One, two, three, four wads of cash he stuffed into the bag.
The day’s performance - rather night - was good but still insufficient. Mine sighed and took a towel to dry his hair. He rubbed the soft towel on his face, drying the remaining water that dripped from the shower.
He took a purple bag and removed two band-aids from inside, covering two of his hurt-burning fingers. Not even Mine knew when this happened. Earlier, he just sucked the blood, so it didn't drip on the shirt or shorts before putting on the bandage.
The dressing room door opened, and he lazily stared at whoever came in, hoping it wasn't his boss or Lydia. Looked like he had some luck after all.
“Mine,” the tall girl smiled.
"Hi, Talia," he smiled back.
“What are you doing here today?” she sat on the couch, very close to Mine.
“It's… it's nothing. I'm just working," Mine picked up the bag. "There's no need to worry."
“Hm...,” she muttered and turned to him. “Mine, look,” she touched his thigh, “you have a great life. Your family supports you; they love you and are willing to go to hell for you. Stop straining yourself here. There will be a day when the masks won't hold up. Tell them what happened and go to those who love you.”
Mine froze and seemed to chew on a few words before replying.
“I know… but I can’t make them worry. Not again,” he held Talia's hands. "I can handle it."
"Ah…" Talia sighed heavily. "Well, it's up to you anyway. But think about it."
“I… know,” he sighed. “I just need to stay a little longer and finish what I have to do once and for all,” he said smiling, “oh, and don't tell Younri that I... well, that I did the special services today.”
"..." she paused for a moment and, after a long eye roll that almost left her blind, she looked at Mine again. "Is there much left?"
"Nah, two or three nights of shows will do. I'm already planning the choreography, and I've started the rehearsals at home.”
“At least you like the shows,” she smiled and patted Mine's head. “But look, you deserve stages and not this place here,” she grumbled, taking a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
Mine laughed and nodded, "That's true. There's not much I can do here.”
The streets were quiet like every dawn. It was already three in the morning, and not even the ghosts of urban legends appeared on the sidewalks, where some beggars slept. The way home was long and not very beautiful. Sewage, garbage, strange people, dubious fires being lit, the smell of “grass” in the air, and rotten food leaking from overflowing trash cans. In alleys, you could hear noises that you shouldn't pay attention to, after all, you're just walking around and don't need to be committed to all your senses.
The path was also melancholic, empty, and cold. The mist revealed the sudden temperature change that occurred throughout the day, and the scattered, reddish clouds hinted that the following day would certainly be cloudy.
Crickets, drunken footsteps, and cats occasionally meowing sounded in the ears.
The lighting wasn't the best, but for those walking in the middle of the street… it was enough. Mine walked without fear. What to fear? What to feel? What to say? No matter how much he had showered, he felt as dirty as the ragged man who almost hit his head on the nearby wall.
As he walked – his feet telling him they wanted to stop – the neighborhood slowly changed for the better, with tidier houses and trash collected (or at least in the place it should be).
One cat, two cats, three cats.
More and more cats began to surround him, and he couldn’t help but smile when he felt their purring at his legs. Also, they made his walk a little troublesome.
“I’ve seen you these days, and you already miss me?” he laughed when a tabby cat meowed intensely. “Is there no food? I’m going to buy mo- AHHHHH!”
When he least expected it, a shadow jumped onto his chest and stuck there. As scared as he was, his body didn't react. Mine froze in fear, and the thing purred on his chest. He blinked a few times, adjusting his eyes to the lack of brightness, and noticed that the shadow was a black cat. Its fur was so well cared for being stray, and the yellow collar with a bell gave her charm and elegance.
"Umbra?!" he recognized the cat when she began nibbling his cheek and tickling him with her whiskers. "What are you doing here?" he softly laughed as she rubbed her face against his chin.
An interesting coincidence Mine would say, which made him wonder where Addai lived since her cat was in the same neighborhood as Mine. He vaguely remembers seeing him catch a train that didn't go anywhere nearby, quite the opposite - it was in the back of Beyond!
