THE CODE, BOOK FOUR
Telan, June 5, 2244, Woods outside Fordham Orphanage.
She was watching him again from behind the tree, he could sense it. This shy girl trailed him like a shadow for over a week now and he let her, never calling her on it, not even looking at her, but he couldn’t do it today. He needed to be alone. He turned and walked right up to where she was hiding and before she could run, grabbed her by her hand, holding her in place. “What do you want?” The girl blushed, eyes looking past him, anywhere but his face. “What do you want from me? I know I am a freak and all, but this got old a long time ago. I come here to get away from everybody and you’re not letting me. I need to know why,” and he let go of her hand. The girl had tears in her eyes when she looked at him and he felt bad for snapping at her, but he couldn’t help himself.
“You’re not a freak. I didn’t mean to make you angry, I’m sorry,” she whispered, and dried her eyes with her hands. She turned away from him then, her skinny shoulders shaking.
He waited for her to calm down, not wanting to upset her any more than he had already. She finally looked at him again. “I’ve been needing to tell you something, but there just never seemed to be the right time. That’s why I’ve been following you out here…. I think they lied to you about your parents, about why your eyes are like that. I heard the mistress talking about you with a soldier, an Alliance soldier. It was at night and everybody was asleep, only I can’t sleep sometimes so I run or walk, and I saw them talking. The man said he knows your father, and that could only mean that your father is one of them. The soldier tried to get the mistress to let him see you, but she wouldn’t let him for some reason. I won’t tell anybody, I swear. I just thought you should know.”
He slid down the tree into the grass and put his head down, thinking through this. He believed her. Believed that she told him what she saw, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He’d felt something in his story was off for years, but he was used to questioning and overthinking everything. That’s what the teachers said about him. And the kids calling him a freak or a mutant didn’t bother him much, didn’t hurt like it used to. He just kept to himself and did his work, quietly and quickly, and then ran into the woods to be alone, away from their words and their laughter.
He looked up and the girl was watching him, her large brown eyes shining wetly, but there were no tears on her face. He’d liked her since sixth grade when she just showed up at the place, not talking to anybody. They walked her into his class and she sat by the window next to him, because it was the only empty seat in the room. Nobody ever sat next to him, as if they were afraid they’d catch whatever he had that made him broken, but she didn’t seem to mind. She never talked to him, or anybody, and he didn’t want to make her, so they sat there like that all year, letting each other be. He watched her in secret, watched the way her hair fell in ringlets down her shoulders, the way the light through the windows made her eyes look warm and full of gold in the middle, how she’d bite her bottom lip when she was thinking about something….
He stood up and walked over to her. “I am not angry at you, Selena. Thank you, for telling me. But you shouldn’t follow me anymore. If I am a half-breed, you’re not safe anywhere around me.” His voice sounded quieter than he wanted it to be.
She nodded and turned away from him, took a few steps toward the dorms and then stopped. “Are you going to run?”
He had to now, he knew, and he didn’t want to lie to this girl. “I am,” he whispered. She faced him. “I want to come with you. I won’t make it any harder on you and you won’t have to take care of me or anything, I swear, but I can’t stay here. I’ve been meaning to run away from the first, only I never had the courage before. Please, Telan, you need to let me come…” and she took the few steps back to him and took him by the wrists, making his skin feel hot where she touched him.
He jerked his hands away from her. “I can’t…. I can’t risk taking you. I don’t even know where I’m going. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. I don’t know if I can keep myself alive, never mind anyone else, is what I’m saying. You won’t be safe with me.” He said it softly, not wanting to hurt this girl, but of all things, she was smiling at him. He never saw her do this before and it surprised him and made him blush.
“I was on the streets for years before they brought me here, Telan. I can keep us alive. Nobody is going to be looking for us either, once we’re away from here. We are just orphans. We just need a few days to collect all the supplies we’ll need. I’ve been wanting to get out of here for years now, and I will, one way or another. I think it’ll be safer for both of us to do it this way. I won’t even talk to you if you don’t want me to, I promise. You won’t even know I am there.”
She said it all quietly, softly, but she was looking at him, unblinking, and he knew she meant what she said, that she would run with or without him, so he nodded to her and she left him then, running onto the trail, not making any noise. He smiled, watching her run. He took his time going back to his dorm, taking in the trail and the shimmer of the small lake in the distance. Devin would likely be in the room by now, which meant the usual taunts and a few punches or slaps. He steeled himself for the pain and humiliation of the next few minutes and picked up the pace, wanting to just get it over with. He took the stairs two at a time to the third floor, ignoring the insults from the few younger kids, and walked in. The room was dark, Devin lounging in the chair, smoking something as always. He was almost eighteen now, all bulk and no brain.
“Hey freak. Shut the door. I’ll be with you just as soon as I’m done with this.” His voice was raspy from all the smoking, he guessed, much too low for someone his age. He’d hated him since he first met him. The kid was a bully, and he was his favorite subject. He closed the door quietly behind him and locked it, took off his shirt and leaned on the wall on his side of the room, keeping his hands in fists at his sides. He watched as Devin casually put out his smokestick and stood up, facing him, a crooked grin splitting his face. “Should we work on your face today? It’s been a while,” and he swaggered over to him and without another word backhanded him hard across the face. He kept his eyes on his, trying to control his anger. He only needed to get through the next few days, and he’ll be free of him, free of all of them. Devin slapped him open-handed over and over again and then grabbed him by the neck, pushing him harder into the wall and growled at him, “One day, freak…. One day I’m going to kill you, you bloody coward. Will you just stand there when I cut you up into little pieces? You sure you’re not a girl under all that? I’m rooming with the biggest pussy in the dorms.” Devin spat in his face and turned away from him, look of utter disgust disfiguring his already ugly face.
The dinner bell rang and Devin ran out of the room as if it were on fire. He knew he’d be taking what little food they got from the smaller kids. That’s why he raced to the dining hall like that every time the bell rang. He couldn’t go down there now, couldn’t face all the other kids with his face looking the way it did. He slid down the wall and put his head in his hands, waiting until he was breathing normally again, and when he was, he went through his few possessions and packed a few shirts and two pairs of jeans and boxers into his bag as tightly as he could, so it wouldn’t look too bulky. The rest of his clothes he’d have to leave behind, so his absence wouldn’t be noticed too soon, he thought, and suddenly, he couldn’t bear to wait the few days. He needed to run right now, only he’d have to find a way to tell Selena that somehow, and he didn’t want her to see him like this. He splashed cold water on his face for a long time, trying to get the redness down, but it was too new and needed more time, time he didn’t have. He grabbed his bag and went down to the dining hall. The kids were making a ton of noise there, but he still heard it: “Freak”, “Light Eyes”, “Mutt.” He blocked it, looking for the girl.
She sat by herself, as was her habit. He caught her eye and she got up and walked over to him and took him out into the hallway, making sure it was deserted before she spoke, “What happened to your face?” He blanched and shook his head at her.
“I need to leave now…. I am sorry, but I do. I can’t wait two days. I don’t know if I can wait two hours. You don’t need to come with me or anything, I just needed to tell you,” he whispered quickly. The girl watched him for a little while and then nodded her head. “All right. You need to give me twenty minutes. I’ll meet you in that clearing you like. Twenty minutes,” and she turned around and was gone.
He took the long way to the clearing, going around the back of the dorms, outside of the range of spotlights and curious eyes of the little kids who’d already had their dinner and who’d be playing in the little yard out front. He stuck close to the trees, walking softly, making sure not to make any noise. They would have at least a few hours to make it away from the dorms before they were missed. He doubted Devin would even report that he was gone, though he might miss having his own personal punching bag eventually. He waited for longer than twenty minutes by now, he knew. He’d give it another ten or so and then he’d have to move on.
He finally heard her soft footsteps on the trail and came out from behind the tree he was using for cover. The girl was smiling at him. She was carrying her bag and it seemed heavy. He took it from her, whistling at the weight of it. “I’ll trade you.” He handed his own very light bag to her. “Ready?” he asked, adjusting the straps around his waist.
She nodded, and took out a screen from the pocket of her pants and flicked it on. “There is a trail that will take us past the lake to the stream that should run all the way to the river. We’ll find our way to something from there, some place with people in it. There are a few villages along the way, and we shouldn’t run into any Alliance soldiers here. It’s too far from any of their cities.” She traced the route on the screen with her finger, showing him. He nodded, not having any better ideas, or a plan of any kind really.
He let her lead the way until they were solidly on the trail she mentioned, and then got in front of her, using his ray sporadically to light the path for them and keeping the branches from hitting them with his free hand. The bag seemed to get heavier with every step and he wished they were far enough away from the orphanage to rest for a bit, but he didn’t trust that they were yet. The girl hadn’t said one word to him this whole time, keeping her promise to be invisible, though he didn’t recall asking it of her or wanting it, but he let her be.
“Turn right at this little path coming up. We’ll find a safe place for the night there,” her soft voice caught him from behind. He did as he was told and found himself on a curvy path that was a lot harder to walk on than the trail they just left.
