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Thirteen’s apartment was tiny; just a single room, really, with little more than the formality of a wall separating the toilet from the rest of the living space to justify the usage of the term. Twenty Three couldn’t bring herself to truly be upset about that. It was just one of the tiny ways her partner’s constant sass had of biting him in the rear. She contented herself that at least his punishment wasn’t something more severe.
She moved to the bed, and one by one started pulling sheets up off the mattress.
At least being smaller made the place quicker for her to search.
She examined the bedding by touch as she pulled it apart. Nothing there that wasn’t supposed to be. She checked the mattress, then dumped the sheets back down on top of it. She’d remake it when she was done, if there was time. She moved on to search the trunk.
Thirteen hadn’t been talking lately; ignoring offers of food or company and rarely even messaging her more than once every couple of days. That never bode well. When Thirteen went quiet, it always meant he was trying to keep things from her. She sighed. Thirteen only hid the things that led to fights.
The last time, it had been a kitchen knife; a small thing, embedded with a dozen or so pitifully small enchantments. He’d had some damn fool idea about just cutting the brands out of their skin. She would have laughed if the thought alone wasn’t enough to get him killed. That was years ago now, though. She’d thought he’d given up trying.
The knife had led to the biggest fight she could remember. He’d cried as he watched her break it; hadn’t spoken to her for months after that.
She wondered how long the silent treatment would last this time around.
The trunk was a bust. Nothing in there besides a few clothes and the small assortment of possessions their masters had allowed him to maintain. There was a Tardis shirt in there, a good three sizes too small for him now. It had been a task and a half just getting the thing for him. She’d thought he would have thrown it out by now. It wasn’t as if he could wear it any more.
She closed the trunk back up, then moved her search to the bathroom.
Nothing under the sink. No gaps in the walls or floor. No loose tiles under which he could be hiding things. She sighed, for a moment allowing herself to hope. Maybe there was nothing here to find. Maybe he really had given up. It felt wrong, having that be what she hoped for.
She moved to the toilet, and began pulling apart the water housing. No bags inside. Nothing there that wasn’t meant to be.
Maybe he was just trying to get some space from her? Maybe he wanted her to make the first move? Maybe he was just being a moody shit. Teenagers were difficult, even at the best of times.
She returned to the main room, and started re-dressing the bed. Maybe she could just invite him over for a while; just talk things out.
She made it halfway through getting the final sheet back in place when her phone pinged.
Great, she thought drily. A new target. Just what I needed.
She pulled the phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen, and that little scrap of hope shrivel away inside her chest.
“So,” she whispered. “This is how they finally break us, huh?”
The target was a girl. A human girl; about eight or nine, if she had to guess, and she was smiling. Why did she have to be smiling? That just made it so much worse. There were words as well, collected underneath the picture, half concealed by the border of the screen.
Numbly, Asset Twenty Three scrolled down and read through the target information; then she stood there, just letting it all sink in.
They told me her name, she thought. They told me her fucking name.
She took a breath.
Just say no. Take your phone, and go to the government. Right here. Right now. Let them kill you. What does it even matter? What kind of life have you got to lose?
For a moment, she almost managed to be convinced. But then there was another voice inside her head.
They’ll kill Caleb too, you know. You being obedient is the only thing that kept him alive so far.
Twenty Three allowed herself just a few more moments to pretend she had a choice, then put the phone back in her pocket with a laugh.
It didn’t matter anyway. She was a hunting dog. She did as she was told.
Caleb made his way back to his cage by a casual route that night. He was in no hurry. There were no tasks that day that remained for him to do, the night air was cool, and his curfew alarms weren’t set to go off for another hour, at least. Even leaving all of that aside, however, there was something else in play.
For the first time in a long while, Caleb was in a good mood. He was in a really good mood. He had a reason to be. The plan was coming together well.
In the two days since his talk with James’ stupidly powerful family, things had been right on track. According to the updates James had given him, the escape route was well on its way to full completion, and he’d spent most of yesterday training with Tasha in preparation for subduing Twenty Three.
He rolled his neck slowly around atop his shoulders for a second at that, trying unsuccessfully to ease the few remaining aches and pains. His technical ally hadn’t even tried to pull her punches. That was okay, though. He hadn’t either. If this thing really did go off without a hitch, he might even be big enough to thank her.
He was grinning by the time his cage came into view. A thought had struck him on his walk, and it was a good one.
Twenty Three would be free this time tomorrow. Maybe she’d finally be willing to give herself a name. He’d mulled it over in his head for the last half hour or so, and while it was her choice he wouldn’t dream of taking it away from her, he thought he’d like it if she chose to go with Kaylee.
Kaylee was a kind name.
His good mood lasted all the way inside his run-down apartment block, up the stairs, and halfway down the narrow hallway that led towards his cage.
Then he saw his doorway was ajar. Someone else had been inside.
He dropped his smile, slowing his pace a fraction; alert. Someone in his cage meant one of two things. Either someone had broken in, or he had a superior up the ranks that had decided not to trust him. For the first time in his life, Caleb found himself dearly hoping he’d just been robbed. Suspicion would just make the whole plan harder.
He neared the door and, quiet as he could, reached forward to push it open. Before his hand even touched the handle, however, the door swung open from the other side. What he saw behind it was not a supervisor, and that was not a relief.
“Hey, Thirteen,” Twenty Three murmured, barely even pausing to look at him as she stepped out past him into the hallway. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“You searched my room?” he asked, his voice quiet.
