The first thing you need to know about Christopher Wasserman is that he loves his mother.
Not his birth mother, although he supposes he must have loved her, too, in the unconscious and unconditional way children do. He doesn't really remember her much, just the lightest impression of things, like a leftover crayon rubbing: the dress she wore a lot, dark ocean-blue with white sailboats to match her porter gloves; the way she would gently hold him by the chin when he asked her to put her lipstick on him; and the song she used to sing when she rocked him to sleep. He doesn't remember the words, but he still gets goosebumps whenever he catches a snatch of the tune.
He assumes he loved the mother that gave birth to him, but the mother that raised him is the mother he loves most.
This is the one thing Chris has never been ashamed of.
It is the one thing he will never be ashamed of.
He loves his mother. He loves her with all the room he has left in his heart, once you've carved away the pieces he had to get rid of growing up in the family he worked. It didn't happen immediately, or even very quickly, but he turned around one day and there it was in front of him -- Karen Wasserman is his mother, and he listens to her, and he would do anything for her, because he's a good person and respect's important to him.
The first time he ever won an award from school for academic achievement (it wasn't really much of anything, either, just some ribbon for having perfect attendance his eighth grade year,) he went straight to her before he thought about it. People like Daneca take that for granted, the confidence that they can take their accomplishments to their parents and have it mean something to them, to know that they'll be proud, but it's new to Chris, and heady, and wonderful.
The first time he ever had sex, he crept home afterwards, his shirt feeling strange against his skin and everything tilted just a little bit to the side, like he could suddenly see the world in a whole different way. He found her waiting for him in the front parlor with the light on, wearing sweatpants with her hair pinned up in a careless bun. At the sight of him, the annoyance on her face faded immediately into knowing, the corners of her eyes going reassuringly soft, and Chris broke and went right into her arms, hugging her tight until he felt less overwhelmed.
She was the first person that didn't make Chris feel afraid.
She was the first person Chris willingly and openly discussed cursework with, without feeling like he needed to put his back up like a cat.
And because Chris so loves his mother, he's going to give her the only thing in the world she wants, the thing that makes her sit still at the window that overlooks her garden with a look on her face like someone who's witnessed a shipwreck.
He's going to get Daneca and bring her home.
The second thing you need to know about Chris Wasserman is that he grew up big.
Springtime, when it comes, is wet and rainy, colors bleeding down into the pavement and green blurring away on the trees, and Chris is seventeen years old when he kneels down and takes a knife to the neck. The ash stings nauseatingly when they pack it into the open wound, his flesh aching and slick.
He squeezes his eyes shut against the pain, jaw clenched so hard he can't move his tongue and tears streaming and streaming and streaming, leaking from the corners of his eyes unchecked to drip from his chin.
Symbolically, this ritual is supposed to represent the severance from his past life and his entrance into his new one. Chris's first and only companion in his life as a Zacharov is agony: it keeps him up all night and well into the next morning, until he wants to take his fingernails to his infected flesh and peel it all away, create a new skin that doesn't burn with ash like it's still on fire.
When Chris was a sophomore at Wallingford, his big sister went missing.
Missing isn't the most accurate word to describe what happened, because Chris and his mother and his father know exactly what happened to her. It's not like she was a phone number or a gadget they tucked into their bags and then couldn't find again. It's not like they put her down somewhere and forgot where they left her.
Lila Zacharov and her spiderweb of laborers took her because she's an emotion worker. She never came home.
She fell in with a bad crowd, is basically what the police tell them, in their diplomatically passive-aggressive way, as if they think the Wassermans are wasting their time and their resources looking for a teenage girl. What did you think was going to happen? they don't say, but the feeling remains, leaving Chris with a stewing helplessness and a rage with no aim.
It isn't until he's seventeen that Chris comes up with the plan: get into the Zacharov family, get his sister, and get out again. It's a long game, but if you think about it, Chris's whole life thusfar has been a long game -- an exercise in blending in with other people until he's so like them that nobody even notices anymore, least of all him -- and if anyone's suited for the life of a laborer, it's him, not Daneca.
