Chapter 1: Cereal
Prompt: Ortega discovers Sidestep's strange breakfast habit
You honestly have little recollection of what led you to this point.
Ortega’s apartment. Ortega in Ortega’s apartment. You with Ortega in Ortega’s apartment.
But since it’s happening, you have no choice but to accept it, even as it seems like you’re merely riding a train steadily headed for the abyss.
Your breathing threatens to quicken, your heartbeat already off-beat and erratic, as you push yourself off the couch. Ortega had even been nice enough to lend you a sheet to cover yourself with, knowing that you’d probably tear yourself out of one of your nightly terrors and ruin it in the process. It has ended up somewhere down around your ankles and a shudder rips through you as you catch a glimpse of skin when you glance down at them. Your skin. Your bared, scarred skin.
You exhale slowly, trying to get yourself back under control, as you push yourself into a sitting position on the edge of the couch. It’s far unsteadier than you’d like, but then again, that goes for a lot of things in your life. It seems a universal rule that it always has.
Running a shaking, clammy hand over your face, you look up to see that it’s still early outside. Through the blinds, you can just make out the view from Ortega’s apartment. It’s still dark outside. For a brief moment, you consider going back to sleep, but then decide against it. It’s not like you’d get much rest out of it anyways.
To your relief, and slight surprise, it doesn’t seem like you woke up Ortega. He hasn’t come charging out of the bedroom, so that’s a pretty good sign that you didn’t make too much noise.
It seems like you’re getting better at hiding your own demons.
Despite your best efforts, it seems like the remnants of whatever latest horrors your mind has cooked up refuses to leave your system.
This won’t do. You can’t have Ortega suddenly walking in on you looking like you’ve been sweating buckets. You won’t be able to answer his probing with anything satisfactory. You might have stayed over at his place, at his repeated insistence, and he might know a lot more about you that you ever would have chosen to let on, but that’s a part of yourself that you’re not yet ready to share.
Perhaps you never will be.
But you don’t want him seeing you like this and you can’t boot up his coffee machine without risking waking him up.
You barely quench a yawn as you silently make your way out into his kitchen, soft steps inaudible, and you cringe at the time displayed on the clock hanging on the off-white wall. It’s early, even for you.
You have an old habit. You know it’s not how people usually go about their breakfasts, but you’ve far exceeded the line where you care about what anyone might think about your habits.
Pulling a carton of milk out of the fridge, taking care not to shut it too hard, you let it stand on the counter for a moment as you try to quietly rifle through Ortega’s cupboards, searching for his cereals. You know that you should probably ask first, but you’ve done far worse things than cereal theft. You think Ortega knows that too.
You pour the milk and cereal into the bowl, grimacing a little at the brand. It’s not your favorite, but it’ll do.
And then you wait.
You rub your face again, trying to dispel the last remains of the nightmares. It doesn’t work, but you still try. Your hands do seem like they are shaking a little less though. The small victories seem like the only kind you’ve ever had to celebrate.
You get a glass from another cupboard, wincing as you accidentally shut it a little harder, a little louder, than you meant to and you half-expect Ortega to make his appearance the next second, but everything is as quiet as before. After a moment, you go about your business…
And pour the milk in the bowl into the glass, separating it from the soggy cereal.
It’s not exactly a vice, more like an old habit that you didn’t realize was strange until it garnered a very weird look from Anathema when you explained your morning habit the first time.
You blink some of the sleep out of your eyes as you pull a spoon out of one of the drawers, having to rifle through two to find one, and you groggily take in a mouthful of your breakfast, your milkless cereal.
“I’d ask what you were doing…” Comes a bemused, slightly concerned voice behind you and you jump and curse, almost choking on your meal, “But frankly, I don’t want to know.” It seems like Ortega managed to sneak up on you after all.
You consider making excuses. You consider apologizing for waking him up. You consider defending your roundabout way of breakfast.
But in the end, you simply settle for dipping your spoon into your bowl again and taking in another mouthful.
You don’t break eye contact.
He looks at least slightly horrified, as he glances at the glass of milk on the counter, then at the bowl, and then back at you. He opens his mouth, blinks, and then closes it again, shaking his head. You raise your eyebrows, daring him to make a comment.
“I think I’m just gonna go to sleep again,” Ortega says as he turns around and walks out of the kitchen, with an expression that tells you that he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing.
You maintain eye contact for as long as you can. He seems at least slightly intimidated.
Somehow the cereal tastes a little better, even though you know Ortega is still gonna be judging you later in the morning.
Chapter 2: Fault
Prompt: The progression of Herald's influence on Sidestep in three snippets
You weren’t called Sidestep for nothing. That’s a small comfort, considering your admittedly somewhat self-made predicament, but you’re still on the verge of panic.
You evade. You dance around the hard questions, you give nothing away and your best offense is a good defense.
At least, that’s how it used to be. You have no idea how much you’ve changed, but you know that you have. Into what, you’re not sure either.
But then how, when you’re sure that you know how to stave off, delay and even ignore threats, could you have been so stupid?!
As much as you want to blame Herald, pin it all on his stupid face and even stupider hair, suit and everything about him that you still find so annoyingly attractive, there is a small part of you that knows at least a small part of the very big mistake you just made was on you.
The way you had listened when he talked about something that you can’t remember now, your thoughts too jumbled and chaotic to care, that was on him. After all, it’s not your fault that he automatically begs for attention by virtue of existence.
The way you’d wound up facing each other, the way that you saw him swallow and his eyes rest on something that they had no business resting on, that was the fault of him and him alone.
The way that he’d leaned in and the way you hadn’t moved away, the way that he’d pressed his lips against yours so quickly that it barely got off the ground at all and how mortified he looked when he pulled away…
His fault. His stupid, fucking fault.
The way you’d suddenly kissed back though, no coherent thought left in your head, all sense thrown out the window as you seemed like you were speeding down a highway headed for disaster at top speed…
No. That had to have been his fault too.
It doesn’t make things better that you all but bolted from the scene of the crime when you realized what you had done, sprinting away with an embarrassing flush to your cheeks and out of breath even before you started running. It doesn’t make it better that your traitorous mind keeps running through the scenario again and again, how he had seemed to melt into it, how he craned his head slightly backwards and a hand came to rest on the back of your torso…
And worst of all, for a brief, terrible moment, you had wanted his hands to stray further. Your own nearly did.
You almost stumble and you force yourself to slow your pace a bit, even as you still flee from Herald and your own stupidity, even though it seems that both are far more persistent than you had anticipated.
And that has to be Herald’s fault.
Surely it is.
You have got to be one of the most idiotic, thoughtless, stupid individuals in existence.
You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t even know what you think you’re doing. All you know is that Herald has no idea about how dangerous he is, how much of a threat he poses to you, how easily he strings you along and how helplessly you dance to a tune he doesn’t even know he’s playing.
You’re getting in too deep to see the surface and what’s worse is that, despite your best efforts, there’s a guilty pleasure there getting stronger by the second.
You barely reach up to block the elbow headed for the side of your head in time and you reflexively dodge the next kick that Herald aims your way, a slight frown on his head as he tries to land a hit on you. He’s been more focused than you expected, but he’s also been getting better.
But whenever he really has a chance of getting the upper hand, there’s still that small hesitancy that lets you squirrel away and you remain at an impasse.
That goes for more than just your sparring sessions.
It really is getting laughable, though neither of you are laughing.
There was a kiss. That’s something you’ve tried to come to terms with, your mind a torrent of confusion, dismay and, if you’re honest with yourself, excitement. His is all over the place, elation mixed with trepidation that’s starting to change into the fear that he stepped over the line.
He did step over the line, but fuck, you wanted him to and that’s the biggest problem at hand.
A breeze tear at your layers of clothing, cools the layer of sweat on your face and the sun catches in Herald’s tousled hair. You blink, crushing the impulse to reach out and swipe the blonde lock of hair that sticks to his forehead out of the way and before you know it, he’s up-ended you and you crash down onto the roof. Your breath gets knocked out of your lungs and you swear, loudly, both at the unexpected throw and the way your mind still lingers on his fingers closing around you and how it sent a thrill through your frame.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Herald immediately tries to help you back to your feet and you almost laugh aloud as you bat him away. He should be.
“Don’t be,” You say as you shake your head, trying to get back into your mentoring mindset. Your mind keeps straying, but you rein it in, reminding yourself that you’re serving a purpose bigger than your inane crush by being on the rooftop with Herald, alone. Maybe if you keep telling yourself that, you’ll start to believe it. After all, you know better than anyone that the mind is a powerful thing. “I’m a bit out of it today and… Hey, it was bound to happen eventually.”
“It was?” Herald blinks at you, still breathing hard from your session and you wave a hand at him again. It hadn’t been your intention to pay him a compliment.
“Well, we aren’t here just to enjoy the view, right?” Your eyes take in his sweaty form involuntarily, your gut jerking excitedly at the sight, and you almost swear aloud as you realize that that might actually be a part of the reason why you’re still meeting up with him regularly.
“Right.” Herald nods again and gives you a hesitant smile, one that you return before you can get ahold of yourself.
The memory of Ortega teasing you about your flirting with Herald flashes through your mind and there’s a very real part of you that considers throwing yourself off the roof and be done with it.
“Mind if we take a break?” You say before you can come up with a better excuse to collect your thoughts and Herald blinks, seeming a bit disappointed, but then he nods, of course, and he gives you another sunny smile.
Your bottle of water is already half-empty, but you still take a heavy pull from it, wishing that you could pull off your sticky shirt and just pour it over your own head. You know you need a cold shower, but you can’t just bolt from your training with Herald.
Well, you could, but you don’t want to, and that is exactly the problem.
“So, uh…” Herald starts as he approaches you and you almost consider throwing the water bottle at him in an attempt to derail the conversation, because just from a slight brush against his mind, you already know exactly what he wants to talk about. “Can I talk to you?”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?” You fumble for a topic to distract him with, but you can barely string a sentence together as he rubs the back of his head and gives you a sheepish look.
“I’m sorry,” He blurts out and you bite back a loud declaration that he should be sorry for making you so confused, that he should be sorry for being so… “I stepped over the line and I really didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I’ve gotten thrown around before, you know,” You respond, giving him a wry look that doesn’t match the all-out panic that’s starting to cause what can only be described as a shutdown of all but your most crucial emergency systems.
“No, I mean…”
“I’m sorry,” He repeats and you hate how sincere he sounds, how sincere he feels as he steps up beside you, how he tries to look into your eyes despite him being almost as nervous as you are. You hate him. You have to. “It’s just…”
“I know that it was wrong and out of line and you, I mean… You’re Sidestep!” You almost let out a groan at his declaration, “But you’re also just… a good person and you’ve been helping me and I can feel that I’m getting better and… I shouldn’t have ruined it. So yeah, I… I messed up.” A slight, panicked laugh escapes you.
There was hero-worship, there was a crush on Sidestep, but if Herald is starting to feel something more than that, if he’s also starting to get flustered by the civilian and not just by the Hero that he has built up in his mind…
This is bad.
This is very bad.
This is the worst possible outcome and you should not be feeling something as absurd as joy hearing it.
And you should definitely not do what you’re thinking of doing.
But you do.
You kiss him, insistently, and for a moment, you feel his mind jump in surprise, feel it struggle to connect the dots, but then it decides it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it’s you. Your mind is getting so tangled up in itself and Herald and everything in between that it’s getting frighteningly hard to tell the difference.
You’re greedy. You know you are and you tell yourself so, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because you still deepen the kiss and Herald still responds eagerly.
His arms come up around you and one of your hands slip around his neck, resting at the base of his head. For a moment, it seems like you’re short-circuiting, but you keep going, prolonging the inevitable moment when you’ll have to pull away.
There is no doubt left in your mind.
You are, without a shred of uncertainty, the most idiotic, thoughtless, stupid individual in existence.
For a short, terrifying moment, as you jerk awake, you don’t know where you are. Your eyes flit around in the darkness, trying to find something to focus on and your quickened breathing stops entirely as you hold your breath automatically, your instincts going on auto-pilot.
But then sensations come flooding back and you exhale, slowly. You force your tensed muscles to unlock and relax, one by one, slowly, so that you don’t wake him.
One of your arms is stuck beneath you in an uncomfortable position, but the other is resting on Herald- Daniel’s stomach, like you’d thrown it across him in your fitful sleep. You’re surprised that it didn’t wake him up. That he didn’t push it off.
It doesn’t really matter. You don’t either.
There’s still confusion. Sometimes, there’s still panic, but now he gets it, or at least he thinks he does. And you think he does too. You know he tries and the ridiculous old saying, that it’s “the thought that counts”, is quite relevant.
But there’s something else too. A lot of things. You don’t want to put a name to them, because that would make it real and it seems like every time you’ve ever had something real, it’s been torn out from under you and you, selfishly, stupidly, don’t want to lose this.
You don’t want to wake up and not be stuck in an awkward position behind him, not have that brief moment of uncertainty before you realize that you’re in his bed, that you’re with him, as impossible as that feels, and that he knows you. That he chose you and that he’s continued to choose you, even when you’ve tried to take the high ground and argue against it.
You know the nightmares are still waiting there for you, but you can’t get up without waking him and you can’t stay in bed without falling asleep again, so you might as well give in. Your hand travels up a little further, coming to rest on his chest, and you press your nose softly into his bare shoulder, listening to his steady breaths for a few moments that you steal for yourself before morning.
You haven’t said it yet, but you know that you do. It’s not something that you’re sure what you should do with, what it’s gonna lead to, but even your denial is getting a little tiresome.
That he’s letting you take the lead only makes it stronger and you don’t know whether that pleases or annoys you. It always seems to go both ways with him, though that itself is a small game that you don’t want to be without.
“I love you,” You mutter, barely audible in the silence wrapped around you, and you’re slightly relieved to find that there’s no response.
Daniel shifts in his sleep and you go still, concern that he might have heard you taking over, but then he steadies again and you exhale slowly. A slow, small, quick smile flashes across your face, unseen in the darkness, but somehow that makes it better.
That you’re smiling for him is something that’s become embarrassingly normal, but smiling for you, with no other purpose, is an unexpected side effect that he’s managed to cause as well. It’s still awkward and worn, a little wrong on your face, but it’s there and it matters.
