Friday, 1 January 2016

Starting Sparks: January // #3: The School for Heroes

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I hope you all had, and continue to have, a lovely Christmas. Have you made any New Year's resolutions? I haven't, yet, though if I do one of them might be to be a less abysmally terrible blogger. I've spent the past five weeks promising to read your blogs. I honestly will, soon, I really promise! 

Because I am, as aforementioned, such an woefully awful blogger, I have managed to miss the window for my own link-up. Good job, Emily. Nonetheless, I bring you the Starting Sparks January prompt, and my (belated) December story!


Starting Sparks is a monthly link-up hosted by me and Ashley from [insert title here]. We give you a prompt, and you respond however the heck you like. I've found this link-up super helpful, because I'm a writer with a Main WIP Novel Project, and it's very useful to be sparked into new stories, characters, voices etc. We'd love to see you link up!

The January Prompt

Writing Prompt:

I love this prompt. Hope to hear from you!





And now: my December story.

December 2015:
The December prompt
I had a lot of fun writing this story. It took a turn for the unexpected and became quite dark, but nonetheless I enjoyed myself. 

I have played free and easy with the landscape of Zurich. I have (obviously) never been to Zurich and I don't know what I'm talking about. Artistic license, yeah?

Also, if you're from Indiana, forgive me.

~***~

The School for Heroes

“Would you stop putting things in the microwave?”

“It’s science!” said Sim, collapsing along the sofa with a sigh. “If you’d only let me take over your room for my laboratory, we wouldn’t have these problems!”

Abel frowned as he came through from the kitchen. “Then where would I sleep?”

Sim rolled his eyes. “That was hyperbole, Abel. Though I suppose that’s too big a word for you.”

Abel cuffed him across the head, so that Sim yelped and rolled over, and handed him a cup of tea.

“Thanks,” Sim said with a yawn. “You’re a national treasure.” He wrinkled his nose at the black liquid swirling in Abel’s own mug. “Still drinking that appallingly awful coffee?”

“Well, it keeps me going.”

“You shouldn’t be dependent on caffeine,” said Sim wisely, sipping his tea. “Not good for a hero’s robust constitution.”

Abel snorted. “Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’ve got there? Your fifth cup of tea today?”

“Yes, but the difference is I’m British,” Sim said. “A healthy tea obsession is expected, nay required.”

Abel smiled. “You see, that’s exactly the sort of sentence that’d get you an American girlfriend in about five seconds. Still sure you don’t want to date my sister?”

“Abel, my friend,” said Sim, “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

“OK, but you’d better clean that microwave pronto, or I’m giving her your number.”

Sim smiled as he loped into the kitchen. He’d met Abel’s sister in the Christmas holidays, at their home in rural Indiana. She was blonde and very loud and called Casey. Getting through their conversations had been taxing, to say the least.

In the microwave a Petri dish of skin samples sat unassumingly. “Harmless little thing, aren’t you?” Sim said to it as he moved it to the fridge. “Don’t know what all the fuss was about.”

“Stop talking to inanimate objects!” Abel called.

“Ooh,” said Sim as he returned to the living room. “Big words!”

“Shut up,” said Abel. “What was the skin for, exactly?”

“Forensics,” Sim said. It was snowing outside. The block of flats in which he and Abel lived sat high on a hill, looking down into Zurich. Head south, and in minutes you’d reach the heart of the Swiss capital. North, and soon the world would be one stretch of deserted mountainside. A perfect location – accessible yet secluded, near the city but not inside it – for the School for Heroes.

“Forensics going well?” Abel asked.

Sim grinned. “If I do say so myself.” He’d been about to embark on a chemistry degree at one of England’s best universities when the School scooped him up. Forensics was going very well indeed.

He remembered it so clearly, that day six months and a lifetime ago. As he walked out of his old high school for the very last time, he’d had the unnatural feeling of a balloon cut loose, free to fly aimlessly away into the sky. Liberation, but anchorless. That was when a man in black had approached him, and after a brief preamble about Sim’s perfect grades and exceptional scientific ability, told him about the School for Heroes. Come September, all expenses paid and no questions asked, he was on a plane coming in over the Alps. It was the first time he’d ever left Britain.

