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You've gotta give something for love
– from "Heal", performed by Loreen and featuring Blanks

1.

Euphoria was not a loyalist nor was she a member of the resistance. She was merely a human being, a "Native"; a mother, a sister, and a daughter. Her mother and sister had died some years ago, and Euphoria didn't think of them often. Instead, she concentrated her efforts on bringing up her daughter, Terra Ling, as best she could.

All of her clothes were several years old though still neat and functional; they were of good quality and she anticipated they would last many more years still. Terra Ling, however, often liked to dream of having fashionable or pretty clothes. She was thirteen and had been born into this world but the young were resourceful when it came to these things. She'd seen some ladies about town wearing long, cosy looking coats and had decided she would very much like one of her own. Her birthday was fast approaching and Euphoria had been steadily saving up. She estimated that she would be able to make her daughter very happy come her special day; she would be able to get the coat.

Euphoria worked as a cleaner, doing different jobs as they were arranged for her. Today, she was cleaning in a very nice apartment complex. Very nice. A little sterile for her tastes, sparse, but that just made it easier to manage. The less clutter, the better; the less personality you gave, so much the better. If you were too loud, so to speak, you were classed as dangerous, a potential liability. She had taught Terra Ling this long ago; when she bought it for her, her daughter would not be wearing her bright, flamboyant coat outside of their residence. It was not worth the risk. Terra Ling knew the rules, had been brought up living and breathing these very same rules, but Euphoria knew she would have to remind her once again, as painful as the idea was to her. In her mind, she was still deciding on exactly the right words to soften the blow.

The work was not particularly difficult, but it was hard. Hard on the body and because she was so tired out from working for many long hours, Euphoria did not have a lot of energy for helpful, healthy activity, and even less time to spend with her daughter, in between working, keeping the residence in order, and keeping them fed. She had long since resigned herself to the idea of pain, constant pain, and a bone-weary insomnia that viciously plagued her waking hours. In a way, it was a blessing that she had no time to think of such things as entertainment or socialisation, a real "life". The frustration no longer ate at her consciously. She often thought of herself as a robot in a human's skin. A robot didn't make trouble; a robot didn't get the people around them killed by wilfulness or sheer stupidity. A robot did as you did and survive, didn't draw undue attention. She was that robot. A good robot.

She didn't cause trouble.

When the world had first changed, she had been afraid to tell people her name, afraid that they might make something of it, of the meaning, and had often thought of changing it, or of merely dropping half of it so she would simply be known as Ria. A much more uninteresting, meaningless, non-threatening name. But she had kept her name, had named her little baby Terra Ling to honour the planet they called home, the planet that abided them despite it all, the continual horror, the all-pervasive terror. And her own name, though she made nothing of it, was her silent rebellion, her silent offering to the Earth of old which had held so many mysteries and wonders, that had been so able to inspire such hope and brightness to the lives of those who lived here, for the concept of life itself.

Euphoria was, to her, the opposite of pain. Whenever she had occasion to utter her name, she was reminding herself that she was so much more than her current painful existence. She was capable of love, of helping another when they were in need. She was still human enough for that, though her liberties were thin, weak. She would not turn away, had not in the past. She still brought the homeless clean water and mended their clothes for them, when she could, and she was respected for it, not merely seen as an object to use and abuse, but more than that, she was able to respect herself by helping others.

Terra Ling would sometimes accompany her, but she always stressed in her daughter the need to keep what was yours to yourself; your motivations, your feelings, what got you down and what picked you up. That was yours, and you only shared such things with those you held the closest, closest to your heart and soul, a notion the Observer-kind seemed not to share, not to have acquired over time through osmosis from regular contact and interaction with the Natives. The loyalists had lost their faith, their own integral understanding of the silent, unspoken workings of the universe that allowed them to enjoy life, and many more had given it up willingly, but the most troubling of all for Euphoria was the thought that the Observers had never had such a faith to begin with. Their experience of meaning was vastly different to that of the Natives and it was that sentiment that was now spreading through the Native kind as the "right" way.

No, Euphoria was determined that Terra Ling would never have to live like that; that though she would be required to tightly guard her true nature her whole life, she would not have to sacrifice it.

Euphoria left work on time, tired but careful to move as she always did, the same way she moved when she came into work. She did not hurry to work, eager for the job to be done, eager to do a "good" job. She didn't deign to show that much for prying eyes to use against her. She did her job and she did it to the best of her ability but there was no outward pride, no smiles at the satisfaction of a job well done. She used the elevator as she always did, would take the train home as she always did and walk the rest of the way. She did not stop along the way to rest, she would not give even that much.

As she rode the elevator down to ground floor, where she would get off, she thought of nothing but that which she was experiencing now. She did not imagine tomorrow, or even later tonight. She was in the elevator, the elevator was descending as it did, as it should, she was standing in the elevator as it was going down. That was her routine, and she didn't deviate. To deviate would be to destabilise, and even a falsified imaginary life would betray her and those she loved, would ring untrue to those used to navigating the thoughts and feelings of others with practised ease and an acceptable hint of entitlement.

Save for one other person, a man – an Observer, really – she was alone in the elevator. She did not consider the Observers as different to anyone else, had thought about it in the past, but had decided that she would merely see them as another living being. They could not – had not yet – objected to her categorisation of them, when they had occasion to pry; she took this as, not quite encouragement, but acceptance. They could tolerate that she thought of them as living beings, yes.

The elevator stopped a couple more times on its steady descent, once so that someone could get on and once so they could get off again. Euphoria did not glance at the someone who had joined them for a short while, either when they got in or when they left again. She was aware of them and that was enough; she was at one with the elevator, merely an extension of the downward movement of the machine until she had occasion to move once more, to step out and walk away.

She did not notice the man who just then turned a glance in her direction, perhaps having read her.

The elevator reached ground floor and the doors parted. Euphoria did not require to take stock of her limbs, she strode from the elevator a fully put-together, fully-functioning being.

Once again, she failed to notice the man's interest in her for he was watching her leave, possessed of an air that could only be noted as a close cousin to interest.


On her way home, she stopped by the shop where she would purchase Terra Ling's red coat. She had not arranged a system of down payments for the items, had not wanted the scrutiny for it, and was now carefully heading through the store, taking no particular interest in any item or other. First, she had a look at the sale items, then she walked away to look at some other things. When she came to the coat, she spent some time looking at it, but no more time that she had any other item she had looked at, and then she moved on. Only when she had looked at several dozen items did she stop, walk to the service counter, and enquire about the coat, presenting her currency right off so it would be known that she had the funds to cover her purchase.

It was a good, solid piece of clothing, and well enough functional. She did not allow herself to touch the material any longer than was needed, did not think of her daughter as she did so. The coat was for her; Terra Ling would grow into it, and they were not that different in size anyhow. It was a good thing; helpful if onlookers should be present.

She stepped out onto the street and continued on, stopping in at another store to purchase the same can of soup she always did on this day of the week. Terra Ling's favourite, in reality.

Others had told her that she was too paranoid. Quietly, she knew they had been thinking her "crazy" paranoid, but she wasn't affected by their negative assessment of her, did not think of it negatively, merely as another thought and one of many, many more. She did not have to presume to know their mind to know this was their assessment of her; a couple had quietly explained this to her, out of concern, she supposed, and she had merely taken their words and let them go again. Her mother and sister would not agree, would say that some forms of paranoia were healthy living in such a climate as that which she had to raise her daughter and somehow manage for the two of them to survive physically and mentally.

Later that night, after serving up the soup and settling down to eat dinner and then, afterward, cleaning the dishes and putting them away, Euphoria left to fetch the bag which contained Terra Ling's new coat, and returned to present it to her softly smiling daughter. She knew that a present was coming, she didn't know what, but that didn't matter.

When the coat was revealed, Terra Ling broke into a wide, bright smile. She had to contain herself to rise slowly from her seat and gently touch the material, finally taking the coat into her arms for herself. Euphoria noted her daughter's struggle with her emotions and hurt for her, for the restrain she was forced to impose upon her own happiness. She never wanted her daughter to be forced to walk the same path in life as that which she was walking, to be forced to hide so much of herself that it ceased to exist even for her.

Watching her daughter stroke the material and then try on her new coat, Euphoria kept her tears at bay. Only later did she allow the tears to drip from her face, when Terra Ling had taken off her coat and hung it up somewhere safe, after they had completed Terra Ling's set reading together and Terra Ling was sleeping in bed and she, herself, was sweeping the floor. She watched her tears fall and contained the urge to allow hysteria into her heart and soul.

One day, Terra Ling would fly free, would walk in the between the dark and light and find joy in some of her experience, unfettered by the whims of any other, by the vicious, unthinking attempts to control, to force conformity and docile action.

Terra Ling was not a robot, and never would be.


Sensing something wasn't quite as it should be when he returned to his apartment that evening, Windmark walked around his apartment until he found the cause of the problem. Much to his confusion, he noted a woman sleeping in his bed. Drawing closer confirmed that she was definitely sleeping. She was holding something close to her, a stuffed creature of some form, a child's toy, he thought, not the actual creature. He stood watching her a moment before he decided it was what the Natives called a cow. A toy cow. Which didn't explain why the woman was sleeping in his bed, much less why she was in his apartment in the first place.