You settle back into the covers, your smile fading along with your thoughts as sleep drags you back under and you let it. You catch a glimpse of Daniel’s dark shape against you before you close your eyes and you linger on it.
You are very stupid and it feels very good that you don’t care in the slightest.
Chapter 3: Scorch
Prompt: That one time when Sidestep helped Ortega out of the fight with Catastrofiend, Ortega ofc being chill and an idiot and pretending everyone's fine while bleeding out through 3 stab wounds to the stomach.
-Credit to Reikor to beta-ing this! I can't thank you enough times, though I'm sure gonna try!-
Adrenaline is coursing through you with the force of a tidal wave and you revel in the familiar rush as the smell of fire tears at your nose, making your eyes water at the same time. You’re in a fight and you’re on the verge of landing yourself in the hospital, again, but at the same time, the thrill of dancing on the edge of danger is something that you can’t help but welcome with open arms.
There’s the sound of a series of metallic clicks, smooth metal pincers and too many legs on an industrial floor, and you instinctively duck further into cover.
There’s a flash of black, blue and white in the corner of your peripheral. Your grin widens. Your glazed eyes seek it out and lock onto it, following the figure as it darts around the hulking monstrosity. Your mouth opens and you almost call out, but then you think better of it and you stow away your clever comment for later use.
You doubt Sidestep would appreciate it if you gave away her position just when it seems that she’s working on another plan of hers.
“.w..W.. w.hH…Wh.e.r.e…” The Catastrofiend whirs. The sound of its voice grinding out the words is throaty and reminiscent of the sound of old cogs painfully grinding together. You can almost hear the flakes of rust hitting the floor, but then you realize that it’s the points of the multitude of legs on the monster skittering around the floor. The sounds are quicker, more irritable, like hard pellets of rain of a cracked window and-
You’ve barely processed what’s happening before a long leg slam down beside you. You would have been skewered if someone hadn’t grabbed you by the shoulder and pulled you out of the way, roughly, with little grace, but it seems that survival is a graceless endeavor. A breathless yell escapes your sore throat and you inhale as you send Sidestep another grin, even as you roll sideways again. Metallic legs, insectoid in appearance, except for the metallic make, slam down around you and for a moment, the novelty of the situation wears off and all you can smell is sweat and heat, the air thickened by fear and panic.
Electricity crackles between your palms and in the distance, you hear the shouts and orders of your colleagues, Steel and Sentinel and-
Pain explodes out of nowhere, your vision abruptly colored red along the edges, as sharp edges tear your suit open and you with it. You fall forwards and land on your stomach, wisps of dark hair sticking to your clammy forehead.
A half-choked yell escapes you and you force yourself to roll onto your back again, just as another leg comes down on you and grazes your hip. Your palm barely manages to make contact as the leg is jerked upwards again, drops of blood flying. There’s a snap and the smell of fire thickens in the air, white spots filling your vision, as tendrils of electricity winds their way onto the Catastrofiend like living ropes, coiling around its wildly spinning torso.
There’s another yell and you’re almost grateful as you recognize Anathema’s voice, the sound of bubbling acid filling your ears.
The other Rangers are finally joining in and you make a move to join them, trying to push off the floor, but pain explodes through your back and your hip and your vision spins. You grit your teeth, wanting the fight to last for a little longer, for the rush of adrenaline to never end, but then someone grabs you by the wrists and pulls.
You let out a yell, half in protest and half in pain, but you’re still dragged away from the scene of fire and blood, of grinding metal and a monster that’s beyond you, though you’d still love to try your hand.
Your vision is still spinning and there’s a dark trail from where you’ve been dragged. It could be blood, but you’d rather think that it isn’t, that you weren’t taken out that easily.
“Hey!” Your struggling ceases for a moment as you recognize the voice and you get propped up against the wall, a little away from the scene. A blob floats into your line of sight, black accentuated by blue and white, and you try to reach for it, a lopsided grin on your face. “You should have moved, idiot!”
“Hey,” You retort, still grinning. Your fingers finally make contact with the mask and you almost frown. You had been hoping for the face beneath it, though you already knew that she was still wearing her mask before you reached out for her. There doesn’t seem to be much logic in your head at the moment, but, as she’s so fond of telling you, there never seems to be.
She doesn’t take the mask off nearly as much as she should.
“Idiot,” She repeats with a huff, though her voice is slightly shaky. You don’t know whether it’s your imagination, the adrenaline playing tricks on you or if the feeling of her gloved fingers ghosting over the open wounds in your side really does send goosebumps down your spine.
“Oh, I’m fine,” You say, trying to smile through the feeling of hot blood seeping out where it definitely- probably- shouldn’t.
“Don’t,” Sidestep snaps and you’re a little taken aback by the harshness of her tone. You had expected a barbed quip, but a sharp rebuff. “You just-“ There’s the sound of a loud whir, the unmistakable voice, if you can even call it that, of the Catastrofiend screaming in rage. Or pain. Could be both, depending on how the fight is going.
Your head lolls and you blink, hard, to try to clear your swimming vision. It doesn’t work.
Your consciousness dances, not on the edge of danger, but on the edge of darkness and you struggle against it, a groan escaping you.
Even though you can’t see her face, you can see it in the way her shoulders stiffen slightly and her hands go still. She’s worried, concerned that she might have hurt you somehow, and she snaps her hand back like she had been burnt.
You almost protest, aloud, your hand twitching in an aborted attempt to reach out, to grab her hand and-
You don’t know whether it’s the pain talking or your usual daring or something entirely different, but you’re gonna do something and soon. You almost ask her, as your eyes take in the suited shape of her again, her knee hooked as she crouches down in front of you and the image of her unmasked face appears in your mind.
Then there’s another stab of pain and it occurs to you that it might have to wait until you can form coherent sentences again.
You never liked hospitals. The floors, the lighting and the pale surroundings made for a sterile environment far too familiar, bringing back memories of a time when you weren’t Sidestep, when you weren’t even a person…
But that’s still true though, isn’t it?
Only this time, it’s not you getting treated.
You’re puzzled, even worried, by how it doesn’t make it better that you’re not the one who got brought in on a stretcher, that you’re not the one they’re stripping bare and patching up as best they can.
What’s more worrying is the memory of how your heart had jumped into your throat when you had felt the Catastrofiend’s mind lock onto a target and how it had felt when you realized that that target was Julia, who had been distracted by something at the worst possible time. You can’t imagine what was so important for her to focus on that it was worth getting her back sliced open like that, the Catastrofiend bearing down on its prey and how you were still berating yourself for not noticing it sooner. You had only been keeping a light touch on its mind, barely ghosting over it. Digging any deeper would have left you incapacitated. Even a slight look into the addled mind of that monster was enough to send you careening.
But that had landed Ortega in the hospital.
It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. You won.
The Rangers always got their man, or… whatever the Catastrofiend qualified as.
Your eyes jerk up as the door to her temporary room opens and Steel steps out. You don’t want him to notice you, but his mind as tense as ever and, paradoxically, you can’t nudge his attention away from you without attracting it. You sink further into your seat as he passes you and he spares you a glance, the eternal frown that he always seems to wear deepening slightly as he looks at you. Thankfully, he doesn’t stop.
You can’t feel anyone else in Ortega’s room. You can’t feel Ortega either, but that’s a familiar sensation by now. At first, you weren’t sure about how her epilepsy made you feel, whether it was a relief or only further cause for cation, but now…
You close the door to her room behind you and for a moment, your mind goes blank and the bare walls seem to be closing in on you, the array of machinery coming alive before your eyes, twisting and bending into the shape of-
“Hey.” Ortega grins at you from the bed, the same old shit-eating grin that she had still maintained even as you dragged her away from the fight by her arms, leaving a trail of fresh blood in your wake. You cross your arms, as though you can physically keep yourself from falling apart at the seams that you seem to be picking at yourself. “Don’t look at me like that,” She teases and you blink, stepping closer to her as you take in her battered shape. “I’ve had worse.” You’re about to contradict her, but then you shut your mouth again and take a seat. You’re not one to presume.
Her eyes meet yours, but you frown as she suddenly looks away. That’s not something she does often. It’s usually you who pulls away, who changes the topic and steers the conversation towards safer waters.
Except, you’ve been playing with fire for a while now.
“I’ve never kissed another woman before,” Ortega whispers in the back of your mind, the memory of another fight that nearly killed you flashing through your head and you shake it, trying to dispel them. Dwelling on the past rarely served you.
“You were distracted back there,” You say instead, thankful that you have an actual question to ask her, one that’s not about how your heart had leapt into your throat as she fell to the ground, how there had been a slight tremor to your hand when she-
“Well, I had something to distract me.” You frown in confusion at the glint in her eyes, at the strange tone of voice that she has suddenly adopted. Then, you raise your eyebrows in disbelief and…
And your cheeks are not heating up right now. Absolutely not.
Your nails dig into your palms.
“Are you serious?” You mentally kick yourself for the rhetorical question. She’ll only see it as an invitation.
“Definitely.” She’s grinning wider now and she’s leaning slightly in your direction, though you don’t know whether the latter is a conscious choice on her part.
You don’t know whether you want to lean closer or stand up, flee from the scene. You force yourself to remain still.
“Idiot,” You say, for lack of a better word. It doesn’t seem to dissuade her.
“Hey, you’re worth an extra look.” Again with the flirting. It’s been going on for a while now, but whenever it gets brought up, you dance around the issue. She’s not much better.
Anathema has called you both hopeless on more than one occasion. Ortega laughs it off and makes jokes. You evade and redirect. Old patterns too easy to fall back into.
“You can’t afford to get distracted,” You try, hoping to perhaps stir up an argument. “Not like that.” Your breath almost hitches and your own weakness feels like the legs of the Catastrofiend slicing into Ortega, only you’re the one getting hurt.
“Hey, I made it out alright.” She gestures at herself and you snort, shaking your head. Jokes. Another way of changing the subject. “But hey, I wanted to ask you something…”
“What?” You ask, knowing you’re in dangerous territory. You like it anyway. You like the way she almost looks away again, the way she tries to catch your eyes, even though you keep looking away.
You’re definitely playing with fire.
“Would you like to get a drink sometime?”
“Are you asking me out?”
“Why?” It’s maybe the worst thing that you can say and you almost run from the room, a shameless retreat, but you stay.
You don’t know why. You don’t know why you’ve been staying at all, why you continue this game. It can only end one way, after all.
So why do you continue to draw it out?
“Are you looking for compliments?”
“No,” You retort sharply, eyes narrowing slightly, but then it occurs to you that she was teasing and you shake your head slightly.
You’re going to have to answer her.
You’re going to have to refuse. Say no, rip the old plaster off, get it over with so you can continue as you were. There’s no way you can say yes.
“Look, I wasn’t trying to…” Ortega trails off and you lean forwards slightly, chasing something that seems just out of your reach. The same old dance, only it’s taking on a frightening new appearance.
And you have no idea how to deal with it.
But no matter your personal hang-ups, there’s a woman way out of your league sitting in front of you, waiting for an answer.
You’re playing with fire, but somehow, you don’t mind the heat.
You can only hope that, when you get burned, the pain won’t be too overpowering.
Chapter 4: Wonder I
Prompt: Steelstep Soulmate AU
Shoutout to Luka for being a rockin' Beta!
You can’t help but wonder.
You would maybe even go so far as to call it human nature, but then again, that’s not a very appropriate term for you.
You usually wonder about yourself and sometimes you almost manage to convince yourself that there could be a name hiding under the crass, geometrical markings that mar every part of you. You’ve tried cutting away that part more often than the rest, tried to burn, scratch and cut it away, but it’s like the tattoos are your mark. The name of the one person who could make you happier than anyone else would appear even through scars, regenerate even through the worst wounds.
Other people got names. People got names.
You got a barcode and a serial number.
Still, you wonder. The spot on your arm where a name would be written is hidden by the fat tattoos, stark against your skin, an eternal reminder of what is not for you, what can never be for you.
It took you a while to even find out about the marks in the first place, but it makes a certain kind of sense. It explains the websites with names and addresses and brief descriptions, explains the societal obsession with either playing into the soulmate idealization or shying away from it in a vain attempt to avoid a predestined relationship.
It makes you angry sometimes, that people don’t want a name and a person destined for them. That they think of it as a burden they never asked for, when you never got even so much as that to begin with.
Mostly though, you don’t care.
It’s not like caring would change anything.
You know it’s stupid to wonder. You don’t even have a name, only letters and a string of numbers and you’ve never even heard of anyone having anything but a name written on their arm.
But then, you have a name to call yourself, suddenly, unexpectedly, wondrously.
Ortega drags out the face under the mask and suddenly, you have a name; an identity that’s more than a number. Friends. A job. A life.
You know that it’s all a lie entrenched in other lies, a web that you spin the parts of in the heat of the moment and in the end, you’re not sure what are the lies and what are the truths. There’s your old number and your new name, with Sidestep caught in the middle, and the bleed over is enough to leave you with a headache when you think about it for too long.
Still, it feels good. Still feels like more than you were meant for, more than you deserve, but it feels good.
You still know that you don’t have a name to appear on another person’s arm, not really.
You don’t mind. You already have more than you were ever meant to have.
But sometimes, you still wonder. You still glance at your arm whenever the marks are mentioned and you dance around the subject whenever Ortega and Anathema ask who your soulmate is, what their name is and whether you think about them. Your lack of answers leads to a merciful lack of questions.
But just because you have no answers to give doesn’t mean that you don’t silently wish that you had.
You stopped wondering a long time ago.
Heartbreak killed off that part of you. Sometimes you wish it had just finished the job.
But it didn’t and you don’t know where that leaves you.
You’re surprised at where you are nevertheless.
No, it’s not where you are that’s the unexpected part. It’s who you’re with.
A dog park isn’t a place where you would be surprised to find yourself, but it’s a place where you wouldn’t have expected Marshal Steel to make an appearance.
There’s a sharp jolt at the edge of your thoughts, a presence too simple to be human, and it takes you a moment to realize that it was Spoon speeding past you and Chen on the bench, making sure that you’re both still included in his game. Even if that game is simply speeding around the spacious enclosure, outpacing even the most enthusiastic of his fellow canines.
