My eyes shift from my watch to the familiar city landmarks that pass us by. I tap my foot impatiently. We’re getting closer, the surroundings getting more and more familiar, but it still feels like we aren’t moving fast enough.
Damn flight delay. I spent all month ensuring that I’d have a full week off and that I’d get here in time. It shouldn’t have taken me more than six hours to get from California to Miami, but it ended up taking almost all day.
My patience is wearing thin by the time we pull up in front of Noah’s house. Noah is a lot like me. Neither one of us has a lot of friends. Hell, we’re probably each other’s only friend. I hate the thought of him expecting me, and me keeping him waiting — on his birthday, no less.
I place my suitcase by the front door and press the doorbell, reaching into my pocket to retrieve the two season tickets I bought him. I’m not really into football, but Noah is obsessed. A few years ago, tickets like these were nothing but a dream, but now? Now there isn’t much that’s out of reach for me.
Noah opens the door, a wide grin on his face. He looks thrilled, and to this day, it still surprises me that someone could be so genuinely happy to see me.
“Happy birthday, buddy,” I say, holding up my gift for him. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Noah’s eyes widen and he snatches the tickets out of my hand. He looked happy to see me, but he looks even happier to see these tickets. I shake my head and smile.
“No way,” he says, holding up his gift. “Are they real?”
“Of course they are.” I chuckle. “You can keep both so you can take someone with you. Your schedule is insane, so I figured season tickets were my best bet. You’re busier than I am, man.”
He smiles at his tickets and nods at me as he puts them away. “I can’t wait to drag you to the next game,” he says, leading me into the house. “You’ll learn to enjoy it at some point.”
I look around, unable to wipe the smile off my face. Stepping foot in this place still feels like coming home, even though I’ve never lived here.
This house is filled with warmth. It always has been. It isn’t just a house, it’s a home in every sense of the word. Noah and his little sister made sure of it.
It’s nothing like my penthouse apartment. No matter how much money I spend on it or how I decorate it, it’ll never feel like this place does.
I frown when I realize that it’s uncharacteristically quiet. “Where is Aria?” I ask involuntarily.
I place my suitcase at the bottom of the stairs, my eyes falling to the family photos on the wall. Just like me, Noah and his sister grew up parentless. You’d never be able to tell by looking at them, though. They’re never engulfed in sadness and sorrow. They work hard — not just at their education and jobs, but at being happy and building lives they can be proud of.
I’ve always wondered if it’s because they got to spend a few years with their parents before they were brutally taken from them. The way they are… was that instilled in them by their parents?
I’m not sure what’s worse, never knowing your parents at all and never knowing why they left you, or having them taken from you the way Aria and Noah did.
“She moved out,” Noah says, grimacing. “She’s living with her boyfriend now. He seems like a nice guy, and I’m happy that she’s finally building a life of her own, but I miss her, you know?” Noah is rambling, so he’s lying about something. I bet it’s about liking Aria’s boyfriend.
He runs a hand through his hair and smiles, his expression sorrowful. “Ever since our parents were murdered,” he says, grimacing. He inhales shakily, his eyes falling closed. “I can barely say it even now. It’s been fifteen years, and it still kills me. Ever since they were… taken from us…I’ve been scared to let Aria out of my sight. This is good for her. Brad is good for her.”
Brad, huh? In all the years I’ve known her, she’s never dated anyone. I wonder who this guy is. Somehow, I doubt he’s good enough for Aria.
Throughout everything they’ve been through, Aria has remained the light in Noah’s life. He’s never told me the full story, but from the bits and pieces I’ve been able to put together over the years, they’ve been through hell. I don’t understand how they both smile the way they do. To this day, I count myself lucky that Aria has always gone out of her way to ensure that I feel like I belong with them too, like I’m part of their family.
“How long has she been dating him? I saw you guys just a year ago, and I don’t think she was dating anyone then. Isn’t it too soon for her to move in with some guy?”
Noah smiles, but his smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “I can’t be an overbearing brother anymore, and you can’t act like one either. Aria is twenty-six, and I have to let her live her own life. I can’t keep her trapped in the past. I can’t protect her from life itself.”