He reached over to shake her awake, not quite sure if he should do so himself or if he should call someone else to do so, a Native law enforcement officer. Finally, he decided that he would do so himself; he didn't like to feel helpless or stupid. He grabbed the woman's shoulder, noting and carefully filing away a record of her features in case he should have reason to pick her out of the crowd in future. By her facial features he could tell she was clearly of a particular heritage, in this case, Asian. She had fine black hair that would, were she standing, fall to her waist, and was braided neatly. Her eyes, he thought, were likely of a similar darkness, and her frame was diminutive. She appeared to be dressed in some type of uniform and he realised then that they had met before, before he noted that she had removed her shoes and left them at the side of the bed. He hadn't even noticed them before, despite the sparseness of the room. He had seen her before in the elevator. She looked different in sleep; he almost hadn't recognised her. He still didn't know why she was here; for her own particular reasons or perhaps for reasons that also involved him.

He stared at her for a long moment, his hand gripping her shoulder with no certain purpose. She was unhappy, he thought. He sensed that about her, the unhappiness that might, actually, have been some form of anguish. She was sleeping deeply and it had been some time since she had slept like she was sleeping now, her small feet with their unpainted nails bare, showing a sizable scar on the bottom of her right foot.

He gave her a rough shake, sensing the warmth of his grip on her shoulder, the slight pain of its insistence.

The woman didn't scream. She merely opened eyes as dark as coffee and sat up, clutching the toy to her protectively. He wasn't sure if she was protecting herself or the toy.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, to the mattress. She was no longer looking at him.

He wasn't interested in her apology. "Tell me why you are here," he replied, wondering most of all why she was sad as he hadn't been able to pinpoint the reason earlier.

"I was tired. I lay down. I didn't mean to fall asleep. I'm sorry for that." She moved to the edge of the bed, leaning down to take hold of her shoes but she didn't return them to her feet. For a long moment, she didn't move at all. And then she slipped off the bed, straightening to her full, unimpressive height. "I'll comply with anything that you wish of me."

"Tell me why you are here," he repeated, unaffected by her earlier words. She hadn't answered his question, no matter what she believed.

"I was cleaning. I'm a cleaner."

"You were cleaning. You were tired. You lay down." He scowled, his displeasure purposefully visible. She needed to know how not okay her actions were and had been. "Do you understand the notion of respect, cleaner?"

"I understand that I was disrespectful. If you believe I should be punished for it, I will not protest." She was still holding that toy to her chest, one arm cradling it against her and the other hand down by her side, holding her shoes.

He touched her wrist, slipped his fingers around the slimness of it and squeezed. The woman winced but made no sound. "Put the shoes down."

She dropped her shoes, never once taking her gaze from his. Her impulsiveness surprised him. Based on earlier indications, the insolence of this action was not expected, and struck him as a very short distance from delinquency. She was mocking him, probably, meant to mock him; mock his authority and, by extension, his superiority over her and her kind.

Put that way, he saw no reason not to proceed with a suitable punishment. He was superior to her, whether by design, by biology or merely by standing, the fact remained. She was less than him in every single way. He hit her across the face.

She didn't cry. The toy slipped out of her grasp and landed on the floor at her feet. Her dark gaze didn't so much mock him as it remained defiantly fixed on his own.

"Pick up the shoes. You will go."

She bent down, reaching first for the toy, but he quickly snatched up her hand, gripping it tightly so that it was painful.

"The shoes. The toy remains here."

He let go of her wrist, allowed her to grab her shoes.

"You will leave now. You will inform your superior that you wish to be reassigned to another work detail. You will never return here." He watched her as she watched him, her dark eyes eerily intent, and it displeased him that she wasn't more upset, wasn't even tearful and frightened. Most other would be. It made him wonder all the more what had hurt her earlier.

"As you wish, sir."

It was only upon hearing her voice again that it occurred to him to read her. She was still watching him, hadn't taken her eyes off him, and when he set his mind to the subject of her thoughts and feelings, her eyes remained in place, locked with his.

Involuntarily, he recalled the moment that he read Henrietta Bishop for the last time. His concern was not the memory she had been recalling or even the feelings it had brought about in her; it was not even particularly relevant to Etta herself. It was just that he had been touching her and she was, like this woman, quite small, fragile in his hands.

The urge to touch this woman strengthened in him and he gave up trying to fight and took hold of her face, glaring down at her with as much disgust as he could muster. He did find the Natives disgusting, truthfully, though to touch them didn't harm him in the least. In fact, he rather enjoyed the experience, knowing that they rarely fought back, that though they might have, had they known the depth of hatred he felt for them and their entire kind, their disgusting ways, they still did not fight. He could end their insignificant lives and they would not fight back to stop him. They simply knew that he was superior, and better in every single way. There was no chance for them, none at all. That, when they did not fight, was most disgusting and also somewhat thrilling, affirming for him his own superiority to them. He, however, preferred when they fought. He was better than them, but he didn't dislike the chance to prove exactly why. He had been pleasantly pleased when Henrietta Bishop had chosen to fight, when she had challenged him, had insinuated that he was not better but merely equal.

A tear slipped from the woman's face and tracked the curve of her cheek but still she did not fight, and then, for reasons unknown to him, she said, "My only child died yesterday. She had never hurt anyone in her life. I want… I want to ask you a favour I won't be able to return."

Glaring down at her pathetic form, he asked, "What would you ask of me?" He was not upset to hear of the death of her only child, considered that it was "good"; another of her pathetic kind no longer existed and that was good.

"End my life," she said, gazing deeply into his eyes, her voice steady, unshaking.

Surprisingly, he didn't give it a moment's thought. He snapped her neck easily and watched her drop to the floor with a heavy thud. The thud was always heavier than he anticipated, and somehow more satisfying.

He could easily say that she had tried to attack him, to harm him, if anyone asked.

He picked up the toy she had been holding a while ago and sat down on the bed, gazing at the woman's small, totally unmoving form. She wasn't breathing any more. She would never breathe again. She was dead.

He wasn't bothered. Another one of them was dead, that was good.


2.

The little girl was curled up in a big, old armchair facing a fireplace in which the fire had died down a short while ago, the embers still glowing softly. She was asleep, hugging her favourite toy, a well worn penguin. She was three years old, her medium-length fair hair slightly ruffled from a day's worth of living. Another little girl, probably six years old, with similar features and hair, sat in a nearby chair watching her little sister sleeping. The older girl's name was Unn and the very youngest was Tokey.

Unn glanced away from her sibling at the sound of someone entering the room and uncurled herself from the chair, touching her toes to the floor and finally standing. Her father touched her shoulder, watching the glowing embers for a moment, then he turned and extracted the sleeping little girl from out of the armchair, scooping her into his arms and holding her close.

She didn't stir and he reached for her toy. The children had been waiting for their mother to return home but she would not be coming home tonight, or even the next night. He took the kids to their room, tucked them both in so they wouldn't be cold, brushed the hair from Unn's face. "Sleep well, child."

She smiled faintly, sleep close. "Goodnight, Daddy."

In the living room, he took a seat in the armchair Unn had earlier been seated in, awaiting her mother's return. His thoughts strayed from the children and the softly glowing embers emitting warmth still to the children's mother, eyes like the sky above, clear and blue, and fair hair like strands of sunlight, sometimes serious but always warm. He thought that he, like the children, was waiting for her to come home.

His communicator signalled an incoming call and he took it out of his pocket to answer it, quietly pleased for the distraction. He was yet to explain to the children the reason for their mother's absence; he was building up to it, but every time he thought he was ready, one of the children would favour him with a warm smile and he would grow afraid. He had always believed himself strong enough to handle anything this world may dish out, but in those days he didn't even know what he didn't know.

"Hello," he said, to the communicator.

"Hey."

His heart filled with joy at the sound of her voice, tired but so very happy and very much awake.

That was when Windmark woke, his heart beating uncharacteristically hard in his chest. The dream slowly faded from his conscious mind as wakefulness solidified inside him, but not before realisation dawned on him as to who the woman in his dreams must be. He had never heard her voice sound that way before, and never would. She was dead, he had ended her life himself.


On his way into work, he happened to glance across the street and caught sight of a poster that was the handiwork of the resistance. He looked away quickly. A little too quickly for one who was trying to convince himself he wasn't bothered in the slightest. It was just a dream, had just been a dream. Though he had not had many dreams before, he understood what they were, and that they could come in many shapes and forms. He was only slightly upset with himself. Not all dreams were pleasing, and not all very particularly realistic, either. This was merely an instance of such a dream. He refused to think of it as a nightmare. The girl did not get to have that kind of effect on him, that kind of power over him. He was superior to her in every single way, and now she was dead. He had ended her.

Unruffled, he went on his way.


