"Doll? Doll, wake up. Dahlia!"

I felt odd as I woke up. "Cat? What time is it? Where are we?"

She grinned, but it looked at least half fake. "Somewhere safe. Now, the blonde one may seem a little kooky, but he's cool. Don't go near the bald guy with the tattoo-"

"Cat?" I interrupted.

"Yeah, Doll?" She looked at me with motherly concern. "What is it?"

"Nothing. I'm just tired from the drive." I got out of the car and pulled out the one bag the hospital had given me before I left. I was wearing cheap sale clothes that Cat had found at a thrift store... but it was that or a hospital gown. I still had the hospital's eyepatch in my pocket, and put it on as it started to sprinkle.

"Come on then, let's get inside. I already called, and they're expecting us." She grabbed my hand and started off towards a large house up a gravel path. A few lights were twinkling in the twilight as I wondered whether it was late or early.

The long path ended at a reddish porch, and Cat knocked on a door as lightning flashed in the distance, over the mountains. It took a few seconds for the sound to reach us, and by then, the door was opening.

"Come on in, guys, the water's fine!" A slight-of-frame blonde boy answered the door. Shouting came from further within, and the blonde turned and shouted back.

Cat still had that horrible fake smile on her face. "Jimmy, this is my sister, Dhalia. Dhalia, this is Jimmy." I reached my hand out to shake his, but he just turned back inside the house. I let my hand drop.

Cat whispered violently in my ear, "Don't go near him, either, hear me? His father's nice, but he's... just don't go near him."

"Alright," I said in a small voice. The thing I wanted least right then was trouble.

"Come on," she said as she took my hand an pulled me into the house. The first thing I noticed was that the hallway was dark, but a few rooms branching off were very brightly lit. Cat, seeming to know where she was going, opened a door and pulled me inside.

The first thing I noticed was a penetrating odor - rank, but slightly sweet. The next thing I noticed was the brightness of the colored tapestries hanging just about everywhere. Last, I saw an aging woman on a low matress.

"Catty!" She crowed with an absent smile. "How's it been? This the chil' we was talkin' about earlier? Yer sister?" Her eyes were looking in my general direction, but it was hard to tell if she saw me at all. Her dark chocolate eyes were glassy, red, and unfocused.

"C'mon, Doll. Sit over here-" she motioned towards a maeve chair in the corner of the room "-while me and Sera go over some things. Aitey?"

"Sure," I whispered, feeling tired and out-of-sorts. I sank into the cushioned, foul-smelling chair, and Cat practically bounced on the woman's bed.

"So, Phimie, what'cha been up too lately? Found any good deals lately?" Cat grinned and lay down on the bed, her feet hanging off the edge.

"I got a few ounces fr'm Jack-o, the udder day. 'E only charged me three."

"Damn, girl! Where is Jack-o, these days? I 'aven't seem him since..."

I started to drift off, luckily. I saw the glances "Sera" was giving Cat. I didn't want to see what would happen between them. Those were the same glances the high-school boys gave the high-school girls... and even I knew about stuff like that, young as I was.

Awhile later, I was shaken awake. Cat murmured, "Dahlia, wakey wakey. We gotta get to our room. It's just down the hall. C'mon..." Without even checking to see how awake (or not) I really was, she pulled me gently by the wrist. I don't really remember what happened then, except that the room in which we were staying didn't smell quite as bad as the rest of the house.

When I woke up, I noticed that the light from the window was a bright golden color. I also noticed the distinct lack of a certain sister.

"Cat?" I whispered. "Cat? Are you here?" I said, a bit louder. I didn't want to leave the room and risk finding the other occupants, but I didn't want to stay inside, either. My stomach ached from no dinner and no breakfast. I decided to wait for Cat.

That decision didn't last very long. My stomach overruled my common sense and I stepped out into the hall. Glancing left and right and seeing no one, I cautiously tiptoed to where I thought Sera's room had been.

I came out in a dilapidated kitchen. A grizzled old man (who looked like a hobo, really), was playing chess with himself on the chipped wooden table. He looked up as I entered.

"Fancy a game, young lady? I can hardly best myself, now can I?"

I didn't reply. "Um... do you know where Cat is? She's my sister."

The old man though for a second before saying, "She may have gone to the local supermaket. I am afraid I am not sure."

"Well... d'ya mind if I eat something? I'm kinda hungry..."

He smiled, revealing pearly white teeth that looked odd next to his weathered skin. "The market price for a hearty breakfast is one game of Imperial Chess."

I frowned. "I can't play. I ain't never learned."

The old man winced. "Please, young lady, I advise you not to use double negatives in your sentences. And from this point onwards, could you avoid usage of the term 'ain't?' It is... unseemly."

Slightly confused, I repeated: "I can't play. I haven't learned yet."

He smiled broadly. "That is much better. Now, shall I teach you?"

He stood over the stove, flipping the eggs over expertly. A bit of bacon was frying on another pan, and I was grating potatoes for hash browns.

"So, Mick, the pawns can only attack diagonal? Who invented that?"

"Whoever invented the game, child. And it is 'diagonally,' not 'diagonal.' Adverbs and adjectives. Now, remember that while the pawns only attack diagonally, they may only move forward one space forward, except on the first move, where you may move the piece either one or two spaces."

"Ugh, this is so freaking confusing..."

Mick grinned. "Dear child, wait until I teach you how to castle."

I frowned at my potato. "Great. I can't wait."

I was in the middle of devouring my eggs and attempting to win at chess when Cat stormed in the door.

"Sera! He stiffed me! That little bastard..." She blinked at me. "Hey, Doll, could I talk to you in the other room please?"

"One moment." I said, internally checking my grammar. Mick had an annoying habit of correcting everything; a habit I wanted to avoid triggering, if at all possible.

I tried to shovel the rest of my hash browns down my throat, but Cat grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt. "Pha!" I mumbled through my mouth full of food.

She drug me back into the room we had stayed in the night before, and said, "You don't go anywhere near that guy again, a'ite Doll? He's bad news."

"Phut-" I swallowed the rest of my food. "But, he's not a bad guy! He was teaching me to play chess, and-"

"I don't care, Dahlia," she said angrily. "He's flippin' nutso. He's farther into the shit than the rest of us! Just..." she sighed. "I ain't gonna see my little sister get hurt by him."

I mentally winced at her use of "ain't."

"I've gotta go see Sera," she continued, "so stay in here and play cards or something."

"But there aren't any-" The door shut behind her. "-cards."