Catharsis: 2.10

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Casper:

It felt… odd, moving through the building with Lewis. The minds in the rooms all around, their tones varying between mild happiness and moderate boredom, sat at odds with the faint waves of contempt emanating from his guide, and the far stronger feeling of it flowing from Tasha. Casper tried to push it out of his mind. Gathering info was the focus for now. Lewis carried his captive up along the hall, shifting his grip on her to a more comfortable carry now that they were away from prying eyes. Neither he nor Casper spoke as they moved along, climbing a cramped stairway into a small room where half a dozen people were gathered; mostly adults, a few around Casper’s age, their dress surprisingly casual for the moment.

They glanced up as Lewis approached, Casper close behind him, the old stairs creaking slightly underfoot, and Casper felt the emotions in the room change. Mild trepidation in the younger minds, a sense of something akin to triumph in the older ones. One of their number, a startlingly pretty woman in a simple shirt and pants, pushed off from where she leaned against the wall, facing the three of them.

“I’m guessing that’s the girl who tried to take the kids away, huh?” Casper would have caught the note of anger in her voice even if he couldn’t trace it in her mind. “Stay here. I’ll go get Marcus.”

Lewis nodded and the woman took her leave, stepping briskly off down the corridor and around the corner. Casper followed her mind with his power, tracing her as she moved, down the hall to a room against the far wall, where it would be pressed to the corner of the building. She gathered three others, each from a different room, before starting back towards them. He was uncomfortably aware that a few of the people nearby were gazing at him. One of the other kids had an eyebrow raised. There was no aggression in the attention, and he knew it; but it was unsettling, nonetheless. He swallowed.

“Who’s the kid?” one of the older ones asked, a hand raised towards him.

“New trainee,” Lewis replied shortly. “Giving him a bit of a tour.”

Before the conversation had the chance to continue, the woman returned.

“Right,” she muttered, gesturing to Lewis to follow her. “Come on. They’re waiting for you.”

The hunter turned his attention briefly to Casper.

“Stay here while I deal with this, okay? I should only be a minute or two.” With that, he strode off after the woman, Tasha still slung unceremoniously over his back.

For a moment, all was quiet. Casper stood nervously in the center of the small room, uncomfortably aware of all the eyes on him, trying as best he could to simply hold his focus on Tasha and ignore all else.

“Soo…” a teenager asked from his space by the small window, a glint of curiosity suffusing itself into his voice. “You’re one of Lewis’ new trainees? What do you do, then?”

“Uhh, what?” he replied, uncertain.

“You know,” the other boy continued, slightly annoyed. “You have powers, right? I mean, why else would the hunter be training you. So what do you do?”

“I…” Casper hesitated, before dropping his shoulders with a frustrated sigh. “Not much, really.”

“Holy crap,” the older boy murmured in a tone of feigned awe. “A superhuman who isn’t full of himself! I never thought I’d see one of those.”

A few of the younger teens snickered, amused, but Casper felt a flash of irritation from one of the older girls just a moment before she piped up.

“Alistair,” she chided. “Mind your manners.” The younger teen ignored her, so she turned her attention to Casper. “You want something to drink? You look kinda nervous.”

In spite of himself, he chuckled, allowing himself a momentary relief from the tension.

“Is it that obvious?”

There were a couple of nods around the room.

“You’re shaking like a leaf, buddy. Lemme guess, first time in a Family building?”

“I… I have no idea what that is,” he answered. “I’m… kinda new.”

The boy named Alistair laughed gently.

“Well then, I bet you have some questions. We have some time to kill. Why not go ahead and ask?” As he spoke, the older girl rose from her chair and walked off into the hall, hanging a right into one of the doorways that branched off of it. She returned a moment later, a can of lemonade clasped in a hand. She offered it to him, and he accepted, unsure what else to really do.

At the other end of the building, he felt Tasha changing hands, her fury replaced now by dread, accompanied by something else; not quite what he would call fear, but close. There were three other people in there with her now, besides the hunter. Two felt angry. The third was colder, more detached.

