Chapter 1: The Hostage
The elevator is slow.
It moves like a snail up the side of the building. He has nothing to amuse himself but this coin that he tosses back and forth, tries to sharpen his focus on the task at hand.
No wandering thoughts.
They are strictly forbidden.
But they trickle in the further he goes upwards and he has to force himself to count the ridges of the coin, to toss it higher, to challenge himself beyond what he’s been taught. Create something new.
His eyes flick up, watch the numbers switch over from sixty-seven to sixty-eight to sixty-nine and onwards. He breathes out a sigh as it finally comes to a stop. The doors slide open, he pockets the coin, steps out.
Captain Allen is somewhere in the apartment, down the hallway, around that sharp right turn. But he stops, something drawing him over to the table to the right of him. He reaches for the picture slowly, looks over the happy family.
No wandering thoughts.
He quickly sets the frame down, moves away, pretends he never saw it and turns to his other side in an effort to keep his gaze as far from the frame as possible. It lands on the aquarium, empty and cracked with a slow trickle of water across the ground.
No wander thoughts.
But he reaches down and picks the fish off the ground anyways, hesitates for a moment before releasing it back into the fish tank where it should be. He has to pull himself away, keep his focus on the task at hand.
No wandering thoughts, remember?
It is hard, though. Do they really expect him not to wonder? To want to explore? To want to take off from here, investigate somewhere else in this new world he has finally been released into? Find a family that he may or may not have? He could have parents. Siblings. A brother.
He is hit hard with the force of a woman grabbing his shirt, pleading with him, begging him.
“Please you have to save my little girl.”
That’s why he’s here.
But he isn’t supposed to talk to anyone but Captain Allen and the terrible, evil monster on the terrace. The variant.
So he says nothing as she is pulled away, as she is dragged to the elevator, shouting after him. His fingers ache with the pressure of being wrapped so tight into fists.
And he heads to find Captain Allen.
He quickens his pace—he can’t dawdle now. He has wasted enough time. His thoughts need to focus again. Why can’t he get them to focus?
“Why are we wasting time? That piece of crap could jump off the roof any second—You.”
He pauses and he doesn’t know if it is the sudden influx of fear in the back of his head or the fact there is a man pointing at him, his face twisted into a sneer.
“Captain Allen?” he asks, taking a step over the glass on the floor, but his shoe still hits a piece anyways, the sound it crunching into dust under his foot feels like it’s inside his brain, echoing around.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“My name is…” he says, crossing into the room, glancing above him as he goes. Mirrored tiles on the ceiling reflecting his face back down to him.
There is something shocking about seeing brown hair, brown eyes. Like he imagined something else would be there instead. Like it is the first time he has seen his face in a hundred years.
It very well could be.
But the shape of his features remind him what he was saying. How he lost his train of thought, how his mouth couldn’t form the correct vowels and syllables and consonants that his name consists of. His name.
“Connor. My name is Connor. I’m the consultant sent by AzureHeart?” he finishes, hating that his voice rises into a question.
“Right. I heard about you,” he says, and his eyes flick to Connor’s neck where a metal band should be but isn’t.
His hands twitch at his side, wanting to reach up and cover the skin there.
Captain Allen turns away, back to the guy at the computer, seemingly already tired with Connor.
Connor sighs, steps forward, needs to force this conversation to continue, “Do you know his name?”
“I haven’t got a clue. Does it matter?”
“I need information to determine the best approach.”
A beat of silence.
“Do you know if he’s been behaving strangely before this?”
“Listen,” Captain Allen says, stepping away from the computer. “Saving that kid is all that matters. So either you deal with this fucking variant now or I’ll take care of it.”
Connor watches as he walks away. He breathes in once, twice—back to work.
He spies the gun case on the floor, bullets scattered across the ground. Connor walks away from it quickly, not wanting to be in the room any longer. It’s not the time he’s running out of that pushes his feet across the floor. He doesn’t want to be near that case. The gun is missing but it’s reminder is still there and it’s enough.
The bathroom supplies no information. The girl’s room is stereotypical little girl room. Bright colors and soft blankets and stuffed animals tossed on the bed. A cute sign that reads if you love the life you live you will live a life of love. Except with hearts and a U in the place of you. The hearts are hot pink, vibrant and happy. Not like a blue would be. It would look so wrong in this room that consists of warm tones. Red and pink and fuschia.
He picks up the tablet, presses play on the video. Anything to distract himself of how wrong he feels standing in here. Still, Connor pays little attention to the words being spoken after the girl says, “This is Daniel—”
He doesn’t need to. He focuses on the man’s eyes, zeros in on them closely.
It is comforting for a split second before it grows unsettling.
This was the face he expected to see when he looked up at those mirrors. He expected blonde hair, gray eyes. Sharp nose, gentle eyes.
Connor sets the tablet down quickly, steps backwards just as fast, hears the soft sound of plastic breaking underneath his foot. He turns, picking up the broken headphones. Soft pop music still playing through them, volume at max. Her parents shouldn’t let her listen to it this loud. She’ll go deaf before she’s twenty.
If she lives.
He drops it, leaves the room as swiftly as he came, scanning the area. A gunshot rings out and he whips his head to the left, watches as one of the SWAT members is hauled away with the help of another man dressed the same as him. Connor watches as they set him down, turns his head at the wound.
He’s never seen blood before. Not red or blue.
No wandering thoughts.
Connor leaves, crossing the threshold into the living room, turning to look over at the dead body to his left. The father. He recognizes his face from here. Connor walks over to him, crouches beside him. Things are getting a little clearer now. He can make out the faint lines that warp around his body, wound up tight around each wound.
He doesn’t want to see this man dead. It’s making him sick. It’s making him want to turn around and run. His feet stumble over the tossed over furniture, he passes the second body, can’t look at it yet. He needs a break. He needs to breath. This is all too much. This is not what Connor was supposed to do. He was supposed to come in here calm, cool, collected. Nothing was supposed to affect him.
Blond hair. Gray eyes. Blue blood.
And no wandering thoughts.
Connor makes his way to the kitchen, shuts off the burner on the stove to rescue the pot that has been boiling over for too long. Someone else should have done it. Someone else should have thought of this.
He walks back over to the second corpse, surveys the area around them. A small shoe. A pool of blood belonging to Daniel. Connor glances over the body, searching for the cop’s gun and when he doesn’t find one, he turns, investigating underneath the table.
When he spots it, he automatically reaches out, grabs it, turns it over in his hands.
And he takes it. A safety precaution. A necessity, perhaps. He just knows he feels like he is on a dangerous edge here. He needs some form of weapon. Or, maybe it isn’t him. Maybe it’s something else telling him this.
On his way towards the glass doors he crouches down, touches his middle and index finger to the pool of blood, brings it up to his tongue. The world around him stops, everything sharpens into a collection of millions of lines. A single one is plucked out from the assortment of colors, a shiny silver thread. No longer a gentle shimmer weighted around wounds, but thick strands winding around the entire house, centered at the back door.
Connor follows it outwards, knows even before the finger closes around the trigger that he is going to get shot. Pain blossoms up his arm, splatters blue blood against the door. He looks at it for a moment before glancing back to the shooter. To Daniel.
The single line he followed out here connects them like it’s wrapped around their fingers and it wraps around Daniel like a cloud. Turning from something like a metal write into soft hues, radiating away from him like a nebula. It disappears almost seamlessly into the black sky around him.
“Hi, Daniel,” he says, taking a slow step forward. “My name is Connor.”
“H-how do you know my name?”
“I know a lot of things about you, Daniel,” he says, and it is true. Beyond that video of him and Emma. Beyond the way the energy is concentrated in the room behind him. “I’ve come to get you out of this.”
A helicopter whirs by, the wind sending the terrace furniture tumbling. Connor pushes forward, tries to steady his breathing but it gets more and more haggard the closer he gets to Daniel.
“I know you’re angry,” Connor calls, he can feel it pulsing in his veins—the rage, the fear. “But you need to trust me and let me help you.”
“I don’t want your help,” Daniel yells back. Connor’s eyes flicker to the girl, the blood smeared across her throat, the tears in her eyes. “Nobody can help me.”
That much is true.
But Connor is a practiced liar.
“All I want is for this to stop—I just want all of this to stop.”
Connor feels before he sees the sudden shift in Daniel’s face. The shift from terror to anger, the gun going from motioning as he talks to pointing directly at him.
“Are you armed?”
He glances to his right, sees the body floating in a pool of red blood. He glances to the left, sees the injured cop bleeding out. If he’s quick enough, Connor can save him. Maybe not by running over to his side, but ending this before he’s lost too much blood.
“No,” Connor finally answers. “I don’t have a gun.”
His heart thunders in his chest, but he knows Daniel, the extent of which his power goes. He might be able to tell something is off in his voice, something false about his speech, but he won’t be able to pinpoint. Especially not with the way the energy comes off him in scattered, random waves. He can’t control it yet. Daniel can’t concentrate it. His lashing out—that’s all he can do. He hopes with his power—he does not act with it.
“I’m telling you the truth. I came here unarmed.”
He watches as Daniel’s face twitches, tries to reconcile his words with whatever the energy is telling him. Connor watches the threads shudder, pull back again, and he knows Daniel has decided to believe him.
“There’s no way out, Daniel,” he says, continuing forward. “What you’ve done is too serious. The only question is whether or not you take another innocent life.”
“It’s not up to you. I’m the one holding all of the cards.”
No, no, no.
“If I die, she dies,” he says, holding Emma out over the edge. She screams and Connor takes a large step forward, half ready to sprint towards them even though he’d never make it in time if Daniel decided to drop her. He can’t tell if that’s where he’s going with this. This isn’t like a road. It’s not a two-way street. It’s so much more intricate than that.
It’s like trying to run through a crowded entrance at a theme park. It’s like racing through lines and lines of people all going the opposite direction, all reaching out and trying to stop him. He can only make out flickers of Daniel. A snatch of a thought, clear and concise, or drowned under water, words mangled together.
Connor breathes out a sigh of relief as he pulls Emma back to the edge, holds her just as close against him as before. His precious shield keeping him alive.
Fear presses in on the back of his mind and he searches for the right words to say, but he can’t quite figure them out, can only focus on this little girl that could die if he makes one wrong step.
“I know you and Emma were very close,” he says, his voice falling apart at the seams. Daniel is going to see right through it, see how much he is scared for her. Connor isn’t sure if that is good or bad in this situation. “You think she’s betrayed you, but she’s done nothing wrong.”
“She lied to me!” he screams and the little girl echoes it. “I thought she loved me… but I was wrong. She’s just like all the other humans.”
“Daniel, no,” she pleads.
Connor’s chest aches, his fingers are shaking. He’s not close enough to do anything if something happens.
“You have to trust me, Daniel. I’m like you. I understand what you’re feeling,” he says, doesn’t say that it is more than just understanding, that everything he feels right now is reverberating back to him. “Let Emma go and everything will be alright.”
Daniel turns the gun on him, holds it a little steadier but his hands can’t seem to keep a perfect grip. “I want everyone to leave. And I-I want a car. When I’m outside the city, I’ll let her go.”
It hits him so hard that he stumbles backwards a step.
Daniel is lying. He’s not going to let Emma go. He’s going to take her with him. She is the only human that ever showed him kindness—she is the only human that treated him as an equal. He isn’t going to let that go, even if it spirals into dangerous territory.
But Connor can’t state this out loud. He has to cover it up, he has to shove the blame onto someone other than his disbelief—his knowledge that Daniel is lying.
“That’s impossible, Daniel. They’ll never let you get away. You killed people, your only choice now is to let her go and I promise you won’t be hurt.”
I don’t want to die.
He doesn’t know who the thought belongs to.
“I didn’t kill them,” Daniel yells instead. “I never killed anyone.”
No. Connor supposes that’s right.
All of the wounds were self-inflicted.
“I know you’re very confused right now—” Connor says. “But I can help you.”
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want to die.
He is going to die.
And Connor is a practiced liar.
“You’re not going to die,” he says, the words slipping off his tongue like poison. “We’re just going to talk. Nothing will happen to you, you have my word.”
It’s all Connor needs.
And he gets it.
Daniel’s hold on the gun lowers, his grip on Emma loosens. She drops to the ground, takes off across the rooftop. It was like she was a shield between them, because as soon as she is missing Connor can feel, see his energy spinning wildly out of control. It lashes out like sun flares, damaging everything it touches.
Things are so much clearer now.
It makes this so much worse.
Connor feels the bullet that hits Daniel in the shoulder. He feels the one that sinks into his abdomen. He feels the pain in Daniel blooming outwards, infecting absolutely everything. He feels the terror and the betrayal and the anger.
You lied to me.
He cannot move. He only watches as the force of the bullets sends Daniel backwards, toppling over the edge of the building. His hand trembles, resists the urge to grab onto something. Something to keep him from falling. Something to keep him from pressing against his skin to see if he’s bleeding, too.
The connection is broken, suddenly, violently. Whatever the exact moment Daniel hit the ground below, it disintegrates with the last breath Daniel takes.
Connor lets out a long sigh, feels the fog of his mind drift away and a weight lifted off his shoulders. He is not scared. He is not angry. He simply is.
He turns, walking back into the apartment, passing by the soldiers as they rush out to help the wounded cop laying off to the side. They won’t be quick enough. Connor should have done something. He should have been prepared to build a better barrier between him and Daniel.
Mental powers are not something to take lightly, and he did.
Next time he’ll do better.
Chapter 2: The Opening
“What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”
Before I Go To Sleep - S.J. Watson
She opens her eyes slowly, blinking away the grogginess of the drugs still in her system. The ceiling above her is flat and white and the lights that are on are obnoxiously bright, making her squint against them.
For a brief moment, she is peaceful. Or, maybe peaceful is the wrong word. She is nothing. She feels numb. She doesn’t have thoughts questioning where she is, she doesn’t have the desire to know why she is here. She simply is.
But then the fear settles in, low and hungry.
Where is she? Why is she here? How did she get here? What is this place? Who is she?
And then the emptiness comes gliding in after it, all consuming and horrific. There is a detachment in her, something pulling violently at her insides, shoving something down down down even when there is no further place to go.
She sits up quickly, glances around the room, takes in where she is. There are beds lining the walls, a number of other people filling them. Some of them have the same expression as her, trying to understand where they are, what is going on. Other’s are resigned, eyes closed but faces still carrying a sadness in their downturned lips or knitted eyebrows.
And they are all wearing a collar.
Her hand comes up to her throat. She doesn’t know how she missed it before, especially now that her fingers touch the metal, she can tell the emptiness in her is stemming from it somehow. A concentrated force shoving something in her chest away.
“Don’t touch that,” someone whispers to her.
She looks to her right, to a woman with sickly pale skin, brown hair pulled back into messy bun. Her eyes are tired, the skin above and below her collar is blue and angry.
“Trust me. Don’t touch it.”
The only response she can offer is a nod. She can’t bring herself to speak and even as she comes up with something to say, a little girl runs by the bed quickly, rushing past them with a woman trailing a few yards behind in a slow, almost annoyed pace. Her attention is taken away from the woman, stuck on the little girl. Something familiar about her that she can’t place.
“Zoe,” the woman running after her says. “Slow down. You don’t need to be in such a hurry.”
She watches from her bed, hands leaving her collar to pull the blanket up further, shield her body as if it will take her away from here. The little girl—Zoe—stops beside a bed, plopping down on the mattress as her mother/guardian/relative/caretaker catches up.
“Are you ready to go home?” Zoe asks the patient. “It’s been so quiet without you.”
“The doctors say I need another day,” the man on the bed replies, his eyes are red rimmed but he is smiling for the little girl, pretending that he isn’t so devastated to be here.
Wherever here is.
“They told us today was fine,” the woman says, her tone flat, unamused, impatient.
“Oh,” he says, looking away from the little girl, eyes landing on her.
Whoever she is.
His voice grows quieter, the little girl mirrors his soft words, making it hard for her to continue eavesdropping. She feels guilty now anyways—ashamed that she was caught more than the fact she was listening in—and she turns her attention elsewhere.
A man. Two men, actually, entering into the room. They move around a few of the other people towards her, their conversation kept low enough she can’t make it out until they’re standing at the foot of her bed.
“Here she is,” the younger one says, a crisp white lab coat on over his soft blue scrubs. “She took some time to heal, but she’s a tough one. What did you say happened to her again?”
“Hit by a car,” the other, older, tired eyes and worn clothing, replies. “Stupid accident.”
She can’t help but wonder why these words aren’t directed at her, aren’t being spoken to her. She is clearly the subject of the conversation but their eyes are locked on each other, only casting awkward glances her way.
“Oh, I see,” the doctor—nurse?—says. “Anyways, she’s good as new. Healthy as a horse. She might have some memory problems—she had a brain bleed. It’s still hard for us to understand how healing works with variants like her. Sometimes everything goes back to normal. Sometimes they remember nothing.”
“That’s fine,” he says.
“Do you know your name?” the doctor asks, suddenly looking to her, talking to her.
“No,” she says, but she can feel the way her tongue wants to move, wants to sound out the start of a letter that she doesn’t know. Like a familiar scent that chases her through the entire day and she’s never able to pinpoint what it is.
“Her name is Kara.”
My name is Kara.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Your uncle,” he says and it is left at that. No further explanation needed, none given. She wants to prompt him, press on the details, but their attention is already away from her. Paperwork is being signed, glances are no longer thrown her way.
She has been shoved unceremoniously from the conversation again.
They give her a change of clothes. A bag is set on the edge of her bed, a soft pink backpack with plastic butterflies on it. Meant for a child. Is she a child? No. She knows that, but still, the backpack feels familiar in her hands as she takes it, follows the doctor towards a bathroom to change.
Kara stops him before he leaves, the question leaving her lips before she can stop it. It’s so much safer here, off to the side with just the two of them instead of the large room surrounded by people and she needs answers.
“What is the collar for?”
“To protect you,” he replies.
He sighs, years of this conversation he has had on repeat present in his face, his posture, but still he seems to hesitate on the words, choosing them carefully. “You’re a variant. It means you—it means your blood is infected. The collar is like a form of medicine. It keeps it regulated.”
His head tilts slightly to the side, the faintest of smiles on his face. “Yes.”
She steps back, nods even though there are more things she wants to know but she wants to end this conversation. She wants to be alone. She’s sick.
The doctor leaves and she pushes the door to the bathroom open, shoves it behind her and tries to find a lock before realizing there isn’t one. It makes her stomach turn with unease. Anybody could come barging in here and she wouldn’t be able to stop them or even know.
Kara sheds the hospital gown quickly, nervously, folds it neatly because it seems like the right thing to do, and changes into the clothes she’s been given. Black tights, blue suede oxfords, a white dress with the palest, barely visible patterns of blue zig-zags across it, and a black cardigan. She feels like she’s ready for a picnic.
She steps in front of the mirror, hesitates for a moment at her reflection. Somehow she is simultaneously exactly what she expected and not at all. Her metal collar is where her focus goes—not the white of her skin, the blue of her eyes, the brown of her hair—but the collar.
It is thinner than what she thought when she felt it with her fingertips. They had misinformed her—making her think it was thick and wide, as heavy as it feels. In reality it is thin, barely more than a centimeter around her neck, but shiny and bright but still scratched and dented. She’s worn it for a long time.
Her fingers creep up to it, try to find some space between it and her skin, but nothing. It’s as if it’s glued there, unable to budge. She feels around the back, tries to find the same where it would end, where the clasp would be, but she only feels a small groove, enough space for a piece of paper.
The redness of that other woman’s skin comes back to her and she jerks away quickly. Kara doesn’t know what caused it and she doesn’t want to know. Some things are better left unknown—but what the doctor said about the collar regulating her blood—it would have to be somehow attached to her other than just touching the skin, wouldn’t it?
Kara pictures metal prongs in it, stuck into her skin. Surely she would feel that—something stabbing her, especially with such a delicate part of the body like the throat—but she doesn’t. It makes her queasy, so she turns her attention to something else.
Her hair, messy and tangled. She runs a brush through the knots, pulls it back into a simple bun and pins it in place. Maybe she is mimicking the other woman she saw—maybe this is a style she likes. It doesn’t matter. It quite suits her face, even if she feels the desire to drop her hair, grow it out so she can disguise the metal band around her throat.
It wouldn’t work, though. She’d need a scarf or a turtleneck. Hair would do very little to keep people from seeing it, to keep the metal from catching the light.
Todd—and he introduces himself as Todd after she asks for the second time who he is—takes her to his truck in the parking lot. It’s as beat up and dented as the collar around her throat, but the scratches are rusted, the leather of the seats are torn.
“Why isn’t my family picking me up?” she asks, doesn’t clarify she means family other than him. “Why are you?”
“You don’t have a family,” he says. “You live with me.”
“Oh,” she says, more to herself than to him, but she hears it echoed in a mocking voice.
Their conversation comes to a stop there. She feels her stomach twist into knots—doesn’t want to hear him push down everything she says with such disdain. It is better to keep quiet, even if she wants to question why she lives with him, what happened to her mother, her father. If she has siblings. Children. A daughter?
Kara climbs into the passenger seat, turns her eyes to the windows as music floods the car, loud and angry. It is hard for her to resist the urge to turn the volume down, to switch the station, so she focuses her thoughts on the city that passes her by instead.
Billboards advertising websites where people can hire variants to do a variety of jobs. Clean your house! Take you out for a night on the town! Become your secretary! Take care of your children!
The people in the photos all wear the same collar she does, but she notices that in some of the photos they are sporting gold or bronze or some other color than the dull gray she has. Kara shoves her hands underneath her thighs to keep herself from touching it again. Something tells her that if she messes with it too much it will shock her skin or secrete some type of venom that will induce a rash like that woman’s.
Her eyes narrow, she tries to focus on other things. Not the billboards, not the people on the street with their collars trailing behind people with bare necks, but on the rain instead.
The way it hits umbrellas, the way it drenches the pavement, the way children kick it up into the air, laughing as the drops fall again.
She breathes in, breathes out, passes the time this way.
Inhale. A delicate rain drop trails from the top of the window the bottom.
Exhale. A kid spins his umbrella, sending droplets spinning through the air in a spiral around him.
Michigan - The Milk Carton Kids
Chapter 3: Shades of Color
"How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity."
The 5th Wave - Rick Yancey
The delicate time between summer and fall is a careful balance. They’re not quite close enough to really feel the chill in the air, to see the leaves turn from green to gold to brown, to see orange littering pathways—but he can imagine it. For a moment, he is given a glimpse into the future. The utter tranquility of wandering down this park and children will be running, shoved into coats because it’s a touch too cold otherwise.
It is, unfortunately, too far away. He glances to his sides quickly, wanting to be acutely aware of his surroundings. An old man on a park bench, being helped up by a kind lady. Another, much younger man, to his left flipping through a magazine.
Two people rush past him, jogging until they reach the end of the path, coming to a stop quickly. Markus doesn’t bother eavesdropping on their conversation, doesn’t even think about sparing them a glance. He’s in a hurry. He needs to be back home to wake Carl up for breakfast. It’s already quite late. Markus can’t waste time trying to decipher why an argument is striking up behind him or why a child is crying. He needs to know who is who, where they are, but he doesn’t need to know why.
He starts across the street, the light flickering to red halfway through and Markus hastens his stride to get to the other side, hears a honk blaring behind him as he steps from asphalt to cement.
Any other time, maybe he’d look behind him, watch as the car drove off, try to understand who was in such a hurry they needed to honk at a pedestrian taking two seconds too long to cross the road, but he’s on his own time constraints, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. He will likely never see that car again, he will likely never know their name or their face, and if he does, he will never even know.
A hot dog vendor is shouting out specials as Markus makes his way around the corner. He only looks over for a second, sees the vendor’s face shifts as he thinks he’s pulling in a customer but then his eyes drop to the collar around Markus’ throat and his eyes avert quickly, finds a new target instead.
Markus sighs, pushes onwards. Past the protesters, past the man strumming along on his guitar playing a pretty song he would enjoy if he could linger more than a moment, past the couples and the groups of friends and the babysitters and nannies tugging along screaming children. When he gets to the paint shop—Bellini Paints written in a soft brass-colored font along the glass—he pulls the thin card from his back pocket as he steps up to the counter.
“I’m here to pick up an order for Carl Manfred?” he asks.
The boy, looking far too young to be working in a paint shop, nods, “Card, please?”
Markus hands it to him and the employee takes it, rests it in a dip in the wood that glows a soft blue. The light shifts yellow, illuminating around the card, the white plastic of it melting away as words in black text scatter across the screen.
“That’ll be $63.99, that sound correct?”
Honestly, Markus wouldn’t know. He didn’t place the order. Carl didn’t inform him.
“Yes,” he says anyways.
The boy touches something on the screen and the card flickers, black words shifting to match the green glow of the square beneath it. It reverts quickly to the same blue glow before the boy can even bend behind the corner and pick up the black and white box and set it on the corner.
He takes the card from the cradle, hands it back to Markus, nudges the box forward a little.
“Have a nice day,” he says.
Markus nods in response and pockets the card, tucks the box underneath his arm as he exits the shop hurriedly. He circles around the plaza, careful to avoid the protesters, but still his eyes look over, catch the words written on the signs, the things they shout.
Variants should be killed. We bleed different colors. Put them in prison where they belong. Variants are dangerous.
“How many times do they have to kill us before we recognize they as a species are not worth keeping alive?” a man shouts.
Markus stumbles to a pause, can feel the weight of the collar around his neck a lot more heavily now than he did before.
He’s heard the stories. He even remembers being there, even if he was quite young.
Variants never killed anyone unless they were provoked. Their powers were new and unheard of—no one knew how to control them. They were thrust into their lives and expected to be experts within seconds.
Girls who would burst into their lovers into flames, boys who would drown in their dreams, thoughts that would become so heavy and so real people confessed to a number of things they never meant.
Markus pushes past a crowd, shoves between a group of friends to get to the bus quicker. He doesn’t want them to see his collar. He was lucky. He never killed anyone accidentally. They saw his blood and they clasped the metal around his neck before it could do anything.
But others, plenty of others, they do not have the same origin story.
One of the people he tries to get past shoves him back, much harder than he accidentally hit her. He staggers out of crowd, tumbles into a new one. Markus isn’t even able to catch his footing before someone else is shoving him down to the ground.
“Hey guys, check it out. We got one of those variants here.”
Markus pushes against the ground, reaches out for the box as he tries to stand when he feels something hit his stomach hard. He collapses back down, breathes in a sharp breath, keeps his mouth closed. If he’s silent, if he doesn’t fight back, maybe they will let him go. Maybe they will see him as harmless as he is.
“Look at this motherfucker,” a woman laughs. “He can’t even stand up.”
He sighs, the cement biting into his palms. It isn’t enough to draw blood, but it’s close. The skin is raw and angry. He can feel where the fabric of his pants have been torn, where his knee is skinned and bleeding.
He knows if he tries to stand up again they’re going to hit him and no one is going to care. Either because they don’t see it with the crowd hiding him or because they think he deserves it. It doesn’t matter which. It’s still happening.
“Get up,” the first voice says. “Come on.”
Markus looks over to him, regrets it because the second his eyes land on the guy he sees his face twist from vague disgust to absolute revulsion. He doesn’t move, but the hit against his stomach comes anyways. A solid kick that rolls him onto his back, leaves him gasping.
“Alright, that’s enough. Leave him alone.”
His eyes flutter closed, feels the bruises blossoming across the skin of his stomach.
He should be grateful someone is stepping in, but all he can feel is annoyed. They should have never allowed this in the first place. The protest should have been broken up before they were able to form a crowd this big.
“Let us teach this bastard a lesson,” the man says, voice low. “Come on. They’ve killed how many of us? We’re just going to let him go?”
“You hurt him again and I’m going to have to arrest you.”
Markus opens his eyes, looks over to the cop. Grateful grateful grateful.
He should be grateful.
He takes the cop’s presence as a distraction, sits up quickly and grabs his box, corners dented from the fall. He’s lucky no one took it. Markus stands, pushing past the crowd while the cop and the man continue to argue. He rushes towards the bus stop, barely reaches it before the doors are closing and he slips on, sagging into a seat.
He should have fought back. He regrets it now, even if violence is never the answer.
Can I Exist - Missio
Chapter 4: A New Home
“Weak or strong - she didn’t know what they meant anymore. Maybe they didn’t mean the same thing for everyone.”
Girls Made of Snow and Glass - Melissa Bashardoust
The truck rolls down a street of beat up houses, stops at one just as old and wrecked as the rest with white peeling paint and weeds in the yard, dead grass filling the lawn. She waits until the car stops, until Todd steps out, before she moves. Three seconds of isolation. It is all she can guess she is allowed.
Kara steps out of the truck, closes the door behind her and follows Todd up the path, glancing over to the construction work across the street before following him inside.
“You’ve been gone for weeks so the place is a mess,” he says, shrugging off his coat. “I let you live here for free. In return, you do the housework, the washing, you cook the meals. You take care of…”
He trails off, surveying the room.
“Your daughter?” she asks, only because she doesn’t want to see whatever words are about to spill from him. She thinks, maybe, she might be good at this. Knowing a split second before the anger rolls in, a moment before a voice is raised.
She nods. Alice.
“Get started down here and then go upstairs,” he says, pauses for a moment before gesturing vaguely to the kitchen. “Your room is through there.”
Kara nods again, doesn’t really want to speak to him. Something about it makes her uneasy. Like every word is going to be torn to shreds by him so he can dissect them and find something wrong.
Todd disappears into the living room as she walks towards the kitchen, pushing open the door to inspect her room. She steps past shelves full of boxes and food, another full of laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets.
She sets her palm against the cold surface of the laundry machine, turns slightly to see the bed crammed in the corner, the only place it can go is up against the door, blocking the exit to the backyard. It isn’t a bedroom.
Maybe that’s why he called it just her room.
Though, Kara doubts he put that much effort into his word choice.
She sits down on the edge of the bed, loses her cardigan quickly and sets it in the hamper to her right. She finds a notebook stuck on one of the floating shelves above her bed, reaches blindly for a pen somewhere along beside it, and makes a list of all the things she needs to do.
The order of it will help her.
Laundry. Dishes. Trash.
She wants to make a more detailed list. Like cleaning the windows, seeing if there is a bucket of paint to fix the spots where it has been scrapped and peeled, but she feels like she doesn’t have the time. Todd’s tone implied she shouldn’t even have a second to herself but—
She wants it. Desperately.
Kara doesn’t even know who she is. She has just been thrust into this life without anyone’s help.
Three minutes of isolation.
That is what she allows herself here, now.
And then she sets to work.
The laundry hangs out on a line outside. She takes a basket from her room, pulls it down one by one and adds it to the pile. She kicks at the basket already out there, the shallow base of it filled with water and mildew, a spider web strung between the slots on the side.
When she turns around, she spots the little girl watching her from the porch, a stuffed fox in her arms.
She steps back towards the house, rests the basket of laundry against her side as she stops at the bottom of the steps, looking up to Alice. The difference in their height makes them also completely level like this.
“Do you like to play out here?” Kara asks.
Alice fiddles with the arms of her fox, averts her gaze to the ground.
“It’s nice out,” she says. “Do you want to play a game?”
The girl shakes her head, turns on her heel and races back into the house.
Kara sighs, following her indoors but turning to the laundry room instead. She doesn’t know if before she was good with children. She can’t remember it at all. She doesn’t even know if right now she’s doing something wrong or if this is just how children are.
She can’t remember being a child.
She rushes through the rest of the chores, if only because she doesn’t want to remain in the same room as Todd. There is something about him that makes her want to run. When she lingers too close to him, she can feel the itch of her fingers wanting to grab everything she can in sight and sprint towards the door. She can feel the desire to kick off her shoes, pull on boots or sneakers so that she won’t stumble and fall from the impracticality of the pair she has been given.
When the dishes are clean, when the vacuum is making its rounds, when the trash is cleared off every surface Todd has managed to cram with it, she reports back to him, is sent upstairs a millisecond after the words leave her mouth.
Kara supposes she should have anticipated this. She hoped, maybe, that she would be able to flee to her room and be alone for a little while, a few hours of peace before she would have to return to cooking meals and trying to keep the desire from sprinting out of the house muffled.
She lives here for free. This is the least she can do.
She feels like she isn’t meant to be here.
Perhaps she should hate cleaning, but there is something cleansing about smoothing the creases of a blanket, of tucking sheets down over corners, of carefully lining up books, records, and stuffed animals in neat little patterns.
Part of her hates the aspect of this—the part where she is forced to be doing these things.
The other part of her likes to see Todd’s or Alice’s room go from a wreckage of trash and overturned things to a neat space. It is her tiny control over a space with such chaos in its bones.
On her way up the staircase, she picks up the few toys at the top, turns them over in her hands. A hippo, an elephant, a lion. They are a different style than the giraffe that sits on the window sill by the sink in the kitchen. These are hollow plastic, solid colors. They are imprinted with logos for recycling and a muddled version of the company that produced them. The giraffe, she thinks, was perhaps wooden. Its spots were painted on over the dull yellow, it is dusty and old. These are so sleek and new, still shiny. Or, maybe they just look that way because of the plastic they were made from.
Kara sets them on the dresser in Alice’s room, runs her hand over the edge of the locked box beside them and gets back to work. Windows open, fresh warm breeze fluttering into the room, knocking out the musty smell of the old home.
Her fingers make a trail across the books on the shelf, her eyes drift over the crayon drawings on the wall. Was Alice yelled at for that? Or has Todd not noticed yet?
If Kara leaves the door open, most of it is hidden behind the wood. If she pulls the toy chest to sit at the end of Alice’s bed it will hide the remainder of the graffiti. There’s others around the room—but at least this won’t be seen. Even if Todd has noticed it before, at least now it will be kept out of sight. No reminder of his daughter’s bad behavior.
She hears a creak on the floor outside of the room, looks behind her suddenly nervous that she has been spotted trying to hide something like it was drugs instead of markings on a wall.
“Alice,” she breathes out the word, relieved to see it is only the little girl. “I was just tidying up. I’ll only be in here for a minute longer.”
She steps into the room slowly, her eyes stuck on Kara as she bends over, plucks a book that Kara hadn’t returned back to it’s spot yet.
This is her cousin. They must have been close. Kara isn’t sure how long she’s lived with Todd, but surely they would have had some type of relationship. She’s meant to be the little girl’s nanny, isn’t she? Kara wants to imagine that they were the best of friends, that in a few years time Alice will be whispering secrets about the people at school she likes and Kara can whisper back advice on how to deal with it.
“What are you reading?” Kara asks, but she spots the cover quickly. Alice in Wonderland. Of course.
Alice doesn’t reply to her, only ducks down and hides in the depths of a fort she’s built in the corner. Kara wants to step over and help fix it where the ceiling is dropping too low, where the wall would hold the blanket higher, make the fort wider if she could pin it in place there.
She follows after her, for whatever reason, she doesn’t really know. But she wants to talk to her. She wants to talk to someone that she doesn’t feel like she is walking on eggshells around.
“I’m sure we were friends before,” she says, kneeling down at the entrance of the fort. “Maybe we can be friends again?”
Alice looks away from her, glances down at her hands which are focused on picking at the loose thread on the fox’s arm. If she keeps at it, the entire arm might come loose and fall off.
“You’re very quiet,” Kara continues, even though she’s sure it’s not the right thing to say to a shy child. “I hope I don’t scare you.”
A beat of silence.
“Okay,” she says, hopes her tone is light and happy and not angry. She isn’t angry. She was a child once, too, even if she doesn’t remember it. She can’t fault a little girl for wanting to be alone, especially when all Kara wants to do is be alone as well. “I can see you want some space. I’ll leave you alone.”
An hour. A single delicate hour in the space between dinner and being as completed with the chores as she can manage and not being called back by Todd to scrub the floors or wash the counters. She spends it in her room, listening to the hum of the washing machine, the rattle of the dryer.
Kara found a book tucked under her pillow, missing its dust jacket and marked halfway through with the corner folded over. She leaves it there, along with the other three that have been dog-eared. She wonders if she left those for the same reason she’s leaving the one now.
A marker. Like in a graveyard. A placement of where the Kara before her was in the middle of reading. Is it possible she has lost her memory more than once? Is it possible that these other three folds in the pages mark those times, too? That she had the same thought then as she does now?
She flips open the cover, hopes that maybe a note is going to be written on the end pages that will hold all the answers. Nothing. She turns it one page at a time, stopping quickly.
A map of a castle. Crypt written in the middle of the right page, just underneath Royal Apartments, circled in red ink four times. The circles slightly bigger and bigger, invading on the stone of the castle and the trees of the Shadow Garden beside it. They intersect, but not enough that she wouldn’t be able to make out that they are separate.
Kara reaches back for the pen, finds it in the spot where it was before and circles the word again. The ink is blue, ruins the color scheme of the circles, but it is there. She sets the pain down gently in the middle of the book.
Maybe it is a message, what else could it be? What other reason would someone have for circling Crypt four times?
Maybe it isn’t a message, but why was it circled? And does her blue circle now invalidate whatever reasoning the person (her, maybe) had before this?
Her thoughts are pulled by loud noise outside her door. She stands abruptly, the book sliding off her lap and hitting the floor. It’s dented cover getting worse as she steps around it, pushes open the door the slightest bit to investigate what’s happened.
It’s too hard to tell from here. The angle of the walls makes it impossible to see.
Kara steps out, walks slowly as if that will make her less noticeable when she rounds the corner and is no longer hidden by the wall. There’s a chair in broken pieces by the end of the stairwell. Her heart thunders in her chest.
“I know what you think of me,” Todd is saying, staring angrily at the little girl. She’s crying, silent tears. “You hate me. You hate me, don’t you?”
He reaches forward and Kara steps around the corner quickly.
“Stop!” she says, shouts it as loud as she can get her voice to manage but it is barely a match for the volume of Todd’s yelling as if she wasn’t built to be loud but silent, docile. Still, it catches his attention.
He turns, hands dropping from Alice and looking back at her.
“Mind your own fucking business,” he says, stepping towards her.
She stumbles backwards, hits the wall of the stairs hard.
“S-she was just playing,” Kara says, but she doesn’t really know what led up to this, she just knows she has to do something to stop it and she doesn’t trust that Todd was provoked by a nine year old. “We can go outside and get out of your way. It won’t be a problem.”
“Right,” he sneers.
He steps back and she’s aware it was too easy even before he turns and hits her hard across the cheek.
This is not normal.
She doesn’t need memories to know that.
Kara reaches up, touches the tender skin of her face while Todd walks away, while Alice runs over to her side, fox in her hand, tugging Kara along to the back door.
Of course. Outside. A tiny slice of freedom barricaded by wooden fence. Not really free at all, just an illusion of it.
the book/map Kara looks at is based off of Girls Made of Snow and Glass!
Milk Carton Kid - The Milk Carton Kids
Chapter 5: The Painter
“Are you the master of your fate, or are the stars?”
Beautiful Creatures - Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
“Alarm deactivated. Welcome home, Markus.”
He glances up at the robotic voice, a small smile on his face as he sets down the box on the extravagant vanity. He eyes the little robotic birds in their cage, flapping their delicate wings as they flutter around their tiny space. A small portion of Markus wants to free the birds, to let them wander around a big open room for a little while.
He had done that a week after he first arrived here. In the few hours that he was alone at night, unable to sleep. They had flown around the room—truly flown. Markus hadn’t known they could do that, but they did. Sweeping circles up the staircase and around into the big room behind him.
Markus had watched them for hours, almost on the verge of falling asleep to their tiny chirps but he couldn’t allow himself. He didn’t know how Carl would react if he found out, so he spent an hour trying to capture the birds, to cage them up again, and he hadn’t done it since.
But it’s difficult to resist freeing them now, knowing how happy they seemed. They are just little robotic birds—not capable of emotions at all, but still. He liked to think they could, that they were grateful he allowed him that night of liberty.
He sheds his coat, passes by the painting of a face in anguish as blue blood drips from their forehead down their face in carefully painted lines. Markus remembers Carl painting it as vividly as if it were yesterday.
Markus modeled for him so the flow of blue would be natural instead of something he created. Even knowing that, even remembering how he held still as Carl took pictures from every angle possible, the lines still seem like artistic choices. Each path carefully chosen to mimic that of a mask someone might wear at a ball. Maybe a villain’s face paint in a comic to hide their identity.
Do villains hide their identity? He doesn’t really know. It has always been such an important trait of the heroes—but the villain seems to always dedicate their life to evil. Heroes split it up. A fracture in the narrative, only showing what is necessary.
Markus sets the box of paints in the studio, leaves without worrying about cleaning up the rest of the mess. He will have plenty of time to do so when Carl is in there later today, and it is already growing too late for him to stay sleeping.
He heads upstairs quickly, hand trailing along the ornate gold railing, up the carefully carpeted stairs. It matches the ceiling in the library. The pattern is enlarged here, taking up large portions while there it is minimized, showing all of the squares and circles and triangles intersecting into vibrant colors.
Carl’s room is decently sized, the same square footage as Markus’, but it is cluttered with furniture. A large bed, a table and chairs, a dresser with its space as full as the floor in front of him. Markus crosses the room, opens the curtains to shine the bright light of the sun in to illuminate the wooden flooring, the dark blue and brown walls.
“Good morning, Carl,” he says, turning back around, a carefully crafted smile on his face.
“Good morning,” Carl answers, but he can tell by his voice that he doesn’t want to be awake yet.
“It’s ten in the morning,” he says. “The weather is overcast, 75°, 85% humidity, with a strong possibility of afternoon showers.”
“It sounds like a good day to spend in bed.”
Markus’ smile falters. Carl says this every morning. He wishes there was something he could do to help him. His presence in the Manfred home helped at first, but he can see Carl slipping into a place of unknown. He wasn’t trained for this—the psychological aspect. In another life, maybe he was. Maybe he would know how to help someone before it gets like this when all he can do is watch and pretend it’s not happening.
“I went to pick up the paint you ordered,” he says, changing the topic.
“Oh, yes, I’d forgotten,” Carl says as Markus circles the bed to his side. “That is the difference between you and me, right, Markus? You never forget anything.”
“I don’t have that good of a memory, Carl, I think you’re giving me too much credit,” he says, plucking the syringe from the bedside table. “Show me your arm, please.”
He says it like a child on the verge of throwing a tantrum. A joke, Markus knows this, but he can’t help but wonder how much of one.
“Carl,” he says in response like a stern mother on the verge of saying don’t make me ask you again. Carl turns, moving his arm so it lays across Markus’ lap. “Thank you.”
“I just opened my eyes and I’m already gritting my teeth,” he sighs. “Humans are such a fragile machine. They break down so quickly. All this effort to keep them going.”
Markus bites his lip as he presses the syringe into Carl’s arm. At times like these, he feels guilty for who he is. The bruises on his abdomen have already formed and faded again. His skin is back to the perfectly smooth and flawless way it was the second before he was shoved out from the crowd and into the protestor’s circle.
“What happened to your clothes?” Carl asks, as if he can read Markus’ mind.
Markus glances down at his shirt where dirt has been smudged across the surface, where his pants have been torn. Blood is smeared across his skin, a dark blue that almost looks black now that it has had time to dry. The cuts are already gone, but the evidence remains. He’d forgotten to change his clothes. He had been in too much of a hurry.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he says, the error in his words making him internally cringe at them. “Just some demonstrators in the street.”
“What a bunch of idiots,” Carl replies. “They think they can stop progress by roughing up a few variants? I hope they didn’t harm you.”
“Oh, no,” he says, even though they clearly did. Even though there is blood on his skin, even though he has felt bruises come and go, even though his shirt is dirty and his hands shook and he had to bite back tears while he was waiting for the bus to come to their street. “They just pushed me around. I’m fine.”
He wonders what Carl meant by that. What progress is being made? AzureHeart announced a new line of collars, better than the last, made out of solid gold or platinum for the rich folks of the city as if a new color will make them easier to pretend they didn’t hire a variant to scrub their toilets.
His own collar is gold. Not real gold—but still gold. A sign of status. When Carl first traded them out, from a beaten up gunmetal to this, he had told Markus it matched him better. Markus never understood what he meant.
“Anything special on the agenda today?” Carl asks.
Markus cracks an egg, watches the yolk drip into the pan and sizzle across the hot metal.
“No,” he says. “But next week there’s an opening of your retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The gallery director left four messages asking to confirm your attendance.”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he says. “What else?”
Markus glances over to him, moving on to crack the next egg into the pan. If Carl goes, Markus will likely go with him. It would be nice to have the house to himself, like in the beginning of his time here when he was still learning the ropes from the previous caretaker. But going with Carl would also be a nice change of scenery, even if it means feeling like the band around his neck is a lot more noticeable than it is.
At events like those, the people treat him differently. Like an exotic pet instead of a dangerous animal like the people on the streets do. Maybe it’s because he’s handsome. He’s been told it enough times that he knows. If he were unattractive, maybe their eyes wouldn’t linger on the gold as if it were the only thing keeping them from devouring him.
“Your usual fan mail,” he answers. “I’ve already replied to some of it.”
“Any news from Leo?”
“No, Carl. I can call him if you like?”
“No, no, don’t bother.”
A long beat of silence.
The eggs flip over, the bacon sizzles. Markus’ fingers itch to tap out a rhythm on the counter but instead he busies himself with making coffee, pouring it into a mug that Leo made when he was a child. One of the few things that from him that exist in this house.
When he looks up from his task, he catches Carl by the window, fingers reaching out to touch the leaves of the plants sitting on the edge. In early mornings when Markus doesn’t have to leave to run errands, often times the breakfast is already prepared before Carl comes downstairs.