Sim had met Abel that day.

He had taken an instant and powerful dislike to his new roommate. He remembered their clammy handshake, the huge smile on Abel’s punchably handsome face. “Are you from England?” he’d exclaimed when Sim introduced himself. “That’s swell!”

“Nottinghamshire,” Sim had said with a tight smile. Abel nodded inanely. As if he knows where it is, Sim thought bitterly.

Every ghastly stereotype was true of Abel. He was blond, well over six foot, with more abs than made Sim comfortable. He’d been the star of the school football team – “Were you a quarterback?” Sim asked with some irony. “How’d you guess?” exclaimed a delighted Abel, unaware that he fulfilled every prejudice Sim had ever had – and he came from somewhere that sounded suspiciously like Little House on the Prairie.

“I didn’t know people really lived in Indiana,” Sim said with cutting sarcasm.

“Well, sure!” Abel grinned. He was endlessly oblivious to cutting sarcasm. Sim found he had to border on verbal assault before his roommate realised he was being insulted.

For a month Sim had locked himself in his room with his laptop, wondering how he’d ended up in this snowy country, on this fascinating but bizarre college programmed, with this infuriating roommate. The one good thing about Switzerland, he found, was that his dirty mugs seem magically to find their way back to the kitchen cupboard. Only later did he realise that, unasked, Abel did almost all his washing up.

Through his life Sim had had a succession of best friends, boys with whom he skipped class to smoke in unseen corners and pass acid commentary on their schoolmates. Best friend was a shaky term, though: all his life it had meant clever, sarcastic boys who shared their cigarettes and would stab you in the back without blinking. Sim didn’t know why he always ended up with these people. It was something he glumly accepted.

It was hard to say when, exactly, things had changed.

Hating Abel started off a gut reaction: to his small-town American accent, to his square jaw and his fondness for country music. Sim – slight, dark-haired and bespectacled, a sort of sallow Harry Potter without the magical ability or the charm – had responded to Abel’s alpha-male veneer like a disgruntled hermit crab, scuttling back into its cave. Then, hating Abel became a matter of principle, something that Sim had started, and would therefore finish. Not to hate Abel would be to admit defeat. But Abel was kind, and fair, and honest, unlike any friend Sim had ever had, and eventually hating him was so draining he dropped his defences.

He took his friend’s empty coffee cup and his own dirty mug, and went to run the sink.

Partway through this pleasantly contemplative washing-up Sim’s phone beeped.

Meet me under the clocktower, it said.

Sim shivered and replaced the phone in his pocket.

From the flat’s kitchen window he could see the glittering roofs of the School’s main campus. Modern, streamlined, all shining glass and metal: it was everything you could hope for in a top secret international institution training young spies, leaders and scientists. The School ran a five year programme, starting with people like him and Abel: monitored in school for their abilities, and plucked from the threshold of their excellent degrees to come here, to Zurich. The city-dwellers thought the School was a research compound, and that the student accommodation on the hill belonged to Zurich’s own university. Sim smiled. How satisfying to be undercover, a layer within a layer of a grand-scale deception.

Meet me under the clocktower. Of course, Sim’s deception went a little further.

At first he’d been confused by the School’s name – “hero” was an archaic term, muddied in its definition and connotation – but now, it made perfect sense. The School wasn’t just training spies, or scientists, or politicians. It was training defenders of civilisation, knights in shining armour for the modern age. It was enough to make you brim with noble pride.

Sim pulled his coat on, checked for keys and phone and wallet.

Enough to make him feel sickened by what he was about to do.

“I’m off!” he called to Abel.

“Sure thing!” Abel called back. Sim smiled. Americanisms. Unbelievable.

He hurried down five flights of stairs and into the snow.

He wouldn’t think too hard about where he was going, or the guilt could overwhelm him.

In an ironic parallel of his first contact with the School for Heroes that day in July, a man had approached him in October wearing dark glasses and a long black coat. The conversation had been short, the stakes very clear, and a cocktail of nerves and excitement had spread through Sim’s stomach.

