Georgia was so much different than both Brooklyn and San Francisco. The environment was so much more green and vibrantly filled with life, the locals letting the tall trees grow as they wished, even in the middle of their front and backyards. It had a stunning natural beauty to the neighborhoods, and even the main cities themselves.
Even the air smelled different. A damp, earthy scent, but not unpleasant. There must have been a natural lake nearby somewhere. However, there was no way to know where or how far away, as the forests enveloping the neighborhoods were too thick to see too far within.
As Riley's rental car coasted to a stop across the street from the house in particular she was looking for, she let out a breath and shifted to park. Her foot stepped off the gas, but her hands retained their hold on the wheel. She wasn't sure what else to do with them.
The house was quite large, and obviously built some time ago. Though, the entire neighborhood looked that way. It was made from a sand-colored brick, with dark brown roof shingles. A long, curved driveway led up to the side of the house, where an old, red pickup truck was parked. So, there was a chance somebody was home.
It was a large plot of land, the house being so far back from the road, and she was willing to bet an even larger backyard sat behind it. No doubt filled with just as much greenery as the front. Her eyes took in the tall trees blocking some of her view of the house, though it looked nice enough. Surely, someone like her mom couldn't live here?
Just like at the prison the day before, Riley froze in the face of actually walking up to the building. Her feet felt like jelly, fingers gripping the steering wheel with a bit more strength than necessary.
This was her last lifeline. If these people turned out to be just as bad as her mother…she had no one left.
Well, nobody besides DedSec. Riley had already decided that no matter how many blood relatives she had, the group of hackers would still be family to her. Just like Wrench had said. Family was continuous support, and DedSec had done nothing but support her from the beginning. They were deserving of her unending support as well.
A car drove towards her from the opposite direction, and she felt panicked. What if that was them? What if they saw her just sitting there in her car, watching their house? That wouldn't leave a very good impression at all. 'Ah, yes. I may have been stalking your house but I'm your niece that you've only met once?' Not the best conversation starter. But her fears were all for nothing, because the car kept driving past, giving her only a mildly curious glance.
Riley relaxed a bit, shaking her head to try working up the motivation to even get out of the car. She'd bought a plane ticket, a hotel room, and another rental car just to come meet them. Riley's financial situation had already been taken care of, and the expenses were only a small dent on the rest of her account, but for someone who wasn't used to spending so much money, it was still a sizable cost. There was no reason to be hesitant now, especially so close to actually seeing them face to face.
Swallowing the last of her anxiety, Riley turned off the engine and gathered up her purse. Opening the door and stepping out into the wet heat of the Georgia air, she closed it behind her and walked slowly towards the house.
Each step further up the driveway felt longer and slower than it should have been, like she'd never make it to the front porch at this rate. Eyes glued to the windows for any sign of someone being home, she eventually made her way all the way up to the steps to the porch. Every nerve on end, she stood in front of the cherry-red door and clenched her hand into a fist.
It hesitated just before knocking sharply a few times against the wood, falling back to her side as she waited for it to open. Who would she see on the other side? Obviously they were her relatives, but what kind of people were they really? She supposed it rode on the theory that behavior was largely genetic.
The trees surrounding the house swayed with the wind, creating a calming background whooshing noise, the twitter of birds audible just over it. It was so peaceful here, despite this internal turmoil writhing in her chest. It still gave her a small sense of hope. A place like this had to harbor kind and respectful people.
Suddenly, the sound of a lock disengaging startled her back to attention. Her back stiffened, her hands gripping the strap of her purse that rested on her hip. Her heart pounded with each new click. A few seconds passed with a few more locks undoing, before the door opened and a woman stepped into view.
"Hi there." She said with an anticipatory smile.
Mouth slightly agape, Riley blinked dumbly. "Hi."
There was definitely a resemblance, which she supposed she should have anticipated. The same black hair, although whereas Jocelyn's had been wiry and unkempt, hers was smooth and well taken care of. Cut to her shoulders, it was wavy and shiny.
The face that looked back at the brunette was almost uncannily similar to her mother's. Eyes sharp and piercing, watching her with intelligence. Her mouth was quirked in a curious smile, nose just a little bit bigger than the average. The only difference between this woman and Jocelyn was that everything seemed to radiate an easygoing kindness.
Of course, her mother had been rather adept at making herself appear to be kind, so Riley couldn't help but wonder if the compassion she saw in this woman's eyes was genuine or not. But still, it gave her a bit of hope.
The woman cocked her head to the side, confusion furrowing her brows together. "Is there something I can help you with?" She asked, prompting Riley to speak again. It was rude just to stand there and stare, but she honestly couldn't help it. It was so surprising and…relieving.
