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By the time Nathaniel Wesninski was 9 years old, he was convinced that the idea of having a soul mate is a bunch of bullshit.

He saw the way that his parents’ marks never matched. He watched the way his father beat his mother until she was more of a canvas than a person; an experimental art piece spattered in dark purples and fading yellows and navy blues. None of her bruises were green or orange or pink, Nathaniel noticed, and her face remained untouched.

His father was nearly pristine in comparison, not a single spot of color to be found.

He asked his mother about it one day over breakfast, careful in the words he decided to use. He struggled in silence for a moment, trying to decide where to start. His mom caught his eye, frowning at the apparent struggle on his face.

“What do you want?” She asked, and Nathaniel flinched a bit at the tone. He pushed his scrambled eggs around on his plate, avoiding eye contact.

“I was just wondering if, maybe,” he let himself trail off, and his mother grew impatient.

“Spit it out, Abram.”

“I was wondering why I haven’t gotten any soulmate marks yet.”

It came out in a rush, as if he could push the words by her before she could catch them. But his mother had always been quick, fast, able to grab and run and steal the things she needed. She snatched the words by the collar before they could escape, and she frowned across the table at her son.

“You’re only 9,” she said. “You won’t get your marks until both you and your soul mate are at least 10.”

“Oh,” he said. His mother’s eyes narrowed.

“Listen to me, Nathaniel,” she snapped, and he looked up almost immediately. His name and her tone were not something to ignore. “The idea of a soul mate is a frivolous concept that holds no necessary meaning. You marry for necessity or you don’t marry at all. The idea of getting close enough to someone to love them is something that you need to stop thinking about right now.”

“Yes,” Nathaniel said, and his mother nodded her approval.

“Good. Your father will most likely arrange for you to marry someone from one of the Families anyway. A nice girl that will help bring more income and trading deals. That’s the kind of marriage we have, and that’s the kind you’ll most likely get as well.”

“Yes,” Nathaniel said again, and a heaviness settled into his chest that he attempted to push down. He would do what was necessary, just as he always did.

He didn’t seem to understand the concept of love, he thought, watching his mother pick at her toast, and he didn’t think he ever would.

 

--

 

Three days after his 10th birthday, his father had branded him with an iron.

He had hoped his soulmate didn’t get one as well.

 

--

 

“How cute,” Lola said, grinning down at the indigo handprint on Nathaniel’s hip bone, exposed from where his shirt had ridden up during training. Phantom fingers squeezed his skin until it was numb. “Junior’s got someone out there after all.”

Lola took a step forward, and Nathaniel attempted to scoot back. He hit the training room wall as she closed in over him. He felt her knife before he heard her voice.

“Let’s let them know that they have someone out there somewhere, too.”

 

--

 

“Again.”

His legs were burning and his lungs were caving in. His left shoulder was numb and he was pretty sure the skin on his heel had rubbed raw -- he could feel the blood pooling in his shoe.

But Nathaniel picked himself off of the ground, gritting his teeth and staring down the court at Riko and Kevin, his grip on his exy stick tightening as a grin flashed across Riko’s face.

The splash of green along the edge of his wrists caught his eye, and he tried to ignore the tingle that traveled down to the tips of his fingers. He wondered briefly if the numbness would help the pain of Riko clacking his stick against his hands when they squared off.

He risked a glance at his mother in the stands, and pretended that her cold stare didn’t wrap itself around his neck like a noose, pulling tight until he could barely breathe.

“I said again,” Tetsuji said from the edge of the court, and Nathaniel nodded quickly as Kevin rushed him.

 

--

 

His mother didn’t tell him where they were going the night they left.

She shook him awake, throwing a duffle bag on top of his torso and dumping a handful of clothes onto his head.

“Quickly” is all she said, keeping watch in the doorway of his bedroom. Nathaniel took a moment to rub at his eyes, frowning.

“What?”

Quickly ,” she repeated, hissing it through clenched teeth when he didn’t move fast enough. “Put it all into the bag. Anything else that you want to take, too. But it has to fit in the duffle. Nothing else.”

“Why?"

“Don’t ask questions, Abram. Just do.”

And so he did, sliding out of his bed and stuffing his clothes into the duffle bag. He didn’t bother with anything else; he knew that even though she’d suggested it, his mother wouldn’t approve of extra items. He slipped the strap over his head, letting the bag rest against his side as he slipped on his shoes and met Mary at the door. She took a minute to search the darkness of the hallways around them, her eyes glazed over and distant as she strained to listen for approaching footsteps.