It was much darker too, far too dark to see anything without the ray, and that could attract attention if they were followed. He didn’t think anyone would be looking for them yet, but he didn’t want to risk it. “Selena, the ray might give us away. We should find cover and go dark.” The girl ran ahead of him and called him over after a few minutes. She found a little clearing covered by enough brush to where they could hide safely if they stayed low enough. He dropped his bag and stretched, working out the knots in his shoulders with his hands. In a matter of minutes the girl had two blankets spread out and handed him a thermos. He took a few sips, the girl watching him. She brought tea, and it was still hot. Somehow she managed to get them tea. He smiled at her and took a few more sips, enjoying the normalcy of it.
“I brought enough food for two days, if we’re careful. I didn’t have time to get more,” she said quietly, apologetically, “but we can fish when we get to the river, and we should be there by then…. We should get some sleep.” She walked over to the blankets and lay down on the one closest to the path, as if she planned on keeping him safe. He couldn’t let her do that for him, not after she thought of everything else to keep them alive.
“I got this spot,” he said, crouching by her, nodding for her to move.
She shook her head and looked at him timidly. “I always sleep on the outside of any space. It’s the only way I can do it. I won’t argue with you on anything else, but this… I have to stay here or I can’t sleep,” and she averted her eyes.
“Why?” The girl just shook her head and closed her eyes.
He knew she wasn’t asleep, just hiding, and he felt bad that she didn’t trust him enough to tell him, that he didn’t know anything about this girl. “My roommate, Devin…. That’s what happened to my face. He’s been doing it for years, trying to get me to fight him, but I can’t. I don’t exactly know why I can’t either. It’s just the way I’m wired. So he does this whenever he is in the mood and I let him. I just stand there and take it. Every. Single. Time. It makes him mad that I won’t fight him too, and I know it, but I made a choice not to and I can’t change it now. The first time he lashed out at me I cried, right in front of him and it just made him hit me harder. I covered my face so he punched me in the ribs, hard, breaking two. I ended up in the med bay for a week after that and when I came back, he had his two friends with him waiting for me in the room, and they took turns hitting me on the face, laughing at me. I decided then that I would just let them, no matter what they did to me…. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
He realized he closed his eyes when telling her this, so he looked at her and she was staring at him, eyes shining, wet, and he felt bad for telling her all of this, felt like a weakling. She was right to take this spot, with him the way he was, he thought, a boy who couldn’t even defend himself. He dropped his head, embarrassed. “I’m sorry… I don’t know why I just told you all that,” he mumbled and walked away to the other blanket and lay down on it face first, hiding from this girl, and from the shame he felt at being the way he was. The girl was silent for the longest time and he thought she was asleep, only when he finally looked at her again, she wasn’t.
She was lying on her side, eyes watching him. He looked away, feeling himself blush. “I know what you are probably thinking…. If you feel safer on your own than with me, I am okay with it, Selena. I won’t follow you or anything. Go, if you need to.” He flipped over on his back and put his arm over his eyes, keeping the tears hidden from the girl. He heard her move, but he was too afraid to look at her now, too afraid to watch her leave, so he stayed as he was, and suddenly he felt her small hand brush through his hair, softly, and then her hands trying to pry his arm away from his face.
“You don’t need to hide from me. I don’t think any less of you for what you told me, I swear I don’t. Please, look at me.”
He clenched his jaw and let her move his arm away from his face and forced himself look at her, knowing she’d see the wetness in his eyes. He waited for her to say something, but she didn’t, and after too long of just staring at him, she leaned in and put her lips to his forehead, ever so softly, the spot she touched feeling cold as soon as her lips weren’t there anymore, and walked away, letting him be.
He stared through the blur at the dark sky with all the stars in it and a sliver of the moon moving far too quickly through the clouds, making them look dark and heavy, and he hoped he could somehow keep this girl safe. Hoped he would find the courage he’d need to fight for her, even if he couldn’t fight for himself.
Selena, June 5, 2244, Woods outside Fordham Orphanage.
For two weeks now she’d been getting up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard she tried to stay asleep. Nothing she could do about it. She got up that night, threw on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt and went for a run. The only guard would be long asleep by now, she knew. Nobody had any reason to come to this sad place anyway, so it made no sense for them to even have a guard, but for some reason they did. He was a round-faced fat man who ambled around the grounds as if it hurt him to walk, never mind run. But he was nice enough, nicer than most of the teachers or other staff, and she liked talking to him when she ran into him on one of her solitary walks.
She ran until her lungs burned and her legs felt heavy, and then slowly walked back to her room through the main hall, so as not to wake up any of the little kids on the bottom floors by swinging the heavy metal door, the door that had screeched like a wounded bird for as long as she’d been here. Too long now. It’d always been too long. She’d known she wouldn’t belong here, wouldn’t fit in, from the first. Knew that none of these kids would become her friends. That they weren’t like her.
She’d been meaning to run for years, but the timing never seemed quite right and she secretly wished that something would happen to her that would just force her to run from this place, only nothing ever did. And this strange boy everyone called “freak”, Telan, she liked sitting next to him in class, even if they never said a word to each other. He didn’t look at her as if she were broken, the way everyone else did. She caught him studying her too, watching her, when he didn’t think she’d notice, but she always did, and it made her want to smile when he did that, only she hid all her smiles from him, from everybody.
Muffled voices caught her attention. It was far too late for anyone to be up now, so something must have happened. She followed the sound, not making any noise and staying in the shadows. A very tall man with curly blonde hair sprinkled generously with gray was speaking much too loudly to the mistress, gesturing with his hands. She moved closer still, and heard Telan’s name. “…I just need to see him, ma’am, that’s all. I need to just get a glimpse of him, is all I’m asking. I owe it to his father, owe it to him to tell him that he is okay.” She noted that the man was wearing an Alliance uniform, like in the frames they always showed them.
It didn’t make any sense, what he just said, but he seemed sincere. She ran to her room, thinking of the strange boy with gray eyes, and what would happen to him if anyone found out what he was, and she felt an ache in the pit of her belly for this boy she couldn’t bring herself to say one word to. Now she would have to; would have to find a way to warn him somehow.
She didn’t think he ever noticed her when she followed him into the woods, waiting for the right time to tell him what she heard. She’d trailed him quietly every day since that night, but she just couldn’t bring herself to approach him the way he was. He’d sit there, leaning against a tree, looking so calm, so content, she couldn’t tell him something like that. One time she almost did, when he didn’t look so calm. His face was bruised, as if someone had beaten him, and he looked sad, but she couldn’t do it even then and she’d felt like a coward for it. She knew he’d probably run if she told him, too, if he knew what kind of danger he was in, and selfishly, she didn’t want him to not be here anymore.
That was four days ago, and after what he just told her, she felt bad for this strange boy. She knew he wasn’t asleep either, could see that his eyes were open, staring at the sky, as if it could tell him something that she couldn’t, something about himself that was worrying him. He seemed ashamed that he wasn’t like that Devin kid, as if beating people up was some definitive test of manhood. She knew she had to let him be, after she scared him like that with the kiss, his eyes looking at her with so much fear, she wanted to run from him. She didn’t mean to hurt him by it. She just wanted to comfort him in some way, to let him know that she didn’t think what he thought she thought of him–that he wasn’t a coward for choosing not to fight–but her instincts told her it wasn’t for her to tell him that. It was something he had to find out for himself.
His arm was over his eyes and his chest was moving too fast. She didn’t want to embarrass him, but it pained her that he was hurting like that. Without thinking about it, she flipped on her side, so she could see him and told him about herself, about why she had to sleep on the outside of wherever she happened to be. Told him about years of living on the streets with the other little kids who lost everybody, and how for the last year of that, she was the only girl in one of these places, and there was this older boy who was in charge. The little kids had to beg for food and clothes and they would all hand him everything they got. Trevor, his name was. She told him how he’d beat up kids who didn’t get enough, or what he thought was enough…. He beat her the first time, hard enough to where her face was bruised, and then she got more than anybody the next day because people felt sorry for her, and he started beating her almost every day after that. They were living in this abandoned warehouse at the time, her blanket at the very far wall, because she was the only girl, she’d guessed.
She told him how Trevor walked up to her one night, looking unsteady, shaky on his feet. He put his hand over her mouth, and she thought he would beat her again, so she closed her eyes, waiting for him to strike her, but he didn’t. He got down on top of her and unzipped his pants, and she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what he was going to do, and then suddenly, she knew, but she couldn’t scream, so she bit his hand, and he backhanded her across the face so hard, her head snapped into the floor and she didn’t remember anything after that.
He wasn’t there when she woke up the next morning, and she couldn’t tell if he did anything to her, didn’t know how to. But she knew she couldn’t stay there after that, so she ran, had to run, only she didn’t want to be around people again, didn’t trust them not to hurt her, so she ran through the woods. It was warm enough still and she got really good at making fires and finding things to eat in the river. She used her shirt to catch little bait fish and an occasional crab, and she knew enough about how to tell good mushrooms from the bad, or at least how to not die from them. She’d been in the woods for two weeks when some hunters found her, and she must have looked a mess, her clothes all torn up and everything. They were the ones that took her to the orphanage. She learned later that Trevor didn’t end up doing the thing he wanted to do, but it had taken her years to be able to sleep through the night, and sometimes, she still couldn’t do it….