“The School used to do good work,” the man had said, “but it’s gone soft. Too public-spirited. ‘Heroes’, indeed. We’re interested in the raw power, and intelligence. You’re a gifted chemist, I understand?”

“I am,” Sim had said.

“You could make a real difference for us,” the man replied. “And you’ll be paid well.”

It was deliciously stereotypical as a dark and secretive meeting, from the man’s clothes to the offer of money, from his tone of voice to the time-honoured simplicity of his plan. To bring the School down from within. It sent a thrill passing through Sim, the intrigue and the mystery of it. He still didn’t know who the man was working for – who he, Sim, was working for. All was cloaked in secrecy. But it was a villainous organisation of some sort, and Sim had always fancied himself a master villain.

With his head down he moved through the crowds, past the bright shops and cafes, to where the clocktower rose before him.

A man in black – there were several men who dealt with Sim, but they all wore black – nodded to him as he approached.

“Cold weather, isn’t it?” he said to Sim in a low voice.

“Freezing,” Sim replied. It wasn’t the most elaborate of codes, but in Zurich winters it was always appropriate.

“Have you done it?” the man muttered.

“It’s in the lab,” Sim said.

“And you’re positive it works?”

“I’ve tested it on rats. They’re dead in five seconds.”

“Ah, the glories of modern science,” the man said.

Sim nodded. It was poison, and in the man’s hand was an enveloped. It contained the name of Sim’s first target.

He could admit to no one, least of all himself, how many sleepless nights he’d had over this. It would not be the first time he’d killed. One memorable night in London, aged fourteen, it had come to a choice of stab or be stabbed; Sim could still feel, four years later, the heat of the man’s blood on his arm. But self-defence was not the same as murder by finely-tuned poison.

Sim had never been much troubled by his conscience, and the money was already in his bank account. Why, then, did he find himself sweating as the man handed him the envelope?

They parted with a nod.

It was unpleasantly cold, and Sim ducked into a café on the next street. His heart was pounding. The envelope was heavy in his pocket.

“Tee, bitte,” he said to the girl at the counter. His German was rudimentary at best, but he’d quickly learnt important phrases like Tea, please.

He paid her and went to sit by the misted window, inhaling the steam from his cup. Sim wiped the condensation with his sleeve.

Outside, a newspaper seller blew on his hands, breath rising in clouds. A little girl in a red coat laughed and tugged on her mother’s sleeve. Sim wondered whether he could have said no to the man in October, and what would have happened.

A passerby was helping an old lady to cross the icy street. Sim snorted. Didn’t that only happen in books about very good children? He remembered his amusement watching the rats fall over dead. He drained his tea. Increasingly he realised how different a person would be.

Sim couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried, but bizarrely he wanted to now.

He left a tip on the saucer and returned to the snowy street.

Back in the flat, Abel was reading with a comical frown on his face.

“What’s that, Famous Five?” Sim said.

“No, it’s—wait!” Abel looked up. “Shut up, Sim!”

“Wow, you’re getting a lot faster at recognising sarcasm! Good job!”

Abel threw a magazine at his head.

Still laughing, Sim went into his room and took off his coat. The envelope was in his pockets. He wiped his tear-filled eyes with the back of his hand.

He straightened the books on his table, smoothed down the bed. Anything to put off the moment of truth. Taped to the wall above his desk was a Polaroid picture: a bowling alley in Indiana. Abel was beaming, characteristically photogenic; Sim was half blurred as he lurched away in horror from the over-effusive Casey’s attempts to put her arm around him. Sim had not put the picture there, of course; it had been Abel, in a cleaning fervour at the start of term.

Sim hadn’t smoked for two months, but now he fumbled under the bed for his emergency box. The lighter was shaky in his hand. He opened the window, blinking in the cold, and drew long on the cigarette.

The picture had been taken two days before Christmas.

“Say,” Abel had asked him in the first week of December, “you going home for the holidays? Only I noticed you never really … talk about your folks.”

Sim didn’t like to reveal that he’d had no folks for more than half his life.

Yet somehow, he had ended up on a prairie, eating turkey with scarily loud Americans and loving every moment.

