Tiffany rounded the street corner and caught sight of her destination in the distance. At one point she had been sure she was being followed, and had quickened her pace. When she got a couple of blocks down, there was some pedestrian traffic that reassured her enough that she wasn’t about to be mugged or worse.
Before long, Tiffany approached an overpass that was still fairly busy with traffic this late in the evening. Beneath it, nestled in a section between the support pillars, was a congregation of people in what looked like an improvised skate park.
Ramps and rails were scattered throughout the area, and at one end was a tattered looking half pipe. Graffiti ran rampant throughout the concrete jungle, and the site was littered with several burned out oil drums.
The nearby street lamps that still worked bathed the area in a dull orange glow as the light of the sun continued to fade. Run down tenements lined each side of the overpass overlooking the skaters. Though most of the storefronts at street level were boarded up, there were a few exceptions, some liquor stores, a porn shop, and a tattoo parlour. It was a side of the city Tiffany had never really seen before, but having now discovered it, it made total sense that Erin would be here.
Tiffany crossed the last road and found her ears filled with the sound of rolling wheels and grinding metal, punctuated by the clacks and scuffs of tricks and jumps. As her eyes scanned for the familiar face, her presence was noticed by some of the nearer skaters, who after glancing at her for a moment, continued doing what they were doing without a word.
“Rude,” Tiffany muttered under her breath. She looked over to the group of sisters who were standing around smoking and talking. There, standing with a lanky guy whose head was covered by straw coloured dreadlocks and an array of piercings that frankly looked uncomfortable...
Tiffany’s heart jumped in her chest, and rapidly changed its beat from a gentle waltz to some kind of death metal. She took a deep, tempering breath. Erin was sharing a cigarette with dreadlock guy and hadn’t noticed her yet. Her shit eating grin and eye rolls made Tiffany smile as she approached. When she was a dozen paces away she was abruptly body blocked and surrounded by three of the skaters that had been hanging around.
“You lost, princess?” A blue haired girl scoffed. Tiffany couldn’t help but jump at what felt like an ambush. The expressions on the people confronting her were a mixture of amused and aggressive, and they closed around her, preventing any chance of escape.
Tiffany felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end as she struggled for words and felt a panic coming on. It was time. She tapped her left middle finger to her thumb three times in quick succession and then everything changed. A wave of calm clarity flowed through her mind like a clear mountain stream washing away her doubts.
All of a sudden, she knew everything she needed to know in that moment. Blue hair girl had the slight hint of a slur in her tone that Tiffany hadn’t noticed initially. Her eyes were less than a hundred percent focused, and she was putting her weight slightly more on the left. She was tipsy, if not outright drunk. There was a bottle of Jack Daniels sitting a few feet away on an upturned drum where blue hair and her friends had been a moment before. She could clearly recall while walking in that the other two were both guys, one of them about the same height as Tiffany and the other slightly taller. She could make out their individual breathing, as all the sounds around her had become sharper and more distinct.
Based on how much of the bourbon bottle had been drunk, she approximated that they were both slightly inebriated as well. The taller of the two was still holding a skateboard in his hands, while the shorter one held a lit cigarette. Tiffany knew all this for absolute certainty despite not being able to see them. She also knew how they were likely to react to a multitude of things she could say or do. Several of these scenarios played out in her head in a split second, and without skipping a beat, she chose which one to execute.
She pretended to lunge backwards, and quickly changed direction to make it look like she’d push past blue hair’s left, but instead she went right. All of this sent her would-be interrogators lunging in all the wrong directions, their reactions too far behind Tiffany’s movements to even come close to stopping her from weaving past them and out of reach. One of the guys went so far as to lose his balance and fall over, swearing as he hit the concrete.
“I’m not lost,” Tiffany said cooly, turning back as the three of them looked at her in bewilderment. “I’m exactly where I need to be.”
The blue haired girl and her equally surprised associates started to shake off their surprise just as Tiffany noticed the attention that had been drawn to them. The sounds of several skateboards grinding to a halt and several people muttering confusion were all distinctly apparent to her. It felt like a dozen eyes were burrowing down on the scene she had created.
In her mind she could picture exactly where they all were, and how quickly they could reach her. If they attacked, she could try one of several escape routes. But that surely wouldn’t happen, that would be crazy. Besides, Erin was one of the people noticing her now, and within half a second she was going to say Tiffany’s name and then almost certainly diffuse the situation. But her mind wouldn’t stop. There were too many people, too many variables, she could tell how many cars were passing by and knew precisely when the nearby traffic lights were going to change. A dull throbbing started enveloping her head.
“Tiff?” Erin wore a look of confusion on her face, but she couldn’t hide the hints of happiness her body gave away. She had perked up and taken an unconscious step forward, her pupils had dilated, and she flicked away a strand of loose hair without even knowing she was doing it.
All eyes turned to Erin now, and in an instant Tiffany recalculated everything. She looked at Erin and realised that her own expression just then could strongly influence how the interaction went. All the while she kept a mental track of where a dozen of the bystanders were as she tried to constantly anticipate their reactions. Her head throbbed more, and she realised that it was too much. She quickly tapped her right pinky and thumb together.
It was like diving into a pool of cool water after burning in the sun. Suddenly, her mind was processing a normal amount of information. She could see Erin, and knew others were watching, but that was about it.