At least the dog wants you there.
It’s not much, but it makes you smile nevertheless.
A stray thought catches your attention and you glance at Steel beside you. He’s not looking at you, but for a moment, you thought you managed to catch his eyes. Surprisingly, his guard is lowered enough that you almost check his thoughts to find out if he was, but you manage to stop yourself in time.
Privacy. It’s a thing that you hold dear, maybe dearer than anything else.
You don’t know when you started trying to respect his.
“He’s a good dog,” You say, without realizing that you even wanted to start a conversation. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe it’s just another of your many brands of self-harm taking the wheel again. Wouldn’t be the first time.
“He is,” Steel replies and that’s the end of that thrilling exchange of words, an echo of the first time you ran into him at the park.
Spoon rushes past you again, tongue hanging out of his mouth and paws kicking up a trail of dust, little more than a grey blur. You don’t follow him with your eyes, but you don’t need to. His mental presence burns so bright that you’d have to actively concentrate to tune him out.
“Do you remember,” You start and you will yourself to shut up again, to stop talking, but you don’t and Chen waits for you to continue, so you do, “What you told me when I ran into you here the first time around?” You can feel Steel trying to remember, wracking his brain for the specific bits of dialogue and you force yourself not to pry, turning your curious thoughts towards yourself instead.
Now why did you have to go and pick at that old scab?
“Are you gonna tell me that you actually do have a dog?” The joke is awkward and falls kind of flat, but you still snort, watching Spoon so that you don’t have to watch him.
“You said something about…” Why are you still talking? “Feeling less human?” You feel his mind go still at your reminder and you focus on Spoon again, trying not to pick up on too many of his thoughts. Your words definitely triggered something, but what you hadn’t expected was to feel a slight pang of…
You’re not sure what it is but your own arm itches in response, mental stimulations translating into physical ones. Phantom itches, phantom pains, phantom feelings. It happens.
Chen exhales sharply and leans forwards a bit, feeling restless after your question and you straighten your back a bit. The bleed over is too strong for you to remain completely at ease.
“What about it?”
“It just stuck.” You shrug and the conversation falls silent again, but something about the way Chen’s mind feels makes you reach out, despite your efforts not to, and… “Does your arm bother you?”
“What?” He frowns at you and you almost swear out loud, the old curse that’s become as much of a signature of yours as your tired eyes and scarred hands. You don’t know why you’d want to poke that old hornet’s nest.
Except you do. Thinking closer on it, you frown, something that should have been obvious all along occurring to you.
The marks can be on both arms, you know that, but you never found out which arm Chen’s is on. Was on, if he had had it on his left. You never cared enough to.
As you frown and think closer on it, it makes more and more sense. Imagining Chen with someone, anyone, is a bit hard, but not as hard as you had expected. However, as far as you know- which is admittedly not very far, but still- he’s not with anyone, or he keeps it very separate from his job. Maybe both.
It could be that he doesn’t have a mark. It could be that it was on his left arm, the one that got replaced, and he doesn’t have it anymore.
It could be that he’s a little more like you than you thought.
You discard that thought quickly with a mental cringe that slips through and shows on your face. He might not have a mark anymore, but once upon a time, he did and that is a vast, uncrossable divide between you, a rift that can never be mended. You’d do well to remember that, you remind yourself.
Or maybe his is already dead. That also seems like a very likely possibility.
“You lost your mark, didn’t you?” The question is the worst one you could possibly ask and you don’t know whether the sharp stab of astonished agitation is his or yours. It’s no longer just a roundabout way of harming yourself, it’s started to affect Chen too and that is a line that you are not willing to cross.
Eventually you’ll have to, but not yet. Not yet.
“Why do you care?” He asks, and it’s sharp and it hurts. You don’t know whether it’s his question or your question that hurts the most, but his guard is going up again and you scramble for something to say.
You didn’t mean to mess this up.
“I’m sorry,” You blurt out, because that’s what you’re supposed to say, that’s what’s supposed to make it better and you don’t know any other way. Not anymore. You’re too old, too out of practice when it comes to interaction; off-beat in a world beating on a different rhythm than you. “That was- I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“I know.” You look away again. You want to make it an argument, because anger is easier, anger is familiar, an old pattern that both you and Chen can fall back into and use as a crutch, but you don’t. You have no right. Not now. That’s never stopped you before, but now it does.
Maybe you did. Or maybe you just got better at keeping up the worn façade that you’ve cultivated over the years.
Or maybe you’re just getting old.
The silence stretches on, but luckily Spoon comes bounding back, dark eyes focused on Chen and tongue lolling. You can feel the excitement still burning in his chest and for a moment, you breathe in deep and try to relax again.
That’s why you go to the dog park after all.
You jump a little as Spoon suddenly rests his head on your leg, looking up as you with a look that can only be described as expectant, and you smile a little again as you indulge him with a pat on his head. Spoon feels entirely too smug about getting that much out of you, but you don’t mind. Your efforts are rewarded with a sticky tongue licking your hand and you wipe off the drool on the leg of your pants as Spoon takes off again, distracted by the arrival of a retriever across the park.
“I never had one.”
“What?” You blink a little, still a bit distracted by Spoon’s more simplistic mind, and it takes you a moment to readjust to Steel’s human one.
You don’t know whether there’s a difference between the artificial mind of a re-gene or the authentic one of a human, but you don’t think it would matter if there was. It’s not like it would change anything.
“A mark.” Chen is still looking at Spoon, frowning, and you cautiously manage to get a feel of his thoughts once again, taking extra care to fly under the radar.
“Liar.” You can feel that Chen is not being entirely truthful, but it’s a warped lie, closer to the truth than not, but still not an accurate statement. A half-truth, a white lie. Telepathy lets you sniff it out, but it’s still a little disconcerting.
All humans have marks.
“It was…” Steel shakes his head slightly, his frown creating deep creases in his forehead. It makes him look older, more serious. You frown yourself at it, finding that you don’t really care for the expression on him. You’ve grown a little too used to his smiles.
Where the hell did that come from?
“What?” You try not to rush him, letting him take his time, but you can feel his mind going off-track and you know that he needs a slight push to continue. Not forcing him into anything, but beckoning him forwards.
“It was nothing. Just… a glitch.” Chen shakes his head and heaves a frustrated sigh. You’ve rarely seen this side of him. He usually just walks away whenever he gets frustrated with you, the conversation ending on a sour note and someone cutting it off before it can truly get started. “Bunch of crab.”
“I’m sorry,” You repeat, for lack of better words, trying to find something to say. You could offer up your own lack of mark as a meagre comfort, but no, that would reveal too much about you.
He could be lying, you suppose. Some people are good enough at it to hide it even from you, but for some reason, you believe him. “That’s…”
“I’ve heard it all by now.” You don’t doubt that. You know that Chen is bad at talking about personal stuff, laughably so, but even so, he’s bound to have had his fair share of comments if he’s never had a name on his arm. Not that you’re much better.
At least you’ve got a woeful lack of social skills in common, if nothing else.
“So it was just… a bunch of scribbles?” You’ve never heard of such a thing, but you suppose it’s possible. If the population of humans is an odd number, there has to be one unlucky soul who just doesn’t get anyone. A person predestined for a life alone.
Maybe that’s why he’s got Spoon. That thought is too offensive for even you to voice though.
“Letters. Numbers.” Suddenly, Chen’s mind twists in dark amusement, but he doesn’t voice the joke. Gallows’ humor. You don’t catch the joke but you can still guess at the punchline.
“Sounds weird.” You don’t say anything further, because how could you? There’s nothing to say that would make it better and plenty of things you could say that would make it worse, so you remain quiet, letting Chen talk if he wants to and stay silent if he wishes.
He doesn’t need to talk about it, you can feel that, but he doesn’t know whether he wants to.
You don’t know whether you want him to either. But it’s not about what you want.
What you have wanted has never mattered anyway.
“Don’t I know it.” Chen goes quiet again and the silence stretches on as you both watch Spoon try to goad the new arrival into a few sprinting rounds around the enclosure, legs dancing and paws kneading at the ground. With nothing better to do and an awkward conversation that has thankfully trailed off still hanging in the air, you tentatively reach out again and let your shields drop a little, letting the bright bursts of excitement wash over you as the retriever finally gives in to the chase. Spoon outpaces it within seconds, but happiness, strong enough to make your breath catch in your throat if you don’t watch yourself, still burns within the both of them.
There’s a cold rush as all the blood leaves your face in a gush and your next breath gets stuck somewhere in its infancy as every muscle instinctually locks into place in one jerking spasm. Your mind freezes and then does a u-turn with such a speed that it almost gives you a whiplash and your half-closed eyes fly open. The taste of blood fills your mouth and it takes you a moment to realize that your teeth had clamped down on each other so hard that they had torn a bloody hole in your cheek. Goosebumps run down your spine and bile rises in your throat, breath quickening as you stare at Chen, who’s still watching Spoon with a deep frown. He had said something and it still hangs in the air, a silent scream amplified by your own mind and bouncing off the insides of your skull.
Your body had reacted to his words before your mind, instincts kicking in before you could even realize what was happening.
“What did you say?”
“That’s what I had.” Chen’s face twists again and you can feel your brain gradually begin to shut down the non-critical functions, your blood roaring in your ears, your heart pounding and drops of sweat running down your back. “I told you, it was nothing but a series of-“ He finally looks at you and you can feel the surprise in his mind. You even catch a brief glimpse of yourself, as pale as a sheet and you can feel him recognizing the telltale signs of a panic attack, the signs of a mind locking in on itself and limbs refusing to work. He’s seen it enough times to know what’s happening immediately.
Your jaw is locked too tight for you to get a single word out and the only thing you can do is feel your lungs kicking into overdrive.
Chen hadn’t just said letters. Numbers.
It can’t be.
But it was.
It was your serial number.
Not your name, the one you chose for yourself. Not the villain that you built from the ground up, an escape from every other identity you’ve ever had.
Your serial number.
It’s a coincidence. It has to be a coincidence. A hell of a coincidence, the most unlikely mistake ever to be made by a system that doesn’t make mistakes, but there is not an ice cube’s chance is hell that Wei Chen once had your serial number written on his arm before he lost it and got modded all to hell.
Something bubbles out between your shaking lips and it takes you a minute to realize even half of what’s happening around you.
A manic laugh, so deranged that it would be worrying even for when you’re hiding behind the mask that is supposed to be your new and final identity, spills out of you and your vision spins. You can feel a spike of worry, but you have no idea whether it’s from Chen, Spoon or another bystander altogether.
Hands. There are hands on you, one on your knee and one on your shoulder and a face, there’s a face, a face that you know but can’t process through the fog of raw panic in your mind.
“Hey! Hey!” Impossibly, remarkably, Chen’s voice cuts sharply through the haze that still has you firmly in its grasp, that still makes your hands shake, and you manage to focus on him. Whether it’s his voice, his eyes, his hands or just him you don’t know. You can’t even begin to make sense of any of it, not when he’s just turned your entire world upside-down in a single breath.
Spoon comes running and he helps, if only a little, gives you something simple to absorb yourself in. Even if it’s just for a second, it affords you a certain apathy that you’re borderline desperate for.
“I-“ You can’t even snap out more than that single syllable, throat constricting.
“Breathe.” You almost laugh again, dizzy in the high of your own hysteria, but you try, damn it, you try and that counts for something, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
“I-“ Your breath feels to try, too big in your tight throat, but then you heave in a great gasp and then you nearly start hyperventilating. Chen’s calm mind, firm and stable to the point of ridiculousness, is more bolstering than you’ll ever admit. Spoon whines, obviously sensing that something is wrong, and Chen reaches out to stroke his back, his dark eyes still on you. “Jesus fucking Christ,” You gasp out.
He doesn’t ask what’s wrong. He doesn’t even wonder. He simply accepts it. Accepts you. Let’s you have what amounts to a mental breakdown in public and he doesn’t even think to ask what triggered it. Doesn’t even connect the dots.
He’s seen damaged people snap without warning too many times to judge you for it and you almost laugh again. The one time where he should suspect you of something and he doesn’t.
It’s too much.
It’s all too much.
Chen and Spoon and the park and your number your serial number it’s your serial number it’s you but it can’t be you absolutely not no no no and you almost vomit all over him.
“I have to go.” He frowns and opens his mouth to protest, logic against your total loss of it, but you’ve already stumbled to your feet and you don’t exchange any more words. You can feel that he wants to, you can feel that he’s confused and concerned and even a little bit of hurt, though that’s not something that he recognizes. It only makes it worse and you abandon all shame in the sand the dogs kick up as you all but sprint from the park.
You cannot be the soulmate of Marshal Steel. You cannot be a soulmate, period.
You let out an audible sob of terror as you feel yourself starting to wonder again.
Chapter 5: Wonder II
Prompt: Steelstep Soulmate AU
Once again, Luka was a wonderful Beta for this piece and I can't thank him enough.
You’re no longer wondering. You don’t need to, because now you know.
As much as you want to, you can’t keep ignoring it forever, though you sure have been doing your best to.
As abruptly as they started, your meetings with Steel at the dog park come to an end. It deprives you of one of the last safe spaces you had left, but you’re too much of a coward to face him again, knowing what you know. Even your visits to the Rangers HQ take a nosedive- something that Ortega notices almost before it even happens- and when you do have to duck in, you make sure to give Steel a wide berth.
You can feel both him and Ortega worrying about you, but you cut off any questions before they can even be asked and then make excuses when you need to make a hasty exit. The one time where Chen almost manages to corner you when Ortega insists there’s an emergency, but then dawdles for an amount of time that can almost be considered suspicious, you almost have another panic attack.
You’re not above using the fire escape to get out of the building.
You can’t keep ignoring it forever, but that doesn’t mean that that’s not what you’re gonna do. All you’ve ever done is endure despite the odds stacked against you, clawing your way through a world that never wanted you in it to begin with.
But the implications of what Chen inadvertently revealed are staggering and that you keep wondering about, even if your old musings have been set aside. The small what if’s keep haunting you in the darkness of your sleepless nights and when you do manage to slip into a restless slumber, they’re still there, snaking their way to the forefront of your mind even in dreams.
