The moon brightened all the way beside the sand and waves, along the endless passage of palm trees through Miami Beach. Its silver light fought vividly against neon blue, red, purple, and just for this time of the year, yellow, besides the lampposts. The pink smoke was almost non-existent, because of the relatively low temperature.

Even the residents themselves wore a layer of clothing on top, instead of thin shirts or tops as usual. A snowless winter, like every year. The wind occasionally moved the leaves of the palm trees, which slept peacefully to the vague noise of Christmas carols, and the occasional loud sound of a party pooper's honk.

Most of the stores were still open, being a bit early in the evening. Although most of the buyers were already last-minute celebration families, the ambience remained busy. At least when they came over, and then returned to the quiet of the cold.

Mike's was no exception. A family of six had taken a little over half the products, claiming they had to serve all the "family extras", and receiving a call saying the turkey had just arrived.

Mark just watched them sprint back and forth across the shelves from the counter, not crossing his mind they would find everything there. After the long list and paper bags they carried out, silence and taps took over the store.

Standing outside, Mike lit a cigarette and watched the horizon. He had taken care of the store this morning and afternoon, so Mark's shift at night meant he had to close it.

However, the old man stayed with him, knowing tacitly they were going to cheer some beers for Christmas Eve later.

"This is Nightride FM, bringing you the heat of Christmas! Yes! We'll be here all night, tuned with you on this special day! Here goes another classic, and remember, less talk, more music! Rock on! "

The volume dropped slightly. Mark's brain throbbed with exhaustion, after another day without the pills working. Also, because of his stubborn will, he hadn't tasted a single drip of coffee. And he still didn't want to.

The only thing caffeine would do was make him booze quicker than Jordan and the old man, once again .

As he flipped through the new comic he'd bought days ago, he caught a glance through the glass windows to outside, Mike briefly shifting his attention from the endless horizon to someone coming from the opposite side of the sidewalk.

Mark turned the corner of the page where he stopped reading, awfully distinguished by the extremely tight woman's black suit with unreal curves. He saw Mike wave his free hand to the new customer, then again dragged his cigarette, the doorbell ringing.

An asian girl with black hair ending in braids, with a clearly not dyed white strand above her glasses passed through the door frame. Her right hand was inside a pocket of her long blue raincoat, a bit overestimating the Miami cold, just for the other pocket to receive the left one.

Mark examined her, unconsciously slowing his breathing as she approached, standing right in front of the counter. Clearly taller than her, the less than ninety-degree angle formed by the visual contact made them both uncomfortable, waiting for one to speak.

The former soldier didn't have disabled vocal cords, but wouldn't use them like that either. 'Mute' was for a reason, sometime in 1985.

"D-do you wanna go have a drink?" The girl asked, her dragged words barely throwing the gist, but he caught it nonetheless.

A raised eyebrow was the only motion she received in response. The other two obvious ones though, impolite and negative, made Mark feel guilty for how flat it sounded.

"Who are you?" The usual bored tone came out with emphasis on the second word. More like a little detune.

"My name's Grace, a rookie detective from the Miami Beach Police Station. And I came here to a-ask you to go out for a drink."

Mark blinked. This time the tone had been firm, until the request repeated, at least.

"Why?" There was no reason to talk to her, at all. Neither for more than one word leaving his mouth.

Eye contact broke as Grace looked down to the edge of the counter. Her determination seemed to crack with each passing second. The former soldier didn't move from his position, not even if his own nervous system ordered him to say yes.

Something about her seemed familiar. As if he had known her for a long time, and not for three days ago, when she came with Jordan to have lunch in the store. Their existences got ignored at the time, her staying in the car. Why now the change?

"Why not ?" Grace uttered, the 't' precisely pronunciated.

Seeing that Mark's expression didn't change, she tried again, not waiting for another smartass response.

"I want to go out with you. It's Christmas and I don't think you want to spend it alone, right?"

Grace's cheeks twitched, knowing it wasn't the best she could say to him.

"There are guys better than me out there." The heat in Mark's chest died in an instant. "I have no doubts that they'll agree in a blink. And no, I will not be alone."

"You didn't hear me, did you? With you. Y-O-U. I want to know why I have this feeling with you. And why am I here..."

"I don't have those answers. I am not what you are looking for, you better..."

"Hey, asshat."

Mike's voice overshadowed the bell. Mark rarely saw him frown, an expression he saved for Friday, payday for the mafia. In reaction, the former soldier straightened his back, making Grace alert as well, glancing towards the door too.

"It doesn't happen every day that a girl comes to ask you out. And stop pitying yourself for the love of God, nobody likes that."

Mark parted his lips to reply, but Mike held up a hand.

"And no, she's not here for a hired job, or being forced to. She is a frigging cop!" His eyes widened briefly, addressing her. "So sorry, officer." He returned his attention to the lad with the scar. "Just go without buts. Life is prettier than it sounds, kid. Besides, you don't even know that blonde girl's name in so many months, so you're not hurting anyone."

A blunt facepalm sound over the store. Had he been so obvious to the Mountain Dew girl? No, it couldn't be true.

"Sure you'll be fine? I had to close up a store today…"

"Do you think I am so useless that I can't handle a mere shop at Christmas? I'll be fine, and you know where to go if shit happens, though I can't say I'll open the door for you. So behave yourself around her, lad."

"Uh..." Grace's face glowed like one of the yellow lights adorning the store windows. Mark let out an accepting sigh, his own reluctance driving his thoughts down to hell. "Give me five."

Her smile, along with the little hops she made as she left her through the door, answered what words couldn't do.

Mark rolled his eyes. As he removed the pin with his name on it, he examined himself in the bathroom mirror.

The large scar marking his face greeted all who saw him for the first time. That thing living there rent-free for two Christmases already.

If she was no exception to the bad sign, as she did days ago, why did this have to be so sudden? Didn't she feel someone was dangerous as a cop?

After washing his face, and stroking that long, smooth patch of skin covering the large cut on his cheek, he came out. His winter clothes didn't change much to the summer ones, only adding the occasional cotton jacket instead of a sweatshirt, which simply didn't warm a single degree of cold.

Honestly, he would look horrible on a date with one of those he had bought on sale.

Wait a second. This counted as a date, or what?

"No." Mark muttered as the bell rang. "Merry Christmas, Mike."

"Merry Christmas, Mark. See you later."

Outside the store, the only light shining on was a nearby lamppost, and the Christmas lights, flashing merrily to a muted carol.

Mark found Grace sitting on the hood of his BMW, hugging herself to a slight cold breeze, caused by a passing car nearby.

"You just could have waited inside." The former soldier pointed to the store with his thumb, where Mike had started to read the comic Mark had just left, a small smirk on his lips, as he opened it.

"Yeah, can we just g-go?!" Poor she shivered to the sudden stronger wave, making Mark purse his lips, before opening the passenger door for her. "T-thank you."

The former soldier felt weird doing that. Jordan and Mike, the only ones who'd ever gotten in there, always waited outside until he unlocked it from inside. Maybe gentleman manners hadn't died on him, aside from all the other things that were lost back in Hawaii.

He watched her settle in her seat through the windshield, then open the driver's door herself, stretching as far as her long coat could let her.

Mark curled a shy smile, an expression that didn't come out much often, always jumping from Jordan's sarcasm to the old man's bad jokes. Perhaps even the reasons for doing so had also stayed in Hawaii.

Inside the car, he tried moving backwards, stopped by the endless lights in the rearview mirror, not sure if they would turn the corner on the building before the store or go straight ahead, their highlights obscuring the directional lights.

Yeah, go, Miami traffic.

"Go in. There's no one coming this way." Grace turned to him, her gaze previously on the road, with a better view of which vehicle was going in and which was not.