“Uh… Hi,” Tiffany said with an awkward half grin.
Erin stared at the trio who were about to accost Tiff once more. “Izzy, chill then fuck out, will you? She’s with me.”
Tiffany turned to see blue-haired Izzy scowling, and offered a bashful apology. “Sorry about that!”
“Whatever.” Izzy sneered before aggressively snatching the bottle of Jack and taking a swig clearly intended to show off. The rest of the bystanders quickly lost interest and went back to skating or drinking.
Tiffany ignored her and rushed to Erin, grabbing her by both arms. “You’re here!”
Erin looked bemused. “’Course I’m here, Tiff. I sent that message about 15 minutes ago. The question is what the fuck are you doing here?”
Tiffany couldn’t stop smiling. “Are you kidding?” She shook her head, feeling like tears were imminent. “After everything you did for me, for Alice, all of us… I just had to come.”
Erin glanced at her dreadlocked friend before turning back to Tiffany. She shifted awkwardly. “You coulda just called, y’know?”
Tiffany’s smile faltered slightly, but she wasn’t to be deterred so easily. “Well your apartment was so close I figured why not come here. I thought you wanted me to when you told me where you were.”
Erin rolled her eyes and groaned. “Urgh, Tiff! It was more supposed to be like, ‘I’m here,I’m busy, talk later.’ Y’know?”
“Oh. Right.” Tiffany held her elbow awkwardly. It felt disappointingly anticlimactic.
Then Erin’s face went suddenly pale. “Wait, you were at my place?”
“Yeah.” Tiffany shrugged. She glanced sideways at Erin’s curious friend for a moment, before turning back to Erin cautiously. “I dug up the memory of where you lived last time I was at Josh’s, if you catch my drift.”
Erin was doing her best to hide her distress. “My landlord… He didn’t…”
“Yeah, he barked at me in the hallway.” Tiffany said nonchalantly. “He seems a bit pissed at you.”
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Erin asked with a strained expression.
Tiffany shook her head slowly as the weight of Erin’s words sank in. “No. He didn’t.” She frowned. “Erin, if he ever—”
“Don’t.” Erin shook her head. “Tiff. Please. Just go home.”
Tiffany felt her emotions battle it out within her. Rage and sorrow were beating down everything else until she took a deep breath and felt a grounding calm take root. “Erin, I’m not going home.”
Agitated, Erin turned to her friend. “Mike, could you give us a minute please.”
Mike scoffed lightly at Tiffany. “A’ight. I’ll be close.” He said to Erin.
Tiffany watched as Mike grabbed his skateboard and started riding around the two of them in a wide circle, constantly looking over, before she leant into Erin and spoke in a hushed tone. “Erin, what’s going on? Are you about to be kicked out of your apartment?”
“It’s fine, Tiff, I’ll settle with the douchebag landlord later.” Erin replied irately under her breath. “Now for real, what are you doing here?”
“Are you kidding?” Tiffany scoffed. “How could I not come find you after everything you did for us? For me?”
“Because…” Erin looked incredulous. “I gave you everything, Tiff. I cleared the programming from everyone, especially you, and made it so you could do whatever the hell you wanted. I hope you didn’t waste the power I gave you…”
“Erin…” Tiffany said with a slight frown. “I came here to thank you. You saved me.”
“Did I?” Erin looked at her feet. “Because I remember throwing you at Alice to be a decoy, so I wouldn’t have to put myself in any danger. I remember you breaking down in tears when you thought I had betrayed you, and surrendering entirely to Alice.” Erin looked back up with glistening eyes. “I don’t know how much of you I was truly able to save, Tiff.”
Tiffany placed a hand on Erin’s shoulder, vaguely aware of the mildly interested glances the two of them were occasionally getting. “You did save me Erin. I’m okay…” Tiffany assured her. It wasn’t entirely true, as she still occasionally had moments of near panic when she went over memories of the previous few days, but Erin could be spared the details for now. “Come on, what’s wrong?”
“Tiff, you shouldn’t be nice to me…” Erin frowned. “I’m an asshole. My best solution to the Alice problem was to throw you under the bus and set everyone up to be your slave again. What kind of friend does that?”
Tiffany sighed, smiling with her eyes closed and shaking her head lightly. “Erin… The Alice problem as you put it was the dumbest mistake I’ve made in my entire life. I almost ruined everything, and not just for myself. You did more than I ever could have and fixed it, I’m not going to hold anything against you for how you went about it. If anything, I should be apologising to you a thousand times over.”
Erin lit up a cigarette and grunted before taking a long draw. “Don’t beat yourself up too much, Tiff. You wanted to get your subbiness out of your system using Alice as a temporary fix, but you didn’t know at the time that you had been programmed with an overwhelming need to be controlled.” She blew out smoke, the agitation clear on her face. “It makes sense you couldn’t think straight to ensure you closed any loopholes.” She grimaced, shaking her head. “It was a fucked up situation, don’t apologize.”
Tiffany smiled and looked away for a moment. “That’s not what I want to apologize for.” Her eyes then locked with Erin’s. “I should have come to you…”
Erin’s expression softened. “What d’ya mean?”
