## The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics

### Work Text:

“If system A and system B are individually in thermal equilibrium with system C, then system A is in thermal equilibrium with system B.”

(1986)

There’s a weird sound in the room, and it’s a wrong sound. A beeping, a loud one. But it’s not always beeping, not like the tv when there’s a storm and it gets those funny colored bars on the screen. It’s different, like the drums on the kind of songs that his dad used to listen to, before he fell asleep and didn’t wake up — beep, beat, beep, beat, beep. Like the oven every Saturday when his mom makes him pie. Nick loves pie. His mom makes every kind, but Nick prefers the sweet ones; apple pie is his favorite. He’s always liked sweet things. Not like Olive, Olive always prefers the salty stuff (unless there’s a bag of M&Ms, and even then she hates the yellow ones so Nick eats them for her. They tell them it’s bad to waste food if he doesn’t and they scold Olive. He doesn’t like the way she looks at her feet when they scold her, so he eats them), like crackers and popcorn and those peanuts you can get for a couple of coins from the big square machines they brought to the daycare last summer, mostly because they kept the water cool, and they wanted the water cool because it was too hot outside. Now it’s windy, and chilly and Nick prefers the summer because it’s fun and he doesn’t have to go to school. It means he gets to go to the beach. Sometimes Olive comes with him, when Miss Sharp lets her because she has to go to work. Miss Sharp works a lot, Nick’s noticed. More than his mom, and his mom has two of what she calls ‘part-time jobs’. Nick has always wondered how you cut time into different parts, but he thinks it might be one of those grown up things his mom won’t talk about, so he never asks.

His right eye is fuzzy, like he’s opened it in the pool with his head beneath the water, except it doesn’t sting. He can’t open the left one, not even when he tries real hard. It’s a funny feeling, like that side of his face isn’t there, but there is no pain. Everything is white and the ceiling is blurry when he manages to keep his eyes open for more than two or three beeps at a time. He’s all alone, and he can’t feel the warmth that is Olive inside his head, right in that space at the back that belongs to her, showing him that everything will be okay like it’s a secret he’s not supposed to share, and he knows he should be scared because she’s always there, but he isn’t. The world is heavy around him and his eyelids won’t listen to him— they go down, down without permission. Nick falls asleep, and dreams of nothing.

In the hard hospital bed, the heart monitor beeps away to the tune of drug induced slumber.

******

“William, these are children you’re talking about! Her friend — her partner, is in the hospital because of an ability you two gave her, an ability that you’re just now realizing that she might not be able to control, might I add, and you’re expecting her to be something other than scared out of her mind?” Miss Sharp’s voice rings from behind the closed door, something like reproach coating her words. He knows it’s her because Miss Sharp —Nina, she insisted he call her Nina, is the only person that will notice his presence when he’s in the room, and she will talk to him like he supposes any normal person would talk to another. That’s why Peter has always enjoyed talking to her.

“Nina…” the gruff voice, the man his dad calls ‘Belly’, sighs with impatience, “these aren’t just children, they’re pure potential, wells of unimaginable power. They are soldiers, and they need to be able to work independently just as much as they need to learn to be a team. I will not sit by and watch as our most valuable asset goes to waste because someone made the mistake of pairing her with a boy that is too weak to keep up. I cannot trust the future of everything we have accomplished to incompetents. The Lane boy needs to go.” The tone of the conversation is very serious, and Peter is sure he shouldn’t be here, listening in, but he can’t seem to be able to move away from the door. Something keeps him rooted in place, like his shoes are nailed to the floor. Miss Warren is often the one to make sure that he doesn’t wander off into restricted areas, keeping him wherever the other children are though she does not include him in their activities. Children who look at him like he’s something strange because he likes sitting by himself with his puzzles or a book instead of chatting about stupid things and doing whatever it is that they do all day until their parents (real parents, the kind that ask about your day and hug you because they missed you at work) come get them. But she’s not here today to keep him confined to the main areas of the daycare, where he’s bored all the time, so Peter had a chance to explore. Miss Warren is kind, but she always looks at him weird, talks to him like he’s a little dumb and can’t perfectly grasp every word she says, and Peter hates that.