With a swift movement of his hands and forcing his eyes not to glance at her too much, Mark got inside the avenue, heading to the seaside road through South Beach, being the foolproof first step to any kind of outing. As Jordan said, and done.

Even Mark, after two years living there, kept waiting for the night to see so much neon together, hating it enough during the day.

"Where do you want to go?" Mark asked her, almost reaching the turn of the lighthouse. There were no cafes near there or anything alike, so he swerved the car to make a u-turn, and looked at her too, at least out of the corner of his eye.

Grace stared at him, elbow below the seat's window, her head on her fist, on a deep study. Without question or hesitation, she returned the question with another, perhaps due to the karma of how uncomfortable he had put her through in the store.

"I am the one who asked. Wherever you wanna go, go well on me."

"..."

Her fidget at his short answer touch was gone, but something in her voice still left her firmness in doubt.

"I want good coffee." Finally, he had his way free to get one, and said it out loud. "Is the mall okay for you?"

Mark, focused on the highway, frowning at the lack of response after a few seconds, but all the negative died with a cold hand placed on top of his, on the gear shift.

He had sensed corpses and dying people with more temperature than this.

"S-sorry. I dunno what's wrong with me, haha… " Now that Mark glanced at her, Grace focused on the beachside walk, although there was no reason for her to do that, besides admiring the dance of the sleeping palm trees.

"You good?" he asked, reaching the first red light of the trip.

"Yeah, I'm just a little nervous, I think." She answered, the palm trees happy of their one-woman public. "Is Miami like this every winter?"

"Eh, Miami isn't cold at all. Back in Brooklyn the snow still freezes my memory, in some way."

"Brooklyn, huh? I guess college was too much for you." Grace smirked.

"Believe it or not, I managed to get accepted. But, I lived a different life. " Mark's gaze fell on the wheel. What was he doing? Sharing stuff? This wasn't vet therapy.

"Got lucky, ain't you? Certain conditions didn't let me study. Tch, bureaucracy makes me sick."

"Are you from Brooklyn too?"

"I was born in Korea, but I grew up there. World's really tiny, huh."

The green light interrupted the conversation, replaced by the engine of the BMW. The straight route helped a lot in the arrival time, but an amber light stopped the car again, with some behind passing right to his side at full speed, as if that color meant acceleration.

"Have you been in that club?" Grace pointed to the large establishment of purple lights, neon forming a palm tree and a cheeky imitation of the Venus of Milo.

"Yes, a couple of times. One with Jordan, and another that has been lost somewhere in my memory. The striped dress bartender is really scary."

"Really? Wasn't it with Port…?"

"A guy pushed a guard, and she just waved a saw-off at him, no hesitation. If the rest of the friskers hadn't calmed her down, I'm sure she was going to shoot."

Straightforward talk, just flowing out of his mouth. As if his vocal cords weren't limited to her. As if they were ready for this. Plus, Grace seemed glad with the cut off.

"Wow, it looks more appealing now. Do you want to go there?"

"Weren't we going for coffee first? Besides, I still don't know you to have that kind of drink with you."

"Oh." Her irises dimmed for an instant, but then she took another try. "Do you like coffee?"

"Yes, a lot." His dark circles could prove it more than mere words.

The conversation died with his one-liner. Normal for him, the store had taught him that.

However, he was bothered. Why? Why did he have the feeling that she didn't deserve that? Just who was she?

A brief clearing of his throat interrupted the reflection of lamppost lights in Grace's pupils, who peeked once more at Mark.

"Do you like coffee too?" He didn't smile in the least, but his tone was a little friendlier. It hardly even showed itself.

"Lately for work I am starting to like it. I never thought being a detective was so much paperwork."

"Many TV series and movies, always lying to the naïve eye, huh?"

"You don't say. I'm still waiting for the undercover shit and sting operations."

"Someday, pretty close. Especially in this city. There's always something going on." Mark stopped the car in the parking lot, next to the mall. It took Grace a couple of seconds to realize the light letting her see was no longer yellow, but white.

The guard ran out of the bathroom, gave them a ticket, and upped the yellow bar that didn't let the car inside. Mark took the paper, parked, and stepped out towards the street, to the nearest mall's entrance. Grace followed closely, staring at his arm, her pupils staring like a cat.

From one moment to another, he entered through a door that seemed to lead nowhere, everything inside being dark, though the large sign indicated the mall was inside.

Grace, planning her next move, not understanding why he would enter such a lightless place, got interrupted by a cold wave, tracing all over her back, through that heavy coat she carried.

Thoughts out of mind, she hopped in.

That blink was magical. Christmas decorations filled the nearby shops, even reindeer and stars made entirely of lights. Even where they had entered, the food court.

Mark waited for her, his hands inside his dark jacket's pockets. Watching the children run, and the families eating there, even if it was Christmas Eve.

Perhaps not everyone had the luxury of having a huge turkey for dinner, or pork, or chicken. Mark's father never skimped on expenses for that day's night meal, and didn't follow any hour tradition. They always used to eat at ten o'clock, or sometimes earlier.

No one's beliefs were ever going to take away his father's precious hours of sleep. Only his sister and his mother stayed awake with Mark for the midnight prayer, all of them being somewhat religious. At least back then.

The pity was totally canceled when seeing a huge bucket of fried chicken being served by a mother to each member of their family. It had nothing to envy a turkey.

Mark walked towards the center of the mall, looking for that coffee. Many cafés to choose from, though Jordan had recommended one, which he called perfect for an addict. Like a certain lad.

However, he was stopped by an angry snort and a light tap on his shoulder.

"What?" Mark's coldness resembled an immovable rock.

"We are on a date." She tried to mimic his cold touch, failing as she clenched the last word with her teeth.

"Oh, yeah? So? It's the first, I'm not going to kiss you yet, Grace. "

At the time of making that joke, a sharp twinge entered from his forehead to the back of his neck, causing him to gasp, then shake it out of his head.

"W-What happened?" She held her nervousness out of concern, trying to get closer to him to see straight into his brown eyes.

"Nothing, it's okay." Mark instantly backed away. "Instead, where were we?"

"We are on a date. Hm? " Grace spread her palms outward, trying to convince Mark of the obvious, even though it was walking like an elephant in front of him.

"If you say so. Come on, if I don't have coffee, I'll die. Literally." He shifted forward, once more leading the way.

"Ah, for the love of God." The Korean's desperation got noticed ten meters around, making the bystanders turn.

Trying not to be invasive, she grabbed Mark's sleeve, being a bit difficult with both hands in his pockets. Tugging lightly on one, she managed to pry it out of its hiding place, now her fingertips around that sleeve.

"This way I won't lose sight of you."

"Uh."

Joined by a sleeve and separated by that same sleeve and an air gap, they reached the middle of the mall, where a large Christmas tree was located. Its height reached up to the second floor, not a single branch left without the gold or red color, the green only found surrounding the lower part of the golden star on top.

Nearby, they found a man with a tripod camera, and several Polaroids. A family posed, waving at the lens. having the tree behind.

"Say cheese!"

"Cheese!"

Mark and Grace stared at the cameraman for quite some time, while he took at least one reel of photos for just those clients, so sooner or later he realized their presence.

"Do you wish for one too, ma'am?"

"Ah, no, we..."

"Relax, one's courtesy, plus you make such a nice couple... Oh."

Mark's hope died when he felt eyes on his scar, being transformed into camouflaged fear right on the spot. The sting of reality to the fantasy world.

"Don't bother." He regarded Grace. "Let's go."

"But..." Feeling some pressure on his sleeve, Mark pulled, forcing her to release him. However, as such resistance faded, it was him who looked back.

"Hm?" Grace's question tilted her head to the side, but her dejection showed on her eyebrows.