Puberty came early and was surprisingly kind to Chris, and left him with all sorts of useful advantages: he matured into biceps as thick across as salami and shoulders that cast long shadows like Atlas, and while his mouth says, "I'm a luck worker, I was driven out of my home when blowback brought us bad luck one time too many," his height and the burly quarterback set of his shoulders make the Zacharov bosses with their keloid scars blink and say mmhmm deep in their throats.
He says his name is Christopher Quinn, because that's his birth name, and they'll find records of him. Not very clear records, granted, but enough to show he was born in a stretch of Connecticut that basically counted as nobody cares anymore and lived there most of his life, until suddenly he didn't anymore.
He hopes it will be Lila Zacharov who cuts the first of his keloids into his neck, but it's one of her henchmen instead, an emotion worker named Triton who touches naked fingertips to the dip under Chris's chin, the way his birth mother did when he wanted to try her make-up and she wanted him to hold still.
The loyalty burns through him, hot like he poured it straight back as if it came in a shot glass, and he swallows it down.
Because he's the big, strong, silent type (he didn't used to be; he used to be this heavyset brat of a twelve-year-old who couldn't keep his mouth shut because if he wasn't going to rail against the unfairness of the world, then who was? He'll never be able to shake the feeling that if he'd just learned to keep a secret sooner, then Daneca wouldn't have been forced in with the Zacharovs, and maybe she'd been home right now, smelling like the hair product she used to tame her curly hair and organic chamomile; it's the kind of thought that will stopper anybody's throat and turn their words to ash to pack into their keloid scars,) he becomes Triton's bodyguard.
"Hiring luck workers as bodyguards is not uncommon," Triton tells him, like this is supposed to be news; Karen Wasserman is his mother, he can probably loop circles around this guy with what he knows about cursework.
Luck work is a bountiful resource, and cheaper than hiring a physical worker, because in protection detail, a little bit of luck goes a long way.
Triton's in charge of Zacharov interest in amulet trade, which means Chris follows him all up and down Long Island, into upstate New York and then down into Jersey, and the longer he watches Triton work the sales and production of protective amulets, the more restless he gets, because this is time he could be using to look for Daneca.
He just needs to know what happened to her. He needs to get her home. He owes his mother that much.
So he settles in to play the long game.
The first friend he makes is a cat he calls Honey, who follows him out of the rain one day.
He's a black cat with eyes so golden they make Chris think in honeycombs, hence the name, and he'll sit on the back of Chris's sofa and watch him do mundane things like put the kettle on to boil, roll up his socks, or fill in his sodoku book while waiting for Triton to page him, big and unblinking like everything he does is fascinating. In the first few weeks, when the loneliness is crippling and the pain in his neck throbs with the same dull rhythm as his heartbeat, Chris appreciates the feeling that he's at least fascinating to somebody.
The idea behind putting him up with a place to sleep and employment is that Chris is going to work off the rent, room, and board that the Zacharov provide him, which he already knows he isn't going to be able to do.
That's how the worker families trap their minions; that horrible cycle of debt and payment.
So he lives in a refurbished industrial building that has been converted into dozens of shabby one-room apartments with temperamental plumbing; some of them serve as crashpads for the physical workers after they go toe-to-toe with the Brennans or the Goldblooms and need to lie low for awhile, but most everybody who lives here are people like Chris, who just want to live and work somewhere their cursework isn't considered a disability, even if that means they have to turn to petty crime to do it. That kind of honesty just sits better with the soul.
"Do you think if I just went around knocking on every door, I'll find my sister?" is the first thing Chris ever says to Honey, who startles at the sound of his voice and twists his head around.
He doesn't discover Daneca in any of the apartments, but by knocking on all the doors he finds enough people that he kind of becomes friends with the other workers; most of them luck, but there's also Nathan, a physical worker who was relegated to laundry duty after he converted to one of the Hindu denominations committed to nonviolence, and two dream workers, who make specialized charms that protect against certain types of nightmares, strong ones like the kind induced by PTSD or a change in medication. Not all of what the Zacharovs do is malignant or illegal, Chris finds.