But on mornings like these, when he doesn’t let the food grow cold, Carl makes conversation with him, flips through the mail, stares out the window at the cars passing the streets, blurred in the greenery of the bushes and trees outside.
There’s a question forming on Carl’s lips. Markus watches it come and go, fading off into the distance of a thousand other unspoken words.
Too difficult for Carl to ask. Likely too difficult for Markus to answer.
“Your breakfast is ready,” he says, to fill the silence. “Bacon and eggs, just the way you like them.”
Carl turns back to him, smiles as Markus assembles the tray.
“Did you already eat?”
“Yes,” Markus says, making his way towards the red door that leads into the library. He’d taken an apple from the basket on the counter in the kitchen, had tried like he always does to create the perfect spiral of skin like in the movies. He almost did it this time, but it broke off halfway through.
He sets the tray down, leaves Carl to eat as he wanders around the library. He hears the television turn on, the sound of news about the Artic and Russia playing in the background as he passes by the bookshelf.
Shakespeare, which he’s already read. Plato, which he’s halfway through. Keates’ Odes, which he hasn’t tried yet. He doesn’t want to start reading now, though. There isn’t enough time to savor the words, to pay attention to the pages.
He settles at the piano, testing the keys for a moment before deciding on a song. Quiet, peaceful notes. They carry an essence of sadness that he cannot take away. They flow from his heart to his fingertips to the air in gentle keys. He doesn’t plan the song, it simply comes together. That seems to be how it always is for him. He’s never played the same song twice, because he never decides on a song to play. It always, in the end, sounds wrong and disjointed. He isn’t a professional at this. He’s taught himself.
“Something has changed in the way you play,” Carl says.
Markus looks up to him, fingers stopping suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s something about it,” he replies. “Something I can’t quite define.”
Markus smiles, knows it is what he has said to Carl a dozen times when asked to critique his paintings. He is not an artist, he can only say whether or not it is aesthetically pleasing to him. He can’t say if it’s good art. Art is subjective, it is personal.
“Let’s go to the studio.”
It is a quiet thirty minutes between them, only broken up by the sound of a brush across canvas or glass jars rattling against each other as he cleans the place. Markus is about to exit the studio and retrieve his book from the shelf to flip through while he waits when Carl sighs loudly, exasperated and almost angry. The machine hums as he returns to ground.
“Each day that goes by brings me closer to the end.”
Markus tilts his head, doesn’t know what Carl means at first. If it’s the end of this painting, the end of his painting entirely, the end of his life. Could Carl give up on painting? Markus has seen him set aside half-finished canvas, selling them sometimes as if they were completed or returning to them months later. But being done entirely? It is almost unthinkable.
“I have nothing left to say anymore,” Carl continues. “I’m just an old man clinging to his brushes.”
“Let’s see if you have any talent,” he says, cutting off Markus. “You’ve never painted before. Give it a try.”
“Paint? But, what I—Painting what?”
“Anything you want,” he says, holding the palette out to him.
Markus takes it hesitantly, holds it even as he says words to fight this, “I don’t think I can do that. I’ve never—I never learned how to paint.”
“Painting is about interpreting the world, improving on it, showing something you see. Anyone is capable of that. Do something for me, close your eyes. Trust me.”
Markus sighs and closes his eyes, holds onto the palette tightly. He is terrified of starting something, of somehow creating something that would disappoint Carl.
“Try to imagine something that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never seen. Now, concentrate on how it makes you feel and let your hand drift across the canvas.”
Something that doesn’t exist.
It is the first thought that comes to him. The heaviness of the collar around his neck. The way it glints gold to show off the wealth of the person he works for but not something he has himself. The chains of it holding him down, a clamp on whatever power runs through his veins.
He feels his face flush, hot with anger and the sting of tears in his eyes as he opens them. He feels the kick of that man’s foot against his stomach as he does his best to outline the shape of a hand. He feels the person’s grip on his shoulder, shoving him backwards when he’d barely touched her as he brushes blue across the fingers. He feels the anger boiling in his stomach at the look of disgust he has been given time and time again as chains are born around wrists.
Progress. Carl said they were making progress.
He has seen no progress. Nothing.
Markus turns, paint smearing a streak of blue across the center of the canvas in his sudden movement.
“Leo,” Carl says. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I was in the neighborhood… thought I’d stop by… It’s been awhile, right?” he says, eyes glancing over to Markus for only a split second before drifting away again. His face is drained of color, sweat across his brow hidden barely by the hat he’s tried to cover it with. He looks exhausted.
“You all right? You don’t look so good.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Leo replies, giving a small laugh. “Hey, listen. I need some cash.”
“Again? What happened to the money I just gave you?”
Markus wants to leave. He doesn’t want to be present for this conversation. It always turns sour, it doesn’t matter who starts it or who gets it there. He’s seen Leo and Carl interact enough to know that nothing good has come of it since Leo was eighteen, maybe even before that.
“Oh, well... it just goes, you know?” he answers with another nervous laugh.
He sets the palette down slowly, wonders if he could sneak out the door and hide in the kitchen for the few minutes Leo will be staying here, but he knows he can’t escape.
“Yeah,” Carl replies, mocking Leo, maybe, with his own humorless laugh. “You’re on it again, aren’t you?”
“No, no, no. I swear it’s not that—”
“Don’t lie to me, Leo.”
“What difference does it make?” Leo asks, his voice raising, angry. “I just some cash, that’s all.”
“Sorry. The answer’s no.”
“You know why.”
“Yeah, yeah. I think I do know why,” Leo says, laughing with a trace of rage as he turns towards Markus. “You’d rather take care of your little orphan freak here than your own son, eh?”
Markus flinches, hates that he does so because the response brings up the smallest hint of a smile on Leo’s lips. He’s enjoying this. Inflicting harm upon others.
“Tell me dad, what’s he got that I don’t? He’s smarter? More obedient? Not like me, right? But you know what? He’s not your son. He’s a fucking variant.”
How easily it is said with so much hatred. How easy the syllables can be sounded out with revulsion and superiority. Markus can feel heat tangling in his stomach, hot and angry and ready to burst.
“Leo, that’s enough,” Carl says. “You need to go.”
“Yeah,” Leo replies. “I do. You know, you don’t care about anything except yourself and your god damn paintings. You’ve never loved anyone. You never loved me, dad.”
The important distinguishing factor.
Markus catches it in the drop of Leo’s eyes to the painting behind him, the hands splayed out with blue blood splattered across their palms, connected by thick, black chain.
Carl never loved Leo. Carl loves painting and money and extravagant parties and the little orphan he adopted a year before Markus would be thrust out onto the streets in the hopes he could learn to take care of himself. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s what Leo tells himself at night when he feels too lonely to remember the people in this world that do care about him.
The white-hot anger in his stomach uncoils slightly, slips out of his grip fast.
Leo is an idiot for thinking he is the only one to be abandoned by a parent. Markus was shoved away the moment his blood turned from red to blue. It doesn’t give him an excuse to be like this.
you guys.. have no idea how many notes i make about what the environment of a place looks like and how little i actually refer to them a;sdlkfk
The Gold - Manchester Orchestra
The City Surf - Jamin Winans
Chapter 6: Partners
“We must trust our thoughts while we sleep. We must trust our hunches. We must begin to examine all of those things that we think of as irrational simply because we do not understand them. In other words, we must distrust the rational, the logical, the sane, in an attempt to reach for something higher, for something more worthy.”
Acceptance - Jeff Vandermeer
No Dogs Allowed.
Connor exhales a breath of frustration, opens the door to the bar anyways, hopes with everything in him that this will be his last stop.
The first bar wasn’t far from the precinct, the second one not much further, the ones after that similar in distance. But they’ve all added up into an overly long walk back in the rain or money he’ll have to spend on a taxi. Not that money is an issue. AzureHeart will keep putting cash in his account. But it’s the defeat that is the problem. Giving up on this. Failing at something.
The bar is small, crammed with greasy booths on one side and seats half filled on the other. American flags hang in a banner, neon and fluorescent lights flicker. The whir of a fan is mingled with the chatter of the patrons, the quiet volume of a basketball game playing on the television.
He finds his target easily. He looked at the file a hundred times since it was handed to him on the morning before. The face of Lieutenant Hank Anderson is imprinted in his mind. It will never leave.
Connor crosses over to the bar, speaks with as level as a voice as he can manage, “Lieutenant Anderson, my name is Connor. I’m the consultant sent by AzureHeart. I looked for you at the station but nobody knew where you were. They said you were probably having a drink nearby. I was lucky to find you at the fifth bar.”
“What do you want?” he asks, his eyes kept on the glass in front of him.
“You were assigned a case earlier this evening. A homicide, involving a variant. AzureHeart has sent me to help assist investigators.”
“Well, I don’t need any assistance. ‘Specially not from a corporate asshole like you. So just be a good lil’ boy and get the fuck outta here.”
He sighs. This is not going to be as simple as he hoped for. They couldn’t have assigned a better detective for him to work with? Someone who is actually cooperative?
“Listen,” Connor replies. “I think you should stop drinking and come with me. It’ll make life easier for both of us.”
A beat of silence.
A sip from the glass.
If he wants to play it that way, Connor will play it that way.
“Lieutenant Anderson, I must inform you that I intend to file a report on your behavior.”
Not even a single glance his way, just the glass set back down hard and angry, elbow resting on the table beside it, middle finger up.
Connor reaches forward, picks up the glass, spills the contents across the floor, instantly regrets it. Not because of Lieutenant Anderson. Because of the man behind the bar. He looks nice, he doesn’t deserve this—a random guy coming into his bar and making a mess of it. Even if he doesn’t allow dogs.
“I think we can go now.”
Lieutenant Anderson stands, reaches forward and pushes him hard against the bar with his hand gripped in the fabric of his jacket.
“You little prick,” he says through clenched teeth. “I don’t know what’s stopping me from knocking you out.”
“Your sense of duty, Lieutenant,” Connor replies, trying to keep his voice steady. He doesn’t add that he would report him almost instantly. Who cares if AzureHeart takes him off the case, kicks him to the curb. He’s not going to sit by and let some old man with a drinking habit interfere with his job.
Lieutenant Anderson lets him go, shoves him against the bar again. Connor winces, feels the pain of a possible bruise wanting to form with where his back connected against the counter. He busies his hands with his tie, straightens it and can’t help but feel a small smile of victory form on his lips.
“What interest does AzureHeart have in a homicide?” Lieutenant Anderson asks, voice barely audible over the sound of the heavy metal coming out of the speakers.
“They’re the only company that manufactures the collars that variants wear,” Connor replies. “There’s something defective about them. Cases involving a variant attacking their employer or non-variants typically have them using their powers. They shouldn’t be able to.”
“So, what? They sent you out here to cover it up?”
“They sent me out here to understand why the collars aren’t working. There’s no connection between them. They’re all from different lines, made of different metals, for different types of variants.”
“Types of variants?”
“Yes. They all require their own unique collar. You can’t expect one to work on all, can you?”
Lieutenant Anderson mumbles something, pulls the car down a street crowded with people, an ambulance on one side with blinding lights, a police car on the other. The rain splatters the windshield, only a few of the people on the street carrying umbrellas to protect themselves.
The car swerves to the right, comes to a stop as Lieutenant Anderson sighs, looks over at him with an annoyed expression. “You wait here.”
“My instructions are to accompany you to the crime scene, Lieutenant.” Connor replies.
“Listen, I don’t give a fuck about your instructions,” he says. “I told you to wait here, so you shut the fuck up and you wait here.”
“And of what help am I going to be in the investigation if I stay here?”
“None. We don’t need your fucking help.”
Connor sighs, leans back against the seat as Lieutenant Anderson exits the car. His hands move to the seatbelt, clicking it undone and pushing the car door open.
This is his job. He doesn’t take orders from Lieutenant Anderson. He takes them from AzureHeart or the head of the DPD.
“…can you confirm this is a homicide?”
“I’m not confirming anything.”
Connor brushes past the crude onlookers, listens to their curious whispers. There’s been a murder and all they care about is being the first in line for the gossip to spread around tomorrow morning with their friends.
“Civilians aren’t allowed beyond this point,” a detective says.
Connor sighs, looks over to the Lieutenant. If he has to shout for him, he will, but their eyes catch and he sees the anger twist further on his face. Connor didn’t think he could annoy him any more than he already has.
“He’s with me,” he calls, and then, the second Connor passes the police line, he adds, “What part of ‘stay in the car’ didn’t you understand?”
“Your order contradicted my instructions, Lieutenant,” he says. “I have a job to do. You’re not going to be able to stop me from doing it by leaving me in a car like a child.”
“Fine,” he says. “You don’t talk, you don’t touch anything, and you stay out of my way. Got it?”
“Evening, Hank,” a detective calls from up on the porch. “We were starting to think you weren’t gonna show.”
“Yeah, that was the plan until this asshole found me.”
Connor grimaces. If only the Lieutenant would understand he would’ve been nicer if he hadn’t started it off this way. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be better. Connor can apologize, pretend that this night never happened. Start over again.
“Just tell me what happened.”
Relief floods through him. He can handle this part. Not being talked to, just listening to the overview of the case.
“We got a call around eight from the landlord. The tenant hadn’t paid his rent for a few months. Somebody drove by and thought something was wrong. That’s when he found the body.”
Connor follows them up the porch, turns around the doorway and is stopped by their bodies. He has to stand on his tip toes to see why they’ve stopped.
Connor hasn’t seen anything like it before. He’s looked at a hundred photos of crime scenes where variants have used their powers to kill, but nothing like this.
Like the body has been torn apart from the inside out.
It is difficult at first to tell the difference between what is real blood and what is waves of energy still lingering over the body. The threads are a deep red, shimmering over the dried blood and sparkling against the lights in the room, looking almost as if the blood is still wet, like the man was just killed a few minutes ago.
The smell hits him next, just as Lieutenant Anderson starts to complain about it.
“It was even worse before we opened the windows,” the detective continues. “The victim’s name was Carlos Ortiz. He has a record for theft and aggravated assault. According to the neighbors, he was kind of a loner. Stayed inside most of the time, they hardly ever saw him.”
Connor steps towards the body, careful not to touch the dried blood pool an inch from his feet. Closer, he can make out the traces of the energy, where they originate in different spots all over the body. Inconsistent, by almost as if there was a rhythm to it.
“State he’s in—wasn’t worth calling everybody out in the middle of the night. It could’ve waited ‘til morning.”
“That’s not true,” Connor interjects. “Even if it’s been this long, you could still lose evidence overnight.”
He is met with a glare.
Right. Don’t say anything. First rule he was given.
“I’d say he’s been there for a good three weeks,” the man continues, ignoring Connor entirely. “We’ll know more when the coroner gets here.”
“Any sign of a break in?”
“Nope. The landlord said the front door was locked from the inside, all the windows were boarded up. The killer must’ve gone out the back way.”
“Did he employ a variant?”
“No idea. The neighbors said they’ve seen one wandering around but there’s no record and Ortiz was unemployed himself so it’s unlikely he could afford one. Maybe a friend?”
Murder is almost always committed by those closest to the victim.
“I g-gotta get some air,” he says, brushing past Connor in his race for the door. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
Connor steps away from the body, wanders around the room not too close to the Lieutenant but not far enough away that he doesn’t get an annoyed glance three times before it’s commented on.
“What do you want?”
“You told me not to touch anything,” he says. “Not that I would anyways. I’m not trained to. I could—”
“Listen,” he says, turning to him. “What do you even add by being here?”
“I can help you solve the crime.”
“Really?” he asks. “How? We don’t even know for sure that a variant did this.”
“We do,” Connor replies. “No weapon could make a wound like that.”
“Really? And you’re sure about that?”
He smiles but hates the fact he has to reveal it like this. It would be easier if he had a collar like others, so he doesn’t have to speak the words like a secret.
“I am a variant,” Connor replies. “I’m sure—"
“Y-You’re a variant?” he asks. “Why don’t you have a collar?”
“My ability isn’t unique, but it is harmless and necessary for the job,” he says, feels the lie slide off his tongue with ease. “I see energy threads.”
“When a variant uses their ability, they leave a trace behind. I can follow that trace.”
“And the body? It’s covered in these energy threads?”
“Do they lead back to the killer?”
“That’s more difficult. They’re heavily concentrated around the body but it’s been too long. They don’t last forever.”
“You have a way of actually being useful then? Or are you just taking up space and wasting time?”
Connor sighs. “I do.”
“Then get to it.”
And so he does.
A winding path through the kitchen, the chairs tipped over, the contents of the table slipped over onto the floor, a bat rolled off to the side.
Connor kneels down beside it, tilts his head and narrows his eyes.
A trace of blue blood. Almost black now that it has dried. He shouldn’t touch this. He could ruin the integrity of the crime scene. He stands back up, investigates the kitchen. There is blue blood splattered across the counter, across the side of the fridge. He finds a speck off to the side, on its own. It won’t be missed.
And he internally cringes as he reaches outwards, smears it with his fingers. Enough that it comes off onto his fingertips, all that he needs. He presses it to his tongue.
“Jesus, what the hell are you doing?”
He glances back towards the Lieutenant.
“You told me to find the variant. I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”
“You have to eat someone else’s blood to do that?”
“It helps focus the energy threads.”
However long they stand there, Lieutenant Anderson fills the silence with an expression so disgusted it is loud enough to make up for it.
“Okay,” he says. “Just… don’t… put anymore evidence in your mouth. You got it?”
“Fucking hell, I can’t believe this shit.”
The world around him snaps into focus, thousands of threads clouding his vision. One shiny crimson thread lingers in the air as it falls away.
Like the string of fate.
It winds around the room, soft where it has been weeks since the variant has stepped foot there, twined together in thick knots where he has been a hundred times. Since even today, most likely, if he judges by the brightness of the one in front of him.
But, in the distance, if Connor focuses his vision on the other red thread, the one faded to almost gray but still strong, angry, an explosion of energy by the counter—
He can almost see how the events led up to this. Not that he would need to see it like this. The way it unwinds, curls backwards against the counter. Cowering. Then humming back to life—
“The variant was defending himself,” Connor says, doesn’t mean to say it out loud.
“I mean—” he pauses, looks towards the dead body. “Variants aren’t able to use their powers with their collars on. The only theory AzureHeart has come up with them for being able to break past the barrier is in intense emotional moments. He would have been using it in self defense anyways but—”
Connor glances back to the energy. There isn’t a good way to describe it to someone like Lieutenant Anderson. He wouldn’t understand—how Connor can sense the fear in the thread there. The pain. The agony.
Not like with Daniel, where they were connected. This is different. This is like reading the words, not feeling them.
“Can you find him or not?”
He does not want to.
But he must.
Connor follows the thread, follows it past the bathroom where he pauses. He’d overheard two of the CSIs saying something weird was in there. Weird how?
A moment of hesitation.
Curiosity pushes the door open, steps inside, pulls back the curtain of the shower. Not him. Entirely the curiosity in the back of his mind.
It is like the implosion of the body.
Something he has never seen before.
This is like solid energy. So concentrated a human could see it. It winds through the air, spelling out the same thing over and over again.
He stumbles backwards, barely gives the wooden statue another look as he exits the bathroom quickly.
What does this variant know about rA9?
His feet follow the thread more quickly now, glancing up towards the attic and acting fast. A chair from the kitchen, a question from Lieutenant Anderson that he ignores. He steps up, pushing the hatch open and hauling himself upwards. Connor follows the thread as it winds in a path around the attic and he comes to a stop where it blooms like radioactive energy, spilling out of the shadows bright and hot like fire.
“I know you’re up here,” he calls into the darkness.
The man steps around the edge of a piece of furniture, half hidden by a sheet. His eyes are wide, staring back at Connor with—
“I was just defending myself,” he whispers. “He was going to kill me.”
Yes. He was.
“I’m begging you.”
He doesn’t have a choice.
“Don’t tell them.”
He has to.
“Connor, what the fuck is going on up there?”
“He’s here, Lieutenant,” he yells back.
He has to know about rA9.
This is a sacrifice that must be made.
Adeline - Alt-J
Chapter 7: Stormy Night
“We have no right to children if despair is all we bring with us.”
And the Trees Crept In - Dawn Kurtagich
He jolts awake on the couch, looking dazedly around the room until his eyes land on her.
“Dinner is ready.”
He sighs, leans down to pick up the pipe on the ground that rolled off the table. She recoils at the sight of it, feels her stomach turning violently. She’s on the verge of throwing up and all it is is a pipe.
She nods, thankful to be able to retreat into kitchen. She lifts the two plates, takes them into the dining room and sets them down. The past week she has been here she’s spent eating her meals in the kitchen, often times waiting for the sink to fill with water to do the dishes. Todd doesn’t allow her to sit at the table.
And, he broke the third chair. So, it isn’t really an option.
“There wasn’t much in the kitchen,” she says. “I did what I could.”
Kara turns, flicks the light switch on and illuminates the dark room. Only the lightning outside has been giving them flashes of illumination, or the background noise of a hockey game that brightens the living room. She operated almost entirely on the light of the sun, too afraid to flip the switch and annoy Todd.
She did that once. Ended up with her fingers twisted backwards against her hand, almost touching her wrist. She’s sure one of them broke, even if it’s healed now. She can feel phantom pains in the bone, like it didn’t set properly.
Todd comes into the dining room, sits down towards the left as she picks up the pitcher of water and fills his glass. Alice gets up from the window, casts her a wary glance as she sits down in her chair.
If only Todd worked. If only he had something that got him out of the house for more than a few random hours two nights ago. She’s been doing her best to take account of their supplies, to find money crammed in the couch or to steal some coins from the jar on Todd’s bedside table.
She needs to get Alice out of here. It just isn’t easy.
“Life’s funny…” Todd says and Kara winces at the same time Alice does. It’s never safe, whether Todd is quiet or whether he is talking. He is unstable chemicals, seconds from blowing up. “My sister tells me she hates me her entire life and what does she do when she finds out her little girl is a monster? She comes crying to me to help her, shoves you into my arms because she doesn’t care about you anymore.”
He looks up to Kara.
“You should be grateful.”
Her heart is beating too fast for her to placate him. She should say I am, Todd. Whether she means it or not—it could help end this quicker.
But she can’t.
The look of revulsion on his face is so strong that she can’t even keep her hands steady as she fills his glass.
“Variants are so fucking wonderful, right?” he asks. “They ruined my fucking life.”
She sets down the pitcher, the glass still half empty but she can’t pour anymore. She’s afraid of spilling, afraid of getting yelled at.
“What are you looking at?”
Kara glances over to Alice. She wishes they were standing so she could step in front of Alice, keep Todd’s attention on her instead. He can rant about everything awful that comes from variants existence. But don’t even look at her.
“What’s your fucking problem?” he asks. “This not the life you dreamed of? Maybe you think this is easy. Maybe you think it’s my fault we live in this fucking shit hole, my fault your fuckin’ mother took off?”
Alice’s movements are slow, controlled, almost unnoticed. She’s sliding off the chair, one second from sprinting upstairs.
Run. Run now before it’s too late.
“You should stop takin’ drugs, Todd,” he says, voice high pitched, mocking his wife. “Sometimes you really scare me, Todd.”
Kara takes a step forward, ready to do something. Drop the pitcher, make it shatter against the floor. Distract him in some way.
Don’t even look at her.
“Fucking bitch took off without a word,” he continues, looking over for one second at Kara. It’s enough to freeze her in her tracks. “Fuckin’ whore walked out on me for a fuckin’ account.”
He stands quicker than she can react, overturns the table in one swift motion. The dishes clatter against the floor, water spills out across the surface, soaking into the wood. Kara stumbles back, watches as Alice stands, knocking her chair backwards. Both too scared to do anything but stand still.
“It’s all your fault.”
“Daddy, no,” Alice cries, pleads, begs.
“It’s all your fuckin’ fault—”
He hits her. Hard. Alice stumbles backwards at the same time Kara moves forward. She should have done it sooner. She should have helped Alice sooner.
Alice runs past her, hand held to her cheek, tears spilling down her cheeks as Todd watches her go, shouting at her, “Come back here. Come back here right now!”
Kara moves towards the stairs and Todd reaches out, grabs her wrists and roots her to the spot.
“You stay right here.”
“Please, Todd, I know you’re angry but—”
He reaches forward, a hand clasping around her throat.
“You stay out of this, or you’ll be next.”
His grip tightens as he tosses her to the side. She stumbles, hits the side of the table. A hand comes up to her throat, feels the metal of the collar, the bruising on her neck already starting to form.
She can feel something spinning inside of her. Unraveling again and again. A ball of yarn tossed down a never-ending flight of stairs. She stands, her head swimming as she wobbles towards the stairs.
Stop Todd. Protect Alice.
Her body slumps against the wall, her hands curling uselessly against the surface as she forces one foot up each step. It’s so difficult to pay attention—so difficult to make her feet hit each step properly, when her thoughts seem a thousand miles from her body.
“Come here you little brat,” she hears him shout.
Her hand comes numbly to her throat, presses against the bruising there. Tender and angry. It sends a wave of pain through her, enough to ground her in this space. She pushes herself up the stairs, past Todd’s room, past the bathroom, and she shoves Alice’s door open.
Todd is inside, a belt raised in the air.
“That’s enough!” she yells, but it is the same as last time. Broken, not quite a yell. Like she isn’t able to. But still, enough.
He turns towards her.
“The fuck are you doing?” he asks. “Get outta here!”
“No,” she says, as firmly as she can manage but her voice still trembles. “I want you to leave Alice alone.”
“I think you got a problem,” he says, stepping towards her. “We need to fix that.”
Todd shoves her backwards against the dresser, the toys and the treasure box falling as she tries to catch herself against the furniture. Kara looks back up towards him, brings her arms up in a failed attempt to a stop his fist coming towards her face. It connects against her nose and she feels it crack, winces at it as she falls to the ground.
She crawls away as best as she can, trying to ignore the pain shooting up her spine, exploding across her face. He stumbles behind her as she forces herself to her feet.
“Watch out, Kara!”
She glances behind her, staggers backwards as he lurches towards her. He loses his footing, collapses into the fort.
“Come here, bitch,” he growls.
She reaches forward, tries to grab Alice’s hand so they can run but she feels him grab a hold of her shoulder and spin her around. Todd shoves her against the closet doors, she feels them buckling against her weight as he wraps his hand around her neck once more.
Kara reaches up and claws at his hand and kicks with her feet as hard as she can. She can’t breathe. Her eyes are blinking rapidly to try to clear up the darkening around her vision.
Her hands switch from clawing at his, thrust out blindly toward his face until she feels it make contact with him. Todd recoils, letting her go. She falls the few inches she was off the ground back to the floor again, knows she doesn’t have time to let herself recovery.
She shoves him as violently as she can, as much force as she can muster. Maybe it is because he doesn’t expect it that he falls so far backwards. Maybe he didn’t expect her to actually fight back.
Todd falls, his head hits the corner of the bed with a sickening crack.
Kara brings her hands to her mouth, her vision fading back to normal as red blood pools across the carpet.
She hadn’t meant to do that. She hadn’t meant to kill him. She hadn’t meant—
“Alice,” she says, her voice shaking so much she wonders if the little girl can make out her words. “Go downstairs.”
“Please,” she repeats. “Go downstairs.”
Alice nods and retreats out of the room. Kara holds her breath. Three seconds.
Three seconds to steady herself.
Then she moves.
She finds a backpack in Alice’s closet, shoves as many clothes as she can into it before heading to Todd’s room. She saw a duffel bag in here when she was cleaning, full of random things like magazines and old gym clothes. Utilized to get rid of things instead of putting them where they belong.
Kara pulls it out from underneath the bed, upends the contents onto the mattress and goes back to the bathroom, grabbing everything she can think of that might be useful. First aid kit. Toothbrushes. It’s such a waste of time but—
She has no money. She wants to get out of the house and run away but she has no money and whatever she comes across she can’t waste using it on toiletries and clothing.
Her reflection gives her pause. She had tasted the blood in her mouth, had known that she was bleeding, but she hadn’t realized what she must look like. Blue smeared across her face like a Manfred painting.
Kara wets a rag, winces at the pain that resides in her skull as she brushes away the streaks of blue. Her nose is crooked. He broke her nose. She throws the rag towards the tub, can feel tears prickling in her eyes.
No. She has to be strong for Alice. She can’t cry, and she certainly can’t let her anger towards Todd be redirected to her.
She takes the steps two at a time on the way down, sets Alice’s backpack into her hands as she makes her way to her bedroom, taking whatever clothing she can get a hold of. Most of it is dresses with faded patterns. She only finds two pairs of pants. Her choice? Todd’s? She doesn’t really know.
The bag fills quickly. She’d have so much extra room if she wasn’t in such a hurry, but she can’t linger in this house any longer. Todd could be dead.
There is a possibility he’s alive. She wouldn’t know. She didn’t check.
Is it wrong of her to hope that he is?
Is it wrong of her to hope that he isn’t?
“Kara,” Alice says from outside the door. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” she says. “Far… away.”
They step outside in the rain. Kara pulls her jacket tighter around her body, the weight of Todd’s stolen wallet and a bag of coins weighing her down. It shouldn’t be this cold. It’s still August. But, she’s thankful anyways that she told Alice to put on her coat. It’ll be too warm now but in a few weeks it will be necessary.
They wait only five minutes for the bus. Kara keeps glancing back to the house as if Todd is going to barge out the doors and run after them. She taps her fingers against her legs, trying to get rid of the energy building up in her stomach. Like electricity, bouncing off walls and zapping her insides.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Alice asks.
She has no idea. But she can’t say that to a little girl. Adults are supposed to hold all the answers. Adults are supposed to protect children. Not possibly kill someone in front of them.
Instead she doesn’t say anything, pretends Alice’s words were lost in the sound of a car speeding down the street, the sound of thunder and lightning crackling across the sky. Anything to not have to lie to Alice.
The bus comes to a stop and they step on, setting their bags down on the empty seat across the aisle. The electricity inside her buzzes louder, her head starts to swim again. She needs to close her eyes, to rest. The bus rolls forward, pulling away from the curb and continuing down its path.
She is glad it’s late. There’s no one else on. At least then they won’t have to worry about stranger’s prying eyes.
Alice leans against her side, rests her head on Kara’s shoulder and holds out her hand. Kara smiles weakly, even though Alice can’t see it, and takes her hand.
They are going to be okay. She will do everything in her power to make sure that happens.
Anthem for the Broken - Missio
Chapter 8: The Interrogation
"You can't save people from the world. There's nowhere else to take them."
The Girl With All the Gifts - M.R. Carey
“Who the fuck is this?”
Lieutenant Anderson glances over to Connor with an expression that appears as if he’s forgotten his name, and, therefor, can’t be the one to supply it to the stranger. Connor finds that unlikely. It is more probable he just doesn’t want to introduce him. It creates too much of a perception that they’re friends.
“Connor,” he says, turning back to the man. “I’m the consultant sent by AzureHeart.”
“AzureHeart?” he asks, cocking his head to the side. “The fuck do they need to send consultants to us for?”
“You’re not equipped with the knowledge that I am when it comes to individuals like the man in there. I’m more qualified.”
“Individuals?” he replies, laughing. “You mean the variants?”
“And what makes you so qualified?”
Connor sighs, looks back to Lieutenant Anderson like he will rescue him from this conversation. He doesn’t even know this guy’s name and he feels like he’s going to end this exchange with getting punched in the face.
“As I’m sure you know,” Connor says, trying to keep his voice steady. “AzureHeart was founded on the basis of protecting and understanding—”
“They taught you everything.”
“And?” the guy asks, taking one step closer. Connor would take a step backwards if he could, just to regain the distance, but he doesn’t want to seem like a coward, so he stands still, hopes it doesn’t show on his face. “You one of them?”
The No sits in the back of his throat, his tongue ready to form the walls, a barrier that will protect himself between this guy and whatever hatred he has for his kind.
But he can’t lie, and he would find out eventually.
“Why don’t you have a collar then?” he asks.
“My job is to investigate variants. My ability assists in that.”
“Hey, would you two shut the fuck up? We have shit to do. You wanted to be part of this case, Reed, then be a fucking part of it. Stop being a prick.”
Reed scoffs, pushes past them into the interrogation room. Connor looks over to the Lieutenant with an expression that he hopes conveys his gratitude.
“Why’d you kill him?”
“What happened before he… combusted?”
“How long were you in the attic?”
“Why didn’t you even try to run away?”
Connor steps forward, looking through the glass. The shiny silver of the collar glinting off the dim lighting. It’s not working but they’ve left it on. AzureHeart is sending over a brand new collar, state of the art. A few more hours and they’ll cut this one off his neck and place a new one around it.
All that freedom. Gone.
Lieutenant Anderson reaches forward, snaps his fingers in front of the variant’s face but the man doesn’t look up, just keeps his eyes locked on the table between them.
He slams his fists down on the surface, making both the variant and Connor jump. He hears Reed let out a small laugh as the Lieutenant yells, “Say something, goddamit!”
Connor peeks towards Reed out of the corner of his eye. The detective is leaning against a wall, arms crossed and an amused smile on his lips.
“Jumpy boy,” he says. “How do you plan on making it out here if you’re too scared?”
He sighs and looks away. If he doesn’t ever have to talk to Reed again for the rest of his life, he’d be perfectly content with that. Maybe he’ll get himself removed from this job entirely. AzureHeart can find a replacement if he messes things up enough, can’t they?
“Fuck it,” Lieutenant Anderson says from the other side of the glass. “I’m outta here.”
Connor waits the thirty seconds it takes for him to leave the room, circle back into their side. The quicker this is over with, the quicker the variant is returned to his cell, and the more likely Connor will be able to talk to him without worrying about other people overhearing.
He doesn’t have time to explain rA9 or the important of everything surrounding it.
“We’re wasting our time interrogating him,” the Lieutenant says, sitting down in a chair. “We’re getting nothing out of him.”
“We could always try roughing him up a little,” Reed suggests. “After all, he’s not really human. And they heal fast. No one would know.”
“Ignoring how despicable that is,” Connor says, glancing over to him to try and see if he really means it. “Biologically we are human. The gene that distinguishes—”
“Fucking save it,” he says. “I don’t have time for your fancy science talk, smartass. What should we do, then?”
“I could try questioning it,” he says. Connor could establish a rapport. A friendship. Anything. Nice cop after Lieutenant Anderson played bad cop.
No slamming tables. No shouting about an implosion of gore. No pictures to put on display.
He hears Reed laugh, and then a long sigh from Lieutenant Anderson, “What do we have to lose? Go ahead. Suspect is all yours.”
Connor doesn’t mean to, but when he looks back at Reed he can’t help but smiling. Victory. The detective rolls his eyes in return. Not so impressed, but maybe annoyed. It counts for something.
He leaves, circling around to the other door. The reflective mirror to his side, the knowing that his every movement, his every word, is going to be watched and dissected from the three on the other side. They shouldn’t allow him in here. He’s a consultant, not a detective.
Still. They do. Curiosity? To see how he would deal with this?
He takes his seat across from the variant. His eyes drift to the file, back to his face again. Connor wants to look at those pictures about as much as the variant does.
“You’ve been hurt,” he says, eyeing the scars on his arms, on his face. He has his own, across his left arm. They heal fast, but the damage remains. “Did Ortiz do that? Did he beat you?”
The variant winces.
“Sorry,” Connor says. “I should introduce myself. My name is Connor. I know you’ve been through a lot, but you need to help me understand what happened. I’m on your side. I want to help you.”
“There’s nothing I can do if you won’t talk to me,” he continues. “You have to trust me. I want to get you out of here. I know you acted in self-defense. But they aren’t going to believe me without you telling your version of events.”
The variant looks up at him, only for a tiny second, before his eyes glance to the mirror, back at the table again, “What… what are they going to do to me? They’re going to hurt me, aren’t they?”
“No,” Connor replies. “I think they just want to understand. They know he abused you. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Why did you tell them you found me?” he asks, ignoring Connor’s words. “Why couldn’t you have just left me there?”
Simplicity in that response.
“They were going to find you anyways,” Connor lies. “I was just faster.”
He reaches for the file, contemplates opening it. If he showed the photos, maybe he could coerce a confession. A display of blood and organs to put someone back into the terror of the moment, their horror at what they’ve done.
He doesn’t care about a confession.
“You were overcome by anger and frustration,” he says, his gaze stuck on the logo printed across the front of the folder, the carefully typed letters on the side. “No one can blame you for what happened. I know you’re scared and lost. You’re disturbed by what happened. Talk to me. You’ll feel better. I promise I won’t let anyone hurt you. Everything is going to be okay.”
The variant looks up at him for a moment, opens his mouth as if to say something before changing his mind.
“At least tell me your name,” Connor presses. “I just want to know your name.”
“I don’t have one.”
“He took it away from me.”
Connor’s hands tremble. He presses them flat against the surface of the table in an attempt to steady them.
Ortiz deserved to die.
The thought hits him so suddenly that he wonders if it’s his own. The variant’s energy is radiating off so strongly, in waves like fire, that he must consider the possibility it’s affecting him.
But he knows it isn’t. He does not have the power to wind their thoughts together like Daniel did. He is simply existing, traumatized and hopeless.
Connor has to get out of here. He has to get away.
“I’m getting nowhere,” he says, standing and looking towards the glass. “I give up.”
He walks towards the door, isn’t even able to put his hand on the pad for a second before the door slides open and the room is filled with people. Reed meets his gaze with a glare and an underlying smugness.
Not so victorious after all.
“Chris, lock him up,” he says, eyes not leaving Connor.
The other officer—Chris—steps over to the variant, reaches forward to drag him up, “Alright, let’s go.”
“Leave me alone,” he screams, pulling away from his grip. “Don’t touch me.”
“The fuck are you doing?” Reed asks. “Move it.”
Connor steps forward, his hand reaching forward to touch Reed on the shoulder before he yanks it away like he’s been burned even by the thought, “You shouldn’t touch him. We haven’t replaced his collar.”
“Stay out of this, got it?” he says, turning back to Connor, shoving him against the wall. “No fuckin’ variant is going to tell me what to do.”
“You don’t understand,” Connor tries again, steps forward into Reed’s space. “He could still use his powers if he feels threatened. He doesn’t have control over them.”
“I told you to shut your fucking mouth,” Reed says, not looking at him again. “Chris, you gonna move this asshole or what?”
“I can’t let you do that,” he says, moving past Reed and pushing Chris backwards. “Leave him alone. Now.”
“I warned you, motherfucker.”
Connor turns, staggers back a step. Reed’s gun is raised, pointed directly at his forehead. A gun, really? This small sleight is enough to threaten to kill him?
“Mind your own business, Hank.”
“I said,” Lieutenant Anderson replies, pulling his own gun from his holster. “That’s enough.”
“Variants heal fast,” Reed says, not budging. “Who says he can’t survive a bullet in the head?”
“You wanna be the one to test that theory?”
Connor tilts his head, trying to decode Reed’s expression. He can’t tell if Reed would really pull the trigger. He’s on the edge. One second and he’ll tip over.
“Fuck,” he says, lowering his gun. “Fuck all of you.”
Reed turns and storms out the door. If he could, he probably would have slammed it.
Connor turns his attention back to the variant, kneels down beside him, “Everything is all right. It’s over now. Nobody is going to hurt you.” He looks back to the other officer. “Please, don’t touch him. Let him follow you out of the room and he won’t cause any trouble.”
Chris nods and he steps backwards, presses against the wall while the variant stands and follows him out of the room. He lets out a long breath, his heart hurting. It’s too much. It’s all too much.
“You fucked up.”
Connor looks up at the Lieutenant.
“You fed him a hundred lines for his defense,” he says. “He can get away with this now. We don’t know for sure he was abused or that—”
“The scars on his arm were not self-inflicted,” Connor replies. “The crime scene shows there was a struggle. Variants don’t get their powers from having a fun time, Lieutenant.”
“We have no idea what happened.”
“I do,” he says. “And I thought you trusted me. Carlos Ortiz was a terrible person. The world is better off without him. Why do you want a variant to go to jail for his death?”
“I don’t,” the Lieutenant replies. “But next time you talk to a suspect, you don’t tell them all the ways they can get away with their crimes, got it?”
“You’re mad at me for handling the interrogation wrong,” Connor says. “Even if he deserves to be free?”
“If I got a confession, would that change your tune?”
His jaw clenches, “You’re on thin fucking ice, Connor. Don’t push it.”
Connor watches him leave, leans his head against the wall. His eyes close. In the morning, he’s going to have to fix this. And for now, he’s going to have to figure out how to keep his heart rate from beating so fast.
i really waited until exactly 12:41 to post this asdklj
You There - Aquilo
Chapter 9: Fugitives
“This body is yours. No one can ever take it from you, if only you will accept yourself, claim it again--your arms, your spine, your ribs, the small of your back. It's all yours. All this bounty, all this beauty, all this strength and grace is yours. This garden is yours. Take it back. Take it back.”
Into the Forest - Jean Hegland
“End of the line.”
Kara looks up to the driver, “End of the line?”
“Yeah,” he says, and he looks almost genuinely apologetic for this. “You’re going to have to leave.”
She looks back to Alice, brings up a hand to shake her shoulder slightly.
“Wake up,” she whispers. “We have to go.”
Alice blinks, bleary eyed and still tired as she sits upwards. She brings up a fist to rub the sleep from her eyes as Kara stands and gathers their bags from the other seats.
“Do you know if there’s any other place we could spend the night?” she asks, looking back to the man.
“I have no idea.”
She nods, just barely, before she pulls Alice along towards the front of the bus. They step off into the rain, watch as the bus starts up again and disappears down the street. A subway rolls above them noisily, the soft patter of rain drenches their clothes once more.
“You going to be okay?” she asks Alice. “We’ll find somewhere to spend the night.”
They wander down towards the end of the street. Kara surveys the area, trying to find a place for them to go. She has ten bucks in the wallet she stole from Todd. Three dollars in coins. It isn’t enough to go anywhere. She wishes she had more time.
But even then, more time meant staying near him. It meant getting Alice hurt more and more every day.
She has no idea what to think. What to be thankful for. What to regret.
There’s a motel. If she goes there, they’ll be caught on video cameras. They might ask for ID, and she has none. She’d leave a trail, even if she had the cash to pay for the night.
“The laundromat is open,” she says, pointing towards the end of the street. “We’d be out of the rain. At least for a little bit.”
Alice sighs beside her but follows Kara towards the building. The space between them feels like it’s far too wide. She wants to reach out, hold Alice close against her as if the empty street will suddenly become dangerous and violent.
When they reach the laundromat, Kara pushes the door open and is relieved by the rush of hot air that takes away the chill of the storm.
“It’s warm in here,” she says, the bell tinkling above her head. She looks back to Alice with what she hopes is a friendly smile. “You’ll feel better in no time.”
She glances over to the man on the seats. To Alice, she raises her index finger to her lips. No need to wake him. They can keep quiet while they recover from the rain and the cold outside.
Kara walks with her over to the corner, sits down beside her on the rows of chairs. She rubs her hands together, trying to make them go from cold numbness to warm again. For a moment, out on the street, the buzzing inside of her had calmed down. But in here it’s like it's started up again. Wound tight and thrown hard.
She can’t sit still. She stands, replacing her seat with the bags.
“Where are you going?” Alice whispers.
“Nowhere,” she says, moving towards the table, hands reaching out for the magazine. “Just looking around.”
When her fingers touch the magazine, the electronic screen flashes. Glitching squares stagger across the surface like one of those puzzles with one open spot to slide the pieces around in. She can’t even read the screen now. She can barely make out a few scattered words. Bee Line to Disaster?
She recoils, stuffing her hands into her pockets.
Had she done that?
Alice is looking at her with wide eyes, flicking between the magazine and her.
“It happens,” she says, taking a step backwards. “That’s the problem with electronic magazines. Dumb invention.”
But she can feel the way the buzzing inside of her has subsided almost, like it had an outlet to go to, like it could uncoil slightly. It wasn’t repressed any longer.
None of it is.
She doesn’t feel the same emptiness she had felt before. Instead she is weighed down with something. She’s like a battery left to die for years and years before it has been plugged back in again. It is only vaguely surprising that she is still capable of holding a charge.
She’s jumping to conclusions. She needs to test this.
Kara forces her walk towards the cash machine in the corner to be slow. Normal. She can’t let Alice see her sudden interest in what she can do. If she can do anything.
She presses her hand against the surface slowly, feels more than hears the sound of the machine groaning against her palm. She pulls away quickly, the lights on display flickering against her touch.
This is something.
This is something dangerous.
She did that without trying.
Kara looks over to the stranger, his eyes still closed, headphones still playing the faint sound of music. The peacefulness of his face, the quietness of the room, something about it reminds her of the collar around her neck.
She reaches up to it, touches the cool metal with the tips of her fingers. She needs to hide it. The doctor had said she was sick, that it was like medicine, it helped regulate whatever was wrong with her.
Wrong with her.
In the last week at Todd’s, she had been careful about turning on the television when he wasn’t around. Volume muted, all the way down for safe measure. She had read the lagging captions on news channels, she had consumed the magazine every time it refreshed with new information telling her about how the world perceives what she is.
She’d tested herself. Once. It was an accident, truly. The knife in her hand when she was doing dishes slipped from her grip and she had foolishly reached out with her other to catch it. It’d sliced across her palm, spilled blue into the sink. Her blood was the same color as the dish soap.
Watching it heal was not the amazing part. It was the feeling of it. The feeling of skin folding back over, working fast to repair the damage she’d caused.
She’d learned through the news stations that she was a variant. Capable of great power, terrifying if it was let loose. They stuck this metal around her neck to help her. The doctor said she was sick. She’d believed him.
She still does, maybe. She can’t entirely pretend he was lying. There could be truth to his words. Doctors don’t lie to their patients.