His eyelid twitched. Why couldn't he bear to see her with some negative thought? There wasn't a single day people wouldn't leave the store disappointed, and now this woman that he didn't know until half an hour ago was coercing him with some low effort sad expression, and in the case she had put some work on it maybe she was one of the worst possible actresses walking on this planet?

"I want my coffee first. Photos go later. If you want, of course."

"Chill. I don't wanna either. It was my fault asking for something you don't like, and it shows."

"But..." Now he was the one with the 'but'.

"Ooh, there! Is that the coffee you said? "

The Porsche always on display on that side of the mall had been replaced by a large empty Santa Claus chair, surrounded by many decorative gifts. To the right, the Starbreeze's café was almost full, if not bustling.

Mark sighed. Finding something available for Christmas was going to be arduous. When he considered going to the left, where they only offered fruit and a lot of meals from that, and of course ordering something made from banana, the healthy replacement of caffeine, a couple rushed out of the café, clearing a table outside.

Grace kept vigilant, watching for someone in the cafe moving, maybe even using her badge so she could coerce a weak couple. However, she felt her fingers separate from the sleeve they weakly held, to then be covered by a sweet warmth.

Hand in hand, they reached the table, where another couple was already pulling the chairs closer to sit.

Mark relented at the sight of them, accepting defeat with a puff, but Grace moved ahead of him, now her cold hand guiding. The various lights above her reflected between her lenses, causing her eyes to disappear from view.

Trying to fake a friendly smile that broke in the grimmest way, she cleared her throat.

"Could you wait for the next free table? We have been waiting here before."

The other couple exchanged glances uneasily, then watched at something behind Grace. Mark, peered at them, without a remarkable expression really, like a glare. Again with eyes on his scar, the former soldier stared back at the pair, causing their vocal cords to tremble, as their mouths opened.

Even the tough guy who didn't seem to be so tough after all.

Without saying anything, they backed away, letting Mark and Grace pass, who just sat down. The smell of coffee unconsciously made Mark pleasantly breath, even if it was caused by the empty cups from the last couple.

"I think we have to go order at the counter." Grace whispered, approaching him from across the circle table.

"Yes?" He raised an eyebrow, briefly thinking that the diner was better. "Well, what do you want to drink then?" He motioned his hand to reach into his pants' pocket.

"Let me do it. I invited you." Grace stopped him right on track.

"Are you sure? The normal thing is that a man pa..."

" Normal for me is to pay when I invite you. What do you want, Mark?"

"Hm..." Still unsure, he started thinking. "A moc..."

A young girl ran out from inside the cafe. Her green apron didn't let her be so agile, but she reached the table of the newcomers and opened two order lists, facing at Grace and then at Mark, backing away as soon as she had a chance, after removing the cups from the previous clients.

"W-welcome. We have few people, so please excuse us in advance. Your order?" she offered Grace, deliberately ignoring Mark.

Grace gazed at the latter, tilting her head slightly towards the waitress.

"M-mocha."

The inhuman effort not to lift the letter and point to the page with the mocha to the waitress that Mark had to endure, was comparable to his first days in the diner. It had been a long time since he had eaten the same thing almost every day, so even with the awkwardness forgotten, it managed to reach the surface again.

"A-and you, miss?" the waitress's voice trembled again, unaccustomed to seeing dangerous people in her line of work.

"A vanilla piece of cake." Grace's voice strained, realizing the lack of tact.

"Nothing to d-drink?" The poor girl wanted to run away, but her habit had betrayed her.

"What he asked, then."

"Two mochas and a vanilla cake. Coming right up. " She let out a sigh barely two steps away.

"Hm."

The waitress turned when she heard Mark's voice, but didn't move from her place. He pointed at Grace with his hand, made a circle joining both indexes and thumbs over the table, then formed a V with his index and middle fingers.

"Noted!" The girl in the apron gave a thumbs up and ran off, as fast as the heels of her uniform let her.

Mark spread his elbows on the circular table and brought his hands together, just to let his forehead rest on them. It had been a mistake to come here. Despite being used to it, the prejudice never ceased to itch him.

With his eyes closed, he couldn't see how indecisive Grace was, reaching out to touch one of his hands, unsuccessfully with the doubt. Every time he felt her fingertip graze his brown hair, Mark snorted, like noticing her.

Unable to make physical contact without the former soldier's menacing reactions, Grace took another route.

"How did you get to Miami?"

Mark looked at her over his fingers, but not moving anything besides his lips.

"After the war, I lived in Brooklyn for some time with my family. Knowing that everything would get worse after Hawaii ended, I preferred to stay away from them. 1986 seems so far back now, heh. You have just arrived, haven't you?"

Grace crossed her arms on the table. She didn't feel as cold as she used to, but conserving what little warmth she'd gotten before arriving at the table was on her priorities.

"Two weeks ago, just for my first day." Grace sighed. "It's hell, basically. "

"Is Jordan that bad with you?" A small trace of a curve formed on Mark's face, invisible to Grace, but she could feel it, somehow.

"You knew I was partnered with him, huh? Eh, to tell the truth he is the least of my problems. He just ignores me."

"I suppose they are used to only seeing men in their ranks."

"Yes, especially Méndez's fat ass."

"Should you talk about the chief like that? Remember they can hear you wherever you are."

"Méndez? Haha, nah. All I can hear now is the huge piece of turkey that must be stuffing itself down his throat. Your boss isn't as bad, apparently."

"Mike? He's the first person I met here. I couldn't have asked for anything better, or anything worse."

Mark dropped his hands, crossing them like Grace, finally showing himself.

"Mike, right? By any chance he served too? "

"Yes, but not for the US. He's not from here either, like you. Why?" The former soldier narrowed his eyes, thinking he had said something he shouldn't have.

"No, no, calm down. It's just, you and him look the same from afar, somehow."

"Really? I don't look like someone married and divorced, do I? "

"Not quite." She giggled. "Alone, waiting for something. Like me too."

Mark and Grace stared at each other. Without saying another word, she lowered her gaze, again concerned with her own body temperature. With some of her breath she warmed her pale palms, not doing much.

"So, do you like sweets?" He interrupted Grace's search for warmth, causing her to raise pupils again.

"Enough to tell you I had the idea to bring you here too. Or anywhere else with such."

"Ooh? And if I told you that I don't like them?"

"I would say you are lying. I know you also love chocolate, and vanilla. And cherries. Ow."

Mark had never thought about it. He always ate the cherries on the old man's and Jordan's birthday cakes, but out of reaction, sometimes noticing as it disappeared in his teeth. How did she know?

A notorious sore made him dizzy as his mind popped out for Grace's ideas, remembering a fact that he, until that moment, believed he didn't know.

"And you love crepes. With berries' jam."

Grace, without much pondering, waved her hand at the junction of Mark's. She needed to feel his warmth again. However, he dodged it with relative ease, casually backing into his seat.

"Uh. You need something?"

"No, no. Fuh, no." Feeling a lot of colder streams of blood through her limbs, the Korean returned to her starting position, blowing into her hands again.

Why was she so attracted to him? What was special in that heap of boredom and hatred that she could find attractive? Her own entire body felt the need. Of him. Tonight would be unbearable if she didn't. Long live Christmas spirit.

"A-are you comfortable with me?"

"If I weren't, I would just scram, Grace. Remember that I am still Mark. " He ran a hand over his scar, not lingering on it long. "By the way, Jordan told me that you solved a case on your own a few days ago. How did you?"

He returned close, almost covering half of the table, waiting for her answer, curious. Perhaps Jordan's story version amused him, but they were best told by the protagonist herself.

The sad thing is that there was not much to tell.

"It was nothing special, to be honest. I only deduced from certain files and data that a gang operated downtown. With some intel of time and place, a raid managed to confiscate several kilos of angel dust from a random deal between 'em and some Haitian gangsters."

"That's quite a lot for someone in her first week, huh, Rookie Wonders?"

