Hi! How is everyone? What a year! Well, I hope you're as good as can be during these times.

So I've had this concept in my head for a long time and was finally able to make a story out of it. This is a shorter, simpler story. Not sure what the final length will be, maybe around 20 chapters. The main characters will be a little younger than I usually write them. No worries – Christine will still be of legal age, and the E/C part is a bit…different in how it begins than I normally write.

This story doesn't have a set year, but I guess I imagine it taking place 10-15 years from now, to account for the light sci-fi and I think this AU world is a bit grittier. So there's more crime and corruption, but not enough that it qualifies for dystopia.

A big thanks to Kelly for looking over the chapters. I'll also credit her with an idea in the next chapter. We had some fun bouncing ideas off each other – which really does help for any of you writers out there who may be looking for inspiration.

Anyway, I hope it's primarily fun and keeps you entertained for a couple of months. I needed a bit of an escape and maybe you do, too.

9082 W Second St. #7

5 PM

Prepare to stay up to 4 hours

Christine glanced at the yellow scrap of paper in her hand. Her phone had already announced, "Your destination is on the right."

Despite her nervousness, she was proud of herself for figuring it out. Sometimes she was really bad with directions. She hadn't needed to ask Raoul for help.

He'd freak out if he knew what I was doing…

One hand gripping the strap of her black leather backpack, she slowly climbed the set of concrete stairs. The winter sun had nearly set, but the lamps overhead illuminated her pathway. A man in a dress shirt and tie quickly walked down the stairs in the opposite direction. He didn't glance at her. She was calmed by seeing another human being. Otherwise, the area was kind of empty.

"Number 7," she murmured to herself as she reached the top, now confronted with a row of long glass windows. She saw her reflection and ran a hand over her slightly windblown hair. Otherwise, she was happy with her appearance. Lily had helped her pick out the black slacks and white blouse, along with a new denim jacket to go over it.

Lily was kind of the reason she was here at all. The final reason, anyway.

Christine grabbed a cold door handle. The door opened with ease, caught by a current of air. Carpeted black hallways expanded out in front of her, but the air smelled slightly moist. There was a front desk, yet it appeared to be abandoned. There was no computer or sign-in sheet, no administrative assistant waiting there to help her. What was this place? She glanced at her phone for more information. Blue Mountain Office Complex.

Okay, at least it had a name. Is this what a recording studio looked like, a typical office building? Or an abandoned office complex? She had no idea. This was her first time visiting one.

Her flat heels squished into the carpet and then clicked softly against dusty linoleum tiles. She wished there were a friendly face around, an elderly woman or another young person, someone who would smile at her and ask her if she needed any assistance.

She checked her phone. Nothing – no texts or calls from Raoul. She had told him that she was going shopping -

"Oh. With Lily again?"

"N-no. I'm going with friends. It's more to hang out. And then we'll probably go to one of their houses or something."

"You have friends? That's awesome!"

Even now, she winced at the way he had said it. Did he really think she was that pathetic, that she couldn't make friends?

Then again, she really didn't have any close friends.

I can't think about that right now. I need to feel confident. Where the heck is number seven?

She saw a directory on the wall, and the layout all made more sense. Each business or organization had their own area number. A bank was (used to be?) in Number 1. Heavy wooden doors prevented her from seeing into that room.

She walked down a long hallway. There was Number 2, a dentist office. It was dark behind the glass door, but she could see an illuminated aquarium inside with live fish swimming around, their bluish scales and beady eyes shining in the darkness. Her heart calmed a little. Okay, good. This place wasn't completely abandoned. Someone had to be feeding the fish, right? A light flickered, buzzing a little more loudly as she walked beneath it, warning her.

Number 3. She forgot what that was. Completely dark. A general feeling of unease settled over her as she turned another corner. A calendar hung on a wall, right outside someone's office. It was a year old. Number 4, Real Estate, also guarded by large doors.

Just as she finally thought – I should get out of here. Something's not right. – she saw it. Number 7. Yes! There were no labels, but 5 and 6 also hadn't given any indication as to what types of businesses they were.