“I should have asked you to control me, domme me for a bit,” Tiffany said with a dry throat. “I didn’t ask because I was trying to protect you, be strong for you, help you feel safe… But if I had come to you, none of the crap with Alice would have happened.” She sighed deeply. “So I’m sorry I screwed up, and I’m sorry you had to clean up my mess all by yourself.”
“Forget about it, Tiff.” Erin shrugged. “What’s done is done.”
Tiffany frowned in confusion. “Erin… The only way I’d ever forget about it is if you wiped the memory from me with the Algorithm. Which you didn’t do. Do you remember what you did do while you had me in the deepest trance?”
Erin caught Tiff’s steely gaze and then her head dropped. “Fuuuuuuck.” she moaned in annoyance. “Tiff, you used the Algorithm on yourself, didn’t you?”
Tiffany nodded slowly. “I had to know.”
“Because you don’t trust me.” Erin scoffed.
“No, the exact opposite,” Tiffany said earnestly. “Well, kinda. I wanted to know what you said to me at your apartment after you had saved me from Alice but before you woke me up.”
“Tiff…” Erin warned. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I’m glad I did,” Tiffany said firmly. The memories came back to her again, her sitting in Erin’s apartment, staring at the second Algorithm with a blank expression and empty mind. Erin had just removed every last trace of programming from her and had lit up a cigarette. Making it clear that Tiffany wouldn’t remember or act on anything else she said, she had begun talking about her crappy childhood, her crappy parents, her crappy struggles with making friends, and how nothing she ever did had ever felt good enough. “I guess it was easier for you to open up knowing I wouldn’t remember any of it when I woke up.”
“You had no right,” Erin said quietly.
Tiffany sighed solemnly. “Erin, I had no idea what it was I was remembering. I just didn’t want to have any gaps anymore. You can surely relate? You did exactly that after we all had our memories wiped the night of the bottle game.”
Erin looked away, downcast in a way Tiffany had never seen before. “That was different.”
“Look…” Tiffany appealed. “If you want you can just wipe my memory of it all again.” When Erin looked at her with a confused expression, she just shrugged casually. “I put your triggers for me back in place.”
“What?” Erin squinted in disbelief. “You didn’t…”
“Her mind was Tiffany twisted?” Tiffany said with a wink. “Or Breakfast at Tiffany’s… They both do the same thing, if you feel so inclined.”
“What, so you want to be my slave now?” Erin scoffed. “That’d be a hard pass, Tiff.”
“No, not in the slightest.” Tiffany smiled. “If you really want to go there, I’m hoping to make you my slave again, but not right now, that’s not why I came.”
Erin pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. “When exactly are you planning on making me your slave Tiff? Especially since I’m never going in front of the Algorithm ever again… And if that’s your plan, why even put my triggers in your mind?” Her voice spelled out her exasperation. “Seriously, Tiff, why are you even here? I left you with everything!” She flicked away the butt of her smoke and angrily ran her hands through her short hair. Turning away, she muttered, “You should just forget about me.”
“Erin, look at me,” Tiffany said softly. “Please?”
As she turned, Erin looked like she was barely holding back tears. She bowed her head, hoping nobody around them was watching too closely.
“After everything that happened, I can safely say I will never forget about you. If you don’t want to be with me after my monumental fuck up, I both understand and respect your decision.” Tiffany felt the tear rolling down her cheek but elected to ignore it. “The main thing I wanted you to know is that I’m so fucking sorry for all the mistakes I made, and I am unbelievably fucking grateful for how strong you were in fixing everything I messed up.”
Erin stared uncomfortably at Tiffany, who took her lack of reply as permission to continue.
“So whatever happens between us now,” Tiffany held her hands in one another, “I need you to know that you’ve made a friend for life.”
Erin raised an eyebrow.
Tiffany nodded and exhaled a shaky breath. “The truth is I don’t know you half as well as I want to, but after everything you’ve shown yourself to be, I’d consider myself more than lucky if you’d do me that honor.”
There was a moment of silence between them. Erin sniffed and chuckled softly. “So that was your grand gesture, Tiff?” She shook her head, unable to hide a genuine, peaceful smile on her face. “Just barge into my hangout and ‘gee, Erin, I like you, let’s be fwends…’”
Tiffany roller her eyes playfully. “Actually, no…” she offered with her own smile. “I also came to school you at your own game.”
“What, self pity and sabotage?” Erin shot back.
“Skateboarding.” Tiffany gestured around them.
“What, really?” Erin looked amused but skeptical. “Tiff, I could buy it if you said you came to try and drag me off to be your slave again in some kind of ill-conceived forced show of dominance, but you on a board?! No fucking way…”
“Look, you!” Tiffany grinned as she shook her head. “I’ll have you know that I’ve skateboarded before…”
At this Erin’s expression of entertained disbelief increased.
“... In fifth grade.”
Erin burst out laughing. “Of course!”
“To impress Cody Harrison, because he was into skating… and I didn’t yet realise I was gay…”
Erin snorted with laughter. “Oh Tiff, you’re killing me here…”
Tiffany laughed along. “The whole craze lasted a week in which I fell down more times than I blinked. My knee pads were worn through by the end of it, and Cody didn’t notice me because that bitch Vanessa Jones invited him to her birthday party that weekend and told everyone there that my parents were methheads.”
Erin gawked in disbelief for a moment before they both burst out laughing again. Tiffany felt a growing hope that things might yet work out.