"I don't ever see you work," Nathan comments idly one afternoon, coming out to sit next to him on the stoop with a bowl of popcorn, watching the mailman go by with her bag banging against the backs of her knees. "You sure you got the heebie-jeebies, kid?"
"I'm a worker," Chris responds shortly. "I just don't do it unless I have to."
"Got it beaten out of you by your parents, got it," Nathan chuckles, rueful. "I suppose there at advantages to that. Rely too much on cursework and you might wind up like the Sharpe brothers."
Every worker who's ever questioned his own abilities knows what happened to the Sharpe brothers. Get too deeply entrenched into a worker family, thinking you can outplay them, and lack the guidance of HEX (according to his mother) or proper discipline (according to the Zacharovs,) and here's your inevitable outcome: three brothers who crashed and burned in the most spectacular fashion. The middle brother is living with his sister-in-law, worked so bad his brain is mushy as oatmeal, and the oldest and the youngest aren't working anything but maggots these days.
The worst part about that is: Chris remembers Cassel.
Not very well, because he only saw him twice when he was twelve, and once more right before old man Zacharov croaked, but it still sends an unpleasant red-hot jolt of recognition right through his gut whenever somebody brings him up. Cassel Sharpe went to school with Daneca and Chris knows him -- it almost feels like knowing a celebrity, in an awful kind of way.
Revisionist history tries to make sense of his memories, but no matter what, all Chris can call to mind is a kid, like him, and he's dead now.
Around that time, Prop 2 launched a renewed, zealous campaign, fueled by the rumor that the government knew the location of a transformation worker in the United States. Somewhere in the fallout, while Daneca poked at her dinner and their parents yelled hotly at the TV on the kitchen counter about things like media censorship and sensationalism, Cassel Sharpe died, was buried, and it was never made clear how or why -- which had crime family written all over it.
(Chris has a very long list of things he wants to ask his sister when he sees her again. One of them is, "Did Cassel die because he was a death worker too?")
The government still likes to pretend that there's a transformation worker living somewhere in New Jersey, and they're doing everything to ensure that worker's safety (and, more importantly, the safety of everyone nearby, since nobody really knows anything about the modern application of that branch of cursework.)
Chris doubts it.
The government can't even protect its smallest citizens; kids like Chris with nowhere to turn to and a world that won't suddenly wake up and stop hating them. How can they expect anyone to believe they've got a transformation worker and they're keeping him or her safe?
A year and a half passes with the occasional hallmark: holidays and events, political elections and border skirmishes with the other families, layered on top of the usual year-round things, like open admiration of the changing leaves and the commiserating huddle that forms at the bus stop in the dead of February. Chris keeps his head down and does everything he's told to do.
Finally, some five months after they reopen the cut at his neck to pack in more ash like the first ring on a tree, they appoint him with the only job he really wants.
They make him Lila Zacharov's bodyguard.
It's not like he hasn't ever seen her before, of course, because she is the head of the family and she's always been his boss. She's a short-haired woman about Daneca's age, which is only notable for how little it really matters: Chris has seen her throw down men built like an NFL quarterbacks and sneer at politicians twice her age until they go lily-white with rage, and the reputation that preceded her made her seem so terrifying: when he finally meets her, face-to-face, she's wearing sweatpants with a Princeton logo up the right leg and her guns are holstered under her arms, her head bent down with Triton's over a shipment manifesto.
Triton looks ready to cry. She isn't as terrifying as they say.
The other rumors, Chris finds, are true and false in equal measure: Lila's known for liking cats, but she doesn't have canines thin and sharp as candy canes and she doesn't have pupils slitted like a cat's. Everything else -- all the things Chris just chalked up to her mystique -- are true. There's always at least one cat following her around, winking in and out of the corners of rooms like another form of Zacharov muscle, and there's something inherently feline about the way Lila walks, the way she eats and the way she tilts her head and the way she hugs the walls and even blinks. It's not the kind of thing you can make up.
That first time he meets her, Honey follows Chris into the room the same way he initially followed him home; slipping past his legs before he can block his way. He twines himself around Lila's legs in greeting, which she acknowledges with a flick of her fingertips against his tail.
