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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 9

FARROW KEENE

STREET LAMPS and rapid camera flashes illuminate the idling black Escalade. I tune out the security team in my right ear, and I easily walk through the frenzied paparazzi.

About five men swarm the car, pressing their lenses to the tinted windows. Others pace back and forth on the sidewalk and call their colleagues hurriedly.

“Get here now!”

“We think it’s a Hale kid, hopefully Xander.”

Two men crowd the rear door, and I storm ahead. My threatening stride and appearance is like a gunshot. They stumble backwards, and I grip the handle to the Escalade. I mime opening the car door to rid the over-zealous idiots.

One man rushes up and knocks into my hard back. I shoot him a brief, scathing glare.

Brief, because they don’t need to think I care about them. Some paparazzi want a fight for footage or insurance payout (I hurt them, they sue), and then most hecklers want a fight for fame or because they’re morons. And my job is to avoid confrontations.

Not start them.

When I really open the door, I fit my body in the free space. Not letting the cameramen see Luna yet.

I’m not surprised by what I find. A gangly seventeen-year-old girl is sprawled on the leather seat like a starfish. And she’s dressed in a full-body Spider-Man costume. Mask and all.

It’s an easy ploy so people avoid snagging a money-shot.

She looks at me upside-down.

I won’t smile during pandemonium, but Luna always manages to make life interesting. Out of all the Hale kids, I’d say I’m closest to her. For my twenty-fifth birthday, she wrote me an Avengers fanfic where Bucky Barnes and Captain America weren’t merely just friends. It was entertaining as shit.

“Luna, you ready to go?” ask.

The driver rotates. It’s her three-hundred-pound bodyguard who’s been blowing my eardrum out for the past ten minutes. I’m not close to anyone on Epsilon since the SFE lead calls me a “liability” when really, he could audition for the role of hall monitor.

Thankfully her bodyguard isn’t the lead of Epsilon. I dodged that headache.

“She won’t talk,” he snaps at me.

“She doesn’t need to talk to climb out of a car.” I extend my hand. She grabs hold, sitting up and sliding across the seat.

Paparazzi scream, “WHO IS IT?! WHO’S IN THE CAR?! IS THAT YOU, XANDER?!”

As soon as she drops onto the cement and lets go of my hand, I slam the door shut. I push ahead to clear a path, and I make sure she stays right behind me.

I keep an eye in front and constantly glance back at Luna. She’s not one of the kids who fear the paparazzi. She seems fine, but with her Spider-Man costume hiding her face, it’s hard to tell why she’s here and what happened.

When no more paparazzi lie ahead, I fall behind Luna and protect her from the back. We reach the brick stoop, and the door already flies open.

Maximoff pulls his little sister safely inside.


SQUATTING DOWN, I rummage through Maximoff’s bathroom cupboard beneath the sink. I hit my elbow on the nearby toilet a few times. There’s no space in here, not even for a tub. Just a small shower stall.

I push aside Jane’s baskets of nail polish, and Maximoff bends down next to me and searches through the cupboard too. He has this intrinsic need to help, and he’s been in big-brother, over-protective mode for the past twenty minutes.

His love for his siblings toughens him, not softens.

And a guy being so protective over the people he loves, I find extremely fucking sexy.

I grab the first-aid kit in the very back. “The mouthwash needs to be alcohol-free,” I tell him, and when he finds a bottle, we both stand up. I pop open the kit to see what else need.

Maximoff watches me. “How up-to-date is your medical knowledge?”

“I know more than you,” I say since he tried to diagnose Luna downstairs until I butted in, “and I’m the one who gradated medical school at Yale.”

“But your undergrad only took two years

“Because I passed the requirements faster than the average person, Harvard Dropout.”

“Really?” he deadpans. “Maybe you just sucked.”

I roll my eyes and laugh. “That’s not how that works.” I sift through the kit’s items. Gloves, cotton balls, a plastic syringe, thermometer, but I’m still missing something.