You try to occupy your thoughts with the identity you crafted for yourself on the eve at the museum, busying yourself with your work, and for a while, it almost works.
But then you feel the bright, giddy burst of astonishment as you cross the street, two young women who are sitting outside a small café, both with their sleeves rolled up and staring at each other as if nothing else existed. Their minds are soft, open books that you could slip into almost as easily as your puppet’s, but you don’t.
Instead, you just stare as they smile nervously at each other, trepidation mixed with excitement. There are a few hoots from the bystanders, even a half-hearted round of absentminded applause and bile rises in your throat. You force yourself to look away and you raise your shields a little higher in pursuit of the sense of security you lost so long ago.
That was never for you in the first place and you always knew it. You had even made your peace with it.
For a moment, you hate Chen and you will it to last.
At least the anger is something you know, a familiar solace that’s become as much of a safe haven as the dog park had been, before Chen had to take that away too.
You almost bump into a tall man with a border collie trotting after him on the sidewalk and you hear him throw a curse at you over his shoulder. For a moment, you’re almost tempted to make the dog pull at the leash and speed off, leaving him to chase after it, but then you think about what would happen if the dog ran out onto the street and your nausea intensifies.
Humans are creatures that you still didn’t know your stance on and Chen just made sure that sentiment solidified, but you know yourself when it comes to dogs.
Instead, you reach out and give the dog what amounts to a mental pat on the head, a small boost of encouragement, as you pull your hood up and disappear back into the crowd milling about the sidewalk.
You had thought that if Ortega or Steel ever saw the truth of what you are, that would be the endgame. That there would be an argument, a statement snapped out and as cold as handcuffs.
There is an argument, that’s for sure, and it hurts. It hurts so much that you’d almost rather that you were six feet under.There is no relief to be found, not anymore. Your old outlets have been cut off, one by one, snuffed out like the fragile flames of cheap candles.
You don’t have to be a telepath to know that Ortega is furious.
If only you knew about what, then you would feel a little better. You’ve got enough self-loathing that the disgust of one human wouldn’t hit you that hard.
There are enough things for all of you to be mad about when it comes down to it, but you weren’t prepared for the fiery rage that took control of you when Ortega questions you, seizes you and demands answers a decade in the making.
Chen only looks at you, eyes raking over the orange markings covering your body and the awareness that you have more scar than skin to show makes your stomach stand on end and your fists clench tighter. He sees the barcode, he turns away and something slick and icy inside you hardens, frozen over even in the hot hell that you’ve found yourself in.
You don’t dare reach out to feel his mind, his thoughts. You know what they’re going to be.
The thoughts are louder than ever, bearing down on you even when you manage to tear yourself away and slam the door after you, fleeing from the collapse of your last bastion of sanity. Your shields are torn asunder, frayed at the edges and oh so very fragile.
You no longer know whether the thoughts are yours or Chen’s or not you all you there’s someone there when you look looking back and you rake your nails down your form as you stumble out onto the street, barely covered by Chen’s coat that you snagged from its peg. The pain worms its way out of you, but you don’t know whether it’s a sob or a scream.
But the pain brings you back to the present, grounds you even as your vision spins in the darkness of the night outside and you suck in a few desperate gulps of air.
By the time the door behind you flies open and Ortega tears out onto the sidewalk, Chen following as close as a shadow, you’re long gone.
You don’t know why you’re here again.
Maybe you want to get caught.
Maybe you want to be rightfully accused and abandoned. Maybe you need to be.
You don’t know anymore and you’re too fatigued to spend what little energy you have on pointless speculation that nets you no answers.
You tug your hood further down as a husky tears past you and you follow it with your eyes, nails digging into your palms. Its mind is sharp, focused on the thrill of the chase, lungs burning, and you clench your teeth as the urge to lunge for a tennis ball nearly makes you jump from your seat.
Your hands are cold and stiff, turning blue from the cold.
It’s been raining for days, but it slowed to a drizzle when you started gravitating towards the dog park.
Just a short moment of weakness, of allowing yourself a brief hit of an addiction you’ve yet to stop craving.
And yet you still feel jagged and broken, edges sharp enough to cut.
You blink as a heavy raindrop lands in the corner of your eye and the husky pivots, ears perking upwards as the gate at the other end of the park opens up. Your throat closes up and your shoulders stiffen as you pick up on a thought that’s not even trying to be inconspicuous, directed purposefully at you, full of anger and betrayal and-
You hurt him.
You didn’t expect that. You’re still looking at the husky as it stands with a wet tennis ball in its mouth, momentarily frozen at the arrival of another playmate, assessing the situation.
You hurt Chen and the thought is so surprising that it almost makes you stand up and leave immediately.
Your arm itches again and you place your other hand over it before you can stop yourself, biting your cheek hard enough to draw blood.
You can’t tell him. You won’t tell him. It’s the only mercy that you have left to offer, that you’ll let him live with the belief that he was always a glitch in the system. It would be a kinder fate to live alone than to be tied to something like you.
Then, there’s a bright burst of simplistic glee and you barely turn your head in time to see a grey shape pummeling towards you, dark eyes wide with joy, before it lunges at you. Spoon huffs and pain lances up your legs as he kneads at your thighs, tail thumping against the bench and body shaking with elation.
It’s enough mental input for a near-overload, but you don’t mind, you don’t mind at all. How could you, when it’s one of the only things you have left?
Even if it’s not truly yours, merely something you borrow from yet another person that you hurt as you hurtled yourself down the path of self-destruction. You’re screaming loud enough on the inside that it deafens out the parts that insist you don’t deserve even that much.
An oblique way of quietening the voices, but you’ve never been known for healthy coping mechanisms anyway.
“Down, boy!” Chen calls sternly and you jump at the sound of his voice.
A bubble in your chest swells at it, so incredibly brittle, so unfathomably fragile. You feel the tremors wracking your hands getting stronger by the second.
Spoon jumps down from the bench, but still has his head and one paw placed on your leg, like you’ll run off if he doesn’t keep you in place. Maybe you will.
You expect a shout, a curse, maybe even a mechanical hand that grabbing you by the front of your shirt and pulling you face to face, demanding an explanation.
Instead, Chen sits down beside you, Spoon’s tail thumping rhythmically against his leg. For a moment, you can almost convince yourself that he doesn’t know about what you are, what you have been reduced to, but the hard edge of his thoughts and the way he keeps Spoon’s leash in a white-knuckled grip kills that childish fantasy before it can get off the ground. He used to turn it over in his hands, fiddle a bit with it if he got awkward or sheepish. One of his little tells.
Your face twitches and you look away from him, knowing that something in you will break if you keep looking. What it is, you don’t know, but you don’t want him to be in the line of fire.
You don’t have to wonder hard as to why, but that just makes it infinitely worse.
He knows what you are. He knows what you’ve done.
What game is he playing?
“Why?” He asks and your hand rubbing Spoon’s neck digs in a little deeper, the short fur something easier to focus on.
“You know why,” You answer and shit, it’s so quiet that you almost can’t hear it yourself. You wanted to sound angry, because you are, but you don’t. You sound weak, tired.
You try to care, but you can’t even bring yourself to any longer. Chen doesn’t care, not at the moment, so why should you?
“No, I don’t,” He rebuffs you and it feels like a slap across your face, a hard punch in your gut, but you deserve every bit of it. You can feel his anger, close to bursting through, but there’s something else too, something…
Against your own will, your eyes jerk towards him and the look in his eyes is enough to make your skin crawl, a scream getting stuck in your throat.
You’ve been screaming for years, but nobody listened. Would it make much of a difference if you did it verbally? You don’t know and you don’t care. You’re too tired anyways, the kind of exhaustion that sleep won’t fix.
You curse, both on the inside and outside, digging the heels of your hands deep enough into your eyes for the world to go blurry when you open them again.
“I’m not human,” You say and it shouldn’t feel like such a relief saying it out loud when it’s always been the truth that you’ve been less than dirt, less than the dogs that you live vicariously through whenever you’re able. It hurts, but that’s nothing new. The pain is a welcome reminder that you’re still alive, though you probably won’t be for long.
That’s not such a bad thing. At least you’ll be out of Chen’s hair then.
Chen opens his mouth, but Spoon huffs and places both paws on your legs, reaching up to sniff your face and before Chen can tell him to get down again, you wrap both your arms around Spoon’s slim frame and cling to him like a lifeline.
You don’t know why Chen lets you. You don’t know why he’s not pushing you off his pet, why his thoughts don’t radiate disgust, why he doesn’t find you as utterly vile as you find yourself. And you’re too pathetic to protest, to ask him why, to try to steer his mind towards the right course.
“Down, boy,” Chen finally says, but it sounds more reluctant than you had expected. Weary.
Maybe you’re both too old for the fights, even the necessary ones. It’s not a very comforting thought, but it’s there.
“Don’t,” Chen snaps and there it is, the anger that you’re far more comfortable facing. Familiarity is easier than false comfort.
“What do you want me to say?” You ask and it’s an earnest question with no hint of sarcasm, a plea for a cue of how to handle a situation that has long since spun out of your control.
“You-“ Chen breaks off again and looks away, shaking his head. His thoughts are almost as chaotic as your own, but his guard is too high up for you to get any better insights than that.
The silence stretches on and you can feel that Spoon is impatient to go play, but he stays with you despite that, the tension thick enough for even the dog to feel it. You take mercy on him and give him a slight nudge, both mentally and physically, even mustering up a brittle smile that you know would shatter with as much as a slight gust of wind.
You blink as Chen starts talking at the same time as you open your mouth and you both go silent again, looking anywhere but at each other.
You watch Spoon as he trots over to the husky, all happiness and curiosity and you draw in a sharp breath through your nose, tempted to reach out to properly feel them, but you hold yourself back. You have no right to leech off of them any longer. As if you ever did.
“What happened?” Chen asks and you almost laugh at the enormity of the question.
You keep expecting to hear sirens at the edge of your hearing, but there’s nothing but the dogs and the rain.
“I don’t…” You shake your head, the tremors in your hands so violent that you curl them into tight fists. It helps little. “I can’t.”
It’s all you’ve ever done and look where it got you.
There are a thousand thoughts running through your head, a thousand reasons, a thousand excuses, but there’s only one thing that you can manage to focus on.
How has he not added it up yet? Connected the dots, spun the yarn and drawn it across the board to find you in the center?
You talk. You don’t explain. You just talk. You don’t know whether it’s audible or even coherent, but Chen doesn’t stop or interrupt you and so you continue, eyes firmly fixed on his grey dog. The sun travels across the sky behind the clouds and words spill out of you and never, not even once, do you look at Chen or reach out to try and gauge his reaction.
He could stand up and walk away and you doubt you’d even notice.
He doesn’t, though.
Minutes turn into hours and you talk yourself hoarse. The rain stills and ceases, water dripping off the leaves of the trees and bushes in the park. You barely notice.
When you finally turn your head to look at him, his eyes are closed and he’s leaned back against the bench. You would have thought he was asleep, with his crossed arms and a posture that’s verging on soft, if his fingers weren’t digging into his arms. He’s frowning deeply and he looks far older than he is, as though your words have aged him a decade since you started talking.
Spoon fills the silence between you for a moment as he races past, as exuberant as ever, but it only lasts for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” You croak and Chen’s eyes jerk open, his frown deepening. You look away from him, teeth chewing open the wound inside your cheek again.
“I…” You shudder and with a frustrated cry, you slam your hand down on the side of the bench, pain shooting up your arm at the impact. Your face is wet, but whether its tears or raindrops, you don’t know. Your face is too numb for you to tell.
He says your name.
The name you chose for yourself.
It’s just another reminder and you wince away from him when he carefully reaches out for your shoulder, out of instinct more than fear. Something flashes across his face, but it disappears too quickly for you to find out what it is.
“That’s not-“ You break off with a shuddering gasp and your arms cross, each hand locking around the place where a human’s mark would be like vices. “I’m not…” You draw in a shuddering breath. You’re not scared for your own safety, your own life. You stopped caring about those things too long ago for you to fear for them now.
You fear for him.
You have no right to tell him, to doom him to an understanding that no one should have to live with.
“I’m a re-gene.” Now that he knows, it’s so much easier to say. Relieving, in a way. You glance at him, your hands still clutching your arms and with a growing pit of horror in your stomach, you realize that he still doesn’t get it.
Your last revelation.
“I know.” His voice is questioning, beckoning you to continue.
You would have expected him to have walked off by now.
“We don’t…” You rub your forehead, a headache throbbing behind your heavy eyes. “That name, that’s not… Re-genes don’t have names.” He frowns and still doesn’t get it and for some reason, you can’t look away from him. “They have serial numbers.” He looks at you, frowning, still doesn’t understand and you can feel his mind whirring, thinking back…
So you say it. Your old serial number and your throat almost closes up again, the old signs of a panic attack almost getting to kick in again before you force them down.
He stares at you, his hand twitches and his mind goes so still that for a moment, you worry that you’ll have to administer CPR.
“Oh,” He exhales and you look away again.
“I’m sorry,” You repeat and you are. You’re more sorry than you’ve ever been in your life, sorry that his mark wasn’t just one that slipped through the cracks. You’re sorry that you’re what he gets, what he’s been delegated to.
He deserves better.
He always deserved better.
You mutter a curse under your breath and you shuffle in your seat, starting to get up.
“What?” You’re not sure what you heard, because you know there’s no chance that it was actually the words that you picked up on.
“I’m not sorry.” There’s an edge to his thoughts and it makes you nervous, but you force yourself to sit still again. You still don’t look at him. “I… hell.” Chen heaves a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry about a lot of things, but not about you.”
“I don’t understand.” But you do.
He’s telling you that you deserved it. He’s telling you that he’s not sorry about you, about what happened to you and you know that, but you want him to say it. You want him to twist the knife, but whether the hilt is buried in him or you, you don’t know.
Chen groans and runs a mechanical hand over his face.
“I don’t mean…” You can feel a stray thought that flits across his mind, a feeling of irritation with his own woeful lack of skills when it comes to voicing his thoughts. It only serves to confuse you further. “No, not that,” He mutters and you almost look at him, but you force yourself not to. “I’m… the shit you’ve seen, I’m sorry about. All… that.” What you told him replays in his mind.
