Brienne didn’t know how to drive, but she imagined it was calming. Not for Astor — nothing was calming for Astor, and since she was cursing out a cabbie going five under she must not have been a big fan of it. But she drove steadily south, with the heat blasting and the streetlights passing above them, casting them in and out of shadow. Propped up against the window with Cleo beside her and Eyana beside them she was almost tempted to fall asleep, but her stomach was upset and her fingers were buzzing with electricity and she wondered if she’d ever really be able to sleep again.
“I guess I’ll be the one to ask what we’re doing now.” Cleo finally broke the silence in a flat tone.
“The safe-house is no longer an option.” Eyana spoke calmly, but with a foul expression. “We need to prepare for war somewhere off the grid.”
“Tate knows me too well. She’s gonna anticipate most of our moves, honestly, so we need to move quickly and with chutzpa.” Astor began, worrying her lip. “Getting Brienne out safely is going to be key.”
“Getting Brienne out?” Wendy repeated from the passenger seat, and was met with an uncertain silence. “Out of New York? Why?”
She looked back to Brienne, who looked over to Astor, who was conveniently focusing on a merge. It wasn’t mistrust for a stranger that held her back the way Tate — and likely, the rest of the gang — did. She trusted Wendy implicitly: she just knew that if one truth came out, so would the rest.
“Wait, I’m so confused. Someone please tell me something, I’ve been holding in all my questions and whirlwind emotions and now I’m about to burst.” Wendy pleaded. “What about the Monet? You have a stash of paintings somewhere? Tate doesn’t want you near them? Are they yours, Brienne?”
“Monet is my aunt. Monet ‘The Moneymaker’ MacNally.” Brienne began slowly. “She’s. . . not from around here.”
“She’s a mob boss.” Eyana cut in mercifully. “In Chicago. You know about the big three?”
“Astor said it earlier. To Tate. ‘You funded a plot to kill one of the big three.’ So Verene Beaumarchais.” Wendy figured.
“Verene Beaumarchais, Tate Bahri, Monet MacNally. New Orleans, New York, Chicago.” Cleo ticked off on their fingers. “The three most powerful criminals in the three biggest cities for crime.”
“You don’t fuck with the big three.” Astor gripped the steering wheel tight. “Even if you’re one of them.”
“It’s disrespectful. And it’s the sort of thing that gets you killed.” Eyana pinched the bridge of her nose. “We got zero accountability. There’s nothing to say we weren’t in on it.”
“We can’t worry about that right now.” Astor calmed her, then shot Wendy a sidelong glance. “We probably don’t even have to.”
“Does being an associate of yours make me at all privy to important knowledge? Do I really have to know as much as I did when I was hostage?” Wendy whined, then dramatically slid down her chair. Brienne spotted the smallest grin on Eyana’s face. “All this secrecy is killing me! I’ve been so good!”
“Thank you.” Brienne said immediately. “Your performance was superb.”
“And you took Tate’s threats like a champ.” Astor said, but with a frown. “I don’t think any of this is coming out unless we leak it, and that would be certain death.”
“I dunno.” Wendy craned her neck to gaze wistfully out the window. “I think it would be cool.”
“Aren’t you supposed to our groupie?” Cleo asked with a tactful quirk of their brow, and Wendy smiled faintly.
“But genuinely. Seriously. Is this the sort of trouble you guys need a bailout for?” She looked around the car, and Brienne did the same. She knew well enough they couldn’t get one from Verene, but the necessity of it made her pause. Were they so desperate?
“Beaumarchais has her hands full.” She said just as Astor began to shake her head. Clearly their leader either thought they’d be alright on their own or wanted to keep their spirits up with a fib. “She’s trying to get Bravo back to Miami.”
“What!?” Wendy bolted upright in her chair. “Oh my god, what!? Mirabelle? Drew? Shay? Alive? Safe? Wha— with the crime queen of New Orleans? Oh my god. Oh my lord.”
“It’s like she doesn’t even like us.” Eyana rolled her eyes and sighed loudly, but Wendy was too blown away by her newfound knowledge to notice what appeared to be some genuine offense.
“Drew and Shay are my favorites! They inspired me! They’re the reason I’m a copy-cat!” Wendy yelled, and Astor stuck a finger in one ear as she drove. “I didn’t know what happened to them!”
“Almost no one does, so keep it to yourself.” Cleo said flatly, but with an underlying edge of pride. Verene had only called Tate to inform her on the situation — a ‘quarterly review,’ as Tate always called it in her business-like tone — after Cleo spotted them on surveillance quietly keeping track of the powerhouse New Orleans gang. “Shay’s taken, by the way.”
“I know, I’m so happy for her!” Wendy bounced in her chair, then frowned. “I just hope it’s that girl Candy. I don’t think the blonde and the vampire queen are right for her.”