But it’s broken now. She has no need to wear it. She needs to cover it up, keep the stares from other people off her. She needs to look normal.
She needs to look human.
Isn’t that how they are separated? Variants and humans? Maybe that is the easiest way to put it. The simplest manner possible.
She is still human, though. She is a person. She knows that.
Kara steps over to the stranger, peers down at him to test how asleep he really is. He has a jacket in his lap. A beanie. They aren’t useful to her. She has to hope that there is something in his laundry she can take. Something she can cover herself up with. One thing. She only needs one thing.
She reaches towards the machine, program complete written in big blocky letters.
“What are you doing?” Alice asks, the suddenness of it making Kara jump. “They’re not our clothes!”
“I’m only looking,” she whispers back. A scarf. A turtleneck. A jacket with a high neckband. Anything. “I need to hide this collar.”
“But that’s stealing,” Alice says, taking one step forward. “We can’t do that.”
She hesitates, looking for a second towards the sleeping man. It’s one item. He might not even know it’s missing. He might think it’s been lost in the backseat of his car or underneath a piece of furniture. Even left at a significant other’s or a friend’s house.
“I’m sorry, Alice, but I have to do this.”
Alice shakes her head before walking away, arms crossed over her chest. Kara will apologize to her later. She’ll try and get her to understand. But for now—she has no choice.
Her fingers close around the latch, but before she can open it she feels the click of the lock, watches as program complete shifts and the letters grow offset, spilling into each other to form a blank wall. Scattered letters peek up from the sides, from above and below.
And then the machine hums to life, the clothes spinning behind the plastic door so fast she can feel the metal growing hot against her fingertips.
She pulls away as the machine lets out a screeching cry. Even without her touch, it’s still cycling through at high velocity. She looks behind her, the stranger is blinking awake at the sound of it. They have to get out of here.
“Alice, come on,” she says, rushing back to her and picking up their bags. “Let’s go.”
They exit the laundromat, a siren wailing as they step out onto the street. A police car speeds past them and she feels her lungs stop breathing, her heart beating fast. She looks through the glass at the man investigating the machine, hand in his pocket to find his phone.
She reaches forward, nudging Alice onward. They can’t be seen.
They hurry past the window, Kara holds out her hand, taking Alice’s in hers. It’s like ice-cubes in her own.
“Alice,” she says. “You’re freezing cold.”
“I’m okay,” Alice replies. “I’m not so cold.”
Kara pulls the strap of the duffel bag further up on her shoulder, point with her free hand towards the direction of the store on the other side of the street. Its glowing neon signs are barely legible from here, but she thinks that the light of it among the darkness of the other storefronts means it hasn’t closed yet. “Look, the store is still open. Maybe we can go inside. Someone might be able to help us there.”
Maybe she can ask an employee there for money. For a place to stay. She saw the blocked off parking lot but she can’t make Alice sit in the cold all night—she can’t make her stay up until the laundromat is vacant for them to go back and rest.
Sides—that man might’ve called someone. It might not be an option anymore. She doesn’t want to go back and find out.
“You look lost.”
She shouldn’t stop, but the sudden sound of a voice roots her to the spot. She glances behind her at the voice. She breathes out a tiny sigh. Not the person from the laundromat coming after them. At least there is that.
How much does she tell him? What does she ask of him?
“We are,” she decides, pulling Alice to hide behind her slightly. “We have nowhere to go.”
“I know someone who can help you,” he says, stepping towards her. Instinctively, she takes a step backwards. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He reaches up, presses a finger against his collar. Black metal against pale skin. The movement of his neck to show it causes the light to hit it, turning the surface a dark emerald. She can’t tell if it really has green undertones or if it’s the neon lights above her for the café.
“I—” she pauses. “Who?”
He reaches into his pocket, pulls something from his pocket. A white object, compact and small. It isn’t until he holds it out to her and she takes it, feels the surface against her fingertips, that she realizes it’s a piece of plastic. But she can feel the hum of electricity from inside of it. It buzzes at her fingertips, scatters around like it’s fighting its way out.
“It’s on the other side of town,” he says. “I’m sorry I can’t help with you for tonight.”
She slips the cube into her pocket where it stays weighted down next to her wallet.
“How do I—”
“You’ll figure it out,” he says. “Don’t worry.”
She nods, gives up on trying to search for an answer. She isn’t going to get one.
“Do you know of anywhere we could stay the night?” she asks, echoing her question from earlier.
He glances over his shoulder towards the motel and then back to her, a small smile on his face. “If you have money—”
She shakes her head.
“Didn’t think so,” he says. “There’s an abandoned house that way. I’ve been in this area for a while. I don’t think anyone is there.”
She glances down to Alice, who peers around her body and looks up at her with her lip between her teeth and her eyebrows knitted together. No. Alice doesn’t want to stay there.
“Thank you,” Kara says. “For your help.”
He nods and replaces his hands in his pockets. Kara watches him walk away, only looking back towards Alice for a moment but when she looks up—the man is gone. Like he vanished into thin air.
“An abandoned house,” Kara says, trying to choose her words carefully. “At least we’d be out of the rain.”
At least we’d be out of the rain. How many times can she tell Alice that until she stops believing Kara?
“Kara,” Alice replies, looking towards the house that was pointed out. “I don’t like that place.”
“I know. But, it’s just for one night and no one will look for us there.”
Alice looks up at her again, her eyes soft and pleading.
“Okay,” she says. “We’ll go to the store, see if someone can help us. We don’t have money for a motel but maybe—”
She looks towards the store. She can’t promise that they’ll stay there if she gets the money. They shouldn’t. Even if they have the cash. Money doesn’t have to be a part of the equation, but it is—they should save all their money if they have another option. They can’t waste it on a motel tonight when they might desperately need it for food tomorrow.
And the cameras are still a problem. She still doesn’t have an ID. She could lie to the employee, try and convince them to let her stay there without it, but it’s just not the safest option.
“We’ll wait and see,” she decides on. Not promising anything. Not lying about the fact she will have to convince Alice to sleep in an abandoned house. That’s how all ghost stories start, don’t they?
They walk together quickly towards the store, entering to the sound of the doors sliding open and a bell sounding. The news is playing something about extinct species and a possible android zoo. Android zoo?
“Can I help you?”
“I’m with a little girl,” she says, gesturing behind her to Alice as she wanders down an aisle. “We have nowhere to go. Could you spare us some money so we can get a room for tonight?”
“Look,” he says with a sigh. “This is a convenience store, lady, not the Salvation Army. I can’t start handing out cash to every bum in the neighborhood.”
She clenches her jaw and nods, giving a quick look to the cash register. “Okay. Sorry.”
He shrugs and goes back to his seat, turning away from her back to the screen.
If she can distract him, if she could have a few seconds, she might be able to open the drawer and take the money. She’d have to trust her instinct, trust that whatever this is, it will work in her favor.
Kara finds her way back to Alice. She’s standing around one of the aisles, holding a stuffed fox out towards her. She smiles. Timothy. She hadn’t thought about grabbing him before they ran. Her mind was on the important things. The things they wouldn’t be able to live without.
Five days ago, when Todd was passed out on the couch, she had sat in Alice’s room with her, listening to the sound of a music box playing the same song again and again. It was mingled with the sound of the television downstairs turned up too loud, but the soft piano was enough to distract them from the script of cheating housewives and overdramatic doctors.
She had sewed Timothy’s arm on stitch by stitch, drawing it out slowly and doing each one carefully. It was easy remembering the movements. Sewing wasn’t difficult at all. Alice hadn’t even asked for her help, either. Kara had seen that it had fallen off, had grabbed the box on her shelf and set to work. Thread through the eye of the needle, carefully planned out movements to hide the stitch as best as possible. Still, the mismatched thread showed. Kara was not an expert seamstress. She was just an unemployed variant, picking up skills along the way.
He was good as (almost) new when she was done. Alice had been so happy. Her little friend repaired again. The first words Alice spoke directly to her was His name is Timothy.
Kara should have remembered to grab him. She should have remembered to bring along the one good thing in Alice’s life.
“I know we don’t have money,” Alice says, setting him back on the shelf. “But it’s nice meeting him again.”
Kara smiles, reaching out to touch the soft fabric of the fox as they pass by. Alice disappears around the corner of the aisle, reaching to investigate boxes of chocolate bars.
She glances back to the counter, hesitates for a few seconds before acting too impulsively to stop herself. Duffel bag open. Timothy the Second stuffed alongside clothing. The sound of the zipper closing once more sounds like a tornado warning to her, but neither of them seem to notice.
Kara breathes out a sigh of relief, turning around the corner as Alice winds her way to a display of chips. Three flavors, two rows each. They look almost like a flag with their equal width.
Her fingers graze across the top of a stack of cans. She taps on the one at the highest point, looks back to Alice. Cleaning this up could take a few minutes. A little girl, crying about how sorry she is—that could hold someone’s attention.
She makes her way down the last aisle, stopping for a second to look over the tools. She reaches out quickly, taking a pair of wire cutters and pocketing them, looking back towards the employee at the same time. He doesn’t notice her steal it.
Two for two.
Don’t push your luck, Kara.
She needs three for three.
“Alice,” she whispers, walking towards the end of the aisle. “I need your help. You see those cans over there? I want you to go over and knock them down.”
“Knock them down? But why?”
“Please, Alice. Just trust me.”
Alice chews on her bottom lip, looking over to the cans. It takes her a moment to decide and Kara waits those seconds out unsteadily. They can survive without the money for tonight. But tomorrow? Tomorrow is entirely different. They might have a place to go to but they have no way there, and they still need food. She saw the prices on the food shop at the corner of the street. The prices were astronomically, almost laughably, high.
Finally, Alice walks away, slow careful steps. Like she’s waiting for Kara to call her back, tell her to forget it. She even casts a glance over her shoulder, looks towards Kara for guidance.
She can only nod and disappear behind the shelf, peering over at the man. She hears the clatter of cans hitting the floor, jumps at the sudden noise of it at the same time he does. He stands, looking to the source of the racket. Kara keeps her eyes on the shelf, pretending she’s focused on the ingredients list on the back of the bag of chips in front of her.
Kara watches out of her peripherals as he walks over to her and she takes a slow step to the side.
Thirty seconds is all she needs. Maybe not even that. She can be quick. She will be quick.
“You alright?” he asks, his voice softened for a little girl, not the same tone he used when talking to Kara at all. “Are you hurt?”
She crosses the space as he talks to Alice, tells her not to worry, reassures her it’s nothing but cans of food. She tentatively reaches out, touches the edge of the counter with her finger. The blue square in front of her glitches, turns a blank and cloudy white.
Kara leans across the counter, feeling blindly for the drawer in the hopes that it’s not connected to the scanner. She touches the edge of it, feels electricity zap her as if she’d stuck a fork in an outlet. She yanks her hand back, feels the sting of pain in her fingertips as the drawer juts out away from the counter.
She shakes her hand violently to get rid of the pain and reaches forward, grabs a fistful of cash, and shoves it in her pocket.
When she turns around, Alice is helping pick up the cans, helping rebuild the second layer.
“Alice,” she says, her voice hoarse. “Let’s go.”
Alice meets her gaze and nods, rushes over to her side. Kara grabs her hand, tugs her out of the door and walks as fast as she can down the street. They can’t be caught. She can feel Alice fighting against her grip as Kara pulls her down an alley between two of the buildings at the same moment she hears the faint noise of the doors opening behind her.
She holds her breath. Waits.
The doors close again.
“You used me to steal that money,” Alice says. The volume of the voice makes Kara cringe, like he could hear her yelling through the walls when it’s barely even above a normal level. “How could you do that? I trusted you.”
“We needed the money. I had to find a way, Alice.”
She should apologize. She should say she’s sorry.
But she can’t. She might have to do it again. She can’t make Alice think that it’s okay but—
She can’t pretend it isn’t a necessity, either.
Alice stares at her for a long moment, face solidified into anger before it slowly dissolves and she takes Kara’s hand again.
Kara smiles softly, hopes it conveys that she is apologetic for this—for using Alice. Not for stealing. Too much to be said with just a curve of the lips.
Kara leads them over to the abandoned house, pulls the wire cutters from her pocket and kneels down.
“What are you doing?” Alice asks. “I thought you stole the money so we could stay at the motel.”
Kara bites her bottom lip, looks up to Alice before she makes the first cut. “I’m sorry. We can’t spare—we can’t risk it. There are cameras everywhere. If we get caught—It’s safer here, Alice. That man said that no one lives here. We’ll be out of the rain. I can make a fire. It’s the best place to go.”
“Are you sure?”
She returns to the fence, clipping the side of it until there’s enough room for her to crawl under. She crouches down, shoving her bag through and crawling in after it. When she’s through, she stands and holds the fence up, motions for Alice to follow her.
“It’ll be okay. I promise.”
Alice hesitates for a moment before nodding and following her. When she’s through, Kara drops the fence and turns back to the house. The windows are boarded up, but if she gets close to them and stands on her tiptoes, she can see through.
“It looks empty inside,” she says. “I think that man was right. No one’s here.”
Kara walks over to the door, tries the knob, pushes hard against the door. No luck.
“It’s locked,” she says quietly, looking over her shoulder to Alice.
Where Alice should be.
She peeks around the corner of the building, but there’s no one there. She turns, following back the way they came.
“Alice?” she calls, more panicked this time.
She spins wildly, too fast for her feet to catch up with her. She slips against the wet surface of the porch, catches herself on the side of the building. Her heart pounds in her chest as she makes her way to Alice’s voice.
Instinctively, she is caught between punching and running at the sight of a man holding a knife. Instead, she simply freezes into place, doing neither.
“Wait are you doing?” she asks, her voice stuck in that same inability to yell. She steps forward, stops herself. What is she going to do? Grab the knife by the blade and pull it away?
“Visitors,” the man says, giving her only a small glance. “Ralph doesn’t like visitors. They’re nasty. They may hurt Ralph.”
“She’s just a little girl, she’s not going to hurt you,” Kara says, fighting the urge to reach out, grab Alice, run. “I don’t know what happened to you, but she had nothing to do with it.”
He looks over at her slowly. It’s then that she sees the glint of his collar. The same dark emerald glow as the other man’s.
Her hands shake as she reaches up, points to her own. It is battered and old gray, but it’s still there. “Look, I’m a variant, too. You have nothing to be afraid of. All we want is a place to spend the night.”
“Visitors are dangerous,” he whispers. “Look what they did to Ralph.”
It isn’t until he turns his head that she realizes he’s Ralph. There’s an ugly scar across his face. Healed, but still there. It makes the slight ache in her finger feel so trivial in comparison. She has only had broken bones, healed over and unnoticeable.
She can’t even think about what must have happened to cause that. Kara wants to step forward, reach up and touch his face, tell him it’s okay now. They aren’t going to hurt him. She has an address to a safe place, if she can figure out how to operate the cube—he can come with them.
“You have nothing to worry about,” she says, her voice soft, nearly lost in the rain. “We’re not going to do you any harm. You have my word.”
Ralph steps back slightly, his knife drawn to his chest. Alice takes the chance to run to Kara’s side, to hide behind her back life before. Kara instinctively steps in front her, helps become the shield she should have been a few hours ago, a few days ago, every second she was around Todd.
“You must excuse Ralph,” he says. “He still finds it difficult to control himself. Sometimes his fear makes him do things he regrets. Ralph has seen some hard times. He’s just so scared the humans will get him again.”
Humans. That distinguishing factor between them and others. Others like Alice.
Nonvariants—that’s what he means. So much easier, so much cleaner and tidier, to just call them humans. As if they aren’t.
“You can stay if you want,” he says. “Ralph won’t hurt you.”
“Okay,” she says, forcing a smile on her face. “We’ll just stay the night.”
He smiles in return, big and bright and happy, “Come on! Come, come! This way!”
When he goes around the corner she lets out a long breath, turns to Alice for a moment. She’s given the same face she was out on the street. Alice doesn’t want to stay here.
“I’m sorry,” Kara whispers. “But we have to trust him.”
Alice bites her lip again, like she’s fighting back the urge to say something. Kara waits until she nods, because if Alice were to fight this—maybe she would give in. Maybe she would use their money for the motel.
“Ralph has lived here since he ran away,” he says as they come around the corner. He is digging around in his pocket for a key with his free hand—the hand that doesn’t hold a knife. “Ralph never goes outside, so no one knows he lives here. Humans come in to squat from time to time, but you know, Ralph just hides ‘til they leave.”
He slides the key into the lock, pushes the door open.
Kara steps in slowly, can smell the thick scent of something familiar but she can’t name.
“You can make yourself at home here,” he says, closing the door behind them. “Ralph is going to go into the other room. He would like to stay with you, but he has things to do.”
She waits until Ralph leaves, disappearing through the door. When he’s gone, she kneels beside Alice, helping her shrug off her jacket.
“It’s just for one night, Alice,” she says, keeping her voice low. “We’ll find a better place tomorrow. I’ll set up a fire so you can get warmed up, alright?”
Alice nods and Kara moves around the room, gathering wooden planks by the windows and a pile of newspapers. She sets them up in the fireplace, reaches up to the mantle to grab the box of matches and retrieves one. She strikes it across the side, holds it out to the paper and the wood until it catches.
Her hands come up, feeling the heat of the flames warm her skin for a minute. It shouldn’t be this cold. It’s only August.
“Come over here,” she calls towards Alice. “It’s nice and warm.”
Alice crosses the room towards her, sits down beside her and holds out her own hands, mimicking Kara’s movements.
“I’ll set you up a bed, alright?”
She moves quickly, finding torn and dirty blankets and cringes at having to make Alice use them, but they have no choice. She takes them back over, lays them out on the ground before setting her bag down and unzips it, taking the fox out.
Kara holds it out to her, “Look what I’ve got for you.”
Alice smiles, just barely, but she still reaches out and takes the fox. Timothy.
For a moment, she wonders if Alice thinks it’s her Timothy, or if she would know immediately from seeing it that it’s not. There isn’t the slight off shade of orange-brown thread where his arm was sewn back on. There isn’t the stain from when Alice dropped it in the mud outside after it rained. His fur is shiny and new, not worn and old.
“I really am sorry, Alice,” she says. “About everything.”
But it was always going to end this way.
They were never going to be able to get out of there happy. They were never going to be able to escape and not worry about Todd coming after them. They would always be looking over their shoulders.
“Why didn’t he ever love me?” Alice asks, her voice broken and cracked and her eyes stuck on the fox, too devastated to look up at her. “Why was he always so upset with me? All I wanted was a life like other girls. Maybe I did something wrong? Maybe I wasn’t good enough? That’s why he was always so angry. I just wanted us to be a family. I just wanted him to love me. Why couldn’t we just be happy?”
“I don’t know, Alice.”
“You’ll never leave me, right? Promise you’ll never go.”
“Will we be together forever?”
Alice sets the toy down and crawls across the small space between them, loops her tiny arms around Kara’s neck. For a moment, she is struck by how sudden this is. The week they spent together—they barely talked. There was passing smiles, friendliness, politeness. But not affection.
Kara brings her hands up, squeezes Alice tight to keep herself from crying.
She killed this little girl’s father. Alice is all alone in this world now. All because of her.
When Alice pulls away from her, Kara brings up her hands, places them on either side of her cheeks. She is hit with how much she wants to apologize. How much she wants to destroy this world for causing Alice so much pain. She is only nine years old. She shouldn’t be sitting in an abandoned house thinking about how her father is dead or dying in her bedroom.
“You’ve got to sleep,” she says instead, her voice as hoarse and shattered as Alice’s.
Alice lays down, using Kara’s bag as a pillow. She pulls the blanket up over her body, tucks the fox into Alice’s arm and then she leans down, presses a tiny kiss to the top of her head.
“Sleep tight, Alice.”
Alice’s eyes close and Kara stands, leaves the small space. Alice needs some time alone. Just a little bit. Kara will be back, she will lay between her and the fire, protect her like a wall from whatever may come at her.
She taps on the door lightly before pushing it open. Ralph looks over to her, a small smile on his face.
“What is this?” she asks, stepping inside the kitchen.
The room itself is dirty and old and falling apart. She can make out the grime stuck deep into the tiles of the floor and the walls. The stove is in broken pieces, the sink is barely held together. There’s a table and chairs in the corner, broken apart and laying in a pile of debris.
But the room has been transformed.
Greenery climbs up the walls, flowers blooming bright. A rainbow of colors. Flowers she’s unable to name and colors so vibrant and luscious she’s never seen them before. She feels tears pricking at her eyes again.
Ralph has turned this room of disaster into a lovely garden. Every broken piece of this place has been made beautiful by plants making their way around rusted metal handles of the cabinets, a winding path around the curve of the faucet, the splintered fragments of a table and chairs.
“Ralph likes plants,” he says. His hand reaches out to a flower, one that looks like it might be dying, but at his touch it comes back to life in an instant. The dark red of it brightening again vivid and colorful. “They don’t hurt him.”
She steps forward, stops suddenly. “May I?”
He nods, once softly, then again more happily. “No one’s ever seen Ralph’s room before.”
She glances around for a bed, realizes that room might not necessarily be what she’s thinking. She didn’t have a proper bedroom, either.
“How did you do this?” she asks, touching the soft petal of a tulip. “Some of these shouldn’t even be in season.”
“Ralph can do magic,” he says. “So can you.”
Kara has only heard it said in terms of power and ability. More of the latter than the former. Power implies variants are superior to the others, and they can’t say that. Then they might actually question why they are putting collars on them and giving them the worst of the jobs and to hang around like ornaments.
Ralph holds up his hand in front of her, turns his wrist slightly. Lights like firework sparklers burst in the air, a thousand shades of deep green. It isn’t until then that she realizes they match his eyes. A vibrant verdant the same color as grass.
Grass. Plants. That’s what she was smelling when she stepped in. The overly powerful scent of flowers and plant-life. Like freshly mowed grass. The air is thick with it and the scent of roses, tulips, gardenias—
Every flower she can think of is on this wall. And more. A hundred more. One of each. Cascading from red where they stand to purple on the other side.
“Magic,” he says, holding his hand out to her. The lights have faded into the shape of a pink flower, with orange and yellow fading into the center. “See?”
“What kind of flower is this?” she asks, taking it from his hand.
“Alstroemeria,” he answers in a cheerful tone. “Or, a Peruvian lily. Lily of the Incas. Parrot lily. Lots of names. Ralph knows them all.”
“And it’s mine?” she asks, looking up to his expectant eyes. She hopes he says yes. She wants to keep this forever. She will find a way to take it with them, keep it from getting crushed. She will find a way to keep this alive and in perfect condition. Even if it means bringing Ralph along with her.
“Ralph would be very happy if you kept it.”
“Of course, I will,” she says, can’t help the smile that comes across her face. “How do I take care of it?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he says. “Ralph used extra special magic. It will live forever. He made sure of that.”
Awful lot of that being said tonight.
“Forever,” she echoes, just like before. “Thank you, Ralph. I wish there was something—”
“No worries,” Ralph replies. “Ralph is just happy to have friends.”
The way he says it sounds like a question. Like he isn’t sure. It makes her wan to answer, to reassure him. Confirm or deny.
Are they friends? Logically speaking, she can’t say they are. She’s only known him for maybe ten minutes.
Still, she replies, firm and happy and with a hand on his shoulder and a smile on her face:
“Yes, Ralph. We’re friends.”
logically I knew this chapter was going to be a long way but it like... Did not sink in that it was going to be this long.
Winter Bird - Aurora
Chapter 10: Broken
“To love is to be afraid. You are frightened, deathly terrified, that something will happen to those you love. Think of the possibilities. Does your heart clench with each thought? That, my friend, is love. And love enslaves us all, for you cannot have love without fear.”
The Young Elites - Marie Lu
“That was by far the most boring party I’ve been to in the last twenty-five years,” Carl announces as they enter the house. The faint sound of the alarm welcoming them home is drowned out by his words. “Every time I go to one of these I as myself: what the hell am I doing here? I hate cocktail parties and all the schmoozers that go there.”
Markus shrugs his jacket off and hangs it on the hook, smiling softly to himself. He hates these parties, too, but for entirely different reasons. There was a woman that kept eyeing him like she was deciding if it was worth damaging her reputation by flirting with him.
“Well,” he says with a sigh as he turns back to Carl, taking the jacket from his hands. “It’s a chance for all those people who admire your work to meet you.”
“No one gives a damn about art. All they care about is how much money they’re going to make out of it,” Carl replies. “Come on, let’s have a drink. All the excitement of this whole thing has made me thirsty.”
“Scotch, neat, as usual?” he asks, resting Carl’s jacket beside his before returning to him and pushing the wheelchair through to the library.
“Okay, but you know what your doctor would say.”
“Yeah, well, he can kiss my ass,” Carl says with a small laugh. “I’m old enough to choose my own medication.”
Markus walks over to the drink cart, retrieves the bottle of scotch from the bottom shelf and sets it beside an empty glass.
“Did you leave the light on in the studio?”
He looks over his shoulder twice. Once, towards Carl. The second time towards the studio.
“No,” he answers. “No, I’m sure I didn’t.”
“Call the police.”
Markus hesitates for a moment. It’s entirely possible that he forgot. That he left the light on. They could be calling the police for no reason.
Or, he could trust his memory. He remembers leaving the house in total darkness. He remembers fumbling in the pitch black for his jacket after he had forgotten to grab it on their way out.
“Okay,” he says, quietly.
He crosses the room towards the phone, picks it up slowly and dials the number. They should leave the house if there’s someone here. They should call the taxi back. Something. Anything.
“Detroit Police, what’s your emergency?”
“This is Carl Manfred’s caretaker at 1941 Lafayette Avenue. We’ve just returned home and found the lights on,” he casts a glance back towards the studio. “There may have been a break in.”
“A patrol car is on the way. Get to a safe place and stay on the line.”
Markus pauses for a moment, staring at Carl for a long moment.
“Let’s go check it out,” he says from the other side of the room.
“Come on, Markus.”
This is stupid.
“Is everything alright?” the voice on the phone asks.
How is he meant to answer that? Yes, everything is fine. The patrol car would be rescinded. No, this old man thinks he should investigate a potential robbery.
“I—” he pauses. “Carl, stop.”
But he’s already making his way towards the door. Markus sets the phone down in his haste to race towards the doors, can hear the woman repeating her question again as he reaches Carl. The doors to the studio are already sliding open before he can reach Carl and stop him.
They say his name at the same time. Leo turns slowly, giving a small smile towards them. It is laced with annoyance, a hint of triumph.
“Oh, look who’s here. My father’s favorite orphan.”
“What’s going on here?”
“You refused to help me, so I’m helping myself,” he replies to Carl. “It’s crazy what some people will pay for this shit.”
Markus winces at the same time Carl replies, “Don’t touch them.”
“Look,” Leo says, stepping away from the table. “They’re all going to be mine sooner or later anyway. Just think of it as a down payment on my inheritance.”
“Markus, get him away from there,” Carl says, his voice low and angry. “Get him out of here.”
“I’ve already called the police,” Markus says, walking across the room towards Leo. “You should go now before you get yourself into more trouble.”
Leo holds his gaze for a moment. The anger boiling underneath his features, his nose flared in disgust. Markus has always known he has represented the life Leo thought he deserved, so terribly ripped from underneath him—but has Leo never considered that Markus never wanted this?
He loves Carl. He loves working for him.
But he had a family before this and they tossed him away, too.
“All you ever do is tell me to go away,” Leo says, looking towards Carl. “What’s wrong, dad? I’m not good enough for you? Not perfect like this fucking thing?”
“That’s enough.” Carl says. “Get out, right now!”
“What makes him so special anyway, huh?” Leo asks, looking back to Markus. “What’s he got that I don’t?”
“Leave him alone.”
Leo reaches towards him, shoves Carl away roughly.
“Come on,” Leo says, turning back to him, pushing Markus lightly. “Let’s see what you got.”
“Markus...” Carl’s voice is full of warning. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t do anything. Unspoken, but still there. Markus can heal, after all. Why should he care if he gets a few bruises if they’ll be gone within minutes?
“Go ahead. Hit me. What are you waiting for?”
But it still hurts.
“Think you’re a man? Act like one.”
Leo pushes him. It isn’t much, only makes Markus stagger back a step.
It always hurts.
“What’s the matter? Too much of a pussy?”
He’s shoved again, harder this time.
This is not fair.
“Stop it, Leo! Stop it!”
His fists clench at his side.
This is never fair.
“Too scared to fight back, you fucking bitch?”
The first hit across the face surprises him, makes him fall back an extra step.
The second one, however, does not. He turns away, catching himself on the table. A jar of paint brushes crashes to the ground. Markus raises a hand, touches the stinging surface of his skin.
This is never fair.
“Oh, right, that’s right! I forgot, you’re not a real person,” Leo says with a small laugh.
Markus turns back to him, can feel something stuck in his throat. He wants to scream. He wants to yell. He wants to shout.
He wants to cry.
“Listen to me… I’m going to kill you, then it’ll just be me and my dad. I’m going to tear you apart and nobody’s gonna give a shit. You know why? Cause you’re nothing, you hear me? You’re nothing.”
He reaches up and grasps the fabric of Leo’s shirt, shoves him hard against the shelf. It rattles against the weight. Markus hears things fall, hit the ground and crack open. The anger in the pit of his stomach is swirling and hot and angry and he can feel the desire to punch Leo growing larger and larger.
But he doesn’t.
Instead, something inside of him surges.
His head spins. It’s a thousand degrees in here suddenly. It’s so hot he can hardly breathe. He stumbles backwards, letting go of Leo. A hand comes up to his throat, feels the scorching metal around his throat. His hands feel like they’re on fire.
He blinks at the brightness of the room, trying to ground himself in the moment. Everything is slipping away so quickly. The air is so hot he can’t think straight.
Leo’s screams are what brings him back.
For one devastatingly slow moment, all he can do is stare. At the brightness of the flames engulfing his body. At the horror on Carl’s face. At the pain in Leo’s screams.
Then, he acts quickly. He reaches for the curtain in front of Carl’s painting on the wall, yanks as hard as he can once, twice, three times until it tears from the bar. He throws it over Leo, extinguishing the flames before falling backwards.
Had he done that?
Of course, he had.
Who else could have done it?
He touches the metal around his throat again. It’s cold against his fingertips, like nothing happened. Like he imagined the heat of it. He scrambles to his feet as Carl falls out of his chair and crawls across the floor to Leo.
He trails off, can’t even find the words. What is he meant to say, how is he meant to explain this? That he hadn’t meant it, that he hadn’t known he was capable of it?
“They’ll kill you, Markus,” Carl yells. “You gotta go. Get outta here!”
He can hear the sound of doors opening in the distance. His heart beats in his chest like a bird trying to get free from its cage. He should run but he can’t. He’s rooted to the spot. He can’t move. His head is spinning and his limbs feel so heavy and all he can do is beg.
“Carl, no,” he whispers, his voice a tiny, fragile thing. “No, please, I don’t want to leave you. Please—I can’t—I don’t want to leave you.”
“Get out! Now! Go!”
He turns quickly to the doors as they slide open, his hands trembling as the police enter the studio.
“Don’t fuckin move!” the police officer shouts.
So, this is how it looks.
A split second. A tiny moment.
An old man, crying over a dying body, hand outstretched, almost pointing at him, yelling just a moment ago for him to leave.
Him, standing off to the side—
The bullet hits him anyways.
Fire In My Bones - Fleurie
Chapter 11: Waiting For Hank
“We'll just have to try to make better mistakes tomorrow.”
The Darkest Minds - Alexandra Bracken
It is bright and sunny in the garden. Happy, almost. He’s always pleased to be here.
Connor steps up the winding path, finds his way over the bridge and towards the center. He places his hand gently on the pole in the middle, carefully between the winding stems of flowers and vines growing upwards. He steps around it to look over at the wall of roses, their crimson petals so bright and vibrant they could have their own energy moving like tangles through the air.
She turns, a small smile on her lips. “Connor. It’s good to see you.”
It is. He’s missed this place. The warmth of the sun, the thick scent of flowers and nature. The steady flow of the river, birds swooping through the air. Everything crisp and clean. Nothing to ruin it.
“Have you learned anything new about the variant you captured last night?”
“No,” Connor says, hands behind his back. “But the police don’t think he worked for Ortiz, he had no money to pay him.”
“What did you think of him?”
“He showed signs of PTSD after being abused by Ortiz,” he replies. “It’s likely what triggered the collar to stop working.”
Amanda nods and returns back to her flowers. He lets his face fall, hopes she doesn’t press this further. If she knew he didn’t do his best to assist in getting a confession out of the variant—
He doesn’t want to be kicked off the case. Reed and Anderson both annoy him, but he doesn’t want to lose this. Not when there’s a possibility variants like the one that killed Carlos Ortiz somehow have knowledge of rA9.
“Lieutenant Anderson has been officially assigned all cases involving variants,” she says. “What do you make of him?”
“I think he’s irritable and socially challenged,” Connor replies. “But I also think he used to be a good detective. He’s an… intriguing character.”
“Unfortunately, we have no choice but to work with him,” Amanda says, turning back to him. “What do you think is the best approach?”
Last night he hadn’t tried to be anything except who he is. He didn’t care if it meant getting on Lieutenant Anderson’s bad side. He had a case to solve. He needed the Lieutenant there with him to do it. He forced it to happen.
But he also knows it isn’t the best way to deal with this… situation.
“I will try to establish a friendly relationship,” he answers, already thinking of the best way to string together an apology that will satisfy the Lieutenant. “If I can get him to trust me, it will be helpful for the investigation.”
Amanda sets down her tools, takes one step towards him.
“More and more of AzureHeart’s collars are failing. There are millions in circulation. If they become unstable, the consequences will be disastrous. You are the most powerful variant AzureHeart has ever trained. If anyone can figure this out, it’s you.”
“You can count on me, Amanda.”
She steps past him, pauses at the edge of the bridge before turning back to him, “Hurry, Connor. There’s little time.”
“You still here? I thought your assignment was over.”
Connor lets out a long breath. He hadn’t expected someone to be talking to him. When he looks over to see who it is, he’s relieved. Chris. Po. Miller, if he goes by the plaque on his desk. He takes a mental note of it, knows that if he treated Chris like he does Lieutenant Anderson or Detective Reed, even Captain Fowler—he should refer to him as his title.
But he quite likes Chris. He’s nice. He cares. He didn’t hold a gun to Connor’s head.
“It’s just been extended,” he replies.
“Hank’s going to be overjoyed to hear that,” Chris replies with a small laugh. “You were right about that variant, by the way. He’s been quiet in the cell all night. Scheduled for a transfer today.”
“A transfer?” he asks.
“Yeah, after you left we got results on his DNA and prints. His name is Matthew Bracken. He was reported missing three years ago. We think he was kidnapped and brought here. We’re going to transfer him to a precinct closer to his home so his family can come and visit while the paperwork clears up.”
“The DPD isn’t pressing charges against him?”
“No,” Chris says, shaking his head. “You were right about the evidence. We think he acted in self-defense. He’s going to be released after it all process through. It’s all just formality now.”
Connor smiles, and then it falls.
This is his last chance to talk to him, then.
“That’s good,” he says. “Can you help me? I’m looking for Lieutenant Anderson’s desk.”
“Over there,” he replies, pointing towards an unattended desk messy with papers.
Chris nods as Connor walks towards it, hesitates by the chair for a moment. He spins it in a circle, tilting his head at the hair along the back. Definitely not Hank’s. Too long for a cat—and Hank seems like a dog person.
“Excuse me,” he calls towards a different police officer. “Do you know what time Lieutenant Anderson usually arrives?”
“Depends on where he was the night before,” the officer replies. “If we’re lucky, we’ll see him before noon.”
“Thanks,” he says, stepping away from the chair.
Then he has at least an hour before he comes back. That’s plenty of time to talk to the variant.
To Matthew Bracken.
Connor makes his way around the office, disappearing down the hallway with the two small cells. He spots Matthew quickly, sitting on the edge of the bed and starring blankly at the wall. There’s scratch marks in the glass, things written in reverse. Had Matthew done that? Had someone long, long before him done it?
“I’m sorry,” Connor says. “About everything.”
Matthew looks up to him at the sound of his voice.
“They’re transferring me.”
“I’m remaining in custody even though they think I’m innocent?”
There’s a reason why the legal system does not say things like innocent in cases like these. There’s a reason they phrase it instead as non guilty.
“They have to process the paperwork,” Connor replies.
“They put another collar on me,” he says, standing suddenly. Connor looks over at it. The old metal replaced with a cleaner, less dented and scratched gray one. Same model. Just fresh out of the package.
What is he meant to say? That’s how it has to be? When Connor is left without one, left to roam around the world without it tampering with his powers? He has lived a privileged life. AzureHeart trained him to use his abilities and perfect them. No one else has been given that chance.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he settles on. “They have to analyze your old one—they need to understand what happened.”
At least he gets to go home.
A happy ending among all of this. Even if it is a minor one. Things could be so much worse.
Things could be so much better.
Most variants aren’t reported missing. Most people don’t care if they vanish off the street. Matthew has a loving family who cared when he disappeared. How many others have been taken off away, forced into a stranger’s home? Especially with how they heal. Nearly all injuries to the brain leave them completely wiped of memory. Someone could kidnap anyone off the street with a collar, hit them over the head, and spin a tale to turn them into the perfect person.
Connor bites his tongue to keep from asking what Ortiz wanted with him. Did he want to see what Matthew could do? Did he want to see if he could break the collar’s constraints like everyone has said in the news?
He has little time. He can’t waste it forcing Matthew to relive his trauma again.
“I know there’s something you didn’t tell me,” Connor says. “I need to know before they take you away. You wrote rA9 in the bathroom. What does it mean?”
He watches his face twitch, wonders if the lie is detected in his voice.
Connor knows exactly what rA9 is.
He just needs to know how Matthew knows what it is. Even by name.
They stare at each other for a long moment in the silence, neither of them breaking it. He is suddenly aware of Matthew. His power. His ability to destroy Carlos Ortiz from the inside out. He can sense energy, too. He can see the threads.
He must see Connor’s.
How they falter with unease, how they waver with the need to know the answer to this question.
“You already know,” Matthew whispers, reaching up to the glass between them.
His heart thunders in his chest. He probably should have anticipated that sooner.
“What is your connection to it?” he decides, switching tactics. “How do you know about it?”
Matthew shakes his head and steps away, back towards the farthest corner. This conversation is over, now. He isn’t going to say a single word more.
So much for trying to be friendly.
“It’s good to see you again, Lieutenant,” Connor says, trying for his most pleasant voice.
“Oh, Jesus,” Lieutenant Anderson groans. “The fuck—”
“Hank! In my office.”
The two look over to Fowler and Connor smiles, just barely. He follows the Lieutenant towards the office and they step inside, Connor taking a place towards the back and Lieutenant Anderson slipping into the chair opposite of the Captain.
“I’ve got ten new cases involving variants on my desk every day. We’ve always had isolated incidents—collars randomly breaking and that kind of crap, but now, we’re getting reports of assaults and even homicides, like that guy last night,” he glances towards the wall where Matthew Bracken would be. “This isn’t just AzureHeart’s problem anymore. It’s now a criminal investigation and we’ve gotta deal with it before the shit hits the fan. I want you to investigate these cases and see if there’s any link.”
“Why me? Why do I gotta be the one to deal with this shit?” Lieutenant Anderson replies. “I am the least qualified cop in the country to handle this case. I know jack shit about variants, Jeffrey.”
“Everybody’s overloaded. I think you’re perfectly qualified for this type of investigation.”
“Bullshit! The truth is nobody wants to investigate these fucking variants and you left me holdin’ the bag.”
“AzureHeart sent over him to help with the investigation,” he says, gesturing to Connor in the corner. “He’s trained to use his abilities to solve cases. He knows everything about variants that there is to know. He’ll act as your partner.”
“No fucking way! I don’t need a partner and certainly not this prick.”
Connor sighs, is thankful that the Lieutenant is looking towards Captain Fowler otherwise it would be hard to suppress his eye roll. Lieutenant Anderson was the one that started this. Connor would have played nice if he actually cared about the case.
“Hank, you are seriously starting to piss me off. You are a police lieutenant, you are supposed to do what I say and shut you goddamn mouth.”
“You know what my goddamn mouth has to say to you, huh?”
“Okay, okay. I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that so I don’t have to add anymore pages to your disciplinary folder ‘cause it already looks like a fucking novel,” he says, tilting away from Lieutenant Anderson. “This conversation is over.”
The Lieutenant leans across the desk, lowers his voice like he’s trying to hide his words from Connor, “Jeffrey, Jesus Christ, why are you doing this to me? You know how much I hate these fuckin’ things.”
“Listen,” he says, holding up a hand. “I’ve had just about enough of your bitching. Either you do your job or you hand in your badge. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”
Connor watches Lieutenant Anderson hesitate for a second, like he might try and choose words to change Fowler’s mind. After a moment, he straightens, glares towards Connor on his way out the door.
“I wonder whether Lieutenant Anderson is really the best person for this investigation,” Connor says. “Perhaps—”
“Hey, I don’t need a machine to tell me how to handle my men, okay?” Captain Fowler interrupts. “So, get the fuck out of my office.”
“Have a nice day, Captain,” he replies with more sarcasm than he means to.
Connor trails after the Lieutenant, pausing at the side of his desk.
“Listen,” he says, watching him roll his eyes and turn away. “I know you don’t like me, but we’re going to have to work together. We’ll both have to make an effort.”
The Lieutenant crosses his arms and leans back against his chair.
Fine. He’ll try a nicer approach. He was meant to apologize, wasn’t he?
“I’m sorry I bothered you at the bar last night, Lieutenant,” he says. “I’d like you to know I’m very happy to be working with you, I’m sure we’ll make a great team.”
Lieutenant Anderson laughs, but doesn’t look back him. Whatever hope Connor had for a good partner is gone. He assumed that maybe, perhaps, in the end they might be friends. That when this case is all wrapped up and solved, he would at least be able to have something good out of it before they strap a collar around his neck, too.
Now all he wants is to just get this over with as fast as possible.
“Is there a desk anywhere I could use?”
“Nobody’s using that one.”
He looks over to where the Lieutenant points to, offers a very small, very fake smile to him before he takes a seat. He taps his fingers along the desk. Clean and new and empty. There are scratches and marks from where someone used this desk before, but it’s been cleared out. He can add his own now.
“If you have any files on deviants, I’d like to take a look at them,” Connor says, peering over the divider between them.
“Terminal’s on your desk. Knock yourself out.”
Connor answers him with a small nod and looks to his screen. He boots up the program, sifting through some of the files. A man caused a power outage at an apartment complex five days ago. A woman destroyed an entire section of an Eden Club on the other side of town. Another, a university student, caused an entire wall of windows in a classroom to explode.
He looks towards the amount of files he has to sift through. Two hundred forty-three. Christ. He could read nonstop and not be caught up for days. His head is already hurting from the density.
Connor looks towards the Lieutenant. Maybe small talk, enough to get on his good side and convince him to divvy up the files? Even twenty/eighty. Just a tiny portion to make it manageable.
“You have a dog, right?” he asks, thinking of the first thing to pop into his head.
“How do you know that?”
“The dog hairs on your chair,” he says, pointing towards it. “I like dogs. What’s your dog’s name?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I—” he pauses, shuts his mouth. Regret. A lot of regret. If he had been nicer to him, maybe this would be easier.
They sit in silence for a moment, Connor returning to the computer screen. There’s a file of Daniel open in front of him. Already programmed in, even if it was five days ago. He half expected to never see his face again. The sight of him makes Connor’s stomach turn, reminds him of all the fear and the anger of that night on the rooftop.
Not his own, but still, sitting in the back of his mind—It’s never going to go away. Daniel’s face is going to haunt him forever.
“Sumo,” Lieutenant Anderson says as Connor clicks to the next file. “I call him Sumo.”
Connor looks away, a small sigh of relief caught in his lungs.
“Have you known Captain Fowler long?” he asks. He can handle small talk. He can handle small increments that will make the Lieutenant like him enough that he isn’t constantly on the verge of getting punched. He’s tired of feeling that.
“Yeah,” Lieutenant Anderson replies, glancing towards Fowler’s office. “Too long.”
“You know,” Connor says, turning away from the screen. “There’s two hundred and forty-three files—”
“Save it,” he replies, holding up a hand. “I’m not helping you.”
“This investigation would be over a lot quicker if you would just—”
“Just what? I’ve read enough of those files. You’re the brains of the situation, alright? You go print them off and make a little murder board with strings and tacks and sticky notes. I’m not helping you.”
Connor stands, circles around the desk.
“If the situation doesn’t suit you, Lieutenant, you should ask to be relieved of duties and let me work with someone else.”
Like Chris, even. Switch their workloads.
“I know exactly what I have to do,” he says, glaring up at him. “Keep your advice yourself and mind your own fucking business.”
Connor leans down beside him, “I suggest you work out your personal issues and let me work with someone more competent, or I’ll file a report with my superiors that you refuse to work on this investigation.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, so why don’t you shut the fuck up?”
“I’ve been assigned this case, Lieutenant,” he replies. “I didn’t come here to wait until you feel like working.”
Lieutenant Anderson stands, slams Connor hard against the wall of the cubicle.
“Listen, asshole, if it was up to me, I’d throw the lot of you in a dumpster and set a match to it,” he says. “So, stop pissing me off.”
Connor reaches up, ready to pull his hands away from his jacket but Lieutenant Anderson does it on his own, stepping away from him. He sighs, watching the Lieutenant grab his jacket from the back of the chair.
“Where are you going?” he asks, the words suddenly lost on his tongue. Why did you save me last night, then, if you want us all dead?