The rage, the disgust, you’ve always expected it.
What you didn’t anticipate was that none of it is directed at you.
“I don’t even…” Chen shakes his head and the force of his revulsion slams against you hard enough to make your head spin even more than it already does. “But I’m not sorry about you.” His mechanical reaches out slowly enough that you don’t flinch. You’re frozen, muscles locked into place, but you feel his hand on your elbow as keenly as you hear the pounding of your heartbeat in your ears. “I’m not sorry that it’s you.”
You’re frozen in time, in place.
Nothing makes sense any more.
You don’t want it to either.
A flare of pain comes from your stiff neck as you finally turn your head to look at him, lips pressed tightly together.
His face is…
You don’t know whether you gasp, sob, laugh or something entirely different, but you also know that you might be slightly delirious from a lack of oxygen, considering that you stopped breathing minutes ago.
You jump as something hits your leg and Chen swears as Spoon crashes into you a second after, mouth closing around the tennis ball. You don’t mind and all and you reach out to cup Spoon’s head, scratching him behind both of his ears. You grimace as he tries to lick you while still holding the soggy ball in his mouth and you look up to see the owner of a Labrador giving you an embarrassed look a little ways off. An accidental throw, a wayward ball. It wasn’t her fault.
“I’m…” You try to reply to Chen’s words, but you can’t barely string a coherent thought together, let alone a sentence.
He’s still looking at you that way, you notice, and you glance away again. It’s all a bit much, too much, but you want it all.
“Ortega is going to freak,” You suddenly realize and Chen raises his eyebrows. He blinks, but then his face splits into one of the smiles that you had been getting so familiar with before you messed it up and he huffs out a laugh. You don’t laugh, your head is still spinning too fast, but you do manage a small, fragile smile.
There’s still so much to do, to say, to make up for, you remind yourself.
Your hand comes to rest beside his on the bench, little more than an inch apart, as you look over at Spoon again, as he bounds off as the sight of yet another dog arriving.
Chen glances at you and you slowly reach out, making sure not to cross any lines, as you brush your thoughts against his. He doesn’t notice and you want to keep it that way.
You’re floored yet again and you know now that it won’t be the last time.
He’s surprised. Astonished, even. Bewildered and there are still trace amounts of anger in there, but they’re overshadowed by the wonder.
And you let yourself too, as you lean back against the bench, content to watch Spoon speed around in silence.
You’re wondering and you’re happy that you do.
Chapter 6: Broken
Prompt: Ortega shatters the cup Sidestep gave them in a drunken stupor soon after the funeral
Betaed by the lovely Reikor, to whom I owe my life
The door to your place swings open with a louder bang than you had intended for it to and for a moment, the sharp sound penetrates the alcoholic haze covering your mind and your vision like a blurry film.
Thankfully, it doesn’t last for long.
You pull at the collar of your shirt, too tight, too constricting, another weight to choke you and hold you down, a physical representation of the hangman’s noose that has been tightening around your throat ever since the glass shattered.
Shards of sharp glass, a broken window, a body taking flight and then falling, falling freely, too fast, too young, too good…
Shards of tinted glass as you knock a bottle of the bar and it shatters against the floorboards. The bartender tries cutting you off again, but you’re having none of it.
You gag, too far gone to register the taste of vomit rising in your throat and the door stays open behind you as you stumble further into your home. Strands of dark hair cling to your forehead, slick with sweat and you bat at your face in a half-hearted attempt to brush them out of your peripheral. You don’t make it any further before your leg bangs into the end of your old couch and you stumble forwards with a curse. You don’t know whether it’s in Spanish, English or something entirely different. It could be utter gibberish for all you know. You don’t care either.
Why should you care?
You don’t know and you know that’s wrong, but you don’t care about that either.
With another curse and a hand clutching your throbbing head, still deep in the throes of burning alcohol, you manage to right yourself and then, you’re sitting on the edge of the old brown couch, your head in your hands.
Your skull throbs in pain, but it finally matches your heart and there’s a certain catharsis in the symmetry, the off-beat balance.
You’re out of balance.
You have been ever since the window broke, but the funeral tipped the scales.
The black shirts, suits and ties, too tight, too dark, too present and so, so very real. The sickly sweet smell of roses and lilies, bought cheap because there was a sale, since so many people had died in the Heartbreak Incident. You don’t have to glance down at your clothes to know that you’re still in black, though it’s stained by the drinks you’d forced down your burning throat in the hours after, that the smell of the flowers still clings to you beneath the stench of whatever you could find that would most definitely give you the worst hangover you’ve had in years come morning.
A memory bubbles to the surface and you shake your head, teeth clenched tightly.
A warm body, hidden under so many layers, but still so very beautiful, so very real under your touch, even as you try to hold back. A face and a flash of grinning pearly whites, a warm breath ghosting across your face as lips press against each other, bodies pressed down into the brown couch beneath you…
You jerk to your feet, as though the couch was made of hot iron, and you nearly trip over your own feet again.
You need another drink.
You don’t register the way you knock over two books on the corner of the dresser and you hardly notice the pain as your side slams into the doorframe when you try to aim for the opening into your kitchen.
There are so many cupboards and your fingers are too big, too clumsy and your mind is clear enough for the memories to make their way through the haze.
A young face, so young, so beautiful, so bright, so burning bright that their flame was bound to eat itself up before its time, but what you wouldn’t have given for their light to never fade. You would have let them burn you whole if only it had kept them alive for a little longer.
You’ve been left in darkness and the only fire that’s left is the one that burns in your throat with every drink that you down in a desperate attempt to quell the overwhelming pain in your every cell.
Finally, you arrive at the right cupboard and you open it too hard, pulling it open with such force that it slams into your own head and you stagger backwards with yet another loud curse. Your eyes are burning, but whether it’s from pain, the alcohol or the sharp sting as the memory of your fist connecting with Vernon Brown’s jaw flashes through your mind, you can’t tell.
There are no one around to tell you what the answer is and the only one you’d want is the one who would call you an idiot and roll their eyes at you.
But you got them killed and your pain is your penance, your well-deserved punishment.
“Mierda,” You mutter angrily, as you clutch your face with one hand and blindly fumble around for a glass, a cup, a mug, anything big enough for something even vaguely alcoholic, hand sweeping the shelf in a wide arch.
Your back collides with the counter as you jump backwards with a cry, something blue catching your eye as your hand accidentally crashes into it and it flies out of the cupboard. It hits you in the chest and your eyes widen as you reach out, helplessly, fingers stretched out and oh god, they’re falling, falling again and they’re out of reach, falling, falling and it’s all my fault, they’re going to die and it’s all my-
The mug smashes into a ceramic mess of chips, shards and white powder on impact, pieces spilling out over the floor like the splintered fragments of a crushed bone and for a moment, you see their name spelled out in the dust that used to be the only thing they ever gave you, an old thing that was chipped and fragile and, without a doubt, the most precious thing you had.
That’s a lie.
The most precious thing you had was black, white and blue like the mug and just as broken now.
You don’t have to wonder why there are tears in your eyes any longer.
A dry sob makes you heave for breath and hot anger bubbles in your chest, bursting and breaking easily in favor of the all-consuming tidal wave of grief that makes you gasp for breath again. You stagger and your hands grasp the edge of the counter still pressing against your back as your legs struggle to keep you upright.
In the end they fail and you’re left with a broken mug and your own grief as your weak hands desperately try to stick the broken pieces back together, dust coating your fingers and only making you all the more frantic.
It’s a child’s fantasy, that you should be able to simply pick up the shards, chips, bits and pieces and smash them together to unbreak it.
It’s as much of a fantasy as the fading face of the one so dear, so loved and so very, very fallen.
Chapter 7: Anger
Prompt: Sidestep lets slip a detail about their past
Betaed by the lovely Rimetin, who was kind enough to offer feedback as well as corrections!
You can feel it.
You don’t need to be a telepath to know that he’s got dozens of questions, dozens of thoughts, dozens of knives to your throat and it’s only a matter of time before he slits it, the urge to ask irresistible.
You weren’t called Sidestep for nothing, but you can’t keep it up forever, not when his fingers dig into your back, when you swallow his breaths and he whispers words beneath your collarbone, lost to the darkness and left behind there. He keeps his silence, because every time he even thinks about broaching the subject you wince and you cringe and of course he notices, because you make no effort to hide it.
Hiding would, at this point, be counterproductive.
Still, you tug your sleeve further down over your wrist and shift in your chair. You never know.
You jump as a plate is placed down in front of you and you blink, letting it show how lost in your own thoughts you had been.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” You lie softly and you lie well, because that is something that you make an actual effort to hide. You glance at him and you even muster up a small smile as you look at him, his blond fringe askew and bright eyes resting on you. If you stretch, you can just make out a fresh, but fading bruise on his collarbone and your reluctant smile, if you can even call it that, turns a little more real in his eyes.
You look away.
But the smell of pancakes, syrup and fresh coffee is still present and still fresh, wafting over you and dragging you back to the present shard by shard, until you’re grounded enough that you can actually start eating the breakfast that Daniel prepared for the both of you. Again.
You don’t know if you feel useless. You don’t know if you don’t feel useless.
Somewhere along the line, there was a differentiation that you lost and never cared to regain.
Or maybe it’s that you know what your use is, but you’d rather die before you resumed your original function.
Daniel doesn’t eat before you do and it’s both vaguely irritating and somewhat endearing. Like you didn’t find him endearing enough already.
The sticky taste of butter and 08:00 AM hits you like the pavement and your eyes almost close again, but whether it’s to shut out the sensation or revel in it, you can’t tell.
“That good?” Daniel gives you a smile and your chest constricts at the sight, a distant scream, muffled through a helmet and its accompanying distorters, ringing on the edge of your hearing.
“It’s…” You swallow, hard, and for a moment your chest hurts, but you don’t mind. “Yeah. Cooking a hobby of yours?” You know that he likes it, his movements are too practiced for him not to take some pleasure in it and you can feel his mind falling into familiar patterns as soon as he steps into the spacious kitchen, but you know that humans expect that sort of thing to make for good conversation.
You don’t want to mess this up, the sore mornings in Daniels kitchen with a stack of pancakes and memories etched under your skin in more ways than one. If you have to conform a bit, it’s worth it. For now.
“I like it.” Daniel shrugs and you notice that you’re leaning towards him, just a bit, edging in his direction. He takes another bite, chews and swallows quicker than you did, and you watch him in silence. “It’s, well…” He glances at your plate, still full save for the one bite you took just to please him and his brow knots in concern again. He opens his mouth to ask a question, but pauses, unsure, and your eyes snap away from him. The tendrils of your mind are retreating in on themselves, a long-fingered deformity suddenly locking down and snapping back in place.
Your walls yank themselves back up and the sudden hand on your shoulder makes you flinch so hard that you nearly fall off your chair.
“I’m sorry, just…” His face is in front of yours and just that is enough to steady your breathing just a bit. “Look at me. No, look at me. Please talk to me.” The laugh that bubbles up within you is one that you manage to contain, but only just. The mirth that’s brought on by hysteria does have a tendency to get the better of you, but he’s surprised you with how he’s handled your emotional outbursts.
Like you’re worth it.
“Talk to you…” You suck in a deep breath through your nose and your wrist burns when he pressed a kiss at the bared pulse point.
How could you?
How could you tell him of how the taste of sugar and spice scorches your esophagus with every bite?
How the taste of coffee in the morning and kisses in the nights both burn you alive?
Neither was ever meant for you.
You hunch over and your forehead presses against his, his eyes boring into yours too hard and you close them, a bad taste in your mouth.
“This.” His mind spikes in concern and muted horror at the one word and you hasten to explain. “No, not…” Your lips are dry and so is your tongue, but you swallow anyways, willing yourself to continue.
He doesn’t understand what it means, not fully, not entirely, not really, but he knows.
That should make it easier.
Your mouth still tastes like ashes and bile all the same.
“It’s human.” He frowns and there it is again, that small spike of curiosity, of anger, but you push it aside for the moment. If you focus on it, you’ll lose whatever nerve you have. “Just… this, all of this, you and this and that, the pancakes and the-“ You break off, choking on a frustrated yelp, “This…” You finger the edge of your sleeve, but you don’t pull it back. “I’m not human.” Daniel opens his mouth to protest, but your sharper voice drowns out his well-meaning words, relentless when it comes to the truths that he doesn’t yet understand, the truths that you desperately hope never sink in. “It’s not for me. None of this is.”
“Bullshit.” The memory of that word snapped out, voice raised in anger, flashes across your mind and it nearly makes you smile again. “This?” His grip on your wrist tightens and he holds it up, as though he’s going to throw you over the table with his next breath and a strange part of you wants him to do it. Fights were always easier than… whatever this is. “This is you. Us. It’s for you and you’re human. You’re more human than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“You can’t possibly believe that.” You scoff and you jerk your hand back.
“It doesn’t matter if I do!” Daniel raises his voice again and makes a visible effort to calm himself. “It doesn’t matter if I believe that. I just wish you would.”
“I won’t.” You avoid his eyes, feeling closer to I can’t, I can’t, the inhumanity is all I’ll have left and I won’t be left with nothing again, I won’t be nothing again, I won’t, I can’t-
“Didn’t they feed you at…” His voice trails off and the shudder down your back is sharper than the needles they plunged into you, pins and pricks in ever limb.
“I’m a re-gene,” You snap and it hurts so much that it leaves you for breathless for a moment that you refuse to acknowledge, a pressure in your ribcage that you shove aside, “It’s not like… why waste cuisine on glorified automatons?” He’s staring at you, mind too chaotic to follow, but you’re too lost to sift through the sands for the coherence that you know is hiding in there, “There was this… stuff.” You cringe, the memory of the white paste filling your mouth enough to force you to swallow your own acid reflux, “Organic engines need nourishment and… well, paste did the job.”
Two decades. Three meals a day.
And it was invariably nothing but the same old pulp.
“So you never…” He frowns and he’s trying to do the math, his mind trying to figure out how long you survived on nothing but calories stripped to the barest of bones. You don’t bother to keep up with the way the pieces fall into the slots of his mind, clicking together bit by bit. “Your entire life. Nothing but… that?”