He sat in his office, not at all pleased. He had just been back "home", had received orders from his superior. They were beginning a new program named Keystone. The Natives were important for the continued existence of their kind, the superior had told him. He had not asked why. His superior had explained that progress for progress's sake when it forsook other more basic instincts was not favourable, and that their own kind would do well to incorporate this into their own set of protocols. He rather thought his superior was suffering some form of illness, as the Natives would say. But no, his superior explained, the Earth was important, their "home". They might live elsewhere, of course, were they to develop suitable technology, but the Earth would always be their "first" home and most suitable for them because this was where their evolution had begun. A "romantic" notion, if Windmark had ever heard one, and a decidedly ill one, but he said nothing. Perhaps there was some actual scientific basis to this idea that he was yet to hear of, that was the way of things amongst their kind. You knew when you knew and not before.

To better direct their efforts, his superior said, there needed to be, was required, a set of protocols. Protocols such as they had not known before, protocols for stricter control, or, as he thought of it, structured evolution. They would begin Keystone soon, and he would lead by example. He no more understood the meaning of any of what his superior was saying as he did the line about "strength through connection" and the idea of a "good and wholesome" degree of mystery that gently asserted curiosity as well as courage, the courage to explore, to wonder, to imagine themselves as greater with time.

The basis of Keystone was meaning. What they needed as a people was meaning. Meaning would save them, would allow them to do more than simply conquer and control, would allow them to continue to observe and experience. Right now, the scope of their acceptable experiences was severely limited, and as such their progress was stilted in a way they found very hard to see, much less accept, but it was stilted nonetheless, their very evolution stilted.

To kick off the program, he was tasked with "meaningfully associating" with one of the "acceptable" Natives, seeing as they had no females of their own kind. Though he would not understand the importance of this task, the first fruits of their labour would become apparent with the birth of their children. In interbreeding with the Natives, they would eventually "wipe out" the Natives in their own way; the Natives would have no way to fight, if they even realised what was happening. They would not be poisoning their gene pool but strengthening it, as they were in dire need of variety. The favourable elements would be retained whilst the unfavourable would be "marked" as such and given, albeit covertly, lower priority. The Natives would remain ignorant of this new system of priority, but those of their own kind in power would be well aware, beginning with him.

A decidedly ill feeling washing through him, Windmark did not offer any disagreement for this new program. What could he say, really? It was not in their protocols to disagree with superiors, and this all consuming feeling of disgust and anger was not to be utilised today, nor directed at a superior. It would merely cease to exist, and if he should inadvertently transfer his frustration onto another, a Native, perhaps, then that was an acceptable outlet. Natives were of little priority to the Observer objective. At least, they had been before today, before this new program.

"An adjustment must be made to the timeline," his superior was saying now. A moment later, an image appeared before him. The woman was not smiling. The anger welling inside Windmark was no less for the fact.

"You are to be associated with this woman," his superior said.

He had never felt physically ill before. He supposed there was a first for everything, as the Natives often said. At that moment, staring at the image of Henrietta Bishop, he felt very ill. At that moment, the world felt very, very wrong. Alien, even.

There was to be no fight between them. Henrietta Bishop was once more at work, typing up a report of another Native-on-Native crime on her computer. Phillip Broyles stopped by her desk and asked that she join him in his office, where Captain Windmark was waiting, though he did not inform her of this last part because when she saw him her expression changed entirely.

When she arrived, Phillip was asked to leave. He didn't seem happy about it. He obeyed nonetheless. Henrietta was even less happy. Her carefully schooled control had not yet slipped, but Windmark sensed it wasn't far off doing so, or perhaps the feelings he was sensing were entirely his own. Abruptly, the disorienting feelings of nausea returned. He did not believe in this new program, nor did he "understand", but he had his orders.

Henrietta did not take a seat so they both remained standing, both pretending as though everything was fine, they did not want to end each other. Then he gave Henrietta her new "supplementary" orders.

She laughed, not an amused laugh but a sarcastic laugh. He did not so much as blink; he was not making a joke. When she finally clued onto this, she stopped laughing, uttering just one word. "No."

"You have been given your orders," he told her. "Those refusing their orders will be dealt with accordingly, to the fullest extent of the law."

She scowled and the hatred in her eyes was impressive; breathtaking, even. He felt as if he had been knocked back a few steps. He had never seen that look on her face before and it gave him some pleasure to do so, to know he had been the one to put it on her face, to shake her up that much. It was a good look on her, he decided. Perhaps, to her kind, it signified her weakness, but in his mind, it signified her strength. She dared to show her defiance plainly and it was exhilarating.

She did not, of course, know anything of the outcome of their fight, the one in which she had failed, had lost her life at his hands. She would not understand why he was feeling the way he was, even if he was to tell her. She would merely think him "sick" of mind and intention.

"Are you suggesting that it is your intention to challenge the law, Henrietta Bishop?" he asked, his tone strictly professional despite the manic glee he felt inside, replacing, almost completely, the nausea. He shouldn't have been feeling either, strictly speaking, but he didn't see it as a problem. What his kind didn't know wouldn't harm them, as the Native saying went.

She looked away, her blue eyes swimming with tears she would not allow to fall. When she spoke, her voice came out forced, stiff. "No." She turned back to meet his utterly unaffected gaze. "I will comply."

Nausea returned to him, thick and fast, and he placed a hand on her shoulder mechanically. "In that case, you will follow me. There are agreements to be verified."

She shrugged his hand from her shoulder and slipped past him. For some reason, he felt deflated. He remembered the last time they'd been so close, the last time he'd been touching her, before she had died.

If only Keystone had never come into being, she would still be dead. His victory would not have vanished before his eyes, leaving him uncharacteristically bereft.

Inwardly, he knew she would never give up on ending his kind. Never. She might play the game, but it was just that for her, a game, as it would be for him, also. In reality, they had more in common than she would ever know. The thought was not "cute" or pleasurable.


Etta was numb when Olivia found her. It was difficult for her to make her words come out properly, it all seemed so unreal and yet too real and it was incredibly hard to explain just what had happened as Olivia respectfully refrained from comforting her. Olivia knew something wasn't right but she couldn't begin to guess after the problem. Etta had held out a hand to keep her mother from drawing her close into her arms. She couldn't think about anyone holding her right now, not after what she had just learned today. It would only make it worse. She needed time, time to process this new development.

When she finally got it out, cautiously omitting the fact of her own “association”, Olivia was wearing a blank expression. Obviously, she was hiding her murderous eyes. Etta could feel her mother's white hot rage, even if Olivia didn't realise it. Etta allowed it to reach out to her and wrap her in its overly cloying warmth, to comfort her in the confusion and pain it bought, and felt proud. Proud of her mother, proud of the fact that she hadn't broken down in front of that maniac, Windmark.

Only fully functioning Natives were considered subjects as opposed to objects, or "assets". Rachel and Ella, both suffering medical "conditions", were considered assets, assets which Etta had taken into her possession when Rachel's husband had died. Eddie, Rachel's son and Ella's brother, was a doctor and as such had been required to give an offering, a show of good faith to his cause. He had done so by denouncing Rachel and Ella as his assets. As unclaimed assets they would have been virtually helpless; assets were not entitled to own other assets, were only given "rights" via their service to their possessors and a legally binding agreement. The consequences of Etta's refusal of Windmark's agreement would have meant the end for Rachel and Ella, and certain death. What could she do?

There was nothing for Etta to do but to agree.


Several weeks later, following many stressful meetings and tests – Etta, as the Native, was required to be in her best health; there was nothing about her health and physical state she was to hide from her "associate" – the day came for them to spend time in each other's presence, outside of work.

Windmark chose that time to be spent at his residence. He could have chosen Henrietta's place for their first "agreed interaction", but he did not wish to. He much preferred his own residence and was partial to the notion that Henrietta would be inherently on edge in an unfamiliar place. The way he felt about this whole arrangement himself, he needed the comfort it would bring knowing Henrietta was feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

He knew what was required of him (as per their legally binding agreement) and he didn't believe he was quite ready. It was a feeling he was most unaccustomed to.

Ill at ease, he met Henrietta in the lobby and they caught the elevator together. He recalled the last incidence of a woman being in his apartment and felt sorely that things would not be going down the same road this time. This was one Native he was not allowed to kill, under any circumstance.

He wondered if her parents knew, if she had told them yet, if they wished all the more to end him. He deduced that they would not be happy if they knew. It pleased him to think this and even more so given the high probability that he was right.

A quick glance in Henrietta's direction told him she was wearing her necklace. It irritated him. He wanted to rip it from her neck and toss it somewhere. It was unnatural, contaminated by her Native ways, her damned "emotions". She was playing with it now, probably thinking about her parents who "loved" her, or those who she loved and was doing this to keep safe, her mother's sister, Rachel, and Rachel's daughter, Ella.

He very much imagined she thought herself "brave", though he merely saw her as weak. Wilfully weak, yes, but weak all the same. She was voluntarily bringing this anguish upon herself, she was clearly weak, or sick, or both. He was disgusted just thinking about it. He really didn't want to have to touch her, much less share the same space as her, but it was required and he, like her, understood that he was not all powerful. Even he had superiors, even he had his orders.