"Umm…yeah, I…" The brunette cleared her throat, suddenly having trouble focusing her eyes in one place. And of course, in times where Riley didn't know what to say, she began rambling. "I probably should have sent a message ahead of me before coming here, but I honestly wouldn't have known what to say. And I'm sorry if it's so sudden for me to come here with no warning. But, uh, you're…Kathy Dixon, right?"
"Yes, that would be me." She responded with a nod, and Riley swallowed down the urge to start crying from pure anticipation.
"I'm Riley…" She paused to take a breath that her lungs desperately were searching for. "Jocelyn's daughter."
The confusion that had been marking her face cleared after another moment. Several things happened all at once. Replacing the uncertainty was a mix of surprise; as if she couldn't believe her claim, awe; as if coming to the conclusion that the brunette was telling the truth, she still was shocked and stunned, and sheer happiness; that one tore at Riley's heart with a twisting wrench. Kathy took a step back, placing a hand to her heart.
"You're…" The woman took a pace forward, reaching out with shaky hands to Riley's shoulders. She held her at an arm's length, just looking over her face and body, as if to confirm it was indeed her. Her eyes quickly filled with tears, mouth agape from the inability to speak.
"Oh my word…" She released her pent up breath in barely more than a whisper, "…today is a blessed day." Kathy sobbed, finally holding Riley's cheeks with her hands and holding back her crying. "My sweet girl, Riley…you have no idea how much of a miracle it is to have you here."
All this unbridled love and care Kathy was suddenly doting onto her made the brunette's own eyes start to water, and she couldn't help but start crying too, until both women were sobbing messes. Kathy enveloped her in a tight, warm hug, rocking her back and forth as they stood on the porch.
"We searched and searched for you after everything, but we couldn't find you…I'm so sorry for everything you've had to endure all this time…" Kathy said in a strangled sob, and Riley felt wetness begin to pool on the shoulder of her shirt. But she didn't care at all, too overwhelmed by the magnificent relief of a burden that had settled on her conscious since finding out about her mother being in prison suddenly being lifted in this moment.
Riley sniffed, burying her head into Kathy's shoulder. Even her scent was comforting. She smelled like bread. Maybe she'd been baking before Riley had gotten here. But either way, it smelled like what a home would, and that was more than she could ask for. In the face of such blatant and unrestrained parental affection, something she'd been without for so long, the brunette couldn't help but feel like a kid again, being crushed by a mother's hug. And Riley was no fool, relishing this feeling for as long as she could.
Kathy suddenly pulled away, reaching up and wiping her thumbs under Riley's eyes to rid of the tears, she cradled her face in her hands again. "If I had known where your mother had taken you, I would have fought to get custody of you myself. No child should be treated that way."
"It's ok." She was finally able to respond, sniffing a few more times to clear her nose. "It's alright."
They stood staring at each other, too caught up in the moment to do much else. Finally, Kathy must have remembered they were still just standing outside on the porch, because she threw up her hands in a tizzy, gesturing to the open door behind her. "Oh, forgive me, I've left you standing outside on the porch. Come in, dear, come on in."
Kathy entered first, with Riley not a step behind her, into the front room of their home. The scent of bread was much stronger here, coming from the kitchen she could see around the corner. Something floral and musty underlined it.
Two, large plush chairs sat facing a tv, with a long couch sat perpendicular against the other wall. They all looked so comfy. Small side tables enclosed the seats on either side, each covered with a lamp and small little knick knacks. The walls were lined with shelves, also covered in knick knacks and dozens of family photos. It seemed a bit cluttered, but Riley found it appealing and homey.
Strangely, one of the shelves filled with pictures had an empty spot at the end, holding only a layer of dust. It was the only visible surface without something occupying its space. Maybe something had broken?
Kathy waved her inside, then began wiping off a few stray dog hairs from the couch, and otherwise just fretting about. She was probably still unable to comprehend Riley's presence there and couldn't sit still. Defaulting to her usual setting of cleaning when you had a guest over. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like. Please, stay! I've waited years to see you and I'd hate to have you leave so quick." Again, she threw up her hands in exasperation. "Oh, I almost forgot…Jim! Jim, come quick! You've got to meet someone!"
Kathy's shouts into the house garnered a distant 'Alright, alright!' from a back room. A male voice, and some shuffling like the sound of footsteps.
Her aunt turned back to the brunette, and engulfed her in another hug. "I'm so sorry if you're a bit overwhelmed but…oh, bless your heart, I'm just so happy to see you. We've always kept a prayer in our hearts that we would find you someday, but you just happened to find us!"