She gripped Nathaniel’s still-numb wrist tighter, and dragged him behind her through the house to the garage.

His mother had a matching duffel of her own, and she used her free hand to hold it off of her hip so it didn’t make any noise as they half-ran through the foyer to the garage. Nathaniel mimicked her, gripping his own bag until his knuckles were white.

She was silent as she opened the door to the garage, not bothering to turn on the light as she tugged Nathaniel inside with her. She pulled out a small flashlight instead, clicking it on once the door shut behind them.

The garage was large enough to hold 12 cars, all sitting side by side, all sleek and black and exactly the same. Mary pulled a set of keys off of the wall beside the door, clicking the unlock button until they found one of the cars with its inner lights on. She tugged on Nathaniel’s duffel bag strap until he ducked and let it slide off of his back, and she tossed them both into the back seat before opening the driver’s side door.

“Get in,” she said, and Nathaniel did, opening the passenger door and sliding in silently.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“What did I say about questions?” is the only answer he received as she started up the car.

Nathaniel could feel the tingling of bruises along his arms and his hips as Mary pulled out onto the driveway. He couldn’t see the colors in the darkness of the night around him, but he clinged to the feeling of numbness they brought him, and tried to ignore the feeling of dread settling into his stomach as his father’s estate grew smaller behind them.

 

--

 

Nathaniel Wesninski’s eleventh birthday gift was a new name and a Kevlar vest.

Alex Garner woke up the next morning with yellow bruises on his shoulders and a new passport on the hotel side-table.

 

--

 

“Would you like paper or plastic?”

“What?”

He broke his gaze away from the sliding doors of the supermarket, away from the car that had been parked on the curb a bit too long for him to stay comfortable. The woman bagging his groceries’ smile grew tighter.

“Paper or plastic? For the groceries.”

“Oh, either is fine,” he said, though right after he said it he shook his head, changing his mind. “Actually, paper.”

It’d be easier to burn, no fingerprints, harder to use to suffocate him with if it was Jackson or Romero or any of his father’s other men outside in that car. Paper was safer.

The lady gave him a once-over before nodding, dropping the bread, box of cereal, and bag of chips into a single paper bag and sliding the jug of milk across the counter. He collected them with a small “thank you” and ducked out of the store, hood up and head down.

He shrugged past the small crowds of people in front of the supermarket, avoiding the looks he from some, ducking under the whispers questioning why an eleven-year-old was gathering groceries by himself.

He adjusted the bag in his arms, tugging his sleeves down further to hide the bruising on his forearms.

The car behind him started up.

He picked up his pace.

He rounded the corner quickly, bypassing the car he knew his mother was waiting in and turning down an alleyway instead, dropping the bag and the milk jug and reaching for the gun strapped beneath his sweater.

He ducked behind a dumpster, holding his gun to his chest as he tried to control his breathing. He waited to hear steps, to hear voices, to hear his father crashing through the small alleyway to end the Wesninski line where he stood.

The voices he hears, though, weren’t his father’s.

“You’re sure it was him?”

“You saw the way he looked at us. He looks exactly like his dad.”

His heart stopped.

“How d’you know he saw us?”

“Fuck off, Harris. Do you think we’d be searching through this fucking alley if he hadn’t? He’s leading us away from the wife.”

“Smart kid.”

“He’s a Wesninski.”

The gun in his hand was shaking, his breathing erratic, his head spinning as the footsteps grew closer to the dumpster he was hiding behind. He nearly toppled as a pain shot through his left leg, and he threw out his right arm to keep himself upward.

There’s a burning on his inner thigh; due to how many he’d received in the past few months he already knew it was a bruise, hand-shaped and heavy.

Not now, he prayed as his thigh began to go numb. Not when I need to run.

“What-”

The voices were cut off by the sound of silenced gunshots. A moment of pure silence followed, heavy and panicked. He didn’t come out until he heard his mother’s voice.

“Alex.”

The tone pierced through his chest, and he stood, stepping out from behind the dumpster.

“I thought I recognized the car.”

“You did good,” his mom said. “I would have had you take a less conspicuous place to hide, but you were good not to lead them to the car.”