Peter understands, he understands very well. He understands there’s something wrong with him, because no one ever wants to play with Dr. Bishop’s kid — he doubts any of them know his name — and they’re always in a big group or split in twos in every activity that he can’t be a part of, but he’s always alone. Even his dad knows he’s wrong in some way, because he won’t pay attention to him like he’s seen all the other dads do. All he does is work, and drink the kinds of drinks that smell like antiseptic, and, when he thinks Peter is sleeping, he cries outside his door in tiny little sobs. Peter knows it’s because his mother died, and he knows the fault is his and he thinks maybe his dad blames him. That maybe that’s the reason he hates him. Miss Warren tries to tell him otherwise, but he knows he deserves the blame because his mom couldn’t stand to look at him when his dad brought him home. They tell him he was sick, and he knows his dad must have cured him because he’s still alive, but he doesn’t remember much about before, and everything he thinks he remembers feels like it’s been told to him or shown through photo albums, not like something he did himself. He still has to get shots every two months, though, of a red medicine that makes him feel funny, so maybe his dad didn’t cure him so good after all. Maybe that’s the reason he can’t remember.

He knows the pair Mr. Bell is talking about, two blonds. The boy’s name is Nick (he knows because he heard his mom call his name the other day when she came to bring him home. Their dog was looking from the car) and he’s shorter than him, always following the girl with the sad, uncanny green eyes around, the only one that ever looks at him with curiosity, like she wants to approach but isn’t sure she should. He doesn’t know her name.

“But that’s exactly my point, William, they aren’t soldiers, at least not yet. ‘Before they are considered soldiers, they must be considered recruits’. You wrote that yourself,” Nina says. “How do you expect them to become what you want them to be if they’re not allowed proper development? Nick Lane is currently her only emotional connection, and you know that. Pulling him out would only stall her, or worse. For all we know it could be catastrophic.”

“I must agree, William.” That’s his dad’s voice, and it makes him jump a little; he has no way of knowing who is behind the door, not until he hears them speak, “their bond has always been exceptionally strong, no matter that it seems to have been unbalanced by the Brenner incident last spring. I would advise against it.”

“What do you propose we do then, my friend?” Mr. Bell sounds tired, but strangely pleased. Peter doesn’t like it. He’s only met Mr. Bell once, and he never liked the look on the man’s eye when he looked back at him.

“I believe we should let them rest, for now. The girl’s had a hard time with the loss of her family, and the boy’s in the hospital. A few weeks won’t delay us much. I say we take advantage of their momentary separation to run diagnostics on her —the noninvasive kind, so that her mind has time to recuperate. After they’re back and have stabilized, I would devise tests based on their emotional profiles. I agree that they must learn to work independently, but unity is paramount. She might be special, but we cannot make her do everything, and she will not be everywhere at once, no matter how much we would like that. She needs the boy, so I say we let her keep him,” his dad says.

The conversation is intriguing, but he has no idea what they’re talking about and he doubts that they’ll tell him anything. Nick and the girl, they’re always polite, but they’re not really his friends. He doesn’t have any friends. Worrying about them is something the adults should do. It’s late, but there’s a lot of places in the daycare that he hasn’t been to, and Peter wants to take advantage of the uncommon looseness of his leash.