When things had calmed down between them, Erin sighed heavily and looked up at Tiffany, a grateful smile pushing past the sadness in her eyes. “Tiff, I don’t make or keep friends easily. I drift from place to place, group to group, person to person, using up their patience until they don’t want to deal with me anymore or I can’t stand them.”
Tiffany shook her head slowly. “But you’ve never had a friend like me…” She bit her lower lip. “You’ve never had a friend who tries to appear so freakishly normal because she’s scared that if anyone saw into the depths of her depravity they’d run away and never look back.”
“I guess I wouldn’t know.” Erin shrugged. “I don’t get to see many depths of depravity before I bail. Typically, I get to see horny boy dicks and plastic girl smiles before things go south for me.”
“I bet you’ve never had a friend like Alice either, though,” Tiffany pointed out. “Or Trev, or Josh.”
Erin mulled it over. “I guess not. I think Alice warmed up to me because she saw something of herself in me. Trev and I bonded over video games and rap, and though I suck at actually playing sports, I share Josh’s enthusiasm in watching them.”
Tiffany nodded, smiling kindly. “And have any of them ever given you reason to doubt that they like you for who you are?”
Sulking like a teenager being lectured, Erin shook her head. “I guess not. But I’ve felt that way before, Tiff…”
“As your friend,” Tiffany replied cheekily, “I think you should go easy on yourself.”
Erin sighed. “Tiff… I don’t deserve to be your friend. Or Alice’s, Trev’s, or Josh’s.”
“Yes you do,” Tiffany insisted. “Look, I bet they’ve all been in touch since I left Josh’s place asking after you.”
“Yeah…” Erin shrugged. “I figure you’d programmed that into them.”
“Nope.” Tiffany replied cooly. “Nothing of the sort. I really tried to be very subtle about it, for everyone to just accept the past week as it happened, to not worry about the Algorithm, to drop into trance for me still, and to forget little snippets of things if I ask them to.”
Erin followed along with curiosity. “So… complete control, but all of them barely realising that you’re in complete control… Damn, Tiff.”
“Are you surprised?” Tiffany’s gaze was piercing now, her demeanour changing so that her expression was as calm as frozen lake. “Erin… I’m not a good person... I think if I were, the Algorithm would be gone and no one would know how to make it again.” She took a step towards Erin, not breaking eye contact. “I’m not some benevolent guru who’s going to selflessly put everyone else’s needs before my own. You put the power in my hands… You wanted me to use it, on them and on you. Erin, you want me to drain your mind away and leave pure obedience in its place, don’t deny it, it wasn’t hard to figure out.”
Erin took in a sharp breath, and shuddered while failing to find words. She looked to be on the verge of panic, so Tiffany put a hand on her shoulder and drew in a deep breath, prompting the tomboy to follow suit.
“Erin, relax…” Tiffany soothed her. “I swear I didn’t come here to bonk you on the head and drag you back to the Algorithm. I came to make sure you were okay, to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you did, and to potentially school you at this boarding stuff you do sometimes.” She held her arms out in a peace offering. “That’s it, I promise.”
Erin drew out her anxious breath. “Okay.” She shook her head gently. “That’s okay.”
The tension ebbing away, Tiffany jabbed Erin playfully in the ribs. “So you admit I could kick your ass at skateboarding, eh?”
“Fuck no!” Erin scoffed in amusement. “Tiff it was such a stupid notion it didn’t even warrant a response. I don’t think I’ve seen you exert a single muscle in your body the entire time I’ve known you.”
Tiffany chuckled. “That’s half the reason I’m here, girl! I want us to get to know each other as more than two people with the same friends and shared interest in brainwashing! And I’m not taking no for an answer. Now, you got a board you can lend me or what?”
Erin threw her hands up in exasperation. “Oh my god, Tiff you’re… you’re…”
“Incorrigible?” Tiffany suggested, breaking out into a wide grin.
“That and more…” Erin sighed, although smiling herself. She walked a few paces and kicked up a nearby skateboard. “Here, there’s someone I want you to meet first though before you wow me or whatever.” She waved across her dreadlocked friend. “Tiff, this is Mike. Mike, Tiff.”
“Nice to meet you.” Tiffany extended her hand as Mike approached with a wary expression.
“Sure, yeah.” Mike sniffed, looking at her hand like it was poisonous.
“Don’t be an asshole, Mike,” Erin scolded. “She’s a friend…”
“Handshakes are the ritual of conformance for corporate American drones and morally bankrupt executives,” Mike derided.
Tiffany, unsure if he was joking or not, withdrew her outreached hand before balling it into a fist in front of her. “Okay… so, fistbump?”
Mike squinted as he surveyed Tiffany up and down. As he was about to speak, Erin cut him off.
“Mike fucking bump her fucking fist already!”
Mike broke out into a chuckle. Bumping Tiffany’s fist, he said with a smirk, “Do you enjoy getting a rise out of her the same way I do?”
“I hate you.” Erin thumped his arm.
Tiffany smiled. “Oh you have no idea. I bet there’s a lot you can tell me about her that I don’t know though.”
Mike grinned enthusiastically, and once more Erin cut him off, this time wedging herself between him and Tiffany.