He glanced behind his mother, taking a deep breath at the sight of two bodies behind her. “What do we do now?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

His mother didn’t look at him as she strode past him, walking quickly in the direction of the car.

“Run.”

 

--

 

Alex Garner was left behind in an alleyway the same day Chris Pilensky boarded a plane to Germany.

 

--

 

“Eat,” his mother said, shoving a sandwich in his direction. The studio apartment was quiet save for the radio, some economic morning talk-show that he had no interest in.

“Not hungry,” he responded half-truthfully, not looking up from the magazine he wasn’t really reading. His mother pushed her chair back from the table, the legs crying out over the hardwood, breaking the semi-silent bubble around them.

“The attitude needs to go,” Mary said as she tossed his plate into the sink, sandwich untouched. “I’m getting sick of your shit, Abram.”

“They say pre-teens are the worst years.” He flipped a page in his magazine, skimming an article about a popular celebrity couple that he’d never heard of before. “Maybe I’ll grow out of it.”

“You should be more grateful,” his mother spit, strolling past him to the bed. She gathered some scattered clothes and began packing them, stuffing them into their duffels in a huff. “I’m doing all of this for you. Keeping you alive. Working my ass off and spending my money to ensure that you are safe. Keeping a fucking roof over your head. For you. For us .” She scoffed. “Get over yourself.”

“Like I said,” he half-yawned as a line of blue seeped across his left wrist. “Maybe I’ll grow out of it.”

 

--

 

He counted the knife wounds crisscrossing along his forearms one night. It was dark, with only the light from the flickering television to help him see, but it was enough.

He tried to remember if they were an old gift from Lola, before he realized that they were aquamarine and numb.

He was simultaneously relieved and sick.

 

--

 

He caught his mother eyeing the handcuff bruises on his wrists, and he tugged his sleeves down a bit lower.

He didn’t mention the corresponding cut on his leg and the sliced knuckles he covered with fingerless gloves. He’d picked up similar injuries from breaking and entering, though he was never caught.

He wondered if his soulmate could use some lessons in stealth.

 

--

 

The asphalt in Sweden worked a lot like sandpaper, he thought, as his entire left side was made raw after jumping from a moving car. His mother’s injuries were less extensive, as she was “smart enough to keep a thick sweater on, like I’d told you to do”.

He knew that this would be an eyesore for his soulmate, though he couldn’t help but feel like the constant string of bruises from fights and exy he received regularly made them even.

(He knew the size and shape of exy ball bruises.)

(If he relished in those bruises, and used them to stifle his jealousy through vicarious living, then that was his own business, right?)

 

--

 

It was raining the day their plane landed in Florida, and for a moment he thought that this life may not be much different from Europe.

The rain was hot, though, and humid, with a sky clear of any dark clouds. He could see the sun reflecting off of the puddles on the runway, the same yellow-white of the scars crisscrossing down his chest.

 

--

 

Chris became Jason, then Tyler, then Zack.

His bruises became purple, and blue, and different shades of red.

Stefan was shot in the shoulder somewhere just beneath the Canadian border.

Parker didn’t take his Kevlar vest off for nearly a month.

 

--

 

“You’ll probably never meet them,” his mother said one day at a diner in Texas. It caught him off guard.

“What?”

The evening sun hit him at an angle that made him move his hat to better cover his eyes. His mother gave him a short look of approval; he didn’t bother to tell her the real reason for the adjustment.

“You’ll probably never meet them,” she repeated, nodding in the direction of the lilac bruise splashed across his forearm. “Your soulmate. You’ll most likely never live that long.”

“I know,” he said, and hoped that she believed him. “I’m sorry that these things keep popping up in the meantime.”

“I suppose it can’t be helped,” his mother said, in a rare act of kindness. She frowned, tugging on the sleeve of his sweater from across the table. “Keep your arms covered. We don’t need anyone questioning them.”

“I know,” he echoed. He wondered if his own soul mate had gotten the bruise his ribcage had picked up when his mother had kicked him awake earlier in the morning. He tried to imagine what color it might be.

He hoped that when he died, any bruises that he’d given his soulmate would disappear with him.

 

--

 

“Stitch it up.”

“I can’t, Mom, I can-”

“You can and you will , Abram. Now do it.”

