Bonus chapter: Small Worlds.
Eleven years ago:
Asset Eighteen awoke with a groan to the sound of his phone going off.
For a second, he just lay there in bed, eyes closed, trying to pretend he was still asleep. There wasn’t a reason to get up. None at all. Who sent texts at Two in the morning? The bosses didn’t matter. Seventeen could wait.
He let himself pretend that for a solid twenty seconds, before pulling his body upright. He rubbed bleariness from his eyes, propped his butt against his pillow, and checked his phone.
The message was from Seventeen.
It was only one word long:
The residents of New Jersey were clearly quite surprised to see the twelve year old sprinting barefoot down the street, a line of scavenged linen fluttering in the wind behind him. He heard some of them call out to him; dodged between the ones who tried to stop him. He didn’t care about them. He just clutched the jumbled fabric a little tighter and sprinted for all he was worth.
He reached the block containing his partner’s cage in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother with the stairs. If this was what he thought it was, Seventeen wouldn’t be in a state to open the door. Instead, he climbed the fire escape, vaulting up the ladder and taking the steps three or four at a time. He reached her window, loosened the latch with a muttered spell, yanked it open, and climbed inside.
He found Seventeen curled up in the corner of the room, her pillow wrapped tight around her head. There was vomit on the floor. She was shaking.
She knew he was there. Of course she knew. That was the problem in a nutshell. She was his counterpart, bred for enhanced senses just as he was for physicality. Even with that pillow around her head, she could tell him exactly where he was.
And where everyone else in the building was. And the location of every dumpster. And what they all held.
“Help me,” she whispered, her arms squeezing the pillow convulsively around her ears. “The world’s too big. Help.”
To Eighteen’s credit, he did not hesitate. He strode across the room, casually ignoring the vomit on the floor, and picked her up.
She clung to him.
He carried her to her bed, deposited her gently on the sheets, and wrapped them around her like a burrito. Her whimpers softened, just a little. He repeated the action with the linen from his own cage, burying her under seven or so layers of bundled fabric. She sniffled.
He nodded, satisfied. The treatment was starting to take effect. Good. He picked his friend-burrito up, carried her through to her tiny bathroom, and dumped her in the shower, before returning to the main room. Then, he closed the window, and started searching the place for more material. Her curtains were terrible. Cheap plastic things that crinkled as they moved. Perfect.
He pulled them down, bundling them up in his arms along with a towel and assorted shirts. From there, he returned to the bathroom, unfolded the plastic curtains, and draped them over Seventeen’s head, followed in short order by the fabrics. Okay. That was the main structure in place. Now he just had to finish it up.
He closed the door into the main room, and turned off the light.
Great. He was now completely blind.
“Hey,” he murmured, quiet as he could. “Seventeen. You know who’s a huge dummy and can’t see in the dark?”
From the rough direction of the shower, there was a snuffly kind of laugh.
“O-one step forwards,” she mumbled.
Eighteen allowed himself a small smile, closed his eyes, and stepped blindly forwards.
“Two steps left.”
“Turn around a little bit.”
He turned. She giggled.
“The other way, doofus.”
“I knew that,” he muttered, turning the other way.
“Sure you did. One step forward, then one step right.”
“You found me.”
“I found you,” he echoed, reaching down and patting the rough area where he assumed her head to be. He was pretty sure he got it. “Good work, ground control. Engaging operation domino fortress. Ready to proceed?”
A wet snicker.
“Roger, Alpha One.”
He spent a few awkward seconds fumbling in the dark for the shower handle, before turning on the water, and soaking the both of them with a lukewarm spray. He gave it just enough time for the water to run warm, then turned it back off. he got down on his hands and knees, lifted the edge of the fabric draped over Seventeen’s head, and climbed in under it with her.
It was disconcerting to him. Under the curtain, muffled by layers of liquid sodden cloth, he couldn’t hear a damn thing besides her breathing.
That was the point. Put the rest of the world as far away as possible.
He reached out, took his friend-burrito by the shoulders, and propped her up between his knees for a hug. Now he had only one job left. Listen to her breathing, and keep her calm.
She nuzzled her face against his shoulder. He pretended not to notice the moisture in her eyes.
“It’s still so loud,” she sniffed. “It’s everywhere.”
“No it’s not,” he muttered. “It’s far away from us. The world’s just you and me right now.” He pulled her in a little tighter, his hand rubbing gently at her back.
Eighteen kept her snuggled there until her breathing evened out. He wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep. He nodded off himself not long after.
Two Days Ago:
Eighteen sat in the visitor’s chair, gazing down at his hands. He’d taken days drumming up the courage to come here. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say. Instead, he just sat there, glaring at the plastic cuff wrapped around his wrist.
A tracking device. The irony was painful.
He shot a look at his minder by the door. The man raised an eyebrow. Eighteen scowled at him. The minder just shrugged.
He took a breath.
‘Just get it over with.’
He looked at Thirteen. The kid looked back, right in his eyes. He looked away.
The sound of fingers snapping together. His head jerked up. It was Seventeen. She was still standing exactly where she had been for the last half hour, out in the hallway, back against the wall by the open door as her eyes scanned mechanically back and forth across her field of view. She didn’t look at him.
She did speak, though, in a fashion. The tiniest jerk of her head towards the hospital bed. That was about as vocal as she ever got in public.
“Yeah. I know.”
Another tiny movement of her head towards the bed. There was no arguing with her sometimes.
“I was a dick,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked the wounded boy in the eye. Thirteen’s gaze was cold. Eighteen kept going. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back, no matter what, I’ll do it. I promise.”
