Driving back into Manhattan turned out to be easy. They got nowhere near the car following them around, but ducked their heads on the way to the bridge regardless. From there it was smooth sailing, despite being cramped in the back with a sleeping Brienne and the copy-cat, who stayed wide-eyed and studious of them all. Eyana was more than leery of this newcomer: she’d keep her gun on her the whole way if she were dumb enough to pull one out in a crowded, moving car. But that thought betrayed a more civil notion in the back of her head — this girl, this nineteen year old girl, didn’t burn down their apartment, didn’t fight back when she tossed her off a roof, didn’t intend to hurt them at any point. Was she dangerous? Without a doubt. But it wasn’t a physical threat.
The thought that she could’ve been working with some other big bad, the people who actually burned their apartment, still lingered. Astor didn’t seem to buy it, though Eyana couldn’t agree, couldn’t look at people and see their best like her boss did, and did for her when she took her in. No, she had to consider the negative, she had to stay on guard, especially when this girl out of nowhere called Brienne a stranger, different to the rest of them. What did she know? What motive did she have to blurt that out? Just to keep studying? She was looking between them all with quiet, fearful reverence, always like she was waiting for someone to speak up so she make conversation. It really seemed like she was a fan, like they were low-level celebrities to her. Eyana felt uncomfortable, and then annoyed by it.
Brienne had sat in silence for awhile, not meeting her eye, then gazing out the window, then leaning her head against it. She hadn’t taken a turn sleeping during the night, so she was slumped over in a manner of minutes — Eyana noted Astor’s careful look in the rearview mirror, maybe with some guilt over how much she’d slept. It was unnecessary, though, and she needed it for the emergency meeting she’d called with Tate when she found out the second safe-house was compromised. As she drove into Midtown she gave Cleo and Eyana their instructions, choosing not to wake Brienne.
“Cleo and I will speak to her.” She said as Wendy looked rapt at the break in silence. “You and Brienne need to watch Wendy and the car, but I might signal for you to pull her out so she can relay some info.”
“There’s no way we can park here.” Cleo said as Astor’s (Wendy’s) turn signal sounded. “Oh my god, you’re really gonna try this.”
“I’m okay with getting a ticket.” Wendy volunteered helpfully. “Anything for the cause.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Eyana said in a tone that she thought made clear how readily she would hit this girl. Brienne startled awake beside her at the noise. “Duck your head, I don’t want the pigs spotting two brown girls wondering what they up to.”
“Do you think a Korean would throw them?” Brienne asked with a timid smile, then looked out the window. “Oh Astor, there’s no way.”
“It’s fine.” She said rather flippantly as she pulled up to the Atlas statue in front of Rockefeller Center. On the other side of the road St. Patrick’s Cathedral blotted out the sun, creating a shadowy area. Someone honked at them as Astor pulled up onto the sidewalk, right behind a familiar black Range Rover. “Cleo, let’s go.”
She and Cleo got out of the front as the trio in the backseat bent their heads. Eyana was especially worried about illegally parking between two very famous landmarks a day after allegedly robbing a third famous landmark, and Brienne gave her a sleepy little nod to show her agreement. Wendy obediently kept her head down but her nose tilted all the way up to take in the scene, and Eyana had to admit she was doing the same — Tate probably wasn’t going to give them answers, but she could protect them better than anyone else. When Astor and Cleo stepped out of the car she saw her immediately, facing the other way with a camera and a sleek dress she likely got a street over at Saks. She and the two security guards with her were hilariously bad tourists, and Wendy seemed to notice immediately.
“Tate.” Astor called, and when Tate turned around smiled and rushed over to wrap her friend in a tight hug. They looked so different: Astor was still wearing her same shapeless coat over an ancient, frayed sweater and a pair of mom jeans she’d thrown on before they left to investigate the hotel robbery, whereas Tate used red-bottomed pumps to match her height. Her hair was as sleek and shiny as ever, her dark skin glowing, her smile snow white. Eyana had known the moment she’d met her she had her shit fully together, and that was what made her their true leader.
“Who is that?” Wendy whispered, almost to herself, and Eyana realized now was the time to pull out her gun. She shoved it against Wendy’s back without even flashing her a look, knowing she’d get the hint to shut up.
“Oh my god, Astor, Cleo. Are you two okay?” She released Astor to grab Cleo by the arms, who nodded plainly, probably not as absorbed. “I’ve been so worried. Do you have any updates? What can I do for you?”
“We had to abandon the second safe-house. Someone was watching that too.” Astor said, and Tate was visibly taken aback. “I know. This is spiraling into a huge issue.”
“Yes. Yes, this is extreme. And I haven’t heard a thing in the rumor mill, which is even worse.” Tate said, partially to herself. She raised a hand instinctively and dropped it just as quick in a well-recognized move for Eyana — she forgot she wasn’t wearing her glasses. “We’re dealing with an expert in stealth.”