He blew a cloud of smoke across the colourless sky. Grey clouds, grey ash, grey prospects. Sim gripped the cigarette tighter, his eyes squeezed shut, focussing all the world into its tiny length. He was shivering, and sweat stood out on his forehead.

What have I done?

Sim finished the cigarette and lit another. He needed a cup of tea. He needed a way out of this awful situation.

The envelope was burning a hole through his coat pocket.

No longer caring to keep the smoke out of the room, Sim clenched his jaw and crossed to his jacket. He yanked the pocket open. The envelope was stupidly hard to tear. Cigarette dangling from his lips, he drew the paper out with clumsy fingers.

He knew, the second before he looked, what it would say.

Abel Ledgister

Sim sank to the floor beside his bed,  slip crumpling in one fist. “It’s a bad idea, Simeon,” he said aloud, “to go against villainous organisations.”

“Are you talking to science experiments again?” came the shout from the living room.

Sim blew a long finger of smoke across the room. “A bad idea,” he said, “but necessary.”

~***~

There we go! As usual (from me), an unresolved short story; more of a novel opener, really. Maybe one day I will address it. Spy novels are really not my cup of tea, but equally, I've already formed a weirdly strong attachment to Sim and Abel. 

Hope you enjoyed it, and once again Happy New Year!

27 comments:

  1. That's right, I missed the link-up too! D: I was going to join this time. Ah, well. There's always this month.

    But oh my goodness! I love this! It reminds me of a piece of your writing I read the day I discovered your blog. (It was the reason I decided to follow you, actually. ^_^) The characters! The witty dialogue! And owww, the feels too... It was also quite fun to be in a British character's head as he observed his American roommate. XDDD

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    1. Please do! We'd love to have you!

      I'm so glad! Ha, no way! That makes me v pleased. I wonder what it was XD

      Glad you like it. Hahahaha well you have the blogosphere to really thank for that, I would not get half so much exposure to Americans if I didn't blog and I'm sure this story would never have happened XD

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    2. I'll keep an eye open for the announcement of this month's prompt. :)

      I think it was from a boy's POV . . . and there was a girl involved. Did it take place at school? The details are blurry. It was your style that hooked me. ^_^

      Haha, that's great! I myself was enjoying all the British spellings (like programme) in this short story. And I didn't even know that "sure thing" was an Americanism. What's the British equivalent?

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    3. It's at the top of the post! Sorry, it may be a bit confusing that I have morphed my January announcement and December story ... sorry! The January post is up there: "Use the lyrics of your favourite song as the basis for a short story."

      Ah, it must have been the one called Year Seven, set in a school, yes. With Thomas and Jennifer :')

      Glad to hear it! Um ... well. We do say “sure thing" but it's not British originally and, well, I can't imagine my parents saying it. Hmm. What is the equivalent? Probably just “great" or “grand" or “cool". I guess ... ?

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    4. *headdesk* I totally saw that earlier. Oops! XD

      Ah, yes, that does ring a bell. :)

      Great and cool are definitely used here too, but grand has a British flavor to it. Love it! (I hope you don't mind my frequent questions about British customs and sayings... I just find it fascinating.)

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    5. Hahaha, no problem!

      Not at all ;)

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  2. Wow. I love it! I think this is my favorite of your prompt writings.

    Maybe I'm a little Sherlock obsessed at the moment, but I was seeing a lot of Sherlock and Watson at the beginning. The friendship between Sim and Abel seemed similar to them. Then Sim made me think of Moriarty, and my mind wander about how Sherlock and Moriarty are such parallels. And I ADORE the ending. The open, vagueness of it! I like endings that don't end.

    Abel IS American. "Sure thing"-- I've said that. I know nothing of Indiana, but there really are people like Abel who fit that stereotype. I'm a little more like Sim though and tend to be repulsed by society's mainstream cliches, especially the living ones. Sometimes they fit the stereotype so well it feels like they are playing a part, a role, rather than being honestly themselves.

