Later, Doodle reflected that he should have known something was up. Something beyond Crystal’s now-normal erratic behavior and flatline post-meth, post-partum depression. She’d been slinking around Hathaway House for weeks, alternately avoiding baby Kaylin and holding her close, not letting anyone else touch her. The whole house was in a state of perpetual mild alert. Hypervigilance. Ready to jump in if anything happened, and making sure Kaylin was okay.
So Doodle was actually relieved when the knock on his door turned out to be Crystal, lugging Kaylin in one of those carseat baby carriers, diaper bag slung over her other shoulder. “Can you watch her?” Crystal asked. Abrupt. No hello. Her voice was hoarse, crackly, and her energy crackled around her like solar flares around an eclipse. She got that from Kellen, that eclipse.
Doodle nodded, of course, opening the door further. Crystal hauled the carrier in and set it on the cleanest spot of his table, dumped the diaper bag on the floor. She squatted down and stroked the baby’s hand. Just once. “I have to do something,” she said, and he never knew if she was talking to him or Kaylin.
Doodle shrugged anyway, picking up scattered tubes of paint and getting them out of the baby’s reach. He eyed Crystal furtively. Shaking a little, but she didn’t vibrate like she would if she were high. She hadn’t since she got back from the desert - stayed clean for the pregnancy. “It’s cool. You go do your thing. I’ll take care of her.”
She stood and looked at him, and there was something in her eyes, in her expression, that hadn’t been there in ages. Maybe not since her first month in Vegas. She looked young again. Young. Lost. Broken. And he itched to draw her like that - but she turned away, headed for the door. “Thanks. I - I gotta go. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he replied to a closing door.
He squatted down as she had, stroked the baby’s hand. She was sleeping, but grabbed his finger reflexively. He smiled and sat beside her, grabbing a nearby sketchbook and pencil; he fumbled it open with his free hand and began to sketch chubby infant cheeks, a nimbus of soft golden hair, the sweep of eyelashes, the dimpled elbows.
He spent a few hours like that. Freed himself from Kaylin’s grasp after a bit and drew her from more of a distance. Drew Crystal in the doorway. Drew til his hand tightened; wincing, he worked it back and forth, fist and flex, until he heard the baby starting to fuss. Smiling, he popped the lock and lifted the baby, settling her warm little self against his shoulder to jiggle her -
And saw a slip of paper on the back of the carrier. Plain white, folded four times.
Giving him custody of Kaylin.
He didn’t remember the rest of that night very well - panic set in. Shock. Disbelief. He ran down to Martin. Couldn’t find Griffin or Axis. Martin drafted Petra and Arthur to go look for Crystal, helped Doodle figure out how to manage for the night… dragged the crib up from Anthony’s apartment, where Crystal had been staying. No clues there - Crystal hadn’t taken anything.
He should have known.
Days later, when he flipped back through that sketchbook and saw the picture of Crystal leaving…
He’d drawn her wearing the charred remains of Kellen’s jacket.
Seven Years Ago - Axis
As with many things, there were good times and bad times to perceive a major shift in your internal landscape.
This was one of the bad times.
Drug dealers were pretty sketchy and paranoid, at best. These were dealers who also sampled the product, so add in the paranoia levels of junkies. These were junkie dealers whose former supplier - who they had once shot at, just to add the cherry on the shit sundae - had vanished under mysterious circumstances a few months back. Axis had taken over Kellen’s old route and customers, and had pretty much smoothed things over. But even at the best of times - even when your dealers are not tweaked to the eyeballs and extra mistrustful - it’s not a good thing to make any sudden movements or alterations from your patter during a deal.
Axis’s reaction to the shift was sudden, automatic, body tensing, head twitching out in the direction of Hathaway House.
So of course the guns came out. Susurrus of metal on leather, on cloth, dull shimmer of barrels across the room, and Axis raised his hands and dredged up his best smile, the one that charmed the money out of dealers and the pants off of girls, as he tried to figure out just what the fuck that was.