Casper popped the can open and took a sip, taking a few steps to one side and perching himself on the edge of one of the small armchairs that littered the space. For some reason, the first question that came to mind was also the most pointless, in a lot of ways.

“Why are you all so… you know… perfect looking?” he asked, his cheeks flushing slightly. Tasha had mentioned it a few times in the week since her first encounter with the inhabitants of the place and, looking around, he couldn’t say he disagreed. Among the faces of those in the room, he couldn’t spot a single blemish, all vibrantly colored eyes and perfect teeth. It was a little unnerving, actually.

Alistair grinned.

“That’s father’s work,” he said with a note of pride. “Every new brother or sister gets his touch so he can make us into our perfect selves. Then all you have to do is exercise, eat right and remember to brush.”

Casper cocked an eyebrow at that, unsure what there really was that he could say. He gazed down at his soda can, thinking. Their father made them pretty? And they were all okay with that, even knowing why? What really confused him, though, was the cheer that the idea seemed to bring to them all. At Alistair’s words, they had all begun to smile, a faint note of happiness playing through each of them in turn. Then a thought occurred, and he shook himself. He was missing a prime opportunity here.

“Hey,” he mumbled. “Is… is there a bathroom I can use somewhere?”

“Sure,” the older girl answered, still smiling that strange smile. “Go downstairs, first door on the left.”

With a word of thanks, Casper rose from his seat and turned to leave. He made his way down the stairs as slowly as he thought he could manage without seeming off, then found the bathroom and went inside. It was a public style affair, luckily enough, a number of oddly luxurious cubicles running along a far wall. He stepped inside one, locked the door behind him, and pulled out Tasha’s phone.

Above him, he could feel Lewis departing the room with the three unknowns, leaving Tasha behind him. He cursed himself silently for not having done this earlier on. He keyed in the code to unlock the phone, then pulled up the text screen. He had entered James’ number by the time the man was back in the room with Alistair. Casper felt a momentary suspicion from him, only partially allayed a moment later when the other boy no doubt told him where Casper had gone. He hastened to write his message, tapping as fast as his fingers would allow as he attempted to relay all the relevant information in the limited time he had. Lewis was coming down the stairs. He had twenty seconds, maybe. He finished the message, and tapped send, then, without a moment’s pause, he turned off the phone, leaned down, and dropped it in the toilet, praying to god that the flush would be strong enough to carry it away. He heard the sound of a door swinging open, then Lewis spoke.

“You in here, little guy?”

“Uhh, yeah?” Casper replied, trying to make his voice sound confused rather than scared. Acting on a sudden realization, he undid his fly, and began to pee. “You mind waiting outside? I’m nearly done.” He could feel the suspicion still emanating from the man.

“… You know I’m gonna break your thumbs if you fuck with me, right?”

Casper shuddered, then forced himself to calm.

“Y-yeah. I know that.”

“Just making sure you remembered. Get a move on, will you? I don’t like this place.”

With that, Lewis left, closing the door behind him. Casper breathed a sigh of relief, then finished peeing. His captor had enhanced smell. He needed to actually go to the bathroom, or the lie would be obvious. Luckily, terror was good for that.

He finished his business, and hit the flush, silently praying for this to work. The phone rattled slightly against the basin as the current picked it up, before carrying it thankfully out of sight. Casper took a moment to be grateful that Tasha’s phone was an older, smaller model than his own, before shakily making his way outside, stopping only to wash his hands.

He opened the door to the hallway and was only half surprised when the older man immediately grasped him by the collar, pulling him somewhat off balance in the process, and began patting him down. He bore with it in silence until Lewis was satisfied that he wasn’t carrying anything, whereupon the hunter demanded to be shown the contents of his schoolbag. Eventually, the hunter was calmed, his suspicions allayed for the moment. He sighed, handing Casper back his school bag almost tiredly.