    Maybe it's bad that I relate more to Sim, but I get the whole people trying to push you into a relationship thing. All those friends who have someone, or even worse the married friends, you can just see it in their eyes. They're trying to find someone to "ship" you with. And when you come around and they're like, "Oh, so-and-so and I were just talking about you the other day" and you just KNOW what half the conversation was about. Bleh.

    So I like Sim. Everything about him. I like Abel too, but he's not half as interesting, at the moment. I'm sure there's more to him than is currently shown. From this excerpt, I think you'd be great at writing a spy novel. That'd be cool. Especially if it was about Sim and Abel.

    It made me laugh when you mentioned Little House on the Prairie. When I was a kid, I used to have a huge Little House obsession. I watched all the shows, read the books multiple times. Yet it has never occurred to me that other countries would be so aware of the Little House series and identify the US with it as they do with the era of cowboys and Indians (although it's kind of the same era).

    I really like the themes addressed here, mostly they seem to come up with Sim's character. Heroes and villains. Conscience or lack of. Science vs. tradition. Choices. Friendships. Even more controversial: choices based on conscience, loyalty, or necessity. All of it! I like it. :)

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    1. I was half thinking the same thing about Sherlock and Watson - probably because I'll be watching the special in half an hour. :)

      I know I've said "sure thing", too. I'm one state east of Indiana, but I've visited the state before a few times. And, I do know people like Abel.

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    2. @Ashley: THANK YOU! Wow! You know, it might be my favourite, too! I did like that one called Progress (the couple on a spaceship), but I think this is-- wait, no, scratch that, I just remembered the Ruskins! The funeral story is my fave! (What does that say about me??) But I'm so glad you like this!

      Totally! The idea of the science experiment in the microwave came from comments on my post when I posted the prompt at the beginning of the month, when some of you guys mentioned Sherlock XD So yeah, that's absolutely how it started. (Now can I just say HOW GOOD WAS THE SPECIAL. *ahem*)

      Uh-oh, I hadn't thought of Sim as being like Moriarty, though he totally is! But dang poor Sim :'( I really love him actually. Even though he can be quite horrible. As we observe.

      Glad you enjoy the ending! It is interesting, mostly to ask why Abel is the target; what has he done? I imagine that they will have to go on the run together, but Sim doesn't want to tell Abel why because he's sure Abel will hate him if he knows what Sim's done, and of course Abel trusts Sim and comes with him bc he's a great guy ... Damn! I need to not start plotting this novel right now! XD

      I suppose Sim and Abel are both cliches of their respective countries. I'm glad I wasn't too OTT with Abel!

      I 100% relate much more to Sim, but then he is my MC and we do share a country so I suppose it's to be expected. Bless him, Abel would never aggressively ship, but Casey is definitely your stereotypical British-loving girl who tries far too hard to throw herself at Sim. I think Sim is a bit afraid of girls (I mean, he definitely is. Though I do have a blossoming headcanon of a mixed race Londoner called Katya (Emily, how do you know these details, you ask? I don't know, it happens!) whom Sim and Abel meet. Possibly with a tragic denouement in which Sim has to choose between romance and friendship. Dun dun duuuun).

      I do really love Sim. Abel must have something interesting if the villains want to target him .... unleeesss they're getting Sim to prove his loyalty, by making him kill his roommate? Though if I were a villain I think I'd give Sim a few other killings first, let him get used to it and get used to the money, before I had him kill Abel. Personally.

      I loved the Little House series! Absolutely loved those books! (I really want to reread them now I think about it!) And they are basically my total exposure to all history of cowboys and Indians. When I think of cowboys and Indians, I think of Little House :') (Though, when I think about, I don't know how Sim'd know about them. Firstly as a boy he'd be much less likely to read them, but also he's not lived with his parents "for more than half his life", as the story reveals, and I think he's been brought up in various foster/care homes. Plus the intriguing "memorable night in London" -- what was he doing, when he had to end up killing someone?!?! Obviously Sim is really clever and focussed, so despite his tumultuous upbringing he worked hard at school and managed to get an Oxford scholarship, but nonetheless, I can't picture a situation where he'd read or watch Little House. Hmm.)

      @Lauren: Right?! OK but HOW GOOD WAS THE SPECIAL?!?!