“No.” The word feels like a sentence, but you’re getting to worn and weary to determine its effects. “Yeah, I mean… trying a hamburger for the first time, that… that was wild.” There’s an awkward pause and you tentatively reach out, taking care to keep a light touch, but you recoil at what you find.
He’s not angry. He’s not upset. He’s furious.
It’s so forceful that you can’t help but stare at him, floored. He’s trying to keep his cool, but his hands are resting on and digging into your knees and his jaw is set so tightly that you worry he’ll chip a tooth.
You don’t think you’ve felt him this angry since the night of the gala.
You were the cause back then too.
“I’m sorry,” You say and you are, but not because of the now. It’s because of the past, not because of what you’re doing, but because of what you did. This is the only way that you can apologize for it.
“Don’t.” He shakes his head, tousled blond hair falling into his eyes and you reach out with a shaking hand to brush it aside before you can stop yourself. That’s been happening more and more lately, little touches that neither of you mind, even though you’re supposed to.
His mind is alight, positively glowing with anger, but there’s an urge overriding it, a determined, spiteful beeline headed for disaster, a steady protect, protect, protect, like a thrumming heartbeat.
You start at the same time and go quiet. He takes a deep breath and looks back into your eyes, deliberately trying to hold your gaze. You still look away.
“I won’t let them take you again.” His voice is quieter, steadied by his fraying self-control and tight-lipped concern. “I’d… You’re never going back there.” It’s a promise, an apology, a prayer and nothing less than your execution, the noose around your neck tightening with every kiss, every glance he deigns to give you. Hands frame your face and you don’t have enough left in you to push them away, though your skin crawls from the sensation. “I promise.”
“I know,” You breathe against him and you do. You know.
You’d rather die first.
But he doesn’t have to know that, and you allow yourself to take a small, guilty comfort in his touch, his food, his home.
You still have a stack of pancakes to finish, after all.
Chapter 8: Dancing
Betaed by Cheion, who was a pleasure to work with!
“Dance with me.”
“What?” You blink at him, eyebrows raised, but Daniel doesn’t answer your grouchy reply. He doesn’t seem to notice the suspicious look you give his outstretched hand either, as though it could strike out at you at any given momen
“Dance with me,” He asks again and you give him another look, straightening your back and shifting in your seat. Your relaxed posture stiffens a bit, your previous comfort giving way to wary uncertainty.
“Why?” You squint up at him. You’re seated and he’s not and that does make you uneasy, an imbalance that your instincts are shouting at you to correct, but you remain seated. Anything else he would see as an encouragement.
“Don’t you want to?” You don’t, but your adamant refusal gets stuck in your throat as you look up at him, annoyance welling up to take its stead.
“There’s no music,” You answer instead, a half-hearted excuse considering that you don’t need to be a telepath to tell that he doesn’t mind that, but he’s already retreating and you’re pushing out of your seat, reaching out- what are you doing why are you doing- ”Stop it.”
“Stop what?” But he’s smiling, brightly, and you can feel how happy he is that he managed to drag you into this much, how he considers it a much greater achievement than he has any right to and you grimace as you feel your palms getting clammy.
Instead of answering properly with whatever excuse you could cook up in the heat of the moment, you mumble something that sounds suitably grumpy and try to remember the steps that were taught to you, drilled into you, forced into you and you have to press your forehead against his collarbone to avoid him picking up on your bad memories.
He’s getting way too good at that, telling when a bad thought has struck home, and what’s worse is that he’s getting efficient at removing you from the situation discretely, at calming you down and saying what you need to hear to ground yourself again.
You can’t have someone to rely on. You can’t have a safe harbor to return to. Relying on someone that much is only going to make it that much more painful when it’s inevitably torn from you in the end.
You can’t afford to be that weak.
“Hey,” He mumbles against your temple and you hate how you jump slightly at the sensation of his mouth brushed against your skin, his breath in your hair. “Okay?” His footwork is slow, but better than you expected. He’s had practice.
So do you, but you wish you didn’t. You’d rather be inexperienced than hurt.
Hurt. Are you hurt?
“Yeah,” You answer, nodding, but you can feel that he’s concerned, worried that he’s bringing back too many bad memories and you pull back a bit, letting him see your face. If the tight smile that you can muster can make him feel a bit better, it’s worth it, even if it feels like pulling teeth. “Good. I’m good.” There’s no music and your footsteps are too loud in the emptiness, beats in a wide void and your grip on his hand tightens.
“Alright.” Another beat, a steady rhythm even in the silence, and then- “I have an idea.” He’s smug and that worries you, but it’s in the good way and you don’t mind. Not really. Not that he needs to know that.
“Stand on my feet.”
“Why?” You’re suspicious and you try to pick up on what he’s planning, but his thoughts are elusive, deliberately dodging your attempts at catching something slipping through.
He knows you too well.
“Just do it,” He laughs and smiles, good-naturedly, and it looks all too natural on him. You’re not only for following orders blindly, enough enough you’ve had enough of that to last you a lifetime but you reluctantly place your feet on top of his, trying to shift your weight so that you don’t break his toes.
“Alright, I-“ You break off as there’s a shift in your center, goosebumps running down your spine, and your grip on his hand turns so tight that his toes aren’t the only thing you’re in danger of breaking. He’s pulling you up with him and it’s not like he hasn’t flown with you before, but that doesn’t mean you have to be pleased about his sudden hovering with you standing on top of him, forced to play along. “Daniel!”
“I got you,” His voice is infuriatingly reassuring and you don’t let your grip slacken a bit, even though you’re only floating a few feet off the ground. “Just focus on me.”
“I know how to dance,” You huff, momentarily distracted, and Daniel doesn’t waste his chance. You taught him not to.
You only need to follow along, having him do most of the legwork, but you still grimace a bit. You don’t fight him, knowing that you’ll take a tumble if you do, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d say he planned this.
“Could’ve fooled me,” He teased and you roll your eyes, suddenly grateful for the lack of music as you rest your chin on his shoulder, your arm wrapped around him.
“You realize this means you’re doing the dishes tonight.”
“That’s a low blow.” A kiss on your cheekbone and you roll your eyes, even if you reciprocate by giving one back just below his ear.
Chapter 9: Present
Prompt: The Mug
Betaed by Cheion in less than 10 minutes, because that's how we roll when we're pressed for time
Back at where you were decanted, honed and crafted so you fit your assigned mold, there were no such things as birthdays. There were no such things as births either. The concept was one it took you a little while to wrap your head around. Granted, sometimes you still think the ritual of celebrating one’s conception and subsequent emerging into the world kicking and screaming by ritualistic chanting and the consumption of diabetes-inducing levels of sugar is an odd one, but you think you’re getting the hang of it.
Or at last you’re getting the hang of ignoring it.
What you can’t have, there’s no use missing. No crying over spilt milk.
After all, when the birthday candles are burned to stubs before they’re even lit, they can’t burn you.
But none of that helps you out when you’re not the one who’s next in line.
You don’t need to read Ortega’s mind to know how he relishes and hates his birthdays at the same time. There’s attention and he likes that, he’s too vain not to, and of course he likes presents. Who wouldn’t?
You wouldn’t, that’s a no-brainer, but that’s never stopped him before.
But it’s different now. It’s been different since you came back, for obvious reasons, glaringly obvious reasons looming over every shoulder, with a nail resting on every jut of your spine, but this isn’t one of them. It’s small, pitiful.
He’s getting old. Sometimes there’s a flash of silver in his black hair, a glint of light that you’ve yet to point out, because it’s never more than a few hours before it’s gone again, at the hand of some stylist or another. You don’t let him forget it and sometimes it stings. You mean it to. Lows blows still hit home.
You got him something once. A small thing, hardly worth obsessing over or even worth a word of thanks, but he did anyways. Oh boy, did he.
So why didn’t he keep it?
The mug isn’t at HQ, nowhere to be found. It’s pathetic how you care, how you look for it every time you open the cabinet there whenever you swing by.
You thought it was at his apartment, but no. Gone. Broken, probably.
At least it matches you, then. There’s a certain poetry to that.
Maybe he broke it.
Like he’s breaking you, one kiss at a time.
But none of that matters in the now, because even though it was the only gift you ever gave him, it tells you nothing about what to get him this year.
It’s an impulsive purchase, the night before the party that you won’t be attending. He won’t be expecting you to get him anything and, to be honest, neither are you. It’ll probably stay at your apartment, collecting dust in its box and eventually getting thrown out with the trash.
You have no idea what you’re doing anymore. There were far better things you could have spent your money on.
If only you could get your heart to agree with your head, then things would be a lot simpler.
As if you’ve ever been afforded that much mercy.
He’s on top of you, tongues tangled, hands wandering, pull, there’s a slight pull, where is it coming from, you’re leaning into him, a meteor caught in its orbit, and eventually, you’ll crash and burn.
Ortega angles his head, pulls away for a split second and you gasp for air. Your hand has found purchase between his shoulder blades, pressing downwards, as though his weight wasn’t already on top of you, and the other rests on his hip.
On his couch. In his apartment.
At least your clothes are on this time.
He kisses you again, hotter, heated, and you reciprocate, because you’re stupid.
Stupid stupid stupid.
You kiss him like your life depends on it, because one of them does. His fingers bury themselves in your hair and there it is, there’s the pull, a slight tug at your scalp. A hot breath on your face as he pulls away again, mingled heaves for air.
You’re expecting it before it appears, that damn smirk, the smug look in his eyes as he looks down on you and your face scrunches up automatically, at him and at the impossible care in which he holds you, clutches you. A little too tight, like he’s afraid you’ll flicker away like a mirage.
That’s a comparison you did not need. Mirages are images of hope, a fountain of water appearing before a man dying of thirst. You are anything but that. If anything, you’re the sun that’s going to burn him alive.
It’s still like he can’t believe this is happening. That he’s allowed to do this. Hold you. Kiss you.
“Shut up,” You mutter and his grin widens, because of course it does. The hand on his hip has migrated up under his shirt and you pull it back.
Like dipping your toe in a pool of acid.
“What, had enough?” He asks, like it’s ridiculous, like it’s impossible to get enough to him. It is, but you’ll be damned if you don’t carry that secret to your grave.
“More than.” You roll your eyes, but you shift enough for him to get that playtime is over and he leans back enough to you to pull yourself up. Your hair is askew, your lips are bruised and swollen and you make sure to correct your shirt, leaving nothing to chance. Leave it to making out on his couch to be the thing that dooms you.
“You know-“ He starts and you can tell it’s another one of his awful attempts at being smooth.
“How was the party?” You ask, to buy yourself some time and-
“The party?” He blinks and leans back a bit further. He’s still smiling, smaller now, but the edge has been taken off. “It was… good. Fine, I mean.” He side-eyes you and you grimace involuntarily. “You weren’t there though.”
“People.” You shudder at the thought. “And… parties and…” You shake your head, falling silent again with a shrug.
“Hey, when have I ever complained?”
“Oh boy.” He shakes his head and laughs and kisses your cheek.
“Ass.” You roll your eyes at him and shift a little again. As much as you’d like to forget about it again, you brought up the party yourself. His birthday. The birthday that you got him a present for.
“Yeah, yeah.” You glance over at your jacket on its peg, involuntarily. It has deep pockets, deep enough for the gift that you are most definitely not going to give him.
He says your name, softly, apologetically, and-
“I’m sorry, I went too far-“ He starts immediately and you piece together his train of thought quicker than you should, considering you’re supposed to be unable to read his mind.
He kissed you. You pulled away. Then glanced at your jacket, towards the door, towards your most immediate escape route, not counting the windows and oh no, that is definitely not a train of thought you should be pursuing-
“I’m alright.” You wave a hand at him, blinking hard, willing the thoughts to bugger off again. “I’m okay.”
“You sure?” He asks again, voice laced with soft concern.
“Yeah.” You nod and that seems to do it, but then you get up, surprising the both of you. “It’s your birthday, right?”
“Yes?” He answers, his smile returning and you scowl at him, a continuous glare as you move towards your jacket, no no NO, and your hand pulls out the small box despite the chorus in your head screaming at you not to.
You had forgotten the store wrapped it for you. Paper in a bad pallor, clean cut and so very unlike you. Just the sight of it is enough to make you want to hurl.
You trust his reflexes as you throw it at him, not caring whether it hits his hands or his face. He could do with getting taken down a peg. Sure enough, he catches it, with a strange look of surprise on his face. Not even the stuffy kind. He really wasn’t expecting you to have gotten him anything.
At least you’re not alone in that department, like so many others.
But then he smiles and his eyes light up and your heart does a like ba-ba-dum that you surreptitiously ignore. He shifts back, pats the couch, still smiling, and you retake your seat as he glances at you, then back down at the box.
“You got me a present.” He says it like a whisper, a true laugh, a kiss, the tight squeeze of palm-against-palm after a fight and you have to look away. If you don’t, you won’t be able to.
He looks so happy.
“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” You grumble.
“May I?” He asks, he actually asks, doesn’t assume and you look back at him. You cock an eyebrow, mouth dry.
“It’s your present.” You cross your arms, leaning back in your seat, watching him tear into the wrapping. There’s something cathartic about the sound, paper tearing under his hands, his breaths making for a constant undertone. He turns the brown cardboard box in his hands, finds the lid and you study one of your knees in detail as he pulls it up and open.
It’s almost enough to make you look up, but not quite.
There’s something fragile in the air, something careful,
precious, and you want to smash it to pieces, watch the shards ruin you both.
“You…” He clears his throat and that’s enough to make you look up, eyes widening at the note of raw surprise in his voice. It has to be surprise. If it’s anything else, you don’t want to name it. You don’t know if you could. “You got me a mug.”
“Yeah.” You shrug, forcing yourself to act nonchalant in the face of whatever this is. Dangerous, is what it is. Very dangerous.
“How did you know?” You finally look at his face. He’s staring down at the blue mug, with a pattern of white lightning bolts on it, in the box like it’s a revelation, like it’s a condemnation, like it’s going to jump out of the box and go for his throat.
He’s staring at it like it’s the only thing he ever wants to look at. Like the world would crumble if he glanced away for even a second.
Sometimes you catch him looking at you the same way.