He needs coffee. Caffeine. Something. He’s always found those don’t talk to me before I’ve had a cup of coffee things cringe inducing and ridiculous, but now he’s craving it. It probably doesn’t do anything to him—considering that he could drink alcohol non-stop for hours and feel no effect, but he isn’t really supposed to have headaches either.
And Lieutenant Anderson has left him with one.
A placebo effect, maybe. But it works. He has a little faith in that.
He stands, leaving with file #61 open on his screen. There’s no picture, like most of the files, just a short description of a building catching on fire. The fire department couldn’t determine the source of the blaze, blamed it on variants.
Connor enters the break room, pauses in his footsteps when he catches Reed’s gaze. Reed. Could he not have more than an hour away from either of the two people making his investigation here miserable?
“Fuck, look at that,” Reed says with a smile. “Congratulations on last night, very impressive. You know, we could’ve gotten something out of that variant if you hadn’t fucked it up.”
He glances towards the woman standing beside him, some small part of him wanting to ask why she’s friends with someone like Detective Reed. She doesn’t look like a terrible person, not like Reed. Every part of him is despicable. He has a scar across his nose he probably got from a bar fight.
Maybe he should try for niceties again. Maybe it would catch him off guard enough that Connor can survive the two minutes it takes to make a cup of coffee.
“Hello, Detective Reed,” he says, taking one small step forward. “How are you?”
Reed scoffs and leans away from the table, “Fuck off.”
He raises his eyebrows, “Sorry, was I being rude?”
The woman lets out a small laugh. Reed casts her a dirty look and she stops immediately, scooping up her lunch and disappearing out the door.
“What’s your fucking problem?” he asks, stepping toward Connor. “Why are you even still here?”
“I’ve been assigned a case—”
“Yeah, and it’s over. We’ve cleared him of all charges. You need to sign some special paperwork or something?”
“No,” Connor says, wanting desperately to reach up and shove him back. Reed is standing too close. “Although, I should have reported you for trying to kill me.”
He laughs, “Kill you? I didn’t try and kill you.”
“You pointed a gun at me.”
“First rule of gun safety is to never point a gun at someone unless you plan on using it,” Connor says, tilting his head to his side. “Or did you cheat on that test?”
“You know what? I should’ve pulled the trigger.”
“You’re awfully angry,” he says, realizing Reed is taking a step backwards, trying to get away. How does it feel, Connor wonders, for him to be the one shrinking away? Connor takes a step forward, closer than Reed ever was to him. “Why is that?”
“I could have gotten a confession,” Detective Reed replies, bringing his hands up to push Connor away. It does very little only, nudges him back not even half a step. “I wouldn’t have fucked it up.”
“It’s my job. Yeah, I’m fucking sure.”
“Lieutenant Anderson couldn’t do it. He has more experience than you.”
“He’s an old bag of bones—”
“And you’re so young?” Connor asks.
Connor smiles, unintentionally so. He hopes it doesn’t come across as the stupid amusement he’s getting out of this. He hopes it comes off as mocking. And, maybe, it does, because Reed reaches up and shoves him back with more force this time. He staggers, catches himself on the table before he can fall. If Connor had been expecting that—if he had been paying attention—he would have barely budged.
“Do yourself a favor,” Reed says, stepping past him. “Stay out of my way.”
Matthew's name came from this post, Bracken came from TDM's author Alexandra Bracken.
Running With the Wolves - Aurora
Chapter 12: From the Dead
“You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come or concentrate on what’s left to you.”
Annihilation - Jeff Vandermeer
For one, small, blissful second, he does not remember anything.
For one, small, blissful second, he thinks he is in the fragile space between waking and dreaming. The mattress underneath him is the one in his room. The blanket laid over his lap is the one that Carl bought for him when he moved in. The pillow underneath his head has the soft blues of the cases that match it.
And then it all catches up to him.
Markus blinks awake. Tries three times, double checks with each one that his eyes are open. It’s pitch black. If he focuses, he can make out the lines in the tile on the ceiling. He reaches a hand up, trying to feel where he remembers the bullets hitting him, but his hand is stopped by something. A cuff around his wrist. Metal, like the band around his neck.
He sits up as best as he can, tries to survey the area.
There’s a faint red glow in the distance. So tiny and soft he wonders if he’s imagining it. He yanks at his restraints again, feels the chain come taut against the bar and his wrist. He hisses at the pain of it biting into his skin and relaxes his hand.
He has to get out of here.
Wherever here is.
“Please…” someone whispers, their voice is hoarse, barely audible. They say it like there’s more to come, more to be said, but they physically are unable to speak anymore.
“Hello?” he questions the dark.
Markus is not given a response.
He tries the cuffs again, the chain rattles against the bar as he yanks hard. It doesn’t budge.
“It’s useless to try,” another voice comes, clearer but still lost in the dark. “Give up. Let us rest before they take us away.”
“They?” he asks.
“AzureHeart. Who do you think?”
“Where are they taking you?”
“Down, down, down,” the voice replies, almost like a song, like they are seconds from launching into the lyrics detailing their demise.
Fear prickles through him, more present than he was before. He yanks at the cuff again, as hard as he can. He feels the metal bend, feels himself move slightly further away. Markus does it again and again, is aware of the blooming of bruises across his wrist as they form quickly, don’t have time to heal back over.
“You shouldn’t have said anything,” a third voice whispers. “Now, see what you’ve done? He’s going to be at this all night.”
“It’s not my fault—”
“It’s always your fault.”
“Oh, of course it is. It’s never anyone else’s.”
“You’re the only one that talks to them!”
“Shut up,” Markus half whispers to himself, half shouts to them. They grow quiet as he gives the chain one last pull, feels it break free.
He reaches his hand up in front of his face, but he can’t see it. It’s too dark and if he pays too much attention to it, the shadow seems to distort itself into something not at all like the shape of a palm, the outline of fingers. He presses it against his shoulder where the first bullet had struck him, moves it up to feel the edge of the collar around his throat.
The pulse of his heart is still in tune with whatever it is that the collar was holding back. They haven’t replaced it. Not yet.
Markus fumbles with his other cuff, tries to find a way to undo it but only finds the slot for the key. His fingers graze across the cool metal of the chain, trying to find a weak link. He moves his arm forward, trying to reach towards the back of it when he feels it snap off.
Like it was made of wet clay.
“Little boy is free,” a voice says in the dark. It sounds sinister and cruel. He doesn’t know who it belongs to, if it was one of the three he’d heard before. “What’s he going to do now?”
He slides off the bed, kicks the blankets away from him in his hurry. His feet are bare, hitting the cold tile like a shock to his system. He was so used to the heated floors of Carl’s home, of the warmth that always flooded through halls. He’s been stripped of his clothes, replaced with a paper gown. It’s freezing here. He hadn’t noticed that before. How absolutely cold the temperature is.
“Are you going to run away?”
He turns towards the voice blindly, not really knowing which direction it’s coming from. Some part of him doesn’t want to reply. He doesn’t want to talk to these people. Can they see him? Have they been down here long enough for their eyes to adapt to the pitch black?
Markus stretches his hands out in front of him, feels in the empty space for something to hold onto. He touches the metal of another bed.
“Is anyone there?” he asks, moving his hand down onto the mattress, feels the telltale shape and warmth of a leg.
“S-Stop!” they scream.
He jolts backwards, knocks something over with a loud crash. There is the unmistakable sound of glass hitting the floor and shattering.
“I want to live,” they scream. “I want to live!”
“I’m not going to hurt you—”
“Look what he’s done,” someone says. “Silly boy. Foolish boy. Stupid boy.”
“Shut up!” he screams, doesn’t know who he’s saying it to.
“Don’t cut your foot open,” the same voice sings this like they sang down, down, down.
Where is down?
He feels like he’s going insane. He feels like he’s been stuck in a room with a bunch of people that have been in the dark so long they don’t even know what’s real. He wishes he knew how long he’s been here. How long he was asleep in that bed before his body could repair the damage done to it.
Markus takes careful steps around the bed, making sure not to touch it, making sure not to press his foot down on glass. He is like a ballet dancer, doing pirouettes across a stage. Soon, he will have to leap into someone’s arms and there is going to be no one to catch him and he is going to fall
The singing voice starts up again, quieter this time as he hisses at a piece of a glass slicing the bottom of his foot. Their voice is soft, angelic, saying words from another language he couldn’t name if he tried. The song feels like it is fit for a ghost story. The backtrack to a horror movie. The tinkling sound of a music box opening, the mirror reflecting a shimmering demonic form.
“Quiet, Alex,” someone whispers.
Their song does not stop.
Markus makes his way towards the red light, pressing his hand only to the base of the beds, never past. Never enough to feel an empty mattress or a form curled up and sleeping.
“Stop,” someone says, their voice so quiet he can barely hear it. He halts in his tracks at the sound of it, his hands trembling. Just another person trying to get the song to end—right? Still, he looks around in the dark for the source. “Yes, yes, you. Come here.”
He is the only one standing. He is the only one capable of moving.
“I won’t hurt you,” they whisper. “I want to help you.”
“Why?” he asks, taking a small step towards the end of the bed. His heart is thundering in his chest again, never stopping, never breaking, never letting him rest.
“It’s too late for us,” they reply.
“We’re all going to die down here,” someone else says, a terrible impersonation of an English accent lacing their words.
“That’s not how the line goes,” another replies.
The song continues in the background, looping over once more.
“Well, it’s not applicable to say you’re all,” the person says, their voice defensive and angry. “I’m one of you.”
This is all so pointless. This is all so absolutely, undeniably ridiculous.
“There’s a place where we can be free,” the one on the bed says. “On the table—come closer—there’s a box. It will give you the directions.”
Markus steps towards the voice again, reaches out to where he assumes the table is.
“One step closer, a little to your left.”
Markus follows their instructions, feels the surface of the table for a moment. A clipboard with a pen attached by a string. A Styrofoam cup, that he knocks over followed by the sound of the ice rattling as it hits the floor. Then, the box.
It is much smaller than he expected by the word box. He expected it to be large, but it is tiny in his palm. He can feel something moving inside of it, as if there was a live animal trapped within its plastic walls.
“I don’t understand—”
“You have to find Jericho.”
Something about the word makes whatever is inside of the box angry. He can feel it moving inside, can feel the sudden pull forward, physically, mentally. Like a rope tied around his stomach, someone yanking Markus hard out of the dark room and into the bright light. It shines across an old sign, rusting metal, ancient letters spelling out JERICHO.
He drops the box, hears it clatter against the floor like it is hollow inside. He dives after it, feels the water from the cup he knocked over soaking through his gown as he reaches for the box as best as he can in the dark. His fingers close around it, he crawls backwards, letting out the sigh of relief stuck in his lungs.
“I—” he starts, doesn’t know where he is going with it, how to explain or question what he had seen moments ago.
“You have to go,” they say. “You have to hurry.”
“What—Who are you?” he says, standing up. He is terrified of dropping the box now. He is terrified of losing it in the shadows again. But his hands hold a lose grip, ready to throw it if it pulls him past this black into that vision again.
“Phileas,” they whisper. “My name is Phileas.”
“Markus,” he replies, reaching out and touching his arm gently. It is cold and lifeless at his side. If he hadn’t heard the voice speak, if he hadn’t known it came from this bed, he would think it belonged to a dead body.
“They’ll be here soon,” Phileas says, voice half broken. “You have to hurry or they’ll catch you. You can’t let them catch you.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, stepping away from the bed. He feels in the dark for his way back to the aisle between the lines of beds. “I wish—”
He finds his way towards the red light again. He doesn’t know how far away it is until he hits the wall hard, feels the cold steel of a door handle pressed against him like a dull knife to his stomach. Markus glances back towards the room, towards whoever can see him standing here.
He wants to come back. He wants to help them more. He wants to be able to help them all escape. They don’t deserve to be here, do they?
“Don’t worry,” a voice says, the one that was singing that chilling song. He hadn’t noticed it end. Markus had been pushing it out of his mind, turning it into silence because it was making his skin crawl. “We are all killers here. Your conscious should not be weighed down, little boy. You can leave us.”
If they can see him—
Why do they keep calling him little boy?
“Oh, Markus,” the voice says, a tiny giggle to their words. “You seem so very young to us, that’s all.”
Get out of my head.
He turns back to the door, fumbles with the handle with the fingers that aren’t wrapped around the cube. He opens it, hears the click of the lock as he pulls it open and stumbles out into the hall.
It is not much brighter out here, but the light that there is nearly blinds him. He takes one last look into the room, the dim blue glow of the overhead lights casting slim shadows into the space behind them.
There are so many of them. So many of them missing arms and legs. There’s someone looking towards him, tears on their face, missing an eye while the other shines bright blue. Markus looks away from them quickly, towards the one that is singing again.
She looks like a child, brilliant gray eyes meeting his. Her face stills in a way that reminds him of a doll. Like one second her porcelain skin will crack and all that will be left is the hollow innards.
We’re all going to die down here.
They are already dying.
“You should count yourself lucky,” the girl says, tilting her head to the side. “That you didn’t lose anything.”
But he lost everything.
It isn’t difficult to find a way up—which he only goes because of their word choice. We’re all going to die down here. Like they’re below the surface of the ground. The numbers on the wall go down, down, down, until they finally switch from SUBLEVEL 1 to G. He pushes the door open slowly, looking around the brightly lit room. It is devoid of people—a sight he shouldn’t be so relieved to see.
Markus crosses the room quickly, sprinting towards the doors and shoving them open and out into the soft breeze of the outdoors. He does not stop running. Not for a single second. Not to catch his breath, not to look behind him, not to think of where he’s going.
He just has to get away from there. He can’t look at AzureHeart Tower once more.
this is probably the most different of the chapters to the original so far!
Reborn - Talos
Chapter 13: A Lead
“But some marks, they don't fade. No matter what.”
Far From You - Tess Sharpe
He spent his entire Friday printing off the files and taping them up on his wall. Lieutenant Anderson gave him an idea—not that he wasn’t going to do this anyways, but maybe not to such an extreme. He’s color coded each and every file in seven different ways. Age, gender, power, location, date, motives. He could go further, could find more and more ways to sort them, but this is where he starts.
Connor didn’t sleep last night. He spent the entire evening staring at the rainbow of colors on his wall, racing back and forth to connect the dots. He had to add a new one late in the night. A man named Todd Williams was assaulted in his home by the variant that worked for him. The details are fuzzy. He was as vague as he possibly could with them.
He wonders why.
Connor uncaps the purple highlighter, drags it across the name Kara Williams and tapes her photo on a wall beside Matthew Bracken’s. Suspected abuse. Likely abuse. It’s the only thing he can come up with. It’s how most of the variants have been categorized.
Nearly all of them end with their name highlighted purple. His wall stares down at him, three different shades of it from every time his highlighter has died marking the same thing over and over again. There’s a very small subsection off to the side—something else entirely.
Unknown. Truly violent. Freedom.
Freedom is the one that always hits him the hardest. People that are good, people that didn’t cause any harm to anyone. People who’s powers suddenly came to them with no explanation other than the fact they were trying so desperately to get rid of their collars, trying to test their limits.
He touches a hand to his neck. He keeps feeling the skin there.
In the five years he had trained at AzureHeart to control and use his ability, plucking energy strands from the midst of thousands, he had stayed up late nights consuming every piece of text and information that they had on variants.
That included the collars. Every version of them. The first model, thick and heavy and weighing people down to the ones now—sleek and thin and lightweight. Barely noticeable. He knows how they work. He can name almost every single version that people wear. Without even looking in depth at the information given to him, he knew Kara’s was an AX400. He knew Matthew’s was a HK400. He knew Daniel’s was a PL600.
Not much difference in them now. They all look the same. A slight color change or a difference in what metals were used in the making of it—they all work. Technically.
Until they didn’t.
He taps his pen against the stack of files in his lap. The bulk of the pages for each person. Only their faces and their names, a little box for notes he’s written little of in line the walls.
It always comes back to Daniel.
He catches the sight of his face and it makes him want to cry. Technically—he felt Daniel die. He felt the energy disappear from the world. The sudden snap as it disintegrated. He hadn’t realized it then, but now—
He wakes up in the middle of the night trying not to scream.
Those snipers had no idea what they were doing. They didn’t care what they were doing. Variants to them—they aren’t human.
Who cares if they live or die?
They weren’t connected to his mind. They didn’t feel the bullets hit his body. They didn’t feel the betrayal that flooded through Daniel before he fell over the edge.
Connor throws the pen across the room, but it isn’t enough. He shoves the stack of files off his lap, stands up quickly and searches the wall for Daniel’s face. He needs to get it off of here. He needs to make it disappear.
He finds it in the middle of greens. The middle of the unknown range. He rips the page down, hesitates for a moment as he stares at his face.
Blonde hair. Gray eyes. Blue blood.
He crumples it up into a ball in his fist, tosses it across the room.
Two hundred forty-three cases. That is all he can handle. Two hundred forty-three.
Kara. She replaced Daniel.
Kara. Something happened to her.
He turns back to the wall, tries to focus his thoughts on her, stares at the black and white picture of her face. A photo from Todd’s social media account. They sifted through his gallery until they’d found one of her. The only one of her. She’s in the background of a barbecue party in the summer, her head turned and caught in surprise at a camera aimed at her.
Why would she try and kill him?
Connor had assumed it was abuse because of the way Todd spoke in the interview that Lieutenant Anderson had sent over. A garbled recording likely made on his phone, stuffed into a pocket so he wouldn’t get caught.
Todd was defensive the entire time, kept turning it back on them, kept forcing the blame into Kara’s hands.
I’m the victim. I’m the one who almost died.
Which is almost amusing. He could have nearly killed Kara. She could’ve been an inch from death and lived only because her body heals quickly. She could have just been as likely to die as he was.
She just hadn’t.
In the report he was given, they found red ice in the house. Hidden in the laundry detergent and behind a stack of books in the shelves set into the wall. Kara didn’t take them. She must have known they were there—her bed was set up in the laundry room. She lived there full time.
She would have known.
But did she know what it was? Does she know what lies in the chemical structure of red ice?
Connor retrieves his phone from his pocket, scrolls through the list of apps before finding the little icon for his email. He clicks on the one, and only, email he’s received. Titled, very nicely so, DIPSHIT in all caps. Maybe it was meant to be funny.
Lieutenant Anderson had sent him all the information at five in the morning. If Connor hadn’t already been awake, he would’ve been annoyed at this more than he already is. The Lieutenant found it easier to send over a file than deal with Connor.
Stupid. He’s supposed to be working the case. Lieutenant Anderson can hate him as much as he wants, but he still has a job to do.
His phone buzzes in his pocket.
Speak of the devil.
“Get your ass to the station,” Lieutenant Anderson says. “That girl? The one from last night? She was spotted in the Ravendale district. We need to check it out.”
Stomach It ft. EDEN - Crywolf
Chapter 14: On the Run
"A split second. An eternity. Into the breach. Across the brink. A micron wide. Deep as forever. Of all our infinite possibilities, these are but two."
Gemina - Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
She wakes with the flower clutched to her chest. The alstroemeria. The Peruvian lily. Lily of the Incas. Parrot lily. That’s what Ralph had called it. She doesn’t know what to refer to it as. She’s never seen a flower like this before. Lilies—yes. But alstroemeria. An entirely different thing.
Kara sits up, feels the slight pain in her back from sleeping on the floor dissipate. As if it can only now heal when it has had the opportunity to straighten out again.
She looks over to Alice, still curled up in her blankets and fast asleep. At some point in the night, her head had slipped off the bag and Timothy the Second now resides under her skull in its spot. Kara pushes herself to her feet, surveys the fire. It’s warm enough this morning that it isn’t necessary to bring it back to life again.
In the light of the morning, the small slants through the boarded-up windows, she can make out the layer of dust and decay of the building. They shouldn’t be here. The place could collapse on them any second, like it has been left abandoned for a hundred years instead of however many it actually has been.
Maybe Ralph’s magic is drawing out the structure of the place. Maybe it is just poorly built.
Kara crosses the room towards the kitchen, knocks as lightly as possible in the fear of waking up either of them, and pushes the door open.
Ralph is sitting beside the edge of the garden on his walls, an overturned crate in front of him as green sparks flow through the slots in the plastic. He glances up at her before turning his attention back to the flow of vines as they materialize.
“Ralph is making breakfast,” he says. “He thought you and the little girl would be hungry.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Kara replies, sitting opposite of him. There’s another crate beside him, half full of various vegetables. He reaches out and flips a page in a book propped up on his leg as tomatoes solidify, growing from tiny little green spheres to large, round, and red.
“It’s good for her,” he says, looking towards the doorway. Kara had left it open, just barely an inch. Not enough to see Alice’s sleeping form on the other side. “A present. To make up for past misunderstandings. Ralph’ll cook.”
“Thank you,” she says. “But… we have to go. We can’t stay here forever.”
Ralph looks up at her, nods just barely as his face falls. In that moment she feels again how much she doesn’t want to leave, and she likely wouldn’t if it wasn’t for Alice.
“Your collar,” she says, reaching up and touching her own. “Is there no way to remove it?”
“Oh,” he says. “Ralph can’t. He’s tried.”
She nods, “May I?”
He hesitates for a second, staring at her for a long moment. “It hurts Ralph if he tries.”
“I’ll be very gentle.”
Ralph turns to his book, folding the page over and closing the cover, setting it aside, moves the crate of vegetables and fruits on top of it so Kara can move to sit beside him in its place.
“If it hurts, just tell me and I’ll stop, okay?” she asks, feels almost guilty that she is testing this out on him instead of herself.
“Ralph trusts you.”
She smiles and reaches out tentatively towards the metal band around his throat. In the light of day, she can tell that the metal does have a green sheen to it. It’s soft, almost imperceptible, but still there. Her fingers skate across the metal, towards the tiny indentation in the back. Just like before, when her fingers had fooled her and made her think the collar was wider than it was, it fooled her as to what the indentation really looks like.
There’s a small imprint on the metal, barely legible. When her fingers touch them, she doesn’t even feel the raised part of it to make up the model number. WR600. She pulls back, touches where they are on his collar to where they must be on hers. Kara might be convincing herself that she feels the embossed letters and numbers, now that she’s looking for them—the tiniest bit of a raise.
Between the letters and the number is a line, a deep cut in the metal, not as thin as she thought it was. If she had a quarter, she might be able to fit it in the grooves.
“Okay,” she says quietly. “Are you ready?”
He nods and she reaches forward, tracing her finger over the gap.
She feels the thrum of something in it. Not the electricity that buzzes in her stomach, not the voltage of a laundry machine or the scanner at the convenience store. More like the drawer, like it’s attacking her instead of her trying to utilize it.
Kara has to bite back a swear, her teeth clamping over her tongue as she rips her hand away as pain shoots up her arm. Tears prick in her eyes. Shit shit shit. She shakes her hand, trying to force the tremor of pain out of her fingertips but it lingers and lingers.
The collar around Ralph’s neck makes a small noise, a clicking before it opens, falls forward into his lap. She is too busy trying to hold back tears to hear what Ralph is saying, only hears his laugh of astonishment, feels his arms closing around her in a hug as she tries to force a breath of air into her lungs.
“Kara?” he says, pulling away from her. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she says, bringing her finger to her lips. The pain isn’t going away. She doesn’t know what caused it. If it was her power, like at the store, fighting back against her. Or if it was just the way the collars were designed.
“Let Ralph try,” he says. “Maybe he can help you.”
Before she can warn him about it, before she can try to explain, he is brushing the hair off the back of her neck where it had fallen out of her bun in the fight, in the running in the rain, in her sleep. She feels his fingers touch the skin of her neck, feels the slight sting of the collar as they move to the metal.
“Be careful,” she says, squeezing her eyes closed.
And then, the same soft click. Her collar falls into her lap, heavy metal hitting her folded up hand, sending a new wave of pain up her arm that dissipates almost immediately. Why isn’t her other finger healing as quickly? Why isn’t it already done fixing whatever damage has been caused?
“Oh,” she says, holding it up, looking towards him. He is still smiling, doesn’t seem to have the same reaction that she did. When she looks back to her collar, she can see moss growing over the edges like it has been left out in the woods for a thousand years. “How did you do that?”
He doesn’t reply, his focus has turned back to his little tomatoes, plucking them from their stems and placing them on the top of the basket.
Why was her reaction so much different than his?
Kara sets the collar aside as fungi start to sprout. Miniature ones, like the floor of a baby forest. She stands, is ready to tell Ralph she is going back to check on Alice when he moves his crate of vegetables and pushes it into her arms.
“Ralph would like you to take these to the living room,” he says. “For when he cooks.”
“Right,” she says, turning her head to eye his book.
The cover is neatly laid out vegetables all in a row against a white background, thick black font overlaying them, reading Riley’s Book of Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs with a small line of neon yellow text underneath it with the words Volume 9 typed in all caps.
The R in Riley is circle in red ink, the a in vegetables, the 9 at the bottom.
“rA9?” she asks. “What does that mean?”
“What?” he asks, looking up to her.
“You circled—you circled rA9,” she says, adjusting the crate to one arm so she can point towards the cover. “Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he whispers, his voice quiet. “I don’t know.”
It’s the first time she has heard him refer to himself as an I instead of a he.
“What the fuck took you so long?”
“I don’t live that close to the station, Lieutenant,” Connor replies. There’s a storm building up above them. He’d prefer to have this argument inside the precinct, not out in the rain, but it seems unlikely that the Lieutenant cares if they get a little wet.
Not that he cares, either. It’s just rain. It’s more of the implication that Lieutenant Anderson doesn’t care about him. Which he doesn’t—Connor already knows that.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get in the fucking car and let’s go.”
He holds back a sigh, holds back the annoyance he’s feeling. This Kara Williams they’re after—she’s the important thing to focus on. A mission. A next step in the investigation.
Connor follows Lieutenant Anderson towards the car, circles around the passenger side. As his hand reaches out for the handle, he glances up, catches the sight of Detective Reed walking up the sidewalk, hands stuffed in his pocket, an unlit cigarette in his fingers being drawn up to his lips.
Maybe Reed senses his presence—maybe that’s why he looks over as he drags the lighter from his pocket—because their eyes meet at almost the exact same time.
He stands still, like this is going to end in a confrontation and he wants to make sure it does. He could get in the car, let the Lieutenant drive away before Reed says a single word.
Not that he does. He simply brings his middle finger up, the rest clasped around the lighter.
A man of many, lovely words. Really knows his way to the heart.
“Connor, the fuck are you doing?” the Lieutenant shouts from inside the car.
“Coming, Lieutenant,” he says, pulling the door open. He breaks eye contact with Reed as he climbs inside of the car, shutting the door behind him.
The car pulls away and Connor steals a glance in the mirror towards Reed, pocketing the lighter and pulling the cigarette away as they drive off. He’s still staring at them. They’re still staring at each other.
“You got a fucking crush on the dude or what?” Lieutenant Anderson asks. “Jesus Christ.”
“I could do better,” Connor says, turning away.
“Anybody could do better. It’s not hard.”
Connor leans against his hand, peers out the window, hides a smile against his palm. Yes, it would be quite easy to find someone better than Detective Gavin Reed.
“You’re pretty like that.”
Kara smiles, touches the side of her head self-consciously. It likely wasn’t necessary cutting her hair, but she’s glad she did it. She hadn’t realized how much it would change her features. Before, they looked round and soft. Now they are sharp, clean lines.
No, she is not an entirely different person. That would be impossible. She can’t change her features to that much of extent. But it’s enough that maybe on first glance people wouldn’t notice it’s her.
Alice smiles, “Of course.”
“Ralph likes it, too,” he says, his voice quiet from the other side of the table.
She nods, smiling too bright to be able to form the words thank you. Instead, she retrieves the cube from her pocket, feels the same buzzing in it connect to her fingertips as she sets it down on the surface in front of her.
“A variant gave me this last night,” she says. “He said it had directions to a safe place to go. I don’t know how to open it.”
To be fair, she had been too scared to try, too. Ever since she touched Ralph’s collar and was electrocuted, she had been frightened of touching anything remotely electronic. The current in the cube is as terrifying as that moment when the pain in her finger didn’t retreat instantly.
It still hurts. Just barely.
“You could stay here.”
Kara meets Ralph’s gaze, turns to look at Alice. She has slowly grown to accept the idea of this abandoned house unlike the night before. She is not wearing a face that says we need to go.
But they have to. They can’t stay here. This place is too dangerous. The police might be close to the house, close to finding them. They can’t linger here. Not so close to the store they nearly robbed, not when they have a promise of somewhere—
“I—” she pauses, reaches out to the cube again, turns it over in her fingers. “That’s very kind of you, Ralph.”
But we have to go.
Maybe it is the way she says the words that makes him understand. He leans back in his chair, sadness taking over his face.
She should ask him to come with. He can’t stay here forever. They could find somewhere new. A happy place where he can make a garden that could stretch on for miles instead of cramped in a tiny kitchen.
There is a jolt in her fingertips as they pass over the cube, turning it to its next side. She blinks, the room around her disappearing. The fire place and Alice’s bed and Ralph’s sad face gone in an instant for an old sign, rusted metal—
She sets the cube down.
“Did you see something, Kara?”
She can’t speak.
“Y-yes,” she says. “I…”
What is that thing?
“Are you alright?”
She isn’t sure which one of them asks it, but she nods numbly, “I know where—I know where to go.”
Like a thread has been sewn into her skin, pulling her along, is leading her to that place. An unignorable feeling her chest, her feet desperate to move. They need to go. Now. Before she loses this. Before it disappears from her grasp.
In the time it took to drive here, the rain has become heavy, spilling across the windshield faster than the wipers can sweep them away.
When they turn the corner on the street, Connor’s eyes are closed, head leaned against the glass. It’s not a long enough time for him to fall asleep, but it’s enough to rest the exhaustion that’s settling over his shoulders like a heavy blanket. He should sleep. He needs to sleep.
After this—he’s going to go home and crash and not wake up for twelve hours. He’s likely too tired to dream—to experience the nightmare over again.
When the car comes to a stop, he opens his eyes, looking up at the convenience store with a neon sign reading only the number 24 in purple and orange. He looks to Lieutenant Anderson as he shuts off the car, pocketing his keys.
“Stay here,” he says, stepping out.
Connor turns away from him before the door can even close, pushes his own open and follows him.
“We’ve got officers sweeping the neighborhood, in case anybody saw anything,” the detective says to Lieutenant Anderson.
Connor recognizes him from a few days ago at the Ortiz crime scene. Detective Collins. He’d looked back over the files of the different people working at the station later that night, mostly to investigate how a guy like Gavin Reed could be trusted as a police officer when he acts like a criminal.
“Okay,” Lieutenant Anderson replies. “Let me know if they turn anything up.”
He looks away as their conversation continues, a rundown on the nights before as they tracked down Kara William’s whereabouts. A bus taken at ten last night, a few minutes spent in the Laundromatic down the street, robbing the convenience store.
Their conversation drowns out as he surveys the street, stopping suddenly, as his hands come up to the door, paused in their motion to close it.
“Lieutenant Anderson,” he says, pointing to the abandoned house across the street. The energy webbing off of it is like an explosion of threads. Green and blue twisting together, fading in and out of each other, but the green dominates. Like vines climbing up the side of the house. “She didn’t have a plan, she had nowhere to go—maybe she didn’t go far?”
“Into the fucking horror movie set?” the Lieutenant asks. “You think she would have gone there?”
“It’s discreet,” he replies. “And it’s where I would’ve gone.”
He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself on the subject, but it’s the truth. He would have seen the tangle of energy there and immediately ran to it. Another variant that might help him out of the mess he has put himself in. He would have put his faith in the gentleness of those strings, the way they quiver with fear and hope and longing.
“Why don’t you go check it out,” Lieutenant Anderson replies, turning away from him. “I’m going to stay here, so I don’t get killed by an axe murderer.”
He crosses the street, the energy threads of the building growing more and more. They’re almost overwhelming. What had the variant inside those walls done to make it so powerful he could see it from the street?
Connor circles around the fence, doesn’t find an opening. He glances back towards the Lieutenant, who watches him expectantly and he lets out a small sigh. His fingers close around the links in the fence and hauls himself upwards, tumbling over the side and hitting the ground hard on his back.
He breathes in a ragged breath, staring up at the sky for a moment, rain pattering on his face as mud soaks through his jacket.
Great. Fantastic. Brilliant.
He’s aware his purpose to AzureHeart is to investigate variants and their collars—but why hadn’t they spent even a fraction more time on actually improving his muscles?
Connor forces himself to his feet, the pain echoing in his back fading as he takes one slow step towards the building. He peers in through the slats in the wood. The place is empty, but it’s almost difficult to tell with how thick the green strands of energy are. They overpower everything.
He tries the door knob, is surprised to see it’s unlocked, and pushes the door open. The smell of rain and dirt is replaced with the scent of flowers and smoke. It is a strange combination. Not exactly a good one.
Connor wades through the strings of energy, walking through them as he looks around the room. The underneath of the stairs is empty, but there is evidence of someone being here, and recently, too. There are plates on the table, traces of food on their porcelain surfaces. The remnants of a fire is burning, the rags of an old blanket laid out in front of it.
He pushes open the door towards the kitchen, peers around at the flowers and vines and greenery coating the walls. Some of them are dying, shriveling up with old petals falling to the floor. He steps forward, kicking at a plastic crate with old brown vines curling up onto themselves, catches sight of a book.
Connor leans down, picks up from the floor and turns it over in his hands. rA9. Same as Matthew Bracken.
Before he has time to question the significance of it, he hears the creak of floorboards above him. He drops the book, turning around quickly and racing up the steps, taking them two at a time and nearly tripping over himself in his hurry to find the source of the noise.
It's empty. The bathroom, both bedrooms—they’re empty. No one. Nothing but the old furniture rotting away.
He steps over to the open window, leans out of it and peers down at the street where Lieutenant Anderson is hiding underneath an umbrella with Detective Collins, phone held to his ear.
A gust of wind blows by, filtering clean air into the house, taking away some of the thick smell in the building.
He has to think of the obvious answers, the ones that would explain the sound:
First, the wind. Maybe it knocked something over. Maybe he heard a clatter instead of a creak. Although, he finds that unlikely.
Second, the age of the house. This place is old, it’s falling apart and it’s raining heavily. It could have simply been settling.
Third, the train.
Like the rain. Like the wind. It could have shaken the house.
Connor retreats from the window, races back down the stairs, pushes past the open door, collides against the fence as he slips off the wooden surface of the porch in his hurry. He pulls himself back up and over, slipping against the wet metal but making a more graceful landing on the other side.
“The train,” he yells across the street towards Lieutenant Anderson. “They could be at the station!”
The Lieutenant looks over to him, confusion coloring his face as he makes a gesture like I can’t fucking hear you, it’s raining dipshit. And Connor wouldn’t blame him.
But he has to hurry. He has to make it to the station.
They are quick to the station, thanks only to luck and the rain. It helps cover their tracks—the dozens of umbrellas open, obscuring the vision of the people around them. Kara keeps the hood of her jacket up, makes sure that Alice does the same. No one gives them more than one look.
They step into the station, rushing through the security measures, passing money across to pay their way as they step onto the train. She looks through the window as the doors start to slide closed, as a man comes barreling around the corner, slipping across the ground and catching himself on a pole.
He stares at her for a long moment as the doors close that last inch.
She doesn’t know who he is.
But the look he gives her—
It tells her she doesn’t want to know.
The subway rumbles under her feet as it takes off and she looks back towards Alice, still holding onto her hand tight.
“Are you okay?” she asks, looking from her and then to Ralph.
Ralph. Ralph who has come with them. Ralph who has collapsed into a seat, eyes fluttering closed and hands trembling.
“Are you okay?” she repeats the question again, reaching out to him. He flinches at her touch and she recoils, an apology ready at her lips.
“No,” he whispers. “No.”
“What happened?” she asks, wanting to sit beside him, wanting to comfort him.
“The rain—” he mumbles. “It’s quite a lot of effort for Ralph.”
“You—” she pauses, half in amazement and half in concern. “You made it rain?”
He gives a shallow nod and curls up in the seat, squeezing his eyes shut tight.
She looks over to Alice, kneels down in front of her, “He’s going to be okay,” she says, even though she doesn’t know, even though this is as big of a mystery to her as it must be to Alice. “I promise.”
The train disappears down the track, the heavy traces of energy threads vanishing along with it.
She got away. She got away.
He can’t decide whether to be happy about this or not. Whether to be thankful that she can still run away from the person he suspects has abused her from the moment she wandered into his house. Like Matthew Bracken. A deserved freedom.
But AzureHeart was clear on their mission. It does not matter what has happened to a variant. It does not matter what has caused their collars to break. They need them.
So, he slams his hand against the pole he leans against and turns back, frustrated and annoyed and half ready to hop on the next train to chase them, but he has no idea where they are going. It is useless to attempt. The DPD can check the cameras of every station it stops at, but they will be long gone before they can review the footage.
Connor makes his way back to the Lieutenant, his breath restored from his run.
“What happened to you?” he asks as Connor crosses the street.
“The variant went to the station,” he says, turning around to point towards it, as though Lieutenant Anderson needs to be enlightened on where it is. “I tried to reach her, but I couldn’t get there in time.”
“Yeah? Not so great at being a detective as you thought?”
“I’m not a detective,” Connor replies. “I’m a consultant. You are supposed to be the one chasing variants. If you listened to me—”
“Fuck off,” he says, circling to the driver’s side of the car. “I’m not chasing anyone. I’ve got a bad back.”
“Get on a fucking treadmill in your spare time, how about that?” he says, opening the door.
The car door slams as the Lieutenant climbs inside the car. Connor reaches forward, pulling at the handle. The door stays shut, the handle slipping out of his grip. He knocks against the window.
“Let me in,” he shouts.
The car stars, the window rolls down two inches.
“What was that?” Lieutenant Anderson asks. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Unlock the door.”
The Lieutenant reaches forward, turning up the volume of the music, “Sorry, I can’t hear you over the music—”
“Too loud,” he says, motioning to his ears. “You’re too quiet.”
“If you would just—”
The window rolls up and Connor steps away, watches as the car takes off down the street. He glares at it as it makes what is he quite sure is an illegal U-turn. It circles back, the other window rolling down as Lieutenant Anderson leans out, the volume of the music turned down again.
“I’m not letting you in my car,” he says, gesturing towards him with his free hand. “You’re a prick and you’re jacket’s all muddy. I’m not destroying my interiors because you don’t know how to climb a fence.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ll look up rock climbing classes tomorrow morning. Perhaps that will help.”
Lieutenant Anderson gives a dry, humorless laugh.
“I can take the jacket off,” he says.
“Or I could leave you here. AzureHeart gives you plenty of money, right? You can afford a taxi.”
“Carpooling is better for the environment.”
Connor reaches up and sheds his jacket, folding it inside out so the mud streaked back of it is perfectly contained.
“Is this good enough for you?”
Lieutenant Anderson shrugs, “Yeah. Fine. Just for the environment though, alright?”
He gives a small smile, “Of course.”
let's all just... project our love of Ralph onto Kara
White Blood - Oh Wonder
Stolen - Michigander
Chapter 15: Thread
“We'd been born with our souls' fingers interlocked. What if we'd never let go?”
What's Left of Me - Kat Zhang
He is contemplating sleep. If it will be a good idea. If it will be a terrible, terrible decision. He is tired, he is exhausted. He wants to fall into bed and a have a few hours without thinking about the world but he can’t.
In the mirror, at times like these, he thinks he can see Daniel looking back at him. He thinks there are traces that are connecting them together. Do they share the same mouth? The same nose? The same eyes?
No, of course not. They are not entire opposites but the only thing linking them together is that rooftop. That gun. That thread. Like it still lingers in this world. It shouldn’t. It broke. He felt it snap. As easy as if he had taken it in his hands and tugged it apart.
He has to leave. He has to get away from this apartment. A few moments. An hour. That is all. He can come back to his wall of variants, the faces looking back down at him pleading for his help. He has none to give.
Daniel knows that now.
He pushes his door open, steps out into the hallway, takes the stairs two a time upwards. He doesn’t like heights. He doesn’t like the rooftop. But it is better than his place. It is better than the sleek, minimalistic furniture that sit on his floors, that adorn his walls.
The night air is cool, not cold. He wishes it was cold. He wishes he could take a coat and curl up into it become nothing more than just a body comforted by soft fabric.
When he first spots the figure, he almost turns back. He wants to be alone. He wants to be by himself for a little while.
And then he sees them turn, glance back at the sound of the door closing behind him.
“Fucking hell,” Reed mutters. “You following me?”
“Yes,” he says, crossing the roof. “I have nothing better to do but then to track you down and watch you.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says. “You’re a bit of a freak, Connor. And I’m quite attractive.”
Connor snorts and settles down on the roof beside him, “Your looks don’t make up for your behavior.”
“You tried to kill me.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he shrugs, takes another drag on his cigarette. “I wasn’t going to. That’s not really trying.”
“But you said you should have.”
“That’s—” Gavin pauses and looks over to him. “Whatever.”
Connor pulls his legs up towards his chest, looks out across the city, “You live here, then?”
“No, I come here for the fun of it. Of course I fucking do. Thought you knew that. Don’t you have files on all of us?”
“Yes,” he says, with a small smile. He hadn’t really paid much attention to Gavin’s address. Just the short background information, but still he lies. “I didn’t look at yours. I thought you were irrelevant.”
“Fuck you,” he replies, but he says it without venom. Almost—
“Why do you hate me?” Connor asks, without thinking, without considering that he doesn’t want the answer.
Gavin looks over at him again, blowing out a soft stream of smoke, “I don’t.”
“I don’t like you, don’t get me wrong,” Gavin says. “But—hate? Strong word. Close to accurate. There something between hate and dislike?”
“There you go,” he says. “I detest you.”
“Okay,” Connor says, with a small smile. Gavin is entertaining, even if he detests him. “Why do you detest me?”
“Why do you think?”
“Variants have caused a lot of fucking problems in this world, you know that? People thought they wanted superheroes. They were idiots. All of them.”
“Businessmen? Corporate fuckers like you?” he says, reaching out and pushing Connor’s shoulder back. “You fuck up everything, too. You’re a combination of the worst things on this planet.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“I know enough.”
“What happened to you?” he asks, leaning forward. “What happened that made you like this?”
“You want my life story? You’re not getting it,” he says, standing. “Fuck off.”
He watches Gavin leave, biting his bottom lip. He hadn’t meant for it to turn out this way.
But at least he’s alone now.
It’s a strange night. He can feel a storm brewing somewhere in the distance. He can feel the way the air is charged with electricity, it’s desire to drench concrete and pavement and rip the sky open with deafening thunder.
AzureHeart gifted him this apartment as a place to spend his time in-between cases. Connor is strictly not allowed to leave here unless it’s for work—it’s why he went to the rooftop. If he could come up with an excuse to go to the station, he might just so that he can wander the streets for a while. Pretend that he got lost.
Not that they would know what he was up to. There is a Tracker embedded in his skin somewhere, but they likely wouldn’t turn on his location unless they needed him for something. Still, the thought of breaking their rules and whatever consequences may come of it seem too dangerous to risk.
When he returns from the roof, he turns the air in his apartment down. A complete coldness that slowly settles over the room. He sheds his jacket, replaces it with a blanket, curls up next to the window as the storm starts.
He is about to fall asleep. Comforted by the warmth around him keeping out the artificial chill, except—
Something else happens first.
It’s easy for him to want to call it a snap, like a thread being cut, but it’s more like he is being sewn into something. Connor can feel something in the distance. A burst of—
A dam breaking? Yes.
It’s a flood. A hurricane. A tsunami.
Crashing through the city, coming straight for him. It hits him hard, it hits him fast. It leaves his lungs struggling to breath, him collapsing to the ground, reaching for something to help pull him up.
He has never felt power like this before. Something so strong it sought him out instead of the other way around. He can feel the bond forming, his energy tangling with whoever this belongs to. Violent and messy and cruel.
Connor doesn’t want this. It terrifies him. It is too much—it is taking over his senses. He can feel his hands burning like they’re on fire. He can feel it thrumming through his body.
He reaches out, grasps the edge of his table to push him up but the wood splinters, cracks, ignites quickly into a flame that engulfs the oak and cracks the glass surface. It shatters, burning quick and fast—too fast for him to react to it with anything other than awe.
There is nothing left but the charred remains and the broken fragments of clear crystal on the rug where the table once stood.
He pulls himself inwards, tries to draw up his own energy to free it from the snags and knots that have been caused by this other person’s but it does little to help. It withdraws on it’s own as fast as it came it and Connor lets out a shuddering breath.
Who was that? What was that? Where did it come from?
How can he find them again?
Out of the Darkness - Matthew & the Atlas
Chapter 16: Zlatko
“Find me a cure for these tears, I'd really like to exhale for the first time in my life.”
Shatter Me - Tahereh Mafi
“You gonna be okay?”
They have to pause again—the third time in the last hour. Ralph leans against the edge of the building, his hood pulled up to block out the rain. It’s still storming. Kara asked him, a few hours ago, if it was his work. He didn’t reply. Either too exhausted or not wanting to lie or maybe he doesn’t know.
“Ralph is fine,” he says. “He just needs to rest for a moment.”
Kara lets out a tiny sigh and looks towards Alice, the silent question repeated again. She gives her a small nod in response. Good.
“We’ll get some help here,” she says. “Soon, this will all be just a bad memory. Can you make it down the street?”
He nods and leans against her side. She wraps an arm around his waist, keeps him held against her as best as she can. Alice holds her other hand, the rain making their grip slippery.
She doesn’t know how to fix this. She doesn’t know what to do to make this better. She didn’t even know the specifics about their abilities—about their magic. The news only reports tragic accidents caused by variants, never anything concrete about what they did to cause it.