He looked at the cat and examined her again to confirm that she wasn’t an illusion. He checked her collar and saw the golden tag with her name engraved on it and Addai's information – in case she walked too far from home and didn't come back. Indeed, it was Umbra.
“Umbra, I'm going to buy food for your street friends and… let's go to my house so I can message Addai about your whereabouts. Ok?" he smiled and stroked the cat's ears, which just meowed softly.
Mine went to the only store open and put a bag of cat food in the cart and some pâtés for the elderly cats. Umbra didn't leave his shoulders, and the attendant laughed when she saw the cat playing with Mine's hair.
“Boy, it’s really late… do you want me to call you a taxi after you feed the cats?” the attendant worried.
"It's ok. I live nearby, don't worry," Mine smiled, and Umbra nibbled Mine's ear, making him shiver.
“You're such a sweetie,” the old lady laughed softly, “wait, this is for you. We appreciate your care for our stray cats,” she placed a small bag of candy in Mine’s hand.
"Thank you, Madam!" he smiled widely, putting the candy in the backpack.
Mine arranged the pots in the alley and began distributing the food to the cats, who called other cats and some more cats. Umbra watched them closely, separating the clever freeloaders from the food exclusive to the older cats while Mine refilled the water bowls from the nearby tap.
"I saved a sachet just for you, Umbra," Mine smiled, and the cat purred. "Now, let's go. You must be… eh? What’s up?"
The cat stared at the horizon. The dimly lit and empty street seemed to be the perfect setting for paintings with lots of light and shadows. Umbra stood in front of Mine, stopping him from proceeding. He didn't really understand why and even tried to talk to the cat, which was still staring at the horizon.
"...Umbra...?" called the cat, who was still motionless. "There's a lot of fog today. Maybe you're just scared," he tried to calm her, but then she started growling.
“There’s a lot of mist indeed,” a velvety female voice agreed.
Mine felt his entire body get shocked, scared, whatever it was that made all his hair stand. The girl was tall and slender, and she looked like she was wearing a dress. Could it be that urban legends were real?! Mine wanted to run away, oh he wanted. He was ready to unleash the best impersonation of Usain Bolt, but his legs froze right there, and Umbra stayed still in front of him.
“Oh! I'm sorry!" the woman stumbled over to Mine, revealing her tired face. “I recently moved, and my time zone is all messed up. My name is Bella, nice to meet you, late night comrade!” she said beaming, but Umbra contrasted her behavior, and so did Mine.
“P-pleasure... Bella,” he tried to regain his lost composure, but he couldn't stop his legs from shaking.
"Lady Bella! I've already sorted your purchases, dear," the lady from the shop joyfully called the woman.
“Oh! Thanks!" she smiled, still beaming. “See you around, dawn comrade,” she smiled, and Umbra hissed as her hand came close to Mine, making her cautiously step back.
Mine left without saying a word. He just bowed, picked up the tense Umbra, and left in hurried steps. He never looked back! Determined to go back home as quick as possible!
Bella laughed and went into the good lady's shop, who took a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and offered one to the girl, who accepted. Bella took a drag and blew the smoke out, which displayed itself perfectly in the dim light, creating unique shapes and designs as it dispersed. The old lady pulled out a bench and sat on it. Soon, a gray cat jumped into her lap and purred as she petted him but hissed every time Bella tried to touch him.
“Ah…” she sighed. “You don’t have to do this...” she whined, slinging the shopping bag over her shoulder.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to it,” the good old lady laughed. “The neighborhood is quite peaceful, right?”
“It’s awesome here,” she blew out smoke, “that cat… I’ve seen those eyes before…”
“Umbra? A handsome young man owns it,” she laughed softly, “but he’s not from this neighborhood. That cat walks around a lot.”
“Hm… interesting,” she took another drink. “Thank you very much for your partnership, Madam.”
The cats growled when Bella passed by next to them on the street, but she didn't care and just tidied up some messy pots before leaving. When she looked back, the good old lady was surrounded by the felines, who didn't even touch the bowls that Bella arranged.