He didn’t say a word while she was talking and for a long time after that. “Do you remember where you were? Can you find it again?” he asked finally, looking at her, his voice strained.
She did remember, but she couldn’t ever go back there, couldn’t bear to see him or that whole town. “No, Telan, I don’t,” she lied.
He reached over and took her hand in his, squeezing it hard. “If you ever do remember, tell me. I’ll find him and I’ll kill him,” he said quietly, slowly, and let her hand go.
She believed him, this strange boy who wouldn’t fight to defend himself. Believed that he would do it for her, for anyone but himself maybe, and she didn’t know what to make of him after that. She willed herself to sleep after far too long of staring at the strange dark sky, the sky without any flags or lights in it. Telan wasn’t on his blanket when she woke up and for a few minutes she worried he ran from her, that she scared him after all, but then she saw him coming out of the thicket, looking very much awake, smiling at her, and then dropping his eyes, embarrassed.
She got up and stretched, packed the blankets into her bag, and took out two sandwiches for them. They ate quickly, silently, washing the food down with the now cold tea from the thermos. If they hurried, they would reach the river by tomorrow evening, and then she would feel safe enough to make a fire for them, and maybe they’d get lucky and catch some fish or crabs, anything that wasn’t dry bread and meat paste – all she was able to steal from the kitchen on short notice. She was too old to beg for food now, but she knew enough about hunting and fishing to keep them alive while it was still warm out. She hoped by the time the weather turned, they’d be someplace safe, someplace they could stay through the winter.
They walked most of the day in silence, Telan ahead of her, carrying her heavy bag. It was already getting dark when they finally stopped for a bite to eat and a break. They sat not saying anything to each other for a while, Telan massaging his shoulders, not looking at her. He seemed lost in his own thoughts and she didn’t want to intrude, didn’t feel she had a right to.
He looked at her after a while and said very softly, “I know you remember, could see it in your eyes that you lied about it. I am not angry at you for it. I think I understand why you did. I am truly sorry for what happened to you, Selena. I swear I won’t…. You don’t have to be afraid of me in that way, is what I’m saying.” He was blushing, eyes down, and it made her want to laugh, that he’d take it like that, that he’d think that.
She crouched in front of him, looking up into his serious gray eyes. “I wouldn’t have run with you if I didn’t trust you. I am not afraid of you. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you, but I didn’t do it for that. I don’t want your pity or anything, Telan. And you shouldn’t feel that you need to act any differently with me now. I can’t take that,” and she got up and walked away, hiding her blushing from this boy.
They slept behind an outcropping of boulders on sandy soil, blankets over them, keeping the chill away. The air was unseasonably cold, the wind smelling wintry, and she hoped they’d have enough time to find someplace they could put up safely through the cold months, somewhere without soldiers in it.
She woke up before the boy did and made them a small breakfast. She shook him awake softly, his eyes flying open and staring at her, as if he never stopped, making her uncomfortable. She walked away from him and grabbed her bag, eating her sandwich as she walked.
Telan walked in front of her for a long time, silently, except for breaking an occasional branch, and suddenly, he stopped, pointing at the side of the trail. A scattering of fox mushrooms blossomed in that fringed gold way they had. They looked young and healthy. She took as many as she thought they could use without them going bad in the backpack. She told him what they were, just in case they ever got separated, and that you couldn’t eat them raw, but a little bit of fire and salt was all you needed to live on these, and how good they tasted. She told him they should be far enough away from the orphanage by evening so they could make the fire. The boy just smiled at her, that strange soft smile he had, gray eyes glittering in the centers.
She wanted to run up to him and hug him and tell him that she’d liked him since the first time she sat next to him all those years ago in class, liked everything about him, but she couldn’t do that. She was embarrassed even thinking about it to herself. He walked quietly, gracefully in front of her again, his body slender and fluid. There was something of a jaguar or some other ancient wild cat about him that made it hard for her to take her eyes off him, and for once she was happy he chose to be in front.
They stopped when all the stars were out and she felt that it was safe enough to make a fire. He watched her as she lined up all the dry sticks and threw a pile of pine needles and leaves in the middle. The smoke from the pine needles should help keep the bugs away, she explained to him and then sent him to find a few fallen branches or logs. She only had a small sharp knife on her, all she could steal from the dorm, so she used it to clean the dirt from the undersides of the mushrooms and lined them up on a small tin tray she’d taken from the kitchen.
Telan carried a few decent sized logs over to the now blazing fire and she threw one of them in and settled on the grass next to it. The heat burnt her knees, but it felt nice on the rest of her, and she felt surprisingly at ease. She kept her hands busy, moving the branches into the flame so that the log would catch faster, thinking of nothing but the flames in front of her, and it felt good to be worried about something so small, and yet oddly important; something she could control…. When the log was finally burning evenly, she threw the tin with the mushrooms on it and sprinkled some salt on the top. She cleaned the tip of a long branch and stirred the pan every so often, smelling the earthy sweet perfume of wild mushrooms. Telan was watching her intently, a small smile on his face. She gave him the first of the cooked mushrooms and watched him eat, a tentative bite at first, and then his smile got bigger, stretching across his face the way she’d never seen before. “Whatever this is, Selena, I could eat it every day for the rest of my life and not get sick of it.”
They finished their small meal in minutes and she hoped she’d be able to find more of these. Now that they could make a fire, she could dry what they couldn’t use immediately and then use the dried mushrooms for soups or stews. She spread their blankets for them by the fire afterwards and went to look for water, telling Telan to stay put and watch the fire for them. She could tell where the water would be by the way things changed how they grew, and how the soil was different. She could tell that the river was close, could smell it, but it was too dark to go looking for it now, so this little stream would have to do. The water in the stream was cold and dark, but it was clean enough to drink. She filled up the two thermoses she had and rinsed her face, letting the cool water dry on her skin, feeling small shivers go down her neck and back, and went back to the fire.
She could see the small stream of smoke through the trees, so she followed that, and when she got there, she didn’t see Telan anywhere. She dropped the water by the blankets and when she stood up again, she was staring at the face of that same large man she saw at the orphanage. The man smiled at her, and then stuck his hand out. “I am Max Fuller, and you must be Selena. I am a friend, I promise, so there is no need to be afraid of me.” His voice was soft, gray-blue eyes crinkling in the corners.
“I’m not afraid of you, but I don’t shake hands with Alliance soldiers. Where is Telan?” she snapped at him, harsher than she meant to.
The man nodded to her, still smiling, and took his hand away, speaking softly still, “Understood. Telan went to look for you. He’ll be back in a bit,” and he walked away from her to the fire.
She noticed for the first time that something was cooking on it, something that smelled of meat. The man stirred it, not looking at her. She felt bad for being rude to him, but she couldn’t help that. These people killed her parents. It’s just how it was, how it’s always been.
She sat on the other side of the fire from him, watching him. “I heard you talking to the mistress about him, about Telan. Is it true, what you said? That you know his father?”
The man wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked at her, eyes serious and sad. “It is. His father is my friend, my best friend, Selena, and he is in trouble. That’s why I went looking for Telan. I can’t tell you any more than that for now.” He looked away.
She heard a branch break and saw Telan running to them, face flushed, his long hair swinging wildly. He put his hands on his knees, panting, and finally looked at her, a small smile on his face. “I thought I lost you…. This man, he is okay, I trust him. He’s going to take us to where my father is and they’ll keep us safe. He isn’t like them, the soldiers. He really isn’t.” The soldier didn’t say a word, just kept stirring whatever he was cooking in that pot.
She shook her head. “I am not going with him, Telan, I can’t. I’ll be all right… I’ll find a way, but I can’t go any place with those people in it,” she said and walked away, lay down on her blanket, turning away from the fire and closed her eyes.
She felt a large hand on her shoulder after a while, not Telan’s. “I know what you think of us and I don’t blame you for any of it, but you will be a lot safer with me than on your own, I promise you that. If you don’t want to stay with us when we get there, you can leave then. Nobody will force you to stay there if you don’t want to, but I think you’ll change your mind when you meet everybody. There are a few hundred of us, Zoriners and Alliance alike, and we’re trying to do some good for everybody.”
She faced him and the soldier stood and pulled out a gun from his belt. She jumped up, stepping back from him, afraid. The man just shook his head at her, smiling, and handed her the gun, handle first, the barrel pointing at his stomach the way he held it. She wrapped her hand around the unfamiliar weapon.
“It’s a stunner. You press this button to turn it on. Shift the dial all the way up if you want to kill, down if you want to wound. Point and shoot.” He pressed the button, making the weapon vibrate in her hand.
She was still pointing it at him, without meaning to, but he didn’t move, hands at his sides, eyes looking calmly into hers. Telan’s strained voice reached her, asking her to please not kill this man. She had no intention of killing anybody, but holding this weapon scared her. She didn’t trust it not to do something she couldn’t take back.
“How do I turn this thing off?” She handed the gun back to the man and he pressed that same button and the buzzing stopped, and gave it back to her, only she didn’t want it any more. She knew why he gave it to her and she didn’t want this, didn’t want to be the kind of person whose trust had to be bought like this. She shook her head at him and said in a whisper, just for him, “I don’t need this. I’ll come with you, for Telan. I’ll do it for him.”