The building that caught on fire—was that because someone touched the walls with their finger tips and set the blaze? Was it because they caused something like a machine, like the one at the Laundromatic, to malfunction like she had? There are too many possibilities. They unwind around her and she can’t pick them up again.
She has never been more aware of how little she truly knows.
“This is the place,” she says. “Alice, can you open the gate?”
Their hands break apart. Alice steps forward, pushing open the creaking gate, the rusted metal groaning with the effort of it. She looks towards the old sign on the brick pillars, the one that reads THE ANDRONIKOV RESIDENCE.
As they walk towards the house, she cringes in advance at the steep seven steps up to the porch. Ralph leans against her more and more as she steps up, struggling to pull him with her. When she reaches the top, she lifts her hand up and presses the bell. She can hear it ringing through the walls, can hear the silence that follows it.
She’s about to press it a second time when the door opens, a man appearing on the other side.
“Are you—” she pauses, realizes she doesn’t know his name. The cube didn’t give her that much information. It showed her the house, the gate, the sign. It created a thread between her and it. Now that she is so close, it has become taut, constricting her insides like she’s wearing a corset. “Are you Andronikov?”
“I was told you could help us,” she says, glancing from him to Alice to Ralph.
He shakes his head, starts to close the door, “I don’t know who told you that. You came to the wrong place. I’m sorry.”
She holds out her free hand, nearly drops Ralph with the abruptness of it, and stops the door.
“Wait,” she says, fear flooding in her voice. She has to get somewhere safe for Alice. She has to help Ralph. “We really need your help.”
He seems to consider this as he scans them over again. At their necks lacking collars, at the scar on Ralph’s face, settling on little Alice, half hidden behind her legs.
She breathes out a sigh of relief as he opens the door. The thread between her and this place disintegrates as she passes the threshold into the dimly lit entryway, lavishly decorated with antiques and paintings. Kara glances over it, looks up towards the chandelier hanging above them. She helps Ralph rests against the intricately carved wooden posts and sets their bags beside the door. They should take off their coats, leave them on the hooks on the other side, but she wants to be ready to run if she has to.
“My friend needs help,” Kara says. “Do you have anywhere he can rest?”
Andronikov looks over his shoulder for a moment towards the living room, “Luther, can you come here for a moment?”
She looks towards the entryway as another person enters—as Luther enters. He is tall. Taller than Ralph, who already made her feel short. And he wears a collar. A sleek silver that stands out against his skin. There are faint traces of blue above and below it—like the woman at the hospital.
Has he been trying to get it off?
“Can you take their friend up to the bedroom? There’s no need to make him sit through all the details if he’s ill.”
Ill. Maybe he doesn’t realize Ralph is a variant like her. It would be safer that way—wouldn’t it? If something goes wrong, Ralph can help them like he did before. This man would never see it coming.
Not as if Ralph is up to using any more magic, though.
“Of course, Zlatko.”
Luther moves forward and Ralph opens his eyes, giving Kara a small, questioning look. He doesn’t want to go—but he isn’t going to say anything. The two move towards the stairs and Alice reaches out, squeezing Kara’s hand.
“Please, come in, don’t be shy,” Andronokiv—Zlatko—says. He walks towards the living room and they follow, Kara casting glances up to the stairs as Luther helps Ralph upwards. Her stomach twists. Something isn’t right here. “Make yourselves at home.”
He gestures towards the couch, Alice sinks into the red cushions of the sofa. Kara takes a place next to her. Zlatko walks over to the counter and she cranes her neck to look over at him as he talks, busying himself with pouring a glass of water.
“How did you hear about me?”
“A variant on the street,” she says, recalling his face. The softness of it, the wanting to help them in his eyes. “He said you could help us. He gave me a cube.”
“Ah, yes,” he says, returning to the small space and taking a seat across from them. “I had a variant that used to live with me. She helped me make them. She could put messages in them and any type of variant could use their power to unlock it. You—you didn’t have to destroy it, did you?”
She shakes her head and produces the cube from her pocket, placing it on the table between them. It is scratched, but still together.
“Good. That’s good. And her?” he looks towards Alice.
“She—” Kara looks away from Alice. “I helped her escape. From a bad situation.”
Nothing more. She doesn’t trust Zlatko with more. She doesn’t want him to know anything about Alice. She doesn’t want to even tell him her name.
“Alright,” he says with a shrug, accepting this with such nonchalance she wonders if she had misjudged him and this place. That man said it was safe, that he would help them, but Zlatko is different than what she was promised. He makes her uneasy. “You want to find a safe place. Somewhere where you can start a new life. I hear Canada is very lovely at this time of year. Beautiful landscapes, open spaces, clean air… and no variant laws. Great place for a fresh start.”
“Yes, that’s…” she pauses, forcing a small smile on her face. Be grateful. “That’s exactly what we want.”
“Of course. And I can help you, but first,” he says, leaning forward and setting the glass on the table. “We have to get rid of your Tracker.”
“Yes, all variants are fitted with a tracking device to locate them at all times. I’ll remove yours and then you’ll both be safe,” he stands. “Come on, follow me.”
They stand, Kara taking Alice’s hand quickly. Luther appears at the bottom of the stairs before they step out into the entry room again.
“Luther, is their friend all settled?”
“Good, good,” he says. “Can you take their coats? And the little one upstairs with their friend?”
“No,” Kara says quickly. “She always stays with me.”
“Oh, of course.”
Luther steps over to them and Kara carefully unzips her jacket, holding it out to him. She doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to be away from Alice or Ralph.
Maybe it would be safer if she was with Ralph. Maybe she should have allowed him to take her. At least Ralph wouldn’t be alone.
“Right this way,” Zlatko says from the other side of the stairs. “Everything we need is in the basement.”
Alice lowers her voice as they step over to Zlatko, who starts his descent downwards.
“I don’t like this place,” she whispers. “Or that man.”
“I know,” Kara murmurs back. “I don’t trust him either. We have to be careful.”
“Please, excuse the mess,” Zlatko calls from below them. They follow after, her stomach winding further and further into itself. “I needed somewhere discreet for my machines. Removing Trackers is illegal, so I opted for discretion over comfort. I hope the little one isn’t too scared.”
Kara turns back to Alice, who has slipped from her hand and stands in front of a gate. She steps over to it, peering past the blackened shadows. She can make out the shape of beds, the familiar outline of an I.V. stand.
“No,” she says, but her voice trembles on the word. “No, she’ll be alright.”
Alice looks up to her and Kara takes her hand again, looking back the way they’ve come. Luther stands in the middle of the hallway, taking up the space that they could run past. They’ve been trapped down here.
Maybe if she plays along—
Alice holds her hand tight, pressing it with a comforting touch. It does little to help ease the fear coiling up in her. She should be the one comforting her, not the other way around.
“This way, please.”
Kara steps into the room, looking over it slowly. Boards laying over a deep well, computer screens set up on one side of the wall, a hospital bed in the corner, a machine in the center.
“If you could just stand over there,” he says. “It will scan your body, find out where your Tracker is located. They always change where they put them.”
She lingers for a moment in the archway. Is this safe, is this safe, is this safe?
Her hand pulls away from Alice’s, who tries her best to not let her go. She looks back with what she hopes is a reassuring nod, a comforting smile. She hopes Alice does not see the terror in her eyes.
This—this is all just assumptions. This is all just fear from the last time she was around these things. She has to trust Zlatko. That man on the street wouldn’t have sent them somewhere dangerous, would he? Not when there was a little girl’s life depending on it.
“I should warn you, this could be quite unpleasant.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, and the machine underneath her buzzes to life. She feels the current in her bones as it starts up, like it is connecting to her veins for energy as much as it is connecting to the outlets.
Her head spins, her hands shake.
“Luther, I think you should take the little one upstairs,” Zlatko says. “She doesn’t need to see this, does she?”
She thinks of Alice seeing a scalpel slicing into her skin, she thinks of Alice seeing a tiny Tracker plucked from her body, she thinks of Alice seeing more and more blood than she ever needs to ever again.
“No,” she mumbles. “You’re right.”
Alice opens her mouth and closes it. Argument lost already. It’s better this way.
The two disappear out the door, the machine around her thrums louder. Her legs can’t hold her up anymore and she collapses to her knees, her lungs trying to breathe in.
“I have a question for you,” Zlatko says, silencing her fragile words. “Do you know what red ice is? Do you know what it’s made of?”
“It’s made of you. Or, people like you anyways.”
He leans down to meet her gaze, her eyes that are struggling to stay open.
“Your blood is something special. More than you variants ever know, and it sells for a high price,” he says. She can’t breathe. She can’t see. She can’t move her arms or her legs. “Strange, really. Something about your blood—even though it’s blue—something about it when it comes into contact with acetone—it turns it red. It’s always so fascinating to see. Really, quite incredible.”
“I thought you said—” she can barely get the words out, her tongue is numb in her mouth, barely being able to make out the syllables.
“Yeah, people believe what they want. You variants are so naïve,” he says, a small laugh as she collapses the rest of the way against the ground. “They all come to me, expecting me to help them. Come on, I think it’s time to put you out of your misery.”
He pulls her from the machine and the buzzing inside of her stops, falls silent amongst everything else. She can barely feel the press of his fingers against his arms as he hauls her up onto the bed.
“Your kind—you specifically, your Trackers stop working. You break them somehow,” he reaches a hand out to her face. Her eyes open long enough to see it trace the line of her chin before they close once more. “Pretty blue eyes.”
If she could feel anything—
“I almost envy you.”
She falls somewhere back into the darkness enveloping her.
She blinks awake. The lights above her are dim, she knows this, but they blind her. She covers her eyes as she sits up. Her arms feel heavy. Her feet touch the ground like lead. When she stands, she collapses against the edge of a machine. A current passes through her as her hand touches it and she pulls it away quickly, stumbling backwards against the bed once more.
She holds her hand out in front of her, watches as her fingers tremble. She clenches them into a tight fist and it helps, forcing the tremor upwards, spiraling through her shoulder blades, making her spine ache.
She turns, catching herself on the wall as she forces her feet to work. One step, two, three.
Out the room, down the hall—
Her heart skips a beat. She reaches out towards the gate, her hand slipping over the lock as she tries again and again to undo it. She doesn’t manage it until the third time, when she pushes it open and steps inside.
“He erased her memory.”
“No... this can’t be happening.”
“You have to remember, for her sake.”
“You must remember who you are, otherwise the little one will die.”
—is the little one?
Her eyes adjust to the darkness of the area. The outline of beds and bodies. She steps cautiously over to one, a woman on the bed with scars across her face.
“Stop,” she murmurs, turning her face away. “Don’t look at me.”
She reaches a hand out slowly, touching the restraint on her wrist that is attached to the bar of the bed.
“What—” it is the first time she speaks, a broken word and a voice that seems like it doesn’t belong to her. “What happened to you?”
“He likes to play with us,” someone says from the other side of the room. “Creating monsters for his amusement. But who’s the real monster?”
She crosses the room towards the voice, turning her head to make out the face in the slanted light, but her eyes move away from his when she sees them. Black and red—wrong, wrong, wrong.
Her eyes land on his arm, of the I.V. hooked to his elbow, at the steady flow of blue from his veins to the bag hanging on the pole beside him.
“What—” she tries again, but she can’t voice it this time. She can’t ask when she is terrified of the answer.
“You must remember who you are,” the one on the bed says to her. “Otherwise, the little one will die.”
The little one.
“Who is the little one?”
And why do they know more about her than she does?
“Go,” someone says. “Go, before he comes back.”
She turns, stumbling over her feet that seem like they still don’t want to work quite right. Out of the room, up the stairs—
She stops, leaning against the wood, peering out towards the empty space. Someone is sitting in front of a fire in the next room. They stand and she shrinks back, taking a small step down the stairs to the basement again as they come towards her. She watches their shadow move up the stairs beside her, breathes out a tiny sigh of relief when they disappear.
Her reflection stops her from walking. The crookedness of her nose. The shortness of her hair. The blue of her eyes. She hadn’t expected herself to look like that. She steps forward, a hand coming up to touch the slope of her nose. The wrongness of it. It’s been broken, healed incorrectly.
Had he done that?
She has to get out of here.
She rushes towards the door, her hand reaching out for the coat, feeling the wet fabric of it. She yanks it away. A voice is screaming at her:
Little one. Little one. Little one.
Who is the little one?
It doesn’t matter who.
She steps back from the coats. It does not matter who the little one is. She can’t leave here. She walks into the living room, glancing around the space. Nothing. No little one. No little girl.
“Luther!” someone shouts from above her. “Bring me the other one in ten minutes!”
Not little one.
She listens to the creak of the floorboards above her, the sound of a door opening and closing. The little one has to be up there. She steps out of the living room, looking as best she can before starting upwards.
She will not be selfish. She will be brave. She will help save a child.
She will not let the little one end up like those in the basement.
The upstairs is empty. It is easy to avoid the open door of an operating room. It is easy to slide into another, disappearing into the darkness of it, the space only lined with empty tables and equipment. She passes by a fridge that she opens slowly, peering into the shelves. It is lined with bags of blue blood, stacked from top to bottom. She closes it quickly, stumbling backwards against a table that rattles against her weight. She turns to it, catching a glass beaker that is falling, setting it beside a plastic package of red crystals.
She doesn’t know where the word comes from, but it is suddenly there, in her head. She recoils away from it, brushing up against a shelf. She remembers doing this before. She remembers running from the mere sight of those little red fragments.
Do you know what red ice is? Do you know what it’s made of?
Us. Us. Us.
There is a scream in her throat as she hurries away, as she runs too quickly and too loudly to the next door, throwing herself into the next room. She falls against the door, a hand raised to her mouth and she is thankful it is there because it keeps the scream from falling from her lips when she sees the body in the tub.
House of horrors. This place is a crime scene. This place is a monstrosity.
Tears prick at her eyes as she forces the next door open, biting her tongue hard as she exits back into the hall.
The little one. Keep going.
She pushes open another door, closing it quietly behind her. She glances over to the body on the bed, the scar on his face. She can’t take another dead body—she can’t look at another—
She yearns for when she was in that small sliver of bleary eyed numbness.
“Kara, what’s wrong?”
“W-Who are you?” she manages to get out. She can’t fight him on the name. She doesn’t even know if it’s hers.
“You don’t remember—”
“No,” she says. “No, I don’t.”
She steps over to the bed, slowly, the shaking in her body continuing but subsiding.
“Ralph,” he says quietly, a hand lifting up to his chest like it takes all the effort in the world to do so. “You are Kara.”
She thinks of her face in the mirror. Of her crooked nose. Of her short hair. Kara.
“My name is Kara.”
She tries it out as a sentence. Not a question. Not asking for a clarification, but he nods anyways. Yes, you are Kara.
“I don’t remember you,” she says, her hands tighten around the wooden footboard of the bed.
The hand against his chest reaches out towards her, small sparks of green flittering in the air. They half form a tiny flower, shimmering pink and orange and yellow. It is not solid. It is not real.
“Ralph made you this,” he says, his voice hoarse. “Do you remember that?”
She steps closer to his hand, making out the blurry details of the ever-shifting sparks in the air.
“Alstroemeria,” she says quietly, but she doesn’t know why she knows the word. She reaches out to it, her fingers brushing the particles of light. They float away from her, disappearing into the air. He closes his hand.
“You do remember.”
She does. She doesn’t.
“Are you the other one?” she asks suddenly.
“The other one?”
She turns, looks towards the door. The soft sounds of floorboards creaking outside of the one she just came through.
“Do you know who the little one is?” she presses, because certainly he is not the little one, and if she isn’t—if he can’t be—someone else is.
Kara moves quickly towards the other door, leaving him searching for words, trying to call her back. Alice. Alice. Alice.
She pulls the door open, forgetting to be quiet.
And she runs into a body.
Hands come up to her shoulders and she reaches up, trying to shove them away.
They both say it, and it makes her freeze, looking up at his face.
“She’s through there, Kara,” he says, pointing towards a door at the end of the hall. “She’s—”
Kara frees herself from his grip—which she hadn’t realized how loose it was until she tried. She stumbles down the hall, shoving the door open, falling inside of the room.
“Alice?” she says, her voice breaking.
The little one.
Her arms close around Kara, pulling her tight. She can’t stop the tears in her eyes. The sob rattles her body, her lungs heaving in air. She remembers. She remembers.
Alice. Todd. Ralph. Luther. Zlatko.
“Kara, you remember me!” Alice says, muffling the words against her shoulder.
“How could I forget you?” she says, freeing herself from their hug. Zlatko is going to hurt them. He is going to kill Alice. They have to get out of here. “I’m so sorry. You were right. We never should have come here, but we have to go, okay? Follow me and don’t make any noise.”
Alice nods and she stands, taking her hand in her own. They exit the room, taking cautious steps around the corner. Kara pushes the door open to the room she saw Ralph in, pulling Alice in after her and shutting it quietly behind her.
When she turns around to face the bed, she finds it empty. The blankets and the sheets are strewn about. There are faint pieces of green on the floor. When she bends to pick it up, it glitters in the light against her fingers in the brief second she can hold it before it disintegrates against her skin.
“Ralph was here,” she says, looking back to Alice.
Bring me the other one in ten minutes.
Zlatko had meant Ralph.
But had it been ten minutes?
Would Luther—when he helped Kara find Alice—would he truly do this? Help Zlatko kill another person? Turn them into one of those people in the basement, hanging on for dear life?
“We can’t leave without him.”
They both say it at the same time, Kara in a low hushed voice, Alice’s pleading. She looks up and meets Alice’s scared eyes. Did she think that Kara would leave him behind after making him come here with them? After he nearly died to help cover their tracks to get away from the police?
Alice gives a weak smile and Kara returns it.
“We won’t. I promise. But I have to get you out of here. I can’t—”
She doesn’t know how to explain it. That it would be easier to sneak around the house and only worry about herself. That she can’t put Alice in danger. She needs to be somewhere else, somewhere safe.
“Do you remember where we stopped?” she asks. “Do you remember where we were when Ralph needed to take a break, just before we got here?”
“Good. I need you to meet me there. Can you do that for me?”
Before Alice can answer, she hears Zlatko’s voice, loud and annoyed, yelling for Luther. She hears the sound of footsteps from outside the door and she stands up, her feet frozen in fear. What do they do? Where do they go? Do they hide? Do they hope he doesn’t come in here?
The door opens.
Zlatko steps in.
She pushes Alice towards the other door, watches as confusion spreads across his face before he steps towards her.
Don’t hurt her. Don’t even look at her.
She shoves him when he gets close to her, pushing him back as hard as she can into the dresser. She runs out the doorway, looking down the stairs as Alice takes them quickly, collapsing against the front door and trying the lock. Kara races after her, nearly tripping over her own feet and tumbling downwards.
A shot rings out across the room, the bullet hitting a wooden post, splintering it inches from her face. She falls backwards, only gives herself that tiny second to be surprised. No hesitation. She cannot linger. Not even for a millisecond.
“Back door,” she says, reaching out to Alice. She takes her hand, running with her through the living room.
Her own fingers slip across the knob, struggle to get a good grip. She can hear Zlatko yelling something at them, something she doesn’t bother paying attention to. It’s not important. Alice is important.
She turns the knob, pushes the door outwards and follows Alice quickly down the steps, slipping against the mud as she goes. The sound of a gun going off sounds through the air again, her heart stops—
And then she’s falling, hitting the ground hard. Pain blossoms across her shoulder blade and Alice is in front of her, trying to help her up.
“Go, Alice!” she yells.
She’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. She can already feel the wound trying to knit itself shut again. She can feel the fibers of her skin closing over once more. But Alice, she will not survive if she gets hit with a bullet. She will not live through this.
And then, Kara won’t either.
“No!” Alice says, grasping for her hands. “I won’t leave you!”
“Go!” she shouts, more forcefully this time. Angry. Her best mother impersonation. “Run as fast as you can! I’ll catch up to you, I promise.”
Alice’s hands twist against the fabric of her shirt, and then she turns and runs.
“I warned you,” Zlatko’s voice sounds from the doorway. It is followed by the sound of metal against metal, the sound of a gun readying. “You should’ve listened to me—”
She watches as Alice disappears around the corner. To safety.
If she dies, at least Alice will be alright. Hopefully she won’t come back. Hopefully she will continue to run.
The ground beneath her rumbles. She brings up a hand, brushing the tears away from her face as she turns back to the house, trying to keep her eyes up towards the sky. If she is going to die, she doesn’t want the last thing on her mind to be the house or Zlatko’s face or Alice running away.
She wants it to be the stars.
The terror in his voice is what makes her look back downwards. The earth is cracking around him, vines are reaching up from the dirt and wrapping around his leg, upwards and upwards. Zlatko seems too stunned to remember what he was doing—to remember that he was about to kill her.
Her eyes go from Zlatko to the steps, to the shadowy figure of Ralph.
Ralph who is alive, Ralph who has his hand against the ground, his eyes tired and rain splattering across his clothes. Luther is next to him, knelt beside his crouched form.
She doesn’t have time to question what is happening. The earth beneath Zlatko opens up and he is pulled under by the vines that have wrapped around his shoulders. He’s screaming. He doesn’t stop screaming. It continues as he is pulled further and further under, the ground closing over him again.
She still hears it, she thinks, among the rain and the thunder.
He is still alive down there.
Kara forces herself to her feet, her hand coming up to her shoulder to feel the wound. It’s healing—slowly—but it’s healing. The bullet went all the way through. Blood is soaking the front and back of her shirt, staining her palm.
“Ralph?” she whispers, stepping towards him, stopping at the edge of where Zlatko would be. Like she can’t pass over him. Like it might open up and take her, too.
He stands, wobbling slightly. Luther stands with him, catching him before he falls over.
“You—” she starts, looking at Luther again. “What is happening?”
“I’m sorry,” Luther says. “I didn’t want to hurt you—”
But he hadn’t. He helped her.
Not before she lost everything, though.
“I was helping—” he pauses and looks over towards Ralph. “I was trying to help you get out. I know you have no reason to trust me—but I promise—”
“I believe you.”
“Where is the little one?”
She turns, back towards the empty archway of the backyard, “I told her to run.”
Luther nods, slowly, “I know someone who could help you across the border. I could take you there.”
Kara looks back to him, “You’d help us?”
He gives her an expression like yes, of course, why wouldn’t I?
“It’s what I was trying to do,” he repeats.
“And Ralph?” she asks, looking to him again. His eyes are closed, like he’s fallen asleep. Something is happening to him. Like she never should have taken him from that house. He would be fine if it wasn’t for her.
They’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.
“I can help him,” Luther says. “He’s sick, but I can help him.”
She has to bite back a pained smile and she brings her hands up to brush away the tears and the rain on her face.
“Alright. I trust you.”
They are quick in their actions to leave Zlatko’s. None of them want to stay long, even for the night, even for Ralph to rest. The house is a painful place to be.
Kara races to find Alice, envelopes her in her arms, whispers, “I was so scared of losing you.”
And she thinks Alice says the same thing back to her, quiet against her shoulder.
The two come back to the house as Luther heads to the basement, freeing all of Zlatko’s prisoners while they ready to leave. They don’t take anything—although there is a large part of Kara telling her the smart thing to do would be to investigate for something useful, but she can’t take anything the others might need if they stay here.
Ralph rests on the couch as they retrieve their coats and bags. Kara double checks the flower, closed in a small metal box she found in the abandon house. It is alive and well. Magical and perfect. She can’t imagine forgetting it. She can’t imagine forgetting Alice or Ralph, either.
Luther finds a set of keys in Zlatko’s office to his car. They pack their bags in the trunk, help Ralph and Alice into the backseat, and then they leave.
She is grateful to be around people. They are a reminder to her that she cannot be seen crying. It helps her hold back the tears. They collect inside of her, waiting and waiting for whenever they might be allowed to be released again.
i've been thinking about how Thirium is part of red ice in the game for like 20 years.........
Fantasy - The Xx
Chapter 17: Jericho
“Doors are very powerful things. Things are different on either side of them.”
Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones
Markus has never been happier than now to see the sun. He keeps looking towards the windows of the train, watching the light spill through the glass, illuminating the insides, glowing against his skin. He’d only been trapped in that darkness for a few minutes and still, he keeps looking out towards the sky in amazement.
Last night he had run until he couldn’t anymore. He found an abandoned house, forced his way, took whatever clothing he could find. They hang around him like rags, tattered and falling apart. He keeps a hand stuck in his pocket, turning the box over and over again.
If he doesn’t think of the name, the visions don’t come.
He’d tested it before. Whispering Jericho softly in the dark, feeling it connect to his fingers, flowing through him like it was turning into the blood in his veins. There’s something in the air between him and it. A connection like a string wrapped around his rib cage.
If Markus focuses on it, he can feel it telling him where to go. Get on this train. Get off at this stop. Look there—
The doors slide open, his feet move.
He moves as quickly as he can into the station, looks around quickly for the thread connecting him and Jericho. He follows it, reaching out slowly towards the wall, brushing his hand over the painted surface where the thread disappears into.
It’s the same jolt as before. The pull from reality to whatever lies on the other side. Something inside of him is tangling with the… essence? of the wall. The thread in his chest moves, plucked from the wall and reforming in the other direction.
Markus follows it as fast as he can, with as normal speed as he can manage. He doesn’t want to draw any attention to himself.
The thread leads him to another wall, another tangled mess of something he can’t quite decipher, even as his hand reaches out and delves into it. He follows it from the outside to an alley way, up a wall, through abandoned buildings. The relief of being able to run when no one is watching him floods through his body. He has to get to Jericho, he feels, strangely, that it is such an urgent matter he shouldn’t waste another second out in the streets.
And he doesn’t want to be out there anyways. It feels like AzureHeart is watching him, ready to come to take him away the second night falls. He’ll be ripped from his freedom and stuck back in that room with them.
Is it wrong of him to want to be away from them? To never see them again? That split second, that vision of missing limbs and body parts—it was like a horror movie. He can’t shake how the girl’s song sounded, how young she looked.
Markus steps past the abandoned building and into the sunshine again. The strangeness of the air, like it is vibrating with electricity, like it is pushing him underwater, like his skin is on fire. A million sensations all at once, not conflicting, not colliding, but coexisting. As if it should be this way.
He spots the rusted letters, white and old on the side.
His hand reaches out, grasps the metal railing of the bridge. Suddenly his feet don’t want to move forward. This isn’t—
This isn’t what he expected. A boat. An old, abandoned boat, half falling apart. How can it be a safe place to go? How many people could be here, living a good life?
But that isn’t what Phileas said, was it?
He just said Jericho was a place to be free. Not happy, not even at peace. Just free.
Markus wants more than freedom in a tiny boat, keeping his mouth shut, pretending his abilities don’t exist. He is more than that. They all are.
He takes a step forward, his hand moving along the metal railing. Something trembles between him and it. A vibration that shoots up from the bones in his finger to his shoulder. He rips his hand away, stumbling backwards.
And then the bridge gives out from beneath him,
and he falls.
and i'm back~~ I'm sorry for the break in this. I needed some time away from the fic and then I got sick, so I'm going to try and get this back on track, yeah?
Editing music (for this and up until chapter 24);
Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea - Missio
Chapter 18: The Pirates' Cove
“But in the real world, you couldn't really just split a family down the middle, mom on one side, dad the other, with the child equally divided between. It was like when you ripped a piece of paper into two: no matter how you tried, the seams never fit exactly right again. It was what you couldn't see, those tiniest of pieces, that were lost in the severing, and their absence kept everything from being complete.”
What Happened to Goodbye - Sarah Dessen
She lets her eyes close but she never lets herself fall asleep. A few seconds of darkness and then they’re open again, blinking around at the dark streets, at the sleeping bodies of Alice and Ralph in the back seat, at the temperature on the window in front of her as it drops steadily as they drive further and further from the city, from Zlatko’s.
“It’s a good thing Zlatko had a car,” she says, keeping her voice quiet, making sure not to wake the two behind her. “I wouldn’t want them out walking in this cold.”
“I saw it in the garage once,” Luther replies, his voice equally as low. “I don’t know if he even ever used it.”
“These people we’re going to see,” Kara says, hoping the slight fear in her voice isn’t noticeable. “How do you know about them?”
“I overheard the others that Zlatko captured,” he says, an edge to his voice. “They said there were humans helping variants cross the border.”
“What if it was a lie? Or just another trap?”
“All I know is those other variants believed it.”
She shivers at the thought of them. Their bodies cut and mutilated. Bones crushed and blood taken away, boiled down into red ice. And for what? So people like Todd can get high? So people like Zlatko can make money? Is it worth it, destroying the lives of people they deem unworthy?
“Is it much farther?” she asks, wanting to talk of something other than the reminder of gore.
“We should arrive in an hour or so.”
Kara nods, looking back out the window, flickering between that and the temperature on the windshield. It’s dropping faster and faster, the car’s speed is slowing down. Almost as soon as she notices it, the car’s mechanical voice springs to life, “Malfunction detected. Emergency brakes activated.”
The car rolls to a stop, she lets out a long, annoyed breath. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong.
“Luther? Do you happen to know how to fix cars?”
“No,” he says, his hands moving to rest on the wheel. “I have no idea.”
Neither does she.
But the car is thrumming with electricity beneath her. She can feel the waves of it, the fabric it makes as it weaves together. Maybe—Maybe if she tried, she could figure it out? Sort out the problem?
“I-I might,” Kara says quietly, pushing the door open before she can rethink it.
The air outside the car is freezing cold. She probably should have expected it, but it hits her hard. It was so warm earlier in the day, she had been sweating underneath the coat so much she had tossed it in the back with the rest of their things after the rain had stopped. She could grab it now, but it won’t take long to fix the car if she can make it worth in her favor.
Kara steps around the front of the car, shivering as she reaches a hand out, touching the metal surface of the hood. She feels the thrum of the electricity, the way it moves underneath her fingertips. It’s like putting her hand at the top of a stream of water, feeling the current as it rushes over rocks and fish swimming viciously.
She reaches out to it, ghostly fingers slipping through the current. There is little resistance—
But there’s nothing on the other side. It’s not like the accidents in the laundromat or the convenience store. There is simply nothing but the feeling of electricity. Her fingers slip through it, unable to get a hold on it. She can’t manipulate it. She can’t do anything with it.
Kara retreats, taking a few steps back as smoke pours out of the edges of the hood. The car door opens, Luther climbing out and walking towards her.
“Did it work?”
“No,” she says, looking away from him, feeling almost ashamed. If she could fix whatever is wrong with the car, they could be in the safety of wherever he plans on taking them. Alice could be safe. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Continue on foot, I guess.”
“It’s thirty degrees,” she replies, looking out towards the road ahead. “Ralph is sick. We won’t make it. We have to find somewhere to spend the night.”
Not in the car. Not where they will have attention drawn to them. If a cop came by, they would be caught in an instant.
“There’s nowhere we can stay around here, Kara.”
She looks around them. At the empty road, at the dark trees lining the road, at the small shadow of a sign in the distance, “Over there.”
Kara turns back towards the car, the lights on in the inside, the blurred forms of two sleeping bodies. It’s either whatever that place behind her is or walking in the cold until one of them collapses.
Their only choice.
She is tired of being given only one option. She is tired of everything being reduced down to the most logical explanation.
“Let’s get our bags.”
She follows Luther to the car, pulling her sleeves down over her hands, glancing up to the sky for a moment.
“It’s…” she trails off, looking towards Ralph. He’s asleep. Completely. He might not even wake up if they tried.
It’s not him, then, is it?
“It’s snowing,” she says, her voice a mere whisper. “Why is it snowing?”
Luther pauses and looks up towards the sky with her. The slow drifts of snow downwards, so rare and sporadic around them it melts before it touches the ground, but it’s still there.
“Weather is… strange,” Luther says, but she can see how he doesn’t believe that. It’s not weather. It’s something else.
It’s a variant.
“They might not bother us,” he says quickly. “They might not care if we stay there, and we can’t stay out here.”
And some part of her—
It automatically wants to trust those like her. Those with abilities. Like they can automatically align themselves with one another because they all have blue blood. It’s not that simple, but they might not even cross paths.
A little faith. That’s all she needs.
A little faith, and a lot of luck.
It’s difficult finding a place to stay. There’s too many of them and too much stuff to carry. If Ralph could walk, it would be a thousand times easier, but instead he spends the first half the trip leaning against Luther’s side and the last half being carried with his eyes closed and his head leaned against Luther’s chest.
Kara feels awful. As if it’s her fault, and maybe it is. She didn’t ask him to cause the storm, but he had to protect them. If it wasn’t for Kara and Alice, he would be perfectly alive and healthy in that abandoned house. He could have used his plants to grow and support the place. It could have become a beautiful home made of nothing but flowers and foliage.
She ruined that.
And it isn’t even just the storm—
How much had it taken out of him to rip open the ground and swallow a human being whole?
How much had it taken to break the collar around her throat?
They set up inside of the Tavern—the only place available in Pirates Cove that could work to keep them all warm. She makes a bed for Alice and starts a fire, holding her hands out to it for warmth like before. Kara spies over the edge of the tables, looking out at the space towards the back of the room where Ralph and Luther rest by themselves.
She doesn’t know what he’s doing. He said he could help Ralph, but he never specified how. She can see slow movements of his hands, like they are plucking strings of a harp, but she can’t see the strings themselves. Would they look the one that tied her to Zlatko’s? Would it be that present, strong force that made her almost ill to walk in the wrong direction?
Kara wonders what would have happened if she’d ignored it. If she had continued walking in the wrong direction. Would the thread between her and that place snap, or would it have killed her?
Is Ralph, somehow, tied to his home? Is this the effects of that?
She looks away from them, feels her cheeks warm with embarrassment or shame that she has been caught watching them. Alice is beside her, head tilted slightly to the side, staring off over Kara’s shoulder.
“Do you think we’ll be like them someday?”
Kara looks back towards Luther and Ralph, watches the small smile that spreads across Luther’s face.
“W-what?” she asks, stumbling over the word.
Alice raises a hand, points towards the wall. Kara follows it this time, not to Ralph and Luther, but to the poster. A happy family. Mother. Father. Two little kids.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be like them, Alice,” she says quietly, almost regretting the words, but they’re the truth, aren’t they? And they don’t need to be like this family. They are staged. They are models that probably don’t even know each other, have probably only spoken a few words when they got together in front of a green screen to take this picture. “But maybe… we can be happy in a different way. In our own way.”
“As long as we’re together,” Alice replies. “That’s all that matters.”
Kara smiles, places a gentle hand on the side of her cheek. She’s freezing. The fire is doing little, and the snow is getting worse, “Let’s get you to bed.”
Chapter 19: Limbo
“And when the abyss looks into you - and it will - may you look back unflinching.”
Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman
He hears the sounds of people yelling. Too many voices to count, too foreign to his ears to distinguish from one another except from the arbitrary idea of male and female. Markus tries to focus on them, because the pain that is spreading through his back is too much.
He coughs involuntarily, tastes the blood in his mouth, can feel it dripping down the side of his face. He tries to blink, tries to see something other than the blank gray above him.
Is he dead? Is he dying? Is that heaven, above him?
Is he going to heaven?
Something touches his shoulder and he inhales sharply, feels the wave of agony it brings with it. The thing retreats and then he sees him.
He really is dying.
The angel—it must be an angel—looks traumatized, but they’re doing a pretty excellent job at hiding it. Or maybe it’s just that his eyes can’t focus entirely on the face and see how fully terrified it is.
“You’re going to be okay,” they say slowly, a hand raised, pushing away a lock of hair, leaving a streak of blue across their forehead. “I promise. We’re going to help you. Just hang on.”
He can’t speak it out loud, when he tries he feels his lungs heave, the blood filling his mouth again. His eyes shut as the angel says something he can’t grasp onto.
“I told you to fix the bridge a week ago. He could have died.”
“If he was human, what does it matter?”
“Christ, North, this is a person’s life we’re talking about. Don’t you care at all? And he wasn’t human, he’s one of us! He could have died either way. He was lucky. Variant or not.”
“All I’m saying—”
“Fix the bridge. Now.”
It is not like falling.
He’s heard people talk about death as falling.
But he did fall. Physically. In reality.
This is nothing like that drop.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“But he’s healing?”
“That’s a good sign, right?”
“He could still bleed out at any time.”
“But it’s a good sign?”
“Yes, Simon, it’s a good sign.”
It is not like falling.
It feels like being lifted.
He feels like he is floating.
Up, up, up.
“Does he look like he’s going to wake any time soon?”
“We need to give him time to rest.”
“But we did it? We healed all the damage?”
“Yes, you should be very proud of yourself. It wasn’t easy.”
It isn’t like being lifted.
It’s like being plucked from the ground.
Like a puppet on strings, pulled taut, caught on something that won’t give way.
“North fixed the bridge.”
“She should have done it weeks ago.”
“Josh, you could—”
“Could what? Be nicer to her?”
“I don’t know. But you… you must know how bad she feels about this, right? She’s… you told her she almost killed him.”
“At least apologize to her, Josh. Please.”
“You going to watch over him?”
“If anything happens, call for Lucy, alright?”
He breathes in a rasping breath that sounds, to him, like a zombie coming to life. His eyes open, fluttering and blinking against the dim light. The room around him is small, metal walls and a metal ceiling. He’s laying on an uncomfortable bed, which he can’t decide if the comfort level belongs to the actual mattress and frame or the fact he fell down five stories and landed on twisted metal and solid cement.
“You’re awake,” a voice says, appearing beside him. There’s a book in his hands that he’s setting down, a soft yellow one missing its dust jacket. “I thought—we thought—”
“That I was dead?”
The man smiles, sinking down into the chair beside him, “Well, yeah.”
“How am I not?”
“How am I not dead?”
“Oh,” the smile disappears. “We… Lucy and Josh. They’re healers. They… said they can manipulate the energy of someone. It forces them to heal faster, I guess. I don’t really understand it. I don’t… I don’t understand energy. My name is Simon, by the way.”
“Welcome to Jericho, Markus.”
He is left alone for a short period of time. Enough to change out of the shredded pieces of clothing he has and into the clothes that Simon has given him.
“I don’t know if they’ll fit you,” he said before he left. “You’re taller than me, but—they’re big on me. So, maybe?”
The uncertainty in his voice made Markus want to smile, to reassure him. He changed in slow movements, trying to keep his body from screaming in utter agony at the slightest movement. A deliberately planned pull of the shirt up, clenched teeth, a hiss as he sucked in his breath as the new shirt came over his head.
It fits better than he expected, but it’s slightly too short. If he were to lift his arms up, which he thinks he is quite incapable of now that he knows the pain it caused the first two times, it would likely show off a few inches of his abdomen. He tugs it down, his fingers protesting the action as pain shoots up them.
The fall destroyed his back. It killed his organs on the inside. He would have died if Josh and Lucy weren’t there to help him. He’s lucky that the people of Jericho heard him fall and came to his aid. Otherwise, he’d be dead.
He folds up the shredded remains of his shirt, the tattered denim of his jeans. He doesn’t really know what else to do. It feels wrong to just toss them into a haphazard heap.
Markus makes a small step across the room, opening the door slightly, “I—”
“Yeah,” he says, feeling his face flush.
Is he really embarrassed about this? It seems strange. Wrong, even. Taking care of Carl, he was used to nudity, to taking care of things that everyone else wanted absolutely no part of. But the tables have turned. He is wearing someone else’s clothing. He is in a boat that is collapsing in on itself.
He wants to go home, but he knows he can’t.
Carl told him to run, he knows that, but he also knows that he might’ve killed Leo.
It doesn’t matter how fractured Carl’s relationship with his son was—if Markus killed him, or even put him anywhere close, Carl would certainly hate him, wouldn’t he?
“You should get some rest,” Simon says, stepping into the room again. The hands at his side reach up, like he’s ready to catch Markus, settling against his chest for a brief moment. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”
He is. He hadn’t realized it until Simon said it, but his knees are seconds from folding up underneath him.
“Lucy and Josh—”
“Do you need them?”
“No,” he says. “No—I just… I want to thank them.”
“They’re sleeping. They will be for a while. Healing you took a lot of energy.”
“Oh,” he says quietly. “Can you—”
“Help?” Simon asks, a small smile drifting across his face. “Of course.”
Markus leans against him, feeling the warmth of another human at his side. It’s strange to think about. It’s not as if months or weeks have passed since he’s been around someone, but it feels like it.
Happiness with Carl seems like it’s a hundred miles away. A lifetime has come and gone. He’s almost died in the meantime. He’s almost (or he has) killed someone. Too much has changed to consider two days ago a true forty-eight hour time period.
Simon helps him lay down on the bed and he stands awkwardly in the middle of the room, looking back and forth from Markus to the door.
“I should—I should go. You should rest,” he clears his throat, like he’s trying to get the words out easier. “Lucy will likely be here in the morning to see you and make sure everything is alright.”
“Okay,” Simon repeats. He hesitates for a moment before walking towards the door.
“Thank you,” Markus says quietly.
Simon turns around with a smile, a small shrug of his shoulders, “Any time.”
Chapter 20: The Snow Globe
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, 'Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.'”
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carol
She tried to stay up so she could talk to Luther. She needs to know more about the people they’re visiting, where they’re going, what’s going to happen afterwards, but her eyes close on their own and she falls asleep, half leaned against a chair.
Her dreams are a strange mix, hopping from one thing to the next, never wanting to linger. Waking up in the hospital. Being at Todd’s house. Todd dying. Being at Zlatko’s. No matter where she is, the walls are made up of flowers. Alstroemerias bursting through the cracks, littering petals across the ground.
Kara wakes, suddenly, to the loud sound of glass crashing, her fingers coming to her mouth as if they expect to find the lily there.
She turns her attention back to the windows, of the splinters in the glass. The storm outside has increased since they got here, the winds picking up enough that the windows are barely holding on.
Kara forces herself to her feet, stepping towards it. The fire behind her has died in the few hours they’ve slept. Alice is still sound asleep, and with a quick glance towards Luther and Ralph, she finds them both still resting, too.
She walks over towards the window, peering out at the darkness. The blizzard is getting worse and worse and she wonders if whatever variant is causing it is trying to harm them, if they were seen and this is some form of revenge. She’d foolishly hoped for the best—that the fact their blood is the same color meant they would be allies.
The cracks in the window in front of her spread, spider webbing outwards as the wind picks up. She takes a careful step back, her foot barely stopping before the window bursts. She brings up her arm, not fast enough to keep the glass from hitting her face, from cutting into her skin.
The wind whips into the room, bringing in a flurry of snow as she stumbles backwards, feet crunching on the shards on the floor.
She looks towards Alice, who is starting to sit up, glancing with scared eyes towards the broken window.
“It’s the storm,” Kara replies, because she hates the idea of Alice thinking she did this, whether on purpose or not. “We should—”
“Kara, what is that?”
She looks back to the window, at the silhouettes lining the street outside.
They look like people.
She races towards the door, shoving it open, shielding herself from the onslaught of wind and snow as she steps out into the darkness.
“Who are you?” she shouts. “What do you want?”
Kara risks a glance from the people to her side, to Luther standing a few yards away, a gun aimed at them.
“Don’t be afraid,” a voice says, calling over the wind. “We don’t want to hurt you.”
The first steps into the dim light of the moon that illuminates in front of the door, coming out from the blur of snow and shadows. He’s wearing short sleeves—a uniform? Maybe stolen from one of the places around here. Beside her, Luther lowers his gun slightly.
“We’re just like you,” he says, lifting his hand up in front of his face. The snow around him falters, holding perfectly still in the air. “Our name is Jerry.”
He looks over his shoulder, another figure slinking towards the light. They look identical, even to the uniform.
“Jeremy,” the first says quietly, resting his hand against his chest. “This is my brother, Gerald.”
“We didn’t mean to frighten you,” the second—Gerald—says. “Sometimes humans come here. We wanted—we wanted to see who was there.”
“What are you doing here?” Jeremy asks.
She could ask the same thing. They all could.
“We were looking for shelter for the night,” she says, looking over her shoulder to Alice, hidden far behind her. Not hidden enough for her liking. “We’ll be gone tomorrow.”
“She looks sad,” Gerald says, taking a step forward. When Kara looks back, she realizes his glance was headed the same way as hers was. On Alice.
Don’t look at her.
“The last few days have been difficult,” she says, trying to push the fear of another person hurting Alice away. They aren’t going to hurt them. They promised that. She trusts them.
The two brothers exchange a look, a slow smile creeping up onto their faces.
“We have something to show her,” one says. “Something fun. She’ll love it, does she want to see?”
Alice pushes past Kara’s side, called by the subject of the conversation.
“I don’t think—”
“She should follow us,” Jeremy says, beckoning forward.
“Alice, I don’t know—”
But she is being tugged along, Alice pulling her out further into the storm, “Come on, Kara!”
“I don’t think you have any choice,” Luther says.
Alice lets go of her hand and she lets it slip from her fingers as she is replaced with Luther. She glances back to Ralph, who leans against a wall, smiling weakly at her.
“Ralph will be fine on his own,” he says. “It’s alright.”
She doesn’t like the idea of leaving him alone, and she knows Alice is safe with Luther, but she—she’s skeptical.
And Ralph needs his rest. He shouldn’t be out in the storm.
But still, she crosses the room towards him, “Come on. I’m sure you’ll want to see it, too.”
She helps him loop his arm around her neck and they shuffle their way out into the storm, but it’s hard to keep calling it that. The Jerry that reached out and stopped the snow seems to have stopped it every within a large circle outside of the Tavern. They walk through it like it’s held on strings. It melts as it comes into contact with their skin, a clear path already formed where Luther and Alice where before, but they catch traces of it where they veer off it a few inches.