“I was thinking it may be a tech wiz. Or they have one in their employ.” Cleo said. “If they knew about both our first and second safe-houses they may have hacked into some of our private information.”
“Or they followed you.” Eyana snarled Wendy’s way. She looked down at her shoes and missed the half-apologetic glance Brienne threw her way.
“All of our phones are clean though, honestly.” Astor shrugged. “And Cleo didn’t find anything in their supplies.”
“I’m hoping for permission to check your system.” Cleo said. “I think you might’ve been hacked, they could’ve taken sensitive info direct from your hard drive.”
“But — but hardly anyone even associates your team with me.” She said, uncertain. “Everyone thinks I’m just some shady solo player.”
“A few dangerous people know, and we both understand that’s enough.” Astor spoke grimly, a sudden shadow over her expression. One was always summoned when she was reminded of her past. “Secrets are weak, hate is strong.”
“She’s Astor’s boss.” Wendy spoke slowly in the car, her tone hollow with shock. “She’s everyone’s boss!”
Eyana twisted her arm and she yelped. She pushed her down and raised a fist, but floundered even before Brienne cast her a concerned and pitiful look. Just because the girl was piecing things together didn’t mean she deserved a beating — if anything Eyana was angry with Astor for keeping someone this dangerous this close. She eased up and Wendy stayed slouched even closer to the floor.
“You need to be quiet.” She said, her voice low and threatening, and Wendy nodded without looking at her. She focused her attention on her bosses once more.
“—Been driving all over the city, it’s far more likely that someone’s been following you.” Tate was saying as Astor nodded emphatically.
“I know. I should’ve been more careful. We made sure we weren’t today, even more so than our trip to Staten Island.” She said, and Tate sighed.
“You’re doing great, Astor. It’s not your fault. You put too much on your shoulders.” She reached out and rubbed Astor’s arms to comfort her. “Let me set you up somewhere, get you out of danger. I’ll try and track some leads, take care of all of this.”
“Thank you so much, Tate, honestly.” She kissed her cheek in true Italian form. “Toda, toda raba. Let’s head to yours and figure out what we’re doing while Cleo takes a peek at your computer.”
At this Tate paused. “I really don’t think that’s necessary. We both agree someone is following you, not hacking me.”
“It’ll only take a minute. They just want to see if there’s any malware.” Astor said, but Tate fully hesitated now.
“I don’t care about your porn.” Cleo said flatly, and Eyana glanced to Brienne. There was a crease in her brow that indicated confusion, a feeling she shared. “Just give me quick access.”
“No.” Tate said after a moment, smoothing down the front of her dress. “No, that’s not necessary. Let me make a few calls and get you a safe-house. I’ve got one in Atlantic City, one down in Myrtle Beach—”
“I’m not leaving.” Astor cut in, unexpectedly tense. “I told you I’m not leaving. We’re okay, we’re in control. We just need a little help, so if you would let Cleo access your files—”
“I won’t.” Tate said, and suddenly the whole thing felt too defensive, too stand-offish. The guards next to her were rigid as Cleo took a step back, uncharacteristically tentative. “I’m telling you it’s not necessary, so let me handle this.”
“No.” Astor said, her frustration clear. “What’s up with you? I’m trying to protect my team.”
“And I’m trying to protect ours. But you’re making things difficult.”
“I’m being difficult? I lost my home! I drove here from Staten Island to see you! I stole a car!” Astor absolutely steamed as she pointed back to the silver coupe. Eyana lowered herself even further in her seat and grabbed Wendy to ensure she did the same.
“Stay down.” She hissed.
“That was the signal.” Brienne whispered, but didn’t lift her head.
“Your signal is ‘I stole a car?’” Wendy whispered, then tilted her head. “Actually, that’s really cool.”
“Maybe we should take Wendy out and she can explain the severity of this.” Brienne suggested with some doubt on her face. Eyana wasn’t sure if they were thinking the same thing, but she was damn certain she wasn’t about to pull this girl out of this car. Their emergency meeting had become a confrontation, hostilities were climbing, Tate was pissed. To present Wendy only provided a target.
“That ain’t fair.” She whispered after a moment, and didn’t catch whatever sarcastic remark Cleo had made outside.
“I — I don’t mind helping you guys.” Wendy whispered back, but made no move to get off the floor.
“No. They’ll pin everything on you. They’ll kill you.” Eyana spoke quickly. “Those fucking guards she always got with her have guns and unlike me they won’t show a cent of mercy if they think you’re at fault here.”
“She said my name.” Brienne whispered, and the three fell silent as Eyana whipped her gun out from behind Wendy’s back and aimed it at the window.
“They’re not here.” Astor said, her tone rigid. “They’re looking into all this just like we’re trying to.”
“And I appreciate that.” Tate seemed to be gritting her teeth. “But for now I think the best thing for you to do is return to your safe-house and wait for my instruction. It would be best for you to stay low while I solve this.”