“Nuh uh uh! No way!” Erin grabbed Tiffany and roughly shuffled her away from Mike towards a down ramp. “Less talking, more boarding! You told me you were going to school me, well then let’s see it wondergirl!”
“Oh fine!” Tiffany laughed, “I’ll kick ass first then talk to Mike while you’re busy picking your jaw off the floor.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it, Tiff.” Erin remarked, the smugness in her voice tempered by a hint of doubt.
Tiffany looked at the routes that the other skateboarders seemed to be taking, and the tricks they were doing. She then noticed that Izzy and her two friends were watching her from afar, not hiding their dislike. Tiffany gave them a cheerful smile and a playful wave before turning back to Erin. “Piece of cake.” She grinned.
Erin stood back as Tiffany gripped the skateboard at the edge of the ramp. She tapped her left middle finger to her thumb three times in quick succession, then her mind absorbed everything she needed to know. All the boarder’s movements, their balance, their technique… Suddenly Tiffany knew a hundred times what she had known about skateboarding. She leaned into the board and flew down the ramp, adjusting her weight and balance perfectly as she did so, instantly getting a feel for Erin’s skateboard. She lined up with a railing and kickflipped the board with complete presion to let her grind it all the way to the other side. Upon landing perfectly she heard a ‘whoop!’ from an onlooker and knew that she was no doubt drawing considerable attention to herself. Seeing a good route that took her over a few humps and up to the top of a ramp, Tiffany adjusted her weight to gain as much speed as she could. She glided through the course and as she neared the top of the ramp, spun the board for a complete rotation and then landed back on it, balancing perfectly on the front side before dropping back down the ramp to more shouts of approval.
Tiffany felt like she was flying, the air dancing through her hair as her mind sharply focused on everything that she needed to do, and her body reacting like a perfectly oiled machine. She did several more rail tricks and a different flourish at the top of each ramp before she felt like heading back towards her starting point.
As she approached her final ramp she snuck a glance at Erin, who was watching with an expression of joy mixed with disbelief. Mike next to her looked impressed, while Izzy was further away with an expression of shocked disgust. Tiffany couldn’t help but feel incredible smugness as she hurled towards the final ramp and enjoyed peering over the other spectators that had stopped to watch her display. Most of them looked to be wondering who this new person even was in the first place. She looked back to Erin, flashing a smile to watch the tomboy’s reaction.
Erin shook her head while smirking at Tiffany, before mouthing what looked to be the words ‘show off’. Then Tiffany noticed that Mike’s hand seemed to be firmly planted on Erin’s ass. Surely Erin would have noticed this, so she clearly didn’t care, or actively liked it. Tiffany suddenly went over everything she knew about Mike from what previous things Erin had said.
’They’ve been friends for a while, she’s been coming here to skate as long as I remember knowing her…’
‘She’s very firmly Bi, and jokes about liking dick a lot. She’s never mentioned boyfriends or committed relationships. Mike is maybe a fuck buddy or friends with benefits?’
‘Since the moment I got here, he was seemingly very protective of her. Was that attachment or jealously or just their friendship? I need more data to figure this out.’
Of course she knew it didn’t matter if Erin was an item with Mark, hooking up with him, or whatever... Erin could make her own choices in life. It wasn’t like Tiffany owned her. But she wanted to. It was easy to admit after the craziness of the past week, but she wanted Erin as more than a friend, even more than a lover. She wanted to dive into the deepest, most erotic fantasties of power exchange, control, domination and brainwashing with her. If she walked away with nothing but friendship, she could live with it, but she was ready to commit more of herself than she ever dreamed possible to the brash, boisterous tomboy who had always driven her crazy, just not like this.
She stole another glance at Erin, but was surprised to see her wide eyed and mouth agape with concern. Why?
Oh. Tiffany realised in an instant. She had let her hyper focus shift from what she was doing to analysing Erin and Mark, and her own feelings. She was still on the skateboard, and had gone wildly off course.
It was too late to correct. She was hurling off the ramp at the entirely wrong angle. Her mind raced to try and figure out how to salvage it, but all she could determine as the board flew away from her airborne feet was that she was going to hit the ground hard. She had limited ability to twist her body in a way to lesson her impact and she managed at least to throw her arms in a protective cushion around her head before the ground rushed up to meet her.
Pain exploded in her ankle and knee, then all up her side as she unceremoniously thumped onto the concrete, rolling over twice before coming to a stop. There was ringing in her head, but she vaguely heard her name being frantically shouted as several pairs of feet ran towards her. The pain she felt was immense, amplified by her heightened awareness. She quickly focused in on her ankle, and was able to tell that it was a sprain, not a break, though she didn’t understand how she knew. Each bruise and scrape was overwhelming her brain with information on how best to treat it, how long it would take to heal. It was too much, her mind felt dizzy and her vision started going dark. Managing to break through the haze, she tapped her right pinky and thumb together.
Everything dulled in her mind, and she exhaled a moan as the pain persisted, albeit not overwhelmingly intense.
“Tiff! C’mon! Talk to me!” Erin was hovering over her, her concerned features gradually coming into focus. “For fuck sake give her some space!” she snarled at the gathering crowd.
“Hehe…” Tiffany smiled through a wince. “You’re cute when you’re angry…”
“Fucking hell, Tiff!” Erin scolded her. “Don’t scare me like that!”