He was no master of psychic kung-fu. Not like Kellen had been. Not like Griffin or Crystal. He was more on the level of Doodle and Arthur, that low baseline hum of Here There Be Weird Shit. Some of that weird shit had just changed. But what?
He felt around inside his head as he talked the dealers down (not the first time he’d had guns drawn on him, after all; fucked-up life, that he could do this in his sleep, but it was what he knew). Like poking around with your tongue to probe a sore tooth. First the gaping hole where his connection to Kellen used to be. No change there. No change in Griffin - still walled off doing whatever he was doing to try to make this situation okay, but no change.
Oh, little sister, what the hell did you go and do?
His connection to Crystal had snapped, Twang, like a broken guitar string. His end neatly cauterized. Hers nowhere to be found.
Numbness spread. He had to get out of here. Had to get to the baby, and had to find Griffin.
He already knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could do for Crystal.
Seven years ago - Griffin
Axis intercepted him in the lobby. “Griff-”
“Don’t talk to me.”
“Don’t. You were supposed to be keeping an eye on her, Axis! How the - how could this-” He shook his head as if to clear out his rage, and was unsuccessful. “She’s-”
“Gone.” Axis’s voice was steady. “She’s gone.”
“She’s gone, Griff. I can’t feel her.”
“It stopped,” Griffin said quietly.
Axis steered him over to the bench. “What stopped?”
“The music. I was trying - been trying for days to convince them to give Kellen back, or keep Crystal and the baby out of this and it just stopped. Everything. This enormous, awful silence.” Griffin leaned forward, almost doubled over, hands balled into fists. “What did she do?”
“We don’t know. She signed Kaylin over to Doodle and just left.”
“We need to go find her-”
“Griffin. Man. You know there’s nothing to find.” Axis squatted down in front of Griffin. “You know what she did. She went to them. They took her.”
“She was not part of the deal,” Griffin whispered.
“Kellen made her part of the deal. And yeah, that was shitty of him. But he’s dead. And she’s dead. And we have other things to worry about.”
“Like finding whoever told Kellen about that loophole and killing him.”
“You’re not the killing kind,” Axis said gently; did not say I am, but they both knew. “I mean like the kid.”
“The kid.” Griffin half-laughed, no humor in his voice. “The one that got her killed.”
“It’s not the baby’s fault, man.”
“She’d be alive if Kellen hadn’t - wait, she signed the kid over to Doodle?”
“The guy in the overalls upstairs? Doodle?”
“The very same.”
“She hardly knows him!”
“Knew him enough, I guess.”
“He’s not part of this.” Axis sat on the floor, sprawling. “That’s my guess. I’m not dad material. You were gone-”
“Trying to find a way to get fucking Kellen back from the dead.”
“You were gone. She must have wanted someone they couldn’t connect with this. Listen, Griff - Kaylin’s safe here. Safe as she’s going to be.” He sighed. “You wanna see her?”
“No.” Griffin stood, heading for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To find Crystal. Find them.”
Axis bounced to his feet. “Pardon me saying so, but that is stupid.”
“More you feed this thing, the stronger it gets, dumbass. What we need to do is sit tight and figure out what Crystal did. Maybe she fixed things. Maybe she made them worse. Just wait.”
Griffin said, very quietly, “I am going to beat the shit out of the next person who calls her Crystal. That was Kellen’s nickname for her. After he turned her into a junkie. Kellen, who got her killed. Her name was Annabel. Before - before this shit. Her name was Annabel.”
Seven Years Ago, but a few days later - Doodle
Doodle looked up at the sound of the door and relaxed when he saw that it was Axis. Too much tension in the house over Griffin - the spiky feel of him, his glares, his refusal to so much as look at Kaylin. Doodle felt for him. He couldn’t even imagine the impact of losing someone he loved like that.