“Alright,” he murmured evenly. “Now it’s time to teach you about this world we’re in.”

Casper nodded, putting his arms back through the loops of his bag, trying not to let the relief show on his face.

“Yeah,” he answered quietly. “… I think there’s a lot I need to learn.”

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Catharsis: 2.1

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Tasha:

The girl stood at the entrance to the apartment block, feeling strangely self conscious, even in the empty, moonlit street. Of all the changes she’d made to her attire in the past few days, the dark green cloak that now shrouded her was debatably the most flamboyant, competing with the cheap white plastic theater mask that now covered her face. She shook herself. Appearance didn’t matter. What mattered was effectiveness, and if these new additions helped give her an edge in this second round, then that was all that mattered. Tasha clenched her fist slightly around the handle of her sturdy new metal bat, then pushed the door open, stepping back inside the lush interior of the building.

The halls were empty, as before, and Tasha wasted no time in heading for the stairs. She had her goal, and she was determined.

The girl made it perhaps halfway along the corridor before her plans went awry. A door opened, and a boy stepped out into the hall. He was wearing pajamas, a toothbrush sticking out of one side of his mouth, and for the first few moments, was apparently far too focused on scratching the side of his head to notice her. Tasha stopped in her tracks, unsure how to proceed. She wasn’t here to hurt the kids, but if he got in the way, what was she to do?

The boy stretched, his hands reaching high into the air as he tried to pull the muscles in his shoulders loose. His head lolled gently to the side, which was when he noticed her, his eyes going wide.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Tasha realized that she recognized this boy. He was the one who had called her ugly on her previous visit here. The boy, on the other hand, did not recognize her, concealed as she was in her ostentatious new costume. Lacking anything else to do, she tried to seem bigger than she was, more impressive. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get a word out, the boy bolted, the toothbrush falling forgotten from his mouth as he made his way up the staircase two at a time.

Tasha swore to herself as she began her pursuit, sprinting towards the stairs after him, her feet thudding on the thick carpet. He saw her following, and redoubled his speed. The boy was faster. She hadn’t even reached the bend in the stairway when the sounds of people speaking stopped her short.

“Alistair,” murmured a woman’s voice, a note of suppressed anger clear under a forced calm. “What are you doing up here? It’s not your night for taking custo-”

“Weirdo downstairs,” the boy cut her off, just a little out of breath. “Has a baseball bat! Chased me up here!”

“What?” A mature sounding male voice cut in, agitated. “Men, block the stairs.”

There was no audible response, but Tasha hadn’t been expecting any. She grinned. Time to give these guys a show. The girl crouched slightly, gazing up at the wall opposite. She’d practiced stuff like this before, and was more than a little pumped at the thought of getting to try it out for real. She coiled like a spring, then released, launching herself up from the midpoint of the stairway and high along the plaster covered wall. If they were expecting someone to come at them up the stairs, then she’d come from somewhere else. Tasha pivoted in midair, feeling her back and feet connect with the ceiling and wall, the plaster cracking slightly with the impact. She reached out her free hand and dug her fingers into the wall, holding herself in place. With this shift in perspective, she caught sight of the men who were, indeed, blocking the stairway door. Four of them, adults, dressed in close fitting business gear and matching shades, short batons and knuckle dusters in hand. If it was possible for someone to look like a gangster, it was these guys. They were gazing at her with a unilateral look of surprise. Before they had time to do more than stare, she pushed off from the wall with her feet, holding the bat sideways before her with both hands, and shot into their barricade like a cannonball.