******

Olivia can’t sleep, no matter how badly she wants to. Her eyelids are heavy, but she can’t stop thinking Nick Nick Nick. She doesn’t know where he is, if he’s still in the hospital, if they took him home. She doesn’t know if he’s okay, and she can’t feel him. She’s afraid, terrified, and she’s never liked the feeling. His place in her head is numb, empty, like a dusty room in one of those abandoned houses she’s seen out the window of Miss Sharp’s car when the driver takes smaller streets to get them to her building faster, and it feels wrong. Living in Miss Sharp’s building feels wrong too. It’s not warm like her house used to be, and it’s all blacks and whites and it feels too much like she’s never left the daycare, like she’s still being watched and tested. Mostly, it’s Miss Sharp’s apartment, Miss Sharp’s guest room. She can’t call it “home”. Home was the house with the red door on the base, the rise and fall of her dad’s chest on Sunday mornings, when she would wake before the rest of them all except for him, and he’d be waiting for her face up on the bed, beside the sleeping shape of her mom. Home was her mom’s cooking and Rachel’s laughter, and she lost it all. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she loses Nick too. He’s the only one that hasn’t left her, the last thing she has.

She doesn’t want to stay in the small nap room when he isn’t here, so she puts on her shoes and goes for a walk.

They are staying late at the daycare because Miss Sharp had a meeting. That was what she said, but Olivia thinks that it’s because they’re going to do more tests on her, because she did things wrong and she hurt Nick, and they’re going to punish her. Maybe she’d made him leave, maybe she’d killed him like she killed Doctor Brenner and her parents, like she killed Rachel, and they don’t want to tell her because they’re angry at her. Maybe it’s because she is evil, like the monsters in the books. She must be, because the bad guys never have families, and they do bad things, just like her.

Miss Sharp (calling her Nina feels wrong) told her not to worry too much, that Miss Warren had gone with Nick in the ambulance, that he’d be alright, but she can’t not worry. She can’t feel him, and her head feels empty without him. She feels like crying, but her dad always said that strong girls don’t cry, and her dad knew all about strength because he was a very important soldier, so she cleans the corner of her eyes with the back of her hand and blinks the tears away. Olivia misses him. She wants her life back.

The hallway is long and winding. The daycare has always been big, and she knows that not all the kids get to see most of it. They’re split in groups, and then the kids in those groups are put in pairs, like Nick and her, and only some of the pairs ever make it into the white room, even though they’ve all gotten the red medicine at least once. They’ve always told the ones that get to the white room that they’re very important. That they’ll be soldiers one day, like her dad used to be, and that they’ll protect everyone else. Olivia has always wanted to be like her dad, but she’s not sure her dad could make clocks explode in the air. She’s sure he wouldn’t have burnt her alive with his mind because of a nightmare, the way she’d done him, because her dad was good, and she isn’t. Her dad was the hero, Olivia’s just the monster in the book. A tear rolls down her face. She wipes it away with her sleeve, looks around her, up and down the hallway. No one can see, because she isn’t weak. She’s strong, and she’s a soldier, and soldiers don’t cry.

She stops walking when she reaches The Room. The small, rectangular window on the door is cracked. The door swings open with a small push of her hand, and it creaks softly. The room used to be hers. Now it is charred black but for a wide circle in the corner across the bed, and it’s no one’s. It no longer smells like smoke and burnt flesh, more like bleach, but they still haven’t repainted the walls, and they haven’t fixed the lamp. It still turns on when Olivia flicks the switch, but the light is intermittent. She doesn’t know why she’s here. She just can’t stop thinking about Nick, about her parents and her sister, when she’d managed to forget for months even though Miss Sharp had told her she could talk about it whenever she liked, that she’d always listen. Miss Sharp isn’t bad, but she’s always with Doctor Walter and Doctor Willum, and she doesn’t want them to think that she’s weak. She stronger than all of them, and she’ll show them. She’ll make her dad proud.

The floor is a little dusty, but she sits nonetheless, in the middle of the white circle on the wall, her back against the corner. She’s had a headache since morning, and standing for too long makes her dizzy. She’ll go back to the nap room in a little, but not yet. She hates the yellow paint on the walls and hates that she’s in there alone so she’ll stay here a while.

That’s when she hears it, the steps. Maybe they noticed her absence, maybe they’re looking for her and they’re going to scold her, to bring her into another room and make her go through more tests, without Nick, until she does what they want. She curls up closer into the corner, hoping they’ll keep walking and miss her. She knows the tests are important, she knows it’s part of being a soldier, but she’s tired. So, so tired.