She stopped walking at that, her back to him. Then, in the most exhausted voice Caleb had ever heard, she spoke.
“I don’t wanna fight about this, Caleb,” she muttered. “Not right now. Please. I’m too tired.”
Caleb felt his eyes draw wide at that. She’d never used the name before. That alone was enough to quiet whatever anger had been building in his gut; replacing it with a concern he couldn’t seem to put a cause to.
“… Are you okay?”
Twenty Three let out a short laugh at that, followed by a weary kind of sigh.
“No,” she said. “I’m not. I’m in pain, Caleb. I wanted to ask you a favor.”
“Anything,” he replied without even a moment’s hesitation. “Whatever I can do.”
A pause, then; long enough that Caleb wondered if she’d even heard him. Then, her shoulders seemed to slump.
“Can you stop trying?” she asked. “For me? Just give up and let this be your life?” She turned around to give him a broken sort of smile. “It’d be easier for both of us if you did.”
Whatever thoughts had been winding their way through Caleb’s head came to a halt at that. She might as well have been asking him to die.
“… I really don’t think I can do that.”
“It’s easier than you’d think,” she replied. “And you won’t be alone for it, I promise. I just-” she halted there, regret for what came next written plain as day across her face. “It just hurts, you know? You’re the only good thing in my life, and the moments I get with you… they make it bearable. Can you stop making those moments hurt by making me betray you?”
“… You don’t have to keep betraying me.”
“I do if I want to keep your butt alive.”
There it was; the impasse. For a while, neither of them moved. There was nothing they could say. No compromise to be had.
“I care about you, you know?” Caleb gave the older girl a smile, and she gave him one back that made him feel cold inside.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Me too. Promise you’ll think about what I said?”
“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”
With that, Twenty Three turned away, and once more set off down the hall. Caleb did his best to brush the nausea aside.
It doesn’t matter, said a voice inside his haid. Tomorrow, we’ll be gone, and all of this’ll shift. It’s fi-
“You’ve got another escape attempt lined up, don’t you?” Twenty Three murmured behind her as she reached the stairs. When he didn’t reply, she simply sighed. “… Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyways. Just try and get rid of it before we leave, okay?”
Twenty Three didn’t say any more, simply stepping onward out of sight. A minute or two later, his phone pinged from inside his jacket. Feeling a little numb, he pulled it out, and checked the screen.
The photograph was more perplexing to him than anything else at first, a distance shot of a young boy, apparently taken through a window. Then he saw the words sitting underneath.
‘Target Name: Charles Vance. High priority. Retrieve unharmed and move to designated site to await your relocation. Harm to target will result in your termination. Failure to deliver will result in termination. You have three hours. Locations enclosed.’
Caleb set off down the corridor at a sprint. He had to get to Twenty Three. He had to get to her right fucking now and stop this. He reached the stairs, and didn’t even bother to run, simply vaulting across the breadth of them and landing on the floor. The plan was gone. He had to get the two of them away and he had to do it now.
She was already long gone by the time he hit the street. It took everything he had not to simply punch something.
No time, Caleb. You can be pissed about this later. Bigger problems right now. No plan. No partner. Gotta find her before she leaves. Think quickly.
He had the phone back out of his pocket before he’d even consciously decided on a choice, dialing in a number and pressing it against his ear while the rest of his body set off down the street at a sprint.
It took James almost a minute to answer the call, the young voice coming across the line husky and slowed.
“Caleb,” James groaned. “It’s midnight. Why the heck are yo-”
“We’re doing the ritual now,” Caleb cut him off, sparing a moment for his surroundings before cutting off down a side street. The bin he had to get to was three blocks away. There wasn’t time to waste. “No time to wait for it anymore.”
“What?” James asked, surprised, his voice still just shaking itself from sleep. “No, Caleb. That’s tomorrow. We’ve gotta wait for the-”
“They’ve given us new targets,” Caleb said shortly. “But it’s not creatures. We were always hunting beasts before, but now they’re sending us after humans.”
“What?” To his credit, the tiredness seemed to have abandoned James’ voice at that. “What humans? Why’re they taking them?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, taking the final turn into another darkened street and catching sight of the bin he needed. He kept speaking as he sprinted across to it, then ducked down, and tugged his ritual supplies from the packet he’d kept sticky taped underneath it. “I just know they want me to deliver some kid named Charles Vance. They’re gonna relocate me if I do, and they’re gonna kill me if I don’t. We don’t have any time to figure this out, Ja-”
“Charlie,” the other boy interrupted, his voice suddenly cold. “His name’s Charlie. They’re sending you after my friend.”
I don’t know why but I find myself really liking Twenty Three. I mean she’s no Tasha but I like her.
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Thank you. I like to think it’s the power of effective characterization at work.
Yay update. And a great one, too.
Remember to vote on topwebfiction everyone! Let’s get Touch back to the top where it belongs.
I feel like the other human is James’s sister, unless I’m missing something. Heck.
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I thought James’ sister Bex was only about 3 or 4. Might be remembering wrong.
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Five, but yes.
Yeah my memory is pretty bad. Whoops!
That certainly is a thing that maybe could be happening but that I’m not going to comment on either way.
Personally I think “Kaylee” and “Caleb” sound a bit samey, but hey, let’s see if she lives through this arc before we start worrying about stuff like that.
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