Then again, he also couldn’t imagine abandoning a child, and there that was. Kaylin was propped up on his knees, looking over his head at the long streamers of fabric knotted to the lattice over the back door. An elaborate sort of windsock made of Petra’s self-deemed failures. Beautiful against the shifting browns of the desert, though - shifting ribbons of vivid color. No wonder they caught the baby’s eye.
Axis sat down beside him. “How goes it?”
“Goes well.” Kaylin smiled up at Axis, provoking a return smile and quiet laugh from him. “She’s… she seems totally normal. In spite of Halloween.”
“Kids are resilient, I guess.”
Doodle snapped out of his baby-admiring reverie. “What? Gone like Crystal?”
“No.” Axis rubbed a hand through his hair, sighed. “Gone travelling. I don’t know where. The hell away from Vegas, he said in his note. And all his stuff’s gone.”
“…Huh.” Doodle let Kaylin grab his finger again. Strong grip.
“And… I’m going, too.”
Axis was silent for a long moment. “This place is changing, Doodle. And I’m not a part of what it’s changing into. Kellen is gone - and he was my best friend, man. It was Kellen who kept me sane. Well, sane as I am, anyway. And now Griffin… you never really hung out with the three of us. You don’t know. Different as Griffin and I are, we reflected different parts of Kellen. He needed both of us. And we grew to rely upon each other, too. Perfect triad. For my weird shamanistic shit, and for other stuff, too. Kellen’s dead. Griffin’s gone. And… I guess I don’t know how to be alone. I don’t know who I am without them.”
“You’re not alone. You have us.”
“It’s not the same. I mean, thanks. But it’s not. Kellen and I were two halves of a whole for about ten years. Griffin, a big part of that time. I just don’t know you guys that well. You - Doodle, you’re gentle artist dude. You have not lived the kind of life we’ve lived. I can’t talk to you about the deep, dark shit we’ve had to do. Can’t talk to anyone here about it.”
Doodle knew about some of the stuff Axis had had to do… enough to concede that he probably couldn’t deal with knowing more. “Where will you go?”
“I figure I’ll start in LA. I got people there.”
“Will you come back?”
“I don’t know.” He smiled wistfully. “Hey. Can I hold her?”
Doodle passed baby Kaylin to Axis; she burbled obligingly, and he laughed. “Hey, princess.” He held her close, cradling her golden head in one brown hand; he kissed the crown of her head and whispered, just enough for Doodle to hear as well, “Live a good life.”
Years go by, will I still be waiting
Petra batiked a basic white baby sling, and people got used to seeing Doodle-and-Kaylin everywhere - laughing baby strapped to goofy guy. She picked up nicknames - Doodlette, Doodlecita. She was the darling of a group that had never had a darling… fawned upon in coffeeshops and studios. She wore Petra-dyed dresses until she went through a phase of wanting to wear denim overalls like Doodle. She may have worn overalls every day of her toddlerhood. She was wearing them when she took her first steps - pulling herself up on the easel Arthur had helped Doodle bolt to the wall and launching herself across the apartment at him, one two three and falling into his lap, grinning. She was unstoppable from then on, mastering the stairs quickly and wanting nothing more than to drop in on her neighbors all day. Doodle bought cheap white t-shirts for her in bulk, because she was forever spattering them with Petra’s dyes or Wendy’s clay.
It was setting up Kaylin’s bedroom that brought Petra and Arthur together, Doodle thought. Arthur carved a bed, a monster of a four-poster with animals carved into the posts. The animals were carved with variable success. Petra, affixing the canopy, fell into helpless giggles at Arthur’s rendition of a platypus. Arthur retaliated with tickles. And Kaylin emerged from the room triumphantly announcing “Atha kiss Petta!”
She went on Arthur’s bike-messenger route with him, golden hair streaming out behind her Hello Kitty helmet, sometimes tipped with the colors Arthur used on his mohawk. She made pinch bowls with Wendy and curtains for her room with Petra.