She just wants to sleep and wake up in her bed, in her house, to realize it’s all been bad dreams, but she can’t. Every time she closes her eyes, Olivia hears the screams.

******

Peter had no idea this place was so big. From the outside, it looks like a normal daycare building (not that he has ever been to another daycare), but these corridors are  not all straight, and they’re very very long. They’re filled with closed doors. Some of the doors have windows and some of the ones with windows have numbers. He’s seen sixteen and fifteen and fourteen, and he guesses the one that comes next should be thirteen, and that it’ll be locked like all the others. He has no idea what’s behind the doors, because the little windows are too high for him to see through and the lights are out. He starts thinking that maybe he should have stayed and listened to the adults talk, because there is nothing to see here as far as he can tell and it’s pretty boring. That’s when he sees the light.

It’s coming from the room up ahead, the one he thinks might be number thirteen. It’s a small line on the hallway’s floor, and it’s dancing with the shadows. It goes on and off, on and off, like a game. Peter approaches cautiously, remembering that he isn’t supposed to be wandering around, that if there are adults inside that know who he is, and they all know who he is, they’ll scold him and bring him back to his dad’s office, and they’ll lock the door after them. He tries to make his steps as quiet as he can, but it seems to him like the whole world shut up just to hear him walk to the open door.

The room is black, and it surprises him. It smells very like his dad’s lab the one time he was there, like it’s too clean, except for the cow’s small space at the back that smelled like wet, warm leather. He steps inside as he looks at the lightbulb flick on and off above his head, as if entranced, and when he finally looks around he’s startled by the vivid green eyes staring back at him from the only corner of the room that has some white on the walls.

It’s the girl whose name he doesn’t know, Nick’s partner. She’s curled up into a tight little ball of defensiveness at the back, and when he makes to step forward she recoils. Peter stops in his tracks. Her hair is messy, like she just woke up, and she’s so pale the freckles across her forehead and cheeks look more like bruises. Her eyes are red and puffy, like his dad’s in the mornings after he hasn’t slept (he knows because he can’t sleep either) and has spent the night with a bottle of amber liquid while going over documents. There are wet tracks on her face, and he realizes she’s been crying, but the look in her eyes is defiant, green flecked with lion-gold. She’s afraid. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he can almost feel her fear. He doesn’t want her to be afraid of him. She’s alone, and he knows all about being alone.

“Why are you scared?” he asks, standing under the flickering light, looking back without blinking.

She raises her chin and she glares. “I’m not scared,” she says, and her voice sounds like she’s got a sore throat.

“Sure you are,” he says, stepping forward, expecting to see her flinch again, but she stays very still.

“I’m not. You should stay away.”

“Why?” He doesn’t feel offended. Somehow, he knows she didn’t mean to be rude.

“I’ll hurt you if you get too close,” there’s something hurt in her stare that is no longer a glare, and Peter feels bad.

“Do you want to hurt me?” he asks.

“…No,” she says, looking down at feet, over her bent knees.

Peter blinks, and wishes for her to look back at him (he likes the color of her eyes). He steps towards her, and without further ado, he plops down beside her. She stiffens a little and raises her chin from her knees, looking wide-eyed at him.

“Then you can’t hurt me,” Peter says with finality, “my name’s—“

“You’re Peter, I know.”

“How did you know that?” he says, surprised. He thought no one but the adults knew his name.

“You’re Doctor Walter’s son. He used to talk about you a lot. He said you were sick and he had to go for a while so he could help you…you have his eyes,” she says, and her voice is tentative, like she doesn’t know if she should be telling him this, which he finds a little ridiculous, because it’s him she’s talking about. Of course he knows he was sick. He can’t remember being sick, but even if he could he doubts anyone would let him forget it. “I’m Olivia,” she says, and he finally learns her name.

Peter offers his hand, the way he’s seen the adults do at meetings. “Nice to meet you, ‘Livia.”