When the elevator came to his floor and the doors opened, Henrietta dropped her hand from her necklace and followed after him mutely. He didn't like that he couldn't see her but he would be no less pleased had she been waiting for him outside his door. His apartment was, by definition, "his", and it was his privilege that he know where it was and she did not. She would know from now on but even so, the last few moments of her not knowing were "his", also. He was not going to give them up for anything. He supposed the Natives might attribute some other significance to the ritual of "inviting someone over", but he was not like them and did not wish to be.

He opened the door of his apartment and stepped inside. He didn't linger at the door, or waste time making some ceremony out of inviting Henrietta inside and showing her around. They walked to the living area and she took a seat on the nearest object soft enough, a single white divan.

She was visibly morose.

He took a seat beside her and consulted his tablet device. Finding the section of their agreement he was looking for, he handed the tablet to her. She took it silently and her moroseness grew. She didn't correct it, or even strive to do so.

A sharp glance wiped the most of that miserable look from her face. It didn't, however, leave her eyes. Though objectionable, he didn't object. It would have been disconcerting had she successfully chosen to feign willing co-operation given her ability to fool a read. He did not think he would have liked that.

He took the tablet back and stood, setting it aside. He understood his requirements but he couldn't quite make sense of how he should make it all happen. His kind was not like Natives; they were not actively encouraged to explore such things as sexuality or romantic notions. As a degree of sexuality was thought to be only natural, he supposed it was possible, at least theoretically, but he didn't like the idea of what he would have to allow himself to feel physically in order to fulfil his requirements. As the Natives would say, he just wasn't like that. The trouble was, he wasn't given a choice.

Just like Henrietta.

He could have rebelled, but to do so would not be in his best interests. He was career minded; he would go through a lot before he sacrificed that. Even this.

Though it was not in his nature, he couldn't help wondering which of them would crack first: Henrietta or he himself?


It was a slow, painful process for him to watch Henrietta getting her courage up to do what needed to be done. Many times, he merely wanted to leave, or have her leave. Her weakness was disgusting. It wasn't that she was deliberately slow, but, by nature, he did not hurry or drag things out and the added interaction with her actions only hinted at the great difference between them, at her weakness and his strength. This woman was not well matched to him yet his superior had chosen her. Why?

She shed her garments with slow, unskilled hands, as if she had forgotten quite how to undress herself, though she can't logically have forgotten, she was merely possessed of a lack of will for such as task. She lay back on the mattress with a distance in her eyes that was disheartening. He was sure she was trying to mess this up for them both and strongly wished to explain to her how if this did not work they would only be required to try again but he was strong, too strong to admit to her that he might not be able to go through this a second, or third time. It would not look good on his record, he thought.

Without her clothes and in the absence of her steely, confident exterior, Henrietta appeared flimsy. Everything about her, her smallness, her watery blue eyes, it was all flimsy. Any healthy colour had left her face completely and she appeared unnaturally pigmented, as if on the verge of being physically ill. He did not like that idea. He thought of going easy on her to minimise the possibility that she might be ill in case any of it found its way onto his person, but that would be weak and he despised weakness. He would not encourage it in his associate.

As she lay on the bed, he kept his eyes firmly on her face, intrigued to see if she would actually cry. He had been watching all the while she removed her clothes and she had not cried then. He was optimistic that she would do the right thing and hold herself together.

He undressed more swiftly than she had, his actions precisely economical and efficient the way hers had not been, and joined her on the bed, settling himself atop her small, soft frame and arranging her legs so that he would have the access he required. In contrast to everything he had read, she was uncharacteristically cold to the touch. If he hadn't read her health assessment himself, he might have believed her unwell.

As she had been waiting on the bed, she had laid her hands neatly beside her on the mattress, unfurled and seemingly calm. Now, they were shaking and blotchy. He could tell she didn't know where to put them, where she would be able to stand putting them, and thought of commanding that she touch him, just to press her buttons a little, but he didn't want to go too far and have his "attitude" backfire on him when she retaliated or got sick.

Skimming a hand across her belly on the way to grasping her hip, he felt a violent shudder rip through her body, making her fingers curl around the sheet covering the mattress. Her eyes strayed from his as she tried to stay strong and he couldn't do anything about the answering burst of pleasure that washed over him. It was enough for him to set aside his own disgust for a moment and when he lowered his gaze he saw that it had helped quite a bit, actually. Unbeknownst to him, he had achieved an erection. Without a moment's hesitation, he found the right position and thrust.

Henrietta's face contorted with the massive effort of staying silent and controlling her urge to fight, to flee. The sight of it was actually quite disgusting; she wasn't pretty any more, in any small way. Just small, weak and ugly.

He knew she wouldn't fight him, no matter how much she wanted to, and the knowledge gave him encouragement, gave him the power to submit himself to this disgusting, defacing act. He continued a rhythmic thrusting action, much more aware than he might otherwise have been of the helpless twisting of her hands in the sheet and the way the momentum flowed between them seemingly seamlessly, from his body to hers, to the way he was able to jolt her from any small measure of tentative control she might have grasped hold of with just one insignificant action.

Soon enough, her fragile state had descended into hysteria as silent tears poured from her eyes without end and she began to choke on her own breath, gasping for air when she did and submitting to the painful humiliation that followed with equal helplessness. If he imagined, in any strange way, that she was enjoying herself, she couldn't even care. She was trying too hard to remain whole and a singular being, to remain Henrietta as opposed to a broken, blubbering mess on the bed.

The horror she was enduring comforted him endlessly, and he actually found himself growing bolder for it, really coming into the nature of his desire. It was actually liberating and he allowed all of his anger and disgust to flow out of him into her through their strange, disgusting connection. The power he had over her now was breathtaking, simply staggering; easily addicting.

Naturally wary of excess of any kind, he countered his high with a personal challenge of his own. The Natives seemed to enjoy such activities, both the males and the females, and he put it to himself to figure this out. With all the power he now held, was it enough to turn the tables and manipulate the woman beneath him to make an about turn away from pain and into pleasure.

The more he thought about it, the more intriguing the idea seemed to him. If a lowly creature like a Native could do it, he was sure he could manage it with consummate finesse.

Chancing a glance into her face, discoloured by distress, her eyes veritable pools of misery, he decided that he would be pleased to accept his own challenge, to prove to himself that he was worthy of his high standing amongst his kind. He would not be defeated in anything. Just as he had won once before when he had taken Henrietta's life right out of her hands, he would give unto her something which he was certain now she would detest about as much as he detested her and her entire kind.

He begun by stroking her arm as he had seen countless times before. It was, he knew, very comforting to her kind. She didn't push his hand away but it didn't make a jot of difference. Annoyed, he picked up her hand, after a little struggle removing her hand from the sheet, and placed a kiss on the back of her pale, limp hand.

A shudder of revulsion traced the length of her body and he turned her hand over, kissing her palm. Displeasingly, it was sweaty; yucky, as her kind would say. Her kissed her wrist. It was softer than her palm and he had the entirely foreign urge to sink his teeth into her soft flesh. Somehow, he figured that would not further his cause, and refrained, kissing along the underside of her arm until he reached the crook opposite her elbow, the cubital fossa.

She abruptly pulled her arm away, hiccuping as she whispered, "What are you doing?"

"What are you doing?" he returned. "I don't see you making any effort and I believe an undertaking of this nature must be, in actuality, a joint venture. Both parties are required to contribute for the success of the operation."

She brushed the back of her hand across her face and sniffed, a small, jerky laugh escaping her throat and causing yet more tears to roll down her cheeks, some of them pooling about the curve of her mouth and some of them tracing over the edge of her chin or sliding across the skin of her neck.

"Operation?!" she croaked, redirecting his gaze to her face once more and away from her neck where he had been observing the course of a single one of her tears.

Her tone implied something beyond merely the word she had uttered, but he could not be sure what exactly. Instead of try to make sense of it, he said, "Do something."

That brought a glare to her eyes, the watery edge of them frighteningly sharp in spite of the liquid fluidity of them. If he stared into them for too long they actually became menacing.

Just as he thought that would be the full extent of her wilful participation, she surprised him with a rough grasp and a short display of surprising strength which she utilised to reverse their positions, the necklace she hadn't been strong enough to remove with the rest of her clothing brushing against his skin along with her fine, blonde hair as she glared down at him with her blotchy skin he couldn't accurately take serious.

She was a very sorry sight, and slightly demented of bearing, if he was quietly truthful with himself, but she probably thought herself assertive, even threatening.

He touched her hair, momentarily distracted by the cheerfulness and brightness of it, so in contrast to the rest of her. He wasn't quite sure why he thought it was cheerful, or if that was just her own assessment of it, but such questions didn't seem important. It was soft, also, though rather annoying against his skin. It didn't belong with him; it was hers.

