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Wrapped In A Mortal Coil

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His scars are gone. The skin between his thumb and index finger blends perfectly with the rest of his hand. He doesn’t hear the awkward pop of bone when he straightens out his arm. Everything falls perfectly into place. His body is as healthy and smooth as the day he was born.

Except it’s not his body.

Alex looks up at him from the water, and he looks back down. It’s the same face he’s seen for the past twenty-nine years, a face he’s only known for weeks. It’s as much his as it isn’t, because he’s the only one who can wear it now. A body on loan that will never be collected, an identity stolen from himself.

He’s been Alex for barely a few months, but there are enough memories of Alexander J. Mercer to fill a lifetime. He can trace scars that aren’t there, prefers Lo mein over Spaghetti alle vongole, and likes watching the sun rise. He remembers places he’s never been and things he’s never done through a past that bubble up like bad dreams.

It’s his life now. He just doesn’t know what to do with it.

His reflection wavers with East river, a murky green that smells worse than it looks. Cleanup crews have been doing a pretty good job clearing out the bodies, but every now and then what’s left of someone listed as missing washes up. Alex hasn’t spotted any today.

He eases off the railing, adjusts the hood of his sweatshirt, and lets his feet carry him alongside the river.

Alex never put much faith in hobbies - or anything for that matter - before the outbreak. He still doesn’t, but can admit when he’s wrong on a case by case basis. Jogging is, at best, a serviceable distraction, but that’s enough to help clear his head. It takes a conscious effort to not tear down FDR, kicking up concrete and ripping his sneakers to shreds.

Queensboro swallows him up as he crosses the river, just another early-morning runner sticking to a healthy routine. Cars hiss by and he’s half-tempted to pick up his pace. A deep breath keeps him steady.

It takes the better part of an hour, but he makes it to the right apartment building before the sky turns from a bruised purple to dull blue. The street’s still wrapped in shadow, not a single soul to be seen, just him, plenty of parked cars, and a sapling that’s been looking better with the spring season. Alex sits beside it, one leg bent while the other stretches toward the curb. He slips a hand along its trunk and finds a familiar indent cut by the gentle press of a very large claw.

The neighborhood is nice. He can’t remember ever living in anything like it, so it must be good. Every building on the block is red brick and rosy in the morning light. The sidewalk is mostly free of trash. It’s almost picturesque. A good place to live, better than a dingy duplex filled with more kids than rooms, or a shanty that leaks like a sieve.

Of course, he doesn’t really need shelter anymore.

The door behind him opens and shuts with a click, accompanied by the buzz of a zipper.

“Morning, sport.”

A pair of legs wrapped in black polyester join his on the sidewalk. Dana leans back on her palms, sleeves of her sweatshirt padding them against the cold cement.

“You know, I don’t think it’s fair giving me a nickname over an activity you suggested,” he answers.

“Probably not,” she admits. “But I’m glad you’ve taken my advice seriously.”

That’s part of the reason, the part she doesn’t mind voicing. Calling him sport is something new, a fresh memory, a choice that isn’t linked to her childhood or his. Because no matter how often she dances around the subject, the truth is he isn’t her Alex. It’s something of a relief and a disappointment; he is himself, his own, but he is not hers, and it’s another layer of isolation he doesn’t know how to escape.

“It helps. The memories don’t crowd my head when I’m running, makes it easier to sort through them, understand who I was.” His finger digs into the sapling’s soft bark along the furrow that was already there. “So . . . thanks.”

Dana looks over at him with a smile that’s caught between smug satisfaction and pity. “You’re welcome. Plus,” she continues while rolling to her feet. “It’s nice having a partner to keep me motivated. You’re the only one crazy enough be up this early on Saturdays while everyone else is busy sleeping away their day off.”

“We’ve earned the right to be a little crazy.”

“Don’t remind me. And you should probably put that away,” she adds between stretches, her eyes flicking to the tree. “Being declared dead twice in the same month may have pulled you off the FBI’s Most Wanted, but it’s best if we don’t take any chances.”

He looks down and finds his hand is a twisted mess of burgundy meat, fingers tipped with lengthy claws, one of which is occupied with impaling the sapling still struggling to see the summer.

“Right.” He spreads his fingers wide as meat and bone wither into safe, fleshy tones and round nails. “What path are we taking this week?”

Dana brushes a tuft of hair from her eyes. “I’m feeling adventurous today. Think you can keep up?”

“I’ll try.”

Her legs are ready to give when they finish their circuit. He’s not even panting.

Between strangled gasps Dana assures him she’ll be able to walk and, no, he doesn’t have to carry her home. When her breathing is under control and with one hand on his shoulder for balance, they stop at an Einstein on a street corner for breakfast. She gets a bagel studded with cranberries and Alex walks out with two water bottles. She asks him about his week when her mouth isn’t full and he answers between swigs of water.

They walk back, sun shining on their backs, quiet laughter bouncing between them. More cars fill the streets and the world slowly comes alive.

He isn’t human, and it's hard pretending otherwise. But Dana smiles and he thinks that maybe he doesn’t need to pretend.