To his credit, one of the four men was quick enough to dodge to the side. The other three, however, took the impact dead on, the metal beam colliding with weapons, arms and rib-cages with a loud, solid crunch as she bowled them back onto the floor. One groaned, clutching his wrist, another began to stand. The one whos ribs she had struck lay still. No time to think about that now. The one who had avoided her strike stepped forwards, pivoting on one foot to kick her in the side with all his might. Had this been a few days ago, that might have stopped her. It would at least have served the purpose of throwing her off balance, slowing her down and forcing her onto the defensive. As it was now, however, his foot bounced off her homemade armor with a metallic ring, and the only thing that spared him of a broken foot was his shoe, apparently steel toed. He let out a confused ‘huh,’ and she chuckled, swinging the bat sideways into the knee he was still using to stand. It bent sideways around the weapon, and the man dropped to the ground, screaming. As he grasped his shattered leg, eyes wide, the skin of his cheek began to shift and flush, the dark, intricate pattern of the mark of pain emerging on the forefront of his skin, interlocking with the mark of purity under his eye. Tasha pushed herself to her feet, taking a moment to take stock of her surroundings.

The room was quite full, just as it had been in the previous instance, a collection of attractive men and women of varying ages occupied the space, dressed as though they were all attending some cocktail party somewhere. Their faces, she noted, were all oddly unblemished by the marks of purity or pain that she might have expected them to carry. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Unlike before, however, there were others interspersed among them. Four or five, at most. Older, and, to varying degrees, far less attractive. Customers?

The man with the broken hand pushed himself to his feet, face set in a determined line, and came at her, swinging a short baton in his uninjured hand. She brought her bat around to intercept, and stopped the blow dead with ease, before slapping it down against his knuckles. He didn’t fall, even as the mark of pain began to bloom across his cheek like black smoke, but merely backed away, cradling his broken hands and glaring at her.

For just a moment, all was silent, the twenty or so people staring at her as one. Tasha, for her part, was pumped. For this one moment, everything in the room revolved around her. When she moved, they all moved in response to her. Time for some answers. She had her suspicions, time to test them.

“Right,” she spoke, loud enough for the room at large to hear. “Now then, who came here to fuck some whores?” No response. She raised her bat. “Honesty, or I start hitting things. This is a sex place, right?”

Now the people around her were looking at her less like she were an angry person with a baseball bat, and more like she were a confused toddler somewhere she shouldn’t be.

“… Yes.” Replied a thirty something woman in a black dress suit, a little too formal to be one of the residents. “Are… are you really asking? Do you actually not know who you’re attacking right now?”

“Pretty much,” Tasha admitted with a slight chuckle. “I’m not really a figuring it out ahead of time type of gal. Now, everyone who came here for sex, pockets empty please, money on the floor in front of me, or I start breaking thumbs.”

Around the room, the four or five ‘customers’ began turning out their pockets. The woman did so with something of a grin.

“I know it sounds cliche, but you have no idea how much trouble you’re in right now.”

Tasha wasn’t listening. She was distracted, for the moment, by the fact that the suited men and woman had deposited what looked to be well over a thousand dollars on the floor before her, amassed as a collection of crisp, neatly folded bills.

“Man,” she murmured. “I should mug buildings more often.” That said, she lowered herself to the ground, bending her knees rather than her back so as not to open herself up to attack, and picked up the cash, stuffing it into the cloak’s pocket with some difficulty, the thick material of her costume gloves impeding her grip a little. Then, she stood. “Right. Time to free everyone.”

The crowd followed her, more perplexed it seemed than genuinely concerned, as she strode on into the corridor. She tried the first door, and found it locked. She pulled back with her bat, and swung it down towards the handle. The metal and wood gave out with a loud snap, and on the other side of the door, she heard a yelp of alarm. She kicked it open and looked inside.

The interior of the room was furnished just as opulently as the hallways, a lush carpet running the floor of the small space, covered at one end by a mid sized wooden dresser, and at the other by a large, comfortable looking double bed, on which sat a small girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring at her wide eyed.

‘So Casper was right,’ Tasha thought to herself with a note of anger. ‘They are using kids for this.’ Out loud, she only said “Come on. I’m getting you out of here.” Before turning away from the door and moving on to the next.

Before she had a chance to break the door open, however, a voice stopped her, a familiar softness to it.

“Hello, miss. A pleasure to see you again.”