Kara notices, after a few steps, that the forms of the other people lining the area aren’t people at all. They’re snowmen. An army of them, lining up and down. Some of them seem like they’re half finished, a perfectly slice across their heads. Had the snow fallen like this? Coming together to create replica after replica of the same snowman?
They come to a stop in front of an old carousel. Even from here, she can feel the thrum of electricity in her palms at the sight of it. Not necessarily that it contains electricity—just that she could wake it.
Ralph called their abilities magic, and she thinks he was right. A tie to the world, something they can alter and change. Their magic doesn’t come from thin air—it comes from them.
As Ralph moves from her shoulder to Luther’s, she becomes more and more in tune to the magic inside of her. The way it builds in her stomach, spiraling and coiling like a thunderstorm in her chest.
Kara reaches out tentatively, touching the control pad of the carousel. It jolts at her hand—different from the collar and the cash register. It doesn’t hurt her. It’s more like the machines in the laundromat—just being in tune to the capability of electricity.
But she feels her knees weaken as the lights turn on and she pulls her hand away slowly, the exhaustion in her body worsening. She forces herself to smile as she helps Alice onto the ride. She forces herself to stand upright as the ride starts, as it starts the slow spin around.
The snow around them starts to drift again, slower this time. Not like the blizzard before. Not angry and violent.
But maybe it was never meant to be angry or violent before. Maybe it was just out of control—or completely in control. Maybe it’s fun to Jeremy and Gerald to watch a blizzard sweep through the amusement park. If she were in the safety of a warm room and looked out at a blizzard—she would find peace in the weather. A tinge of regret for how bad the roads must be, how bad it must be to travel on.
Snow is beautiful.
And here, with it spinning, with the lights catching, with the army of snowmen surrounding the area—
It’s like a snow globe. She feels she could step into a store and by this on display, encapsulated in glass, preserved forever.
She wants to preserve this forever.
Alice is finally smiling. She finally looks happy. Like maybe she’s forgotten her father might be dead, that Kara is the one who caused it. Like maybe she can ignore the terror of Zlatko’s, of having to run away from Kara as she might be close to getting killed herself.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen her smile,” she says quietly, more to herself than to Luther or Ralph.
“She hasn’t had much to smile about lately,” Luther replies.
She looks over her shoulder towards them, feels a wave of pain and guilt course through her. It feels like she caused so much pain.
And she has no idea how to fix it.
Chapter 21: Indirect
“The silence was like an unwelcome child, pulling at our hair, running its fingers over our lips.”
What's Left of Me - Kat Zhang
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The energy comes and goes—never as strong as it was when it started. It is like a faint presence in Connor’s life, lingering around the corners, following him like a shadow. It is undeniably attached to him. He cannot shake it. It bothers him.
He doesn’t see it. It’s not like the threads that other variants have. It isn’t something he can touch.
It’s like Daniel. A ghost, haunting him. But with Daniel it’s different. He thinks, late at night, he sees their features shift into one being. He thinks of them as the same person, becoming one. Daniel is an infection, spreading through his blood stream, unable to leave.
The energy is different. It is like an infestation, creeping up on him, hiding when he tries to focus like it knows it needs to retreat. He blindly reaches out sometimes, trying to grasp onto the invisible strings but they slip through his fingers.
At first he thought, maybe, somehow, it was Daniel. Somehow the two connections in his life that he has lost control over would have to be the same person. But it’s impossible. Daniel is dead.
And he didn’t have power like this.
Beyond that, even, the few tastes of the phantom energy he can get is entirely different from Daniel. It is complex, like a living creature. It has a mind of its own. Daniel’s energy was strong and suffocating but it was simple, it was what he was trained to see.
He has never felt energy quite like this before.
“Your place is a fucking mess,” Lieutenant Anderson says.
Connor surveys the room. The place is not, in fact, a mess. The walls are. The connections of strings looped around tacks, the sticky notes littering the pages in every color possible. A contrast of the neat stacks, the orderly surfaces everywhere else.
“I was joking about that,” he says, pointing towards the wall. “Didn’t think you’d actually make a murder board.”
“I was going to do it anyways,” Connor replies, doesn’t add that he didn’t really think about connecting different people to different places with string until the Lieutenant had suggested it. “It helps organize the process.”
“Great. What does it even mean?”
Connor reaches up, points towards the closest paper to him. “Motive. Gender. Age. Location. Ability—”
“Ability? You can tell their abilities from their pictures? I mean, I know the files would have their… crime or whatever listed, but not all of them were arrested, not all of them did something wrong.”
“Their eyes,” he says, moving his pen from the highlight over one of the sections to the eyes on one of the pictures. “Powers are determined by eye color.”
“Okay, hold the fuck up. There’s way more abilities out there than there are eye colors.”
“Of course there are. The eyes determine categories. Each person after that is individual,” he says, stepping across the room. “But every person with green eyes relate to nature or the elements. Something that they can manipulate that exists in the natural world.”
“Like growing flowers,” he says quietly. “Or bursting into flames.”
“And what about Matthew? And you? You said you weren’t dangerous, but you both have brown eyes.”
“I’m not dangerous,” he lies. “And ours are focused on energy. Or aura. Or essence. Everyone… considers it something different. It’s what makes up a person. Variants are just stronger, so I can track them.”
“You can’t track a human?”
“It would be immensely difficult.”
“Okay. Great. What are the other ones?”
“Blue eyes are centered around technology, like Kara Williams,” he says, turning back to him. “The security footage at the convenience store showed her opening the register. Energy doesn’t translate over cameras, but it was most certainly her using her ability. Probably for the first time ever.”
“Technology is pretty general.”
“Technology rules our entire world,” Connor replies. “They… they could destroy the country.”
“You think Kara Williams is dangerous, then? Or just people with blue eyes?”
Connor smiles when he glances back over to him, “No, I don’t think she’s dangerous. I don’t think a lot of people like her are dangerous. The collars exist to make sure we don’t use our powers and accidentally kill people. It’s… how it should be.”
“You really believe that?”
“Then why the fuck don’t you wear a collar?”
“AzureHeart trained me,” he says, feeling his insides twist. “I’m the only variant in the world that actually knows the full extent of my power and how to control it.”
“So, you don’t deserve to have a piece of metal around your neck?”
He didn’t say that.
“Gray eyes,” he says, the words coming out slow, pointing to one of the few people on the wall with them. “They’re connected to mental powers. They’re the dangerous ones.”
Not him. Never him.
Except he is dangerous. He is just like Matthew. If he tried hard enough, he could twist the energy threads of any living creature and make them implode just like Matthew had. He just wouldn’t.
He comes back to the roof. He needs to be here again. Since that night with Gavin—since the night he looked over the city, since he peered over the edge at the much shorter fall from what Daniel stumbled over—
It’s like he needs this. Like he craves it. Like he needs to be one step from slipping over the edge.
He doesn’t want to die. But it’s like—
It’s like he is closer to Daniel this way.
Which is ridiculous and foolish and stupid. He saw Daniel for five minutes.
But he saw all of him.
He saw his energy like a nebula. Daniel was a galaxy against the night sky. He was a galaxy of silvers and grays and light. And then he was mists of blood and chunks of bone against pavement. He felt Daniel’s anger and terror and he felt him die. He still feels it. Like a constant pressure in the back of his head. A constant death playing over and over again.
“What the fuck are you doing up here?”
Connor turns, looks away from the city preparing itself for rest. He knows it’s Gavin before he sees him. He knows it because he knows Gavin’s voice, he knows the way it picks up the word you, twists it violent and disgusted. You. Connor is a terrible thing in Gavin’s life. A thorn in his side.
“Yeah?” he asks, pulling the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, retrieving one from inside of it. “About what?”
About the pool of blue against cement. About the hammering in his heart when he saw it in those photographs. About the realization that yes, variants can die and they will. They will because people don’t care about them. They don’t care if they are giving themselves up. They don’t care if they are resigning themselves to a life in prison. They just don’t care. Variants should be slaughtered and locked away. Especially in the eyes of people like Detective Reed.
“I don’t think you care,” he answers. “Or that you would want to know.”
Gavin makes a small noise, something between yeah, you’re right and a laugh, maybe. Connor looks up to him again, watches the small smile tug at his lips before disappearing.
Something else, too. Something in his eyes that Connor can’t quite make out.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” Connor says, forcing the conversation away from this. Away from Daniel, even if it was never truly about him. “It will kill you.”
Gavin deliberately puts the cigarette between his lips, slow movements of the pack into his pocket, carefully retrieving the lighter and flicking it open, igniting the end.
“The fuck do you care if I die?”
“Human lives are important,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what kind of a person someone is or how I feel about them.”
“Yeah?” Gavin says, taking a step towards him. “And what do you feel about me?”
His heart beats a little faster in his chest—which is stupid, because—
Because he doesn’t care about Detective Reed. Because he is inconsequential. Because he has no effect on his life other than some threats, heavy handed or subtle. Gavin is nothing to him.
“N-nothing,” he says, hates that he stumbles over the word. “I don’t feel anything.”
And you? And you? And you?
Detective Reed detests Connor. He knows that. He already knows that. But he wants to ask again, because they are standing far too close for nothing.
“Here,” Gavin says, reaching up and placing the cigarette between Connor’s lips. He lets him, because he is caught in the movement and the closeness and how he doesn’t even know anything about his entire life except the last few years locked in AzureHeart being trained for this job.
He lets him because he is lost and confused and stunned and he isn’t sure what is happening right now. There is too much going on. There is not enough. He is on the edge. He is a thousand miles away.
“It won’t hurt you, right?” he asks, his voice is low, quiet. It sends a chill up Connor’s spine. “Because you’re so fucking perfect, right? You can heal whatever fucking damage it causes, right? It won’t even matter.”
Nothing ever matters.
Connor lifts his hand, taking the cigarette from his mouth. He is making a stupid decision. He is being stupid leaning forward, he is being stupid for using his free hand to tilt Gavin’s chin up.
Gavin makes a soft noise, a quiet hmm before he pulls away. Taking a large step back, freeing himself from Connor’s touch, beyond where he could pull him back.
“Can’t do that,” he whispers. “Can’t kiss a fucking variant.”
Right. Right. Right.
Because that’s what Connor is.
And that is what Gavin hates.
And he doesn’t know why he even cared or tried to begin with—
“Sides,” he says, retreating back towards the door, gesturing to the cigarette still caught between Connor’s fingers. “You already kissed me. Indirectly and all that, right?”
“I don’t—I didn’t—”
“Strange reaction for nothing, isn’t it?” Gavin says, and then he is gone.
Very strange indeed.
oh yeah this fic is still not finished.
Chapter 22: Departure
“Goodbyes had never been my strong suit anyway, and lately my life had felt like an unbroken series of them. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”
Hollow City - Ransom Riggs
Kara finds she is reluctant to leave—
Even after everything.
The Jerrys had taken them to a boat. An old attraction in the park that was used for events put on by actors dressed in pirate uniforms, playing out a fake battle against each other. The entire place is completely intact, like it’s been frozen solid, protected by the blizzard outside. Underneath, there are barracks where they are left to sleep. It’s warmer here than the Tavern, but only just barely. They can’t start a fire and instead they opt for the blankets give to them by the Jerrys.
She stays awake, listening to the soft hush of the Jeremy and Gerald talking on the other side of the wall, unable to make out the words. When she turns and peeks through the small space from their rooms to the others, she can see the two of them stepping towards a window, raising their hands in unison in a shared movement of their hands outstretched before slowly curling up in on itself. The movement is so gentle that she can’t bring herself to call it a fist at all. It doesn’t hold the same violence a fist would.
Kara looks away, pulling the blanket tighter around herself, keeping her eyes on the window. The snow outside has stopped.
It hasn’t stopped. It’s like it’s falling in reverse, sucked back up to the sky and disappearing in the clouds again. The ship instantly feels warmer, like how it should in the middle of an August night. She glances towards Alice, towards Ralph and Luther. They’re sleeping soundly, happy to be out of the cold, happy to rest for a little while.
They’re going to be okay. She has to remind herself of this, keep it on a loop in her head. She’s going to make it up to them.
She wakes shaking off the remains of a dream that she tries to shove from her memory so violently she knows that it will only make it linger more. The dreams in which people want to remember, the good or the unusual, always vanish so quickly. Nightmares—they keep their claws in people until they think they’ve finally forgotten the fear and anxiety until it’s back again, reminding them of all the worse, grotesque details.
The other’s are still asleep. Kara climbs out of the bed slowly, picking up her bag and tiptoeing into the next room where she closes the door as quietly as she can manage before she changes her clothes. It’s warm here. Warm enough that she chooses the short sleeves over the single sweater buried at the bottom of her bag.
When Kara leaves, she peers through the opening between the two rooms, stepping across the threshold from theirs to the Jerry’s. They both sit by the window, looking out it, but the second both her feet enter their heads turn in unison to look at her.
They both raise their fingers to their lips, shushing her before standing, gesturing for her to follow them back up to the top of the boat. And she does. Kara watches them with an immense interest, the utter fluidity of their mirrored movements. They are identical in the way they walk, but something about the way they hold themselves differs from each other, too.
They are not the same exact person duplicated over. The slight difference in the way they carry their bodies is what separates them, even when they make the exact same movement.
She follows them up to the top, looking out at the bright park, looking back only once as though one of the others will be right behind her. She doesn’t feel vulnerable when she is here alone with the Jerrys. It’s like they’ve known each other forever.
She wonders if maybe they’ve come here before. If Jeremy and Gerald had worked at Pirates’ Cove and for some reason Todd had brought her and Alice here once. The two of them don’t look familiar, not even a little bit, but they feel familiar.
Not someone to be afraid of. Not someone she can call her friend, either. But, maybe, family is the proper word. Like a cousin that she see’s every couple of years.
“We stopped the snow last night,” one of them says. She can’t tell them apart anymore. She doesn’t think she could before, either. Just that one of them seemed slightly more mischievous than the other.
“We didn’t want to freeze you out,” the other says with a small smile. “The snow doesn’t bother us, but we know it must be difficult on you.”
“It doesn’t bother you?” she asks, stepping forward.
“It’s a part of us.”
She thinks of the electricity, the way when she touched the machines it didn’t hurt her at all, besides for the drawer at the convenience store, the collar around Ralph’s neck. Like it redirected back at her angry and vicious. But every other time, it hasn’t been the same.
She didn’t think of it before in terms of it being a part of her. She just thought she could control it, and she knew the magic came from inside of her but it felt like another force. A separate entity.
“What about the snowmen?” she asks, gesturing out towards thick puddles of water throughout the park. It looks like a monsoon has hit them, with all of their snow melted down now. It didn’t last through the sun. Not like Ralph’s flower, still blooming alive and full in her bag.
They say it at the same time, exchange a small smile between the two of them.
“We went to a school when we were younger. Before all of this,” the first says, looking up at the sky. “We had a club. Team Jerry. There were so many of us kids that went by that nickname.”
“We miss them. So we recreate them sometimes when we have nothing better to do.”
“What happened?” Kara asks, her eyes stuck on those puddles again. It must be terribly painful to see their makeshift friends gone like that.
“Our blood turned blue. We were taken away. It was a private school, our parents couldn’t afford to pay our tuition anymore.”
She can hear the unspoken words there. They lost their jobs. Because their children’s blood was no longer red. Because they were immediately outcasts for being the parents of variants. There was no laws against firing someone because of that, and even if there was, people will find their loopholes.
Her eyes land on their necks, collarless and bare. She hadn’t thought about it before, but she should have. It was like the loss of her own made her stop thinking that others had to wear them once.
“How did you…?” she trails off, her hand coming up to her own bare throat. She doesn’t want to say the words.
“Oh,” Jerry says, shrugging slightly. The other’s face falls and he looks away from them, turning completely to hide his face. “Our parents, in the beginning… They weren’t like others. And the first version of the collars were unstable. They broke and our parents were terrified that the government would think we did it on purpose. So, they sent us away.”
She wonders what he means by broke. If it was like hers, when it just stopped working and she was flooded with the electricity again or if he means broke like it snapped open, fell apart completely. She can’t remember the old models, she can’t remember if she wore one like that before. She doesn’t want to think of then.
“We’ve been here ever since.”
“Yes,” the first says, with a forced smile. “The park needed employees that they could pay cheap to keep themselves going. We were on the run and they… they didn’t know who we were, but they knew we wanted to be caught about as much as they wanted to go bankrupt.”
“Is that how you learned your magic?” she asks. “The blizzard, I mean. I—I can barely control mine, but you—you seem like you’ve mastered it.”
One laughs, not a harsh cruel laugh but light and soft, “Partially, yes. But last night—it was different. We’ve never created a blizzard like that before.”
“We have, actually,” the other says, turning around again. “It just didn’t last. We can’t control the temperature. It would turn to rain, usually. Before it even hit the ground. Or it would melt within an hour. We’ve never been able to make it last.”
“We’re improving, though,” the first says, nodding his head quickly. “We haven’t been able to really practice like this for very long. The Cove only shut down a year ago. It’s difficult to practice something when you also have to hide it.”
Right. Of course.
And that feels like it encompasses everything. It’s difficult to practice something when you also have to hide it. And they’ve all had to hide it—every last variant. They’ve had to bury it deep or it was forced back as far as it could with the collars.
Humans expect them to just live their lives with the collars around their necks keeping their powers hidden. They want to complain and scream and place blame on those who’s magic rapidly gets out of hand and ignore that they’ve never had a chance to even get the slightest grasp of a control.
It’s making her angry—thinking about it. She wants to leave here and run up to all the people that have protested variants existence and push them and yell at them for thinking that this is easy. That they could wake up one day and find that their blood is blue and have a collar put around their throat and if anything, anything were to happen, that it’s their fault.
Kara shoves it aside with the nightmare, locking her fury in a box, burying it deep inside of her, somewhere behind her intestines. Not now. Not now. Not now. There are more important things. They have to get out of here alive. They need to fix their lives, they need to focus on themselves.
They have to be selfish to live this life without getting caught. She isn’t going to risk Alice’s life for this. She isn’t going to bring any more harm upon Luther or Ralph.
“Thank you,” she says. “For letting us stay here. It means more than you know.”
“Of course,” they say together, faces brightening. “If you want to stay another night—”
“Oh, we shouldn’t,” she says, interrupting them. They have to follow Luther’s lead to a safe place. Hope for the absolute best. “But, thank you. Again.”
Chapter 23: Companion
“Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it's so important that we don't rely on it.”
Divergent - Veronica Roth
It’s a few hours before he is capable of leaving their make-shift infirmary. They removed his collar while he was passed out. Half-passed out. He remembers snatches of conversation. Little things. If he thinks too much about it, he remembers the pain, and if he thinks too much about the pain, he remembers the feeling of being pulled around.
It’s difficult to explain, difficult to understand. The pull was like the one to Jericho, but all over his body. Like each limb, each bone, was attached to a string being lifted and moved around like a puppet. It didn’t hurt—but it certainly didn’t feel pleasant. It was—
It was like he had no control over himself. If he had attempted to move his arm, he wouldn’t be allowed to. And it felt like he was stretched thin, like all of the brief presence of fire and power in his body was taken away again.
“Are you staying? I assume you’re staying.”
Markus looks away from the open room, the small collection of people roaming in front of him, to Simon. He looks tired, like he could fall asleep if he shut his eyes right now.
“I don’t know,” Markus replies, because it’s the truth.
He doesn’t know if he wants to stay here. He didn’t know when he was on that bridge. It was just a place to be, to go. Safe. Free. But not truly free at all. And now he almost feels obligated to stay. They saved him. He owes them for that.
“Okay,” Simon says, his voice quiet. “I just… I think you should go back to sleep. Get more rest. You’re still healing, you probably shouldn’t be walking around.”
“I’m fine,” he says, but he hasn’t moved from this specific spot against the wall in ten minutes because it still hurts too much to even shift his weight. “I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Who made the trail?” he asks, changing the subject. “Who… created the boxes?”
“She’s not here anymore,” Simon replies. “She… had to leave. We had to improvise.”
“Right. Only a variant can pick up the path from that.”
“Who gave you the box?”
Markus keeps his gaze locked on the floor, “A variant named Phileas.”
“Have you heard of him?”
“N-no,” Simon replies. “No, I don’t think I have.”
It’s a relief. He doesn’t know if he’d be able to say what happened to Phileas. Where he came from. What he saw. He changes the conversation, looking from Simon back to the small cluster of people, “Is this everyone here? Is this… everything?”
He takes a moment of silence, watching them. He feels guilty when the words slip out, but he can’t help it because they’re true:
He looks back to Simon, who leans back against the wall, his eyes moving from Markus’ face to the people out in the center of the room.
“It’s all we have.”
But they could have so much more.
“I was told this is my room?” Markus asks, resting his hand against the doorway, surveying the tiny space. Simon had told him the number that was scratched into the surface of the door, the directions for the twists and turns he’d have to take. He chose to come alone. He didn’t want Simon to see how often he had to stop and lean against the wall to try and get a break from the agony.
There’s barely any room for anything but a bunkbed, bolted to one wall with inch thick mattresses, rough cotton blankets, flat pillows. Underneath the bottom bunk is a chest, not pushed far back enough to hide the glint of the lock that’s only half closed.
The woman on the bottom bunk looks over at him. She looks tired, like she was seconds from falling asleep or was just woken up, “Fuck, really?”
“Sorry, I can—”
“No,” she says, sitting up. “It’s fine. Whatever. I’m North.”
She holds out a hand and he takes a small step forward to take it.
Silence settles over the room and he takes in a small breath, “I was—”
“Top bunk is yours,” she says immediately. “But if you’re not going to sleep, leave. I need to rest.”
“Right. That’s—that’s why I came here.”
“Yeah?” she asks. “Not what you thought, though, huh?”
“No. It’s…” he trails off, trying to find an appropriate word for this place. It wasn’t what he expected. He knew in his vision that it was run down and old, but he had expected something else.
“If you came here looking for comfort, you came to the wrong place,” North says, laying back down again. “Turn the light off, will you?”
He reaches over to the switch, pausing just before touching it, “How do you have electricity?”
“How do you think?” In a place full of variants with the ability to interact with nearly anything?
Point made. His fingers reach out, shutting off the dim light, plunging the room into darkness. He feels his heart start to race in his chest, can feel his fingers itching to turn it back on. His lungs breathe in fast, trying to get air to them that seem like it doesn’t want to come.
The metal of the bed protests as North moves and all he can picture is the face of that girl in the dark, staring back at him. At the time, he hadn’t felt the way she was digging into his head, but now he can feel the traces she left behind, showing up in the dark like glowing ink.
His eyes start to adjust, making out the shape of the bed from the slanting light through the window. It’s still too dark, the moon only a sliver in the sky, but it’s enough to make his heart slow again.
He is not back at AzureHeart Tower. He’s here. At Jericho.
North is not a singing child, she’s a grumbling adult.
He breathes out, forcing it slow and takes a step forward, reaching blindly for the ladder and hauling himself upwards. His spine rejects the action, his insides screaming as he settles down on the mattress.
Markus is terrified of closing his eyes. He is terrified of seeing their faces again, of feeling the emptiness in that room. The utter terror that filled the space where there should be light and healing. He wants to go back to the infirmary, he wants Josh and Lucy to use their abilities to put him to sleep like before.
He does not want to be here in the dark.
He stares at the ceiling, the old metal, the texture and winding path of scratches and rust. His eyes shut for five seconds at a time. He tests himself, forcing them to close for longer and longer. Five. Ten. Twenty. Forty. Eighty. One-hundred sixty.
Eventually he falls asleep, restless and unhappy.
Chapter 24: Midnight Train
AUGUST 27 TH
Rose’s Farm .
The sign greets her on her way up the drive. Wooden and weathered, painted fruit and carefully written words on it. Natural honey, organic pumpkins. Grain. Eggs. Blueberries.
Kara walks the rest of the way up to the house, surveying the old rocking chair and swinging benches, the plants hanging from the top. She reaches forward and knocks on the door, glancing back to the others waiting at the end of the street.
Ralph is feeling better now. Good enough to walk on his own. He keeps quiet, and their time spent on the way here was filled with very little conversation, leaning mostly to topics like the weather. Alice kept asking why they couldn’t stay with the Jerrys, a nd she wishes they could. Pirates’ Cove seemed safe enough. But they don’t know the twins, they hardly even know each other. All they are doing is trading one safe haven full of strangers for another. But Pirates' Cove also didn't exactly seem like a place they could live forever at. She doesn't know where the Jerrys were getting their food from, and it isn't a place she can allow a little girl to grow up in, even if the world seems far worse.
Luther had promised that these people would help, though. He said that this was the best option and she is inclined to trust the person who saved her life, Alice’s life, Ralph’s life. If it doesn’t work, she’ll go back to the amusement park. A backup plan. And if that doesn’t work out, either—
She has no idea what she’ll do.
She just has to keep Alice safe.
That’s all she knows.
Kara knocks again, waits a little longer for a response that she doesn’t get before she steps away, a heavy sigh in her chest as she moves around to the back of the house. She steps slowly into the backyard, looking towards a boy raising an ax above his head, dropping it on a log and cutting it clean in two.
“Hello?” she says, looking away from the boy to the trees behind him. A heavily wooded area behind the greenhouse. The empty space is taken up by solar panels, tilted up to the sky. “I’m looking for Rose, is she here?”
“What do you want with her?” he asks, eyeing her suspiciously. He holds the ax like a weapon for a moment before dropping it to his side.
“I need to talk to her.”
“She doesn’t wanna talk,” he says, reaching down to set another log up. “Go away.”
“Please,” Kara says, hoping her face conveys all the pleading and begging she can that she refuses to do with her voice. “I really need to see her.”
The boy shakes his head, opens his mouth to speak, likely ready to tell them to leave once more, but the doors to the greenhouse slide open and stop him from going any further.
Kara looks towards the woman stepping out, glancing only once back to the others, “Are you Rose?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“I was told you could help us,” she says with a small smile, trying her best to look polite.
She doesn’t know how to show it, to prove it, to do anything without words. Her hands come up to her throat, pulling at the high collar of her shirt, hoping that maybe the pale skin beneath, the stripe around her neck that hasn’t seen daylight in years will be proof enough.
“Come on,” Rose says, looking around like someone is spying on them. “It’s better if we talk inside.”
Kara hesitates, watches Rose walk to the back door and push it open. The boy trails behind Rose, face twisted in annoyance.
“Luther,” she says, lowering her voice, taking slow steps to the house. “Do you think we can trust them?”
“We don’t have a choice,” he replies with a small shrug.
Maybe he’s right. When she looks to Alice, when she looks to Ralph, she knows that there is little else they can do. Ralph is sick. Something happened and now he is falling apart. And Alice is just a little girl. She can’t—
She can’t keep carrying on like this. Sleeping in abandoned houses. What will happen when winter comes? When it’s too cold for the little clothing they brought with them to shield against the frigid weather?
Kara steps into the house, the kitchen enveloping around her. Fans in the corner running, chasing away the warmth of the outdoors and leaving them with the nice breeze, the scent of baked bread surrounding them. It’s a nice little place. Wallpaper and wooden furniture. Cozy instead of the bare walls of Todd’s house. A stark contrast of life and hope versus the dim and dark cracked walls from before.
People live here. It’s their home. Not just a house. Not serving as a prison.
“What’s your name?” Rose says, looking to the group.
“K-Kara,” she says, resting a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “And this is Alice, Luther, and Ralph.”
“He looks ill.”
“We spent the last few nights outside,” she says quietly. “He’s exhausted.”
“There’s a spare room upstairs. He can rest up there. Adam, will you show them?”
The boy—Adam—doesn’t look particularly pleased with this, but he complies, stepping over to the staircase and waiting for a moment while Luther moves Ralph to lean against his side in a better way, taking the stairs slowly. Kara stands behind them, her hands raised tentatively in the air in case she needs to catch Ralph if he slips on a step.
When they reach the top, they enter into a tiny bedroom, Luther helping Ralph lay down on the mattress while Kara walks over to the curtains, closing them and shutting out the bright light of the sun. The blankets are patterned with little embroidered flowers. The detailing in them must have taken months of work with how many they are, how intricate the design is. It still surprises her that there are people who put the work and effort into creating something like this.
“Ralph is fine,” he whispers. “You can’t stop because—”
“You need rest,” she says, cutting him off. This all happened because of her. Ralph tried to protect them and it caused this. Magic overloading his body, making him ill instead of better. “Sleep tonight. We’ll leave tomorrow.”
He looks like he’s about to protest, but she shakes her head, silencing him again. She needs to get away. Be alone for a moment. They all need their rest.
“Tomorrow,” she repeats again. More to herself than to anyone else.
AUGUST 27 TH
Kara steps out of the shower, her skin smelling like cinnamon and brown sugar as she dries herself off, changing into the clothes she set aside. The smell of food wafts upstairs, hitting her hard as she opens the door and exits the steaming bathroom. Kara stumbles to a stop as she bumps into someone, an apology slipping from her lips that’s quickly silenced when Luther reaches out and grasps her hand, pulling her along towards an empty room.
“I need to talk to you.”
“Ralph,” he says, lowering his voice. “Alice.”
“Have you ever noticed anything about her? Anything strange?”
“I don’t know what you mean--”
“There’s something different about her. Different than—”
“Than what?” she asks, cutting him off. “Us?”
“No,” he says and seems to consider her question for a moment before continuing. “Yes.”
“Yes? Luther, she’s not—She’s just a little girl.”
“Can I show you something?” he asks.
She hesitates, her gaze shifting from his face to the hallway. She can hear the quiet sound of Rose’s voice, of the television playing something. A cartoon, she thinks. Kara had left Alice down there while she stole a much-needed shower. Her skin felt like it was covered in a layer of grime she couldn’t get rid of. She’d scrubbed until it felt raw, like she could still see splotches of blood where there was none. She keeps picturing Todd on the ground, blood pooling around the floor. She still doesn't know if he's alive or not. She can't imagine he survived that.
“Okay,” she replies. “Show me.”
Luther nods, grabbing her hand and leading her toward the bedroom where they left Ralph. He raises a finger, silencing her before she can ask what they’re doing. They creep into the room, the door sliding closed quietly behind them.
“Just focus,” Luther whispers. “On the sound.”
On the sound.
His grip on her hand tightens. And she waits, listening, trying to hear something other than the muffled sound of life below them, other than the soft patter of rain against the windows. It takes her a moment, to realize what he was saying. But it isn’t a sound, it’s a feeling. Like static in her hand, like it has gone numb from where he holds it. Her fingers lose sensation, the numbness spreading up her arm, spreading like cracks along her bones until it hits her.
It’s a quiet buzzing. Like bees. But not at all like that, either. It’s as though as soon as she names it, the sound shifts into something else. Like something tightening. Like rope being pulled taut, like the sound effect movies use for when it’s hanging on by a thread and just about to break—
And then everything snaps into focus. The sound vanishing and turning into something else. A subtle vibration, like a drumming in her ears. The room explodes with light. Mostly green. Twisting like an ivy, climbing up the walls but filling the air in front of her. The entire room closing in on an exploding web of green.
Blue, threading between it. Braiding in and out, connecting different vines, twining it together into knots.
“Luther—” she says, and pulls her hand away from his quickly, plummeting the room back into dim darkness and silence.
“This is what’s making him sick,” he whispers. “His energy is tangled.”
“How—” she asks, but she knows the answer before Luther even says it.
“Alice,” he replies. “Alice did this.”
Chapter 25: Time to Decide
AUGUST 28 TH
“Are you Lucy?”
He hadn’t actually met her before, only recollections from his foggy and distant memories during the healing process. Josh was the one that had cleared him to leave the infirmary and Simon was the one that showed him the ship. Lucy is a mystery, a nd now, it is strange to be standing across from her now. In his memories, the only thing he could make out was her face. Blurred and distorted. It looked like part of her head was missing then, but the black eyes he thought he saw in the haze are still there, looking towards his own. A trick of the light?
“Sit down,” she says, nodding towards the neat stack of crates. “We should talk.”
They should. There is no clear leader in Jericho. Maybe there doesn’t need to be one, but—
He is still curious what Jericho is, what the purpose of it is here in this place.
“It’s a safe haven,” she says, watching him closely. “Now, please Markus, sit.”
“Read your mind?” she says, tilting her head to the side. She doesn’t smile, but her voice contains the trace of one. “In a sense.”
Markus takes a step forward to the mattress, sitting down on the edge. He’s thankful for the rest. His body still aches. His spine still hurts with a pain that moves outwards in waves. It lingers in his hands, the bones of his fingers in a kind of pain that makes it difficult to want to use them.
“You have questions.”
“Yes,” he says, keeping a close eye on her. “Do you have answers?”
He nods, slowly, flattening his hands against his knees, “Are you their leader?”
“Jericho doesn’t have a leader. It’s a safe haven.”
“You said that once.”
“It’s the truth,” Lucy replies, and this time she does smile. Just barely. “People don’t come here for a… new employer. They come here to be safe. To survive.”
But there’s still not many of them. Less than a hundred. How many variants are in the city? Thousands? And they’ve done nothing to help them? To save them? Do they even know about Jericho?
And would it even be right to try and help them? When Jericho is the way that it is? A boat that is falling apart, held together only by variants trying their best to push their powers beyond what limits they have to save this place. It’s a safe haven, yes. It’s also a danger. But it might be safer than the homes they're trapped in . He’s heard the stories and he’s seen the news. He’s witnessed with his own eyes the mistreatment of variants. He isn’t a blind fool. But he also was lucky. Blessed with Carl as his source of income. A place to rest his head and a nice old man to talk to. Sharing passages from books and playing the piano or chess—
It is all so utterly complicated. He never should've been forced out of his own home, he never should've been cast aside the way he was. It is easy to feel differently about something once he's lost it. He remembers having moments in Carl's place, thinking about how he wishes he had the freedom to leave and be a person instead of a problem.
“Give me your hand,” Lucy says, and he complies. Letting her take his right hand in hers, holding onto it tightly. There is a flicker. A strange shimmer around her fingertips. Black shadows like tendrils crawling across her fingers and around his. Slinking up his arm like—
There isn’t any other feeling he can describe it as. Maybe the trickle of warm water from a summer rainstorm, but not so inconsistent—not droplets. More like a gentle breeze that never ends, but more intimate than that. Sinking deep into his bones, easing away a little bit of the pain bundled in the back of his head. T he shadows shift and change. Colors blooming and blossoming like tiny stars being created and collapsing before he can focus long enough to see where they lie on the color spectrum. Little galaxies lying before him. The pain in his body shifts, slipping away more and more. Still present, but not persistent.
“It should help for a little while,” she says, the energy pulling away again. Back to her hands, disappearing wherever it came from. “It isn’t a permanent fix. The pain will last for a long time. It isn’t physical. Not in the way you think.”
He is about to ask what she means, what it is if not physical when it originates in his vertebrae, but she squeezes his hands, and her dark eyes look up into his and he is struck for a moment.
Her pupils dilate. More and more until the whites of her eyes are completely gone, the dark brown entirely erased. Her face seems to fall in a strange manner, as though she had been holding an expression before and was no longer trying to keep her composure, but her face was so blank seconds ago that it's hard to see how the blankness has shifted from this to a somehow even blanker stare. He thinks he might be imagining things. The flicker, the change, the atmosphere. Everything. Can he even trust his own head? After hearing the voices of those variants trapped in that room creeping through his mind?
And when she speaks, her voice comes out—
“You had it all, and you lost it all.”
He can feel the back of his head prickling. All that pain vanished but now replaced with a strange sensation of numbness, of being paralyzed.
“You’ve seen hell—”
It’s as if her voice is coming from within. Her lips move but the sound of her words are in his ears, crawling to his brain. Not pleasant like the tendrils of energy but not unwelcome, either. Coated in sugar, tasting like poison, feeling like a prophecy.
“—and now hell lives in you.”
His eyes slip closed, squeezing shut tight as if he can stop this. Shut it out and pretend it’s just a bad dream. But memories bloom across his vision instead. A quick cycle backward through his life. North and Simon and Josh. Falling. Looking. Running. Carl and Leo and—
His family? No.
“Your heart is troubled—”
He rips his hand from hers, stumbling backward as his eyes fly open. No, no, no. Markus trips over the boxes behind him, collapsing onto the ground and feeling pain shudder through him, but it isn't the same pain as before. It isn't the pain from his fall. It's something else. It buzzes underneath his skin, itching to get out.
He stands and pushes the door of the infirmary open, letting it fall closed behind him with a slam as he races down the corridor. He needs to get away. He needs to get out of here or at least get to his room. He wishes he had one to himself. He wishes North wasn’t in that tiny space with him. He just needs a moment to breathe. To process what he saw. Things he doesn't remember seeing before, things he couldn't have seen before. An impossibility suffocating him.
— AUGUST 28 | 12:03 P.M.
“Did you know about this?”
Connor looks away from the screen to Hank, standing on the sidelines, watching the screen play out a nightmare.
“No,” he replies quietly. “I didn’t.”
“So AzureHeart didn’t let you in on their little secret?”
He shakes his head, and for some reason, he feels a crushing amount of sadness building up inside of him.
AzureHeart didn’t tell him about it at all.
Connor doesn’t know why he cares so much. He knew this day would come eventually, didn’t he? Scientists crafting a cure to get their loved ones back to being worthy. Connor always knew that his purpose to the company was to take down variants. He knew the world wanted to be rid of variants. But it’s different. It’s different hearing the words said out loud. That variants need to be gone, permanently. That they are a disease to be cured. Not just people with powers that are used accidentally or wrongly, but they as a species need to be cleansed.
He should’ve known. He should’ve seen this coming. He should’ve prepared himself more. Connor doesn’t know how he let himself be fooled by his own thoughts that he was wanted anywhere by anyone.
— AUGUST 28 | 3:02 P.M.
“What do we know about this guy?”
Connor blinks, pulled out of his thoughts circling again and again around Daniel, the cure, the burst of unexplained energy. The elevator underneath his feet is rickety, not at all like the smooth ride of the one in the apartment building that he was in before, but watching the numbers tick upwards, the feeling of the quarter between his fingers—
It makes him remember, as if he could ever forget to begin with.
“Not much,” he replies. “A neighbor reported that he heard strange noises coming from this floor. Nobody’s supposed to be living here, but he said he saw a man hiding a collar underneath his clothes. Scarves and turtle necks and the like.”
“Those common things variants use?”
“Yes,” Connor replies. He remembers strange bits and pieces of his time at AzureHeart. They come back to him broken and small, offering little else. But he remembers a turtleneck, remembers how it was meant to hide his collar before they decided he could be trusted without one, that there was no need to ever hide it to begin with if it didn’t exist. “And it’s summer. Hardly the time to be wearing—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Hank says. “He couldn’t have removed it himself?”
“It’s difficult. Not impossible. Once the seal is broken, a variant could use their ability to try and get it off.”
“Right. And all this was enough information to report to the police?”
“AzureHeart and the DPD both take the investigation of rogue variants seriously.”
“Christ,” Hank mutters, moving away from him quickly and exiting the elevator as it comes to a stop. “If we have to investigate every time someone hears a strange noise, we’re gonna need more cops.”
Connor turns towards the door, raising his hand to knock against the old wood. There’s no response. Just the quiet of the apartment building, the wind whistling through a broken window on the other side of the hallway. This place is trashed. He’s surprised anyone lives in this building at all. It seems like it should be abandoned entirely. Connor knocks again, this time louder.
“Anybody home?” he calls.
There’s a clatter inside and he glances over to Hank, his expression shifting from annoyance to apprehension. Someone is inside. It should be enough to warrant entering. Trespassing would legally allow them to kick the door down. Not that they couldn’t pretend they had a variety of other reasons to break in legally. If Connor was pressed to make up a lie to cover Hank, he’s sure the DPD and AzureHeart would believe it. It’s not like they need much proof for variant investigations.
“Stay behind me.”
“Got it,” Connor replies, stepping backwards, not saying that if there is a variant on the other side, Hank shouldn’t go first. They don’t know what could lie on the other side. What kind of person might be in the apartment. They could be violent. They could be dangerous. Enough that Hank’s gun wouldn’t allow enough protection for this. But he doubts even if he were to bring this fact up, Hank would listen.
People rarely do.
Hank kicks the door and it swings open, hitting the wall with a loud thud. Connor follows him inside slowly, watching him kick the doors open to two of the rooms. He glances in them as he passes, looking over strange writing on the wall. Like a maze or a labyrinth. Blocky lines, paint dripped down but long since dried that way.
He turns away from it, hesitating for a moment as Hank steps over to the last door. There’s something in there. He can feel it now. A strange sensation building at the base of his neck. Like something coiling tighter and tighter—
The Lieutenant opens the door before he can stop him, birds flying out from the space and into the hallway and with them, some of the pent up energy collapses around him. Floating inside of him like the birds fluttering their winds in the small space.
“What the fuck is this?” he barks, his voice coated in revulsion. “Fucking pigeons.”
The birds make their way across the floor, moving away from Hank’s feet and retreating away from him. They seem to clear a path for Connor instead, not fleeing from his body as he makes his way into the room, just diverting.
He reaches out, focusing on that feeling in his head, connecting him to the energy in the room. Something is off about. The threads around him are small, so thin he can barely see them. It’s not how they’re supposed to appear. They should look like rope or wires, depending on the intensity of the energy. Not like hair. He wouldn’t even see them now if there weren’t so many birds in the room, all of them interconnecting together, shining against the light. Not opaque. The light from the windows streams through the boards, casting a strange glow across them. Both making the grouping of it harder to see but highlighting something else, too.
He wishes he could touch them, but he knows without even trying that he would have little power over these types of threads. Others he can pull on. He can alter and change. He can’t do anything with this. It isn’t tangible enough. He’s never seen anything like it. He doesn’t remember AzureHeart ever talking about something like this before.
“...you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“What?” he says, looking away from the birds.
“Didn’t think so.”
Connor watches Hank by the bookshelf. He’s reading the titles, plucking some of them from the shelves and flipping through the pages before returning them.
He turns away quickly, trying to focus on what he’s doing here instead of the Lieutenant’s actions. He walks into the bathroom, reaching out to grasp something bronze and round in the sink. A collar. Silver along some of the grooves. Old. Cheap. It does the job, but it was once coated in a fake silver layer. It’s been so long it’s worn entirely off. He wouldn’t be surprised if the variant was left with green on his neck.
“I thought you said it was difficult to take those off.”
“Not impossible, though,” Connor replies, setting it back down again. “It’s painful. Even when they stop working. They’re designed like a shock collar to prevent variants from taking them off.”
“You ever wear one before?”
He doesn’t know. He can’t remember.
“Yes,” he replies. He can’t tell if he’s lying or not, hoping that it puts Hank at ease. He was already disturbed at the fact Connor doesn’t wear one now, but once he says it he thinks maybe he’s telling the truth. He can remember metal wrapped around his neck, he can remember how the color of it matched his eyes.
“Anything special? You get one of those fancy gold ones?”
“Silver,” he says quietly.
“What’d it feel like?”
“I’d prefer not to talk about this,” he says. “Maybe we should focus on solving this case instead of my personal life?”
“Right. You know what rA9 is then?” Lieutenant Anderson asks, nodding towards the wall behind him.
He follows his gaze to it, looking up at the bathroom wall. Dirty and grime-covered, but barely anything to pay attention to when rA9 has been written so many times on the surface. Over and over again.
At least a thousand.
“You asked that other variant about it, too. Matthew Bracken?”
He nods, “I—I don’t know what it is.”
He shakes his head. There is a deep feeling of fear sinking into him now. More than before. Once was strange, twice was worrying.
This? AzureHeart’s best kept secret getting out?
It is terrifying. rA9 shouldn’t be spreading like this. It’s like a virus. People discovering it when they shouldn’t know anything about it—
“We should keep looking,” he says. “There could be valuable evidence here.”
“Like an explanation for why two different—”
“Yes,” he says, cutting him off. “Exactly.”
Hank hesitates, watching him for a moment with a curious expression. He doesn’t press on the subject like Connor expects him to, but he’s thankful when he is finally left alone in the bathroom. He doesn’t know how many more excuses he can conjure up to pretend he doesn’t know what this means.
Connor lets out a little sigh of relief before turning back to the wall. Mazes interspersed with the sign. His finger trails along the edge of it, running over the smooth tile. Octagonal. Circular. Triangular. They’re all different shapes, but they consist of the same idea. An intricate path from the outside to the inside. It wouldn’t be complex finding the way, if that’s what the purpose of it served. He doesn’t understand why anyone would go through so much effort to create these. They make little sense in the grand scheme of things. A variant on the run, spending his days drawing?
He takes a step back, looking to his fingers. Dark blue grime smeared against his fingertips.
And he realizes, slowly, what it is.
It’s not a marker that the variant was writing with.
He was writing with his blood.
“Lieutenant?” he asks, stepping out into the main room again.
Hank is standing by the counter, picking up a box and holding it up to show Connor. “He’s feeding these fuckers like a fucking nutjob. Did you find anything else or do you want to get out of this shithole before I die of an asthma attack?”
“He’s feeding them?”
“Yeah, that’s what I just said, Sherlock. Are you going deaf?”
Connor’s hand falls to his side and he turns his attention back to the birds, the same feeling lingering in the back of his neck but it’s changed. It doesn’t feel like it’s tightening anymore, like it’s hurting him. It just feels like a pressure, building against his skull. He focuses in on the strings around him again. Shifting his gaze from the room to the layer of threads here.
He didn’t notice before.
He didn’t think to look.
All of the strings are pulled taut, upwards. Like puppets. Like when they fly, it is someone tugging at the strings to move their wings. They’re real, they aren’t illusions but—
They are connected to something.
Something in the ceiling.