      I think I've said “sure thing" too, but maybe in a slightly ironic capacity XD I'm glad that people like Abel do exist, or it would just have been an offensive (if amusing) stereotype!

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    3. I'm thinking Abel out to have some secret ability. He does go to the School for Heroes too, doesn't he? So there must be something special about him. Maybe it's a secret, or maybe Sim's been too busy trying to hate Abel that he's overlooked it? XD

      But plotting plot is what we DO! And Sim needs a book. . .one day.

      Wait, wait. Choose between romance or friendship?! No, no. That's just cruel! You would do that to Sim (no, of course you would)? Oh, well. It shall be a good book then. ;)

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    4. Yes. I have been wondering why exactly he's at the School. I guess the villains want to eliminate him for that reason ... O.o

      Don't encourage me!

      ~evil author laughter echoes around~

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  3. Wow! I really like your December post, even if it is a bit late! :D I'd like to spend so more time with these characters. "Swell", though? Gee whiz - did Abel just walk off the set of Leave It to Beaver? XD

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    1. So glad! Me too, actually, which is unfortunate considering I have 5 other novels I'm desperate to write once I've finished my WIP! Oops ...

      I have no idea what Leave It to Beaver is but the name made me laugh aloud! XD

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    3. You've never heard Leave It to Beaver?! It's played all the time on those classic tv channels here...basically it's a wholesome family sitcom from 1957-1963. Beaver is the nickname of the youngest son.
      If you're interested here are a few classic clips:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bonPtKnBGH4
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5jRKp_I11w
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULK_PNaS6d0
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbR6Rb4md48

      I have a pretty good idea what song I'm going to use for January - Brazil by Declan McKenna. I'm sure "I heard he lives down a river somewhere, with six cars and a grizzly bear" would make an excellent basis for a short story. :)

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    4. Well that was ... an education ...

      That's the sort of show Abel's family would watch, I, er ...

      THEIR CLOTHES

      THEIR VOICES

      Wow.

      I--

      Gee. Wow. I'm glad I didn't live in 50s America ...

      !!!

      That sounds hilarious! Thanks so much for linking up, Lauren, it's such an encouragement to Ashley and me!

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    5. Haha - I was understand your reaction! Seriously, though, I half imagined Abel sounding like a toned down version of Wally, the older brother, because of his word choice! :)

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  4. I love what you did with this prompt! Everything was described so well, and I loved the interaction between Abel and Sim. I also had to laugh when you were poking fun at America, haha! (Trust me there are a lot of things about America that I make fun of too.) "Sim found he had to border on verbal assault before his roommate realised he was being insulted." < That line made me laugh too, haha! Great job, Emily!
    -Bailey

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    1. So glad! I really enjoyed their dialogue. And I'm very happy, I was sliiightly worried about the reaction of my followers as you are about 80% American but I'm glad I got away with it! XD

      Thanks for stopping by, Bailey! :)

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  5. I am definitely doing this one! I love music related prompts! Will link-up around Tuesday when I publish it, I think. thank you for the awesome link-up, Emily!

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  6. .....Why Abel? What did he ever do?!! Gah - why do you do this to me, stupid annoying beautifully brilliant unresolved short story. Bah! Humbug!
    *ahem*
    Your writing style is incredible. The way the language flows is beautiful and you are a very talented writer. I have no idea how you came up with that story from such a bizarre prompt XD
    Anyhoo, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! ^_^

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    1. Right?! I DON'T KNOW!!! It's always the good who die, Marian. Fred taught us that ...
      ~faint sobbing~
      Thank you so much, Marian, you're so kind! It really makes me extremely happy to receive such a nice comment, thank you thank you thank you!

      And you too! <3

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  7. LOVE. LOOOOOOOOOOVE. This was amazing, I already adore Sim and Abel and the whole premise. Just by looking at this, I know you could definitely, totally do a spy novel if you wanted. *heart eyes*

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    1. THANK YOU RACHEL! I'm so glad. Ha, fantasy is more my jam but I guess I'll consider it ;)

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Thanks for commenting! :)