“Farrow,” he says seriously, “if you’re not sure

“Maximoff.” I look right at him. “I’m one-hundred percent sure that she has an infection from a really shit tongue piercing. If you don’t trust me, then go Web M.D. her symptoms. It’ll tell you that I’m right.”

He cracks a knuckle. “I trust you. I’m just”—he gestures to his head—“processing that my sister stuck a sewing needle in her tongue a week ago, and it’s still bleeding and she may have a low-grade fever. You know, the usual Friday night.”

I take out my supplies and shut the first-aid kit. “It’s a good Friday night when no one’s crying or dead.”

“Which is exactly why she didn’t want to tell my parents yet.” He rotates his stiff shoulders. “My dad will fucking die, and my mom will cry out of worry.” He keeps shaking his head, thinking about something else. “Fuck.”

“I need to make a saline solution, so take your fucks downstairs with me, wolf scout.”

He carries the mouthwash while I have the rest of the supplies. Once downstairs, we bypass the living room where Luna and Jane talk quietly on the loveseat.

Not even a foot into the kitchen and Maximoff already fills a pot with water and sets it on the stove. I smile and place my supplies on the counter. He slides salt to me and ropes my gaze tenfold.

“You know saline solution is just distilled water and salt,” I realize. “Where’d you learn that? Wolf Scout Training?”

“Common sense.”

Who knew common sense could be so fucking attractive? The heat ratchets up.

I end up saying, “Common sense is a good look on you.” I pass him to grab a cup out of a cabinet, and my shoulder slides against his bare skin. Barely any room for two bodies in this cramped kitchen.

He tenses, breathing shallow, and he looks back at me.

He’s still only dressed in drawstring pants, his ass literal perfection in them. I’ve never wanted to touch, hold and fuck someone as much as I want to touch, hold and fuck him. And even though I just massaged Maximoff, it still feels like not enough.

Not nearly enough.

Still, he said no, and when a guy says no, I’m at full-stop.

Maximoff pours the distilled water into a glass, and I mix salt and then I measure a small amount of mouthwash into another cup. Our biceps and forearms keep crossing and skimming.

His breath audibly catches a few times, husky, and he clears his throat.

My muscles burn—if he does that again, I may harden. “What was eating at you from before?” I ask, referring to his earlier exclamation of fuck.

Maximoff glances at the archway, then to me. “My little sister pierced her tongue. So I’m thinking about what other people think of tongue piercings, and what they’ll say about her, how it’ll affect her, the media, and the subsequent headline: Luna Hale Gets Tongue Piercing, She Likes to Give Head.

I can’t say I’m surprised. “We’ve officially established that you think way too much about what other people are thinking.”

“I have to,” he refutes. “People judge my family every damn day, and if there’s any way I can save my siblings and cousins from harassment—then I’m taking it.”

Using the syringe, I suck up the saline solution. His parents pay people to predict headlines, soften fallouts, and obsess so he doesn’t have to. They’re called publicists, but Moffy tries to be everything for everyone.

The quality that I like the best about him may also be his worst trait. He’s too caring.

“Most likely,” I say, “your sister isn’t that worried about other people’s judgment.”

Maximoff shakes his head, skeptical.

“Do you see me?” I ask, motioning to my facial piercings. My left ear is also pierced, but I took out my earring last month for a change. And a barbell is hooked through my right nipple. “Those of us who get piercings and tattoos generally don’t give a flying shit what people think of said piercings and tattoos.”

Maximoff rests his elbow on the counter and faces me. “Generally, most people aren’t the kind of famous where internet trolls Photoshop your head on two humping rabbits.”

That happened to his mom. Not Luna.

Slowly, I put on the white latex gloves. “You should remember that your sister is used to ridicule.”

He lets this sink in for a second. Luna isn’t defenseless against cruel headlines. She has a bit of grit that her brother doesn’t take into account.

“And realistically”—I snap my last glove up to my wrist—“she could’ve picked a tongue piercing with oral in mind.”

He grimaces. “No.”

“Little sisters can like giving blow jobs,” I say and laugh as his scowl appears.