“I can’t understand why those cats hate me...” she grumbled, closing the door to her small apartment.
The facilities weren't one of the best, but it was enough for the moment. Some spots showed freshly cleaned mold and stains of something unidentifiable, but which would soon be covered with new paint – which was already prepared in a corner of the kitchen, ready to be opened and transferred to the wall and ceiling. The kitchen tiles were worn but preserved what was once a detailed drawing of something truly beautiful. The flooring was standard throughout the house and slightly beige in color, which was perfect for hiding dirt and stains.
The room would still be tidied up, and cardboard boxes partially obstructed the way of anyone walking there. Some of the boxes had labels written in a foreign language, and others were like real mystery boxes that Bella would have to take the time to organize the miscellany that would be inside.
She left the bag on the dining table and then stretched. A pair of slightly twisted horns appeared on her forehead, and a scaly tail weighed down her shorts, which she swapped for a tailored skirt. Returning to the bags, she opened them one by one and placed the purchases in the refrigerator, next to Styrofoam containers that resembled pre-prepared lunch boxes. She took one of the pre-made meals and placed it on the table, next to the cutlery and a can of beer. Just as she was about to take her first bite, she heard someone using the bathroom.
“Hey, don’t make my bathroom filthy.”
"I just went to see if everything was okay," a male voice sounded. "Are you eating again? I won't be able to send you anything else in less than 1 month, try to ration it!" he grumbled.
“Nah, I go hunting for some muggles out there,” she took a sip of the beer after eating whatever that thing was on the plate. "Hey. I found the cat,” she said, and the person sat on the couch. “And I kind of found the well, but I still need to find it for real. The girl in white is mapping the fluctuations. She’s there in her room, don’t disturb her.”
“I wanted to see her scared… her wide eyes are so beautiful...”
"Azazel," Bella assured, "for Our Majesty's sake, you must behave."
“The same goes for you, Belial.”
She took a bite of food and wiped the corner of her mouth with a napkin, thought for a while, and gave up on saying whatever she wanted to say, switching to more indifferent words.
“Okay then. Now let me eat in peace.”
“Was the cat the same as the descriptions?”
“Yes. All the preliminary characteristics match that report from Madame,” he rested his fork on the plate, “and the order is to leave her alone. But that other boy… he wasn't in the reports.”
“One with green hair, super cute,” she pondered, nibbling on the tip of the knife, “but forget about him and focus on the well before the Consort comes in person.”
“Leave it to me,” he stretched. “They're calling me,” he looked at his cell phone and put it in his pocket again. “Ah, go get a job, so your vagrancy will be less suspicious," he teased and opened a portal on the wall.
“Go get lost,” she laughed and threw a piece of rice cake at him, which he caught. “Bring us cards next time so we can play. The girl in white also wants to play. She is a nice person."
“I'll remember that," he winked and entered the portal, both disappearing soon after.
Bella, or rather Belial, drank the rest of the beer and stared at the ceiling. The post-meal depression was formidable, and she wanted to invest in something sweet. But someone slowly approached and hindered her endeavors.
The “girl in white” gave her some papers with drawings and a kind of map. Her straight, white hair shone in the moonlight, and her eyes gave an air of innocence, contrasting with her firm posture.
“You need to stop smoking.”
"Sorry, I ended up smoking a cig before coming," Belial apologized and started reading the papers. "Tomorrow or after? But they are disappearing very quickly… and don't risk yourself like last time.”
“Okay,” she nodded and sat down on the chair that was in front of Belial, starting to fidget with her fingers. “And… how’s Ajal?” she asked weakly.
"Each person carries their own sins, and yours is the lie,” she looked at her, “but it’s for the greater good, right?” smiled.
“I hope so,” she nodded and picked up her noise blockers, resting them on her neck. “I… I want to see him, to calm him down. If you do this, I will continue to cooperate.”
“Oh, these humans... I mean...,” he looked at her again, “... forget it. Okay, I'll let you, but I'll go along.”
"Thanks," she smiled bashfully.