Tasha looked up, catching sight of the same, brown haired young man whose hand she had broken on her last visit. He stood in the corner, where the corridor turned along the wall of the building. His hand, she noted with some satisfaction, was heavily bandaged. She lowered the bat, and turned to face him.

“Want something?” She asked. “You should know, I don’t like people who waste my time.”

“Oh good,” the man smiled. “So it is you under all those clothes. Great. I was hoping we’d get another chance to talk.”

“Not interested in talking,” Tasha replied evenly. “I just wanna get the money, and the whores, and get them somewhere safe. Away from dickbags like you.”

The man let out a genuine laugh at that, as did a few of those following behind her.

“They’re all very safe, thank you,” he smiled again. “And perfectly happy where they are. Although,” he dropped the smile. “We don’t like being called whores.”

“Don’t care,” Tasha said bluntly. “I’m taking them away from you, where no one is gonna sell them to anyone ever again.”

“And where might that be?” The man snorted. “Where exactly are you planning to take my family once you’ve kidnapped them, hmm? I assume you have somewhere set up already for them. And that’s assuming they even want to come with you, which, believe me, they don’t.”

Tasha ignored him, turning back to the task at hand. She stoved in the doorknob with the hilt of her bat, and kicked it open. The occupant was a boy this time. He looked to be around twelve, and was staring at her, confusion and fear warring on his face.

“Come on,” she said gently to him. “We’re getting you out of here.”

The boy didn’t move, instead simply staring at her.

“M-Marcus?” He called out, his voice tremulous. “W-what’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it, Leo,” the brown haired man called back, his voice calm. “Just some outsider being weird. Go back to sleep, kay?”

“…Kay.” The boy gazed at Tasha for a few more moments, before turning in his bed and laying himself back down against the pillows, his back to her.

Tasha stared at the boy, then directed her gaze back towards Marcus.

“What… the fuck?”

In reply, he only shrugged.

“The kids like it here,” he murmured. “And why wouldn’t they? They have love, and family, and food and a warm bed at night. Are you trying to take that away?”

“And in exchange, you sell them for sex?” Tasha asked, feeling a little sick. “No dice. I’m not leaving till I’ve torn this whole fucked up place to the ground.”

Marcus sighed, then pushed off from the wall he had been leaned up against.

“Well, if that’s how it is. You’ll have to start with me.” He shifted positions into some sort of fighting stance., his legs spreading slightly and his shoulder turned towards her, holding his undamaged arm at mid height, the bandaged one behind his back. Tasha almost laughed. She raised her bat, grasped the handle firmly with both hands, and charged.

She made it within perhaps two feet of him, before something struck her with what felt like all the force of a truck, lifting her off her feet and slamming her into the wall. She fell to the floor with a thump, too dazed to catch herself.

“So,” said a new female voice that Tasha didn’t recognize. “You’re the girl Father called me out here to test? You sure are convenient. We weren’t expecting you to come to us on your own like this.”

Tasha’s whole body ached. She pushed herself up off the ground, staring. Standing across from her, previously concealed by the bend in the hallway, was a young woman, perhaps only five or so years older than Tasha, with a face that, were she to guess, she would have called Middle eastern. This girl too was utterly unmarked and, equally strangely, was oddly, unnaturally beautiful.

“Well then,” her attacker murmured. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

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Mistakes: 1.6

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Tasha:

Tasha gazed at the squarish, slightly run down apartment block before her, then glanced down at the address on her phone screen. Well, it was the right place alright. It always amazed her how completely unassuming places where bad things happened looked. She shrugged, squared her shoulders, and stepped inside.

Tasha glanced down to check the address on her phone screen. Well, it was certainly the right place. She looked around, casting her eyes once more over the richly decorated interior of the foyer. She, like most people, had built up a set of expectations in her life about what places where crimes happened were supposed to look like, sex crimes in particular. Whatever that expectation was for Tasha, this was not it. A rich, velveteen carpet covered the floors in a deep, nut brown, lined by walls of a gentle cream color. The whole place put Tasha more in mind of high-end business space or some fancy hotel than homes.