Smiling in relief, she opened the door.

The room was pitch-black like the others. Before going in, she checked her phone. She was three minutes early. Maybe they weren't there yet.

One of her hands stretched outwards to find the light switch, keeping the door open so that the light from the hallway would help her see. She finally spotted the switch about six feet away, out of her reach.

She glanced down to see if there was some mechanism to keep the door from closing. Not finding anything quickly, Christine decided to use her phone for light instead. It would take only a second to walk to the switch.

She took a step inside, door closing behind her with a loud thud, then headed quickly for her target.

A hand pushed her hard from behind.

With a gasp, Christine flew forward. She cried out in pain as she landed on her hands and knees against cold tiles, the breath knocked out of her. Her phone slipped from her hands and clattered against the floor.

"Stay down and shut up," said a cold and unfamiliar voice. A man. Younger – but maybe not as young as she was. Something clicked near her head. "I have a gun. Be quiet."

She whimpered in the dark, panting heavily.

"I said be quiet."

It took all of her willpower to obey and not dissolve into frantic sobs. The room tilted beneath her. She couldn't feel pain now, only the tingling of adrenaline in her four limbs as her heart pounded wildly in her ears. The man chuckled. "God, I can't believe you fell for it. They thought they might get a couple thousand out of you, like with the others. But you're tied to the Chagny family. The fucking Chagny family." Her phone turned on when he picked it up. The light disappeared as he switched the device off. "It was too good to pass up."

"Please," she whispered.

"Quiet!" The barrel dug into the side of her head. "I'm sure your boyfriend will pay up. And, hey, if he doesn't, I guess it wasn't true love after all."

Cold horror settled over her, and she suddenly felt as though she were watching everything from far above her numbed body, as though she were floating. One sickening thought played over and over in her mind.

Raoul had been right.

Raoul had been right.

He had been right about everything. She had been an idiot. Now she had ruined everyone's life. Hers. His. His family's.

He had been so very right.


One week earlier

"Christine, sweetheart, that sounds like a scam."

She wished he hadn't added the "sweetheart." It made the statement sound more condescending than he had probably meant it to. First, she felt shame. Then anger. She stepped back. "How do you know that?"

Raoul stared at her with slight disbelief and then quickly tried to neutralize his expression. "Because this is something they should be paying you to do. Not the other way around!"

"You don't think I'm good enough…" Her arms folded up protectively against her chest.

"I didn't say that! But you made two videos of you singing. They were great. They were! But you need to get more views. Build yourself up a little more. These things take time."

Deep down, maybe she knew he was right. But this was another incident in a long line of many. Where he knew better than she did. Because, due to her upbringing, she was utterly naïve about all these issues. She was so tired of feeling like the stupid one.

A child. She could see it in his eyes. Raoul thought she was a stupid child, and he felt sorry for her.

The shame deepened, tightening near her heart.

"Whatever," she murmured, turning away. "Never mind."

"Sweetheart - "

"Quit calling me that."

Raoul put up both hands. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm not trying to be mean. I just don't want you to get wrapped up in a scam. Okay? There are some really sick people out there. I don't want them to take advantage of you."

"I know. I won't. I won't give them any money."

She really couldn't anyway. The Chagny family controlled what little funds she had.

Which hadn't been much. Her father had around five thousand dollars when he passed away, a savings account she hadn't known about.

Even that had been a pleasant surprise. It had been unlike her father. To save. To pay taxes – not that he ever owed much anyway. She had taken over the bills when she was thirteen, wanting to avoid any more utility shutoffs. "Money doesn't matter, Christine," her father always told her with a jovial smile on his bearded face. "Life is about adventure and passion. Not some bank's bottom line. Not the government trying to dig themselves out of debt with the blood and sweat of the taxpayer."

So for her father to keep that five thousand dollars, all for her, had been a surprise.

Until she realized it was more of a dowry than anything.