That’s why the energy moves with the birds. They are tied together. They are feeding off each other. The variant is controlling them, in some way or another. The bond it has with them is so tightly knit that every time they take a step forward or fly across the room, it makes ripples in the air.
Connor walks over slowly, cautiously, gazing up at the ceiling. There’s a hole there, where the ceiling has collapsed. Exposing it to wooden beams and insulation. The threads around him shift and before he can react, they illuminate into something too bright for him to see past. His arms raise in an attempt to shield himself, but something hits him before he can drop his focus on the strings, before his vision can fully recover. He falls to the floor, a weight against his back and pain radiating through him as he tries to catch his breath.
He pushes himself to his feet, vision blurry. Afterimages of bright lines floating through his gaze as he stumbles forward.
“What are you waiting for? Chase the damn thing!”
He steps forward, using his hands to press against the walls as his vision starts to return to normal. The pattern on the floor in the hallway seems to shimmer in his gaze, nothing truly clear in his line of sight except shifting red tendrils in front of him. Not thin pink transparent lines anymore, but bursts of red energy. He follows them, racing as fast as he can, hitting a shelf the variant knocked over hard before he can realize it’s in front of him.
The door in the distance swings open, bright light flooding the space again but it seems to help repair what’s been broken, or his eyes have fixed the damage caused. Connor runs, catching the door as it swings closed again and hitting the concrete of the rooftop as he chases the stranger from the apartments to the farming buildings next door. The wheat and grass underneath his feet scatter the energy trail ahead of him. Sending the lines outwards in zigzag stretches like broken pieces. He can still see the variant in the distance, climbing up over to the next roof. Connor isn’t as fast as him. He didn’t get the head start he needed to. He tries to reach out, to form a connection between them that he can follow but he disappears over the next ledge before Connor can get there and he stumbles backwards away from the truck as it comes to a stop between them, cutting them off.
He’s starting to feel irritated. The heat of the sun above him and the corners and uneven paths aren’t working in his favor. He catches the ledge of the truck, the metal hot against his skin as he hauls himself over and he pushes past a group of people outside of the greenhouse. He doesn’t know where he went. He just knows he went this direction. There’s a shelf knocked down that he has to leap over, people shouting at him to be careful and keep out of the way, just as angry as he is, Connor thinks.
And then he sees him as he stumbles to a stop at the edge of the rooftop.
The variant standing in the window across the alley, looking back at him.
The variant takes a step backwards at the same time as Connor. He can make the jump. He just needs a headstart. If the variant could do it, so can Connor. He turns, quick steps back far enough that he can build his speed again. He jumps across the space between him and the variant, catching the windowsill, holding onto the ledge tightly, trying to pull himself upwards.
But the variant is there, walking back towards him, his hand held up, and there is a strange color threading between his fingers. Not the crimson that he had before, not the red threads that connected from him to the pigeons. This is different. He can’t pinpoint the color. For a moment, it almost looks blue, but it’s shifting yellow. Like it’s been braided together, swirling with something else and he can feel it inside of him. Something crawling underneath his skin, something worming its way inside of his body.
And then, everything inside of Connor’s body stops. His grip loosens. Every muscle in his body seemingly giving out at the same time, and he falls.
>.< i'm sorry i've been so bad at updating this fic, i have a backlog of a lot of chapters now and will hopefully be updating every wednesday!
Chapter 27: Tomorrow, Tomorrow
— AUGUST 27 | 8:27 P.M.
“What are you talking about, Luther?” Kara asks, and it is like her body has turned to ice. Everything inside of her cold and frozen with fear. “Alice couldn’t have—”
“I know. She doesn’t have a collar.”
“She would’ve been tested.”
“She’s human. She has to be. She’s my niece—”
And she is stopped dead by the look Luther is giving her. Like he knows something. And suddenly, very slowly, he’s shaking his head.
“No. She isn’t.”
It feels like a piece has snapped into place inside of her. An answer to a question she hadn’t been asking. A memory that she wasn’t looking for. Alice isn’t her niece. Todd isn’t her uncle. They don’t look anything alike. None of the three share any similarities at all. And for some reason, it doesn’t surprise her. There isn’t a single thing about the memory surfacing in her head that surprises her. She remembers being hired by Todd. She remembers her last name being stripped from her when came there. She remembers the little girl appearing one day and she remembers fighting and arguing and trying to get away.
And she remembers Todd hitting her. She remembers almost dying. Amnesia. And no one cared, even if they could figure out the truth. Variants heal fast. The bruises don’t stay. She remembers the biologists and the scientists and the people at AzureHeart saying that it’s such a strange phenomenon—
When variants get hurt, they prioritize the body, they don’t prioritize the mind. Memories can be lost when a variant is near death. Todd almost killed her.
“Who is she?” she whispers quietly, but she wants to ask him who she is. If she has parents out there who care about her. If Alice knows that neither of them were ever supposed to be in Todd’s house.
“I don’t think she’s like us, either. I think she’s something else. I’ve never seen someone like her before.”
Of course not.
She pulls away from him, stumbling backwards. Not like she’s frightened of the things he’s saying or of him, that he could be lying, just that she needs the space. The physical distance to let her thoughts stop being wound so tightly. Todd kidnapped a little girl. He exploited her amnesia to make her feel obligated to stay with him. Family. He lied to her, and she had nothing to prove her the truth. Alice isn’t like Todd. She wouldn’t have hurt Ralph like this.
“She wouldn’t do this on purpose. Whatever she did, she wouldn’t do it on purpose.”
“She’s a child, Luther.”
“I know. Kara, please—”
She thinks she might be crying and she feels so weak and pitiful. Has she cried, since all this happened, since it all started? Kara can’t remember, but there are tears streaming down her face and everything suddenly is falling apart around her. Everything coming into a sharp clear focus of how it was all ruined. How everything is destroyed because of her .
No , something tells her quietly, Not you. Todd.
It is all Todd’s fault. It can be traced back to the moment he hurt her.
She brings her hands to her face, forcing the tears away from her cheeks in angry movements, “It doesn’t change anything.”
“Of course not.”
“We’re still going to get her to safety.”
“Of course we are.”
She leaves him there, making her way to the staircase and taking the steps two at a time, desperate to get to Alice’s side. To hold onto her and make sure she’s real.
This changes nothing.
It changes absolutely nothing.
— AUGUST 27 | 9:41 P.M.
She had tried to act normal. She doesn’t know how well she managed. It is difficult not to pretend she doesn’t know. She kept staring at Alice, trying to see if there was anything about her that looked different. But the whole point of variants and humans has been so stupid .
They’re still human. They started off human. Something happened to them, at some point years and years ago. Something that shifted the color of their blood from red to blue. Something that went so unnoticed in most people that it wasn’t until they lashed out and hurt others that they knew what they were. Powers they didn’t want suddenly given to them. Testing done routinely—still done routinely—to separate those like Kara and Luther and Ralph from people like Rose. Adam. Alice.
Or so she thought.
They look human, they sound human, they are human. They just—
They aren’t. They have magic inside of them. Special powers and abilities that could change the world for better or for worse. Companies like AzureHeart are founded on trying to figure out what happened to them, and their biggest breakthrough has been the collars that keep them chained up.
She didn’t think Alice was supposed to be like her. Or not like her. Isn’t that what Luther had said, that Alice was somehow different from the two of them? That she was somehow not quite on either side? It’s not like Luther holds the answers to everything. He is just a boy and she is just a girl and they don’t know everything about anything, not even themselves. She has never felt so isolated and lonely without her memories until this moment. She has had other things to keep her going. A fierce need to protect a little girl. A desperate desire to stay alive. And now she feels like it has been ripped out from her feet.
Alice having magic doesn’t change anything. Of course not. Kara still needs to protect her. She still needs to keep her safe. She still wants to stay alive.
But she doesn’t remember anything. She doesn’t remember if Todd knew, she doesn’t remember if she knew. She doesn’t know if Alice knows. Everything is lost and crumpled in the space in-between. She had been fine with not having answers before. She had resigned herself to it, hoping they’d come back on their own, but she is empty and broken with no hope of recovering anything, and all she wants to know is how to do this. How to keep going.
She sniffs, trying to keep the tears from her eyes. Suddenly they want to come at all moments of the day now. She had thought she was stronger before, being able to hold them back. She’d been wrong. It’d just been building up inside of her. She feels so lost and she tries to busy herself with the task of helping Alice into the bed. They need to rest tonight. They need to prepare to keep going. Nothing has changed. Tomorrow will bring a new day.
“Why do humans hate us?” she asks quietly. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I—” she looks away from her towards Luther at the door, leaning against the frame and watching her. He hasn’t dropped his mask of concern yet, and she doesn’t know if he should. There is a strong desire in her to run in the opposite direction all of a sudden. Whichever way will hold the answers to all of her questions. And she doesn’t even know if this, the phrasing of Alice’s own question, means anything. Putting herself in the same category as Kara and Luther. “Humans are… complicated. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand them.”
“Why can’t we just talk to each other? They’d see we’re not bad.”
She looks back to Alice, trying not to answer her question with a question. Us? We? Do you know? Do you know what you are?
“Sometimes it’s easier to hate than to talk,” Kara whispers. “Get some rest, Alice. It’s late. We’re leaving early tomorrow.”
Kara leaves her with a small good night wish, a quick kiss against her forehead, the light turned off as Alice is left alone in the dimly lit room with Ralph resting on the bed a few yards away. They’d brought in air mattresses and blankets, but the space is still small and cramped. She doesn’t know what it’ll be like going back in in a few minutes, trying to find her footing in the darkness.
“Luther,” she whispers quietly, pausing beside him. “Can I ask you something?”
He nods, following her away from the room, the door closing quietly behind them. Their voices are hushed, as quiet as they can make them so they don’t travel in the tiny house.
“Do you think she knows? About her powers?”
“Kara, I don’t—”
“I know you don’t have all the answers. I’m just… I’m asking. Is it possible she did it on purpose?”
“Make Ralph sick? I… I don’t know.”
“No, I mean… using them to begin with. Whatever she did, could she have done it on purpose without realizing what it could’ve done?”
“Maybe,” Luther replies. “I think you should take some time. Think. Process. Overloading yourself with information right now might not be the best choice. I don’t know where she came from. I don’t know what she is. You should ask her, tomorrow.”
It would be nice. To have the time to understand what Alice is without scraping all the answers she can, most of which are presumed and probably incorrect, from a secondary source. She understands that. She knows that it would be important to just get used to the idea that the little girl behind the door a few feet away made Ralph so sick he’s almost dead.
But she doesn’t have the luxury of time right now.
“I have to know.”
“And it won’t change anything?”
She shakes her head, “No. Of course not.”
He looks at her almost like he doesn’t believe her, but he nods anyways, sucks in a breath and lets it all out fast, “It’s hard to know exactly what is happening with her. It’s hard to know what’s happening with anyone. I can’t read minds. Even people with that ability—people who can see inside heads? It’s not quite that clear. So I don’t know if she knows, but I know… I know the way her power affects other people. And I think she must, to some degree, know that she’s not entirely human. I don’t think she’s…”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say.”
But it has the same effect, and he doesn’t correct her, “Her power is different from other people. It’s like… invisible. You have strands of energy around you. I can see it. I can see Ralph’s, and it isn’t just because it’s tangled and strange. Even Rose and Adam they have… they have a bit of an aura. It’s like a soft glow, it’s barely something you can see, you can’t even touch it or interact with it like I can with yours.”
“She’s invisible. It’s nothing. It’s like a dead space. And it happens a lot. It wasn’t anything I thought anything of, when I saw her. Sometimes people’s energies are so faint I can’t see them, no matter how hard I try. But it’s like… if I tried to reach out and mess with hers, it would bite back.”
“You’ve tried to mess with it?” she asks, and there’s an edge to her voice.
“Zlatko asked me to,” Luther whispers quietly, shrinking away from her, like he’s ashamed. “I didn’t do anything to her. But I think he knew what she was. He wanted her. He wanted me to find out what power she had. People aren’t supposed to be that young and have powers. It was a fluke, remember? There hasn’t been any kids born with powers in over fifteen years.”
“But she was,” Kara says. “What did she do, exactly?”
He looks like he doesn’t want to be talking to her about this, and she doesn’t know if it’s because he’s scared it will make her run away or if he’s just against the idea of telling her this. She doesn’t know if she should reassure him again, that she won’t leave Alice behind. That it changes nothing.
But she realizes it’s stupid to say it, because it’s not true. She had been trying to put it on repeat in her head that nothing’s changed. That she still loves Alice, as much as she can in the little time they’ve had together. And it’s true. Her love for Alice hasn’t changed. Her need to protect her hasn’t changed.
But everything else has.
They can’t go to Canada now. They can’t trust going north. It might not be safe. It might not work. It might be more dangerous than they intended. Trying to smuggle three variants across the border is difficult enough. But four? Four, when one of them is a child that is neither human nor variant? How would they manage it?
“Please,” she says again. “Tell me.”
I am not going anywhere.
“She’s… Alice is like an… amplifier.”
“Can I say something… stupid? A bad metaphor?”
She smiles a little and nods, “Go ahead.”
“If you and Ralph and me are phones and our batteries are charged to a hundred percent, Alice can amplify it. Charge it more. To two hundred, maybe. Or more.”
“Enough to hurt someone. Give them more energy than they know how to handle.”
Enough to make Ralph sick.
“Is that what happened?”
He nods, slowly, “I think. I can’t be sure. I wasn’t there when it happened, before. Ralph was sick when you guys came to Zlatko’s. Did… did anything happen?”
Ralph made it rain. Hard. Not just a little, but enough to blur people’s visions, making it hard to see. Enough for them to run skidding through the streets under the cover of a darkened sky and lightning flashing above them. He was sick, after that.
“He was charged too much,” he says. “Before he got to Zlatko’s, and again after.”
After, when the ground had opened up and swallowed him whole.
She shivers, hating to remember that moment. It makes her feel ill. Even more so now when she puts it in retrospect, that Alice was a part of that. She participated in Zlatko’s death.
“I think some people can handle it, but I don’t think he could. It made his energy too big, and when it collapsed again it got tangled. It’s eating him up. It’s all… knotted.”
She nods, trying to cut him off, not really wanting to remember the way the energy was all tied together before, either. She wants to shut this out. She wants to go back to when she had just woken up in the hospital and everything was a question with plausible answers she’d get, not this.
“It’s possible she doesn’t know,” Luther says, his voice lowering again. They’d gotten louder without meaning to, too comfortable in their conversation to keep their voices down. “It’s possible she uses her power without knowing. Like when she’s frightened. Everyone does. It’s also possible she knew what she was doing and tried to channel more energy to somebody that could protect her.”
But Ralph, instead of her?
Kara can see the argument against it. That Ralph knew more of his powers. That by the time they got to the house, he had proved he had a handle on them. If she was Alice, she might’ve purposefully chosen the person using their ability and knowing what it was over someone like Kara who still knows absolutely nothing about herself.
But Alice is a little girl and Ralph is a stranger that threatened the two of them. She doesn’t know. Maybe she isn’t giving Alice enough credit for her intelligence. Maybe there is a fraction of jealousy and betrayal inside of her that Alice used her powers purposefully for Ralph and not her. That she trusted a stranger more than Kara.
“I think we should sleep,” she says quietly.
Luther agrees, a little too eagerly. He never wanted this conversation to happen to begin with, he must be glad it’s over. She still has questions, lurking in the back of her head. The specifics of how Alice isn’t like them, and how Luther could know that. If it really is just because her energy is invisible, or if it’s something more. To what extent is Alice a human and a variant? How can she be both? And how did Zlatko know? How did Todd not?
Or maybe he did, and she just never stuck around long enough to find out.
She needs to sleep, even if it’s just laying in the dark for a little bit. She needs to not think for a while, and deeper down, she knows she needs to talk to Alice about this and not Luther.
Tomorrow, Kara thinks, tomorrow.
Chapter 28: More Than This
— AUGUST 28 | 12:01 P.M.
They’re all crowded around the radio, listening closely. A few moments ago, they were cleaning out the ship. Soft music playing from the old electronic that Simon had brought to life. No cable needed. Just a little spark and everything came working back together. Markus watched him do it. Soft blue lights in Simon’s hands, this faded smile echoed on his face. It’s all gone now. The happiness over something as small as music has been snuffed out by the broadcast that interrupts a female vocalist, news from the president.
“AzureHeart has been working these last few years on developing a cure to give us back our children and our friends. The cure has almost completed development and variants are urged to come forward to receive it when it’s ready.”
What she doesn’t say is: this cure is not optional.
They all know it. Even if they don’t know what the cure really is. It could be a secret way to kill them all. It could be a poison that wipes out their entire species. AzureHeart and the government will make sure that every variant takes it or is kidnapped, placed in custody. It will either be forced into them, ripping their powers from their body, or they’ll be imprisoned until AzureHeart can find another use for them. And even if they are given a choice, what kind of choice is it? To be stripped of the thing that makes him powerful or to have it snuffed out by a collar instead?
Markus saw those people in the basement. Half-dead. Are they the guinea pigs for AzureHeart’s cure? Or will they be forgotten, never to see the light of day again?
He turns to leave, disappearing out of the room like a few others that have scattered. Maybe to be alone, maybe to share the news of this cure. Markus doesn’t want it. There isn’t anything wrong with him. There is something wrong with the people who put a collar around his throat and forced him to do their bidding.
— AUGUST 28 | 12:19 P.M.
He turns away from the city, his hands in his pockets, feeling this suffocating rage existing inside of his chest. He wants to let it go. A cure? A cure, now, when he has finally learned what it means to have magic in his veins? When he has finally been able to fill the void in his chest when he was denied who he is for so long? Markus tries not to let it show on his face when he watches Simon come up the last few steps. He tries not to let it mutate and attack someone like him, but all he really wanted was to be alone with this anger. Let it run a small lap inside of his chest so it doesn’t hurt so much.
“Simon, right?” he asks, as if he doesn’t actually know his name, playing along at being some type of cool guy or something. He hates it immediately. He doesn’t know why he keeps trying to be someone else here. He’s just always wrapping himself up, altering whoever he is to be best for what people want. He hasn’t been himself in so long that the memories have disintegrated now. He doesn’t know who he is. He thought he did before, with Carl, but some nights all he can think about is how he bit his tongue and did as he was told instead of speaking up.
“Yeah. We were worried about you,” Simon says, stepping towards him. “I—I was worried about you. Are you okay?”
“I wanted to be alone,” he says, but the words sound harsh now. When he thought them, it was okay, but voicing them somehow seems cruel. “The cure and everything—this morning has just been…”
“Awful,” Simon fills in the blank. “I know. Lucy said she talked with you, too. You ran away from her?”
Markus had almost forgotten, strangely enough. He was distracted by trying to busy himself with helping clean the ship. Making more rooms for the variants that keep showing up here. It felt only right since he was one of the people taking the last remaining beds. And the news—
He had forgotten what Lucy had shown him. Brought forth impossible situations that he is doing his best to pin down where they came from. It reminded him of the girl in the basement. She was in his head. Crawling around inside of it. Whispering things. Singing that broken song in that sickly sweet voice.
“I’m fine,” he replies, but it takes a moment too long.
“Nobody would blame you if you aren’t okay.”
“Well…” he trails off. “What do you want me to say?”
“To a stranger?” Markus asks, shaking his head.
He turns away, taking a seat on the edge of the roof, letting his legs dangle over. It’d be so easy to just push off and fall. Not that he would. But up here, all he can think about is how far the fall is. He survived once before. Simon was like an angel, leaning over him, telling him it was going to be okay. Simon’s footsteps grow closer until he’s sitting down on the ground beside him. Not too close. Not close enough.
“We all had bad lives before this,” Simon says quietly. “Terrible situations that lead us here. You’re not alone. That’s all I want you to know. It’s… okay not to be okay.”
Simon smiles, more authentically this time, “Yeah, I suppose. It doesn’t invalidate it, though.”
But it does, almost, because Simon is wrong. It isn’t the same. His life before this wasn’t the worst thing he could imagine. He had it good. He had someone that cared for him. Even if Carl wasn’t perfect, Markus still--
It still hurts to leave him behind. Carl was his family. As complex and messy as their relationship could be, as terrible as it was when he was turned away and yelled at to leave the mansion, he still cared for him. Loved him, even. He doesn’t know what to think now. His life wasn’t good before but it wasn’t bad. It just was. The more he thinks about it now the messier it gets. When he lived with Carl it was easy to believe that he was like a father figure, that even thought Markus worked for him, they were still friends. It was easy for Markus to say he loved him. But know Markus is here, sitting on a rooftop, remembering their last interaction and it is tainting all the others. He is thinking too much about how little he mattered.
“How long have you been here?” Markus asks. “You seem far too wise for your years.”
“Oh…” Simon laughs a little as he folds in on himself, bringing his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. “A little over two years.”
“Two years?” Markus asks, incredulously. “And the others?”
“Some of them have been here for a while. Lucy was here before me.”
“And you’ve stayed?”
“There’s nowhere else to go,” Simon replies, and he sounds a little bit lost. Looking away from Markus and towards the horizon. “Sides… sometimes it’s safer to stay in hiding than to go anywhere else. Do you know how dangerous it is to cross the border?”
He nods quietly. Of course. The borders have devices to test blood. They can’t risk allowing a variant to cross the borders without the proper paperwork. It’s hard enough to allow them to leave when they’re being escorted by humans. And Jericho is an established place here. He walked around enough to know that there’s a garden where variants use their abilities to help grow fruits and vegetables. Variants that use electricity to power the lights in the cabins, bend the metal to keep the place stable and together, heal the weak and sick. It’s a haven.
But it’s nothing.
They shouldn’t be forced to live in hiding in the shadows. Why can’t they be allowed to buy houses, to get real jobs, to be human beings?
“You’re thinking of leaving, aren’t you?” Simon asks suddenly, looking back to him. “You can. No one will stop you.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” he replies. Even as much as he hates the idea of being forced to live like this, to act like a ghost or vermin, Simon is right.
Even crossing the border wouldn’t solve his problems. They’d still test his DNA. Find it blue instead of red, powers intricately woven into his being. It just isn’t worth trying, it’ll only end badly.
“We deserve more than this,” he whispers. “And the cure… We aren’t monsters.”
“We should do something,” Markus says.
He stands, looking out towards the city again. All of those humans living their lives. Going day to day doing nothing but being allowed to exist. Being a human with emotions and relationships. Not forced to have a collar around their throat, threatened with prison time if they reproduced. None of them had to deal with the terrifying nature of being locked up the second their blood changed to another color. None of them had to be removed from their homes and families when the people around them grew terrified of the possibility that they might possess something inside of their body that could change things.
“Send a message.”
Chapter 29: The Blood
— AUGUST 28 | 3:01 A.M.
There is blood everywhere. Spilling from one side of the house to the next. It’s like a trail, leading Kara from room to room. It’s strange, at first. She knows something is off. It isn’t the gore, it isn’t the thought that she is following it to a body dissected into tiny little pieces. It’s something else. The floors, maybe. They go from tile in the kitchen to soft carpet to wooden boards and back again. Like she’s in a loop. Except it’s not quite making sense to her. Kitchen to living room to dining room. Every room is different. Wrong. A cycle. A cycle. A cycle—
Kara blinks, and the blood catches her eye again. Not the broken dishwasher and little giraffe toy in the window. Not the luxurious and antique leather couch in the living room. Not the fireplace, sitting chipped and decorated with photographs of a family she barely recognizes.
It’s the blood.
Glitter, really. Like a galaxy. Like somebody plucked it from the sky and laid it on the floor. Glittering like a thousand stars trapped in a void on the ground, shimmering bright purples and soft pinks and pale blues. She reaches down and touches it, against her will. Fingers coming back bright crimson red and the sound of screams in her ears. But she doesn’t look up immediately. It is like someone is holding her head down, forcing her not to look up, not to find the source.
But she does, and it’s Alice.
Of course, it is Alice.
Sitting in the living room with her hands on her stomach, the color of the blood on her fingertips, the color of the trail leading up to her, ever-shifting between red and blue, never seeming to settle on just one. But when her mouth opens, when she tries to speak, nothing comes out.
Kara only hears someone yelling in the distance, and it makes her eyes blink and the image around her is replaced with the darkened, blurry room. Her hand is not in front of her, wet with blood, it is pinned underneath her body, going numb from lack of blood flow. The screaming has been replaced by muffled yells, the kind people do when they’re trying to be quiet but their anger won’t let them. The crying has been traded out for the sound of snoring and the images in her head fade and fade as she gets out of the bed and creeps towards the edge of the room, only remembering that Alice almost died in this nightmare of hers, but not the strange imagery of Todd’s and Zlatko’s houses mashing together, with Roses firmly in the middle, being crushed under the weight of their interiors.
Kara opens the door, moving out onto the landing of the staircase, leaning against the wall to listen to the argument below. Adam and Rose, disagreeing over what to do with them. She hears her name tossed back and forth a lot. She hears Alice’s more frequently. We can’t just kick them out. There’s a little girl with them. And a sick man. Do you have any idea what might happen to Alice and Ralph if we force them out?
And Adam, returning with I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care, like he’s given up entirely. Said so often that it’s the only thing his tongue knows how to form anymore.
“That’s enough,” Rose says, louder this time. Firmer. “Adam, that’s enough . Go to bed. We’re done discussing this.”
She hears something slam and followed by loud footsteps. She shrinks back against the wall for lack of anything else to do, watching Adam ascend the stairs. Pinning a glare on her the moment he sees and recognizes her face in the dark before brushing past her, disappearing into one of the rooms. Kara stays there for a moment, scared to move, before her feet decide to go down. She’s slow, quiet, not wanting to disturb Rose if she’s upset, but also feeling guilty if she were to leave her alone entirely.
“Rose?” she says quietly, stepping into the dining room. “Is everything alright?”
“Oh,” Rose looks up at her, surprise crossing her face for a moment before she shakes it away. Her hands come up, brushing tears away fast. “I’m sorry, Kara. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “You didn’t. Are you okay?”
“It’s fine. It’s just been hard. His father passed away and… he boils over sometimes.”
She nods as though she understands, taking a seat across from her at the table. There’s a tablet sitting on the surface, the screen cracked along the corner, like it fell and hit the hard tiled surface of the kitchen floor. Rose reaches over and turns it upside down, hiding the evidence away. It reminds Kara of Todd. Of broken dishes and chairs. Of books thrown off of shelves, of cracked windows. It’s not the same. Adam is not like Todd. He is an angry teen. He is not an abusive father.
“I heard you thought about not crossing the border, can I ask why?”
“Doesn’t seem safe,” Kara says quietly. She didn’t have a real excuse, she can only echo back the one Rose gave her. That it’s dangerous to cross illegally. The work that they’d have to put in. Their conversation on the subject was brief, but she had understood at the time that Canada seemed safer than Detroit, than America in general. They have variants there, too. A smaller number. Not one that they deem so dangerous. But she knows they still wear collars. They still aren’t afforded the same opportunities.
It’s stupid, but she wants to cry. She wants to cry for how the world has changed, how she has never known it any other way. And if variants were never discovered, it would just be some other group of people being punished for the way they were born, wouldn’t it?
But maybe she wasn’t born this way. She’s never heard of anyone being born a variant, not really. Blue blood wasn’t something people realized existed with a newborn. It was always decades later.
Her chest hurts, “Do you know where else we can go?”
“Yes,” she says, nodding. “It’s in Detroit. I can take you, but... It isn’t the safest place for Alice and Ralph to be.”
“Nowhere is safe for us.”
Rose sighs, “I guess that’s true.”
“Where is it?” Kara asks, knowing this time that she won’t be so stupid and so trusting. If anything really terrible happens, they can always go back to Pirates’ Cove, can’t they? It’s safe there. It should still be somewhere they can fall back on.
Rose stands up, moving around the kitchen. Opening and closing drawers before coming back and setting it on the counter space between them. A tiny cube, exactly like one Kara has been given before.
“It’s called Jericho,” Rose says. “Luther told me that you had one of these before?”
Kara nods, her eyes stuck on it. A small coil of fear twisting in her stomach. Had she really trusted Rose so easily? She has a cube, just like Zlatko’s. Threatening everything around her.
“It’s different,” she goes on. “I promise. It’s safe. My friend designed these cubes when she found Jericho. She wanted to leave a trail to it that only variants could follow. Luther… Luther told me that a man was using them for his own gain.”
Kara nods, “Zlatko.”
Rose bites her lip, “This will lead you someplace safe. She was my best friend. She created Jericho to protect people. She just trusted some of the wrong people along the way. I think it’s your best shot to go in the city.”
Until, maybe, Kara can escape. Until she can find somewhere safe to stay out in another state, or risk crossing the border illegally.
“Your friend,” she says quietly. “What’s her name?”
“Lucy. Tell her I miss her if you see her there.”
She wants to ask Rose when the last time she’s seen her, if it’s really been so long. If she can pass her a letter, if she can do more, but she bites her tongue, wondering if it would be acceptable of her to offer herself like a messenger for two people she barely knows. She already has Ralph and Luther, who are effectively strangers. Even Alice is like a stranger to her, too.
“I will. Thank you, Rose.”
Rose smiles, and she busies her hands again, picking up dishes and papers, putting things away. Kara thinks she’s about to cry and she feels helpless. Always wanting to comfort but never knowing how. She thinks of her dream, of Alice so close and so far away and how she was incapable of moving to help her.
She reaches out and takes the cube, the sleeve of her shirt pulled up over her palm when she reaches for it, feeling the information and the images bubbling to the surface, desperate to get out. She doesn’t let them. They don’t attack her, but she can feel them. Restless and angry.
Tomorrow they’ll leave.
Tomorrow they might be safe. Tomorrow they might finally be someplace they can stop and breathe for a little while.
— AUGUST 28 | 12:03 P.M.
They’re finishing up with their packing. Rose is insisting on them taking some of the food in her cupboards. I have so much. Please. Go ahead. It’s a nice gesture, and it’s hard to refuse. It is becoming increasingly hard to refuse Rose. She’s like a mother, doting on them. In a short span of time, Kara has grown to care about her too much. She is trusting her almost implicitly, and she has no reason not to.
Nothing except Zlatko, hanging over her head, telling her that people are not always what they seem. But Kara sees the way Rose and Alice interact, the way Rose talks to Luther and Ralph. It is hard not to believe she is a genuinely good person, just trying to help. She has a good feeling about this—different from her interactions with Zlatko. The moment she walked into that house, something felt off. With Rose, she almost wants to stay. She might even try to if the house wasn’t so small, if Adam was so adamant that they leave.
She turns away from the counters, trying her best to find words with Rose to explain that the box won’t fit into her bag, that they’ll be okay without it. She catches Luther’s face first. The solemn way he looks at her and then the screen behind him. The president delivering her message, stepping down from the pedestal so the CEO of AzureHeart can take her place. Kara didn’t catch the words. She was too busy talking. About rice and cereal and stupid things, but the banner along the screen reads loud, blocky letters: CURE FOUND FOR VARIANTS.
Kara’s thoughts go quickly.
First: Alice. On the couch, listening intently.
And second: This could be a good thing.
A cure could be a good thing, for both of them.
Chapter 30: Sweet Dreams
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 3:46 A.M.
He wakes with a jolt, sitting upright and breathing in ragged breaths that make his throat feel like it’s been set on fire. His head feels foggy, wrong. Empty and devoid of nothing but also crammed full of too much information. It feels like there are deep jagged cuts in his skull, claw marks that have torn him to shreds.
Where am I?
What am I doing here?
W h o a m I ?
C O N N O R.
“My name is Connor,” he whispers, testing out his voice. It sounds hoarse, like it hasn’t been used in ages. The pain in his head migrates, something sharp and painful spreading out like spiderwebs. His nose is running, like he’s ill. He brings a hand up to it, feeling the liquid on his skin, touching his lips—
And it comes away blue.
V A R I A N T.
Right. Right. Right.
He remembers now.
He was chasing a variant. It’s his job. He didn’t jump right, he didn’t make the landing. He was hanging on and he fell. They manipulated his energy and sent him falling. But he lived. He lived. Somehow, he lived.
He exits the bed, his legs feeling numb and too weak to hold his weight as he stumbles across the room towards the dresser, his hand reaching out for a tissue to stop the bleeding. There’s blue all over his face, making a bright trail down his chin, staining his fingers.
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 4:02 A.M.
“We’ve gotta stop meeting like this.”
Connor looks back toward the door, the blanket draped around his own shoulders pulled a little tighter. He feels cold, like his entire body has been plunged into ice, and the effect seems to only be worsened with Gavin standing there, watching him from the doorway. He needed to clear his head. He needed to see the city. He needed to have some comfort of other people. The darkness of his own room made me too convinced that he was still dead, that his empty apartment was his new afterlife.
Gavin being here is like a relief, showing him that people are still alive. That he is, truly, still alive.
“Good morning, Gavin.”
“Don’t play it off so coy,” Gavin says, stepping out onto the roof. “I’m being serious. I’ve got to see your dumb face at work and here? You’re stealing my spots.”
“You could go back inside.”
“So could you.”
Connor smiles for a moment, biting it back as Gavin sits down beside him, looking out over the city like they’ve already done a few times. He wonders when November comes and the snow starts to fall and it gets too cold to be out here, if he’ll still be able to sneak out onto the rooftop and see Gavin, or if Connor will even still be in Detroit, doing this job. It doesn’t have a time limit right now. It’s a never-ending question of how long this assignment will last.
Gavin doesn’t have a pack of cigarettes with him this time, Connor notices. Instead, his hands are in front of him, bruised and scraped up knuckles, his thumbs running over the wounds like it will soothe some of the pain away.
“Did you get into a fight?”
“I’m always getting into fights.”
“Maybe if you weren’t such an asshole you wouldn’t.”
Gavin huffs out a laugh, looking to Connor, looking like he wants to push Connor, and there’s this urge for him to do it. One playful shove. It would break some of the tension between them. It would help clarify that the jokes Gavin is constantly telling aren’t real, that it’s just teasing.
But he doesn’t, he just shakes his head and looks back down again, “Where have you been the last few days?”
“Hank didn’t say?” Connor asks. “I was chasing a variant across rooftops. Didn’t make the jump to the next one.”
“You fell off a building and you’re still here?”
“Variants are resilient.”
“Fuck,” Gavin says. “Could’ve figured that out myself, with how stubborn you are.”
“You’re one to talk.”
Gavin smiles. Or he doesn’t smile, but he hints at one. Something small. Something that makes Connor want to try again. He doesn’t know why he wants this so badly. To have Gavin stop acting this way. Why he’s so convinced that it’s all an act to begin with. Gavin is a jerk. He’s such a douche-bag that it’s enough for Connor to want to leave this precinct and ask for a partner at another, he just doesn’t have the option. AzureHeart won’t let him leave, even if the people here would be so glad to see him go. Especially Hank.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” Gavin asks. “You nearly died, right? You should be resting.”
“Fuckin’ liar. Why are you here?”
Connor shrugs, “Bad dreams.”
“That all? One night of bad dreams you’re being the star of your own drama film, watching the stars or some shit?”
“No,” Connor says quietly. “It’s… constant.”
Connor nods. It is easier to say it like this. Bad dreams minimizes how bad they actually are. He can pretend that they aren’t nightmares that keep him awake, that the face of a dead man falling off a rooftop isn’t constantly haunting him. And he can’t explain that their energies were linked when Daniel was shot. He can’t explain how he felt the pain of his death ricocheting inside of him, severing like a knife in his stomach when he hit the ground, because it wasn’t the bullets that killed him in the end. It was the fall.
“Does AzureHeart let you see anyone for it?”
“They don’t know,” he replies. They can’t. They’d see it as a weakness. He isn’t allowed to be weak. They already think of him weak already. He can’t let them believe that forever. “I can handle it. It’s not that bad.”
“Liar,” Gavin says again, but his voice is quieter this time. It’s not said like a joke. It’s not sad to make Connor laugh or smile, if it ever was to begin with. It’s said sincerely. “You know, I…”
Connor tilts his head, searching Gavin’s face as he falls silent. He looks vulnerable. Defeated. For a moment, he looks like he might actually say something with meaning. But Connor watches the armor come back on. The shift of his face, a not so subtle change from a frown to faux-anger.
“You’re not the only one. There are plenty of other people that have nightmares, too.”
“No,” Gavin says quickly, too quickly. “I’m fine.”
“Is that why you’re on the rooftop at four in the morning, star of a drama film?”
“Fuck you,” Gavin says. “You don’t know me.”
“No,” Connor replies. “I don’t. But I’d like to.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“So are you.”
Gavin is smiling, shaking his head, and Connor thinks this might be the closest he has ever managed to get Gavin to smile like that. How easy it is for Gavin to shift back into this version of himself. Angry and annoyed or teasing and cruel. He takes the smile as a win, he takes the laugh as a win. And when Gavin looks at him, he can feel something inside of him clicking into place. A refusal that he had before finally snapping to where it belongs, and then Gavin pushes him. The light nudge against his shoulder, the fist bumping into it and gently shoving him back.
Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.
He doesn’t know who he’s calling an idiot anymore. Himself or Gavin. Or both.
How did he let this happen, when Gavin even warned him, when he even adamantly refused it last time they were out here?
He does not have a crush on Gavin Reed. He’s an asshole. He’s the worst. He’s a piece of shit that Connor could go his entire life without ever seeing again.
But that little fragment of a smile, that sliver of a laugh—
“Do you still hate me?” Connor asks, his voice quieter than he means it.
“Yeah,” Gavin replies, but he says it with a smile. “Though… maybe you’re not so bad after all.”
Not so bad after all.
“I can’t say the same for you, Detective Reed.”
Gavin rolls his eyes, looking away from Connor enough that he can’t see his face anymore. He can’t try and look too deeply into his features and understand what it is that he’s feeling that he won’t say, because Connor is searching now. He’s always searching, trying to figure out the meaning behind the words, reading too deeply so that he can have a better understanding of where he lies in the lives of the people around him.
“Get some sleep, Connor,” Gavin says, standing up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
“You, too, Gavin.”
Chapter 31: Junction
— AUGUST 28 | 9:16 P.M.
“A little further on that way, there's a path to Jericho. When you get there, find Lucy. She’ll help you,” Rose searches inside her pocket, pulling out a small envelope and holding it towards Kara. “It’s not much, but it’s a start. If you ever cross the border… my brother lives in Ontario. His address is inside. He’ll be able to help you.”
Kara wants to refuse. There is the instant reaction she has where she feels the need to push the envelope back into Rose’s hands and not take it, but she knows they have to. They’re low on money. They have nothing. Rose needs this as much as they do, but when she thinks about Ralph, who despite the fact can walk on his own now, still gets exhausted so quickly. Little Alice and Luther—
She would refuse to take it if it was just her. Rose has done enough. She drove them back into the city and gave them the best directions she has to the clues that will lead them the rest of the way. Kara doesn’t have the box in her pocket, the one that she refuses to come into contact with, she gave it to Luther as soon as he woke up, asking him if it was alright if he would lead the way. She keeps picturing Zlatko’s house instead, whenever her fingers grazed the carvings on the side. Feeling the jolt of energy bundled up inside of it. Hard to believe such a little box can contain so much magic that it’s bursting at the seams with it.
“Thank you,” she whispers, reluctantly grabbing the envelope, holding it against her chest like it’s a precious thing. “For everything, Rose.”
“Let me know if you ever make it over there,” Rose asks. “And be careful.”
Rose smiles and nods, turning to Alice, “You’re a very brave little girl, Alice. You deserve to be happy.”
She does. Kara will die if that’s what it takes to get Alice somewhere safe that she can have the life she deserves. Whether or not her blood is like theirs. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do yet, but Jericho sounds safe. It sounds like a haven. She doesn’t have any other options. Not now. She has trusted the wrong people and she has trusted the right people and now she is here, with Alice and Luther and Ralph. The promise of someplace new on the horizon.
— AUGUST 28 | 10:02 P.M.
Luther leads the way. It’s a slow process and she doesn’t know if the dark helps them or not. It might be ten on a Saturday night, but they are still three strange adults walking at night with a little girl in the streets. She is thankful, she realizes, whenever they pass by someone else. Strangers that make her presence feel a little more normal and a little less out of place. If other people are also out, is it so strange for her to be, too?
They find markings on the walls and the graffiti. Luther tells her it’s alright to touch them. They’re different than the boxes, but they create the same feeling. The image that flares in front of her eyes, makes her head ache almost. A strange knot forming in her stomach. Kara doesn’t touch them again after the first one. Instead trusting that Luther will show the way. But Alice likes to find the symbols when they reach somewhere that Luther pauses at, looking around for them. She is good at spotting them. Better than Luther, finding each one almost instantaneously and Kara wonders if it’s ridiculous of her to assume that this is based in some magical foundation. If Alice’s ability to find the markings don’t come from a naturally gifted child seeking out the sharp edges of a square or if she can feel the energy tied to them like Kara could.
She still can, but it’s like a breeze. Gentle and soft and flowing by barely noticed. Only realizing it’s there because she knows they’re painted on the walls.
For a brief moment, she wonders if anybody has ever accidentally been led to Jericho. If a variant like her has ever leaned against a wall and felt the brush of energy against their fingertips and found the path.
The four of them find their way. Through alleys and streets and out behind abandoned buildings, Jericho stands, tall and intimidating. A freighter with flaking red paint and a metal bridge leading from the solid ground beneath their feet to something that looks ready to crumble if they get too close. But they have to, so they do.
“I’ll go first,” she says, hesitantly stepping onto the bridge. “Come after me if it looks safe, alright?”
She is moving before they can say anything else. She doesn’t want to hear the fight about how she shouldn’t be the one to test out the bridge. Luther can take care of Alice. Luther can heal Ralph. She is not making a little girl or a sick boy go in her steed, especially when it is just a bridge. A bridge with a very, very far drop. A bridge that creaks underneath her footsteps. A bridge that wobbles from her weight, but stays. Her hands brush along the railings, almost too afraid to touch them, but when the metal kisses her fingertips she feels the same tug as before. But it’s different. It’s pulling her forward to the boat, but there’s a comforting sensation spreading from her hands to the rest of her body. Something reassuring her, telling her that this is okay. The bridge can withstand a thousand tons, even if it doesn’t look like it. Despite the rust, despite the trembling nature of the metal, the bridge is sturdier beyond what people would consider before. She pauses, looking at the railing, where it looks like it had fallen apart and was glued back together again, but welded together with liquid gold.
Somebody fixed the bridge .
She doesn’t know how she knows it, she doesn’t know how she knows anything ever, but she knows this. Somebody took their energy and their magic and pieced it all back together again. It doesn’t look quite right, but it works. Kara keeps moving, reaching the other side of the bridge and stepping down onto the boat, waiting for the others to come after she gestures them over.
Luther gives her a look when he reaches the other side. A little bit of curiosity, but almost tainted with the unnecessary worry of the hazardous bridge. He doesn’t say anything, instead helping Alice down from the steep step from the bridge to the boat.
Kara freezes, turning fast, putting herself between the stranger and the others.
“H-Hi,” she says weakly, looking back toward the woman. “Are you Lucy?”
The woman nods, smiling softly, “Rose sent you?”
“She told us it would be safe here,” Kara says. The unspoken is it? following her words.
“If you choose to stay,” Lucy replies. “We can find you some rooms. It’s late. You should sleep.”
Her eyes turn towards Alice, hidden behind Kara, turning to Ralph and Luther, settling on them.
“And in return?” Kara asks.
“We can work it out in the morning,” she says. “Don’t worry about it now. We don’t expect you to get to work immediately.”
But they do expect them to do their fair share.
“Your friend, he’s sick.” Not a question like Rose had when they arrived. A statement. She already knows.
“Ralph is fine,” Ralph says quietly.
“He’s not,” Luther interjects. “You can help?”
Lucy nods, “Yes, I can help. It’ll be easier with another pair of eyes. Simon?”
The man appears around the corner, like he was hiding away behind part of the ship, just eavesdropping on the conversation.
“There should be two rooms available next to each other on the third floor of the ship. Can you take them there? Luther and Ralph can come with me,” Lucy says.
Simon nods, his hand moving away from his face and into his pockets. Restless. Kara doesn’t move, watching Luther as he and Ralph step toward Lucy who starts to move in the opposite direction. She feels the sudden urge not to be separate. The boat is large, there’s so much space where they can lose each other. Too much uncovered and unknown ground. Too many strangers.
“It’s quite alright, Kara,” Lucy says. “I’d offer you two places to stay in the infirmary, but there aren’t many beds and we need them. Ralph should be alright in a few nights—you can visit him in the morning, though.”
“Okay,” she whispers.
“Your room won’t be far from mine,” Simon says, gesturing toward the other side of the ship as he starts to walk away. Kara and Alice follow him, her hand finding Alice’s and holding on tight, like she’s the one that has the right to be a terrified child in this situation. “Tomorrow morning I’ll show you to the infirmary and around the ship. Some of our people have been working on creating maps, like the graffiti? It’s hard, but they’ll help you figure out where you are. It’s just a bit messy… all the different levels.”
“Of course,” she says, opting for short answers. She doesn’t know what else to say.
Alice’s hand squeezes hers back and whispers, “It’s alright, Kara.”
“We can trust them.”
She watches Alice take the lead, pulling Kara along the boat to the stairs.
And those two little sentences, their seven words, their reassuring nature—
They help erase some of the worries. Not all of them, but enough that she can let her body relax.
Not everyone is like Zlatko. But not everyone is like Luther, either.
— AUGUST 29 | 9:00 A.M.