"Oh, hello, who's this?" Riley heard from the hallway entrance, and Riley stepped away from Kathy's hug to see an older gentleman enter the living room. He was taller than Kathy, thin and lanky, with a receding hairline. His hair not quite completely gray, the roots still retained a faint speckle of brown. A steady sign of wrinkles played at the edges of his features, not too deep to believe he was an old man yet, but still visible enough to know he was getting up there in years. Despite his obvious age, his eyes were vibrant and alive.
Also filled with the same kindness Kathy exuded. Not just one compassionate relative, but two.
"Jim," Kathy said breathlessly, going over to him and gesturing to her standing there, "this is Jocelyn's girl." She looked about ready to cry again.
Just as Kathy had done when she'd learned of Riley's identity, Jim's eyes widened and he looked at her in a new light. He gasped with a shake of his head, almost doing a mental double take, before taking a few shuffling steps towards her. "Riley…" He muttered, approaching slowly, as if afraid he wouldn't be welcome. His own eyes began to water.
"Hi." She said lamely, not quite sure what else to respond with.
Bottom lip quivering just enough to see, he set a gentle hand on her head, taking in her appearance. "For awhile there, I thought I'd never get to meet you."
"Well, I'm here now." She said with a watery smile.
He spread his arms wide, and she stepped into his hug, relishing the warmth and comfort there. He squeezed her tightly, sniffing back his own tears. "I'm your Uncle Jim, Riley."
"It's nice to meet you both." She said, knowing she'd never be able to communicate just how much this meant to her. There was a possibility they'd never know, but part of her had an inkling that they were just as overwhelmed and emotional about this as she was.
Aunt Kathy. Uncle Jim. Never before had she thought she'd have something like an aunt and an uncle. It was surreal, and dizzyingly spectacular to hear.
"My god, I must be the worst aunt ever! Did you want something to eat or drink? I'm not sure what sort of weather you're used to or where you live now, but I'm sure the Georgia sun can be a bit much for anyone! Come to the kitchen and we'll get you fixed up with something." Kathy said after Riley stepped away from Jim's hug, wiping her face of the last remaining tears.
Swiping under her eyes to make sure her makeup wasn't smudged beyond belief, the brunette nodded, following after her relatives into the kitchen. There was so much she wanted to say, she didn't know where to begin. But she supposed having some food was a good start.
Day three of taking care of this good-for-nothing cat. And it was going surprisingly well. Pants seemed to have acclimated to receiving his meals from the masked man, no longer eyeing him warily as a possible threat. His meowing and insistency on eating as soon as Wrench walked through the door was still a bit much, but he wasn't afraid of him, and he generally allowed him to dish out his food without so much interference now.
Which Wrench was extremely grateful for. It made this whole getting used to the animal a lot easier on his part when Pants actually decided to behave for once. How Riley handled or loved him on a daily basis was way beyond Wrench's comprehension.
Though, it seemed the feline was being naughty and causing messes while Wrench wasn't here to feed him, as a few of Riley's movies from her entertainment center were knocked over on the floor, spilling haphazardly in a way that looked strangely cat-caused. So, after feeding the rascal with as little contact to the furry feline as possible, Wrench went over and started straightening it up.
It wouldn't do to have Riley see her apartment had become a mess while under his care—technically, Pants was the only thing he'd promised to take care of, but her whole apartment was something he'd assumed came with the responsibility. The last thing she needed to worry about after coming back home was having to clean up Pants' mess.
After the movies were put away, the hacker noticed one of her mirrors had been knocked over and sat against the wall. Thankfully it hadn't been hung too high on the wall, and it landed on the carpeted floor of the living room, so it hadn't shattered and was still intact. He stooped to grab the fallen mirror, checking the back for any broken pieces, just to be sure.
Finding nothing wrong with it, he placed it back on the nail on the wall, wondering how Pants had managed to fuck it up in the first place. That cat was more mischievous than he'd first thought. A fucking trouble-maker. Great. Just what he needed.
Deciding to do a sweep of the apartment just to see if anything else had been knocked out of place, he wandered into the laundry room, then the bathroom. A few bottles of her perfume or lotion or whatever girly shit the containers were full of were sitting on the floor where Pants had tossed them. He set them back on the counter and wandered further down the hall.
He paused outside her bedroom, unsure if she'd want him snooping around in her room while she wasn't home. But, she'd foolishly left the door open for Pants to invite himself in and wreck the place. It was just to look around and tidy up a bit, no harm there, right? Convincing himself it was fine, because how would she know anyway, Wrench stepped inside and swept his gaze around.