No – maybe not a dowry. Raoul's parents didn't really want him dating her, much less marrying her. It was more like a bribe to take care of her. Of course, five thousand dollars was nothing to the Chagnys. They probably wouldn't have agreed to it if Raoul hadn't dramatically threatened to cut off all contact with his family.

Without Raoul, she might be homeless right now. That made the current situation all the more shameful.

"I'm sorry," she murmured, staring at the spotless white carpet. "It was stupid. I saw that message and got excited. I'm sorry."

Raoul's expression instantly warmed. He was not one to hold grudges. He preferred to get past conflicts as quickly as possible. "Hey, it's okay! It's not your fault. I mean, you didn't even grow up with a computer, right?"

"No. If I were enrolled in school, I sometimes used one." She remembered frantically staring at the other students, trying to copy what they were doing. Click on that. Type that in. Oops – wrong word. What does that error mean? Why is the computer making that noise? "My dad thought too much technology ruined the world."

"Maybe he had a point," said Raoul with a laugh. He had liked her father. Her father was everything his family wasn't. A free spirit blowing in the wind. "General rule is that if anyone is asking for money or trying to give you money, it's a scam."

"Trying to give me money?"

"Yeah. Like they'll ask for your bank account number and say they want to give you money. But then they'll take your money instead."

She let out a forlorn laugh. "Well, good thing I don't have a bank account."

"Yes, you do," he insisted. "Is there something you want? Let me know. We'll have it here by Friday."

"Thanks," she murmured. "But, no, there's nothing that I want."

"How about I pay for a professional recording? That'd be a good start."

"No, I don't want that. But thanks. Let's just forget it."

"Okay. Well. Let's get some dinner," Raoul said, somewhat awkwardly, and draped an arm around her shoulders. "Thai sound good?"

"Yeah. That sounds great."

She tried to keep her voice upbeat but felt sadness swell in her chest. She had been so hopeful when someone had messaged her, offering to make a professional recording of her voice, offering to make her famous, for the price of two thousand dollars.

And now she just felt stupid.

Her father had died six months ago, and she had been three months from turning eighteen. She had no other family whom she was close to. It would have been horrid to go into the foster system at that age, move somewhere she had never been to stay with a family she didn't know for less than a year. Yet she didn't have enough money or skills to take care of herself, so it would have been a matter of finding a minimum wage job and praying some government program would give her a hand.

Luck had saved her. Pure golden luck that most people only dreamt about like they dreamt of winning the lottery. Because, over a year ago, Raoul Chagny had come across them at a county fair where Christine's father played his guitar while she stood on a haystack and sang. Both of them were wearing jean overalls and cowboy hats, as her father had decided they needed a theme. Raoul had been with a group of friends. To her embarrassment, his friends had laughed and moved on, but Raoul had stopped to listen. Then he had talked to them, or at least to her father as she had been too shy to say much. He had befriended them – fallen in love with her - and become utterly fascinated by their lifestyle.

A lifestyle that had made her utterly naïve about certain things.

She and Raoul walked together into the main living area, which was probably twice the size of any apartment she had ever lived in. Phillip was watching high-definition television on a screen that took up the entire wall. His longtime girlfriend, Lily, was perched beside him on the charcoal-colored leather sofa, feet curled under her.

Beautiful Lily was almost royalty. Literally. Her mother had ties to the Belgian royal family. And she was so nice that Christine couldn't help but like her.

"Hey guys!" Lily smiled widely, her eyes lighting up. "Where you off to?"

"Dinner," said Raoul. "Thai. Wanna come?"

"I do," said Lily. "But…" She looked at Phillip.

Phillip glanced up and said, "I'm only here because I need Dad's opinion on a case. Figured we'd have dinner with him and Mom later."

Phillip and Lily had a gorgeous apartment that overlooked the entire city. Christine imagined it was as close to heaven as she had ever been. Literally. She had never been on an airplane, although Raoul promised to take her on one very soon.

"Fun," said Raoul. "See you guys later."