The car fell silent for a moment. Brienne was naturally quiet and was likely not going to respond to that anyway, but no one else said a word, and when she looked around she only saw exhaustion and discomfort. The original conversation had not been forgotten, except momentarily by their starry-eyed new friend, who even now had to pause.
“It’s a bad time, isn’t it? Because of the whole betrayed by your best-friend-boss-possible-lover thing.” Wendy questioned. Astor groaned, presumably due to the word ‘lover,’ and Wendy shrunk in her seat once more. “Sorry. I’ll try to read the room better next time. It’s not my strong suit. Strong suit? Is that the saying? Like, a suit is clothing so how—”
“That’s okay.” Astor interrupted. “That’s just you, you don’t have to apologize for being yourself.”
Wendy blushed and went quiet for a change. Brienne waited a moment to see who would pick up the conversation and volunteered when no one did.
“In any case Verene is too busy to help us right now, and we can’t guarantee she’d be happy to do so.” She spoke softly, and Wendy leaned her way to hear. A lot of people didn’t: they’d just kind of ignore her, or smile and nod with empty eyes. Not that she could really get mad at that, but she appreciated the decency in a world without. Wendy was good. She was better than good, and she deserved the whole truth, just like the rest of the gang did.
“So all this means Monet is gonna help.” Eyana figured, but Cleo hesitantly shook their head. “What?”
“She’s too old. She can’t take this kind of battle right now.” They looked over to Brienne, who nodded stiffly. “She doesn’t look good. I suspect she’s sick.”
“But we’re getting you out of the city.” Eyana said, her brow creased, then glanced up to Astor in the front, who’d been using her driving as an excuse to stay quiet. “What is this? What are you two hiding?”
“I don’t know if she’s sick.” Brienne took a deep breath as everyone save her boss stared at her. “But she’s retiring. She called me home.”
“Oh my god.” The streetlights illuminated Eyana’s expression in flashes, but even in the dark Brienne could see her gears turning. The car was getting too stuffy. “That means—”
“I’m not her successor.” She cut off quickly as she pushed up her sleeves. “I’m just competing. She’s got those girls, remember?”
“But you’re her niece.” Cleo said, their tone defensive and almost heated. They weren’t usually so passionate: it made Brienne blush at the attention. “You’re blood. She’s known you your whole life.”
“She’s known my competition their whole lives, too. And she raised them.” She couldn’t help but drag a palm across her forehead. “Unlike me. Being raised by a woman she never liked or trusted.”
“She should still help you.” Eyana jumped in, her fury sudden and clear, but Brienne just shook her head without looking at her.
“An unfair advantage.” She said. Even without reading expressions the silence felt angry and bewildered. “She’s always been eccentric.”
“Tate took the call.” Astor spoke up from the front. “She knows Brienne could be the next leader of Chicago. A third of the big three. Hell, she was excited about it. We could have a major ally.”
“Now she just has a bargaining chip.” Wendy figured. “Which is why you didn’t want me playing Brienne’s part.”
“Too unpredictable. She could’ve called Monet before us, she could’ve gotten even angrier.” Astor’s voice shook with quiet rage and when Brienne opened her eyes she saw her boss take a deep, calming breath. She implied what they’d both presumed earlier, when they stopped Wendy from assuming her identity: she might have gotten killed for it.
“So you’re right. Getting Brienne away from Tate is our main priority.” Eyana said, then gave Brienne an uncertain look. “We should stay with you.”
“She’ll be safest in Chicago, despite the cockamamie machinations of Monet’s cracked head.” Astor snorted. “But goddamn if we’re not escorting her out.”
They took a turn and headed towards Hudson Square, and after a brief, somewhat uncomfortable drive made their way towards the Holland Tunnel entrance. To New Jersey, and to freedom, with all the woes that went with that.
“I was going to tell you.” Brienne practically whispered, just for Cleo and Eyana. “I thought we had more time.”
“I know. It’s okay.” Eyana reached over Cleo to stroke her arm. She was so much more maternal than she realized, so much more noble. Wendy was right to call her a guardian angel. “But I’m gonna miss you.”
“Me too.” Cleo didn’t meet her eye, but Brienne knew they were only overcome with emotion and understood perfectly — she was tearing up a little herself. She wasn’t sure how far the crew would take her, but every minute with them was precious now.
“We’re being followed.” Wendy announced from the front, and everyone stiffened. So much for a nice moment. “Two black SUVs approaching in both lanes.”
Eyana turned and looked as Brienne and Cleo ducked their heads. “Well, they’re not trying for subtlety.”
The car veered suddenly.
“Shit.” Astor banged the wheel. “You don’t have an EZ Pass. We have to stop.”
Wendy patted down her pockets for cash, but seeing as they were actually Cleo’s turned up nothing. Eyana passed a twenty up front as Brienne snuck a peek at the SUVs: they were following them into the cash lane, a bad sign considering the pass she could spot squinting on one of them. Astor pulled up to the window and handed the cash to the attendant.