He brushed it away, shunning it, but it just came back. Straddling him as she was now, he decided that he had again misjudged Henrietta's capacity for exerting the full extent of her weight. She wasn't exactly heavy but he noticed her, more so when she rose just long enough to alleviate the pressure of at least part of her body against his and sunk down onto him, driving his length deep inside her. She didn't look at him as she resumed a shaky rhythm, impaling herself on him over and over. Out of the blue, he found his breath catching and breathing from then on became more of a task than simply an automatic action. An unexpected pressure began to build inside of him, insistent and somewhat pervasive, and then bordering on painful, the culmination of which was a deeply disquieting shudder that ripped through his body and sapped him of both energy and willingness, his thoughts becoming somewhat of a slushy haze.

He surmised that he had fulfilled his objective and allowed himself to check that off of his list; a job well done.

Henrietta flopped down on top of him, burying her face against his neck so that he could feel each time she breathed out and her warm breath brushed his skin. It didn't annoy him just yet, he was still coasting in some indefinable state of acceptance.

When she started to cry, the sobs wracking her whole body with violent glee, he let her. Her tears dropped onto his skin and he didn't push her away in disgust. His capacity for rational, calculated thought was slowly but surely returning and he had begun to ponder the outcome of his personal challenge. Disappointingly, he surmised that he had failed. Henrietta's tears were not happy tears; happy tears did not attack one's entire body with such accurate and inflicting menace.

Still, one out of two wasn't bad, and it wasn't a requirement that she enjoy their time together, just that she strive for assisting his enjoyment as opposed to it being one big painful process.

And that she not inflict her disagreement onto him thus by implying some wrongdoing on his part, some form of abuse directed at her.

He pushed her head away, irritated again, close to discomforting disgust. "Smile." When he looked, finding his strength and sitting up in bed, her expression was blissfully vague, her face wet with tears she had shed for reasons of her own he was no longer interested in knowing.

She had folded her arms over her chest in effort to cover her breasts and retain some of her dignity as she saw it, he supposed, and he found his gaze pondering the sight which lay beneath her arms. He had not paid much attention beforehand but he was paying attention now.

He took hold of her upper arms and pulled her closer roughly. He tasted the salt of her tears on the side of her neck, the slow build of a now identifiable excitement spurring him on as his hands sunk lower, skimming her soft, touchable curves and pulling her into his lap. He didn't see her wince, or jam her eyes closed, determined not to cry again. He lay her back on the bed and felt the roundness of her shoulders in his hands, sliding his hands lower to cup her breasts. One hand squeezed her breast while the other came to rest on her thigh, sliding up and down the smooth skin stretched over serious muscle.

He thought she must be a good runner and that incited him to thoughts of chasing her, of catching her and undressing her hastily. She might even object to his hands on her, removing her clothes, exposing her to the cool air; she might prefer to undress herself, as a fully grown woman in full possession of her wits, and that would only make it all the more imperative that he thwart her struggles, that he show her who was really superior.

He dropped his face and sunk his teeth into her breast, into her soft, squeezable flesh and felt the smoothness of her silky soft flesh tempered by the uncaring shudder that jolted through her at the pain. He held her tighter, the taste of blood bright in his mouth, and adjusted her in his lap, skin sliding over skin with slick, shivering heat. Then he thrust into her, over and over again; faster, harder, softer, slower, any way that took his fancy or merely enticed his intellectual curiosity.

Her hands remained on him and did not stray to the sheets, tracing across muscle and bone and alternately pushing and pulling. Her breath came out panting and not as moans of pleasure, labouring harder at times, but she wasn't crying any longer. She had found her focus, her determination once more.

He didn't know if that was a good thing or an unfortunate thing, if he should be pleased or displeased. The lack of sobbing was pleasing enough that he decided to set aside their rivalry momentarily, in the pursuit of other experiences.

When he reached orgasm for the second time, she followed him, biting down on her fist in effort to contain her reaction.

They lay side by side on the bed for a while, during which he decided that they had more than fulfilled their agreement and took control of his limbs long enough to slip out of bed and retrieve his garments. Part of him wanted to stay and indulge itself once more and he could see how that would end. It would be very hard to retain some semblance of respectability and fortitude under such circumstances and so he would, as the many posters he had seen depicting Henrietta Bishop urged, resist.

A biological being he might have been, but he was possessed of an intellect also and that intellect was now urging him to back off. He did not want to accustom himself to such activities, and certainly not with this woman. He did not want her to think herself to have some power over him, that he was able to be manipulated by the right means.

He was messy and a little fatigued. He left to clean himself up and take a shower. Afterward, he walked back to the bedroom. Henrietta was once more dressed and was now attempting to put her shoes on, which she was having trouble with. Her hands, much like the rest of her, would not stop shaking.

He sat down on the floor with her and helped her pull her boots on and tie the laces. He wasn't sure why he would do such a thing, but now that the thing was done, he just wanted to be left alone, he just wanted her to be gone.

It was strange, then, when he closed the door after her that he found himself feeling empty.


3.

Upon returning home, Etta stripped off all her clothes and took a long, painful shower, scrubbing herself relentlessly until her skin burned. Standing in front of the mirror, she brushed her hair for the better part of forty minutes, her eyes fixed for some of that time on the necklace she still wore. She felt like cutting her hair off, like crying and curling into a ball on the bathroom floor, like maybe not breathing.

She slept on the couch that night, unable to face her own bed. It hurt her back and other parts of her body, too, but she still got up at the same time she always did and poured herself a glass of warm water, just for the comfort of it, of the hot liquid warming her entire body. She sat in the kitchen shivering, afraid to touch her favourite boots because he had touched them, because she had done a stupid thing, she had allowed him to help her pull them on when she had been too weak.

She hadn't told her parents about this, not before and not yet. She didn't know how to. She couldn't stand the thought of their hurt, their pain, that she would be hurting them in a manner she would never be able to make up for and shouldn't actually have had to but wanted, more than anything, to soothe. She didn't want to tell them but knew she had to, that it was only right. If only… if only she could will herself to feel less like a party to it all. She didn't feel like a victim and she knew in reality that she wasn't. In any case, she wasn't a victim in the traditional sense. She didn't know what was going on with her, or inside her, only that it was bad. So bad.

She left for work, arrived at work, and wondered how it had all gone down. She was walking around as if on autopilot. She had no idea about anything. She was afraid of hurting someone for no reason whatsoever, or just because she was messed up.

Sitting at her desk, she stared at it as if expecting something more. If they had been normal people and they'd had a hot date, there would have been flowers. Maybe even chocolates. She found herself wishing for something, something more than nothing, something that would affirm for her that she wasn't a victim. Of course, it would make telling her parents about it harder, but it would honestly be easier on her. Much easier.

She wanted to cry again.

Phillip arrived with a hot drink and some idle chatter. She took the drink and resisted the urge to accidentally brush her hand against his. She didn't want to freak him out but she really wanted to touch someone. Someone who wouldn't try to hurt her. She really wished she could just leap to her feet and hug him like crazy. He would be warm and kind and safe, always safe. He would probably be massively freaked out.

She stared at her cup, determinately not watching him walk away. She still heard him, though, and the precise moment she could no longer hear his footsteps. She felt so alone, and sick.

She hadn't yet eaten anything and wondered if she would, later. If she could stand eating now. She didn't know. She had no answers.

She listened to the easy banter between her colleagues and wanted once more to sob, or sing something crazy loud, and shamelessly, totally shamelessly. She just wanted to purge everything from inside of her, throw everything away and call it back, piece by piece, only after very thorough inspection. She wanted to be better. To be Etta.

She left and stood in the women's restroom, merely staring at herself, trying to reconcile the image she saw with the person inside. She looked like Etta and pretty much like she always did, but nothing was the same any more.

No, everything had gone to hell, and she hadn't thought it was possible for her life to get even more fucked up. She'd thought she would always find a way through the storm to the sunshine in the morning.

God, had she been fucking wrong.


Kitty sniffed, humming her favourite blues tune as she sat at the table, reading her mail. The letter she was reading made her laugh. Not for a second did she believe a word of it. Her communicator trilled and she reached for it. "Hullo, hun."

She listened to the man speaking on the other end of the line, the happy vibe she'd been feeling when she got out of bed that morning evaporating.

"I understand," she said in a very small voice.

So then, there went her one good day.


Ella padded through the apartment she shared with her mother, Rachel, in the special complex set aside for valued assets such as herself. Etta had gone to great lengths so that they were allowed to have a place of their own and to give them visitation rights so that they could leave and visit her. Today, Ella had the urge to visit her younger cousin.

She stopped by the window and felt the sunlight warm on her cheeks. She could no longer see anything but she remembered. Oh, she remembered. She turned away from the warmth streaming in through the window when she heard Rachel come into the room.

"There's a letter for you, baby," Rachel told her.

They sat down on the couch together so that Rachel could read it to her. A couple of times, Rachel stopped reading, upset or disbelieving. When she had finished, she left the room. Ella still heard every word she said to Etta, whom she had called at work. Rachel was scared but trying to hide it. Rachel's outrage was clear and Ella heard her mother explain that a neighbour had received a letter, a most unacceptable proposition. Ella wasn't sure why her mother would lie but she wasn't scared, not like Rachel.

