James walked to the rehab center. It was stupid, he knew; even though he kept a baseball cap down firmly around his head, he could be recognized. But he hoped that no one would expect him to be walking around, and even if he passed a nurse or aid that might know him, they wouldn't associate him with the kid with the wasted legs on floor five. Doctors, he didn't have to worry about. Doctors didn't see him when they were looking right at him.
He ducked behind a corner and morphed the pigeon. The first morph. A good morph, common, unnoticed among the hundreds around the sidewalk and building ledges. He flew up to the fifth floor, to the window Collette had managed to keep open. He didn't think it would be a problem--after all, Mrs. Henderson was the aid on duty, and she was easy to guilt into bending the rules--but there was always a chance he'd have to go to plan B and sneak up five floors as a cockroach. And that was never fun.
He flew inside and demorphed. Collette was sitting next to his bed, and just watched him. "What?" he snapped, finally.
"Nothing," she shrugged. "Everything was fine. Pedro morphed you, and I told Ms. Henderson you were sick. It was easy enough. No one checks on him enough notice that he wasn't in bed." James looked over. Pedro was already back in his own bed, his eyes staring at nothing.
Collette shrugged again. He could tell she was trying to be nonchalant, but something was bothering her. "He can't handle it, not for long," she said. "He needed to change back, so I took over. I was gonna tell Mrs. Henderson you were in the bathroom puking, but she never came in." She rolled over to the closet, and pulled out the wheelchair she'd hidden. She pushed it towards him, nearly a fling. "Put some clothes on and get in before she sees you."
James pulled his clothes out of the short dresser next to his bed. He grabbed baggy pants, as usual, to hopefully delay the moment when someone noticed his new muscle tone. Collette didn't look away as he pulled them on over his morphing suit. He stood next to the wheelchair when he was finished, a little self-conscious, feeling Collette's unwavering gaze.
"Shouldn't you sit down?" There was a thin sheen of politeness over the phrase, but James could hear the irritation in her voice.
James ran his hand idly down the chair's armrest. "Yeah," he murmured. Then, slowly, he lowered himself down. Part of him was relieved--he'd spent too many years in the chair, to many years learning how to relate to people from below them to really feel comfortable outside its confines. Part of him, though, wanted to run screaming through the halls of the rehab center. Part of him wanted to screw the war, screw the world, and just go learn how to play soccer.
He settled back. Strange. It was all different, somehow. He could feel the chair cutting into him, something he'd never really noticed before, except if it really hurt. The material felt scratchy, the side bars felt claustrophobic. He shifted again.
Collette noticed his fidgeting, of course. "Problem?" She was almost snide. He hadn't really heard that tone of voice directed at him before.
"No," he said, and resisted the urge to shift again.
"You might want to work on that, before someone notices," Collette said. Emphasis on the someone, and he knew what she meant. That ever-looming someone they'd been looking out for since finding out about the invasion. It wasn't a hard leap to paranoid from where he'd been. James knew the necessity of being careful, of double and triple checking. When he was ten, he saw a girl die from a dose of morphine she should never have been given. Careless nursing. It'd been four years since he'd last had a dose of anything without checking to make sure it was exactly what it was supposed to be. He did the same for Pedro, and taught the other kids to do the same, not that they always did. Paranoia was exhausting.
"Besides," Collette continued, "if Kelly sees you, she'll kick your ass." She gave him the first smile he'd gotten since his arrival. And just like that, she wasn't irritated anymore. He liked that about Collette, but he worried about her, too. "So!" she said, switching tracks completely, "How was it? What's the plan?"
Right. The plan.
"Um...well, Timmy was right. They are gearing up for a final battle." Collette snorted. She was of the opinion that there wouldn't be any final battle, that it would be years of a long series of gorilla confrontations until one side got tired and left. James thought privately that Collette didn't want it all to end. He knew that they would never stop morphing, that the allure of flying or running would be too much to ever resist. But Collette liked the thrill; the adrenaline rush of battle left James feeling sick and wasted, by Collette was high for days.
"Jake and his team are going to launch an aerial attack. We'll be on the ground, coordinating with the military." That's what gave James a thrill, the knowledge that the US military was taking its cue from him. Quickly, he outlined the rest of the plan. He needed Collette. If he could get her behind the plan, she would be priceless in encouraging the rest of the group. She seemed flightly, but James knew she had a quick mind when it came to people and the well-honed ability to manipulate. And James knew he'd need a little manipulation to sell the rest of his people on Jake's crazy plan.
