so she might join the shady world this guy was designed for. "Creep," she hissed. "You know, the ghost train is that-a-way."
But she was drinking this up; the Slam Dunk guy was weird, and Tuscany loved weird people – especially weird people who were tall and slim and probably five years older than she was. Weird boys with full lips that were suddenly down-turned and puppy dog eyes that were now wide open.
With a grunt, he scrambled over the counter, sticking his unlit roll-up in his mouth and speaking through his teeth. "Take your beaver, guys. I gotta head somewhere."
His slim hips bopped Ren's as he hurried past in a waft of heat and rose-smell, heading further up the pier.
Tusc grinned. "Hey!" she yelled. "You got a phone number or something?"
He looked over his shoulder, waving as he jogged past the Whack-a-Mole. "I find that if you ask the world for things, you usually get them!" And then he was part of the crowd, swallowed by it, gone. Ren smiled, imagining the guy running off to some place better. A dark gothic castle, maybe, with tall ceilings, chandeliers, and cheeky ghosts behind the velvet curtains.
Tusc sank her head down onto Ren's shoulder, sighing deeply. "Beautiful weirdo."
"Takes one to know one, love." He threw the basketball forward, watching it swish through the nearest hoop with mild satisfaction. "So what do you say we stalk the guy?"
Slam Dunk was talking to a green-haired girl by the carousel, all arms and expressions. She was a small thing in a red coat, with an emerald fringe that hung low over her eyes. While Slam Dunk talked, she stood with her arms folded, leaning against the barricade. The sea stretched out behind her until it touched the sky.
On what had to be the shittiest bench on the entire pier, Tuscany ate candyfloss, swinging her skinny legs.
"Lovers tiff," she decided. "Do you think he asked the world for her?"
"What he said. About asking the world for things and getting them. You never listen, Ren." She swallowed a great puff of candyfloss, watching the green-haired girl tapping her black heels as goth guy kept shouting. He was waving a handkerchief around now, like some romantic gesture from the olden days. "If I could ask for anything, I'd ask for the world," Tuscany admitted. "And for sex and alcohol and jetskis." She hugged Ren close. "You?"
He'd ask to keep her; he knew friendships died when you lost things in common. "I'd ask for a bigger dick, obviously."
"Arse." Her hand tightened at his hip as her voice fell quiet. She nuzzled the stuffed beaver. "Hey, Ren, thanks for the toy, but you know you don't owe me, right? You don't need to be the one to keep me happy."
"I like making you happy."
She looked away. "My life is going to be different now. Doesn't mean yours has to be."
"Uh...where's this coming from?"
Tusc's nose wrinkled. "I just feel so terrible." She sighed. "I guess I'm scared you'll give too much of yourself to me, and regret it later." She stroked his cheek with her cold fingers. There were little pearly tears at the edges of her eyelashes. "Shit, Ren, it's just the baby...she has to be my number one. You'll be there for me, but I can't be there for you, and it's not fucking fair, boy." She kissed his hair. "Ren...Ren, I'm leaving Dill Bay."
Her words took their time to slip inside his ear and curl up in his brain. Then, Ren wanted to float, avoid touching anything. Any more words might break him, because Tuscany couldn't go.
Her eyes were on Mr Slam Dunk again, but her lips were still moving. Still speaking. He blinked and waited for her words to make sense. "...Need to get away from all the gossipy bullshit. This town's too small, and I can't get space from Tom and his friends – it's better for the baby if I'm happy, Ren. Dad said I can move to his place in London for a bit. I need to go."
He couldn't say anything. When it came to the baby, he couldn't say shit. So he watched the arguing couple and the sea behind them, feeling like his organs had been ripped out. For so long, it had been Tusc and Ren, Ren and Tusc. She was his soulmate, his accomplice. With her gone, he could only imagine himself as some half-formed boy with nothing to do.
"You okay, boy? Ren?"
The sea would swallow them both if they jumped right now, then chuck them up, cold and spluttering. On his fifteenth birthday, they'd dived in naked, holding hands and laughing insanely at the adrenalin rush. The cool expanse of water had made him feel powerful and significant, like he could turn into seafoam if he wanted to, like he could flow through nature and govern it.
There was none of that power now; if Tusc had to go, he couldn't stop her. But he was determined to stay in a safe little bubble and love her forever.
He looked at Slam Dunk again. Things seemed like they were heating up because the green-haired girl was finally moving. She spread her arms wide and rushed towards Slam Dunk, like she was going to hug him breathless. Ren watched her shoes pound wooden boards, watched her red smile grow. His eyes were on her right hand, then, and for a moment he wasn't sure why. Then he swallowed.
Something long and dark was sliding out from her fist, right between her fingers. A...knife?
"Shit! Look out!"
Maybe it was Ren that said that, or maybe it was Tusc or one of the other two hundred people on the pier that night. It didn't matter; Green-Hair shot her hand towards the guy's back, and the knife slid in just above his kidneys, going in black and coming out red. And the guy screamed. Green Hair held him close as he struggled and punched and kicked and screamed. It didn't seem to make any difference to her, and then she stabbed him again.
Tusc froze next to Ren. They and the crowd were caught in a moment that only moved for the green-haired girl and her dark-haired victim.
Because people didn't murder other people in the middle of a crowd. Especially not in Dill Bay.
"Fuck!" Ren jumped to his feet.
The green-haired girl's knife retreated up her arm - Ren swore he saw it slide straight up beneath her skin, a movement that nearly turned his stomach. She watched it go too, but her face was serene where his was horrified. It was a sweet little expression that stayed as she dug her little fingers into the black cotton of Slam Dunk's Dill Pier T-shirt. Her lips moved by his ear, spilling words Ren couldn't hear.