When they saw her, saw her scars and learned that she was blind, incapable, nobody wanted her. Nobody had wanted her for a very long time.

Ella smiled to herself, pressed close to the wall so that she could hear Rachel's voice. Finally, she might find someone to hold her at night, someone warm.

People said that she wasn't right in the mind, that she was disturbed, but Ella knew that was rubbish. Her mother always told her she was perfect and she believed what her mother said, even if she only said it because she loved her.


Donald frowned at the letter he was holding. He didn't often receive mail but whenever he did, he grew quietly suspicious. He was suspicious now and it wasn't a good feeling for him.

He decided to read the letter before he did anything crazy like burn it. Once he had read it, he promptly decided on some serious crazy action and set it on fire. He didn't feel bad for having done so, he only felt bad that though the letter was gone, nothing, absolutely nothing could change what had been written in it.

He did not need this distraction. He didn't want it.

He went to lie down, too upset to do anything else. It wasn't that he wanted to be upset, in fact, he really didn't, it was just something that happened. Thankfully, it wasn't such a regular occurrence and he had learnt to live with it, to accept it rather than merely becoming more upset because of it.

He never allowed it to manifest itself as anger. That would have been unacceptable. He simply allowed himself to feel the anguish and helplessness and waited for it to ease, waited until he came back to himself again.


Etta arrived at Rachel and Ella's with takeout. Rachel hugged her and allowed her inside, closing the door after her. Ella didn't feel like hugging anyone apart from whomever it was who'd been chosen for her, just for her. Besides, she knew Etta wasn't a big fan of hugging, that, in fact, hugging frightened her, always made her think of goodbyes. Not an encouraging association, in truth.

"Hello, Etta."

"Hey, Ells!" Etta greeted.

Ella didn't frown right away, not until Rachel had left to take the food to the kitchen. Then she moved away from the wall and allowed her worry to show on her face. "What's wrong?"

Etta used her happy voice, bright like Olivia's had once been. "Nothing!"

Ella wasn't fooled. She let it drop, nodding mutely. They ate the food in the kitchen; Rachel didn't pick up on what she had picked up on, or else, if she did, she said nothing.

When she left, Ella allowed herself to hug Etta. The love she felt for her younger cousin overflowed and tumbled out of her violently, dragging every last ounce of energy forcibly from her body as it did. She barely had the strength to let go and allow her cousin to leave. She wasn't sure that she wanted to. She'd much rather Etta be safe.

"I love you," she whispered to the door, long after Etta had gone and Rachel had gone upstairs. She let her strength slowly return, pressed close to the solid, supportive door, smiling at nothing.

It took longer than usual.


Whilst Etta visited a medical clinic for tests, Ella was smoothing her skirt across her legs, nervously waiting. Rachel had come with her, of course, but Rachel was not allowed to wait with her.

Ella wondered if she was blushing. She hoped not. But probably, she thought. That was just her, wasn't it? She was suddenly afraid this was all a big joke, some funny joke. She wasn't perfect; she wasn't even pretty any more. Why would anyone want her? Why would the Observers choose her?

"Hello."

She'd been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't heard the man come in. Now, she leapt to her feet, worried and eager all at once. Her stomach felt weirdly light, like it was filled with butterflies. She didn't know if the man was hers, but she hoped so.

"Hello!" she whispered, trying not to be too happy or emotional. He'd probably think her creepy then and she didn't want that. She only wanted him to like her, to want to keep her.

"My name is Donald," the man told her.

"I'm Ella."

"It's good to meet you, Ella," he said.

"Yes, you too," she agreed. Suddenly, she was filled with doubt. What an ordinary name. Was it even his real name? She knew that Observers didn't go for that sort of thing so maybe this man wasn't hers.

She bit her lip. There was also the fact that he was talking to her and not merely at her. Since when did that happen, realistically? He didn't even sound like an Observer. Nobody of her own kind had ever wanted her before and she was sure this man wouldn't either, if he was indeed to be hers. He was too normal and she was not. He would prefer someone else who was normal like he was, in the end. He probably wouldn't even be able to help it.

She shook her head. She didn't mean to be so paranoid. She really didn't enjoy it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know I'm not perfect. Would you please tell me if this is a joke?"

"A joke?" he asked.

"You're not…" She cut herself short, tried to think of a way to phrase it that wouldn't antagonise matters further. "You don't sound like them. The Observers."

"Yes."

She refrained from correcting him. He didn't need correcting, he was right. He'd merely been confirming that what she'd said was right. It was hard not to say anything, but she managed it. She would only freak him out, and though she was sad, she didn't want to freak anybody out.

She sat down again. The man was still standing where he'd been when he'd first come into the room. She wished Rachel would come back. She was sad and lonely now. She wished the man would leave. She could tell he didn't want her, even when she wasn't freaking him out. Or maybe she already had, merely by being herself and by looking the way she did.

After a while, the man walked over and sat down in one of the chairs beside hers. She pretended not to notice. Maybe he would merely assume she hadn't; he was an Observer, after all, and they were often rather unthinking when it came to Natives.

For a long while then neither of them said anything. Ella kept having to remind herself that his name was Donald. And yes, it was just a regular name. Some of them did have regular names; the higher ups, she supposed. That didn't help; she only began to wonder if he was a higher up, and if he had killed anyone, or maybe just tortured them? She suddenly wasn't so sure she could forgive something like that, even if forgiveness was the first step to healing, or whatever.

She decided to say something, just anything, to hopefully change the mood of her thoughts. She didn't think about what she was going to say beforehand, she just opened her mouth and spoke. "You smell nice."

Clearly, not thinking about it had been a mistake. Her cheeks burned. She very much imagined the man was staring rather intently at the exit now, even if he was an Observer and Observers always remained cool under pressure. That was before they'd met her.

She almost laughed at her own ridiculousness.

"I…" There was a long pause as Donald tried to think of something else to add to what he'd already said. "Oh."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, smoothing her skirt over her thighs compulsively. "Are you… okay?"

"I am okay, Ella."

She nodded. She didn't turn to face him. She was thinking about her milky eyes and the unsightly marks on her face. She thought of something to say, careful not to just blurt the first thing that came into her mind, even if it was true. "It's a nice day."

"The weather is pleasant," he agreed.

She sighed, lifting her hands from her lap and placing them back on her legs. "Okay, I have to say it. This is all very irregular."

"Hmm."

She looked around at him, though she couldn't see him. He could still see her. She brushed some of her brown hair behind her ear. "You should… ask for somebody else," she said plainly. It was the right thing to do and she felt better once she'd said it, though slightly sadder than before.

"I did not ask for this to begin with," he replied, somewhat bitterly.

She didn't say a thing back. She rather felt as if someone had ripped her heart out and stomped on it. Why would he say something like that? He wasn't a real Observer, clearly, because of the little she knew of Observer kind, they did not whine. They didn't complain. They complied with whatever their boss told them to do.

She touched her ear, untucked her hair so it could resume obscuring her face.

"I did not mean to insinuate that you were… a problem," he finally said, by way of apology, she supposed.

She waved a hand in front of her, as if waving his words away. "I am a problem. You would only be telling the truth. It's not wrong to tell the truth, Donald." It felt weird, saying his name when she was sure it was not, in fact, his real name, but as Observers weren't usually given names, it was better than nothing, even if he hadn't chosen it himself because that was something else they weren't given: choice.

He tilted his head, searching for something to say to dispute this comment, but of course, Ella didn't see this. She didn't see anything. He wanted to say something about… about mood, and the appropriate utilisation of the truth, of the reveal of truth, but the proper words didn't touch his mind. It was all a jumble, understandable only to him.

He winced, wondering when this was all going to end. He was sure he had things to be doing, plans to be going on with.

"You are not the only problem in this room, Ella," he said, at last. "I am also… problematic. I am… irregular."

"You're fine," she replied thoughtlessly. To her mind, it was only the truth. There was nothing at all wrong with him.

"For your kind, perhaps not, but for mine, oh yes!"

"You are an Observer?"

"Yes."

"Thank you."

"What are you thanking me for, Ella?"

"You're very kind."

"Am I?"

"Yes."

"Well, thank you for seeing the merit in such a thing."

She smiled a little. "No problem."

"Do you understand what is being asked of us?"

"I think so. I mean, yes. I do. I understand. I… I don't mind. I wouldn't want to… do anything wrong. Unlawful, I mean." She laughed briefly. "I don't think I'd like it in prison. Too… too drab."

He didn't laugh at her little attempt at humour. He said, "Then I shall comply also."

"If… if I didn't want to, would you be punished too?"

"I have no idea."

"Do you really want to?"

"It is what they want."

"No, they want everything. You don't get everything you want. Everyone knows that. Who says they should get this, too? I don't think so."

"Ella."

She caught the intonation in his tone. "Are you reprimanding me?" she demanded, before she could reconsider her own tone.

"I'm only looking out for you."

"I don't need looking out for!"

"I would disagree," he replied.

"You're not my dad!" she snapped, her voice too high.

"No," he said, very plainly all of a sudden.