“Because you have so many little sisters.” He knows that I have zero little sisters, zero brothers, and one much older stepsister. Sibling relationships are uncharted territory for me, but I like seeing his and how much they all mean to each other.

It’s endearing.

Maximoff leans closer and lowers his voice. “As far as I know, she’s never been kissed.” He pauses, thinking. “Wouldn’t the security team know if she’s been with anyone?”

“Epsilon would know,” I correct, “and if I radioed them to ask, they’d tell me to fuck off.” I’m not interested in Luna’s sexual history enough to extend an olive branch to SFE. On the list of important things, it’s very, very low.

While Moffy contemplates this, I shout, “Luna!”

Spider-Man mask now off, Luna waves and trudges into the small kitchen, and Maximoff jumps on the counter by the toaster. Sitting up high so she has room to stand next to me. Her features are a mix of her mom and dad: soft round face, amber eyes, and long light-brown hair.

Luna slurs a little as she says, “If I die from this, please tell the world that I got into a fight with a space alien and the alien won.”

Maximoff says certainly, “You’re not dying, sis.”

She takes a deep, relieved inhale, happy about being alive.

I hand her the cup with mouthwash and saline solution mix. “Swish and spit.”

Luna swishes and winces, and she tries to say dammit with a mouthful of salt water. Saliva drips down her chin. I guide her to the sink.

Spit.”

She does, and bloody salt water hits the metal sink basin. “That stings so badly,” she breathes, clutching the edge of the sink.

“It’s happening again,” I warn her. “Stick your tongue out.”

Luna winces already. “Right now?” She wipes her forehead with her arm, her cheeks beet-red. I need to take her temperature.

Maximoff glares. “You plan on going somewhere, Luna? What else are we doing?”

“Jane promised a movie night, and we could always watch the movie, then come back.” She shimmies her shoulders awkwardly. “Yeah?” She gives me a thumbs-up.

“Stick your tongue out,” say.

Luna frowns. “Moffy is supposed to be the hardass.”

I roll my eyes. “I was a hardass first, and then he copied me.”

Maximoff interjects, “Sounds like fan fiction.”

“Man, I was born before your parents even officially started dating.” I give him a look. “Five years older, ten times smarter.”

He shoots me a middle finger.

I smile and focus on his sister. “Luna.”

She reluctantly extends her tongue. Red streaks run from the silver ball to the tip of her tongue, a little swollen. At least she bought an actual barbell. I leave the jewelry in place to avoid an infection closing inside the wound.

Luna leans slightly over the sink, and I use the syringe to wash near the piercing, places that just swishing wouldn’t reach. When I finish, she spits into the sink again.

“Done?” she asks.

“Not yet.” I dunk a cotton ball in saline solution. “Hold this against your tongue.” She looks ashen, and her forehead glistens with a sheen of sweat. While I stick an ear thermometer in her right ear, I go over shit that know.

“No kissing or oral sex until the infection is clear.”

She nods, but her brother cuts in, “Have you been kissed before?” No one said Maximoff Hale isn’t just as blunt as me.

Luna says, “Uh-huh.”

“What?” His jaw lowers. “By who?”

She takes the cotton ball out of her mouth. “Guy at school. You don’t know him. He bought me a sandwich afterwards.” She starts laughing at Maximoff’s furrowed brows and hard confusion.

“You’re totally fucking with me.” He pauses. “Right?”

I can’t tell what’s real or fiction with Luna Hale anymore than he can.

Luna just laughs again, followed by a wince. She touches her mouth.

“Luna.” His edged voice deepens, more serious. “Why’d you even choose your tongue? You could’ve pierced your ear

“I already have pierced ears.” She rubs her arm across her sweaty forehead. “I just like how tongue piercings look, and I thought it’d be easy to do myself.” She glances between us. “Anyway, I heard it doesn’t do much for pleasure.”

“It doesn’t do a lot,” Maximoff confirms, admitting to being sucked off by someone with a tongue piercing.