The man nodded to her and tucked the gun back in his belt. “Whatever it is my kind did to you, I am truly sorry for that, Selena,” and he walked away, back to the fire, to whatever he was cooking.
She smelled it now, smoky and rich, and it was. Full of tender chunks of meat and some veggies she couldn’t place and she smiled when she fished out a few chunks of wild mushrooms, some new kind, ones she didn’t know. Telan ate silently, staring into the flames, probably thinking about whatever this man told him about his father. She didn’t want to pry into whatever it was that was wrong with him, hoped he trusted her enough now to tell her if he wanted to.
Max was watching him, a small smile on his face, but as soon as Telan was done, the smile was gone from the soldier’s face, his voice shaky when he spoke. “I have to tell you both something, and you will likely be angry at me for it…. I heard what you said to each other the other night, both of you. I didn’t mean to pry, but I was keeping close, so I didn’t lose you, so I could protect you if I needed to, but I couldn’t come out yet, not until I knew for sure you weren’t followed, and that Selena was okay. I didn’t mean to intrude, I truly didn’t.” He seemed sorry, too, embarrassed.
Telan stood, his face tense, hands in fists at his sides, eyes staring angrily at the soldier. The man stood and faced him, and she watched, surprised, as Telan lashed out at him, punching him on the chest, screaming at him, “You had no right to do that! You should have come out, you should have let us know you were there…. You had no right to hear any of it.”
The soldier didn’t move, letting Telan hit him, hands dangling at his sides, as if he didn’t feel any pain. Telan slapped him hard across the face and the man lifted his hand then, palm up, stopping him. “I’m sorry, Telan, but if you need to keep going, we should probably not do it in front of her,” he said softly, no anger in his voice. She saw redness on his face where he was hit and the corner of his mouth was bleeding. Telan dropped his hands and turned away from the man. He was breathing so hard, she could hear him even through all the noise the fire was making. The soldier stood as he was, waiting. She watched him quickly wipe the blood from his face with his sleeve and put his hands in his pockets, looking at Telan.
She got up, feeling that she needed to give them privacy to work this out. She wasn’t angry at the man the way Telan seemed to be; she was just embarrassed that he knew this about her, and she didn’t want him to feel pity for her because of it. “I am going for a walk. Try not to kill each other while I’m gone,” and she walked away from them, towards the stream. The air moved fast today, the breeze cool against her face. She walked slowly, quietly, thinking about this strange man who stuck a gun in her hand and didn’t seem worried that she’d use it.
And Telan hitting him like that…. She’d never even seen him angry before, didn’t think he could ever scream at anybody, never mind do what he just did to that man. She sat by the water for a long time, watching the ripples move quickly across the dark surface, listening to the music they made, and hoping that whatever that place was that the man was taking them to would be all right for Telan, if not for her. Hoping, too, that his father could be saved from whatever was killing him, or at least live long enough to get to know his son. She wondered why he gave him up in the first place, didn’t understand how anyone could give up their own kid for anything, and she hated him for it, but Telan didn’t seem to, and she thought it strange that he didn’t.
Telan was asleep on his blanket when she got back, the man sitting alone by the dying fire, his face showing more redness than it did when she left. So Telan hit him again. She hoped that was the last of it. “Are you all right?” she asked softly, walking up to him. He looked at her and smiled. “I am. Don’t be too hard on him for this. He needed to do it. I am pretty sure he was protecting you…. We should get some sleep,” he said standing up.
“Can I ask you something?”
The man nodded.
“How did you know I wouldn’t shoot you?”
He smiled at her. “I didn’t, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I had it locked on non-lethal. If you’d pulled the trigger, you would have just stunned me, knocked me out for a few minutes, as likely as not, and you would have felt all kinds of guilty for it afterwards. I just wanted you to feel safe,” and he walked away, spreading a blanket for himself on the other side of the fire from theirs, and not saying another word after that.
She stretched out on her blanket after a while, listening to Telan’s soft breathing and let herself drift off, hoping that he’d be back to his old self when he woke up; soft spoken, and kind. And that what happened today wouldn’t make it worse for him, wouldn’t make it worse for any of them.
Telan, June 6, 2244, Woods outside Fordham Orphanage.
He was angry at him, angrier than he’d ever been at anyone before, even Devin, and it surprised him that he got like that. He wasn’t even thinking when he hit him. It was like it wasn’t him doing it. Didn’t feel any pain in his hands either, not until afterwards, and he knew then that he hit him harder than he thought he did, hard enough to hurt. The man could have stopped him, could have easily caught his hands or knocked him out with one punch if he wanted to, but he just stood unmoving in front of him when Selena left, and said softly that he didn’t seem done, and he should let it all out, and he did then, feeling even angrier at the man. He could see now why Devin got so furious at him when he wouldn’t fight back.
He woke up to the crackling of dry branches catching on fire, the man leaning over the tiny flames, but he wasn’t ready to talk to him yet, didn’t want to face him after what he did. He closed his eyes and stayed as he was, waiting for Selena to get up, so that he didn’t have to be alone with him.
“I know you’re up, Telan, so stop hiding from me,” the man’s voice reached him, making his stomach clench. He forced himself to get up and walk over to where he was crouching by the fire. He stopped right next to him, embarrassed, not knowing what to say. He could still see the redness on his face. He put his head down, couldn’t help doing it. The soldier stood, reached over and lifted his face up by the chin. “I am not angry at you, Telan, I swear I’m not. You had every right to do what you did, so please, let it go. Frankly, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t lashed out at me for it,” and he let go of his face and turned back to the fire without another word.
He felt heat in his face. “I am not usually like that…. I’ve never hit anyone before, Max. I shouldn’t have done it, is what I’m saying. It won’t happen again,” he whispered, and he turned and ran to the stream to pee and wash and calm down enough to be okay with this stranger again, to not feel so embarrassed in front of him.
Selena and Max were chatting by the fire when he got back, friendly-like, and it surprised him that she seemed okay with this man now. He stood off to the side, watching, listening, afraid to walk over. Selena looked at him, smiled and nodded at a plate of food warming by the edge of the fire. He knew he had to make himself go there and eat and do what he had to do for however long it would take them to get to where they were going, knew he didn’t really have any kind of choice about it, and he hated it that he didn’t. He made himself walk over, slowly, not looking at Max, and picked up his plate. He ate standing up, away from them, nobody saying anything, and he was grateful for that. Finally, he was done, so he set the plate down and went back to his spot. He was rolling up his blanket when he felt large hands on his shoulders.
He straightened and faced him, Max looking at him, face serious, concerned. “I spent a good portion of my life having to lie to everybody, including the people I loved most. I can’t tell you why yet, maybe ever, but when it was over, I promised myself that I would never lie to anyone again. When I said I wasn’t angry at you, I didn’t say it to make it easier on you. I said it because it’s the truth. You need to let this go, or it’s going to be much harder on all of us than it needs to be. We have about a week’s journey ahead of us. Too long to do it in the company of someone who’s ashamed for no reason. Let it go, kid. I mean it,” Max said, and there was an edge to his voice.
He saw Selena watching them from the fire, and felt even more embarrassed for it. The man was still staring at him, waiting, and he felt trapped in this look. He dropped his eyes, breathing hard, hoping Max would let him be, but the man stepped even closer and wrapped his arms around him. It was the last thing he expected, and he didn’t know what to do with it. He felt his eyes get hot, so he shut them tightly and clenched his jaw, trying to hold himself together, trying not to cry in front of this man and the girl. He couldn’t ever cry in front of her again. The man held him, not saying a word, letting him hide, and he held on, not spilling any of the tears he was hiding. Finally, he felt calm enough to face him again, so he looked up, and Max let go of him. The man took a step back and stuck his hand out, serious gray-blue eyes on him. He shook his hand hard and dipped his head, knowing that it was over, that Max would never bring it up again, and feeling grateful to this stranger for letting him hide and for letting him walk away from it so easily.
They made it to the river in just under an hour, and Selena was all smiles when they got there. The girl really liked the water. He watched her skim rocks, giggling like a little kid, and he couldn’t help but smile at her. They walked along the river bank for a long time, silent, but for the occasional sound of a pebble skimming the water from Selena’s expert throws. The sun was well on its way down when they finally stopped, and he was tasked with getting the wood for the fire. When he came back out, Selena was crouching by the water, holding a mesh bag under the surface. She tied the corners of it with rope to her wrist and he couldn’t figure out why she did that. She looked up at him and whispered softly, “It should catch us some crabs. I don’t know if you’ve ever had one, but it’s the tastiest thing in the world….”
He let her be and helped Max make the fire. He sat on the other side of the small flames from him, watching him start on their meal. There was so much he wanted to know about his father, but he was afraid to ask, and he couldn’t explain it to himself why it scared him so much. He had to know why he gave him up, if nothing else. Couldn’t imagine anyone doing something like that.