“I broke it.” His fingers tighten protectively around the box, voice quieter than what’s normal. It’s unsettling, out of the ordinary. This really was a bad idea. “The mug you gave me.” A huff of sharp, self-deprecating laughter. So very unlike him. “God, it was so stupid. I just… I guess I was a little drunk. Well, more than a little.”
“And I just… I broke it.” He looks down on the mug, like he’s afraid of breathing at it too hard, out of fear of it breaking too.
“Ricardo,” You repeat and you lean forwards, a hand on the crook of his elbow and he tears his eyes away from the mug to look at you. “It’s just a mug.”
“But-“ He sucks in a breath through his nose, eyes glued to your face. It makes you uncomfortable and your face twitches a bit. “Yeah.” There’s a hint of a smile in his voice again, so unbelievably soft, disbelieving in what he apparently considers his own incredible luck. “Thank you,” He whispers and it doesn’t feel like it’s for the mug.
He kisses you again, lips molding against yours. Soft. Careful.
He pulls away and rests his nose against your cheekbone, the ridge of his eyebrow against your forehead. Eyes half-lidded. Breaths slow. Mouth curled into a small smile born out of nothing but sincerity.
For a moment, it’s like time stands still.
But it doesn’t last.
It can never last.
No matter how much you wish it could.
Chapter 10: Fallen
Prompt: Sidestep falls, again.
Betaed by Malicei and Rimetin, both of which are amazing people and even more amazing betas
You’re going to die.
You’re finally going to die.
You’re finally going to die and you’re crying, you’re crying out of pain and exhaustion and sheer damn relief.
Standing on the edge of the abyss and beginning to tip. Staring down the barrel of a gun, watching the explosion go off. Sinking, the bubbles of your last breath rising towards the surface.
You’ve been dying for so long, for as long as you can remember, but now you’ll finally get to die.
You’d be more than happy to surrender already, if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s a breath, a broken sob, a voice, begging, cutting through the static.
That’s ironic, considering.
“Oh, no, no, no otra vez, no me hagas esto ..." Ortega’s hands are shaking, they’re shaking so badly, sparks flying off his fingers as his hands brush down over your shattered form. His voice is shaking too, breaking into shattered shards, splintered like your bones. You’ve never heard him like this.
He sounds terrified.
“Stop it,” You mutter, but it’s barely a whisper, your lips barely twitching. There’s a grey haze encroaching on your peripheral, hot tears and cold raindrops mixing in your eyes and turning your vision into little more than a blur.
“Not again, oh god-“ He chokes on his own strangled sob, chest heaving and your eyebrows twitch as you manage to make out his stupid face. It’s so pale, so very pale, looking nothing less than haggard. Old.
“Stop it.” He forces an arm under you, the other grabbing your arm and he pulls, a strangled gasp escaping you as bones grind against each other, blood oozing. Then, you’re in a sitting position against a wall and he’s momentarily out of your sight, where is the wall, where am I, where is he, Ortega, Ortega, Ricardo please-
“Don’t move,” He orders, crouching beside you. Your face twitches towards him, seeking. His voice is supposed to be hard; you know how to tell when he’s trying to be strong, trying to shield you. It’s always been a lost cause, just like you. “T-the paramedics are on their way, you’re gonna be fine, I already-“
“Stop it,” You mutter again, frowning as you make out the tears on his face, the wild, downright desperate look in his eyes.
You don’t remember why. It doesn’t matter either.
You won’t survive it this time.
“Oh god, just look at you…” You have a feeling you really don’t want to. Your neck hurts too much for you look anyways.
There’s a blissful cold rush in your head and Ortega pales even further as he takes you in.
You remember this part. It’s when all the blood leaves your head in a rush.
You might be going into shock. That’s neat.
You don’t care about how you’ve probably gone as white as a sheet yourself, but you don’t like how he looks like he’s going to be sick, how he looks at you like his worst nightmares are staring him right in the face.
You know the feeling too well not to recognize it by now.
You never should have talked to him. Not when you were still Sidestep, not in that diner, not any time after, not ever. He’s in pain now, because of you. He’s hurting badly, that much is obvious, even though that makes no sense. You’re the one whose body is giving out.
There’s a familiar taste on your tongue. Rust. Salt. Raindrops. It tastes like release, like a promise, like absolution. It’s not pleasant, but it’s final and that’s what matters.
“I’m… Sorry,” You choke out, forcefully, through cracked ribs, bloody lips and a lifetime of regret.
“No, no, just- look at me, please keep looking at me!” His hands shoot out and cradle the base of your throbbing skull as your eyelids droop and he presses up against you. The back of your head against the wet wall behind you. His warm hands on your jaw.
The contrast of warm blood against icy skin. His nose against your cheekbone.
“Let me-“ You bite back a scream as his fingers dig into you and a lance pain shoots through your head, but a groan still escapes your grit teeth. “Let me go, please, it hurts… please, let me go-“
“No, please, I can’t-“ He gasps out and then he kissed you, hard, forcefully, frantically. He angles your head and you groan again, his fingers tangling in your blood-matted hair. Hard. Panicked. Desperate.
“You’ll be fine.”
“No, no entiendes…” He sobs into your hair, every façade abandoned without care. “I wasn’t fine, I’m not- not without you, not like this.” He shakes his head. Denial. It’s a stage that you were eager to move beyond. “Te quiero mucho-“ A sob and something inside you breaks apart, even though there’s not much more in your body left to break further, “I love you, god, I love you so much, I can’t- no, no, look at me, don’t you dare close your eyes!” You can’t help it, they’re so very heavy and every word he throws at you only serves to heighten your pain.
You want to stop hurting.
It’s all you ever wanted.
“I love you.”
“Just a little longer, they’re almost here, just- help!” He’s yelling, tugging at you, shameless. “Somebody, please, just- help!”
It doesn’t matter.
Because you’re finally…
Are you still falling?
(or flying free, a freefall up and above, down under?)
“Theoretically it could be a matter of days, weeks, months, even years.”
Up, up and away, tied down as you fly free. Hovering, floating, falling.
What’s the difference?
“There’s plenty of REM activity, so no, not entirely, but…”
“Tell me. Please.”
“It was quite a fall.”
You’re still falling.
You never stopped.
“So- what’s happening?”
“I need some help in here!”
“Oh, god, please not again, no…”
“We’ve got a code blue in room 214!”
You’d wake up with a gasp if you could, but the bandages around your chest are too tight.
It takes you half a minute to realize that you’re in darkness because your eyes are closed.
It takes you twice that time to muster up the energy to open them even slightly and even then, they fall closed again immediately.
Your eyelids. Your arms. Your head. Your body. All heavy, all hurting, all useless.
Even your mind feels sluggish, hazy.
Drugs? Pain? Could be neither, could be both. The cause matters less than the effect.
Or is it the other way around?
Your mind is too slow to remember. Case in point.
But you’re good at fighting yourself. It’s an intimate battle, an old one and you know the steps, the weak points.
You open your eyes.
Drugs. Definitely drugs. That’s something you know as well.
Soft sheets around you, pressing you down and your throat closes up, the beeping of a heart monitor increasing nearby.
Blue walls, blue chairs, a white bed and a blue hospital gown, you can’t breathe right, and you hurt as you heave for breath desperately.
Antiseptic. Air freshener. Pastries.
Oh god, can’t breathe, can’t breathe, back at the Farm, back home, what is this, WHERE AM I-
Your eyes roll in your head as there’s a sudden flurry of movement and the next moment, warm, lean arms are thrown around you so hard that they rip a groan from your sore chest.
“You absolute colossal, insufferable, careless, reckless idiot!” He tears away from you again, as though you’ve burnt him, and there he is. There’s a slight smile on your face. You’re happy to see him, despite how it’s twisted into a grimace of pain as well.
Or it might be the drugs too.
You’re getting a sick high out of this, if nothing else.
“My…” You sigh and Ortega runs his hands down your shoulders, just barely hovering over your covered skin. “My line.”
“That’s what you’re-“ Ortega breaks off, shaking his head, but then he’s suddenly leaning into you again. Not as rough, not as panicked as before, but it’s like he can’t help but gravitate towards you, like he needs the physical assurance of your presence.
You’ve got no real complaints. You’re as much in need as he and too weak to hide it.
And you’re in a hospital.
The beeping of the monitors accelerates, a parallel to your skyrocketing pulse.
Your fists clench and blood trickles down your scrubbed hands as the stitches there are torn open.
Your eyes widen. Your throat tightens.
A faint metallic taste in the back of your mouth.
“Hey, what’s-“ He’s worried and so quick to voice it, but you can barely hear it through the thundering sound of rushing blood in your ears, the continuous pounding of your heart.
“No hospital!” You gasp out, but it’s too late, he’s seen you, even though your arms are bandaged down to your wrists and the rest of you is beneath the gown and covers, too late, he knows he knows he knows- “I can’t… I can’t breathe.” You’re borderline hysterical and you realize it, but Ortega’s seen worse things than one of your panic attacks.
“We’re not in a hospital!” He grabs you by the shoulders, maybe since you’re shaking so hard that you’re in danger of falling off the bed.
“I know a guy who knows a guy who… point is, it’s a private clinic. Sort of under the radar.” He looks away, as though he’s embarrassed to admit he knows of such establishments, let alone makes use of them. He glances down on your arms and the way you pale is a physical feeling, accompanied by the expected old wave of nausea. “I didn’t see you. I… I made sure to look away. I know you wouldn’t like me to… Well, I know you.” There it is, that old smug smirk of his, expect it’s way softer now. Different.
Your throat is still closed up, but for very different reasons.
You don’t know if you buy his explanation, but the fact that he stuck around indicates that he’s telling the truth, if nothing else. You’d love nothing more than to distrust him, but at the moment, your physical impediments have hobbled you too greatly.
You can’t help but relish in his continued ignorance.
“What are you-“ Your throat is too raw, too dry and you fall silent with a grimace, even as you want to protest the look that he’s still giving you. Like he can’t hold it back, he breaks into a smile and it’s nothing but raw relief. His forehead an inch from yours, his hands resting lightly on your bandaged wrist.
“I just…” He shakes his head again, “You’re alive.” You don’t think he meant for that last bit to slip out, but you can’t be sure, since you can’t read his mind. The steady static is a meagre comfort, despite how much of an annoyance it is.
He says the words like it means that he gets to live as well.
He always was an idiot.
“Hmph,” You huff and he laughs. It’s slightly manic, his throat too dry and he clears it, avoiding your eyes as he kisses your cheek.
“Where?” You finally ask, to fill the silence, and you manage to catch a glimpse of the room behind Ortega’s shape blotting the most of it out.
Blue walls, neutral colors, devoid of personality and pale light. Thin curtains blocking out nonexistent sunlight. It’s too late or early, you can’t tell, but you know that Ortega definitely shouldn’t be up.
Probably why it took him a few seconds to realize you’d regained consciousness. He must have been asleep. Your glance at the abandoned plastic chair beside the low cot confirms it.
He waited for you.
“What?” You blink at his words, caught off-guard again. He’s too good at that.
“You…” Ortega clears his throat again, too full of shards, shards that are cutting into you. Didn’t they pull the glass out of you? “Your heart stopped.”
“Didn’t stick, huh?” He gives you a glare and you muster up what energy you can to shrug, but even that makes you wince.
“Menos mal que no…” He mutters, though it’s more of a hiss, and you narrow your eyes at him in slight confusion. If only you could read his mind. Then you’d be able to tell if he’s as full of shit as you want to think. “Please don’t look at me like that.”
“Like you’re disappointed that it didn’t.” There’s a hint of desperation in his voice, of helplessness.
He looks like a mess.
How long did he wait for you to wake up?
Longer than he should have, that’s for certain.
“So what?” You don’t realize you’ve said something until you see the look of utter horror he gives you and you automatically backtrack, though the damage has been done. “It doesn’t…”
“Please don’t.” There’s a hard look in his eyes and his words have quickened, as though he’s been waiting years to say them. Maybe he has. After all, you can’t tell. “Don’t just… just say that and then act like it doesn’t matter.”
“But you do!” He snaps and you shrink backwards, painfully aware that you’re too weak, too frail to fend off any unwanted advances, hostile or otherwise. He notices and he inhales through his nose, trying to keep his cool but he continues. Relentless bastard. “You matter more to me than whatever hang-ups you have. I love you.”
“Please don’t?” You beg, because you’re falling again, only this time the fall will kill the wrong parts of you.
“I love you.” He repeats and some part of you has to wonder whether he does it just as a spiteful protest. “So you don’t get to just… give up. I’m not gonna let you.”
“It’s none of your…” Your words are still too slurred to have much of an effect, but Ortega definitely has one. It’s only made so much worse when, instead of scowling and frowning, he rests his forehead against yours, withdrawing his hand from your wrist so that it’s the only point of impact between you.
“When have I ever not made it my business?” He asks and you’ve no answer to give, because your head hurts and you’re tired, so incredibly, awfully tired.
“Idiot,” You whisper, because it’s familiar. Because it’s the only thing you’ve left to say.
“That’s me,” He answers, a small smile playing on the edge of his lips again. It fades again quickly. “When I saw you there like that…” His face twists and your eyelids are drooping, but you don’t feel safe enough to let them fall again. You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what happened or how much time passed. Too many unknowns. Too many things out of your control. “Please don’t do that to me again.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“Then lie to me.”
That should be easy. After all, you have plenty of practice, by now.
“I love you,” You whisper instead and it’s not a lie, but now you can say that it is and maybe he’ll believe you. It’s a smokescreen solid enough that you’re willing to take the chance. “I’m right here.” It doesn’t feel like it.
He kisses you, softly, carefully, minding the stitches. A calloused hand following the shape of your jaw, leaving a rush of goosebumps in its wake. The taste of muffins and salt and warmth, of longing, of-
He pulls away, fingers under your chin and, like he can’t resist the temptation, he places a quick kiss on the tip of your nose too.
“No sé lo que haría contigo ...” Eventually, he’ll find out.
But not now.
For now, you’re safe. You’re alive. And you’re in love.
You don’t know what you’re most displeased about at this point.
For now, you have this. You have him, as impossible as that still seems.
Everything else can wait until the sun actually does come up.
Chapter 11: Enough
Prompt: F!Sidestep still has some reservations about how Chen sees her.