I smile wryly. “Those sound like Aria’s words, not yours.”
I can just imagine her expression as she tells Noah exactly what he just told me. Her dark chocolate eyes flashing with fury, her cheeks flushed.
Noah smirks and shakes his head. “You know us too well, man. Fucking hell, she lost it when I forbade her from moving out.”
I cringe. No one tells Aria to do anything. Forbidding her something is straight-up dumb, and even attempting to would have pushed her straight into her boyfriend’s arms.
“They’ll be here soon,” Noah says, walking into the kitchen. “I think you’ll like Brad. Go easy on the guy, or Aria will have your fucking head too.”
I have a feeling I’m not going to like Brad, but I’ll manage to keep my mouth shut. I always do.
Noah hands me a beer and turns on the TV. “Wait a minute,” I say, stopping him from changing the channel.
I sit down next to him and grin when the reporter announces that a well-known politician has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison, courtesy of countless sexual harassment cases. My smile widens when the cameras settle on his face, his disbelief apparent. He knows he was set to get away with what he did, and he would have. Until a few hours ago.
My phone buzzes, and I sit up when I see the logo of the Nemesis Platform on the screen, a thrill running down my spine.
Nyx: Was it you?
I glance back at the TV, satisfaction washing over me. Fucking scumbag, using his money and power against those weaker than him. He had this coming.
Nyx: Check the forum. The victim is so grateful, she’s offering you a reward.
I smile as I type my reply. Nyx and I have never met. I don’t even know if she’s actually a woman, since she won’t confirm or deny that. I’m just assuming she is, based on the Greek goddess she named herself after. All I know is that she’s the founder of the Nemesis Platform — a platform where victims let down by the justice system have a chance to tell their stories and ask for help.
Members can take on cases and attempt to balance the scales, the way I just did, and every once in a while, a few of us collaborate to crack a tough case.
Most of us, like Nyx and I, prefer to remain anonymous, since many of the methods we employ aren’t quite legal. But there are many lawyers and social workers on the platform too, offering pro bono legal and emotional support. Nyx allows reward money after cases have been resolved, but never payments upfront. I think that’s a key part of why this platform is so successful. She doesn’t allow any opportunity to scam or hurt those that are already vulnerable.
Ash: I don’t need a reward from her, but I’ll take one from you. Tell me something about you.
I tap my foot as I wait for her reply. I’m hailed as one of the best software engineers alive right now, but no matter what I do, I can’t find out anything about Nyx. Her platform is coded so brilliantly that I can’t even find a single vulnerability. There’s no way to hack into the Nemesis Platform — no way to find out who she is. I might be good, but Nyx is better. Far better.
Nyx: I’m trying to grow out my beard so I can braid it. Like Rapunzel, you know? Brapunzel? No, that doesn’t sound right. Beardarunzel. I intend to become Beardarunzel.
I bite back a smile and shake my head. She won’t give me anything.
Ash: Okay, now you have me worried I’ve been dreaming about meeting some hairy noob. Put me out of my misery, Nyx. At least tell me you’re a woman, albeit a bearded one.
I clutch my phone tightly as I await her reply. It wouldn’t surprise me if she ignores me altogether, but I hope she won’t.
Nyx and I have been friends for months, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to throw slightly flirtatious lines at her. She’s never responded to it, and I can’t tell if she’s not interested or just clueless.
Nyx: Yes, I’m a woman, Ash. There. That’s your reward.
I grin as I stare at my screen. She has this way of making me feel giddy like I never have before, and I don’t even know her. Hell, she didn’t even give me a reward — I already know she’s a woman. Despite that, she has me smiling like an idiot.
“Huh, I’ll be damned,” Noah says, his eyes on me. “You’re texting a woman.”
I freeze and look up at him. I’d totally forgotten where I was. I’d forgotten Noah was sitting right next to me. Lately Nyx has started to have that effect on me. I don’t even know what she looks like, but she’s got me enthralled.
“Who is she?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know, man. I have no idea who she is. It’s complicated.”
Noah grins and leans back in his seat. I sigh as I prepare myself to tell him all about Nyx. As much as I know, anyway.