"I don't know if that's to poke fun or just make me feel dumber..."

"Who knows?" At last Mark's first open smirk towards her.

After years of not doing it voluntarily, to letting out two in a single day. Before giving it so much thought, he saw another waitress, different from the one who served them, come straight to their table, bringing two pieces of cake, and two mochas.

The former soldier changed his mouth curve to a forced wrinkled nose, just to return the favor of repeated unwarranted fear.

"Eek!"

Luckily, no coffee drops were spilled, and they both received their respective piece of cake, Grace's with a cherry on top. Mark glanced at it quickly, before taking a sip of the sparkling drink.

The sour mixed with sweet taste got a bit surpassed by the placebo effect activating his nerves. Pleasure in both assured. So much he forgot taking too much would foam the top of his mouth.

Grace also tasted the coffee, already feeling the warmth in her chest, giggled when she saw him with a white mustache. Not waiting long, she handed him a napkin, the ones the table already had, triangle and well put on a wooden recipient. Mark tilted his head to the right at the offer, blinking twice.

The heat spread to every corner of Grace's body. To the point of considering it had focused more on her face. Taking a deep breath, after he wiped his lip, she felt the chill of the cake, the sweetness melting into the myriad of taste buds.

"Mmmmm!" Serotonin/Dopamine spoke in her name.

Mark tasted the cake too, cutting off a bite with the spoon. By far, it was better than the courtesy one of the diner, some days when there was dessert for lunch. Bringing the small plate closer to him, he sliced off a larger chunk, serotonin also coursing through his veins.

"Did you realize that Miami is not how they paint it on television?" Mark swallowed, feeling her face warm as well, but seeing Grace's smile, who enjoyed her sweetness so much that he had closed her little eyes.

"You mean it's just palm trees, neon, and a lot, if not all, mindless people walking around? Yes."

"Add the Russians to the chunk and you have the perfect recipe for misfortune."

Grace took another sip of coffee.

"Do you hate Russians?" she murmured.

Mark straightened the curves on his face, fighting off the hormone of joy. That question wasn't the best for anyone, less like him. Although the answer was obvious.

"No."

"Yes."

"I do. You wouldn't believe the control they have on the department."

"Hm?"

"In the first half hour of my first day, I noticed Méndez isn't really the one on top. The head is some mentally deranged man with the name Lebedev, though I shouldn't be naming that here. Something could break."

Mark diverted a glance to the entrance, seeing white over there, making a quick decision.

"So, did you know the previous city Don destroyed all the display cases in this place in less than five minutes?"

"Yeah. Heard it was with a mere Uzi and even the Feds missed the catch. I don't know if they were incompetent or if he got plot armor."

"I think the latter is more believable."

"If you say so." They both took another sip of coffee, resuming silent visual contact again. Gradually slow, their cheeks reddened, or in Mark's case, a rosier scar.

"You should try putting those glasses away." Mark broke eye contact, simply due to the fact he still had that itch of not understanding.

"You knew they were fake? How?" Grace let out a sad smile.

"Since you looked at me above them. Nobody does that."

"Even if I couldn't see well, you're close enough for me to watch you clearly."

Grace set aside what little cake she had left, and her cup as well, she rose from her chair and leaned forward, removing her glasses in the process. The table, low enough to help her, served as support, before almost completely eliminating the distance between her and Mark.

Mark, instead of fleeing out of habit, stood there returning the challenge, letting a slight sad smirk escape at the proximity of the dangling braids. Closely seeing the almost perfect face of the Korean, an awfully difficult task of keeping it for someone with so much police work.

His eyes ended in a cherry, coming out of her right hand, perfectly holding the stem with only two fingers.

"Ah…"

A dumb cliché he wouldn't put up. Even when his first girlfriend did it, after all the times she cooked for him, he wasn't going to do it, he wasn't going to do it, he wasn't going to...

"A-ah..." Fighting to open his mouth or not, he simply decided to blurt out the word she requested.

Usual fruit juice savored just sweeter, even with the vanilla attempting to obscure it. Grace stared at him a few inches away, her face red as the chewed cherry, and her pupils huge, pulling the stalk out of his lips, then slowly backing away again.

Mark sensing her presence moving away from him, he felt like losing something. Like certain degrees of temperature.

Both returned to the starting position, with the spoons cutting what was left of the cake, and the coffee less hot, no longer needing the little puffs before having contact with the tongue.

The eye contact recurred once per ten seconds, without both saying much. Neither wanted to make a move from where both were. Mark hadn't felt the need in a long time, and it wasn't something he had lost in Hawaii, but so long before.

It didn't cross his mind feeling it again. How could she make it so fast? Isn't this what they call fate?

"Where do you want to go after taking the photo?" Mark asked, before trying another spoonful of cake. His eyes had stopped dancing, to end up focused on her white strand, one of the few free ones that weren't covered by her little black beanie.

Sipping some coffee, Grace raised her eyebrow.

"Ho? Do you really wanna do it?"

"Repeating what you said: Why not?"

"Huh. Well, I don't know, A beachwalk? A discotheque?"

"I don't think both are a good idea when you're cold, Grace. How about the boulevard in South Beach? The one in Downtown is nicer, but to be honest I doubt there is room for two more people right now."

The Korean curled her lips. She was no longer cold, but sensing him eager to take care of her, was an extra layer over her large coat.

"Wherever you take me I'll be fine, I guess. Just don't go near the station."

"Sure."

Cups and plates no longer had anything to offer. Mark enjoyed every last drop of the precious legal drug, pained to see that only foam remained. Grace giggled at the sight until he turned the cup over, to see if anything else would fall off.

"If you want another, we can ask."

"Nah, don't mind me. Coffee isn't meant to be wasted, even the last drop."

"So… Do we run away or do we pay? "

Mark raised an eyebrow. She couldn't be serious, could she?

"You're not testing me, are you, officer? I can pay for it if you like... "

"You never have fun, do you?" She teasingly pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes.

"Not if there's like two security guards at each door of the mall. And one of them has a white suit, for a change."

"Aack."

"I can tell you're a rookie on the field, sweets."

Mark's voice died in the process. What did he just say?

"Sweets? I like it."

She stood up, and offered Mark her hand. Dead vocal cords, this time for apparent reason, he took her in his.

Grace still felt cold, but not as freezing as before. At her guide, several glances ended on his scar, but he didn't care for them much anyway. He didn't have to gaze at them back.

However, Mark couldn't help but be ashamed to see her pay. He had missed the only tip he had learned from his father about women, when no other worked as intended. Maybe the tip was pretty useless with a girl like the Korean braided one.

She briefly released herself to count the bills, then captured his hand again, before it hid in Mark's jacket's pocket.

"Let's go." The exact sum with no exceed. The perfect customer for such a busy counter, Mark got that really well.

Following Grace, they quickly reached the man with the tripod, who was still serving people around the Christmas tree.

They had to wait for a while though, just because a woman's baby refused to look at the camera, and there was no way to make him turn without grabbing the back of the child's head.

Not even the ceremonious cheese came out of the cameraman's repertoire. The photo came out like a bullet, pushing away the mother as fast as it could.

"Hey there, are you ready?" The man controlled his reaction to the scar this time, keeping his professionalism.

The detective and the former soldier, still connected by their hands, returned the salute, both of them nodding.

"Polaroid? Or do you want something more sophisticated? " He pointed to his tripod, and the dark red blanket that served to cover the screen from light.

"Instant, to avoid any unneeded work. Is it fine?" She replied.

Mark squeezed her hand to get her attention. He pointed at Grace with his index finger, nodding about three times, then covering his own face with his free hand, refusing three more times. Hoping the message would reach her.

The adjective photogenic shot further from his name as his years went on. Starting in light-years.