Max was watching him intently. “I’ll tell you anything that I can, Telan, except for things that aren’t mine to tell. He is a good man, your father. Likely the best man I’ve ever met…. He would have never given you up if he could help it. What I’m saying is, he did it for you, to keep you safe. I can’t tell you any more than that for now. And I can’t tell you what’s wrong with him…it’s not mine to tell. I gave him my word, so please, don’t ask,” and he went back to tending to the fire.
He heard Selena move by the water, heard things splashing in it and then he saw her carrying the mesh thing, water coming off of it in thin streams, and there were strange creatures struggling on the bottom of it, scrambling over each other. They looked like hard shelled giant spiders. She was beaming when she got to the fire. “I got us seven crabs, boys. There is not much meat in them, but it should be plenty for a small supper, and I’m pretty sure I’ll catch us more tomorrow. This place is crawling with things to eat.” She handed the mesh with the creatures to Max and sat down next to him. Max nodded, his face full of smiles, and dropped the squirming creatures into the pot of roiling water. He watched, fascinated, as they turned from dull gray to shiny pink, red almost as they stopped moving. His stomach clenched at the thought of something being cooked alive like that, but he was hungry, and Max and Selena didn’t seem to mind at all.
Selena took out her knife, fished one out of the pot and dropped it on a plate. She sat next to him and dug the knife into the thing’s claws, showing him how to clean it, and after a few minutes of this, she handed him a small pile of white flesh, nodding to him. He took the smallest piece and the taste of it exploded on his tongue. It was salty and sweet at the same time, smelling of the cool water and something he couldn’t place. He’d never tasted anything like this before, and he didn’t think he’d ever get enough of it.
They made a quick meal of it, and Selena dropped a few of these mesh things in the water, asking Max for a few bits of smoked meat stuff for bait, as she put it, and secured them with large rocks. They spread their blankets on the sand next to the dying fire, making sure they were far enough from the water that the tide wouldn’t get them. He stretched out, looking at the sky. The moon crawled awkwardly towards half-moon, making the sky lighter than it was just a few nights ago. The breeze from the water made him shiver. He wrapped a part of his blanket over himself, but there wasn’t enough of it to be comfortable. He glanced at the girl and she seemed cold as well, her eyes still open, trained on the embers, as if looking at them would help keep her warm.
He got up and moved his blanket closer to her, and without asking lay down on the edge of hers, spread his blanket over both of them and closed his eyes. He felt her move and turn on her side after a while, and then felt her hand on his chest and he froze. She didn’t move, but he could feel her watching him and he was afraid, so he stayed as he was, silent, breathing faster than he wanted to, feeling his own heartbeat under her fingers.
“I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to.” The girl’s soft whisper brushed against his cheek, and then her hand was gone from him. He didn’t want to upset her, but this was all too new and the way he felt her touch everywhere in him scared him. It made him want to reach over and hug this girl close to him and put his lips on hers, but he couldn’t do any of that with her, not after what she told him. He curled his hands into fists at his sides and lay as still as he could, except for his chest rising and falling much too quickly and his heart pounding so loudly, he knew she could hear it. He was half convinced Max could hear it from the other side of the fire.
He felt her warm hand cover his after a while and he flinched, couldn’t help himself, but she didn’t let go this time, just kept holding her hand over the fist he was making. He let her, not moving anything, keeping his eyes shut so tightly it hurt. “I need to tell you something, Telan, and you need to let me…. I’m pretty sure it’ll be as embarrassing for me to say it as it will be for you to hear it, but I have to. Please, look at me.”
He turned to his side and made himself look at her, noting how large and dark her eyes were, her face so close to his, he could feel her breath on him when she spoke again.
“I liked you from when I sat next to you in history class the first time…. And I know you liked me, know that you watched me when you didn’t think I’d notice,” she said quietly, her voice soft.
He winced, embarrassed and moved to turn away, but she put her hand on his arm, keeping him in place. “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable, I truly am, but you should know that I knew…and that I liked it that you did that. I wanted so badly to talk to you for years, but I didn’t know how to. I’m not asking you for anything, and I’ll never talk to you about it again if you don’t want me to. I just had to tell you this,” she whispered, and let go of him, flipped over on her back, and folded her arms across her chest.
He got up, spread his blanket quickly over her without looking at her face, and walked away from her, heading for the river, the cold air biting into his skin. He made himself walk slowly, letting all the chill in, moving closer and closer to the source of it, until he was standing only a few steps away from the quickly moving water. He took his shoes and socks off, rolled his pants up to above the knees and waded in.
The bone-aching cold of the water dulled the embarrassment he felt at what Selena just told him, but not enough for him to not think about it, and suddenly he wanted to dive in and swim in this freezing water, hoping the pain of it would be enough to make him forget her words and the strange ache he felt at her touch. He got out for just long enough to pull off his pants and shirt, and quickly dove in and under, gasping from the cold when his face was above water again, his skin burning everywhere.
He knew this cold wasn’t the kind he’d get used to after a few minutes, that it would keep being just as cold for as long as he was in it, and he knew, too, that what he was doing now was likely the stupidest thing he’d ever done–that he would get sick from it or drown if his muscles locked up–but he couldn’t help himself. He swam with quick, even strokes downstream for a long time, not fighting the current and when his arms got tired he flipped over on his back and floated, keeping his eyes closed.
He let the rushing water take him until he felt the river turn and he couldn’t see the thin stream of smoke from the fire any more when he opened his eyes again. The river was moving faster here, careening downhill, too fast for him to fight the current going back. He swam to shore, the current making it harder than he thought it would be, and for a few small moments he panicked that he might drown in this small river after all.
He saw Max running to him when he was nearing the fire. The man held a blanket in his hands, squeezing into it as if he were trying to hurt it, and his face looked all sorts of angry. His clothes were gone from where he’d left them, so he walked barefoot, almost naked and dripping wet towards the man. Max was right to be furious at him, of course, he knew that, and he wished he could explain to him why he did it, but he didn’t understand it himself yet. He just needed to let him scream at him or slap him or whatever the man needed to do. He stopped a few steps away from him and waited, clenching all his muscles to stop himself from shaking, only it wasn’t working.
Max glared at him silently for a moment then grabbed him hard with his giant hands, wrapped the warm blanket around him, and started to rub his hands over the blanket up and down his back and shoulders, trying to get him warm. He stood as still as he could make himself, not saying anything, and finally he wasn’t shaking any more. Max must have felt it too. He threw his arm around him and pushed him towards the fire without a word. The fire was blazing. They must have done it for him, and it made him feel even more guilty for all of it. Selena sat on the log farthest from the fire, her head in her hands. She looked up when she saw them and quickly put her head back down. The girl probably thought that his stupid swim was because of her. A part of it was, of course, but he didn’t mean for her to feel bad over it.
Max pushed him roughly onto the log across from the girl and handed him a steaming cup of what looked like tea, only he could smell something else in it, something bitter. He shook his head, not taking it.
“It’s spiked tea, Telan, and you will drink it, all of it, or I will force it down your throat. Trust me, you don’t want to fight me on this right now,” Max snapped at him, furious, and he didn’t have it in him to fight him, so he took the cup and drank in long gulps, feeling the bitter liquid burn his throat and every place it passed on the way down after that, settling hotly in the pit of his stomach. He handed the empty cup back to Max and lowered his head.
“I need to know what I’m dealing with here. Selena wouldn’t say anything to me…. All I know is you two had your little chat and then you dove into a bloody river in the middle of the night and let it take you downstream. I saw you floating out there like a log. What the hell were you thinking? Were you trying to kill yourself? Bloody look at me when I’m talking to you!”
There was nothing soft in his voice now, and he was glaring at him as if he wanted to hit him when he lifted his head to look at him again. He stood up, hugging the blanket to him with everything he had, and made himself look at the man who was standing too now, towering over him. He steeled himself for the slap he knew would come, gritting his teeth and hoping all of this didn’t take much longer. Max didn’t move, and suddenly he didn’t look angry, he looked afraid.
The man put his hand on his shoulder, gently, but he still flinched, hating himself for it. Max quickly let go and put his hands behind his back, staring into his face, putting him on edge with this new look he couldn’t quite read. “I’m not going to hit you, if that’s what you were thinking…. I don’t know what I did to you for you to think that of me, but whatever it was, I’m truly sorry, kid,” his voice soft again.
He dropped his eyes, feeling like the biggest coward for it. “May I please go to sleep now?” he asked in a miserable whisper, desperately needing to get away from this man staring at him like this.
Max took him gently by the face, forcing him to look up. “You may, but tomorrow, we talk. I am not risking another day of not knowing if I’ll be fishing my best friend’s son from the bottom of the river, I’m just not. I give you my word that whatever you say to me will stay between us, but you will talk to me. You don’t have any kind of choice about it now,” and he let him go and turned back to the fire.
He found a spot as far away from them as he could without Max screaming at him again. He curled up, facing away from them, and sobbed quietly, feeling his mind going soft at the edges after a little while. He couldn’t explain it even to himself why he did what he did, or the pain he felt tearing at him from the inside, scratching at the soft, dark places he’d kept hidden from everybody for so long, kept hidden from himself.
He just knew that it scared him worse than anything to let anyone in there. He couldn’t let them, not this strange man or the girl. Not anyone.