Set in the middle of the opposite wall was her bed. The sheets looked comfy and plush, the dark blue hues blending well with the while accept pillows sitting against the head of the bed. A sudden and perverse thought wondered how it would feel tangled in them after several rounds of-
Shaking the thought away before problems began to rise—literally—in his lower regions, Wrench forced his gaze away and checked under her desk for anything that seemed out of place.
Maybe Riley had trained Pants well in keeping him out of her room, or maybe the cat was just less obnoxious when in this room for some strange reason, but he couldn't find anything knocked over or broken, and he sighed in relief. Then, slowly forgetting as he studied the most private room in the apartment why he was there, the hacker lingered far longer than necessary, gleaning what information about her he could.
A Harley Quinn figurine, no more than a foot tall, occupied the spot beside her lamp on her nightstand and alarm clock. Another figurine , this one Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series of video games, was on the corner of her desk. They were free of desk, obviously well cared for and loved, and Wrench smirked behind the mask. Sometimes he forgot how much of a nerd she could be, buried beneath her penchant for focusing on work above anything else. The woman needed to relax sometimes.
Besides the few figurines, there wasn't much else that had the sole function of decor rather than something with a necessary purpose. She'd told him before that she hadn't ever really taken the time to make this place her own, too focused on her assignment, but now that that no longer was a problem…
Her closet was cracked open an inch or so, and he couldn't help but walk over. Hand grabbing the door, he stopped himself, knowing that even if he could justify coming into her room without permission, there wasn't any practical reason for peeking in her closet. Other than Wrench's insatiable curiosity, of course, but he doubted she'd take that as an answer if she found out he'd been snooping.
The pull of wondering what sort of dresses she had within her closet too strong to resist, the hacker eased the door open fully, one half of her closet visible to him. On the floor was a moving box or two, probably the few things she'd admitted to packing up back when there was still a possibility of her leaving San Francisco. He was glad that was no longer the case.
The taller rack meant for dresses and long items of clothing on the left side was surprisingly sparse. Riley obviously wasn't a dress person, as he counted only a handful of garments there. And the ones he saw were either very business-appropriate, or not at all fitting under the definition of skimpy. He was somewhat disappointed, but then he spotted the simple white one she'd worn to Swelter Skelter, and grinned. Maybe Sitara could convince her to buy something a bit more adventurous next time. He'd have to come up with an excuse for her to need one.
On the right side were where the shirts and blouses hung. While Riley wasn't like most girls, there were some aspects of her personality that fit right in with the stereotypical female, like a packed closet. What she lacked in number of dresses she made up for in shirts and skirts, the right side of the closet comically stuffed to the brim with hangers and various accessories stuffed in the places they could just barely fit.
A rack of shoes sat underneath everything, occupied by several pairs of sneakers, several sets of heels—Wrench's brows perked at seeing a black pair with little bows at the toes, an opening just above it giving the best little tease where her feet would go. Hmm, where could he bring her so she'd wear those? A couple pairs of boots were shoved up against the corner of the closet, too big and bulky to fit on the shoe rack, and a couple pairs of flip flops stacked on top of each other in a jumbled mess.
He was about to turn away when the sight of something up high on the upper shelf caught his eye. Despite the clutter on the floor, the upper shelf was mostly bare. Wrench had a rueful thought that most likely, Riley just couldn't reach it. There was a box sitting off to the side, pushed back a bit to make it more obscure, but Wrench's taller height made it easy to see and reach for. Dragging it forward, he brought it over to the bed.
The box was plain wood, with a combination lock holding the metal latch in place. This was stepping way over boundaries, and no doubt breaking some of her trust in him. But Riley wasn't home. And wouldn't be for several days. He was getting bored. And the worst Wrench in the world was a Bored Wrench. Because Bored Wrench started doing things he normally wouldn't do. Like snoop through Riley's box of private stuff.
An accusatory meow nearly causes him to jump in place, and he turned to send angry slashes as Pants stepped into the room. What do you think you're doing? The cat must have wondered, sitting by the door and watching expectantly. You know you're not supposed to be doing that. Riley would be mad.
"Keep your mouth shut or you'll be sent off to that Korean restaurant a few blocks over." He threatened, pointing just to emphasize his point. Pants only blinked, unperturbed by his tone.
As if you would. Riley would be mad if I wasn't here when she got back. Wrench could practically hear the smugness in the cat's meow, and he clenched his fist, resisting the urge to punch the animal.
"Just go away. Shoo." He waved towards the door, but Pants stayed right in his spot, watching patiently. Sighing with a shake of his head, Wrench turned back to the box, inspecting the lock.