“I’m sorry…” Tiffany started shuffling to sit up. “I thought I was doing pretty well there as well...”
“Don’t try to move, TIff!” Erin pressed a hand against her shoulder. “Something might be broken.”
“Nothings broken…” Tiffany insisted between winces. “Just help me up.”
“Yo, that was actually the shit.” Mike remarked, one of the few still hovering above the two girls. “You know, until it wasn’t…”
“Yeah, fuck me Tiff, you did not get that good from a couple of weeks in like fucking kintergarten…” Erin added breathlessly as she hauled Tiffany to her feet. “What gives…”
“Ah ah ah…” Tiffany laughed as tested the weight on her ankle. “Oh fuck, yeah I can’t walk on that, haha…” She shook her head and then stared deep into Erin’s eyes. “I can’t tell you all my secrets now, can I?”
Erin’s eyes widened for a split second, before returning to a scrutinising glare. “Alright Evil Knievel, let’s get you to a hospital shall we?”
“What?! No! No way!” Tiffany shook her head frantically. “Just let me sit down for a bit, it’s just a sprain, honest.
Erin scoffed. “You’re hardcore Tiff, I’ll give you that. But I was also referring to the grit in your knee and the scrapes down your arm.”
“Oh please…” Tiffany rolled her eyes, before going pale as she saw her bloodied knee… With a fainter voice, she added, “A bit of disinfectant on that will have it fixed up in no time.”
Erin laughed as she helped Tiffany limp over to a nearby bench. The group of skaters that had gathered suddenly dispersed just as quickly, all except Mike and Izzy, who hung close by.
“So what, you afraid of hospitals or something?” Erin asked as she sat Tiffany down on the bench.
“No!” Tiffany protested, leaning back on the bench and groaning. “I just don’t need to go to one!”
Erin crouched down to examine Tiffany’s ankle. “Really, Tiff? Because I distinctly remember a few days ago you also refusing to go to a hospital when it really looked like you should…”
Izzy had been silently hovering behind Erin and took that moment to speak up.
“So are you telling me that your fancy looking friend here is actually a badass?” She looked Tiffany up and down with a disgruntled curiosity.
“Tiff here is as badass as they come.” Erin shot Izzy a defiant glare, before turning back to Tiffany, her expression softening. “And save for one fall she’s a better fucking rider than either of us…”
“Whatever…” Izzy scoffed, though kept looking at Tiffany with a curious expression.
“Okay, I don’t think it’s broken…” Erin said with uncertainty in her voice as she felt Tiffany’s ankle.
“I… told you…” Tiffany replied through her wincing. “I think I’m done with the skateboard for tonight though.”
“Damn right you are.” Erin grunted. “I’m taking you home.” She took out her phone and started dialing a number from her contacts.
Tiffany opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it. She was admittedly rather touched by how much care Erin was showing. As Erin spoke on the phone, Tiffany perked up slightly as Mike planted himself beside her.
“Smooth moves… mostly,” he joked, albeit with a hint of admiration. “I’m surprised Erin didn’t invite you here sooner if you got skill like that…”
“She didn’t know I did,” Tiffany admitted. “We weren’t that close until recently.”
“Recently as in the last week or whatever?” Mike asked.
“I guess,” Tiffany replied idly, watching as Izzy walked away to retrieve Erin’s errant skateboard.
“Funny, that,” Mike remarked. Tiffany turned her attention back to him, raising her eyebrow slightly and waiting for him to continue. “It’s just, Erin’s seemed all out of sorts every time I’ve seen her lately. What a coincidence you happen to have gotten closer to her, huh?”
Tiffany sighed. “Look, if you’re going to do the protective friend routine with threats of violence, can we just cut to the chase please?”
“The chase?” Mike chuckled. “A’ight, here’s the chase… Hurt her and I’ll hurt you, be solid to her and I’ll be solid to you. The karma goes both ways, dig?”
“That seems fair, Mike.” Tiffany nodded with a grim smile. “That seems fair. Although as you can see I’m already hurting, so does that give me credit?” She motioned to her ankle and gave him an inquisitive squint.
Mike cocked his head. “That little display for her benefit I take it?”
Tiffany shrugged. “Just trying to find some common ground.”
“Alright!” Erin interrupted, “Our ride’s on the way.” She put her phone away and took her board back from Izzy. “I figure if I’m taking you back in pieces, I may as well get some board time in now, maybe show you how not to fall off.”
Tiffany shook her head with a playful sneer, sticking her tongue out at Erin.
Erin winked and grinned before turning to Izzy. “What d’ya say Iz, want to show Tiff how to ride?”
Izzy rolled her eyes, but made to follow Erin, stopping by her friends from earlier to take another swig of liquor.
“Weirdest thing… From the last few days...” Mike mused as they both watched Erin glide across the park with Izzy trailing behind. Tiffany kept her eyes on the riders, but listened cautiously to Mike’s cryptic tone.
“Mm?” she sounded.
“Well, Erin dropped by here a few nights ago… A little flustered, just dropping by on her way to her apartment. Naturally I offer her a smoke, she very rarely can afford her own…” Mike brought out a pack and carefully selected a cigarette which he spun into his mouth.