Ella figured she'd overstepped the mark. He was pissed at her now, or something. "Whatever," she said. Then, because it would have been important to her, to any regular person, "I'm not married and I don't have a boyfriend so I guess we don't have a problem, do we?" She didn't mean to sound so bitchy, her voice just came out that way. "You don't have anyone, do you?"

He was quiet for couple of seconds, then he said, "No."

She supposed he was telling the truth. He was an Observer, after all. If they were married to anything at all it was world domination. With a sigh, she asked, "What do we do now?"

She heard him stand up and took her feet in response. She supposed there was someone they had to talk to now, to verify their compliance or something. She was waiting to hear which way he walked so that she could follow him when he walked up to her and touched her cheek, not even bothered about the scars.
Her heart skipped a beat and she felt flustered all of a sudden, wishing Rachel would come in and rescue her. Or maybe Etta, in typical kick-ass style. She imagined Etta kicking the door down and stalking over to the man and grabbing him by the ear, declaring coolly, "All right, you! Hands off of the crazy girl!" She giggled at that picture. It was then that she realised that she'd giggled. Her cheeks coloured. Argh! Was she trying to unnerve this guy? And what the hell, just what the hell?!

Before she could say anything, he had leaned closer and kissed her. It was a very innocent type of kiss but the sheer amount of emotion it brought welling up inside her was painful and she couldn't help from pushing him away from her with as much force as she could muster, before she dropped to the floor and just lay there in a sad, messy heap.

She didn't know if she had screamed or not, she just knew other people came shortly thereafter and Donald was taken away. She was taken away, dosed with something that knocked her out.

Her last thoughts, before the drug whisked her away, were that she'd really screwed things up, and she wished she could have apologised to Donald. It really wasn't his fault.


Kitty turned away from the window as the door opened. The smile she had been practising for the last ten minutes didn't reach her lips much less her eyes. "Now, now, Kitty," she whispered to herself. "Just because your skin is crawling- Oh, hell! There's no use in lying to yourself, girl. This is gonna be super bad!"


Etta stared rather blankly at a scuff mark on the table she was sitting at with her Peter and Olivia. She'd let them know there was stuff they needed to talk about but now that they were here, she couldn't think of a single thing she wanted to say.

She looked up from the table, meeting neither her mother's gaze nor her father's. Walter and Astrid were elsewhere, she supposed. At the lab, most probably. Thank goodness! She rubbed her hand across her cheek. "You… I've told you guys about Keystone already."

Olivia nodded, ready with a supportive smile, and Peter started to frown.

"I… was chosen. A couple of weeks ago. I should have told you. I meant to tell you. I was scared. I'm still scared." She rubbed her cheek again. "I just found out I'm pregnant."

Olivia had turned away and was hiding her face in Peter's hair. He rubbed her back in a vaguely consoling manner but there was no screaming, not even a single death threat.

Etta didn't know whether to be happy or seriously worried.

At long last, Peter sighed. "We're not angry at you, Etta."

Olivia sat up properly, her eyes snapping to those of her daughter. "Oh, I'm angry! I'm crazy angry!"

Peter glanced at her with a mixture of concern and alarm.

She ignored him and leaned closer to the table, her gaze intent on Etta's. "Tell me his name. Tell me where he lives. I swear I won't cause any trouble, baby. I just want to talk."

Etta didn't believe her. She would have been happy for her mom to end him but she knew the only one who would end up dead out of that equation would be Olivia. She dropped her face into her hands. "Windmark. It's Windmark."

Olivia was on her feet in a heartbeat, gun drawn and all ready to go, crazy eyes in full deploy mode. She was ready to end the creep, even if she had to die trying.

Peter stood up and placed a hand over hers, lowering the gun. Then he pulled her into his arms and held her, saying absolutely nothing.

Etta didn't look. She couldn't look. She knew how much of a mess she'd made for them and the plan. She'd really fucked things up and even though she'd really had no choice, she felt guilty as hell for it.

Peter kissed Olivia's hair, rubbing her back again for just a moment. Then she stepped apart from him and directed her gaze to Etta, holstering her gun once more.

Etta lifted her face out of her hands, at a complete loss. She didn't know what to say, what to do, anything. She didn't know anything. She hated it.

"We love you so much!" Olivia told her feelingly, and her eyes broke Etta's heart, as they always did. She had no idea how her mum did that, how she trusted again, loved again, she only knew she was so proud, she couldn't even put it into words and never would.

She nodded mutely, didn't have to say she loved them just as much. They already knew.


Ella awoke in her mother's arms and began to scream and scream. She couldn't help it, couldn't say what she wanted to say, "I love you. I missed you. I'm sorry I let you down. I let us all down." She just screamed. It was all she could do.


Etta rode the elevator up to Windmark's apartment alone. The quiet was far from comforting, was merely the lull before the storm. She was shaking practically all over her body. She'd had to wear flats because she'd been too unsteady to stand in heels. She'd been shaking ever since she'd learned she was pregnant, and visibly practically since she'd left from seeing her mum and dad. When the elevator doors opened to the correct floor, she took her time walking to Windmark's door. She gave herself a few fleeting moments before she raised her hand and knocked on the door.

Seated primly in the living room filled with sunshine, her feet pressed close together on the floor and the backs of her legs touching the seat, she looked up into Windmark's eyes. She'd kept him waiting long enough. Long enough for comfort, anyhow, and she had to think of the child now.

Standing to her feet, she said, "I just got the news today. No more than five hours ago. I didn't think it judicious to convey such information…" She shook her head suddenly, pressing a hand to her mouth. Then she said, "I'm pregnant. It worked. We're having a baby."

He had seemingly nothing to say to that. He merely continued to watch her.

She sat back down heavily, slightly feeling outside of herself. The sunlight warming her face was so strange she merely wished to bat it away, to be left alone in relative peace. She was so tired now.

He walked nearer, stopping in front of her. "We…"

She looked up, into his eyes.

"We haven't seen a lot of each other in recent weeks," he finished what he'd been saying.

He was talking crap, didn't know what the hell he was saying. They hadn't seen each other outside of work since that night they had first had sex. She'd been willing and ready to think of that as a good thing.

"A lot?" she said, just slightly mockingly, her tone hollow, noticeably weary. She didn't need this shit now, not bloody now.

He touched her shoulder, gave it a painful squeeze. He had to know he was stronger than she was, that he was hurting her; he was just being himself. In other words, a regular bastard.

She slapped his hand away harshly, her eyes surprisingly hard. Even that hurt.

He retaliated by grabbing hold of her arms and yanking her to her feet. "Our agreement stipulates-"

She screamed. Simply screamed at the top of her lungs. Didn't give a damn who heard. She didn't stop.

He planted a hand over her mouth, glaring. Yeah, he thought she was crazy, too.

The first words out of her mouth when he took his hand from her mouth were a hateful hiss. "Fuck you!"

She backed him against the wall with force enough to register as such and directed her hands to his pants. She wasn't some dullard, she could read him well enough and she didn't need to be insane to do so.

He actually gasped when she plunged her hands into his pants, grasping his already hard length in her hands. Ridiculously, he asked, "What are you doing?"

"I thought you liked it when I did shit," she growled, and then she got down on her knees and pushed his cock into her mouth. She certainly wasn't in the mood to put it anywhere else. She grabbed his hand and rested it on her head, sucking him off as best as she knew how. He was an ass but if he could pull that shit, she could pull it right back.

She didn't care what his ideas of normal sexual encounters were, if he thought a blowjob unnatural or simply filthy, all she cared about was messing his mind up enough to get him off her back and that would only happen after she'd gotten him off. She didn't know any other way to put him off his game.


Windmark was presumably recovering from her evil deeds. Etta had done what she was supposed to do. If she could just pick herself up and head for the door, she reasoned, she was free to go. She was working up to it. Meanwhile, she was hunched over, sobbing again. It was honestly as if she really was some weak idiot. She was truthfully disgusted with herself over the whole thing.

She let herself lie down on the floor, just too tired to do anything else, and let herself cry herself to sleep.

When she woke, it was dark outside. Her hair was a fucking mess and she felt like being ill. Struggling into a sitting position, she noticed Windmark watching her, looking as tidy as he always did. She wanted to fucking punch him but she knew she didn't have a chance in hell of one upping him. He'd wipe the floor with her for sure; would probably expect the baby to put up with that shit, too. Wouldn't even consider the baby, in all likelihood.

She wondered if her words had even made an impact on him, if he'd fully understood what the fuck she meant when she'd said she was pregnant, that they were having a baby. It was entirely possible that the whole thing had sailed right over his head.

He offered her the bowl in his hands, containing some sort of breakfast cereal drowned in something like milk.

She couldn't be bothered fighting him and just took the bowl, resigning herself to eating whatever it was.

He didn't leave but continued to watch her creepily the whole time. She picked a piece of cereal out of the bowl and flicked it at him at one point but he didn't even flinch. She rolled her eyes, went on eating her cereal.

When she was done, he took the bowl out of her hands and set it down on the floor, rising to a stand. "Come with me."

She remained sitting on the floor. "No."