"Wait," said Lily. "Christine! You and I need to go shopping. I mean it. Text me a good time. I'm free all next week."

"Oh, yeah. I will. I keep forgetting. But I definitely will."

"You should go with her," said Raoul as they headed out the door. "Buy what you want. Anything. I mean it. You'll have fun with her."

Would she? She didn't want to feel like Lily's damaged Barbie Doll. And that was such a terrible way to look at it, Christine knew. Lily had been nothing but nice to her.

"You're right," she said, forcing confidence into her voice. "I will."

"That's great!" He relaxed, their earlier fight fading away. They didn't talk about the "scam" at all during dinner. They briefly talked about her GED. She had been to three different high schools throughout the country, finishing classes here and there, but didn't quite have enough credits to graduate. Instead of facing the weirdness of yet another school, she had decided to get a high school equivalency diploma and move on with her life that way.

Raoul was excited to go to college next fall and escape his family. He talked about it a lot. He wanted his dad to stop looking over his shoulder constantly, making sure his grades were nearly perfect. He wanted his mom to stop checking in on his dating life. He wanted them to stop comparing him to his brother.

She was happy for him. She couldn't understand all these experiences and relationships, but she understood that college meant a lot to him. He also wanted her to come with him.

"Your parents won't like that," she reminded him for the fiftieth time as she added some rice to her green curry. "They might threaten to cut you off."

"They'll get over it." He waved his hand dismissively to the side. "I mean, you're not staying here alone with them. That'd be kind of weird, right?"

"I think they want to set me up in my own apartment here, go to community college." She got a little nervous thinking about it.

"Yeah, well, that's stupid. How long have you lived here? Like two years?" She nodded. "You don't know anyone. You'll come with me. We'll find you classes and stuff to do, get you an apartment there until I can leave the dorms. It'll be fun."

"You're sure you want me there? I mean, you'll be having all these great experiences like parties and meeting people. And I'll be…you know. I don't want you to have to worry about me."

"Don't worry about that. It will be awesome having you around."

She didn't have the words to express all her nervousness and frustration. And it wasn't Raoul's fault. Her father had made them live so differently, lauded abnormality, and then suddenly thrust her into the normal world upon his death – as though realizing his mistake at the last second.

She was relieved to get back to her room that evening after wishing Raoul an early goodnight. Her living space at the Chagny's castle of a home was one of two guesthouses that was connected to the main house by a long hallway filled with watercolor paintings, so thankfully she had quite a bit of a privacy and a big beautiful bedroom, worthy of a princess. The 'house rule' was that she and Raoul couldn't be in there alone with the door shut. Or at least that was his father's rule so Raoul didn't ruin his life with some girl off the street who would "trap him with child support payments for the rest of his life." That had been a fun conversation to overhear.

Still, even with all that, she didn't exactly hate his parents. They had taken her in, bought her new clothes. A phone. Shown her how to finish her education and find some type of future.

They had also given her what had to be an expensive laptop so that she could complete online classes and become accustomed to the real world. During her mourning period, she had ignored the computer. But now…

When she logged in, Christine had another message from the Scammer, offering to help her with a professional voice recording for a discount of one thousand dollars. She replied quickly, that knot of shame tightening in her chest, "Sorry, I don't have any money. I'm not interested."

Hopefully, that would be the end of it.

What happened next, entirely innocent, probably helped to seal her fate.

There was one thing her father had taught her to do fairly well, one talent, and that was sing. After searching a little on the Internet, Christine quickly realized how important it was to build up some type of online presence. Along with uploading a couple videos of herself singing, she had also quickly created a social media page.

On that page, it was very clear that she was in a relationship with Raoul. Her profile picture had them together, him hugging her from behind at the beach. Both smiling and in swimsuits, showing plenty of skin. There was even a picture with her and the rest of his beautiful family, side by side.

That evening, she linked that page to the site where she had uploaded her videos, trying to expand her presence, to create a bigger virtual picture of herself. Just like the Internet had told her to do.

Within twenty-four hours, she had another message.