“Excuse me, but the two black SUVs behind us are carrying twenty kilos of cocaine.” She told the attendant. Brienne waited on bated breath.
“Ma’am, my shift’s over in twenty minutes.” The attendant wearily responded as she handed back the change. “You have a good evening.”
“Fucking New Jerseyan.” Astor grumbled, but pulled up and into the tunnel without showing her helplessness. “Everyone stay down. I don’t think they’ll fire with Brienne in the car but I’m not taking chances.”
“That don’t mean we can’t fire at them.” Eyana pulled out her Ruger and Wendy raised a massive Kimber.
“Don’t be dumb, we’re in a tiny fucking tunnel.” Astor gestured around (as she was wont to do) to the tiled interior of the tight tunnel. “Fuck. Shit. Idiot.”
“No, me.” Astor said before Eyana could blow a gasket. “This was the wrong route to take.”
Brienne understood: the tunnel was tight and slow-moving, even if it had been the closest way to Jersey. It would have been fine if Tate hadn’t followed them, but as Astor said, she knew her too well. Traffic crawled, and then stopped entirely. Astor swore and glanced back to the SUVs, but the men inside didn’t get out of their cars. Brienne couldn’t help but feel that they were in a standoff.
“From the front.” Wendy said, and everyone whipped their necks to see a group of men approaching swiftly, weaving between cars that were surely filled with screaming civilians.
“Brienne, get down!” Eyana made to roll down the window, but Astor stopped her mid-crank.
“Don’t! If they’re not shooting we’re not getting ourselves into that shit!” She commanded, then looked around. “How does this car drive?”
“With the steering wheel.” Cleo supplied. Astor ignored them.
“Fine? It’s older—” Wendy began, and Astor rammed the car in front of them. “Okay?”
“It’s still a sports car.” She threw it into reverse and rammed the car again, causing it to lurch forward. Brienne quickly saw her intent, risky as it was: they needed space to turn around. There was less traffic behind them than ahead, even if there was more tunnel. They’d likely already hit New Jersey, but getting to the mainland looked impossible. But there were other things to worry about, since Astor had launched into a jerky three point turn and the men in front of them were now the men at their side and now the men running at top speed. Brienne slid down in her chair and Eyana took aim, but Astor was quick to peel away.
“Can I start shooting now?” Eyana asked, and Astor nodded and laid on her horn. There wasn’t much room, but several cars moved out of the left lane as both Eyana and Wendy rolled down their windows. As they approached the black cars Brienne regretted having to slide down, her body shielded as Wendy climbed out the window and fired. She heard a gunshot and a shattering of glass in front of her, and Eyana swiftly followed up with several other shots.
“Ditch the car!” Astor threw her door open as Wendy popped open her glove box and scooped everything out.
“The tech!” Cleo shouted. Wendy pulled the keys from the ignition and was out her door before Brienne could even open hers. “Fuck. Eyana, cover her!”
“Little busy!” Eyana yelled as she left her own seat: Astor was taking shots in the middle of the street at men who refused to leave their vehicles, and Brienne saw her run to their boss’ defense. “Cowards! Fucking face us!”
The trunk raised and Brienne ducked out her door. Cleo shouted behind her the same time a bullet ricocheted off the car and cracked a nearby tile: those goons were getting closer and Wendy was a sitting duck as she tried to pull everything out of her trunk one-handed. Brienne rushed over to her, staying low, then fired a few shots once she could cover her. One of them was struck, but none of the half dozen or so had fallen. When she looked Wendy’s way she saw the girl had grabbed Cleo’s things first and could see the hesitation when it came to gathering her own goods.
“I’ll grab it, just start shooting. Keep low.” Brienne advised her. Wendy nodded, flustered. New to gunfights, clearly. “Just breathe, we’re here for you.”
“Well I wouldn’t depend on me too much.” Cleo appeared with several shots of their little pistol and grabbed a duffel bag. “I’m a shit shot. I’d rather sit behind a screen.”
“Guys! Let’s move!” Eyana yelled, and they rushed over to her: both of the SUVs were splattered in blood, and Astor was pulling a body from one to lay it on the asphalt with a few others. They clambered into the backseat with their things as Eyana and the boss got upfront, and with a squeal of tires the massive SUV was flying down the tunnel, the hired guns powerless as they continued to shoot. Astor laid on the horn and Wendy again rolled down her window and leaned out the window to fire.
“Get out of the fucking way!” Astor yelled at the civilians in her wake, and people pulled aside, likely swearing in their own vehicles. “Shit. Where do we go now?”
“South!” Wendy yelled from outside the car and shot at the receding figures. Astor swerved around an oncoming vehicle moving down both lanes and Brienne grabbed Wendy and pulled her back in just before the car scraped against the tiled wall. Her head wrap flew off and for a moment she could only stare at the group in disheveled shock. Brienne imagined her expression was the same.
“South?” Astor asked, and everyone in the car nodded. “Okay. South it is.”