He bent down and pulled her into his arms, lifting her off the floor against her will. She screamed. He carried her into the hallway, headed for some other room. When he set her down on her feet again, she found herself in what looked to be the bathroom. She sniffed, wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She wasn't too proud to show just how shitty she was feeling.

He touched her hair momentarily, then turned and walked out. Apparently, she was invited to take a shower.

She didn't even remove her clothes, just stepped under the streaming warm water and tipped her face up into the pounding water.

He returned from the kitchen where he'd been washing the bowl and spoon she'd used earlier to find her standing in his living room, dripping water onto the floor.

"There's no soap."

He strode toward her, took her chin in his hand and kissed her none too softly.


4.

Ella sat mutely, pills in hand. They were new pills. Nobody liked her deviant behaviour, least of all the Observers. She had been ordered to take her new pills and not to complain. She wasn't complaining, not that. She popped the pills into her mouth and swallowed them with some water.

Rachel didn't hug her before bed, didn't wish her goodnight. She was afraid, Ella sensed, afraid that she'd start screaming again and someone would say something.

Lying in bed in the dark, Ella wished she could have been someone different, someone like the person she'd been before the Observers had come to wreak havoc on her world. Someone that someone else could conceivably love.


When she next met up with Donald, Ella was so numb as to be unaware of her surroundings. It was only through a massive feat of will that she was able to maintain a sincere, attentive exterior. Inside, everything was so damned spacey.

Donald had come to visit her at her place of residence and Rachel had begrudgingly left them alone. She knew very well what was expected of them and she was waiting in the kitchen with the frying pan close to hand if her daughter should scream and she should be forced to intervene. She wasn't sure Ella was coherent enough to scream, but if she did, she would be there in a flash.

In the living area, Ella sat down beside Donald on the couch. Satisfied that she was not merely imagining his presence, she first touched his arm, then his face. Definitely not her mum, and not anybody she had really got to know, either. Of course, she knew it was him. She already recognised his voice. He had a beautiful voice and she decided that she liked to hear it, would like to hear more of it.

She rested her head on his shoulder for a long while, snuggling closer so she could smell his skin. He even smelled beautiful. The new pills had done something to her shame factor, had fucked it up somehow. She'd been really quite crazy all this week and today was no exception to the rule.

Eventually, and without reason or rhyme, she stood up. "Come and see my room," she chirped excitedly, slurring her words somewhat. "Come, I'll show you." She offered him her hand. "It's okay. I'm better now. You can touch me if you like."

He placed his hand in hers and they walked to her room. She switched the light on so that he would be able to see, even though the buzz of the light irritated her. It didn't do so much to her today and she took that for what it was, a good thing.

She closed her bedroom door and crossed to her bed slowly, sitting down. A quick glance around was all that was needed to take in the full extent of her room and its décor. It wasn't anything special, she supposed. She didn't need anything special.

She patted a spot on the mattress beside her and Donald came to sit down with her. "Are you okay today?" she asked.

"I am okay, Ella," he confirmed.

"I'm sorry for hurting you."

"You did not hurt me." He paused, then continued with a frown in his voice. "Not greatly. I accept your apology."

She smiled and turned to him, holding out her hands. He placed his hands in hers and she smiled all the more. She fancied she could just about hear his heart beating faster. "Do you want to kiss me again? I don't mind. I won't stop you this time."

He pulled his hands away from hers silently.

She couldn't help but be hurt. "What are you thinking about?" she asked. "Do you want to change your mind? Do you want someone else now?"

"I think this is insane," he replied with a sigh.

She touched his face, comforted by the solidness of him. He wasn't just her imagination, some crazy dream. He was real, and warm.

She dropped her hands to her cardigan and shrugged it off, letting it drop where it would. It flopped onto the floor but she didn't notice. She began to unbutton her blouse, teddy bear button by teddy bear button.

When she had removed her blouse also, she reached for his face once more, saying softly, "Let's be friends, okay? Good friends. I promise not to hurt you."

He shifted so that he could rest his head against hers, then he kissed her forehead. "I won't hurt you, either," he whispered.


Rachel sat in the kitchen with her face in her hands, silent tears leaking through her fingers to land on the kitchen floor. She couldn't help but cry. This wasn't the way things were supposed to be; this wasn't how Ella's life was supposed to go. Everything was wrong and there was nothing she could do to fix it. She couldn't even protect her baby any more.


Ella wasn't sure when her feelings had shifted, she only knew that she was losing control. She was slipping. She felt the old pains returning and she wanted to stamp it down, stamp it right out, but it was craftier, faster than she was. It wanted out and it didn't give a damn about her or what she wanted.

She began to whimper, as a prelude to full on screaming, and that effectively put an end to any snuggling and soft, explorative kisses that were going on. She scooted to the head of her bed, right into the corner, and grabbed up her pillow, pressed her face into it. When she finally let loose her screams, they were muffled by the pillow but no less shameful, no less painful.

Donald made no move to comfort her. He wasn't sure what would set her off so he didn't do anything. He only tried not to be hurt, not to hurt for her.

Finally, when she had screamed her fill and the urge had left her, when she was too sore and her throat to weak to scream any longer, she simply became silent, simply stopped screaming. She wished she could have stopped breathing, stopped her heart from beating. She didn't want to be this way any more. She wanted Donald to kiss her again.

The pain was there, but fuzzy. So fuzzy. The tiredness took hold of her body and she slumped against the wall. Finally, Donald came to sit with her by the bed head and helped her to lay her head down in his lap, stroking her hair gently.

She didn't know why he would risk it, she was just thankful that he had. It was hard to speak but she managed it somehow. She had no choice. She knew they didn't have forever. "I won't fight you," she whispered. "I can't. Please."

He hummed a soothing tune for her, stroking her hair still. She knew he had heard her, he was just choosing not to react.

"They'll hurt my mother," she whispered, pleading with him with the small strength left in her. "Please help."

He stopped stroking her hair. A tear dripped from his face and landed on her cheek. She knew that what she was asking of him was too much, would always be too much, but she couldn't stand the thought that her mother might pay the price for her incapability.

"I promised I wouldn't hurt you."

"You won't be." The truth was, she would be hurting herself. It would not be him, no matter what he thought. It was an acceptable sacrifice. He was already more than she could have hoped for. A friend and the first in a long, long time. She didn't know how she was going to make this up to him but she didn't have a lot of time. They needed to act fast. "Please, Donald!"

"I'm so sorry," he whispered, placing a gentle kiss upon her head, then he helped her to lie down on the bed because she was too weak to do even that and her body wasn't co-operating, randomly convulsing against her will. The spasms took the last of her energy but not her capacity to experience pain. That particular ability was very much alive and kicking.

He didn't waste a lot of time removing any clothes, either his own or the remainder of hers. Ella preferred to be awake for what was about to happen and so they had to put a rush on it.

There was an awkward while whilst he got himself into the right state physically and Ella really wanted to cry. It wasn't fair of her to ask this of him, not at all fair. She focused on the sound of his heavy breathing to try to settle herself and when he was ready and he moved over her, settling in between her legs, when his hands touched her, the pain twisted through her like all the force of a tidal wave.

He had to place a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet so that Rachel wouldn't hear, and that on top of all the rest of it. She honestly didn't know how she expecting him to make it work out, she just knew she was praying through the crazy pain to that ends. He would come through for her.

She was able to remain conscious for a half hour and then she passed out, completely drained.

She didn't wake again for several days. When she was able, she asked her mother what had happened. Rachel grew stiff and merely relayed that Donald had left. Ella would have to wait for his next visit, if Rachel ever let him back in, to ask him how it had gone.


She woke, several days later, to a familiar scent, and a smile worked its way onto her face. "You smell nice," she murmured, slowly opening her eyes and sitting.

"Thank you," Donald whispered.

She didn't try to touch him and he didn't touch her. She picked at her blanket and frowned. There really was no delicate way to ask what needed to be asked. "Did it work?" she asked.

"I hope so."

She reached for him, changed her mind, put her hand back down. Her lip wobbled. "I won't ever ask you to do that again. My word. You have to know that I am so sorry. So sorry, Donald."

He simply said, "We got through it. That's the pertinent thing."

She started to cry. She really wanted him to hold her but they both knew that would be a bad idea. She clasped her blanket in her fist and let her tears fall.


Several weeks later, she was informed that she was pregnant, but that her body was her own worst enemy. It was slowly killing her baby, slowly but surely. There was nothing to be done.

A week later, she went to hospital with excruciating pain. She was given meds for that and she faded. When she regained consciousness, she was told her baby was gone. She didn't cry one tear. She didn't believe she had the right. She had killed her own baby, and not just her baby, Donald's baby. She was a killer.

When Donald next came to visit, she wouldn't see him. Rachel had to tell him the news herself. She cried almost the entire time. She showed him the letter she had received in the mail just a day after her unborn grandchild was declared dead. It said that Ella had been released from her duties in regards to the agreement. She told him that he would probably be receiving a similar letter himself. Then she asked him never to return and showed him out, only whispering "good luck" as she closed the door on him.