He leaps onto the back of the chair, tilting his head over Triton's shoulder, and for a moment, the tableau holds, the three of them reading the shipment manifesto, serious and somber.
... huh, Chris thinks faintly.
He never quite shakes the feeling that Lila sent Honey to spy on him. It's a ridiculous thing to think, he knows, as supertisious as thinking a gloved hand means a safe hand or that if he says the right combination of flattering things, the toaster will bake his bread just right, and he thinks it anyway.
The first time he meets her is the first time she meets him; Lila Zacharov, breathing and shifting and responsible for that horrible emptiness in Daneca's chair at the kitchen table, and the idea that her bare skin is close enough to touch almost overwhelms him. He could, you know. He could pull his glove taut so the threads go bare over his fingertips and he could touch her, right now, and the urge to do it swells inside him, pressing up against everything, like it's grown bigger than his heart or his twisting gut or his skin, like it wants to split. It would be so easy, and over in an instant.
Chris Wasserman is not a luck worker.
That's the third thing you need to know.
He is big, strong, silent, and discreet, and after a few months of adjusting to the sudden prestige, he becomes the night watchman at the Zacharov estate. He spends the lightless hours of the morning at the end of the hall from Lila's bedroom, reading 10c novels where the darkest cursework is played up for romantic drama, plainly written by people who have never worked or been worked in their lives. It's all that keeps him from cornering Lila and demanding to know what happened to Daneca.
Daneca Wasserman, do you remember her: short girl, vegetarian, curly hair and her favorite color was the green that everything turned immediately after a summer rain. What did you do to that girl?
Lila's bedroom is built like a bomb shelter, with thick, muffling walls that block out any sound coming from inside. It's necessary, he knows, and the only measure of privacy Lila really gets, but it makes the guard in him antsy: he could swear, the one time she left the door ajar, he heard a snatch of sound like the crunching of small bird bones, viscerally disgusting, and masked by a low, guttural scream that makes him think she's torturing animals, before her hand snatches the doorknob and yanks it shut.
Everyone has their secrets. Mob princesses maybe most of all.
It's the soft noise that alerts him, like the padding tread of cat's paws on the carpet, and he's on his feet in the next beat, but it's just Lila coming out into the hall. He doesn't know the time, lost it in that long stretch of nothing after midnight and before the sunrise, and Lila's eyes are bright, awake, the skin under them smudged like the bruised flesh of a fruit. She hasn't been to sleep yet.
She stops, and they look at each other.
She holds herself loose at the hips, an almost sway. The only thing she's wearing is a grey zip-up hoodie, a boy's, with the logo for a New England trucking company stenciled across the front. It gapes open, haphazard, like it's not so much clothing as it is an afterthought, revealing bare, skinny, ballerina legs that race up to meet the visible line of her underwear; not the black Victoria's Secret kind he knows she has and knows she wears when she determines it's the best way to intimidate someone, but the simple cotton kind, soft and familiar.
In the beginning, Chris used to help Nathan with the laundry, and he remembers the two of them making fun of Lila's underwear for having the days of the week printed underneath the hem; they seized onto those little things in a bid to pretend that she didn't scare the shit out of them.
Her hands are completely naked.
She shifts her weight, mouth parting, and he sees the faint impression of mouthprints, a ring of them like a posy-mark, bitten into the skin above her breast. He can't see it in this light, but he's willing to bet she's got the indentation of teeth all around her lips, too, what with how swollen they've gotten.
He lifts his eyebrows, because if she got somebody past him and into her bed without him even noticing, then they should really find someone new.
Unless she dreamed up a lover, the kind that can keep her up this late with long kisses and can fuck her until she walks with the hedonist sway of someone who never wants to leave the bed.
He forgets, sometimes, that if she wasn't Lila Zacharov, she would just be another girl in college with ordinary dreams.
Ms. Zacharov, you should clean yourself up, is the first thing he wants to say.
Where's my sister? is the second.
He wants to open his arms (although it's stupid to assume she'd need anything like the comforting embrace his own mother gave him when she stayed up late to find him creeping in) and he wants to wrap his hands around her long neck in equal measure, leave bruises for whoever is in rucked up in her sheets to nuzzle into. He wants to demand to know how it is she dare take a lover when she's already taken Chris's sister.