“Would be kind of you…” Tiffany muttered, “if it weren’t for the, y’know, cancer…”
“Well oddly enough…” Mike’s voice dripped with accusation. “She told me with the straightest of faces that she didn’t smoke…” He lit up as if to punctuate his last word.
Tiffany kept her expression perfectly stoic. “You mean she told you she quit?” She asked calmly, her eyes fixed on Erin’s ramp trick that, while impressive, wasn’t as daring as Tiffany’s successful trick attempts.
“No, her exact words were ‘I don’t smoke,’ as if she never had.”
“Huh,” Tiffany replied in a deadpan. “Weird.”
“My thoughts exactly…” Mike nodded.
Tiffany kept watching Erin. ’Where are you going with this, Mike?’ she thought. ’There is no way you could have worked out anything about the Algorithm or my programming of Erin based on that alone…
“And then today, lo and behold…” Mike continued. “Erin turns up looking down as hell, and the first thing she does is literally take a half finished smoke out of my mouth and inhale it like it’s her last meal.”
“Well that doesn’t sound too healthy,” Tiffany commented. “But it doesn’t sound like the behavior of someone who doesn’t smoke…”
“Well there you have it.” Mike nodded stoically, turning to face her. “A modern mystery.” He watched Tiffany calmly as he took another drag.
“Well, it’s certainly not like Erin to ever pull a prank on anyone…” Tiffany smiled sweetly, making sure she laced her tone with sarcasm. “But if you need help figuring out such a complex quandary, might I suggest you just ask her?”
“Oh, I was going to.” Mike smirked, flicking away the expired cigarette butt. “That was, until you conveniently turned up.”
“What you call convenient…” Tiffany once more motioned to her scrapes and ankle, “I call painful...” She sighed deeply, the pain still bothering her as her ankle throbbed.
“Yeah, that looked like a bad fall. What happened there?”
Tiffany looked at the place she hit the concrete, grimacing bitterly. “I just… Lost my focus, I guess.”
“Ah well, we’ve all been there.” Mike shrugged.
Erin and Izzy arrived back soon after, and Erin took a moment to introduce Izzy to Tiffany properly. They all chatted for a few minutes, though Tiffany’s mind was racing, analysing everything Mike had said. Before she knew it, their ride had pulled up by the nearest road beneath the overpass, and Erin helped Tiffany limp awkwardly into the back, following herself after waving to Mike and Izzy.
“Where to?” Asked the bearded, bespectacled driver.
“Wait a minute…” Tiffany did a double take. “You’re the uber guy from this morning!”
“Aye, that’s me.” The driver gave a thumbs up.
“Yeah…” Erin said with a sideways squint. “After this morning when I dragged you out all gagged and blindfolded, he gave me his number and promised discounted rides for me…”
Tiffany felt her cheeks flush bright red. “I’m not wearing a gag again!” she snapped, nostrils flared.
“Hey, no worries princess.” The driver grinned. “There’s no strings here, I just need a destination.”
“Where you picked us up from this morning,” Erin told him before Tiffany could protest further.
“Erin…” Tiffany seethed under her breath as they pulled away.
“Oh relax would you, Tiff?” Erin jabbed her playfully in the ribs. “Call this part of your continued punishment for what went down with Alice…”
“Ahh… So you do want to punish me?” Tiffany mused, before wincing in pain once again.
“Looks like you’re punishing yourself… Pain a bit much, huh?” Erin placed a hand gently on Tiffany’s shoulder.
“I’ll… be fine.” Tiffany insisted. I just need some ice and maybe a few more of those painkillers Marion had.
“I’m not sure you need the painkillers.” Erin looked thoughtfully at Tiffany’s ankle. Before Tiffany could ask what she meant, Erin locked eyes with her and said. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
Tiffany opened her mouth to protest, and it hung open as her expression, thoughts, and entire mind filtered out of her.
Erin caressed her cheek gently. “I missed you, Tiff. It actually means a lot to me that you came to find me.”
Tiffany stayed mindless and vacant, staring ahead into nothing. The driver glanced into his rearview a few times as Erin guided Tiffany’s mindless body into her arms.
“I was so scared,” she whispered. “I thought I had lost you… I thought that by giving you total freedom to choose everyone’s fate that you’d realise that you’d be happy without me…”
Tiffany breathed deeply and evenly, her thoughts non existent and every sentence dissolving away like her thoughts after she heard them. Erin wiped a tear away from her cheek and shook her head with a bittersweet smile. “I’m sorry I keep testing you like this, Tiff… I’m sorry I can’t just trust that you care about me without needing to see the proof. I’ll try and get better, I promise I will. But I’m not going to change you, I’m done trying to change anybody… If you like me for who I am then I’m going to try and accept myself more, and stop being scared of never belonging anywhere.” She stroked Tiffany’s long dark hair gently. “I wish I could open up to you like this when you’re not mindless. I wish I could be vulnerable when you’re actually awake. I’m working on it, okay? I promise I’m working on it…”
A few minutes passed in silence, Erin holding the mindless Tiffany against her chest with her eyes closed and chin gently pressed against her empty puppet. Eventually, she took a deep breath, and gathered herself. “Right,” she said, placing Tiffany back in the position she had been before being dropped into trance. “When you wake up, you will feel like the pain in your ankle, knee, and anywhere else that’s painful has been dulled down to a much more manageable level, like you’ve taken decent painkillers already. You will still be aware of the pain, and treat the injuries with caution. This effect will wear off by the time you wake up tomorrow morning, but you will know that you can ask me to help you with the pain once more. You won’t remember anything from this trance, except that I relieved your pain, and you will never think to try to retrieve the missing memories from it, understand?”