Fuller, June 7, 2244, Woods outside Fordham Orphanage.
The last thing he wanted was for this kid to be afraid of him, and yet the way he tensed up in front of him, afraid he was, fear written into every tightly clenched muscle. He watched him get up and steel himself, saw the effort it took for him just to look at him, waiting for him to strike at him, and there was something of a ritual in the way he did it, something practiced and deliberate, as if he’d done it many times before. He remembered overhearing what he said to the girl about his roommate then and knew for sure that the kid was readying himself for a beating. It made his heart ache, watching him stand there like that, and he felt not a little guilty that he did this to him somehow.
He couldn’t help but scream at him after the stunt he pulled. It scared him worse than anything when he got up and the kid was gone, and Selena just pointed toward the water, looking like she was about to cry. He found his clothes by the bank and ran downstream and finally spotted him floating calmly on his back, arms outstretched, eyes closed. He yelled out his name, but the kid didn’t even open his eyes, likely couldn’t hear him for all the rushing water, and then he was gone around the curve.
He raced back to the fire then, grabbed the blanket and ran back to the water, hoping the kid wasn’t trying to kill himself. He planned on running out ahead of where he was floating and diving in after him, only as he ran, he saw the soaking-wet, shivering kid walk toward him, head down, embarrassed. He didn’t know what to do with him then. He looked frozen and hurt, looked like he needed to run from him, from everybody maybe, and he felt for him, but he still couldn’t help being angry at him for what he did. He couldn’t lose this kid–he’d never forgive himself…. He replayed it all over and over again in his head while tending to the fire, hating himself for letting his own fear take over like that. The kid didn’t think too well of himself, he could tell that much by now, and he knew he had to be careful with him.
He sent the girl to deal with her crabs and maybe try to catch them a fish on a small line he gave her when she got up, telling her to take her time. She seemed to know how he meant it. He watched her put on a warm jacket, grab a sandwich and a thermos of hot tea and disappear down the trail to the river without a word. Telan was still asleep when she left, or at least he looked asleep. He let him stay like that until the fire was roaring and he made a small breakfast of smoked meat and a few tiny eggs he ransacked from a quail’s nest yesterday, and then called over to him to wake up.
The kid got up without a word and walked over to him, stopping in front of him, not sitting on the log he pointed at, not even looking at the plate of food he tried to hand him. He kept his eyes on him, his voice quiet, controlled when he spoke, “I won’t do what I did last night again, you have my word, but I can’t tell you anything else. I don’t know why I did what I did, but it won’t happen again, I swear.”
He nodded to him, took him by the shoulders and made him sit on the log. “Eat!” he snapped at him, set the plate on the grass next to him and handed him a cup of steaming tea. Telan just shook his head, not taking it, his face tense.
He didn’t want to fight with him, but he knew he had to break through to him somehow if he had any hope of keeping him safe. Every instinct in him told him the kid needed help, only he didn’t know him enough to do it right, and he didn’t trust himself not to make it worse. He let him sit there in silence for a long time, hoping he’d finally talk to him. The kid didn’t move a muscle, just sat there, straight-backed and silent, watching the flames, hands clasped tightly in his lap. He was so tense, he looked like he could leap up at any moment and bolt, and he sensed that he might. He had to tell him then, had to break his promise to Lancer.
“I have a son…Brody, his name is. He’s 27 now. I had to leave him when he was six, didn’t have any kind of choice about it. I didn’t see him again for almost fourteen years. Didn’t think I’d ever see him again at all, and it was the worst kind of thing to live with. Your father…he didn’t have any kind of a choice with you, is what I’m saying. I can’t lose you, kid, but not just because you are his son; it’s more selfish than that for me. He’s got leukemia, Telan. I don’t know if you know what that is, and I’m breaking my promise to your father by telling you this, but you’re the only person who has any chance of keeping him alive. It’s a kind of cancer that doesn’t really have much in a way of treatment. He needs a bone marrow transplant, and it has to be from someone genetically related to him to work, and you’re all he’s got. He doesn’t know I’ve been trying to find you, nobody does. He made all of us promise him that we’d never do that, and he’s likely going to shoot me for this when I get back, but I couldn’t bear watch him die, knowing there was a chance to save him. When you ran off last night and I thought I’d lost you, it made me angry at you, angrier than I’d been in years, so I snapped at you, because in my own head what you did was the most selfish thing, only I know you didn’t see it that way…. I was wrong to scream at you like that, and I truly am sorry for that.”
The kid had his head in his hands. He walked around him and put his hands on him, squeezing into his shoulders, not letting him get up and run, even when he felt him move to do just that.
“Let go of me, Max,” an angry whisper.
He grasped him tighter, feeling him flinch. “What’s going on with you, Telan? I’ve been around an awfully long time, and contrary to what you may think of me, I’m a pretty decent human being. I won’t betray your trust for one thing. For another, I might be able to help you with whatever demons you’re fighting. Talk to me,” he said softly and stepped back, letting him get up now, knowing that he would, only as soon as he was standing, he took him by the shoulders and turned him around, holding him in place, not letting him move at all.
Telan was breathing hard, his gray eyes glaring at him, looking very much like his father’s the few times he’d ever seen him furious. The kid’s hands were in fists. He took a small step back, relaxing his hold on the kid a little, and nodded to him. “Go ahead, if you need to. Let it out.”
Telan clenched his jaw hard and shook his head, tension coming off of him in waves.
“All right then. I’ll tell you what I think is going on with you, and you can just tell me where I get things wrong…. I think the whole time you were at that orphanage the other kids made your life a living hell. They taunted you and called you names and it hurt, but you couldn’t do a thing about any of it. And I think you didn’t have one friend in the world, not one person you could share anything with, and that ultimately, you chose to be alone because of it and you haven’t learned how not to be yet. I heard what you said about your roommate, so I know they beat you, too–badly, I would imagine–and for whatever reason you didn’t fight back and it bothers you still that you didn’t….”
He could see the muscles moving in the kid’s jaw, his eyes wet, but still on his, and he felt bad for putting him through this, but felt he had to, that it was the only way.
“You think it makes you weak that you let them do this to you. It makes you feel like a coward…and every time someone touches you and you flinch, it just makes it worse for you. It hurts you in ways that you don’t understand or know how to fix. I’m going to take a guess about last night, Telan. Selena likes you. She has for a long time, by the looks of it, and she knows you like her too, can see it on you. She told you last night and it scared you worse than anything, and you didn’t know what to do with it, with how you felt, so you ran, because you were ashamed….”
He could see tears pooling in the kid’s eyes, his hands curled into fists so hard they had to be hurting, but he stood stock still in front of him, not dropping his eyes, not letting himself, and he could tell it was costing him a great deal to do it; that it took every bit of courage the kid had to not hide from him.
“You need to let me go, Max. We’re done here. I’m not telling you anything. Not now, not ever. It’s none of your business…. I’ll do what I need to do for my father when we get there and I won’t risk myself again, you have my word on that, but we’re done,” he said, voice shaky, and he felt him move to step away from him, only he still had him by the shoulders so the kid just teetered comically on his feet, his face contorting unpleasantly into full-on adolescent rage.
He didn’t budge, kept holding him, looking at his face, and the kid lost control then, his fists flying into his chest, pushing him, pounding on him hard, not holding anything back. He hoped he would do something like this, hoped he’d let it out however he needed to. He let go of his shoulders, letting him hit him, but Telan dropped his hands and put his head down, looking helpless and ashamed. He threw his arms around him then and pulled him in close, the kid squirming like a fish against him, but he held on, and after a while, he felt the dam break in him, sobs spilling out of him in loud gasps, hot water streaming into his chest.
He knew he would hate him for this afterwards, but he knew, too, that he was right. Right about everything he said to him, and he hoped they could fix it for him, fix how he saw himself and that the kid would bury his pride long enough to let them try. He seemed done with the sobbing after a while, so he let go of him and took a small step back, wary of what the kid would do or say after this.
Telan lifted his head up, serious gray eyes looking at him, dry now, his voice quiet, calm, “I didn’t fight back, but it wasn’t because I was afraid to…. That’s not true. I was afraid the first few times, but after that, when I chose not to fight them, it wasn’t fear anymore. I wanted to fight back, but I wouldn’t let myself. I thought they were right to hate me, Max, so I let them because of that. I was the only one like this, a freak, and I never completely believed the story they told me about the mutation. It didn’t matter why I was different, I just knew that I was. I don’t think I would have fit in there even if my eyes weren’t like this, is what I’m saying. But you’re right, Max, about all the rest of it. I’m sorry for last night, for scaring you,” and he dropped his eyes. He hadn’t seen this coming at all, hadn’t expected a confession out of him.
He asked him softly to sit and warmed up his breakfast for him. Telan took the plate and ate silently, looking at the flames, not saying a word until he was done. “Can I ask you a personal question, Max?” He nodded and crouched in front of him.
“Have you ever loved somebody? Not your son, I mean…. A girl?” He seemed embarrassed, his face flushed, eyes down.
“I have. I still do. I lost her a long time ago, but I still love her,” he said quietly, and felt the familiar pang of guilt and pain in his chest. He pushed it down, doing his best not to show it on his face.