She looks at him weird, like she has no idea what to say, like maybe he’s crazy, and Peter lets his hand drop. Maybe she’s noticed he’s weird too. “Sorry,” he says.

She shakes her head. “It’s Olivia, with an O…nice to meet you too,” she says, and she reaches for his hand. She never does what he expects her to, and Peter finds himself enjoying that. It’s like one of his puzzles, or a riddle. Maybe like the sphinx he’s read about in some of his dad’s books.

“I know, I heard you,” he says with a smile, “I think it sounds better without it.”

‘Livia smiles a toothy grin at his words, and Peter thinks he likes her best like that.

******

Things are different when Nick gets back.

At first, his mom didn’t want him to go back to the daycare. She said it was because she didn’t want him to get hurt again, when Nick asked her why. She also said it was because they weren’t paying as much attention to him as they should have considering all the money she payed them (they’d told her he’d fallen and cut himself with some glass on the ground while playing tag). Nick begged and begged, and he said it had been his fault, promised he’d be more careful. He was good and did all his homework, but his mom still said no. He missed Olive a lot. She missed him too, he could tell. She was sad, but then Olive had been sad ever since the accident with her parents, no matter what Nick tried to do to cheer her up. He understood, he missed his dad sometimes. Especially at night, because he used to tell the best stories. His mom tells him stories too, but his dad used to get all the voices right, and he’d never tire or tell Nick that it was too late for one more. Nick would fall asleep long before his dad stopped talking.

But Olive felt funny too, warmer than usual, like her room was fuller in his head, and she wasn’t lonely. She was happy, sometimes. Nick was glad for her, he didn’t want her to feel bad, because he knows that Olive likes to blame herself for things that are not her fault, like the accident, but he felt very very lonely without her.

It went on for almost a month, and it didn’t matter that he was good, or how much he begged, his mom still wouldn’t let him come back. Not until Miss Warren came to visit. They sat in the living room, and they talked for a very long time. Nick was sent to his room, and because he didn’t want to make his mom angry so that she would say yes to whatever Miss Warren was telling her, he went without a fuss. He knows they talked about Olive, because the walls in the new house they had to move into after his dad died are very thin, and he heard her name more than once. Whatever Miss Warren told his mom, it had convinced her that Nick could come back, and Nick hugged Miss Warren real tight before she left.

He has always liked Miss Warren. She always makes sure that he gets extra dessert with his lunch, ever though it’s not allowed, just because she knows that dessert has always been his favorite part. Especially the brownies. She’s always very kind, and she likes to ruffle his hair the way his dad used to do. She reminds Nick of him.

When Nick gets back, Olive introduces him to Peter. Peter is Doctor Walter’s son. He’s a little taller than Nick is, about Olive’s height, and his hair is dark where his and Olive’s is blond, and it’s very curly at the bottom. His eyes are also blue, like his, and he’s very intelligent. He makes them laugh a lot. He’s the only person Nick knows that can make Olive laugh so hard that her stomach hurts, and he likes to see her smile. Olive likes Peter, and because Peter makes Olive happy, and helps him with his math homework when Nick asks, and always gives him half his brownie, Nick decides he likes him too. Soon, Peter is joining all of their activities, playing on their team in all their games, and Nick finds that they’re both really good at knowing what Olive needs them to do so that they can win. When he starts joining them on the tests as well, Nick isn’t surprised. He’d realized since they shook hands that Peter was that extra warmth in Olive’s room. He doesn’t mind. It feels natural, like he was always supposed to be there through the injections and the training and Nick starts taking comfort in his presence the way Olive does.

The adults tell them they’re special, that they’re stronger because they’re more, that they’ll be the best soldiers. The tests change too. They become more about them working in groups. Some tests they still do alone, of course, and Nick and Peter both hate those because Olive is always afraid and she feels sick after, and there is nothing they can do but hug her and try to make her smile. But the solo tests are not as frequent as they used to be before they were a team of three, and they get better at them, with time.

Things are different when he gets back, but Nick likes the change, for once.