His hands didn’t shake after half a bottle of whiskey, the other half poured onto his torso to disinfect the wound. He hissed through his teeth as his fish-hook needle eased through his skin. He paused for a moment, taking deep, dizzying breaths as he stabilized himself for a moment before starting up again, weaving the fish-hook and thread through and along his wound. His mother watched from the other side of the motel bathroom for a minute before she blinked, twice, and stood.

“Finish up. We’re leaving once you’re done,” she said, stripping out of her shirt and stuffing it into the trash bag full of the other bloody clothes that their latest run-in had left them with. “Run the shower when you get out. Make sure the blood is washed away.”

He hissed through his teeth again as a burning sensation bloomed on his right shoulder. He craned his neck to look down at his collarbone, and grit his teeth at the spreading ink-stain of navy blue that formed there.

There’s another jolt, another burn that caused him to full-body flinch hard enough to drop his needle. His left cheek went numb, and he knew without looking in the mirror that it was another mark.

His mother clicked her tongue from the doorway of the bathroom.

“You have a troublesome soulmate.”

He nodded in agreement.

 

--

 

“So you’re like, what, on a road trip?”

The redhead across from him took a large bite of her ice cream. He attempted to take a bite of his own, but it hurt his teeth. He nodded instead.

“Yeah, kind of. With my mom.”

“That’s awesome,” the girl said. She was 15, like he was. He wracked his brain in an attempt to remember her name. She had followed him to the bench they were sitting on after he’d gotten an ice cream in the park, waiting for his mother to finish meeting up with one of their connections for new IDs. “I wish I could do that. It sounds like fun.”

He let out a huff of sarcastic laughter.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s certainly something.”

The girl took another bite of ice cream. “So where are you from originally? Like, here in Canada or the United States?”

“Canada,” he said on instinct. “About an hour away from Niagara Falls.”

“Niagara Falls,” the redhead repeated. She set down her empty cone on the bench beside her. He watched, thinking about how much of a waste it was that she didn’t bother to eat it. The girl leaned across the space between them, letting her fingers inch forward until they rest on top of his own. “That sounds so romantic.”

“It’s a giant waterfall,” he said, confused. “Just thousands of tons of water falling over a cliff. I don’t really get how it’s considered something romantic.”

“I don’t really get it either,” the girl admitted. “But I heard that it’s supposed to be. And if you kiss someone while you’re there, it’s supposed to be super romantic.”

“Huh,” he said, brilliantly.

“Yeah,” the girl agreed. She leaned across the bench, nodding at his forearms. “What are those from?”

His eyes flit downward to follow her gaze, even though he already knew what she was referring to.

“My soulmate, I think,” he said, staring with her at the aquamarine scars crisscrossing along his wrists. “I don’t think they’re very happy.”

“That’s so sad,” the girl half-whispered. He nodded. She continued. “I don’t even know if I have a soulmate, yet.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never gotten any marks before,” she said. “None! Nothing has ever showed up. So how am I supposed to know whether or not I have one?”

“I’m sure one will show up eventually,” he supplied. “You can’t avoid being injured forever.”

The girl wrinkled her nose. “That’s a bit dark. I don’t wish my soulmate would get hurt.”

He shrugged. “It’s reality. They’re bound to get a paper cut or hit their foot opening a door or something. It’s how life works.”

The girl hummed. “That’s true. I never thought about it like that before.”

“You’ll find them,” he said.

“I know,” she said back.

He didn’t exactly know what to say to that, so he finished his ice cream instead, cone and all. The girl watched him until he was finished, and then slid across the bench until their knees knock together.

“I’ve never kissed anyone before,” she said.

He frowned, a bit confused by the sudden confession. “Me either,” he shrugged. There hadn’t been much opportunity, being on the run and all.

The girl scooted closer. “Maybe we could...” She trailed off, her fingers tapping on the back of his hand.

“Could what?” he asked, frowning. This girl was confusing. How did the subject of kissing even come up? Was it that Niagara Falls thing?

“Maybe we could... try it. Together. Like, you and me,” she said, hopeful. He whipped his head to look at her.

“Us? Kiss?”

“If you want to,” she said.

He didn’t know if he wanted to, having met her maybe an hour ago, so he shrugged instead of answering.

She took it as a yes.

She leaned forward, placing her fingertips on both sides of his cheeks, pecking his lips with her own before pulling back and giggling like she’d gone crazy. He didn’t exactly react, just kind of nodded and confirmed that yes, that was a thing that had just happened.