The kid seemed puzzled, looking distractedly at the flames again, biting his lip. “Is it supposed to hurt when you like somebody?” he asked finally, in a small whisper, and he couldn’t help but smile at him, a full-on grin, the kid looking even more embarrassed now.
“It is, Telan. It is absolutely supposed to feel like that and worse, a lot worse. But it’s the best kind of hurt in the world.” He got up.
Telan stood too, looking at him, uncomfortable.
“What is it, Telan?” he asked softly.
“I need to ask you something, Max, and I’m not exactly sure how to,” the kid whispered, eyes darting down again.
He took a step towards him and waited silently, and finally snapped at him to just spill it, whatever it was. Telan looked up at him, looking very much afraid, and nodded. “I know I have no right to ask anything of you, but I’d rather you didn’t say anything about this to anybody,” he said very quietly, eyes trained on the blades of grass again.
“I gave you my word on that before, Telan. I fully intend to keep it,” he said sharply and walked away, towards the river, letting the kid be.
The girl looked up at him and smiled, eyes glittering warm amber from the middle. She reminded him of Brody’s Laurel when he just met her, all soft and kind to everybody. There was something magical about this girl, something that spoke of wisdom one could only be born with. Every time she looked at him he felt like she could see through him, that she could feel every shift of emotion in the people around her. She stood up, lifting the net out of the water, smiling wider now, and she had a reason to. There were a few crabs and three large trout frantically trying to get out of their mesh prison. As good a meal as these kids likely ever had.
They walked back towards the fire in silence for a while, the girl waiting for him tell her in his own time, only he couldn’t spill Telan’s secrets to her, to anybody. They were almost at the fire when he finally told her the one thing he thought she needed to know: “He doesn’t think he deserves you, or anybody, I think…. Him living like he was for so many years, being called all those names, it did something to him, something that’ll likely take a while to undo, is all. Just give him time,” and he walked on ahead of her, not wanting to see the hurt he knew he’d see on her face.
He glanced back at her when they were almost to the fire, and of all things the girl was smiling at him, so he stopped, confused. “I already knew all of that, Max. You don’t need to tell me anything. I know how he is, always have, I think. And I think it’ll take him less time than you think. He’ll be all right, is what I’m saying, so stop worrying about him. You have fear and concern for him written all over you….” She took a step towards him, all the smiles gone from her face now. “But I do need to know something.”
He nodded to her.
“His father…how could he do that? How could he give him up like that? I tried to think of all the possible reasons that would make sense and none do to me, so I just have to ask, so I know what sort of man he is.”
He owed it to this girl, so he told her as much as he could about Lancer and how he was. Told her more than he told Telan, and he felt all right about doing it. It was a relief to tell someone, and this girl was good, he knew that from the first, from when she wouldn’t shake his hand or take his gun afterwards.
She listened in silence, face serious, and then threw her arms around him, surprising him by the gesture. “Thank you, for telling me. He is just like him, you know, though they never knew each other. I think I might like all those people you’re taking us to. I think I might want to stay with you after all,” and she ran off to the fire, not making any noise, the net bouncing, spraying water as she ran.
He watched her run, walking slowly now to give her time to say a few words to Telan in private if she needed to, and he caught himself smiling at these two kids, at how genuinely good they were, even with all the horrible things that had happened to them, and for the first time in months, he let himself believe that it would all work out for them and for his friend. That he could keep everybody safe, and ultimately, that there’d be no more freaks; that no kid would ever have to live with that ugly word thrown at them in some orphanage or worse yet, be put down like a rabid dog, like Trina. And not for the first time he felt grateful to Lancer for not shooting him that night so many years ago. Grateful for every day he got to spend with Brody and the other kids, and for every Zoriner and half-breed kid they had saved since.
Selena and the boy were not at the fire when he got there, likely talking it out in private in some clearing, so he went about filleting the fish and getting the rest of the stuff together for lunch, humming to himself, Drake-like, and for the first time since he found these kids, feeling oddly content with everything.
Lancer, June 14, 2244, Reston, Med Wing.
He knew Riley would be sitting in that old-fashioned overstuffed chair before he opened his eyes, could feel his presence. He seemed to spend all his time in this room lately and it made him feel guilty, like he was stealing something important from him. “Let me guess, Riley. The last of the Eagles found us and the whole city has been destroyed all over again, only you magically survived to make sure I don’t unplug my bloody chemo,” he spat at him. Riley was used to this and didn’t take the bait. He opened his eyes and stared at him, noting the underslept, ragged look to him, a stubble of a beard on his cheeks. He’d stopped taking care of himself ever since Ams took off with that guy from engineering over half a year ago now, long enough for him to have gotten over it, only it was obvious from just looking at him that he hadn’t.
“You look like shit, Riley, and I mean it in the nicest possible way. I’m still hoping that you’ll introduce me to someone before I die, kid, or I’ll hound you half to death from the other side, and that’s a bloody promise….” He tried to sit up, but the restraints around his wrists and waist kept him solidly in place. He kept forgetting about the damn straps. “You know, in the old days, people were allowed to pass into the night with some dignity instead of what you’re making me go through, for no good reason, I might add. We all know this isn’t going to work, kid, and you’re making me spend what little time I got left tied up and injecting me with poison. It pisses me off”—he shook his head and swallowed the dryness in his throat, and then looked at Riley’s tired face again—“I’d like to sit up and maybe have a cup of coffee, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Riley was on his feet and out the door without a word. He leaned his head back on the pillow, hating how tired he felt from just talking, how entirely useless his body was. He’d rather someone put a bullet in his head than this, but he knew there wasn’t one person here who’d do that for him. Max maybe, but Max was inexplicably gone. He’d likely have to do it himself eventually, the way he planned, when he was ready and when the others came back, so he could say goodbye properly. He wanted to leave all these kids with more than the anger he’d been showing them lately….
Riley came back, carrying two steaming mugs of coffee, smiling at him. He unstrapped him and lifted him up on the pillows, settled down on the edge of the bed and massaged his wrists for a few pleasant moments, and then handed him his coffee. “You don’t look so hot yourself, Lancer. Frankly, you look like a washed up compound guard who’s drank too much bad liquor and couldn’t shoot at anything a meter away from him if his very life depended on it.” He grinned at him in that way he had when he said it, and he let him, had to let him. It was his way of saying goodbye.
Riley watched him drink in silence, his face serious now and he knew he’d ask again by that look on his face. And he did. “I know why you didn’t want us to before, Lancer, I get it, but now…why the hell won’t you let us? It’ll be his decision, you know that. No one will force him to do anything. You owe it to him to ask. Bloody tell me why you won’t let us find him, because I honestly don’t get it!” His voice cracked, and he could see all the sadness wash over him, as it did every single day for the last five weeks, ever since Ella told them about the transplant, something he wished she’d kept to herself. He didn’t want to hurt him, didn’t want to hurt any of them, but he couldn’t explain it to them either. He shook his head at him softly and leaned back, setting his almost empty mug on the small metal table by the bed.
He knew Riley would leave now and go pace somewhere, blow off steam, the way he always did, only he didn’t. He turned away from him, took the few quick steps to the wall and rammed his fist into the concrete, making him flinch at the sound it made. “Please don’t, Riley…please don’t do that again,” he whispered to his back and closed his eyes, not wanting to see the damage he’d done to himself or the look of pain on his face. He felt Riley’s arms moving him down gently after a while, the restraints closing around him, and then Riley’s lips on his forehead for the briefest of moments, and the sound of the door opening and closing softly behind him. He was okay with being alone. It didn’t hurt as much when he didn’t have to look into the faces of all these people who were mourning him as if he were already gone.
He must have slept for a long time, the light coming in through the window looking gray, dusky. He felt a familiar large hand gently squeezing around his fingers and he smiled. Max was alive then, alive and back. He always knew he’d come back, just didn’t know if he’d make it before he turned into a vegetable or was so full of pain meds that he wouldn’t recognize him. Max seemed asleep in Riley’s chair, his head down on his chest. He looked tanned for some reason, as if he spent all this time he was missing outdoors, which didn’t make any kind of sense. Max hated the outdoors, always finding something to bitch about whenever they had to camp out.
He wiggled his fingers under the calloused hand, Max’s eyes staring at him, awake now.
“Welcome back, friend. What took you so damn long?” he snapped at him.
Max just smiled at him. “How much more of this do you have?” he asked, pointing at the chemo.
“Two days, Max. Two more bloody days. I took care of them for eight years, you know, and they tie me up like a criminal and pump me full of poison….”
Max unstrapped him, and massaged his wrists, not saying anything until he let his hands go. “I have to tell you something…something that’ll make you really angry with me, angry enough to want to kill me, as likely as not. I can wait the two days, if you want me to, or I can tell you now. Whatever you want,” he said softly, looking at him without any smiles now.
He felt his stomach clench and turned his face away for a moment, hoping he had enough strength left to take it, whatever it was. “Sit me up, Max, and spill it. I can probably still take you, so remember that. Maybe not now, but when I’m not hooked up to this damn thing anymore.”