"Not in my watch." She strengthened the connection with a stronger squeeze, making most of Mark's body thrilled, until he felt a brief rush of cold blood trying to control the sudden warmth.

However, shortly after, she let him go. He, partially off-centered, refocused his senses, preventing his hormones from controlling his body.

Blatantly to get more thrill out of it.

She didn't get far. An arm wave called out to him, casually in front of the tripod. It still stood in the same place since they had arrived, unless people liked a less good background in their photos. Though there was nothing but red and gold balls everywhere.

The man with the cameras, pointing with one of the polaroids, step by step cut the distance, calculating the one meter away, he halted.

Mark and Grace didn't make any pose at all, the former barely knowing what to do. His own ID picture was himself putting on the most threatening face possible, just making fun at the fear those photographers had at the long line of veterans that followed.

On paper and statements, they said they were heroes, but those words got lost in the wind.

"Oy, lad! She's your girlfriend, right? Hug her!"

Unable to speak, he extended an arm toward her, then let out a grunt of surprise, air being forced out of his lungs.

Surrounding his torso in a warm hug, Grace smiled at the camera, resting her head lightly on Mark's shoulder.

The man didn't even wait for the cheese, he just pressed the button, focusing the excessively wide eyes of the former soldier, without time to return the hug.

Immediately afterwards, his eyes were half closed, as they always used to be. However, he wrapped Grace's shoulders this time, pulling her even closer. Feeling her breath, and her cotton beanie didn't quite hide the scent of her hair.

"Cheese!" the man announced a second photo, after removing the first.

"Cheese!" Only she followed him, Mark keeping his muteness, with a few curves adorning boredom.

"Okay, okay. Here goes the third, be creative, alright? Wheeze!"

Lost again, Mark undid the hug, again letting out another snort of surprise. He didn't expect to be kissed suddenly, especially on that cheek. The right one. Where he felt nothing besides bad memories.

"And the blood on your hands."

Mark blinked heavily. He was sure Grace was making an effort to do a tiptoe pose, leaning on his right shoulder. The difference of nine centimeters got noted more as she stood really close. However, he didn't want to move, first because doing it meant breaking contact, and secondly, turning his neck now could be a mistake.

The warmth of Grace's lips kept in there for ten seconds, even when the man with the Polaroid had already put the device aside and gathered the photos in a small envelope.

A quick separation. She let out visible breath, differing from the rest of the ambient temperature. Judging by the red of Mark's cheeks.

"H-How much for the three?" Grace asked, trying to avoid eye contact with Mark.

"You don't owe a dime, young couple. It is a pleasure helping you find what you're looking for. Merry Christmas."

The rookie detective nearly argued, but the man simply turned away to tend to another family, whose mother impatiently tapped the floor with the tip of her heel.

Her pupils then focused on Mark, who ran a couple of fingers over his scar, like analyzing the kissed claimed area thoroughly. He quickly noticed her black rounds' direction. His smile didn't crack, just returned her eye contact, offering his hand, with a brief blink.

Smiling sheepishly, running her right hand over the strand of white hair that had fallen over her face, she entwined her left fingers with his.

Mark, taking advantage of having her attention, pointed at her with a nod, then slowly made a circle with his free hand towards every corner of the mall. The final trace done, he joined the index and middle together and pointed towards the entrance, which was pitch black again. As if it changed the universe on the other side.

"If that's your plan, it's still a long way to midnight. Lead the way, Mark."

Not in the mood to visit a clothing store, their first stop was the vinyl record store. Only a couple of people besides the salesman were there, listening to Christmas carols at the counter.

Despite the cassette dominating the current business for all kinds of music, Mark used to visit this store, as a memento of his father's large vinyl collection back home.

From Sinatra to Mercury, and the ignored and sometimes better B-sides.

The two ended up picking up the same album, with palm trees on the cover, albeit they weren't from Miami.

"Hotel California. You like?" Grace whispered.

Mark sighed, then nodded, easing some of the tension in the muscles from his face.

So many years, and so little life.

"Some dance to remember… some dance to forget!"

At the age of twelve, the former soldier believed the Hotel California was a place, being so young for his father to explain that drugs could materialize anything in a matter of seconds, at the cost of your own life.

Not that Mark cared much about its real meaning. The guitar solo made him learn to play the instrument, though never that well.

"We haven't had the spirit here, since nineteen sixty-nine..."

His vocal cords didn't work for speaking, but singing was beyond definition. Somehow. The beat he remembered made him vibe to a fictitious rhythm, which Grace began to follow, swaying her hips and braids.

The carol echo through the store faded, with the clear grinding of the song change. Without paying much attention, Mark and Grace kept vibing, not realizing that the song they thought they were making themselves was the one playing through the speakers.

"On a dark desert highway...!"

Neither of them had a remarkable singing voice, totally overshadowed by Henley's magnificent vocals, and Walsh's superb guitar.

However, leaving the vinyl record in place, the couple began to dance in simple steps, holding hands. Stretching and contracting their arms, without moving away for a single second.

Following the rhythm of the song, they beamed at each other, not realizing that the other three were also moving with them, just with a head bang.

Remembering how nice it was to be young.

The six minutes passed as a synchronized beating of both hearts. Mark refocused control of his own muscles to the already fading guitar notes, letting go of one of Grace's hands, he retrieved the disc, and led them both to the counter.

"It's 19.99, partner. I don't think you want a dedication, but I'll ask anyway. It's been a long time since anyone enjoyed music here."

"We are painted here or what?" The old men along the salesman claimed.

Mark blinked, being interrupted in his search for a twenty in his wallet. He turned to see where Grace was, who kept staring at other vinyl records nearby, not touching any.

He nodded briefly to the question, as the bearded salesman handed him a white carton paper adorned with green and red outlines, plus ribbons, along with a black marker.

The gift wrapped and in a fancy bag with the name of the store, the former soldier bowed in thanks, catching the guy behind the counter off guard.

"Uh? Yes, yes, you're welcome. Come back soon, and Merry Christmas."

Grace turned to see him as she heard those words. "Ready?"

Mark nodded, forming a V with his hand and pointing to the bearded man, then lifted the bag to her chest.

"Um, is it for me?"

He nodded twice again at Grace, waving it for her to take.

"T-thank you. I hope to find something for you too..."

He shook his head, then closed his eyes, grabbing her hand, pulling her a bit closer, and opening them again, forming the curve she so badly wished to see.

No doubts anymore. This wasn't just an empty expression, on any Christmas, at any time. Despite much twisted, fate had led him here, with no regrets.

"You sure about that?"

The stabbing pain from Mark's mind vanished, watching Grace's red cheeks, whose hands weren't cold anymore. As for her, even butterflies, when hating low temperatures, had found a home in her belly.

Grace took the lead this time. Clothing stores were plentiful, and walking into a department store was out of the question, as it would bore them two.

She had to find something that he liked, something he would treasure, or consume in the most pleasant way possible. And her body wasn't on the equation.

The little time she had been in his car could serve...

The two walked to a large window store, with several boxes in each space covered by a huge glass, with a logo with mustache, a cup-hat and a cigar. Tobacco in different sizes and shapes, in boxes and packages too fancy to be cheap.

Mark, mildly estranged because he hardly had seen that kind of cigars, being limited to the plain and white ones, followed Grace inside.

As soon as they stepped onto the shiny brown tiles, Mark let go of her, going to explore a bit among the many types of nicotine he had just known, besides the one he saw his father smoke when he was a child, being shooed as soon as he got into the same room, and much other on movies, but those didn't really count.

"Hello! What are you searching for, young lady? We have anything you'd be looking for, at top notch quality, if not the best!" The store was relatively empty, so the clerk greeted them effusively, despite Mark escaping between words, examining the different stands and boxes.

"Ah... I'm looking for cigars."

"Um, something more specific? Robust, Churchill, Magnum Kennedy..."

"..."

