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every time

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all he does is eat, sleep, work, and worship.

it’s easy to fall into that pattern, easy to do what you're told and follow the rules. he does that. everyone else does that.

almost everyone else, but he doesn’t think about that.

worship is maybe the worst part, but he can't remember why. it's not that bad, really. he sits in the pews and follows the instructions, lifts his arms and stands and sits. nico has taken to him, which makes him happy in a twisted way. being liked by your bishop means things will be better for you. you might even get to speak to them personally. you might even get to become one of their chosen.

he’s sitting alone, as he always does, at mealtime, when two people sit across from him.

“hello.” one of them says. his hair is dark brown and overgrown, eyes a lighter brown. there's a smile on his face. “saw you at worship today.”

of course the man saw him at worship today. they’re in the same district.

“nico likes you.” the other one speaks through a mouthful of food. her hair is blond, eyes a brilliant blue.

he doesn’t know why they’re sitting with him. nobody ever sits with him. “uh, yeah.” he says. “what are your names?”

“walter.” the man pushes his dark hair back from where it falls in his eyes. he's still smiling.

“madison.” she swallows her food aqnd doesn’t hesitate to take another bite. “you?”

“franklin.” it feels strange on his tongue. he never liked the name assigned to him, but he can’t remember any other. he thinks about the single yellow flower in his drawer. “it’s nice to meet you guys.”

“nice to meet you too.” walter’s eyes crinkle up when he smiles. it lights up his whole face with warmth, so unlike the neon.

“is it okay if we sit with you from now on? you seemed lonely.” madison’s smile does the exact same thing to her face.

he nods, and goes back to his food.

the days go by uneventfully, walter and madison sitting with him at mealtime and sometimes during worship. he knew them before dema. he doesn’t see them much outside of those times. he doesn’t know anything about them. at the very least, he knows that they’re in nico’s district. the few times they pass by each other in the streets, they don’t acknowledge each other.

tentatively, he could call them his friends.

he has no idea what he looks like to them. there are no mirrors in dema, and he doesn’t dare look at his reflection for fear of what he might find. he doesn’t know why he’s afraid.

walter tells him that his eyes are brown, and he knows his hair is dark brown when it comes off on his brush. there are black marks on his skin that he sees whenever he gets dressed.

why does he think they never see each other outside of mealtime and worship? he talks to madison and walter all the time.

he and walter made plans to ł&ѳ%г\8€ƃ£çæ

they’d made it ou{ፈ$~ѫ#šΩ%ę

walter had wanted to be cal/ጀ@д3¥\]ф^

“no need to be so nervous speaking to me, franklin.”

the deep voice of nico enters his scrambled brain. it calms down his heartrate somehow, even though he knows it shouldn’t.

“wh… what?” he’s confused. he was thinking about-

“something bad happened, franklin, and i’m sorry.”

why does his neck hurt?

he resists flinching when nico rests a hand on his shoulder.

“you’re okay now, i promise. you can head back to your room.”

he nods.

nico removes his hand.

he bows, then turns away and steps through the empty doorframe. he wanders down the hall, down a flight of stairs, and out into the center of the city.

there's nine cylindrical towers arranged in a square. they reach high, up above the other buildings. the places where the bishops live. the places where people are punished.

he makes his way back into nico’s district, back to his room. he doesn’t know how he gets there, what with how disoriented he feels. something feels like it was pulled out from his brain, but he has no idea what.

when he enters his room, the vials greet him with their plain white glow.

he collapses into his cot and goes to sleep.

the next day comes with a knock on his door signaling it’s time for worship. he doesn’t bother to change his clothes, just gets up and heads out. he doesn’t want to be late.

he picks out madison in the seats and sits next to her. she doesn’t look at him.

it takes him until mealtime to realize that walter is gone. he wasn’t at worship either.

madison sits next to him instead of across. he’s about to ask her what happened when she puts a single finger to her lips for half a second.

they eat in silence.

near the end of the designated time, madison presses a crumpled piece of paper into his hand. her voice is barely a murmur. “don't read it until you’re alone.”

he shoves it into his pocket.

work feels like it takes forever. he folds clothes as they’re handed to him and places them into bins, so they can be given to the next person to wear them. nobody owns anything in dema.

dorothy works beside him, as she always has, but this time gives him a couple strange looks. he has no idea what they mean. he doesn't ignore her, he can’t, but he tries to put his mind away from what she might be thinking. wondering about other people hinders you.

neon lights his way back to his room. he passes madison but doesn’t look at her. she doesn’t look at him either.

he sits on his cot and digs into the pocket where he put the paper. it’s still there, to his relief.

he barely smoothes it out before devouring the handwritten words.

it’s walter. we left the city. if you got pulled back again, like you told us happened last time, madison’s gonna give this to you.

wake up. you need to remember. you need to understand what’s going on.

my name is josh. hers is jenna. yours is tyler.

east is up.

his hand shakes as he reaches into his other pocket.

there's a crushed yellow flower.