The foyer branched off into two corridors, the right one terminating in a staircase, the left continuing around to the presumable end of the building, before making a right turn, beyond which she couldn’t see.

‘Second floor, fourth window,’ she reminded herself with a shrug, making for the stairs, before something caught at the corner of her eye. She turned to glance back. It was a plaque on one of the doors that lined the halls, the lettering picked out in solid black against smooth, reflective bronze.

‘Junior classroom one.’

There were a few occasional snatches of sound from the other side of the door. Curious, Tasha pressed her ear against the surface.

“-kay, kids,” a woman’s voice spoke, loud and clear, even through the thick door frame. “So, if you find the area of a rectangle by multiplying the width and the length, then can anyone tell me how you find the area of a trian- hey, Drew, pay attention please. If you get last place in the test again and have to spend another week helping make the dinner, the other kids might die from how gross your food is.” There was a snatch of what sounded like children’s laughter, presumably at Drew’s expense.

Tasha pulled her ear away, frowning. Was this place some kind of school? She shook herself, and returned her attention to the stairway. She made her way over, grasped the old wooden bannister in her hand, and made her way up the stairs, attempting, for what it was worth, to distribute her weight somewhat to quiet her movements; an attempt that failed spectacularly with every creak of the old, semi rotted staircase.

The second floor was decorated much like the first, the hallways lined with doors and plaques. It was, however, far more densely populated than the one below. The room beyond the stairway opened out briefly into a fairly spacious communal room of sorts, littered with comfortable looking arm chairs and tables bearing vases of somewhat droopy looking flowers.

Scattered throughout the room were around fifteen people. A few boys, perhaps a little older than Tasha, were playing a card game between themselves of a sort that she did not recognize. Tasha imagined by the look of frustration on the right hand boy’s face, that the one on the left was probably winning. A trio of twenty-somethings stood by a window, chatting amiably as they took turns puffing cigarette smoke out into the street. There were others, ranging from their early teens to what Tasha would have assumed to be their mid thirties. Stepping out of the landing that housed the stairs up to the third floor, Tasha noticed how the quiet conversation all around seemed to hush slightly. One or two sets of eyes turned towards her briefly, before returning to their prior activities.

Tasha pretended not to notice, held her head straight forwards, and took another step, continuing through into the hallway. She felt their eyes following her until the right turn mercifully removed her from their view.

Casper had said the sense was coming from the fourth window on the second floor. Tasha left the quiet inhabitants of the room behind and moved through the corridor, turning to the right and continuing to the door which, to her best estimate, corresponded with the window Casper had specified. She tried the door, and found it locked.

“Excuse me, miss,” said a soft, male voice from behind her. “You seem lost. Can I help you with something?” Had it been her first time investigating a place, it may have been enough to make her jump. As it was, however, she was more experienced than that, and so turned to face the speaker quite calmly. It was one of the twenty somethings that had been smoking by the window. He wore a polite smile, accentuated by a gentle looking face framed nicely by a shock of hazelnut brown hair. He was not alone. Behind him stood the rest of the people from the waiting room, each eyeing her coolly. In spite of herself, Tasha found it slightly unnerving. She hadn’t even heard them approach.

“Nah,” she answered with a shrug and a small smile. “Not lost, just new. I just moved in here last week, nice to meet you.” She held out a hand, which the young man shook.

“You don’t live here,” he replied, that gentle smile still affixed to his face. “You sure you’re not lost?” When Tasha tried to withdraw her hand, he refused to let go, gripping perhaps twice as hard as he reasonably should have been. A threat? Tasha grinned. She liked it when people tried to threaten her.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” She replied, giving the man’s hand a firm squeeze. “Thanks, though.” He winced for a moment, letting in a sharp puff of breath, before once more shifting back to that strange serenity. Tasha cocked her head, confused, then began to gradually tighten her grip. The man ignored it.