Max took him gently by the shoulders and moved him up, stuffing all the pillows under his neck and head, and then moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He waited for him to speak, patiently, he thought, but Max just sat there, looking at his hands, not saying a word.
“Bloody spill it!”
He saw him wince, and finally Max looked at him, and he seemed afraid. “I brought him…. I found him and I brought him here. He’s with Ella now running whatever tests they need to run. You can do to me whatever you want for it afterwards, but he wants to do it, and you will let him. I’ll drug you myself if I have to.”
He didn’t see this coming, not from any of them, and certainly not from Max, and it hurt worse than anything that his best friend betrayed him like this. He bloody gave him his word, they all did. Yet here it was. He closed his eyes, not wanting to look at him. “You wasted your trip, Max. I won’t let him anywhere near me, and I’m pretty sure you know that. So I need to know why my best friend would do this to me…. Did you finally decide to get back at me for not shooting you or letting you shoot yourself? Because I can’t, for the life of me, think of one thing I’d done to you since that would make you do this to me. Help me understand it, Max, help me understand why my best friend would turn on me in the eleventh hour,” he said in a whisper, and he was all out of words after that, couldn’t think of anything at all he ever wanted to say to this man.
He felt the bed move and Max was standing when he looked at him again, his head down. He felt rage coursing through him, the kind of rage he hadn’t felt in years. He reached over and pulled the port out of his arm and put his feet on the cold floor, hoping he had it in him to stand up. Max took a small step back to give him room, his hand reaching for him to help him up, but he swatted it away and he didn’t try it again. He steadied himself against the table and took a tentative step toward the door, not looking at Max. He was done with him, done with all of them. He just needed to get out of this room, and they needed to let him. There was no way in hell he would let Telan see him like this or take anything from that kid. He made himself walk toward the door, knowing how ridiculous he looked doing it. It didn’t matter. He just had to make it the rest of the way. He felt bone tired and had to grab on to the wall a few times, but he finally made it, and stood there, panting, both hands pressing on the heavy door handle he couldn’t push all the way down for the life of him.
He felt Max’s hands on his shoulders and spun around, and then he was falling, darkness swallowing the man in front of him, everything going blurry on his face, everything but the eyes with all the gold flecks in them. He tried to hold on, to keep standing, but he couldn’t feel his legs, couldn’t feel anything but Max’s arms around him, cradling him like a child against him, and he wanted to hit him, wanted to keep hitting him until his whole face was bloody, but he couldn’t move anything at all. He closed his eyes so he didn’t have to watch his body betraying him like this, so he didn’t have to watch this man he wished never to see again carrying him like a little kid, looking at him with sadness in his eyes. He felt warm water on his face and somehow knew it was his, knew that he was crying, but there wasn’t a bloody thing he could do about that. There wasn’t a thing he could do about any of it.
He woke up to a strange rhythmic noise and knew immediately he was in a different room. It was much too large and there was a bed next to his, the back of a dark-haired head on a pillow. He couldn’t see anything else. He tried to remember what happened, how he ended up here, but the only thing that kept coming back to him was that he was mad at Max, mad as hell at him, only he couldn’t recall why. He tried to sit up, but he was tied up. That didn’t change then. They always tied him up when they put him through chemo, after he pulled the port out the first few times. He looked over and didn’t see anything pouring into his veins, so it didn’t make sense for him to be tied up the way he was.
He heard the door open and watched Ella and Riley approach, all smiles. He smiled back, timidly, and cleared his throat. “Is anyone going to tell me where I am and what I am doing here like this?” He nodded towards his restraints, but nobody made a move to unstrap him. Ella crouched by his head and ran her hand through his hair, kissed him on the head and took his vitals, and then she was gone.
Riley moved a chair over and straddled it, the way he used to all the time when he first met him. “I can’t unstrap you yet, not until I tell you all that happened. I’ll make it quick, I promise. The kid in that bed is Telan. He’s asleep and will be for a while yet, but he is okay. Max brought him. He told you that before you passed out, but I don’t know if you remember it. You’re going to be all right, Lancer, is what I’m saying. Not today or tomorrow maybe, but in a little while. You are going to make it….”
He remembered it then, Max coming into his room and telling him something about how he brought Telan, remembered why he was so angry at him, angry at all of them. “Leave, Riley. Please, just leave. And tell Max that he needs to run, because I am going to kill him when I get out of here. I will bloody kill him, Riley,” he said quietly, his voice shaking from all the rage he felt at what they’d done to him. At what they’d done to his son. He meant what he said about Max, too. He would kill him if he ever saw him again. Riley shook his head at him sadly, not moving to get up, and he needed him gone. Needed for all of them to leave him alone. “You need to leave, Riley. Don’t make me beg. That would be even more indecent of you than what you’d already done to me. I don’t want to see you, or Ella, or Brody, don’t want to see any of you. You need to let me be, Riley, I mean it,” he spat at him.
He watched him get up, move the chair back and leave the room, closing the door behind him softly. He turned his head and looked over at the long dark curls of the boy he never knew, the boy he didn’t dare find, and he hoped someday he’d forgive him for whatever his friends put him through.
The door swung open again and he watched with dismay Riley walk towards him, carrying a small bundle. “I brought you some clothes,” he said softly, setting a pair of boxers, jeans and a thermal shirt on his bed. “You’re weak, likely too weak to walk on your own, so I can’t leave you alone yet or you’ll hurt yourself. I’m sorry about that.” Riley leaned over and unstrapped him, holding his hand out to help him up. He ignored it and made himself sit up and then stand, swaying, his head feeling fuzzy. He felt a wave of nausea and sat back down again, feeling anger rising in him. Riley stood unmoving, watching him, waiting. He had to let him help him, didn’t have any kind of choice about it if he wanted to get out of this place.
“All right. Do what you need to do,” he whispered. Riley beamed at him, a full on smile, and in quick succession helped him dress, walked him to the bathroom and shaved him, tucking the razor into his pocket as soon as he was done with it, not trusting him enough with a weapon of any kind, he guessed, and then left him there to brush his teeth and do whatever else he needed to do.
He stared at his face in a small mirror, barely recognizing himself. He knew he’d lost a lot of weight, but he didn’t expect his face to look like this. His cheeks were hollow, making his eyes look far too large, and darker than he remembered. He looked old. Old and weak. He ran his hand through his hair and almost screamed when a clump of it came out. He stared at the matted mess of long blond hair in his hand, horrified. He recalled what Ella told him when he first got sick, that it was normal and it would come back after a while, and he hoped that it would, but for now, he didn’t want to ever feel like this again. He called Riley in and asked him very quietly to please shave his head for him, holding a clump that came out in his hand, showing it to him.
“I’ll get one of the girls to do it. I’m not very good with hair,” Riley said apologetically.
He turned back to the mirror and wrapped his hands around the edge of the sink to steady himself. “I won’t ask you for much beyond this, won’t ask you for anything. Please, shave my bloody head, or give me that razor and I’ll do it.”
The kid left and came back in a flash with a small chair and a towel, pulled his shirt off him and nodded that he was ready. It took much longer than he thought it would and he dozed off for a little while, hating himself for how weak he felt. Riley lifted him up, telling him that he was done, trying to turn him towards the mirror so he could see it, only he didn’t want to see any of it, didn’t need to see what this damn cancer did to him. He let Riley put the shirt back on him and walk him out of the room, careful not to look at the face of his son sleeping peacefully on whatever drugs they put in him. The hallway was empty and he was grateful for that. He didn’t want to see anybody. He just wanted to go home and be left alone.
The sun hit him square in the face as soon as they were outside, making him wince, his hand going up instinctively to cover his eyes. Riley just held on to him tighter, not saying anything. He noticed after a little while that they were going the wrong way and he knew then that Riley was taking him to his house. He stopped, staring at him, not moving another step.
“You can’t be alone yet. Someone has to take care of you for a month or so. You need injections and other things. So you can go back to the med floor or you can stay at my place. I even cleaned it up for you, so you don’t get an infection. That should count for something,” Riley said, grinning.
He shook his head. “I need you to take me home.”
He felt Riley’s hands digging into him hard, squeezing into his shoulders. “I know you’re pissed at me, pissed at all of us, I get it, but you don’t have a choice. I gave Ella my word that I’ll take care of you. It’s the only way she let you go, so you’re coming with me or we’re turning around and going back. I’ll carry you, if I have to. It won’t be any trouble, given that you don’t weigh shit now.”
He could hear anger in his voice for the first time since he got sick, and it surprised him. “You gave me your word, all of you, that you wouldn’t go looking for my son…that you would never do that to me, and yet you bloody did, so your word doesn’t mean shit to me. I’m going to my house or I’m staying right here,” he said slowly, quietly, and sat down on the sidewalk, leaned against the wall of the building behind him, and closed his eyes. The air around him suddenly felt too hot to breathe and he felt like he was going to suffocate. And then he was flying, feeling light, weightless, the air much cooler now as it brushed softly against him, almost cold against the exposed skin on his head.
He opened his eyes and they were staring at Riley’s at too close a range. He was carrying him. Embarrassment washed over him and he closed his eyes, not wanting to see pity on Riley’s face, not wanting to see anything at all for a very long time.