He looked in the direction of the park’s parking lot in an effort to avoid her starry-eyed gaze, and immediately met his mother’s instead.

He wondered how long she’d been watching him, though judging by the silent fury that flashed across her face, he assumed it’d been long enough. The bottom of his stomach dropped to the floor, and he could feel himself pale as he stared. She mouthed two words to him, come here , and he found himself standing before he fully realized what he was doing.

“I have to go,” he said, hollowly, and didn’t bother to respond to the girl’s protests. “My mom is waiting.”

“It was nice to meet you,” she called out after him, and all he could think was that meeting her was not worth the heavy blows from his mother that were sure to appear on his soulmate that night.

 

--

 

He woke in the middle of the night screaming.

His body was on fire, his chest feeling like it’s caving in entirely. The numb tingling grew stronger as his mother turned on the light to their hotel room in a panic, watching her son thrash about on the bed with a calculating gaze.

He watched as a majority of his left forearm turned dark blue, followed by half of his leg turning a sunset orange. When he clawed at his shirt, yanking the hem up to his chin, a cyan stripe ran from his shoulder to his hip.

“A seatbelt,” his mother said quietly. “They were in a car accident.”

He calmed down enough to register the words, taking a deep breath before apologizing for waking his mother. She only nodded, turning the light back off and going back to sleep.

 

--

 

He was 16 when he and his mother ran into his father’s men in Montana.

His mother was sterilizing the resulting bruises and knife wounds on his arms and face when his knuckles turned green, followed by his left eye and his stomach. His ribs turned a sickly shade of yellow-white, and the underside of his jaw turned pink. His knuckles didn’t stop changing, though, piling on color after color as if it were a child’s paint project and they were unhappy with what it looked like. Layers on layers of blues and greens and pinks and oranges spattered his hands, and he knew they wouldn’t fade for at least a month.

He thought that if he weren’t already badly injured, his mother would have beaten him out of pure frustration herself.

 

--

 

The recurring bruises disappear nearly entirely by the time the colors on his knuckles faded. Nearly two months later, and he hadn’t received even a papercut.

His mother was pleased, though he would never let her know that he still lied awake at night, hoping for some kind of faint feeling that his soulmate was still okay, still alive, still fighting to survive the same as him.

 

--

 

The beach was cold the night that he burned his mother’s body.

He knew he was littered with bruises and open wounds, and should care for them before they became infected, but he was too numb to care.

He did as he should, though, and continued to run.

He made it all the way to Millport before he could finally breathe.

 

--

 

“Foxes,” Neil said, simply. “Palmetto State University.”

David Wymack looked surprised that he knew so quickly. “I guess you saw the news.”

“You can’t be here.”

“Yet here I stand.” Wymack looked a combination of amused and tired. “Need a pen?”

“No,” Neil said. “No. I’m not playing for you.”

“I misheard you.”

“You signed Kevin.”

“And Kevin’s signing you, so-”

Neil ran.

He only made it halfway through the locker room when he was thrown off of his feet with the force of a racquet to his stomach, putting him on his hands and knees, strangled breaths barely reaching his lungs.

“God damn it, Minyard,” Wymack’s voice sounded too distant through the static in his ears. “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

“Oh, Coach,” a voice said above him. “If he was nice, he wouldn’t be any use to us, would he?”

“He’s no use to us if you break him.”

“You’d rather I let him go? Put a band-aid on him and he’ll be good as new.” The voice seemed to be closer, and when Neil looked up, he was nearly eye-to-eye with a crouched Andrew Minyard. The racquet he used was slung over his shoulder, his left arm resting on his bent knee. He had a lazy smile painted across his face, and he stared at Neil with a burning curiosity. He scanned over Neil’s stomach, landing on his arms and the bright blue stripes just barely visible from where his sleeves had slid upwards, exposing his wrists. He seemed to piece something together, his eyes widening a fraction of an inch. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, that won’t do, now will it?”

The question seemed directed more toward himself, and didn’t give Neil time to answer as he tapped two fingers to his temple in a salute. “Better luck next time,” he said, and popped himself upward to make his way toward Kevin.

 

--

 

He could practically feel his mother’s fists as he signed away his life to a sport she never wanted him to play.

 

--

 

“How nice to meet you, Neil,” Andrew said to him in an elevator, on their way to the court. “It will be a while before we see each other again.”

“Somehow,” Neil said, “I don’t think I’m that lucky.”