I look at him. “They have to be good at using the piercing for you to feel something.”

He licks his lips. “Experience or are you just bullshitting?”

“My last ex-boyfriend had a tongue piercing.” The thermometer beeps, filling a sudden dead silence. I take the thermometer out of her ear and read the temp: 101 Fahrenheit. Shit.

“You have an ex?” Maximoff’s voice is tight.

I raise my brows at him and reach for my phone in my pocket. “Four exes. Long gone.” I scroll through my list of contacts.

Luna rests her elbows on the sink. “Moffy’s never dated anyone.” The world knows that he doesn’t publicly date, but I wasn’t sure if he’d found a way to date privately in the past.

“You’ve never dated anyone?” I ask, pausing on my phone.

No.”

I can’t help but smile. “Your purity is showing.” I return to my phone.

“Pretty sure I’ve had more sex than you.”

Luna seems unsurprised that he’s had sex at all, and since he trusts his family, I’m sure he’s less guarded around them.

“That’s something neither of us knows for sure, wolf scout.” I find the contact in my phone. “And secondly, you don’t win a prize for fucking around. Just like I don’t win one for being in relationships. Thirdly, you’re still pure.”

He groans.

I almost smile again, but I need to call someone that I’m not thrilled to call. Before Maximoff asks, I explain what I’m doing. “Luna needs antibiotics. I can give her over-the-counter medication to combat the fever, but to get rid of the infection, she’s going to need a prescription.”

He eyes my phone and the contact screen that says DAD. His gaze lifts to mine. “You’re a doctor. Can’t you just prescribe the meds yourself?”

“I never did my year internship, so I’m not medically licensed.” I may have an MD beside my name, but it’s practically useless without finishing my internship and taking a board.

“Now you tell me.”

I roll my eyes again. “I know everything that a doctor does, I just can’t do shit without being sued.”

Luna mumbles, “I’m gonna go lie down.”

Maximoff concentrates on his sister. “Stay with Janie just in case you need anything.”

Luna nods and puts the soaked cotton ball back on her tongue. Right when she leaves, Maximoff jumps to the floor and then takes my phone out of my hand.

“It’ll be faster if I call your dad,” he says.

It reminds me that everyone—the entire security team and all of the families—know that I’m on the worst terms with my father. He accepted every single tattoo, every piercing, every means of self-expression, but the day that I quit medicine, he looked right at me in front of these famous families, in front of the giant security team on a hot Labor Day vacation, and he said loudly and clearly, “You’re a disappointment.”

If I call him right now about medicine, there’s a chance he may hang up on me.

I nod to Maximoff and let him talk to my father. I stay during the conversation, but it lasts maybe three minutes, prescription ordered, and he hands back my phone.

“You’re in for the night?” ask.

Yeah.”

“Okay.” My ticket out of his townhouse has always been the information Price wanted. About the Camp-Away event. I feel like my time is up, and I have to board a train to an undesirable destination. I’d rather stay here, but duty calls. “I just need to know your plans for December’s Charity Camp-Away.”

Maximoff crosses his arms over his bare chest. “You can tell the security team that the plans are the same except for the entry process.”

I shift my weight. “What do you mean?”

“There won’t be hellishly expensive tickets to purchase in October. Instead, there’ll be a raffle.”

“A raffle,” I repeat flatly.

“My team projected we’d earn fifty million with the Camp-Away with either entry process—and I recognize the higher security risk with a raffle—but I want to give people who can’t afford the tickets an opportunity to experience the event.” He explains, “So for every one dollar donated, a person enters their name to the raffle. One week before the event in December, we’ll randomly pick the attendees out of the pool.”

I cement in place. “Basically, you’re opening your three-day camping trip to anyone who has a dollar.” The public. I raise a hand, my pulse pounding against my throat. “How many attendees will be chosen through the raffle?”

“All of them. So three-hundred.”

Three-hundred. Security is going to have to background check three-hundred people in seven days. And if anyone with mal-intent slips through the cracks, Maximoff will be put directly in harm’s way.


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