But mostly she was Doodle’s girl, toddling along behind him with her own sketchpad and pencils, wearing paint-spattered overalls and tiny battered Chucks - saying “Wait! Wait!” and thumping down on the ground butt-first to draw whatever small thing had caught her eye. Doodle, who had always focused on people, found himself also focusing on the things Kaylin saw from her much-shorter vantage point - the water stain that looked like an angel, the arc of the manzanita in the front yard, the dance of the ribbons on the back porch.
And Doodle had a family for the first time in his life.
The third Halloween after it all went down, Doodle painted the mural. Crystal Jones, the girl everyone still talked about, albeit in hushed tones. Crystal who, with Kellen, was rapidly becoming a legend. Not as the terribly broken kid she’d been, but as a superhero. It was agreed that Crystal and Kellen had saved them from some terrible fate. Something vague. But she was revered.
He painted her on the side of Caffiend, braced in a fighter’s stance, purple and green energy crackling around her. Defiant. A protector. The protector the street kids needed, if not the one they’d had. Our lady of lost causes.
She would’ve been just another girl with a laptop in a coffee shop (and lords above, Doodle hated the gentrification of coffeehouses), if not for two things - the halo of blue-shading-to-gold that surrounded her, and the fact that she piqued Kaylin’s interest.
She was new. Not just to Caffiend, but to Vegas. There’s a shine you lose when you’ve been in Vegas a while, and she still had hers. She was new and lovely and had a glow, and Doodle would never have spoken to her.
If Kaylin hadn’t run up to her and asked to draw her.
The girl had been surprised, but she’d smiled, and Doodle was half-lost just in her smile and her kindness. Half-lost right there.
Her name was Sara Darien. She was new. She wrote. Kaylin was drawn to her. And she didn’t have an apartment yet. Martin approved her right away, based mostly on Kaylin’s opinion of her, and she was quickly installed in the other third-floor apartment, her door facing Doodle’s. Kaylin got in the habit of stopping by Sara’s after preschool, and Doodle got in the habit of cooking for three rather than two.
She was as shy as he was, and just as silly when dragged out of her shell. She loved bad movies and Doodle’s lasagna. She didn’t talk about her life before Vegas, and he didn’t push her. He didn’t need to know who she used to be. Just who she was now. And now, she was friend and family.
It was very late at night when he finally kissed her - late night of talking about his past, about his path to Vegas. About Kaylin. About Martin and Arthur and Petra and everyone (but not Kellen and Crystal, not Axis and Griffin, never them). She’d been resting her head on his shoulder, fingers entwined with his, his thumb rubbing her palm gently. “Sara,” he whispered into unexpected silence, and she looked up and he kissed her, all possibilities folding into this moment, into loving Sara, and he kissed her, held her, learned her, until dawn.
He later found out that Arthur and Petra had had a betting pool on how long it would take him to get around to kissing her - the whole house had known they’d fallen for each other before they had. (Petra won.)
He had never loved anyone quite this much before, and it was scary as hell. She confessed that it was for her, too. They wibbled over whether she should move in with them - but she needed her space to write, and he needed his to draw and paint. Still, she half-lived at his place, slept curled into him every night; he stayed awake just a little longer than she did and watched the tension she still always carried melt from her, watched her face soften and her glow mute as consciousness faded.
It did not last. Nothing ever did.
Years later, he couldn’t put his finger on just why it fell apart. They weren’t fighting. They just… weren’t working. Slightly mismatched gears. And they figured out that, if they wanted to be friends and family, they could not be boyfriend and girlfriend.
So. Sara across the hall. Truest love. Still family. Best friend.
And then they returned. Axis and Griffin. The sort of guys who always got the girl. He watched Griffin watching Sara, and his world trembled. She looked back through the closing door, perfectly framed, golden light around her glow and golden Kaylin in her arms. I can’t lose you. Please. I could not bear to lose you.