He finished, and waited for Collette's reaction. She just stared at him. "You have got to be kidding me," she said flatly.
Damn. "I know it sounds crazy," he said out loud, "but we've done crazy before."
"Not like this," Collette said. "Nothing like this. We're going to die."
"Don't talk like that," James said, tone sharper than he'd meant, and he winced at Collette's hurt look.
Collette's perpetually upturned lips tightened into a frown. "We. Are. Going. To. Die," she enunciated. "Don't you get it? We're the distraction. The red shirts?"
Collette waved an impatient hand. "Oh, you know, the red shirts in Star Trek. First to die, usually. Disposable. Like us." She was getting wound up now, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright and wide. No one wanted to get Collette pissed. That's the problem with nice girls. Sweet until they snap, and then step back.
"We are not disposable," James snapped.
Collette rolled her eyes. "I know that," she said. She paused, then continued, "Does Jake?"
"Of course he does," James said. "What, you think he's trying to get us killed?"
"Maybe not get us killed," Collette said, "but he sure wouldn't shed many tears if we died. Especially if it meant he won his precious war."
"This is our war, too!" James shouted. "Or did you forget that?"
"They don't want cripples," she shot back.
"Right," James scoffed. "They'll just infest the rest of the world and let you live. Spend the time and money on your treatments, will they?"
"Shut up," Collette said. "Just...shut up. You..."
"What? I what? Look, they never said it would be easy. But they need us, Lettie. They..." James trailed off. This was stupid, sniping back and forth. He needed Collette. So he took a deep breath, and tried again.
"I understand you don't like Jake. That's fine. You don't have to deal with him. But I want you to trust me, here. I know Jake. He's not trying to get us killed. He doesn't hate us, or think we're disposable. He needs us. He's starting to depend on me-us." He winced at the slip, but continued on. "Jake doesn't hate you guys because you can't walk. He's not like that."
Collette barked a harsh laugh, but there wasn't any amusement in it. "'You guys', huh? Well. I was wondering how long that would take."
"Before you started to think of yourself as one of 'them'. You've moved beyond us, haven't you? No longer associate yourself with those of us who, you know, can't just stand up out of the damn chair."
"That is the stupidest--"
Collette ignored him. "Hmm. I owe Kelly ten bucks," she mused. "I was sure it would take at least a year."
"You made a bet?" James felt the conversation quickly sliding irrevocably out of his control, and struggled to contain his irritation. They didn't understand, couldn't understand. And they were betting on him? Jesus. He really had been out of touch with his friends.
"Collette, we're doing this, okay? We're doing it, and we're going to win the war. And none of us are going to die." He paused, then continued, "We have to do it. He's counting on us."
"You think that if you win this, Jake will see you?" She sounded sad, resigned. "He won't, you know. You'll always be 'that disabled kid' to him. You've seen him with that girl...the black one, short? They've got something you can't intrude on. Don't even try. Tell Jake to fuck off and find someone else to die for him."
It hit him like a punch to the gut. Fucking Collette and her fucking accurate intuition. "That's not what this is about," he managed.
"Uh-huh." She didn't say anything more, but she wouldn't look at him.
"It isn't," he insisted. "This is about the bigger picture. You think I'd play with your lives if I was trying to show off for my--" he stopped. His what? His hopeless crush? Stupid.
"He's using you," Collette said. "You think he doesn't know? That he hasn't plugged that in to some battle calculation? You're letting him use you, and you don't even see this. You used to be smarter than this, James. Think!"
His fists tightened. Collette raised an eyebrow, a defiant "You wanna hit me? Go ahead and try," look on her face. James let out a deep breath and deliberately relaxed his hands. "You're wrong," he said softly.
"I hope so," she answered, just as softly.
He didn't say anything more. Didn't know what to say. She just looked at him, a little disappointed. He hated that look.
She started to roll away. "Hey!" he called, when she had almost reached the door. She wheeled around, slightly, but he was still talking to mostly chair. "I need to know I can count on you," he said.
"Sure," she shrugged. "Always can." She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. In fact, James was sure her eyes looked a little wet. "You and Jake have more in common than people might think."
She turned around, and left. It took James several minutes to follow.