Then, with a quick, easy motion, she lifted Slam Dunk up and tossed that poor, trembling weirdo over the barricade of the pier, out into the sea.
The screams of the crowd came just before the splash.
Green-Hair didn't stay to watch him fall; she was already running towards the shore, fighting through the crowd with knees and elbows. Ren wondered if he could catch her, wondered if he should try.
He took Tuscany's shoulder. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. "Yeah, yeah... Just..." She squinted over to where the green-haired girl had run. "Shouldn't we...?"
Ren was already on his feet, but it wasn't the girl he was after. He sprinted towards the barricade of the pier and leapt over it, out towards open air and open sea. He held his breath, closed his eyes, and fell, before hitting the cold water in a sudden, breathless rush.
Slam Dunk, let me save you.
A kid drowned when Ren was ten.
His mum had shielded his eyes and whipped him away to go grab ice cream, but he'd seen. There was a very small, very pale someone in the sand, a red-faced mother who screamed. It was the first time in his life he'd realised his mistake of trusting the sea. Things you loved could kill you. Fuck, and the sea couldn't even love you back.
So he'd taken swimming lessons, learned lifesaving, surfed daily. And he swam now in long strokes, pushing away the image of that little dead kid. He couldn't let that happen again.
But he could hardly see; he was surrounded by black sea and black sky, the fucking nighttime. It was like each breath Slam Dunk lost was right down his back. Every second scratched at him as the moon and stars watched him fail.
"Hey! Where are you?"
How the hell could he save a guy if he couldn't even find him? Fuck, maybe he was destined to fail. Slam Dunk was probably at the bottom of the sea already. Ren wondered how deep it was out here. One mile? Two? How long would it take a guy to fall that far? What if -
A hand grasped at him from behind. Fingers clawed at his neck.
A drowning person would do anything for breath. Ren was pulled under by the weight of a whole other person, water rushed into his mouth and up his nose. They struggled together for a few seconds, limbs and clothes intertwining. But Ren knew what to do - where to hold the guy, how to turn him over. Maybe how to save his life.
When they broke the water, the cold air that rushed down his lungs was the best he'd ever tasted.
"Hurts! screamed Slam Dunk. "Oh God, fu-fucking hurts!"
"You'll be okay."
"She - she stabbed me in the fucking back." His sobs were interspersed with great whooping breaths of air, and manic squirms that threatened to send them both down under again.
"You'll be okay," Ren said again, swimming with his body beneath Slam Dunk's, his arms beneath his pits. It was just like Mr Ray had taught him at swim class three years ago, only this time there was the revolting warmth of blood against his thighs, and the taste of iron in the water. "Just relax. Try not to struggle."
"No -" mumbled Slam Dunk. "No, kid, I'm already gone - fuck."
"Don't say that."
"O-okay. Then." And he took that as an invitation to say other things. "Bl-blue bluebell wood." His voice was barely there against the sounds of the pier and the sea. "You nee - need to go! Promise - prom-" He screamed out in pain, a sound so full of pain that Ren felt physically sick. "Find Winter. Tell him to look out for her." He hissed and squirmed with every word. "Frog knows, and he needs to be careful. Tell Winter about me. Tell him I love him. Blue – bluebell wood!"
The boy twisted and howled again, the sound was broken and gurgling. Then he was suddenly still, his muscles slack, his body cold enough to match the sea.
Ren started. "Hey! Hey. Stay with me? Stay with me!"
Slam Dunk's head nodded slowly. "I'm just so...frightened," he whispered. "I just..."
"Fuck..." Ren breathed. He focused on the dusty moon above them, like he could hook onto it with his eyes and hold on tight, but all he could really do was swim.
After too many minutes, wet sand met his toes, then sucked at his feet as he struggled forward. Slam Dunk's body was still, his pale eyelids closed, but Ren continued to hope as he stumbled to shore with the boy on his back. He collapsed into the sand, his breaths little half-chokes, and looked up at the moon peek-a-booing behind clouds. They were out of the water, and everything could be okay; he only needed to wish for it hard enough.
Yeah, everything could be okay, and Ren could curl up and sleep long enough to forget all about this - about the green-haired girl with the knife up her arm and the ferocious loneliness of the sea. He could forget the taste of blood in brine, and the feeling of a boy growing colder and weaker in his arms. Cold enough to match the sea.
Yeah, Ren wished to sleep forever, cosy as a mouse.
But there were too many sirens, too many people. Flashes of blue and a parade of shadows who pulled him to his feet and draped him with blankets. They snatched Slam Dunk away, and Ren tried not to notice the way they took the guy's pulse and just...left him. It was too sad and awful, and Slam Dunk had been charming them by the old arcade minutes ago, so alive and vivid and interesting. And now it was all just over. He was over? It was all so terrifying. Fragile and pointless. And Ren had to bend over to catch his breath as his eyes streamed with tears.
Slam Dunk was gone.
And maybe if Ren had been better or faster or - or something.
The air was too close, every breath was an effort. He squinted as white flashes beat at his eyes. Ambulance lights? The police? No. Phones, cameras. They were filming him, groups of goggle-eyed people just standing in the sand and staring. Look at Ren Buchanan, crying and hopeless and covered in blood that isn't his. He recognised a few of them from his school.
"Hey," yelled a teenage boy with an iphone and a Yankees cap. "Aren't you Harry's brother?"
Ren narrowed his eyes and turned away. Tusc was so damn right about this town; fuck it all.
Author's note: It's new WIP time! Took me long enough, mainly because of third bloody person (eek). Let me know what you think (and apologies for minor pseudo-spoilers in the summary)! Any feedback at all would be as glorious as a unicorn in a tutu, sliding down a rainbow and drinking gin. MAYBE EVEN MORESO.