“Yes.” Tiffany spoke with a faint whisper as her mind affirmed Erin’s instructions.
“Wake up now, Tiff,” Erin said softly.
Tiffany stirred, her focus returning to Erin after a few moments.
“Wakey wakey, Tiff!” Erin grinned manically. “How’s this working for you?” She thumped Tiffany hard on the arm, a devilish look all over her face.
“What the hell?!” Tiffany exclaimed. “Erin, that…” she paused, scrutinising the area Erin had punched. “...really doesn’t hurt as much as it looked like it would…”
Erin stuck out her tongue playfully. “And your ankle?”
“Feels better!” Tiffany’s eyebrows raised in surprise. She looked at Erin with admiration. “Clever…”
“I have my moments.” Erin shrugged. “Hey, look, your street is coming up.”
The car pulled up outside Tiffany’s apartment block, and Erin helped Tiffany out. She turned back to the driver’s window and offered the driver a fist bump. “Thanks Gob. Do you mind waiting here ten minutes and then taking me back to my place? I can settle up with you there.”
“No worries, ET.” Gob the driver gave a two fingered salute then rolled his window up and made a newspaper appear out of nowhere that he immediately focused in on.
“ET?” Tiffany asked as Erin helped her into the building and up the stairs.
“My initials, Tiff.” Erin sighed. “Hardly the most inventive nickname I’ve ever had.”
Tiffany considered this for a moment. “What was the most inventive nickname you’ve ever had?” she asked slyly.
Erin scoffed with a chuckle. “Nice try. It never got beyond junior high and I’ll take it to my grave.”
“Unless I put my finger on your forehead and get you to tell me,” Tiffany joked.
“All my programming is gone, Tiff,” Erin boasted. “It wouldn’t work.”
“I dunno…” Tiff mused. “Something tells me it might. Call it a hunch.”
Erin seemed to stiffen at this. “Tiff, I swear I will throw you down these stairs!”
“Oh relax... I’m not going to try it.” Tiff assured her, before playfully adding under her breath, “right now...”
They reached Tiffany’s apartment door after more stair shuffling. As she dug around for her keys, Tiffany simultaneously tried to search for the right words. “Look Erin, you didn’t have to…”
“Forget it, Tiff.” Erin waved her hand dismissively. “You know when I turned up at your work the other night with the cut on my forehead?” She gently ran her fingers over where the skin had turned a soft pink and was healing well.
“Yeah?” Tiffany tilted her head. “What about it?”
“That was the first time since I was like, seven years old that anyone has offered to take care of a bump or scrape for me.” Erin shook her head as she stared down at the floor. “I’m not used to people caring. I know this isn’t exactly the same, but it let me know that you’d do the same for me right now.”
“Of course I would.” Tiffany smiled faintly and placed a hand on Erin’s shoulder.
“Of course…” Erin grinned. “There’s a part of me that can’t help but think that this was all part of some nefarious plan to lure me back to your apartment… For all I know, you’ve had Josh setup the Algorithm in there for you…”
Tiffany shook her head in amusement. “I swear I didn’t nearly break a leg as some part of master plan, Erin. I mean what I said back there, I want to be friends first and foremost. Anything more would be a bonus for me, but I know I don’t deserve it after everything I did.”
“But you did use the Algorithm on yourself, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Tiffany nodded. “I did.”
Erin seemed to deflate and draw away from Tiffany in one motion, her eyes downcast.. “So all the things you said, it was just Algorithm-programmed perfect prose to win me over…?”
Tiffany placed her other hand on Erin’s shoulder as well, shaking her gently as she spoke earnestly. “Erin, listen. Aside from getting those memories back that you didn’t want me to, the only things I used the Algorithm for just now was the skateboarding stuff. Well, that and evading Izzy and her friends when I first got there…”
“Really?” Erin looked up, a gimmer of hopefulness in her eyes.
“Well, yeah…” Tiffany smiled, feeling a rosyness colour her cheeks as Erin smiled her rare smile or pure joy. “Wait, does this mean that I’ve successfully won you over?”
Erin’s smile vanished, replaced by a cheeky lip bite. “I never said that.”
“But…” Tiffany started.
“Tiff!” Erin spoke over her, ushering her towards the door. “Enough crazy talk! We need to get you inside, get some ice on that ankle of yours, the whole shebam!”
“Fine…” Tiffany groaned. “Whole shebam coming up…” She turned the key in the lock and the door swung open with its traditional obnoxious creak.
Erin had helped her halfway into the hallway when they both looked up at the figure emerging from the lounge doorway. She wore a tight dark red leather dress that covered her full torso and her arms but only came slightly down her slender legs, the rest of which were on full display save for the matching red heels. Her fiery ginger hair cascaded over her shoulders in curly locks, and her mildly freckled face scanned Erin and Tiffany keenly as her ruby red lips pursed slightly.
“Hannah!” Tiffany squeaked.
“Hannah?” Erin squinted.
“Erin!” Hannah gasped.
“Shit.” Tiffany sighed.