“Too ugly to be one of ours,” said one of the boys who had been playing cards from behind the man. “Too old to be a new sist-” He was silenced by one of the others, a woman in her early twenties, placing a hand on his shoulder. Tasha might have been offended by the comment, but she had to admit, now that she had a chance to look, everyone around her was, indeed, quite startlingly attractive.

“One more time,” the kindly voiced man smiled, still utterly ignoring the no doubt excruciating pain emanating up from his hand. “What are you really doing here, because this definitely is not your home.”

Tasha had no response. These people unnerved her. She gripped the man’s hand tighter still, more just because it felt good to be doing something than because she thought it might achieve anything. There was a sharp snap as one of the bones in his palm gave out under the pressure, his hand contorting slightly under hers. Almost as one, the young man and his companions turned their eyes down towards his broken hand, then back towards her.

“I think you should go now, miss,” he said, no longer smiling. “You really shouldn’t be here.”

Tasha may have argued the point, secure in the knowledge that these people posed little real threat to her, but was stopped when one of the older men behind the group’s apparent speaker shifted his weight, and she caught a glimpse of the gun handle under his jacket.

“… Fine,” she muttered angrily, glaring at the group at large. “I’m gone. Later.” She released the man’s broken hand, turned back in the direction of the staircase, and began walking, the group parting around her as she went.

Tasha kept her head pointed straight ahead as she made her way back the way she came, letting herself glance back only once. They were all still watching her, standing as a group at the corner-point of the corridor. She waited until she hit the staircase and was out of their sight before she allowed herself to start running.


Marcus:

The group watched the strange girl take her leave, maintaining their facade by mutual agreement until she was well out of sight, before, as one, moving into a blur of action.

“Who the heck was that?” Asked Alistair, his young face twisting in confusion, still gazing after the departed intruder.

“No one good,” murmured Samson, reaching down to gently swat the boy’s face. “And what are the rules about speaking in front of intruders? You let the adults handle it, don’t you.”

Alistair shifted his gaze to the floor, his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I forgot.”

Samson opened his mouth to deliver a final reprimand, but Marcus beat him to it.

“It’s alright, Alistair,” he murmured, ruffling the youth’s hair affectionately with his undamaged left hand. “Just be thankful you had your big sister here to stop you saying anything stupid, okay?”

Alistair inclined his head towards Isabella and mumbled a few incomprehensible words of thanks before shuffling off in the direction of his room.

With the misbehavior suitably reprimanded, Marcus made his way back across the corridor, his brothers and sisters following close behind him, and rapped his undamaged hand a few times against the door that the stranger had attempted to open.

“Elise?” He called. “You catch any of that?”

There was a brief fumbling noise at the other side of the door, before it swung inwards to reveal Elise, her brow furrowed in concern, the skin pulling into wrinkles that cast unfortunate shadows on her otherwise pleasant, slightly browned skin.

“Yeah,” the girl muttered. “W-who was that? Why was she trying to get into my room?”

“I was kinda hoping you could tell us, sis,” Marcus murmured, attempting to make his voice as soothing as possible. “Have you run into anyone or said anything that might make people want to snoop around here? I promise I won’t be mad, kay?”

The adolescent shook her head shakily, her face still twisted in that unsightly worry.

“You’re sure?” He asked. “Never said something in front of your regulars, no one heard you talking to someone on the street, nothing?”

“I-I haven’t said anything to anyone about anything,” she mumbled. “P-promise.”

Marcus sighed. That was a shame. If it wasn’t anything to do with Elise, then that meant he didn’t have any leads to go on, but it couldn’t be helped, he knew his sister wouldn’t lie to him.

“I see,” he said quietly, crouching slightly and pulling the girl into a brief hug. “It’s gonna be perfectly fine, Elise. She probably just chose your room at random cuz she needed to pretend she had a reason to be here.” The girl nodded, but did not seem overly reassured. Marcus sighed. “Isabella, can you stay with Elise for a bit? I think she could use some company right now.” His sister nodded once, before stepping forwards, taking the girl gently by the shoulder, and guiding her back inside her room.