Listened to you again. You're so good that you don't need to pay us. In fact, we'll pay YOU to make a recording. We'll need special audio equipment to make it great. Let us know if you're interested, Christine. We're really impressed! You're going to be a STAR!

Her heart pounded quickly as she read the message a second time. She considered running to the main house to find Raoul. She didn't. She remembered what he had said about people offering to give her money and didn't want him to admonish her again.

Little did she know that Raoul being annoyed with her paled in comparison to the sharp click of a handgun cocking at her temple.

Little did she know anything at all, it seemed.

She didn't tell Raoul. She also didn't reply right away.

It was that shopping trip with Lily that really sealed her fate two days later.

They went to one of the most upscale stores she had ever been in. It didn't even have that much merchandise. White mannequins in silk scarves and cashmere sweaters coldly stared at her from all sides. Designer purses were perched on the shelves. The saleswomen smiled at Lily and asked her if they needed any help. "Just browsing," Lily replied in a cheerful voice. "We'll let you know if we need anything."

Thanks to Raoul, Christine did have nicer clothes. She wasn't nearly as fashionable as Lily, but she didn't stand out like she would have a year ago.

Lily looked so confident, so comfortable in the world, that Christine suddenly wanted her opinion. As Lily browsed through skirts, running her manicured hands over the colorful material, Christine cleared her throat and said, "Can I ask you something?"

"You can ask me anything," said Lily with a smile, looking up and tucking a strand of long blonde hair behind her ear. They had the same color of hair and eyes. One of the greatest compliments of Christine's life was when someone had asked if they were sisters.

Christine hesitated. "Well…"

Lily laughed and asked in a hushed voice. "What? Is it about sex?"

"No!" Christine took a step backward.

"I'm kidding. You just turned bright red! I'm kidding. What?"

Christine nervously swallowed. "So I know…I know when someone wants your money online, it's a scam. Raoul told me that."

Unfortunately, Lily immediately appeared disinterested. She had clearly been hoping for sexy gossip. Still, she nodded with encouragement. "Right."

"Okay. Well. What if someone wants to give you money? Is that always a scam?"

"No," said Lily with a short shake of her head. "Not always. I promote products sometimes and get paid for that. Lots of people have online gigs."

Christine smiled with relief. "Right. That's right."

"Ooh, that pink jacket, Christine. That would look adorable on you. Come here." Lily dragged her to the other side of the store.

As Lily took the pink denim jacket off the hanger, Christine continued, "So how do you know which ones are real? How do you know it's not a scam?"

"Hm? Oh, I have an assistant that figures that stuff out. She makes sure that everything's legit." Lily opened up the jacket. "Hold out your arms. Let's see."

Christine obeyed but continued, "Raoul acts like everything online is a scam. But that's not right, right?"

Lily laughed as she slid the jacket onto Christine and smoothed out the fabric. "Oh, you know the Chagnys. They're a family of lawyers and bankers. It's their job to be paranoid." Lily stepped back. "That looks great. Perfect fit."

"Thanks. I…I guess I'll get it." Christine smiled at herself in a nearby mirror. It did look nice. She looked nice.

She was so far away from the impoverished girl that she had been a year ago, staring out the window of a one-bedroom apartment, wondering when her father was coming home from whatever temporary job he had found.

And yet sometimes she didn't feel very far away from her old self at all.

Lily must have noticed the far-off glint in Christine's eyes. She came from behind and put her hands on Christine's shoulders. "Hey, don't worry about anything. You're way too young to look so worried. These are the best years of your life."

"Yeah. Some things are real," said Christine, more to herself than to Lily. "I can't always be paranoid, right?"

"Exactly. Now let's pay and get out of here. I am starving, and there is this awesome deli right around the corner."

Christine felt reassured after that conversation.

Stupidly reassured.

And it wasn't Lily's fault, what happened next. Christine had seen her as this beautiful, confident, slightly older girl who could give her advice about this new world she was in.

What she didn't understand was that Lily had also been raised in a bubble. Just a different kind of bubble.