It was four numbers long, between 0 and 9. Pushing through the continued question of whether or not he should really be doing this, the hacker tried several different random combinations, before actually thinking about it.
Riley's birthday was November 12th. Having nothing to lose, he spun the slots until it read 1112, and the lock slid out of place easily. He was met with both a feeling of pride at having figured it out so easily, and disgust at knowing how eager he was to invade her privacy.
Setting the lock aside, he lifted the lid and picked up the first thing he could grab in the pile of papers.
It was an old picture of three people: a young girl with familiar brown hair, beaming brightly into the camera in her ballerina outfit, and an older man and woman, him with similar brown hair and her with dark black locks. They crouched to either side of the girl, looking proud and loving as they also smiled towards whoever took the photo.
The picture was wrinkled in some places, parts of the image scratched away at the very edges, revealing the white paper it was printed on underneath. It was of a low quality resolution, so obviously an older device took the image. Wrench felt his heart sink lower in his chest, knowing this probably wasn't ever meant to be seen by anyone other than the brunette. He really shouldn't be looking at this.
Pushing past the guilt, he flipped it over and saw a few words written in messy yet elegant scrawl. 'Riley's Big Day, 2004' Wrench swallowed, shaking his head. This was before anything bad had happened to her. And she'd been right. There didn't appear anything wrong with her mother back then. Average face, and no cruelty etched into her piercing eyes yet. That wouldn't happen for years to come, if the date was anything to go by.
Flipping it back to the front, Wrench examined her father's face. He wasn't anything spectacular or unique by any standard. Sporting a scruffy, short beard and looking like any other average white male father would, one arm was wrapped tightly around Riley's waist, pulling her closer to him to squeeze her tightly. The hacker had no doubt that he'd loved his daughter.
He'd looked too long. Setting it aside, a tiny part of him suggested he forgo the rest and retain some measure of her privacy, but his bad-decision-making senses kicked in and grabbed the next photo, holding it up to see clearly. Except it wasn't a picture.
It was her father's driver's license. It was worn and faded, obviously having been in a wallet at some point.
Setting that aside too, he took all of the papers out and held up the stack, going through the items one by one. Underneath the license was a funeral program for her dad. It looked brand new, save for the wrinkled corners where it had once been wet and dried. If he were to venture a guess…tears.
Thankfully, things grew to be a little less depressing and guilt-wrenching. Wrench stared down at a copy of Riley's college schedule. She'd taken a full five-class schedule, with several classes pertaining to Writing and Journalism. He raised a brow, seeing the odd addition of Formal Dancing as one of her electives. Huh.
It joined the other papers, and he saw a picture of Riley in her flowing white graduation cap and gown. Holding a symbolic scroll tied together in the middle with a red ribbon, she smiled into the camera. But it wasn't as bright and cheery as it could have been, comparing it to those of the few other graduates he could see in the background behind her. The others had relatives or parents or friends hanging around their necks, joining in for their own pictures. Riley, however, stood alone.
He wasn't sure who'd taken this picture either, but Riley must have had this one down on her own phone, because the image quality was much nicer than the previous one.
Below that one was a series of pictures. Riley was on the floor, a kitten version of Pants cuddling in her arms as they lay there. She looked so thrilled to have a little pet of her own that Wrench almost had a stab of affection for the little guy still sitting by the door. Almost. He sent the creature a glance behind his shoulder, wondering just how intelligent the cat was. Did he know what Wrench was learning?
Under the pictures of Pants was the last one in the stack. He held it up, smiling underneath the mask again. It was the same one that DedSec had snapped and saved as her phone lock screen when she'd been in the hospital. Hoping for her fast recovery, Sitara had suggested they take a group photo in an effort to cheer her up and stay positive. Wrench clearly recalled still feeling guilty for feeling like he'd caused a large portion of her suffering, and had almost wanted to leave himself out, but Marcus had pulled him by the arm and wouldn't let him go anywhere until they'd taken the picture.
He flipped this one around and saw in Riley's own handwriting the word 'family.' His heart clenched, seeing the listed names of the DedSec members underneath that in the order they appeared in the picture. Knowing that DedSec was important enough to make it into her box of memories and important keepsakes was uplifting.
Nothing else was in the box, and he gathered up everything it had contained, making sure they were still in the same order as before, and replaced them where they belonged. He shut the lid and relocked it with the combination lock, hefting it up and putting it back on the shelf in the closet.
Deciding that he'd overstayed his welcome for the day—at least until he had to return to give Pants his dinner—Wrench ducked his head down and stuffed his hands in his pockets, barely giving the cat a glance as he left the apartment, a strangely morose mood settling over him.ns 18.104.22.168da2