Feeling stupid in front of Mark was out of Grace's plan, but in her defense, she just knew him for few hours. At least, he was entertained by so many cigar types he saw, fascinated by the short story written on the side besides each.

"It's for a gift, right? Don't worry. I can recommend this one."

The clerk bent down, to pull out a tiny box, with golden lettering on it. He turned it around, simulating the cliché of the suitcase with the shiny and hidden stuff inside, to display five cigars, each different from the other, with its cutter in a petite compartment beside.

"The smaller is the softer, and the thicker the stronger. If your partner knows how to appreciate cigars, he will know what to do. In any case, it's worth saying that these beauties are savored, not inhaled. Do you like it?"

Grace inspected the box, while Mark went on like a kid in a candy store, eyeing through the various shapes and sizes of pipes. Maybe he had never seen a cigar this close before, but pipes yes, when doing some cleaning to the house in his early years.

"How much is it?"

"49.90." Seeing a sudden tension on the Korean's cheek, the clerk added another sentence. "I can't sell it for anything less. My boss would kill me."

"Ugh..."

Knowing Mark... Knowing him since when? If it was just their first date… But something told her that he would be pleased with just one cigar. Grace's imagination flew as she imagined him with five.

Enough for picturing herself gladly putting up a bit of economic problems for the rest of December. Yeah, fifty meant a lot to her, especially when no paycheck was written in her name for now.

"I'll take it, plus a nice dedication paper." She tapped her hands to the counter's showcase, firm toned.

"Here's one, ma'am."

After a tour around the store, Mark landed next to Grace, while she signed a piece of paper, identical to the one when he bought the vinyl record. Meanwhile, the clerk put the gift in a paper bag, marked with the mustache logo.

The fifty-dollar exchange happened in an instant, handing the petty silver coin back to Grace. She let out a bit of tension in a sigh, then regarded Mark, him tilting his head and raising his eyebrow at such an expensive present. Comparing it to the rest he received until now, yes.

One would have been enough.

"Here. If you don't like this, I might consider jumping off the Starfish Island bridge."

The former soldier received it, briefly glancing inside the bag. The cover had a note hanging on a corner, and he thought it wasn't right to ignore it and go directly to the box.

"Hey, opening presents aren't until midnight. Come on, Mark." Swinging her obvious gift from the Hotel California down her right forearm, Grace offered her free hand, stepping out to what was left of open stores at the mall. Ammu-nation being one of them.

The leading legal weapons distributor for personal defense and/or domestic disturbances, until the Russo-american Coalition was installed. However, the weapons behind the counter appeared to be far from fake models.

"Did you know this is the only store the mad showcase breaker didn't destroy?"

Mark pointed to the shiny silver Uzi hanging between a beretta and a short black shotgun, then hitting his two fists to his right side, right under the left, like wielding a gun.

Pulling them apart briefly, and clasping them back together, with a bit of strength.

The manufactured air weapon began to shoot loose air bullets to all the stores it could find.

"Hehe. 'Protection' by bullets. Good one."

Nearby, a jewelry store still had its doors open. Several middle-aged men saw among the many precious pieces, perhaps as a belated gift for their wives.

The two stood outside, Grace hesitant to enter, convinced that Mark was wrong on his most recent idea, but he stepped forward, unknowingly struggling with her weight.

The latter gave in, a second later, carrying her presence over with the dangling braids and vinyl gift.

"I need to pick up something for the woman of my life." A short-haired man with dark glasses spoke to the red-haired assistant, adding with a giggle. "Well, one of them."

Mark snorted, amused. Wife of course didn't count on that definition.

Grace glanced at him, pushing a fist on his shoulder. Not hard enough to consider it a punch.

But hard enough to cause the soldier's mind to go electric, causing his sight to reboot, and strangely, the korean's own as well.

Instead of Christmas lights, only dark red light reigned throughout the mall, burning the eyes of anyone not used to hard pressure on them.

Mark sensed his own breath blocked from the outside, like his face being covered by some kind of mask. As he tried to touch himself, and feeling the hairy, mildly hardened rubber, he turned to where he last saw Grace.

Instead of her, a woman, judging by her breasts and her way of standing, wearing a strange rabbit mask, with downed long ears and yellow triangle markings on each side, returned the gaze at him. Instead of two large incisors, her mask had a visible canine on each side of its opened mouth.

She glowed in lighter blue, contrasting the dark red.

Mark quickly let go of her hand, feeling it cold again, and panic taking over, he saw two other people inside the store starting to glow in colors too.

The first was a man in a white suit, looking over low-end jewelry, right below him. He wore a brown feathered mask, which Mark couldn't get well, as the man didn't pay him any regard, as the opaque stones took all his attention. His red glow was more intense than the rest, as if all the light in the mall came from him.

At the counter, in front of the man with the glasses, now with a black biker helmet on, a dull yellow light fought the red, pretty much like the blue.

A man in a rooster mask, staring at the showcase glass, with both arms stretched out on the counter ending in fists, suddenly upped his pitch black eye holes and yellow beak, turning to the rabbit and Mark.

"Do you think villains deserve a happy ending?" His deep booming voice came out, with the effect of the rubber blocking it to get out to the air.

"Villains don't even deserve TO BE IN HERE." Anger gradually overlaid the calm voice of the white suit, finally breaking the glass covering the jewels he stared at.

"Let's go, Mark. This is not the rest you are looking for…" Grace's voice tried to ease him, just to remember she had been possessed by that rabbit-like thing.

Forcefully closing and opening eyes, trying to focus on calm rather than despair, Mark himself also began to produce a blue light, weak compared to the woman next to him.

"Pleasure in blood, Marky! Like a fucking murderer!" Mark's own voice, loud and clear, announced another arrival, appearing out of the darkness, sharing the same red dark light as the masked white suit. "Maim! Cut! Kill! Hurt…!"

The fresh bloodied wounds, the green army uniform and black vest, were much familiar to Mark. The sneer, not.

He started slowly shaking his head, negating every thought his brain managed to get from the sense of sight.

Heavy blinks again. Telling apart fantasies from reality. Like accepting her gone to France to never come back. Like accepting they were already dead. Like accepting bloodied Mark wasn't him anymore.

Static began to blur the scene, like a television losing signal.

"Don't expect other ending to be delivered, if you are taking the same road. Remember that, asshole!"

Mark staggered to the ground, on one knee, dropping the cigar box as well. The cracking noise on his senses had been too much for his balance, in addition to the pain in all his scars, as if the wounds had been made in that same instant, all together.

The blue light on him flickered, about to go out, when he felt a hand on his right shoulder. His alert sense instantly made an attempt to get away, but he couldn't, since his legs had stopped responding.

Turning his neck to see who did it, the girl in the weird white rabbit mask stared at the Hawaii doppelganger, who grinned even more, despite all the blood from the cheek dripping directly into his mouth.

Her blue light took over him and mixed together, while the static became more and more recurring.


In a blink, the red light changed to soft yellow, from the store's highlights. Grace, somewhat dazed, not sure what she had lost in her space out, shook her head a little, to realize that she was slightly hunched over, her hand on Mark's shoulder. As she tried to get what was going on, she found him covering his cheek and mouth with his right hand, controlling hyperventilation, or worse, maybe a throw up.

"Hey, no propositions in the store, yeah?"

Laughter turned to concern as the people heard the heavy breathing of the former soldier.

"I-is he okay? Do you need the first aid kit? " The assistant stammered. She seemed like it had never happened to her before.

"Mark. I'm here. Wake up." Grace crouched down with him, trying to see his face clearer.

Both of his eyes, uncovered, begged her for help. Without a breath of hesitation, she switched sides, momentarily moving the cigar box with the tip of her boot, then crouched down, putting his free left arm over her shoulders and trying to stand up.