“Right, you lot,” Samson rumbled, his voice still drawing his younger siblings’ attention despite his age. “You guys go back to doing your own thing. Remember, just because we had an intruder doesn’t mean you might not still have customers to take. I need to patch up Marcus’ hand before the pain comes back.”

The others gave their assent, nodding and murmuring amongst themselves about the strangeness that had just occurred as they made their way back to the showroom, leaving Marcus and Samson alone in the empty corridor. The two were still for a moment, before the older man grasped Marcus by the shoulders, and began steering him gently but firmly towards the infirmary.

They were about halfway along the corridor, before Samson broke the uncomfortable silence.

“You really shouldn’t have used the painkiller, you know.” The older man commented, his voice low in case someone else should hear. “You’re supposed to use it for emergencies only, not to intimidate teenagers. It draws attention.”

“I know,” Marcus grumbled. “I messed up, okay? She was crushing my hand and it hurt and I was trying really hard to keep my cool. I did it without thinking. Sorry.”

“It happens,” Samson murmured, not unkindly, giving his young leader a small nod in acknowledgement of his contrition. “But you’re the leader now. You need to learn to think a little more before you use Father’s gifts, okay?”

“Yeah, I know.”

The pair were silent once more until they reached the infirmary. Samson sat Marcus down on the thin medical bed, and set about resetting the split bone before the pain had a chance to kick back in. Marcus was becoming slowly aware of the dull ache building gradually in his hand. He sighed. This was going to hurt a lot.

“You were too gentle with Alistair,” Samson muttered as he set about bandaging the wounded extremity. “If you don’t hammer the point home, he’ll never learn not to make such simple mistakes.”

Marcus groaned, resisting the urge to roll his eyes until Samson looked away.

“I’m not you, okay?” He replied, forcing his voice to sound even. “I know that you liked to reinforce every lesson you taught, but you’re not the leader any more, Samson, I am, and I don’t want to lead that way.”

The older man grunted, eyes still focused on his task.

“You sure that’s all it is?” He asked. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a little soft on our little brother. I know you prefer them young and pretty, and I know how often you’ve been sharing his bed lately. You sure you’re not getting a little too involved?” Underneath the usual gruffness, Marcus could have sworn he heard a note of hurt in the older man’s voice.

“Now now,” he replied, working to keep the note of amusement out of his tone. “Don’t be jealous, Samson, it’s not like that. You know as well as I do that Alistair still finds his male customers a little… painful. He asked me to help him work on that, okay? I promise, I haven’t forgotten you, oh glorious leader.” He allowed a touch of humor into the last few words to soften his teasing.

“Little brat,” Samson grumbled, a mild blush coloring his cheeks. “That’s not what this is about and you know it.”

“You sure?” Marcus grinned, raising his uninjured arm and grasping one of his companion’s hands. “We can always ask one of the girls to help you out. I could probably even manage a little quickie right now if you’re feeling neglected, oh mighty Samson.” He lowered his face, resting his forehead lightly against the other man’s stomach.

“No thanks,” Samson murmured, pushing him gently upright. “I don’t want your teeth anywhere near me when that painkiller wears off.”

Marcus grimaced. The ache in his hand was indeed getting worse and worse by the second.

“How bad’s it gonna get?”

“You’ve never broken anything before, have you?” Samson asked, giving him a contemplative look. Marcus shook his head, and the older man sighed. “It’s going to be pretty bad. Want me to stay with you, little brother?”

Marcus was about to shake his head, when the first wave of genuine pain hit him. He grit his teeth against it, letting out a little groan as his hand began to pulse with what felt like fire. Wordlessly, Samson sat down beside him on the bed, one large hand moving to stroke the younger man’s back.

“D-don’t call me little brother,” he managed weakly. “I’m the leader now, okay? Don’t you forget it.”

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