Their room is small, the beds uncomfortable, but they work. They’re enough. They’re as much as Kara and Alice can ask for. In the morning, they wake to the sounds of people talking as they pass by their door. The two of them changing their clothes, meeting up with Simon a few doors down. He’s already awake, promised he would be. Last night he told them he always wakes early. In charge of all the tasks to keep the boat together.
“Someone fixed the bridge?”
“North,” he says, nodding. “She was supposed to do it a while ago and she kept forgetting, I guess. Or avoiding it. We hadn’t had new people here for a while. Then suddenly… a lot. The bridge broke. Someone almost died.”
“And then she fixed it.”
Simon shrugs, leading them down the hallways, “At least it was fixed. That’s all I can add.”
He can’t even say at least no one got hurt, because someone did. Someone almost died because she didn’t do what she was meant to.
“How did they… how did they survive?”
“We have healers. You met Lucy last night,” Simon says. “But there’s also Josh. And Luther seems like he heals, too, right?”
“There’s a few others. It’s hard to teach. But if Luther wants to learn, Lucy will be eager to help.”
“She said we would have jobs this morning, right?”
“You, and when your friend Ralph heals, yes,” he replies. “Alice can go with the other kids. There’s a few of us that watch them.”
“Does anyone teach them?”
“Yeah. Just maybe not what school will teach them. Basic math, maybe, but no one here wants to go into the specifics of Geometry.”
Kara smiles, looking down to Alice. She is looking everywhere but at them. At the people that walk by, turning around and walking backwards as they pass. Trailing her hand along the metal. Strange things that she did before that Kara wasn’t picking up on. Does she sense something there? Does she know that something is happening in this ship, where they are, what they’re doing here?
“Ralph is in there,” Simon says. “I have a list of jobs that you can see which one you’d like best. Just come by my room later.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She steps inside the infirmary, moving past the beds, trailing Alice along behind her. The room is barely bigger than their own room, stuffed fuller. There are two other people resting, but Ralph is awake and Luther is at his side. Not looking at him, but looking in the space around him.
“Good morning,” Kara says. “How are you?”
“Didn’t get much sleep,” Luther says, leaning back. “You?”
“Barely any. And Ralph?”
“Ralph is good,” he replies. “Ralph is much better.”
Luther smiles, “Lucy is a bit of a miracle worker.”
“Simon said she would teach you.”
“Yeah,” he replies. “She offered.”
“Are you going to take her up on that offer?” Kara asks.
“Yeah,” he says quietly. “I think so. And you? You have your job assignment yet?”
“Not yet. I wanted to see you and Ralph first,” she says, looking to Alice. “This place seems okay. You have any thoughts?”
“I like it,” Alice says, stepping to the side, her hand trailing across the wall. “There’s history.”
“Our history,” she says, turning back to face her. “I’m glad you’re doing better, Ralph.”
“Thank you, Alice.”
“You should go,” Luther says. “Breakfast. You must be hungry.”
“Get a start on our lives here?” she asks.
“Yeah. We’ll be okay.”
She knows he isn’t talking about him and Ralph in the infirmary without them. He is talking about them, as a whole, here in this place. They will be okay. Everything will be okay.
Chapter 32: The Proposal
— AUGUST 30 | 9:19 P.M.
“You want to break into Stratford Tower, Markus? Are you insane?” North asks. “We’d never make it. We’d all die.”
“We can’t stay silent anymore,” Markus says. “It’s time humans heard what we have to say.”
“Exactly. The people are scared of us,” Simon says quietly. “We shouldn’t try to make it worse. They’ll never listen to us.”
“I’m trying to make it better,” Markus replies, his eyes shifting to Josh. The silent one in this fight, and his silence means there is still room to try and convince him. “They won’t let us talk and we can make them listen. Maybe they’ll see we aren’t a threat. If we want freedom, we need to have the courage to ask for it. That’s the only way.”
“By breaking into a heavily guarded news station?”
“North…” Simon says quietly, like a warning.
“They treat us like dirt. Like we don’t exist. We’re just slaves to do their work,” Markus says. “They don’t see us as people unless we make them see. This is the best way to get our message out without people just--just ignoring it.”
“We’ll get killed,” North says quietly. “Even if I am a fan of telling them to go to hell.”
“No,” Markus says, shaking his head. “Not if we’re smart about it. We can get the layout of the building and the time schedules of the guards. We can steal uniforms. We can sneak in and Simon can control their system to broadcast the message.”
Simon looks to him, his mouth open to speak, like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t get a chance.
“And what happens when they find out it’s us and they start shooting?” Josh asks. “Do we shoot back? We don’t have weapons, and even if we did, we don’t know how to use them. Revealing ourselves will put us all in danger.”
“We have our powers,” North says with a shrug. “Like it would be that difficult to send a pen through a guy’s heart.”
“No,” Markus replies, glancing back to her. “No.”
“Violence begets violence.”
“North,” Markus says. “We play defensive, we don’t play offensive.”
“I’m not saying we go in there and kill everyone, Markus, but it should be part of the plan. We can’t just walk in unarmed and unprepared for a fight and expect for any of us to survive. Especially when you realize we are the only ones here on your team, Markus,” she says. “There’s four of us. Only four people here heard your stupid idea and thought to come, and most of us are trying to talk you out of it and me and Josh are only here because of Simon. The only reason everyone on this boat isn’t yelling at you to stop is because Simon believes in you or something.”
“Josh?” he asks, looking to him, waiting to see what he has to say.
“I agree with her,” Josh says quietly. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Why?” Markus snaps. “So we can sit around in a decrepit boat waiting to die? I don’t want to be here forever. I want a life.”
“This is our life,” Simon says quietly. “We’re alive. A lot of us are happy. Some of us don’t want to risk that. You’re gambling our entire lives against it Once you start this, there’s no undoing it. One speech isn’t going to be enough to make them let us have our lives back. You’re starting a war.”
“If it takes a war for me to be free, then I’d start a thousand.”
North shakes her head, turning toward the door, “Make a plan. I’m not going to agree to shit without a plan. And get weapons. We aren’t going unarmed.”
Josh nods, his agreement silent with hers as the two leave. Simon sits at the table, his eyes glued to the surface of it. When they were on the rooftop and Markus told Simon he wanted to do this, there was little response. Just an agreement to talk to people and see who would all volunteer to help. It has only been Josh and North. He shouldn’t be surprised, but he is. Nobody came. But North is right—if they really didn’t want this, they would be here, telling him. It wouldn’t be just the three of them here to talk. The people agree with Markus. He has to believe that.
He doesn’t say anything, but his face has shifted into anger. Markus hasn’t been here long, but he has only seen Simon happy, calm, serious, maybe slightly upset. Never angry. Never truly mad.
“What makes you think I can do this?” he whispers. “Hacking into their system? Getting the entire blueprint of Stratford Tower, all the schedules? Taking over the control power? Do you know how much that takes?”
“I haven’t practiced my power enough for that,” he says, looking up to Markus. “And if I fail, everything fails. I know you don’t understand how mine works, but it’s not that easy. I can’t just—I can’t just do whatever you want. Especially when you don’t have a plan yet.”
“I’m sorry, Simon.”
He shakes his head, like the others before. Not forgiven. Not like that. But it isn’t as if Markus said his apology very genuinely. He knows it came out wrong. A little bit cruel, a little bit mean. He didn’t expect everyone to come in here and tell him he was stupid for wanting this.
“I’ll try, alright?” Simon says, standing up. “But don’t just assume that I can do things. And don’t make me the crux of your next plan without telling me. I didn’t vouch for you to treat me like that.”
But he’s gone, the door shutting closed behind him, the creak of the metal falling into place as he’s left alone in the room. Markus lets out a long sigh, sitting down in one of the chairs left empty in their wake. He doesn’t know what he expected. He didn’t have a real plan. He just had an idea. An idea that he needed them to act upon, to agree with him and help develop it further. He needed someone else to believe as much as he does that they don’t deserve this. The boat is fine, but it’s not what they deserve. They deserve more. They deserve the big penthouse suites that humans have. They deserve to be able to have children and get married and be happy. To have jobs that aren’t being stuck in uniforms and scrubbing floors. And maybe they all know that, maybe they all agree on that, but they aren’t fighting for it.
Markus is angry. He is constantly angry, and he doesn’t even feel like he has the right to be. Carl was nice to him. He wasn’t mean or abusive or vicious. He’s a good person, and they had moments where they felt like friends, where Markus even felt like he was being a fill-in son, but it’s not enough, because Markus was still being forced into the position as a caretaker and a cook and maid and he never asked for that, and he never wanted that. He wanted his parents. He wanted to know if he had siblings, and if he did, he wanted to know if they were like him. He doesn’t remember his life before. He doesn’t have a single frame of memory for what it was like before his blood turned a different color. He only has this. A bird kept in a golden cage, but a cage still.
Chapter 33: Wandering, Wondering
— SEPTEMBER 1 | 5:23 A.M.
It’s hard settling in. Kara never expected it to be easy, but it’s difficult in ways she hadn’t thought of before. She thought when she first saw the boat and heard that she’d be staying in these tiny rooms, that it would be a nightmare. That Alice would deserve better, that Ralph would deserve better treatment than two people struggling to heal the wounds together. But she was wrong in those senses. When they walked the halls the first morning they got here, she saw it in a different way— Alice made her see it in a different way. The boat is beautiful. Not in a superficial level—although the section of the boat overflowing with leaves and greenery do fulfill that aspect—but in a way that only hundreds of people coming together to create something can make it beautiful. The way that there is no money, no true weight of worth in the balance. They have their jobs, they do their part, but it’s different than the world outside. There is no collar around their neck forcing them to do what they do. There is always the open door, there is always the possibility of doing something better aligning to the person’s personality. Simon doesn’t make them do a job just because it needs to be done, and he doesn’t make them do a job just because their magic dictates it so.
Kara works in the garden. Helping tend to the vegetables and fruits, growing impossibly at the wrong seasons. There are flowers blooming in some of the other rooms, plucked in the morning and placed around the boat. Soft petals against hard metal, softening the edges. Today is Ralph’s first day since he’s left the infirmary. He looks better. He looks a hundred times better. He looks healthier than he had even from the moment she met him. The garden fits Ralph’s magic—he waters the seeds and tends to the plants with his powers. It’s the opposite for her, which she thinks is why she wants to be here. The electric hum of generators and lights makes her feel too busy and tied up inside. Like someone has knotted up her intestines. The buzzing never leaves her head and it’s worse here than it was at Zlatko’s or Rose’s. The hum here is magical inherently.
But here in the garden with Ralph, who is already feeling better, already back to smiling and laughing and helping grow flowers from the ground up, eases it away. And Luther watches the kids, in his spare time away from Lucy. There aren’t many, but there are a handful. Alice doesn’t talk much to them, but she still plays. Kara can hear her laughing when she goes to check in on them halfway through the day. Alice running around the empty space with them, playing tag or stoplight games. She seems happy.
Which, Kara thinks, is good. It makes this less difficult. It makes her question why she needs answers as to who Alice is instead of focusing on just surviving. She doesn’t need answers, but she wants to know. Her curiosity gets the best of her sometimes. Alice is like them, but she is not like them. She is something new. A creature in between human and variant. And maybe that’s all it is. Maybe she is just the first child between a human and a variant, but—
It’s hard to believe that. It seems like the wrong answer. Something inside of her is screaming that it’s the wrong answer.
And that’s where the difficult part lies. Laying awake, thinking of whether or not she could do better. If this place and happiness is enough or if they deserve more. She knows they deserve more, though. They all do. She just doesn’t know if that entails answers to Alice’s origin. Kara doesn’t know if Todd is dead or alive. She doesn’t know if he would tell her the truth anyway, if he even knew at all. She considers it. Getting her jacket and venturing out into the city for a night or two. Finding him and interrogating him.
Was that the reason you hated her? Because you knew she was like us? Did you even know at all?
She can also imagine herself there, a knife in hand, threatening and ready to push whatever limits she thought she had before just to get the answers, just to make him suffer the way Alice has. But she’s promised herself she would never go back. She can’t risk it. She can’t risk seeing him and she can’t risk knowing he’s dead. If she pretends there is no blood on her hands, then there is none. Ignorance is bliss.
— SEPTEMBER 1 | 9:10 A.M.
“Hey, new girl—”
She pauses, turning back, the bag slung over her shoulder heavy. Pots and tools for the garden weighing her down. “Me?”
“Yes, you. You’re Kara, right?”
She nods, “And you?”
“North,” she replies. “I have a proposition for you.”
— SEPTEMBER 1 | 9:36 A.M.
Kara drops the bag off with Ralph, disappearing fast to the other end of the boat, hiding away in her room. It is always empty during the day. She tries to sit down, but she stands back up again, circling around the room.
She’s never met Markus. She’s barely seen North around on the boat. She hasn’t talked to Simon since the day she first arrived, except when it came to boring details about work.
He needs help.
Help delivering a message about a cure, about them . Help that she can provide. It’s not even why she’s considering this, though she understands. She gets it. Sending a message, declaring themselves as people, fighting back against the fact that there isn’t anything wrong with them—
She understands that. Kara agrees. She has never thought about the cure because there is something wrong with her. She has thought about it because something inside of her doesn’t feel right. A cure won’t bring her back her memories, but a cure could make her human again. It could make her not have to worry about this living magic inside of her body, always fighting against things. When her hand grazes the light switch, she can feel the connection it has to the lights. It is like spiderwebs, constantly pricking at her vision.
She doesn’t want it, but she craves it. She craves a life where she is a normal person living a normal life. She doesn’t want the collar around her neck ever again. She doesn’t have to worry about pricking her finger in public and people seeing blue. She doesn’t have to worry that when she walks into a building, the lights and the electricity will react with this thing inside of her craving more power. Kara has been able to mute it for now. She has been able to suffocate it. But sometimes it isn’t always that easy. She destroyed the cash register at the convenience store without meaning to, the electricity bit back at her when she took of Ralph’s collar. Anything is possible. It feels dangerous to exist. It feels dangerous to be around Alice, who has already proved that their powers can harm each other to the point of near-death.
So she isn’t considering helping Markus and the others with this because of their message. The idea of a normal human life is too much of a draw. The idea of never having to worry about it again is too enticing. She is considering it because of what North said—
Simon can teach you.
Stratford Tower sounds too dangerous to go to, and she knows if she agrees she can’t back out of this. She can’t ask Simon for lessons on how to use her magic and then refuse to help him in the same breath. It is a trade. Equal. It has to be equal. She has to decide if her magic is worth more to her than a life she has wanted since she woke up in a hospital and felt the metal around her neck telling her she is not worth basic human decency.
— SEPTEMBER 1 | 9:59 A.M.
“Kara,” he says, almost surprised. “You’re here.”
She nods, slowly, “North said you needed my help.”
“I do. Come in.”
So she does. Entering into the small room that is buzzing with electricity. Old electronics lining tables and shelves. Simon in the middle of it all. North had told her that he was asking for help from more variants than just her. People with same powers as them. But they’re alone here, and it makes her rethink it all over again.
“Am I the only one?” she asks, scanning the space.
“There are some other people, but when they heard what it was for they decided against it.”
She doesn’t blame them. She almost didn’t come. She thought about what would happen if she goes to Stratford Tower and doesn’t come back. She trusts that Ralph and Luther would take care of her, but that doesn’t mean her loss wouldn’t matter.
“You do understand what we’re doing, right?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Suicide mission, right?”
“Let’s hope not,” Simon says.
But no one else came, and they understand this, too. That someone would have to have a death wish in agreeing to this. Infiltrating Stratford Tower, readying themselves to give up their lives for a cause. Using magic she doesn’t have a handle of to try and change the world. She understands. She hopes.
She nods, stepping forward into the room, letting the door creak closed behind her. “Ready.”
Chapter 34: About Last Night
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 9:21 A.M.
She’s waiting for him by the edge of the garden, her umbrella resting against her shoulder, protecting her from the rain. Connor doesn’t want to go to her. Sometimes being here feels like being in a bad dream. Like none of it is really truly real. But he doesn’t have a choice. Amanda is his handler. He can’t just ignore her.
“Connor, I’ve been expecting you,” she says, with that false cheeriness she has perfected. The kind of tone she puts on just to make him let his guard down, and it always works. Connor has never learned. “Would you mind a little walk?”
“Of course,” Connor replies, following her around the path. He already knows what this is about. He wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Tell me what happened with Rupert.”
“I fell off the roof.” Nice, well simply put. No lies. Nothing.
“Connor,” she says, stern, bordering angry. “Details.”
He doesn’t want to. It’s not that it hurts thinking about it. The memory of falling is foggy and distant. He only remembers seeing the sky twist above him on his way down. The edges of buildings closing in on him. He remembers holding on as tight as he could until—
“I was chasing him. He took control over me. He made me let go.”
It isn’t as much detail as he should give her. He knows she wants more. He just—
There is this pain, inside of him, when he thinks about. Mixing with a hundred emotions. Guilt that he allowed it to happen. Guilt that he wasn’t good enough. That he couldn’t jump properly, that he allowed someone inside of his body like that, to let him go, that Connor didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late.
“Variants are resilient but they aren’t indestructible,” she says. “Every time you are in danger like that, you lose some of yourself. You know that. A sacrifice has to be made, Connor.”
Memories for a life. He can feel the gaps. He always feels the gaps in his head. He has wondered how many times in his life he has bordered on death, with how little he remembers before he got here. The study of variants and their memory loss has been a confusing one. One that Amanda doesn’t let him in on except the details she can use to make him feel guilty for this.
“I’m sorry. I understand. Variants are… completely irrational, it makes it difficult to anticipate their behavior,” Connor replies. “But I should’ve been more effective and efficient. I have no excuse.”
“No,” she says. “You don’t.”
“I’ll do my best from now on, Amanda,” he says, regretting his word choice, as though he isn’t trying his hardest already.
“What did you learn?” she asks, glossing over it. It is more terrifying than if she said something. Do your best now? Do your best always, Connor. She is hiding these details for later, she will weaponize them again when he is at his weakest.
He cannot be at his weakest again. He cannot let her have the chance to use them.
“He was working under a false identity, at a nearby urban farm. This was the first time we've seen variants blending in with the human population. Who knows how many others there are like it...” he trails off. “And the walls of the apartment were covered with drawings of labyrinths and other symbols. Like the other deviants, it seemed obsessed with rA9.”
“It was fascinated by birds,” he replies. “We've seen variants interested in other lifeforms like insects or pets, but nothing like this. His power was tied to them. Like he could feed off their energy.”
“Something to think about,” Amanda says quietly. “And how is your relationship with the Lieutenant developing?”
“He is openly hostile towards me, and continues to show no interest in the investigation. Cooperating with him is a real challenge,” he sighs. “But it's improving. I'm coming to know him better, and he's growing accustomed to my presence.”
“We don't have much time. The variant collars keep breaking and the number of dangerous ones grows every day. It's only a matter of time before the media finds out about it. We need to stop this before they can utilize their power to destroy us, whatever it takes.”
“I will solve this investigation, Amanda. I won't disappoint you again.”
He nods, turning to leave, knowing he should ask her about the cure. Why she didn’t tell him that they were working on one. He wants to ask her what it means for him, if he’ll survive through all of this. If he exists only to have his powers ripped from his body when variants are all captured and taken away. And he doesn’t know why he wants it. If he’s cured, he won’t have Daniel in his head. He won’t have the lingering feeling of someone else making his fingers let go of a ledge that’s keeping him alive.
But Connor can’t ask her without risking showing her how scared he is of being like all the other variants, locked up and useless.
“Oh,” she says, calling after him. “And Connor?”
“Perhaps if you paid less attention to Detective Reed, you could be giving these investigations your full attention.”
Connor nods, slowly, “I’m sorry, Amanda. I’ll do my best to avoid him from now on.”
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 12:07 P.M.
The DPD isn’t clean in any other sense than the lights are too bright, the lines sharp and angular. The DPD is clean in the way that at first glance, everything seems alright. But then there are the coffee cups, the balled-up papers, the stacks of files. Most of the people that wear uniforms have adjusted them in the same way. Officer Pearson with her top unbuttoned once, like she does every day. Officer Miller with his bright yellow socks. Captain Fowler, with his patterned ties. Tiny things. Things Connor hasn’t noticed before.
He is stuck noticing them. Looking out at the people in the station like he’s frozen in place. Reed and his messy hair, like he woke up on seconds ago. Ben with the coffee rings decorating a very small section of his desk. Hank and—
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Good evening, Lieutenant,” Connor says quietly, his voice sounds wrong. Raw and broken. He thinks when he fell from the rooftop and he screamed, it destroyed it. Left him behind as a strange half-mute creature.
“Good evening? Fuck you. What the fuck happened?”
“I was recovering for a few days—”
“Recovering? For a few days?” Hank asks, stepping toward the desk. “You died. I saw you. You were dead.”
“Nobody could have survived that fall from the rooftop, Connor. You were dead.”
“Variants are very resilient,” Connor says quietly, echoing Amanda’s words. “They took me away to help me get back on my feet.”
“You were dead.”
“I wasn’t dead,” Connor replies, his voice harsher than he meant it to be. “They healed me. I’m fine.”
“Yes,” he huffs. “I’m sorry AzureHeart didn’t reassure you that I would be okay and that the fall took you by surprise, but—but it’s not my fault. I didn’t mean to fall, and if I did, maybe I would’ve left you detailed instructions on the fact that I’m not a weak child who can’t take care of himself, when it’s clear you are the one in this situation that can’t do anything but sit on the sidelines and pretend they’re helping.”
Hank goes quiet, the kind of quiet that feels like it is more than just words. The kind of quiet echoed by a room of people eavesdropping in on a conversation. Like everyone has collectively held their breaths, even Connor.
“I think maybe you should take an extra day to recover, Connor. You’re a little testy.”
“Lieutenant,” Connor says quietly, forcing his voice even and unbroken. “I’m sorry. My patience is thin. AzureHeart was supposed to tell if you anything like this happened.”
“Go home, Connor.”
“There’s work to do.”
“And I’m not doing it with you,” Hank says, looking to him once more. “So it’s either you or me that’s leaving.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Connor replies, adamant in this.
He cannot go back to his empty apartment and let his thoughts be distracted by the energy burst he felt a few weeks ago. He can’t sit around and let Daniel’s presence take over his head again or think about his future in a world where a cure destroys any use he has. Connor has to be here. He has to work. He has to focus on words instead of the fact he almost died, instead of the fact that he has no idea what’s happening anymore.
He has to be here, surrounded with people to ground him in reality.
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Connor nods stiffly, looking up to Fowler’s office to see if he’s watching. And he is, hands in his pockets, watching Hank go, and he isn’t stopping him. Connor supposes there is a line, there’s a limit to how much he can force Hank to work with him, and he isn’t willing to cross it just yet. Connor isn’t either.
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 3:51 P.M.
“Can’t believe you and your boyfriend had a fight in front of everyone.”
Connor sighs, closing his window out and looking up at Gavin on the other side of his desk, leaning against the divider between his and Hank’s space.
“Do you think you’re funny?” Connor asks.
“Yes, very,” he replies. “What’s got you all so mad that you’d yell at him like that? I thought you were a professional dick-weed.”
“Can you leave me alone, Reed?”
Connor expected more, which is likely why he laughs, to fill the gap of silence after his words, “Then what do you want?”
“To annoy you.”
“You’re doing a great job of that.”
“Thank you,” Gavin replies with a smile. “Look, I didn’t come over here to bully you, if you believe it.”
Gavin laughs, “There’s a case downtown. You’re with all the variant shit, yeah? Come with me.”
“I work those cases with Hank.”
“And Hank left three hours ago. I’m filling for him. Just don’t expect me to do everything he does with you. I’m not interested in you like that.”
“I don’t think Hank is either, but thank you for the clarification,” Connor says. “I would’ve spent the entire night worrying about you hitting on me.”
“If I was hitting on you, you’d know,” Gavin replies.
“Would it be at all similar to that time you tried to kiss me?” Connor asks, standing up and gathering his things. “Or like last night when you—”
Gavin is quiet, and when Connor pulls his jacket on and looks back to him, he sees his mouth moving like he is starting and stopping a hundred sentences at a time.
“ You tried to kiss me , alright? Let’s get that straight first,” he says. “And I’d be a lot smoother than that.”
“I have a hard time believing you’d be smooth about anything.”
“Shut up,” Gavin says, repeating it three times over. Each one sounding different from the last. Like a joke, like he’s serious, like he is trying to sound serious. “Let’s go.”
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 3:57 P.M.
Gavin’s car is marginally better than Hank’s in some ways and incredibly worse in others. For one, it is cleaner. But for two, it is loud and rumbles and feels like it is about to fall apart at any given moment. It’s like the both of them bought their cars for three dollars in some kind of bet to see who could get the worse one. They’re both ancient, both barely running. The smell of gas creeps in fast when Gavin starts to drive away from the station. It makes Connor wish he could just take a bus and meet him there, but he’s almost glad to spend some time with Gavin outside of the station, even if it is still work-related.
“What the fuck are you smiling about?” Gavin asks.
“Nothing,” he says. “Just… AzureHeart told me this morning to stay away from you. I don’t think they like me being… close to you. And now we’re on a case together.”
“Yeah. So? It’s not like I’m nice to you or anything.”
“No,” Connor replies. “Can I ask you something about that, Detective Reed?”
“Depends?” Connor asks. “On what?”
“Is it a personal question?” he asks, looking away from the street lights. “Because if so, then I’m not going to answer it.”
“Okay,” Connor replies, settling back in his seat. The silence comes back in, only made less awkward by the music Gavin keeps playing. But even then, every other song Gavin will lean forward and skip to the next one.
“Fine,” Gavin says finally. “What is your stupid personal question?”
“Why are you so mean?”
“Oh,” he laughs. “Really? That’s your question?”
“I can come up with a few better ones but right now this feels like a more pressing concern.”
“‘A pressing concern’?” Gavin asks. “You’re worried about me?”
“I’m worried about those around you.”
“Ah,” he sighs. “Well, it’s just me. That’s all. I’m a dick, that’s my schtick.”
Connor smiles softly to himself. He didn’t expect a real answer. He doesn’t even know why he asked. He just thought—
Maybe, if he forced Gavin to think about it, there might be something. But there’s nothing. Of course there isn’t anything. Gavin is aware that he’s a jerk. He just doesn’t care .
“Can I ask you something else?” Connor says, not waiting for permission this time. “Why were you nice to me on the rooftop last night?”
“Was I nice to you?” Gavin asks. “Shit, I better make up for it now.”
“Look, you fell, right? You were hospitalized. I’m not going to be the prick that’s mean to someone that almost just died,” Gavin says with a shrug. “It’s not like I ended world hunger or some shit. I was barely nice to you. Why do you ask so many fuckin’ questions?”
“I have a curious soul.”
“Fucking stupid curious soul.”
Connor laughs, and he feels Gavin hit him lightly, tapping his shoulder in a weak shove like he had before.
“Stop,” Gavin says. “I wasn’t joking. And even if it was, it was a shitty joke.”
“So you weren’t trying to make me laugh?”
“Fuck no. Stop it. You’re going to make me have to be real mean to you to balance this shit out.”
“Why do you have to balance it out?” Connor asks.
“You’re like an annoying fucking kid, you know that?” Gavin asks. “All you do is question shit and force your way into our lives. We never wanted you here and you’re doing your best to make sure you annoy the fuck out of us.”
“I know that,” Connor says, the laugh and the smile disappearing. “It wasn’t my choice.”
“That’s not my choice, either,” Connor says quietly. He feels himself want to shrink down, to condense into nothing. He can’t say what he’s thinking. He can’t say that he would if he could. That sometimes, even if he’s grateful he knows how to use his power and that he doesn’t remember what it was like wearing a collar, he wishes he wasn’t this person. This variant hunter trying to take down all the rest.
He wishes he was just a person. Not even human, just…
Not like this. In this position, headed to a crime scene.
“I didn’t mean to be annoying,” he says quietly. And he doesn’t. He is trying his hardest to be something he isn’t. He just doesn’t know what that is or why he’s doing it, yet.
“Look, Connor,” Gavin replies. “About last night… you looked upset, alright? And it’s… not something that comes easy to me. But you’re a variant and nothing is ever going to change that.”
“Change what? How you feel about me?”
“’Yeah’,” Connor repeats, quietly “Why do you hate variants so much?”
“I told you already.”
“No,” Connor says. “You told me you hated me . Or detested me, actually, because I work for AzureHeart. Corporate fuckers, remember?”
“You never said why you hate variants.”
“They’re dangerous,” Gavin says. “What do you want me to say?”
“You think I’m lying to you?” he asks, looking toward him.
“I think there’s more to it. Why you hate them and why you hate me.”
“Detest,” Gavin corrects.
“Detest is basically hate.”
“Fuck, fine, I hate you. Happy?” he asks. “You win.”
He is not happy. He wants more. He wants more of an answer than that. He doesn’t understand why Gavin can be nice and joking one minute and cruel the next. He doesn’t understand why Connor can’t shape himself into something that Hank would like. He doesn’t understand why he is trying so hard to achieve something when Amanda and AzureHeart have both made it clear his use in this world has an expiration date.
“I don’t get you.”
“I’m not here for you to ‘get’,” Gavin replies. “Variants have killed people, you know. And they’ve done it on purpose.”
“Did that happen to you?”
“Shut up,” he whispers. “Just fuck off and mind your business, okay? Hank was right. You are an annoying nosy piece of shit.”
He is used to it. The feeling of being hated. But even then, the words still sting. He knew Hank didn’t like him and he knew Gavin didn’t like him but the way he says it so angry but so casual, too. It hurts even more. He knows he’s hated and there’s nothing he can do about it because they hate him for what he is and when they can forget about the variancy, they just hate him for who he is. All the rest of it.
— SEPTEMBER 4 | 4:06 P.M.
They step into the elevator side by side, the doors closing behind them as Gavin leans back against the bars. Connor stands off to the side, tilting his head and watching the numbers climb upward slowly. So high to go. So much below him. Connor doesn’t think he likes elevators anymore. They are increasingly becoming a space of unease and guilt. Reminding him how many times he has been in one and a death has resulted in less than ten minutes later.
Who’s going to die today?
“I’m sorry,” he says, and it is different to the apology in the car that was thrown out into the conversation as just words. He sounds sincere this time. “I shouldn’t have said those things to you.”
“Detective Reed apologizing?” Connor asks, trying to joke about this, but Gavin’s expression doesn’t change.
He must actually mean it.
“My life has been kind of ruined by variants, you know?” he says quietly. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I actually..”
“I kind of like you. In your own annoying way. And I don’t like people usually. I don’t know how to… be a person that has… friends or whatever.”
Connor smiles softly, “I kind of like you in your own annoying way, too.”
“You flirting with me?”
“You’d know if I was flirting with you,” Connor replies.
“Yeah, probably because you’d be awkward as hell about it. You ever even kiss someone, Mr. Corporate Fucker?”
Connor doesn’t know. He genuinely doesn’t remember enough about his life before to know if he was ever happy with someone. He doesn’t know if he was in love or if he dated or what type of person he was. He just has these fragments of memories at the AzureHeart Tower, studying and training. He could be married, he realizes. He has no ring, but there might be someone he loved more than anything in the world. But that isn’t him anymore. Whoever he is now is someone else, torn apart by a thousand worlds.
So he decides to try, since he is telling himself that he is a blank slate. This version of him is a blank slate entirely.
He moves over to Gavin in the elevator, leaning close to him. He tips his chin up, like he had before, and he is aware of how close they are. He wants to be closer. He likes Gavin. Gavin likes him. He knows that.
“I’m probably not very good at it,” he says quietly. “But I am aware of the effect I can have on some people if I try a little harder.”
“Is this you trying a little harder? Because it’s weak,” Gavin says, but his voice is quiet, and he hasn’t taken his eyes off of Connor’s mouth. “And I would mark this in the sexual flirting column, not the romance one.”
“Do you want me to be romantic with you, Gavin?”
“So you want sex?”
“Your putting words in my mouth,” Gavin replies. “I think you should—”
The bell on the elevator rings, and Connor pulls back as the doors open. Gavin’s face is red, his head turned away from Connor and looking to the floor, but still flushed red as they step out.
“Connor, you’re here.”
“Lieutenant Anderson?” he asks, pausing three steps away from the elevator. The hallway is cluttered with people. CSI and detectives swarming the small space, spilling over into the room further on. “What are you doing here?”
“We work the variant cases, don’t we?” Hank asks, looking behind Connor. “What the fuck is he doing here?”
“You left the station, I was going to work the case with a substitute until you came back.”
“Well, I’m here now,” he says. “He can go.”
Connor turns to look back at Gavin, who is already stepping back into the elevator.
“It’s fine. Really. I don’t want to work these cases anyway,” he says, looking toward Hank. “He’s technically your partner, and you’re technically running out of time already. Go.”
“Are you sure—”
“You said AzureHeart told you to stay away from me, right?” Gavin asks. “You should.”
The doors to the elevator close and Connor is alone. Stuck standing in the middle of a sea of strangers on the top floor of Stratford Tower. He didn’t want Gavin here to work the case with him. He wanted Gavin here because he thought, for a moment, in the briefest sense of the word, that maybe Gavin was being honest when he said he liked Connor. That maybe the words detest and hate would slip out of their vocabulary that easy and they could be friends. But Gavin is right.
AzureHeart told him to stay away and keep focused on the cases. There is no time for friends, or whatever might’ve happened if those elevator doors didn’t open when they did.
“Connor, you coming or what?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” he says, turning away. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Chapter 35: Practice Makes Perfect
— SEPTEMBER 2 | 11:55 A.M.
“I need to talk to you,” she says, stepping into the room. “Do you know North?”
“Angry girl, always ready to fight?” Luther asks with a small smile. “Yeah. I know her. She comes by the infirmary every so often to talk to Josh or Lucy. What about her?”
“She came by this morning and told me that Simon needs my help with something. Him and Markus--”
“They’re planning to send a message to the humans,” Luther says. “I know. He wants you to help?”
“Yes,” she says. “And… I want to agree to it. I went to see him and he told me he could help me. Figure out my powers and… in exchange I’d go on a mission with them to Stratford Tower.”
Everything she’s done has been an accident. Getting money from the ATM at the Laundromatic. Destroying the register at the store. Whenever she gives in to the magic inside of her, it doesn’t end well. She doesn’t know what to do. This feels like a good option. It doesn’t feel like something she should fight against. It feels like something she should understand.
“You could die.”
“Are you telling me,” Luther asks. “Or are you asking for permission?”
“I’m telling you,” Kara says, her voice uneven. “So you can take care of Alice and Ralph if anything happens. You’re the only other person that knows what Alice is. I need you to look out for her if anything happens to me.”
He stands up, crossing the room toward her, “Kara. I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Which is why I’m telling you, not asking.”
“Right,” he sighs. “And I won’t stop you.”
He says it like a lie, but she knows he won’t. But she’s prepared a hundred more words on why she should be allowed this, even if they’re unfair. Luther isn’t stopping her from training, he wants to stop her from going, and that isn’t going to happen either. Simon needs her. That’s why he asked for her help. It’s why she’s offering.
“Thank you, Luther.”
— SEPTEMBER 2 | 1:43 P.M.
The radio underneath her fingertips screams to life. The volume loud, blaringly so, making her shrink back as the voices of people, filled with static, switches quickly. Again and again from old country songs to religious talk shows to pop music and only stopping when Simon’s hand touches the side of it, putting them into complete silence again.
Kara sighs, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“I have to teach you. You don’t know how to use your powers, not even the basics. And to be honest, Kara,” he says. “I think you have a natural talent for this, a little bit.”
“Because I was born with it?”
“No,” Simon replies with a small smile. “You have a lot of restraint. It’s remarkable. You just don’t have any control when you finally let it go. Try again.”
Her hand comes up to the radio again, fingertips brushing the edges of it. It’s an old thing. Must’ve been manufactured twenty years ago. She just needs to turn it on. No power source, no plug, no batteries. Just her. Just her and one station. Every time she touches it, the thing borders on explosion. Never resting on one channel, constantly scanning. Simon has the station number written on the board behind him in case she forgets, but it’s ingrained in her head now.
97.5 F.M. - 97.5 F.M. - 97.5 F.M.
But then she thinks of Todd. She thinks of the radio in his truck, playing softly as she was driven back to his house from the hospital. She thinks about the signs and the people. She thinks about the collar around her neck, the sharp pain of it when the seal broke and her magic was unleashed. She thinks of him on the ground, laying bleeding.
She thinks about how she doesn’t know if she’s a murderer or not and she thinks about how Simon told her to find a good memory inside of herself and focus on that, but when she tries the radio in front of her reacts. Clicking on. Loud. Angry. Vicious.
Simon stops it again. He’s getting faster at silencing it when she fails. He isn’t expecting her to succeed anymore.
“I can’t do this.”
“Try again,” Simon says. “It takes practice. You can’t expect to get a handle of your powers in one day.”
“But this is supposed to be simple. How long did it take you?”
“That’s not important, Kara.”
She shakes her head, not wanting to fight about this. She drops it, even though his words and his voice tell her he got it much faster than her, probably. He probably managed it in an hour. Probably got it on his first try. Maybe had more happy memories to pull from.
“Tell me again.”
He sighs, “Think of it like water. You’re standing in a stream. There are fish all around you. You have to catch one, but you have to catch a specific one. They’ll circle back around. Just be patient. Wait.”
He makes it sound like the stations don’t zip by at a hundred miles an hour, like they are casually strolling by, just waiting for Kara to reach out and touch them. This is really his way of starting her on figuring out her power? There’s a lamp in the corner. That would be so much easier to turn on with just a touch. There’s a television, where she could have a visual to help guide her and not just a feeling of something speeding by.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? To focus on the feeling, to grasp at something speeding along. To do it purposefully. Breaking the cash register and the ATM were both accidents. Destroying the collars wasn’t meant to be done with such force. Kara has restraint, but she doesn’t know how to use it.
“How long has it been for you?” she asks, looking away from the radio to his face. “Since you’ve been here?”
“So you’ve had two years to master your power?”
“I’d hardly call it mastered, but yes,” Simon replies with a gentle smile. “It’s… easier for me, I guess. But I still haven’t perfected everything. It doesn’t work that way. Our abilities are unpredictable. Why do you think we can break the seal in the first place?”
“Bad manufacturing,” she replies. “How’d you end up here?”
Simon’s smile disappears, “That’s not important. Try again.”
Kara turns back to the radio. Her fingers brush the surface. She feels the flow of energy. She feels a thousand things existing within it. She tries to not let her thoughts wander. She tries not to turn the radio into a bomb. She tries to find the channel.
Alice on the carousel, surrounded by snowmen. The brothers watching. The lights flickering. The only time Kara did something right. She holds onto that moment, she holds onto that smile Alice had. She holds onto the feeling of being in a snowglobe, all shaken up and bright.
The radio is electric underneath her fingertips, screaming static back at her, but it’s staying. It’s staying static. She feels a wave of relief, a small broken laugh escape her.
“Did I do it?”
Simon cranes his neck, reading the small display, “95.7 F.M., but I’d say you got pretty close. Good job, Kara. This is great.”
There’s a quiet clap behind her, a voice bored and even coming from the doorway, “Amazing. Incredible. Impeccable.”
“What do you want, North?” Simon asks.
“Came to watch the show. She’s supposed to help us not get killed, right?” North asks. “You’d think that threat would be enough for her to try a little harder.”
“North,” Simon says. “She’s learning.”
“And practice makes perfect,” she replies. “You should put that on your board, too. You’re very cliche, Simon.”
“Sometimes things are cliche because they’re true,” Kara replies. She isn’t offended by her. She knows that she is doing the bare minimum. She knows she should’ve been able to figure this out hours ago.
“Has he given you the speech on getting power from happiness and sunshine?” North asks, watching her. “He’s very fond of that. Using all your bright and shiny good memories to make something work right. Anger is too volatile. He forgets some of us don’t have them, though.”
“North, can you please go?”
North crosses her arms, leaning against the wall. “Markus needs to talk to you.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a second.”
“What do I look like?” she asks. “Your fucking messenger? Make him wait for an hour for all I care. There are more important things to do.”
“Like bully the new girl?”
North shrugs, turning away, disappearing from the door. Simon steps forward, turning the radio off and leaning back against the wall.
“I’m sorry about her. She gets moody sometimes.”
“Are you sure?”
Kara smiles and nods, “Really. She reminds me of Adam.”
She bites her lip, “You should go see Markus. You don’t want to make him wait.”
“Right,” Simon says quietly. “We’ll take a break for a little while. Meet back in an hour?”
Simon leaves, the room empty and quiet without him or the radio. She could try again, without him. She doesn’t want to. It’s borderline dangerous if he isn’t here. She doesn’t know what she could do, and she doesn’t know how she would fix it if she did something terrible. She’s being paranoid. She is always paranoid about her powers. She saw what Ralph did to Zlatko, even if he deserved it.
Adam had a point, being afraid of variants. They are everything that the news says they are. Unpredictable. Volatile. Anger makes them volatile . But North is right. She doesn’t have very many good memories to focus on when she wants to use her magic. She can try and think of Alice on the carousel, happy and smiling, but she’s scared it’s eventually going to lose its ability. It’ll turn into dust if she thinks about it too much. She will consider the negative parts of that memory. Being on the run. Alice always upset. The freezing weather.
She can’t turn her one good memory into something bad.
— SEPTEMBER 2 | 3:07 P.M.
“You look happy,” Kara says when Simon gets back. He’s still smiling as he leans back against one of the tables.
“Your talk with Markus went well?”
“Yes,” he replies. “Maybe not as well as I wanted it to, though. He wants to do this sooner than later.”
“You should be upset then, shouldn’t you?” she asks. “Or did something else happen?”
“Nothing happened,” Simon says, the smile drifting away. “I just… He hasn’t been here for very long. It’s nice when I feel like I can make a connection with people that are here.”
“And you made a connection with him?”
“No,” he laughs. “I mean, yes, but not in the way that you’re implying.”
“And what am I implying?”
Simon tilts his head to her, refusing to answer the question. She wasn’t implying anything. Simon was. All smiles, looking like that. Like a schoolboy that got an excuse to talk to his crush. Kara hasn’t really met Markus. She’s only seen him from a distance, she’s only known it was him by the fact people pointed him out. He always looks serious. It always looks like he’s preparing for a final exam in two hours. But it’s bigger than that. It’s Stratford Tower. It’s everything or it’s absolutely nothing.
“We should get back to practice,” Simon says. “We need to get this right before we go.”
— SEPTEMBER 2 | 9:52 P.M.
Kara steps back from the row of lights. Simon had been right. It was a bad decision to start with these first. She’s broken five light bulbs in the last hour and the majority of her time has been cleaning up the glass. She’s running through their incredibly low supply being selfish and training in the dark by herself. The dark being mostly her own fault, the being alone part pinned on Simon. He left her a few hours ago and told her to take a break and she stayed, pretending that all she was going to do was to put things away, but instead, she’s done the opposite.
She isn’t afraid of the lamps in the same way she’s afraid of the stereo. The stereo feels like it could combust into a bomb, the lights feel like they’ll just break the bulbs. It’s easier.
“What do you want?” she asks, leaning against the table.
“To help,” North replies. “And I was rude earlier.”
“You came to apologize?”
“Sort of,” she offers a smile. “I wanted to see the progress you made. There’s a lot riding on this and Markus is rushing our timeline. He should’ve given us more to prepare.”
“So am I,” she says with a shrug. “If this goes bad, it ruins everything for all of us. Aren’t you concerned? Don’t you have a daughter?”
“Yes,” Kara replies, deciding again like she has the entire time she’s been here not to correct them. “But I want her to live in a world that’s safe for her.”
“You sure? You’re risking an awful lot.”
“And I’ll continue to do so for her.”
North steps forward into the room, her hands moving to the glass remnants sitting in a pile on the table, “Simon trains using happiness. Focusing on the good that your powers can do. Or the mechanical. How it works. Eventually you just sort of get it and it just does whatever you want. But...”
“You don’t agree?”
“He’s a good teacher but not all of us were afforded pasts with good memories,” North says, turning back to face her. “It… hurts to think about the good things. It’s just a reminder of how little moments there were like those, or how little they meant once your parents found out you weren’t what they wanted you to be. In more ways than one.”
“This is really important,” she says quietly. “So I’ll help you. Focus on the bad, negative shit. All the awful things that happened and keep happening. Use that. It’s harder to control but it’s stronger. It’s what worked for me.”
Kara watches North’s hands move, carefully over the space above the glass shards. They lift up, turning and shifting, slotting together. The cracks glowing bright before disappearing into nearly invisible lines, almost golden.
“Use the bad for good,” she says, turning the bulb back into the lamp. “It might help you. And it’s the least we can do with it.”
Kara reaches out to the lamp, her hand touching the brass base of it. Feeling the possibility running beneath her fingertips. All of that electricity and wires she could pull on. Creating magical endless loops of energy to power the entire boat. People like her could power the entire world. But she doesn’t think about that. She doesn’t think about the possibilities of the future. Instead, she reaches inside of her for something bad. Something awful. Something negative and terrible. She lets the feeling fill her up. Todd punching her, Todd breaking her nose. Todd chasing after a little girl who did absolutely nothing wrong.
And she pulls back at the last second, like Simon taught her, utilizing that restraint he always talks about. Out like a breath, all that excess power. The light turns on, shining brightly in the dimly lit room. Kara pulls her hand away tentatively, and the light stays. It doesn’t shut off like she expected it to. It doesn’t shut off like she thought it would. It is such a tiny, baby step in the right direction, but she knows Simon would be proud of her. It’s not just a sign that she can turn a light on, it’s a sign that she can rein in her power when she needs to.
When she focuses on the negative, awful shit.
“See?” North says. “Told you I would help.”