Thirteen’s expression remained unchanged. Eighteen returned his gaze to the floor.
When a response finally came, it was barely louder than a croak. Hardly surprising. The kid’s throat was just as torn up as the rest of him.
“You’re not worth it,” he said. “Not worth her. Neither of you are.”
Eighteen took the words on the chest as best he could.
“Fuck you,” he murmured. “We’re worth plenty.”
Thirteen let out a noise that began as a laugh, but finished as more of a pained groan.
“She’s broken and you’re an asshole,” he replied. “Twenty Three’s worth more than both of you.”
Eighteen closed his eyes and took a breath. He had promised himself that no matter what Thirteen said, he’d take it. He deserved everything the kid could dish out and more. He forced himself to give the guy a chance.
“She’s not broken,” he said quietly. “Take it back.”
“Prove me wrong,” Thirteen replied, glaring at him.
Eighteen opened his mouth to reply, not entirely sure of what he was even going to say, when a knocking from the corridor stopped him short. The two of them looked around. Eighteen grinned.
Seventeen had her arm stuck through the doorway. She was giving Thirteen the finger.
“So,” he asked. “You want that in writing?”
Seventeen years ago:
The first strike caught him in the mouth. Hard, blunt; a lightning line of pain cracking through his teeth. He tasted blood.
It sent him reeling, blind, thumping against the bed. He let out a noise; not quite anger, not quite fear, and raised a hand in an attempt to pull the bag away from his eyes.
That earned him a blow across the hand, something solid colliding with his thumb. He felt the bone split, and was unable to hold back the quiet whine of pain that escaped his desire for defiance. He hunched over, half-cradling his broken hand, then felt the butt of something jab against his abdomen, driving all the air from his lungs in a single, violent heave.
He lost some of the contents of his stomach, too. The lip of the bag kept them stuck around his neck.
He spent the next half second trying to simultaneously breathe and retch, before another strike impacted like a hammer blow against his shoulder.
He let the force of it push him off his knees; allowed his body to hit the floor, taking the landing on his one uninjured shoulder, and using the movement to roll himself to his feet.
He was used to pain. Used to discomfort. They’d been drilling him for this since the day he was born.
He closed his eyes. No use to him with the bag in the way. He relied on sound. His assailant moved loudly; breathed heavy. Big. Male.
He dodged the next swing by pure, blind instinct, ducking under a swing probably meant to ring his skull like a bell, and surged forwards, head first, bringing his forehead into his attacker’s crotch as hard as he could.
The man yelled.
Then the man’s knee made him swallow one of his teeth.
That was the last thought he had for a while. A pair of hands clapped against his ears; made stars jump around inside his brain.
It was a relief, in a way; made him less able to register the pain of every hit. After a minute or so, he was left laying there, just quietly wondering why.
Were they going to kill him?
Had he disobeyed?
When the world finally began to swim back into focus, the first things he noticed were the shrieks. Inarticulate, horrified.
He knew that voice.
Another strike. His gut this time. Then a voice he lacked the capacity to recognize called them off.
“Enough. She’s manifested. It’s done.”
For a moment, he simply lay there, his mind a loose associative mess of pain and tired confusion. Then, they pulled the vomit and blood soaked bag off his head, and he saw something that turned the world cold.
She had tear marks streaking down her cheeks. They’d strapped her to a chair.
“Why?” he croaked, for all the world, just bitter. “Why’d you make her watch?”
They ignored him.
“Right,” muttered the same voice as before. “Hold him down. Let’s get this over with.”
He didn’t resist the hands as they took hold of his wrists. He was too tired. Too sore. Defiance was only worth so much.
His perspective changed when the first fist caught Seventeen about the cheek, knocking her chair sideways to the floor. Then, his very blood caught fire.
He didn’t know how long it went on. Just that he fought them with all his might for every single second of it. Every blow. Every drop of her blood across the floor.
He felt something breaking loose inside his brain.
He awoke in rage.
Hands at his shoulders. Weight against his chest. Still holding him down.
He struck blind. Too dark to see. Couldn’t think.
The flaring of a shield in the gloom; a ringing pain in his wrist. He let out a wordless curse, grabbed his attacker by the middle, and wrenched her off of him. Shield or no, there was no competing with his strength. He grappled; pinned her down; glared down at the figure in the dark, his heart racing, his mind scarlet.
“Let her go,” he said. It was all he had the space in his head to say. He closed his grip around her wrists, and squeezed. The shield flickered; a momentary light casting focus on his adversary’s skin.
He let Seventeen go; pulled himself backwards across his bed, ashamed.
He spent the next few minutes glaring at his feet, something painful jammed inside his throat.
It had been a long time since he’d had that nightmare.
“I-” he tried, his voice catching somewhere along the line. “I’m sorry. I’m-”
“Shh,” she murmured, the mattress shifting slightly as she slid herself across it. “Stop being a dummy.”
There was some part of him that wasn’t quite able to stop the smile at that.
He felt her head come to rest gently against his shoulder.
They sat together like that for a long while; just quiet; the both of them listening as his heart began to slow.
He felt her lips brush against his cheek.
“You gonna say the words?” she asked, just above a whisper.
“No,” he complained, his smile growing a fraction wider. “They feel stupid now.”
“Well, I still want to hear them.”
He sighed. There was no arguing with her.
“It’s far away from us,” he recited, the warmth spreading slowly through his tired brain. “The world’s just you and me right now.”
He chuckled as he felt her lips once more trace their way across his jaw.