They tell time different in TC, now. Not always, not for regular things like when's the pickup and what time is shift change and when do you think the generator will run out, all those things are days and numbers like before. But bigger time, the kind that looks back and forth slowly, keeping its eyes on the horizon. That's when people talk about Flag Day. Well, sometimes they call it Flag Day. Sometimes Day One. Or the beginning or when we got here or the big day, a lot of words, but they mean the same thing. The day Terminal City turned into TC and everybody started over.
Joshua likes "Flag Day" the best, of course. It's still hanging up there, in the sky, faded and runny now from the rain, but he can always make another one. It was only hard to have the idea first, and then he could just paint and paint. Paint wasn't one of the things they were always running out of. Sometimes Joshua remembered the time he'd tried to eat the paint, before he learned what it was. It was a funny story, made people laugh. Especially now when everyone was always hungry, and they laughed like they were thinking they might have tried it too.
Not too hungry, not dying. Everything is okay still. Manticore built everyone to survive in hard places. Maybe not for this long, but they're doing okay. Food runs are hard, have to go through a lot of sewer line to get far enough away. And only the X-series of course. Joshua and the others help down in the sewers, picking up the food and carrying it back while the X-series go get more. There was a whole system now. So they could get enough, for the smaller ones who were still growing, and for Gem who was nursing, and now in wintertime Mole and the others who used all their energy just keeping warm.
Joshua thinks about food a lot. Not just because it's one of his jobs in TC, either. He goes through a book in his mind where all his favorite foods are, on one page a pizza and the next page an apple and the next page a jar of peanut butter. One day a while ago someone found a pig and a chicken--well, stole a pig and a chicken, and that was bad, but it was so good to have real meat. Not enough to go around of course, never enough, but it made a good soup for a few dozen people. And afterwards Max gave Joshua all four feet and half the head from the pig. She said he wasn't eating enough, but he tried to give them back. He said nobody was eating enough. It was true, too. Max is even littler than she used to be, less soft to hug now and more like a sharp little twig.
Everybody is skinny now, except the ones who don't lose weight the same way, and except Gem, because everybody makes sure she eats even when she complains about it. One or two nights there's been nobody eating except for Gem and the baby. She always gets angry but that's how everybody wants it. You always need to take care of the babies or where will you end up? There won't be anybody left to take care of anyone at all.
Joshua thinks he should make a new flag soon. Everyone is a little scared for winter coming. Packing in tight in their nest. Everyone with warm blood is bunking up together now. He sleeps with Max and Alec, the three of them together so they don't have to use up wood or paper for a fire. Max never wants to use anything for herself, because she's the leader. Alec says it's stupid to give up on perks--Joshua likes that word, perk perk perks--if you can get them. But he does it too, when he thinks Max isn't watching. Gives his share of food to one of the X-6s, sometimes, or when new stolen clothes and shoes come around he tries them all on like a game. But the next day, still wearing the same jacket, hoping Max won't notice.
Joshua doesn't care if Max gives up her perks, as long as he gets to help keep her warm. It feels good to sleep in a pile all wrapped around each other. Like back a long time ago, when Father was still here, and sometimes he would come in bed with Joshua and Isaac and they would all hold close together and warm and smelling like each other. Joshua tries not to think about back then, though. It still hurts too much. Sometimes he feels like somebody cut him open, right down the middle, and every time it starts to heal they cut him again. Even though he's not alone anymore, not since Flag Day.
It was hard before that, when he was still hiding and afraid. Like having half a pack, Max to hug and Alec to play with and, just for a little little while, Annie-- Joshua tries not to think about that either. Still hurts.
But he hadn't had anyone to sleep next to, he hadn't smelled like anybody else except himself, and he didn't know how to explain to Max what he needed, and he hurt her, and he hurt Annie, and it was bad. It was hard before. But now they were all together, and he made a flag for them, just one flag for everybody. Black, red, white. And there was a little bit of red in the black, and a little bit of white in the red, to see the way up, and maybe in the white there'd be a little bit of something else and they could all hold onto it, just the way they hold on to each other at night.
Max on one side, Alec on the other. They don't lay down right next to each other, because it makes them think about sex. Neither one of them says anything about that, but it's easy to tell, even if he couldn't smell it. It's funny for Joshua to think of sex and sleep going together like that. You sleep with your mate, of course, but first comes the brothers and sisters, always, and the mother, and Father. Sometimes the X-series act so much like normals. Maybe because they get more normal in their cocktail, or maybe because they're used to pretending. Joshua knows Max had a pack, and Alec must have too, but they don't talk about it, and they didn't sleep the way people do who've been part of a pack, not at first. They slept in tight straight little lines, and they jumped awake whenever you touched them. That made Joshua laugh a lot, but it was hard to sleep with them like that.
Joshua said maybe they should go ahead and have sex, so they wouldn't be so afraid of touching each other. The way they looked at him after that made him laugh most of all. Max said, Joshua, in her scolding voice, and Alec said, just don't try any funny business, alright, but after that they were less afraid to hold on to him, and wrap arms and legs all around each other with Joshua in the middle, keeping each one safe from the other.
Love is different for normals, Joshua knows. Like a big wide rainbow, with a hundred stripes, each one as skinny as the space between his fingers. And love is different for every stripe, from the outside down to the inside, and there are so many complicated rules, but for him love is just like sky. Blue all through and wide as his arms can go. Big love like big time, that looks backwards and forwards and keeps its eyes on the horizon.
Joshua is lying here half-asleep, wrapped up in Max's and Alec's warmth and musty sleep-smells. A little hungry, like always. And his feet are still cold. He snuggles his friends in tighter against him, one two three, just like the flag. Maybe when he makes the new flag, he'll do it different: just the color of the sky.