The former soldier was heavy, as she expected. However, she managed to make him stand up, with no stumble. His other hand didn't even move, taking as much space on his face it could get. Before turning around to return to the entrance of the mall, the man with the glasses handed her the bag containing the cigars.

"Tough Christmas, eh?"

Grace, without returning the smile, nodded in thanks and carried Mark to the exit, but the one which they had gotten into the place. She didn't want to get lost in the thousand exit holes the mall had.

People paid no attention to them in the least, making their last purchases before Christmas. Even respecting their space bubble, of half a meter. With the respective simplicity of the trip, in addition to the 83 kilograms she carried with a little help from the owner himself, they reached the parking lot.

Mark, despite the torture surrounding his entire body, didn't lose his alertness at any time. At that hour and street, the 'leather jacket thugs' used to hang around, a silly gang used to mug and steal from careless people.

If they touched Grace, he could assure them a skull smashed and perhaps broken limbs.

In any case, his clouded senses wouldn't let him drive. Leaning his back against the passenger door, he reached into his pocket for his keys, removing his hand from his face, being awkward to search his right pocket with his left hand.

As soon as he managed, trembling, a soft touch passed over the infernal aching, stopping what he was doing for a second.

"It's okay. I am the one with you right now." Grace's voice murmured, caressing his cheek with her thumb, a little cold, just like before.

Her eyes glinted, marked by worry and sadness. A tear welled up from one when she felt his embrace, slowly closing the distance between them.

A cold kiss, from two apparently dead entities. Grace's waist got completely encircled by Mark's arms, while hers rounded his neck. Serotonin and his puffs fought tightly against the frigidity of her lips, which barely moved.

Despite the stinging pain clouding both minds, as the hug became stronger they began to feel each other once more. Like it was before. As it was in another story.

Grace's hands began to stroke Mark's hair, carefully lowering her fingertips to his neck as he ran his own all over the back of Grace's suede coat, causing her to shiver at the indirect contact.

Both breaths met for an instant in the open air, just before parting ways. Grace's glasses fogged up quickly, not caring much, as Mark would remove them seconds later, placing it in her pocket.

They stared at each other, really closely. Every red, every pink, every black, every edge, every curve, before hugging each other again, Grace's chin on his shoulder. They closed their eyes again, just like the kiss itself.

Mark removed the beanie from her, letting her few not braided hair loose, immediately stroking the silky back of her head. It had been years since he felt such closeness. But the intense pain wasn't going to leave him with such a petty dose of anesthesia.

Neither to Grace.

She did catch his lips this time, going overkill with him. Such warmth finally touched her mouth, sensing every move they did on it. Her shoulder nerves got really sensitive, sending pleasant vibes to her hands, and the ones on the back sent them a bit lower, as the tip of her tongue got accepted on his.

Something started burning down her belly. The sign to stop.

"Mmmmhm…!" Grace barely escaped, having caught Mark off guard in the coming, and in the going.

After one last peck, their lips a lot hotter, the lightheaded former soldier handed her the beanie and the keys, and got into the passenger seat.

With her hands on the wheel, she left the parking lot, but not before wishing the guard a Merry Christmas and handing him the ticket. To her relief, Mark didn't cover his face again, just breathing heavily from time to time.

"Do you want me to drop you off at Mike's? It's already close to midnight. " She asked, looking at the car in front that had stopped to a red light.

Mark stared at her, leaned towards her briefly and then backed up.

"Me? I guess I'll spend it in my room, watching the fireworks from my window."

Mark shook his head, pointed at her with his right index, made a small triangle with both hands, and then formed an X with his arms, finally patting his chest.

"I, invited to your house? I-It, isn't it a bit hasty? "

The former soldier narrowed his eyes, not serving at the least to cover the sudden cold stream down his veins, nervous. The pain in his right cheek disappeared, giving way to a certain burn. Nothing compared like excruciating shit he had to bear.

He circled in the air with one finger pointing upward, then closed his hand abruptly and pointed at her, shaking his head again.

Grace sighed, looking away, rolling her eyes with a smile, just for the traffic light to turn green. Her bewildered mind stumbled on a question, which didn't take long to leave her mouth.

"Where do you live?"

"N-near t-the store." Mark's voice came out excessively harsh, almost as if he'd forced his entire lungs' lifespan to articulate those four words.

The Korean woman's eyes widened, covering her surprise in a pitiful way. All of Mark's expressiveness faded, leaning back in the seat, exchanging his attention between Grace and the road, just wanting her to refocus on driving.

The cruise full of Christmas lights, lamp posts, and the sleeping winter palm trees ended in an instant. After guiding the two blocks from the store to his home, Mark straightened up again, as she parked, in the usual free spot where he always used to.

With both of the car's doors locked and the two of them already in front of the apartment complex, they made their way through the entrance.

"It's the round one." He mused after seeing her struggle with the keychain. "Yeah."

This time they didn't hold hands, but rather he leaned on her shoulder. On the second floor, they were greeted soundly by Mark's neighbor, a nurse for whom he always fixed her electronics, for fun, and for a low price.

The lady's greeting turned to a gape when she saw Mark's company, the couple waving their hands. Then with the same expression said goodbye.

"Hey, Harold!"

"Speak up, woman. Anything interesting with that freak squaddie?"

"That boy has fixed half of the things in here, you decrepit old man. Today he came home with a girl!"

The old man's eyes couldn't believe it, as he cut a big cake into pieces.

"God exists, I give it to you. Now lemme see how the turkey's doing. Twelve it's approaching! "

Grace handed the keys back to Mark, as she opened his apartment's door. She didn't imagine anything fancy, and she wasn't surprised either.

The little improvised workshop in his living room said he loved playing with technology, the phone with the beeping red light that someone had called him while he was gone, and the absence of foul odors, that he cleaned at least once a week.

"Phew."

The decor wasn't much, aside from the relatively new paintwork.

"Welcome." Mark let out a mutter, turning his neck slightly, moving toward his little kitchen.

The table inside had two chairs, only one with no right angle, being put sideways.

The other never seemed to move from its place, despite not having a trace of dust. A small cup laid over the brown surface, which Mark took to the sink, turning on the tap, wetting about three plates from the morning and yesterday.

Grace sat patiently in the empty right angled chair, waiting for Mark to finish. Her legs fidgeted with each other, impatiently waiting for his next action.

It didn't escape her experience of what happened when a man and a woman, having kissed before, were alone in a house.

Taking a deep breath to regain her composure, she examined the disc Mark had bought her. The surprise died inside the store, practically him buying it in front of her, but seeing his dedication she lost all the control she had recovered.

"Everybody says that timing is everything… and it is. Thanks for being here, my Christmas' Grace."

As Mark arranged the dishes vertically for gravity to do the rest of the drying, Grace continued to stare at his black traces, briefly swapping to the back of the former soldier's jeans.

At one point, the tap got turned off, Mark wiping hands with a nearby towel, turning to face his guest.

"Do you want to watch a movie, or play something on the NES? I don't have many games, but I suppose we can find something fun among them. It's still a little while before midnight. "

Grace blinked in disbelief. Didn't he take her inside, just so they could get this cold night warmed up even more?

Just as she dealt with her dirty thoughts, someone knocked on the door. Mark instinctively went to open it.

"Have this, Mark. Merry Christmas." Grace heard the lady whisper. "Enjoy!"

The door closed, Mark returning with a medium plate, and two pieces of cake on top.

"Do you want more candy then?"

"It's never enough, babe." Mark flinched at the nickname, recovering after tapping twice to the ground. "Which movies do you have?" Grace smirked.

"Uh, I think Scarface is still around. I rented Back to the Future a couple of days ago, but I don't think you want to see that again."

"I-I haven't seen it."

Mark's eyelids parted, wide and alarmed. With two plates, each with the respective cake and spoon, nearly not changing his disappointment, he offered to go into his room.