“No.” Astor said again. Usually in any sort of argument like this she’d be screaming and yelling, and it hurt Eyana to hear the lump in her throat so clearly. “The safe-house is compromised, we’re not going back.”
“Yes — yes, of course.” Tate said, fazed for a moment. “Of course. Get a couple of hotel rooms then, someplace nice. Use my card.”
“Okay.” Astor said softly after a long moment of silence. Eyana kept her gun pointed at the window. “Fine.”
“Text me when you’re settled down.” She said, a little softer now, and Astor nodded at her shoes.
“Sure thing. We’ll see you later.” She said, and Tate made no move to hug her again. They always hugged, to a needless and occasionally annoying degree, so it was odd to watch Astor turn and stiffly walk away. There was silence as the three in the backseat listened to footsteps, then saw the passenger door open as Cleo climbed in and Eyana could finally lower her gun. Astor got in moments later, and neither of them looked to the backseat as Astor pulled out of her spot. Everyone kept their heads down as Astor rejoined New York City traffic.
“What the fuck was that?” Cleo finally whispered, like she was still in the car with them, and Astor shook her head.
“I don’t know.”
“She wouldn’t give Cleo anything.” Eyana muttered.
“I don’t know.” Astor said again, her grip tight on the steering wheel. They met eyes in the rearview mirror — hers were red-rimmed and offset a ghostly expression.
When they turned a corner Eyana cracked her neck and pulled herself off the floor of the car, and Brienne shakily did the same. Wendy paused before Brienne gave her a light tap on the shoulder, and then she rose and sat between the two looking shocked and bewildered. Eyana could tell she wanted to say something, but it would be hard for anyone to parse out something appropriate at a time like this.
“Why do you have a secret boss?” She asked the car after a long moment, and Eyana wondered if anyone would answer, and wondered if she should punish the girl for asking.
“Tate and I are old friends.” Astor said, her voice shaky. “We got into this business a long time ago. At some point we realized it made sense for her to stay in the shadows as I formed a gang — a division of power, I guess.”
“Two heads on a snake.” Brienne said softly, her first words in awhile. They sat in silence another moment as Wendy seemed to absorb that.
“Thank you.” She eventually said, and Eyana realized she was speaking to her.
“I didn’t do shit for you.” She folded her arms and scoffed. Wendy raised her brows. “Shut up.”
“If you didn’t ignore the signal Tate could’ve put everything on her.” Cleo seemingly got where they were coming from in the passenger seat. “And we’d never really know what’s going on.”
“You pulled a gun on your boss to keep me safe.” Wendy pointed out, a dreamy half-smile starting to form on her face. “Maybe you can’t tell, but you’re a guardian angel.”
The blinker ticked and Astor pulled into a gas station as Eyana felt her cheeks flush at the compliment. A warm and fuzzy feeling was forming in her chest at the thought of an outsider looking at her as the strong one, the good one, not the ghetto one or the angry, violent one. She knew she needed to focus, to keep her guard up, but she couldn’t deny that this girl had flattered her. Astor pulled up to a pump and turned off the engine.
“Brienne, take Wendy to use the restroom.” She ordered, sounding a little more herself now. Brienne nodded and opened her door, and when Wendy followed her out Eyana knew she wouldn’t run. “Eyana, can you fill up the tank?”
“Sure thing.” She said as Astor looked around the car a moment. Cleo caught on, opened the glove compartment, and handed her a folded up reusable bag. They all got out and Eyana filled the tank as Astor went into the store. When she looked up from the pump Cleo gave her a look likely identical to her own: that ‘what-the-fuck’ expression crossed with ‘this-is-some-bullshit.’ Then they sighed and tossed their coat in the car.
“I have to piss.” They said, and departed with a peace sign. Eyana was left alone to pay for the gas, then watch Astor emerge from the store and stop at the ATM, then see Brienne and Wendy return from the bathroom. Brienne had told her earlier the copy-cat was nineteen, which meant the two were the same age, and could’ve passed as normal girls, friends.
“You can stretch your legs.” Brienne allowed in her soft, sweet voice, and Wendy smiled and nodded as she paced near the car, stretching as she went and clutching her side. Eyana didn’t wince, but she didn’t feel great about it either. When Cleo returned she grabbed the bag from Astor, still at the ATM, and brought it over — it contained water bottles, protein bars, bags of chips, and one Arizona Eyana knew was for her. She took it and some Cheetos as Brienne handed their hostage a bottle of water. Cleo threw the bag on the floor of the passenger seat and Astor returned to them with a fat stack of hundred dollar bills in her hand. Everyone looked to her and without looking back she lifted the card she’d pulled cash off — Tate’s card — and threw it in the trashcan next to her.
“Now what?” Cleo asked. Astor paused a moment, but Eyana was more certain than anything her boss had an answer.
“Now,” she began, her eyes dark and determined, “we fix this.”