All he does, in the end, is bow his head in acknowledgement, and step to the side. She disappears into the bathroom, light flicking on underneath the door. He goes back to his book.
The next morning, when Lila showers (again) and he goes in to fetch the laundry for Nathan, the only person in the room is Honey, curled up among the throw pillows on the window seat. His eyes lid lazily against the early morning sun, although his ears flick in Chris's direction when the door opens.
Kneejerk, Chris tells the cat, "Good morning," and he knows he's reached the point where he's ready to accept just about any bizarre thing about Lila Zacharov's personal life when he swears Honey twists his head around and smiles.
The first time Chris kills someone for Lila is on a cold spring morning in early April, and frost spiderwebs across the car windows as he pulls it around back and finds an assassin with a box-cutter tucked into his sleeve, poised by the delivery entrance to slit the Zacharov princess's thin white throat when she comes out.
It will always be interesting to him later, how he doesn't even think. His head is just a jumble of NO and I need her for Daneca and Lila and someone loves her and his chest goes tight with a feeling so overwhelmingly intense that it takes him a long, long moment to recognize as loyalty -- not the loyalty that Triton emotion-worked into him along with the ash at his throat, but true loyalty, Wasserman loyalty, the kind of loyalty that made Daneca follow Cassel Sharpe into the dark. And by then, he has his bare hands on the assassin's neck and he's right there, right there, watching the way his eyes go eerily unfocused, the light in them going out and the body sagging, limbs becoming gangly as a marionette's.
The blowback sends Chris to his knees, crumpling him into the gravel with the corpse.
Gaping soundlessly like a fish through the flaring pain, he digs at his flesh, nails raising hard lines even through his clothes. He can't see it, but he feels it; the way the skin underneath his left nipple goes black and dead, like bad frostbite.
When it passes, he realizes he's not alone. The black cat watches him, suspended on the very edge of the dumpster, honey-colored eyes peering like lamplight through the shadow and the dawn. His breath mists in front of his nostrils.
Chris pushes himself up onto his hands and knees and finds himself saying, inanely, "Don't you say a word."
Honey blinks in a slow fall, and nods his head.
And then the day comes.
Nathan finds him sitting on the steps of the downtown library, eating french fries out of a greasy bag and watching the pigeons edge warily closer, and tells him the boss lady wants to see him. Chris stands, wipes the oily fingers of his gloves off on his pants, and upends the rest of the fries for the pigeons. When he arrives back at the Zacharov house, the day-shifters (Mikael and someone whose name Chris doesn't know, both luck workers) cut him darkly sympathetic looks as they close the door behind them, like they're imagining he's going to his guillotine.
Lila turns away from the window. Her study is all rich, deep colors and the sharp smell of varnish, and she comes around to sit in the armchair, folding one leg over the other. Her gaze is steady.
"Christopher Wasserman," she says, assessing, and Chris feels the cold go all the way down into very chinks of his spine.
"Ma'am," he returns. He keeps very, very still.
Honey materializes along the back of the armchair, a slim black shape slinking down the upholstery. Lila lifts her hand, her palm skating over his head when he stretches into her touch, eyes lidding and a purr rumbling through his chest. Then they're both looking at him; one green eye, one blue, and two the same honey-gold as if they'd been permanently sunstruck.
"Do you know why I summoned you?" Lila asks, after a pause.
"No, ma'am," Chris answers. What he's really wondering is what they're going to tell his mother. How do you tell someone that both their children are dead?
"Because," says Lila. "You've shared a secret with us. I think it's time we share one with you."
"Cassel," she says, and for one bizarre moment, Chris thinks she's talking to him, but she isn't. Her eyes have dropped. The black cat stretches his paws out in front of him, spine going liquid, and Chris only has time to think in the briefest of flashes, of the mouthprints on Lila's breast and transformation work and the stunning clarity that he knows those eyes, he's seen them at least three times before, before the cat springs from the armchair.
His shape twists midair and begins to transform before he even hits the ground.