Grace, with the temperature feverishly different from how the date started, stepped inside.

His bed was tended, his closet opened just to see the clothing inside, all similar hanging on racks, and several nightstands, which didn't have many things on, in addition to watches, lighters, books, bottles of water, and the one on the bedside, a combat knife.

At the foot of the bed, a circular rug covered the cold from the wooden floor, with two cushions on top. On it, a rectangular wrapper lay, with the Back to the Future brand written on a tiny white paper.

A not so big TV stood in front, the VHS player over it, ready to use.

Mark, with a couple of moves, placed the correct film, removing the previous one, and offered Grace to sit next to him, each occupying the space next to each cushion, tasting the first bite of the cake, his piece having at last a juicy sweet fruit on top.

The typical side of their date after their kiss had swarmed over her, enjoying it. Even when the two of them had seen the same bad stuff, in such a short time before.

"You'll never be free."

She gulped. Her time here was limited, and time never waited.

It wasn't long until, as the festival of decorative lights graced the sky, they had their own party on the heated rug, without even having finished the cakes.

Large coat and top thrown away, dark jacket and shirt too.

Grace understood why Mark could barely walk in the mall. So many scars, including a couple of circles on the abdomen, each stinging at the same time. Though her mouth was focused on his, her hands roamed his entire torso as her own bra slipped down her left arm.

Her breasts touched his chest, both crotches so close to get in contact, still blocked by her leggings and his jeans.

"Eun Hye."

Grace's little eyes widened. Breaking the kiss one more time, catching her breath, she stared at him.

"Something tells me that's your name in Korean." Mark smirked, to fill Grace's face with kisses, removing all the tension from her body again.

Forehead, eyelid, cheek, nose tip, cheek again, until reaching the ear, making her moan at last.

It didn't matter that shitty vision he had. No, it couldn't be real. None of those wounds could be real. As long as he was with her, most would be fine. Not all, because the joy of life is getting things wrong to then get them right.

His own existential crisis kept living, but not as much as these years in this tiny apartment, doing the same thing every day.

At last he had a reason to live. Something to fight for.


Mark woke up. The air smelled different here, like sulfur. His senses felt different too. Speed, sight, hearing, even touch had gone over the limit. He easily went aware of people in the vicinity circling, patrolling dark areas.

He tried to touch his face. Sensing the fur, his eyes ended in the right wall, finding a mirror, and a raccoon looking at him back.

A long damp corridor had him inside, poorly lit by white bulbs. On the floor near he found a combat knife, which had the marks he had made years ago, in Hawaii.

Alone, in an unfamiliar place, and with people he didn't know who they were, Mark gripped the handle tightly and stepped on.

As soon as he reached the first two rooms, both door-less, a red dark light came from each of them, revealing humanoid beings with viscous blood-red heads, in white suits, and a baseball bat on their hands.

Mark, with quick slashes, killed the first two, whose heads exploded in blood, but strangely it didn't reach him, just surrounded his clothes, like his existence being liquid proof.

With the third he preferred not taking risks in the swing speed contest, even when the knife was faster than the bat, so he threw it, the handle hitting the monster's head, exploding on the spot.

The dull corridor slowly began to turn red-painted, with so many white suited creatures coming out of the rooms, with different melee weapons, getting swept off by the raccoon. Even pushing them to the ground made them scream an unknown language, before a stab made their head blow off.

As his eyes found the first door in the middle of that hallway, Mark steadily went on with the routine of explosions, only to receive a bullet to his left abdomen. His senses tripled the fail, along with the pain increasing by the second.

He knew what it felt like to be shot. As his damaged muscle beat like a new heart, he dashed towards its source, audible even with the silencer, cutting its head off in a pinch. Two others with metal pipes came out of the parallel room, their heads being pierced by a 9mm bullet and exploding right on the spot.

Crossing the doorframe, more and more creatures patrolled the various rooms, this time being able to hear the rattle of weapons, or smell gunpowder, knowing who to shoot first in each room.

Or just burst fire his way through a fight.

Soon after, he got hold of a shotgun, painting the corridor red more easily. Especially when fat beings with black suits appeared, having the head and part of the torso with red and disgusting lumps. Away from humanity.

They seemed to not carry weapons like the white suits, but they took a long time to explode, the crimson messing up to five feet around the remains of their dead body.

Weapons changed every three rooms. AKs, shotguns, even a mac could do. The new visit of the three-headed dogs didn't mean a big problem, although their barking threw a lot of static in the air, making his brain spin, and his wound throb even more, even with the adrenaline effect.

Eventually Mark came to another door, which had the number 707 engraved on a silver plate. He could detect a lot of harsh and sudden moves on the other side, like a fight taking place. Weighing two shells on the shotgun's chamber, he kicked it out.

About eight people in white suits laid dead throughout the room resembling a canteen, illuminated by a yellow light coming from the bar. Three slashed in half, others with a limb or two missing or simply destroyed in crimson liquid. Pupil-less eyes meant life snuffed out.

In the center, a woman, wearing a rabbit mask with canines instead of incisors, looked at her prey. In her hands she wielded a pointed small knife, two of the same type buried in each eye of the white suited obese in front of her.

Screaming in pain, blood tears dripping down his face, the mobster tripped back, begging for his life in Russian. Mark had heard it before.

Right away, the strange rabbit jumped and thrusted the knife in the fat man's head several times, drowning the screams, staining her mask. Her dark clothes couldn't get more stained, just look blacker.

Before he could announce his presence, Mark felt the stabbing weapon's trail fly straight at him. Fruitlessly trying to dodge, the shotgun did the work, but didn't block the punch going straight to his face.

Far from being free, the blockade cost him a great deal of blood and sting from the gunshot wound. Losing so much strength, he fell to one of his knees, dropping the shotgun. If his way of dying was going to be fighting, so be it.

Maybe as he always wanted.

Standing up once more, he stood on guard, facing the rabbit. However, a beretta click pointed at him.

"Mask off." After listening to her voice closely so many times, she wouldn't be mistaken even with the two rubber layers in between. "Now."

With no response being on that end of the gun, Mark shook the raccoon persona off him. The ferrous salty stench filling his nostrils, he stuck up his hands.

"Live? Why is she letting me live?"

He got interrupted by a suffocating and warm hug. Before reaching contact, the rabbit removed her mask, dropping a pair of braids.

Grace started crying out loud. Even with her hands full of blood, she could finally touch something she truly cared about. Something she fought for, every phone call.

"They were going to do something to you. I don't want you to meet death, I…"

Mark returned the hug, a tear tracing a line over his scar. This sadness, breaking his heart so many times, how? Was fate marked? This would be their way of always knowing each other? Both real faces under the façade?

Even if his blood gave way outside, he stood there, holding her. Always serving as support.

"You know this will never end."

She, alone in a cruel world, looking for ways to save him. Did he live for her, or was it in reverse?

Sirens in the distance reverbed from outside the bar, still far away.

The yellow light from the bar began to move, until it took the shape of the man in the rooster mask. Pretending to pour a bottle of whiskey into a glass, he shook it.

" Villains get their own happy ending." The voice with rubber effect whispered, shortly before the SWAT team breached in, turning off the couple's lights without question, as the two breathed their last in the hug.

Nearby, besides the yellow rooster mask's glass, was a dedication, next to a photo of a Korean girl kissing the scar of a young ex-soldier.

"I'll keep trying. Forever. 약속할게요 . Merry Christmas, Mark. Yours heartly."

The man in the rooster mask vanished, leaving the noise and the blue and red of the police sirens. A calm song started as the view upped to the sky, being danced by the infinite palm trees, getting lost through the night.


Daniel Deluxe - Razor / mandu - lost and together / Cadmio - Mesmerizing

약속할게요 = I promise