Writers (in order): Kylie Tatarsky, Doctor, Rayne Carr, Diya Agrawal, Abigail Youngblood, Alyssa Tang, Hana Laws, Joyce Lee, D.C. Lindersmith, Jack, and Alyssa Wong. Editor: Irene Tsen.

Angela’s dark red lipstick stained the edge of the egret-white porcelain mug as she took a sip of her cinnamon latte. Stationed in Paris for the year, she glanced up from her MacBook, checking to see if any eyes were on her.

Angela was a beautiful woman. At only nineteen years old, people fell into a trance whilst in her presence. Her soft auburn hair fell to the middle of her back, and when she stood in the sun, her bright emerald eyes glistened as if they contained flakes of gold.

Angela had yet to meet any friends her age. Making friends was quite hard, given the fact that she could trust no one… and no one could trust her. She was the asset of highest importance within Earth’s strongest military force: Asset 00. She was an agent for the USA. Born into a family where her mother and father were highly regarded members of the State’s CIA, it was only natural she’d follow in their footsteps.

However, for all the talk about being important, Angela was still coddled. Since her mother was the Director of International Affairs, she was always extra protected. That was why her mother deployed her in France to infiltrate Milieu, a small-time wealthy crime syndicate. Of course, it wasn’t completely her mother’s fault. Angela always had this problem, a hero complex of sorts. Her parents only became more restrictive after the incident five years ago.

                                                                                   • • •

It was her first mission. Angela was only fourteen, but after begging her parents to go on her first mission, she was sent to the Caucuses. She was given the task to save a girl of fifteen years named Tetyana. Tetyana had found herself staring at death’s door, in deep poverty and close to starvation, but she had still chosen to work off her parents’ debts to the Bratva. Only, it wasn’t physical labor the Bratva demanded—it was something far more atrocious, far more damaging to the mind and body.

Angela’s mission was going smoothly—Angela had scouted out Tetyana’s quarters, befriended her, and figured out the guards’ schedule—until Tetyana learned of Angela’s intentions to save Tetyana from her situation. But associating with Angela only endangered Tetyana further. Tetyana did not want to be saved. She had a debt to work off and things would only get worse for her if she left. Those unpaid debts would follow her anywhere and everywhere she went.

Tetyana was never safe. The storm of noise that seemed to brew perpetually within the thin walls of her quarters had become the soundtrack to her days: a cacophony of roaring voices and frantic screams, waves of danger that seemed to lap at her safe place, her single refuge.

She had found that the best thing to do was nothing, hoping today was the day they would forget about her. But, the better part of her knew they wouldn’t. So, as she watched the sun creep all too eagerly through her window that day, all she could do was wait, heart throbbing in her chest. Wait for the door to be flung open. Wait for them to grip her in their iron claws, dragging her cowering body and obliging mind away. Wait to be thrown from the caged safety of darkness and trapped in the excruciating vulnerability that was light.

In one simple move, that nightmarish vision was shattered. Angela, in all her beauty of youth, pushed the door open in a steady, slow motion, like molasses cascading from a jar. “Come with me,” she whispered. Her voice shook slightly, but she gripped the door handle with a determination that turned her knuckles white.

Tetyana stared in shock. “What the hell are you doing here?!” Her wide, shocked eyes quickly turned into a contemptuous glare. “That muscly guard with the all-too-roving eyes was supposed to come get me ten minutes ago.”

“You should be glad it’s me and not the warden,” Angela said with a roll of her eyes. “I heard what they had planned for you, and I saw the knives, too—didn’t look pretty. Now, follow me if you want out of here.” She motioned with her hand, asking Tetyana to follow, and slipped away into the musty, torch-lit hallway that smelled of stale alcohol.

Tetyana almost followed after Angela, lured by her easy words and lackadaisical gestures, until she took one look at the darkened corridor where Angela’s figure stealthily blended into the shadows as if she had lived in them all her life. A flash of her reddish hair flickered under the torchlight, like a searchlight in the midst of fog.

Tetyana dug her nails into her bandaged wrist. No. Angela didn’t know anything about this life.

“You think you can barge in here and order me around, expect me to follow you around like an obedient pet? What do you think I am? A dog?” Tetyana spat. She had already chewed the insides of her cheeks sore, so she could only bite her lower lip in anger. It stung, but she appreciated the pain that she’d become so accustomed to.

Angela stopped moving in the distance. Her body moved with an almost unnatural grace as she turned; she stared at her incredulously with her eyes narrowed, metal glinting in her fist.

“I’m trying to save you. Do you really need to make a fuss right now with the guards already on their way?”

“You think you can ignore all the consequences for who you’re saving, that you can turn life into some sort of grand calculation and guarantee the outcomes you want?” A bitter laugh cracked out of Tetyana’s lips. “I thought we were friends, that you wanted to spend time with me because you cared. But now I know I’m just another line on your list of achievements, a case to be closed. God, you don’t know even what it’s like, how many times I go to sleep thinking I’d die and then waking up alone again. Where were you then, Angela?”

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