Betaed by Rimetin, who was also kind enough to scream at me about the parts that worked well along with the ones that didn't!
Skin against skin, quickened pulses, breaths lost in the dim lighting of Chen’s bedroom.
You feel raw, scraped bare and down to the bone, stripped of your usual shields and preventative measures.
You’re exposed, naked, vulnerable. But then again, so is he.
You’re still on your back and even though you trust him,
where did you go wrong you can’t help but roll back on your stomach, falling into the snug space beside him again.
“You okay?” He mumbles, breaths still slightly quickened and you can’t help but push the side of your hip against his in a playful shove.
“What do you think?” Your lips twitch into a small grin as you carefully sift through his memories, taking care not to affect anything. You know he doesn’t like you reading his mind, but his memories are bleeding through as they bubble to the surface and you know that he’s aware that you can’t help but pick it up. You’ve certainly tried to tell him that enough times that it should have sunk in by now.
Instead of answering, Chen’s face takes on a familiar old note of exasperated fondness and you feel his intention as clearly as your own physical exhaustion. He shifts and presses a quick, spiteful kiss on your forehead. The light press draws forth memories of other kisses, slow and languid, quick and airy, and hard and frenzied, like you both had something to prove. To yourselves. To each other.
And then there are the memories of lips ghosting over hips, trailing up the inner thighs, the lightest scrape of teeth against thin skin, a twitch and a low curse, his or yours, you can’t tell anymore, too tangled, too entwined, too intangible and then lips and tongue pulling slightly at the wet heat, the tip, sucking it in ever so gently, swirling and-
You press your face against the side of his torso so that he doesn’t spot the blood rushing to your face. You don’t know if you’d be able to stand the embarrassment, though he wouldn’t tease. Much.
You’re sore in odd places. Every time you shift there’s a brief moment of vertigo, as though your body hasn’t quite settled into itself again, like it doesn’t recognize itself.
You need to do something, say something, anything. Otherwise you’re going to lose your mind.
You already have
“Do you remember…” Your words are hesitant, a finger tapping him slowly on the chest for lack of anything better to do. “What you told me after you kissed me?” His mind automatically jumps back to the memory, an automatic instinct more than anything else, but it’s suddenly a lot more guarded than moments prior. You withdraw as best you can, though it’s like pulling your foot out of a tangle of brambles. Too many thorns suddenly, too much of an effort, and you grimace slightly.
“I do,” He answers after a moment that’s a little too long, words slow and measured. There’s a slight wince accompanying them and it takes you a moment to realize that it wasn’t physical. “Why?” His muscular arm, the one made of real flesh, leaves goosebumps in its wake as he shifts onto his side too and draws an invisible pattern on your bared hip.
“Just thinking, I guess.”
“Do you…” He’s uncertain, unsure of where this is headed, but he still asks the expected question. The old recital. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you?” You don’t want to throw a wrench into whatever your relationship has become. Whatever it could become.
“That’s not an answer.” You’re dodging the question. You know it. He knows it. There’s no need to play pretend with him, to deflect and evade, but you keep forgetting. Forgetting is convenient.
You hum and roll back. You stare up at the ceiling, avoiding his eyes.
You remind yourself to breathe. You remind yourself that you’re safe, that he’s trying to be patient with you, and you plunge.
“I am a woman.” The words hit hard, but you keep going. This is nothing that needs to be said, but you do anyways.
You could uphold the status quo, but no, you go ahead and ruin it.
Because it’s something you need to say.
It’s a personal need rather than an actual one.
You could just leave it behind, leave the wound to be forgotten instead of ripping off the band-aid. But there’s a selfish need in you to voice your thoughts, to force him to face them, and if there’s one thing you’ve learned, it’s that your course of action is rarely the wisest one.
He’s certainly informed you of that more than once.
“It doesn’t matter,” He lies.
“It’s not just gonna go away,” You sigh, continuing down the path, unable to stop. While you’re at it, you might as well shoot yourself in the foot. The effect would be about the same. “And you can’t just…” You frown, trying to put words to what you’re feeling without sending him running for the hills. “I need this to be real.” The words slip out before you’ve even realized it and you blink at yourself, startled by the vulnerable statement.
His hand goes still and you can feel his eyes on you. Burning.
“It is.” His words are soft, quiet, but not entirely understanding either.
Oh, hell, you’re going to have to use more words, aren’t you?
“I just…” You dig the heel of your right hand into your eye, the soft pain a momentary relief, something physical to hone in and focus on. “I like this?” It’s phrased like a question and you cringe. “And… I want it to work. Whatever it is. Without any of the…” You gesture vaguely, at yourself, at him, at the world and what it did to you. At the multitude of faces you’ve worn over the years. “I want it to be… I want to be real.” His mind is conflicted and he glances down at your tattoos, and sure, there’s that, but that’s not what this is about.
“I get it.”
“I can’t be… whatever you want me to be.” The words taste bad in your mouth, sour and hard to say, but you do. For him. He needs to know. He deserves to know. “I…” Your chest clenches, but you soldier on, willing the last of your words to be voiced and get it over with . “But I know now that… putting on some mask because I want something isn’t going to solve anything. I mean, it feels like it, but…” The words so unfathomably hard and it feels like you have to force each syllable out of yourself, kicking and screaming. “It’s not. And I want to do this right. So if you’re putting me on some pedestal or you’re still imagining that I’m something I’m not, then… Then I think it’s the kind of situation where I have to say ‘enough’.”
You clench your fists and you wait, in silence.
Not the slightest hint that he’s about to get up and walk off, not even the slight intake of breath that indicates that he’s about to speak.
Utter and total silence.
You can’t bring yourself to look at him, not with your eyes anyway.
You feel dirty, sullied, like you’re betraying something, but your telepathy has become a crutch you can’t help but lean on and so you reach out. There’s a twisting sensation in your chest, an urge that has been growing stronger lately, to reach out towards him physically, feeling his reassuring presence beneath your fingertips.
A soft touch, just barely skimming his chaotic thoughts and you’re surprised to find that he’s not nearly as guarded as you thought he would be. In fact, he’s… he’s…
That was unexpected.
He must have noticed the surprise on your face, how your eyebrows suddenly shot upwards, how your lips parted, the slight automatic angling of your body in his direction…
He’s too much of a military man not to have.
But he still manages to catch you off-guard.
“What are you-“ A soft kiss on your jaw followed by a harder one on your mouth, still soft enough that you can make a break for it if you want to
you should but why would you?
The cautious delight he took in your words makes no sense, but neither do you, and neither does whatever is between you. At this point though, he’s mucked up enough of your preconceptions that you don’t mind letting go of a few more.
So you reciprocate. You’re both careful, affording each other more than enough leeway, but the hesitancy is something you need. It’s a guarantee of safety, of time, of the wish to try.
Your hand is pulling gently at his scalp, his own finding purchase in the hook of your knee further down.
“Okay,” He mutters into your mouth. No more assurances than that, no more than what you both know. It’s enough.
You kiss him again, just for that small thought alone.
Chapter 12: Touch
Prompt: F!Mortum post-reveal
Betaed by Rimetin, who correct a VERY awkward typo that I will take to my grave
There’s still an incredible urge to hide yourself that simmers beneath your skin. It boils in your brain and bones every time there’s even the slightest chance that your clothes have shifted, that your skin is bared and visible.
She has known for a while now and yet it still sends your heart pounding with instinctual fear every time she as much as glances in your direction. A raised pulse, clammy hands, a slight rush of blood to your cheeks that you do your best to hide...
At least, you’re pretty sure it’s fear.
It’s all you’re sure of anymore. It’s become such a baseline of your life that it’s so much easier to attribute every reaction you have to it.
Because the other explanation of your reaction to her presence is not something you can allow yourself anymore.
It is not for you. It was never for you. And it never can be.
It was all a lie, for her anyways. For you.
Where is the line drawn?
Who draws it?
It’s clear that you never knew to begin with.
Your puppet was always just that, a marionette that swept the good doctor up and away, into a dance she never consented to. You pulled the strings, detached from the actual events, technically never taking part in them.
You haven’t the slightest right to catch yourself looking at her out of the corner of your eye, to try to fill the heavy silences with something approaching attempts at a conversation.
What are you trying to do?
And why, in the name of all things good and holy, is something telling you that she’s not entirely against the idea of getting to know you again?
“I’m sorry, I was just-“ Your words get stuck in your throat as you pointedly look at anywhere but Dr. Mortum, your hands curling into tight fists in your pockets.
You knew she had a shower at her laboratory, but that you’d catch her coming out of it one day wasn’t a thought that had struck you.
And now you’re suffering the consequences.
“I did not let you in,” She says and you barely keep your face from twitching.
“I still remember the code.”
“There is a touchpad.”
“Well, I, uh…” You hate the fact that your voice trails off and you can feel your nails digging into your palms,, painfully so. “It wasn’t that hard to get past the thing.”
“Yeah, I mean…” A helpless shrug, a glance at her as she finishes buttoning her lab coat, “I like to tinker.”
“I remember.” The words are the snapped cord of a violin, the sharp sound of a knife on a clean plate, a heel slipping on wet cobblestone and you cringe. Your hands twists further, tighter, and for a moment, you feel dirty, sullied. Like the feeling of dried blood under your fingernails that just won’t come out.
She doesn’t look at you as she brushes past you and she’s close enough to touch, but she inhales a slight breath of air as your shoulders nearly touch and you know she wouldn’t appreciate it. Far from it.
“I know we talked already.” You offer up. It’s yet another unwanted apology, and you almost turn back around the way you came, but then she actually answers. She takes a seat at the desk, she fiddles with something that looks like a small generator, a boring little thing, and she still doesn’t look at you, but she answers.
“We did.” Short and curt, but it’s words. You never learned what to do with them.
God, how you want to try.
“Did we finish?” The lights flicker, but Mortum doesn’t look up.
“It would seem not.” Her mind is as calm and controlled as still water and just as reflective, casting your own shadows back at you.
“You know what I did. And what I am.”
“Better than most, I should think.” You almost laugh at her dry words, but you manage to stop yourself in time.
“Definitely.” The word should be accompanied by a smirk, but instead, it’s a sigh.
Tired. Weary. Worn.
She’s finally seeing the wear and tear, even though she’s still refusing to look at you.
“Why are you here?” Her chair finally swivels around and you can’t help notice that her back is rigid, her face stiff and her hands still in her lap, legs crossed neatly.
“I don’t know.”
Because you want to be.
Because you have to be.
Because you need to be.
“Still pulling strings?” There should be another word at the end of that sentence, a teasing French endearment, but instead, there’s a question mark in more ways than one.
“I don’t even know anymore,” You admit, because what use is another white lie?
A silence, heavy and awkward, stretches on. So different from the argument where you had chased her down in a fit of desperation, because you are so incredibly selfish that you didn’t want that to be the end.
“Do you ever stop?”
“I don’t know when I started.” It’s the truth, but it feels like a slight lie. The words don’t sit well in your mouth and you grimace, your facial muscles sore and unused to anything but a passive mask.
She stands up, heels against floor and you don’t know whether you want to drown yourself in her eyes or die of thirst looking away.
Your cowardice wins out, as always.
You can’t help but flinch slightly at her slow approach, because she feels like a predator. Measured steps, slow breaths, eyes slightly narrowed with a million thoughts running through her head behind those glasses of hers.
A dark hand raised when she stops in front of you and it occurs to you that you’re leaning against one of the tables scattered about, covered with what would be random litter to the untrained eye. You know better.
Mortum knows where everything is. A personal sort of order that looks like chaos, a disordered maelstrom of tech and tools.
She knows exactly how dangerous she is.
There’s an unexpected thought that you catch slipping through her shields and you can feel that she’s aware of her own lack of focus, walls slamming down even harder than before.
She finds you fascinating.
There is no reasoning attached to the thought, too much of a stray to have much coherence behind it, but it makes sense.
The good doctor lives and breathes her science. That she would view you as an objectifiable specimen makes sense. It would be a way for her to distance herself from you, to keep you at an arm’s length and abstract from what you did to her. Logically, it makes sense.
Then again, if there’s one thing you’ve learned, it’s that your own logic rarely follows that of others’.
But what other explanation is there?
“If I may?” She glances up at you and you think you’ve stopped breathing, but you manage a slight, curt nod.
She’s seen your tattoos. She knows what you are.
You owe her another look if she wants it. You’ve seen so much of her, taken so much, done so much.
If it would make up for any of it, you’d throw yourself at her feet. Bared and broken.
She gives you a strange look as her hand lingers on your collar, as though she’s too hesitant to move towards the buttons. You can’t say you blame her.
Without a word, as though it’s a transaction
it’s not it’s a debt and it’s one you can never pay you undo the top buttons of the shirt, just enough for you to reach in and tug the top of your undershirt down as well. The feeling of open air hitting the skin of your chest is enough to send your pulse pounding instinctually.
It doesn’t help that her fingertips, scarred with what looks like acid burns and old cuts, ghost over your exposed collarbone. The top of your barcode is just barely visible and you can tell that her hand is tracing the horizontal edge at the top.
You can smell her soap, small drops of water still in her hair reflecting the artificial lights.
“Une oeuvre d'art, en effet...” She mutters, too lost in her own thoughts to realize that her words slipped out, and you don’t have the heart to tell her.
wrong wrong wrong
It’s very convenient that her words were in French. That way you can maybe persuade yourself that you didn’t understand her.
“I’m sorry,” You mutter, unbidden, and her hand lingers on your chest, the fingertips just barely touching the orange marks on you.
Apologies are hard for you. It’s an experience you’re painfully unfamiliar with. Maybe that’s why it feels frayed at the edges, out of place and blurted out at random.
“Je connais.” She yanks her hand back and your own hands immediately fly up to cover yourself. An automatic response, but one that still makes her frown and look away, coldness creeping back into her eyes. “Why did you do it?” She mutters and the question is too broad, covering too many subjects, because oh, how very many things you have done. How very many things you have burned to ash in your efforts to save some warmth for yourself.
“Do what?” You ask and it fells so hollow that you can’t suppress a small huff of hysterical laughter. Gallows’ humor.
There’s a pause and you’re surprised to find that it’s almost like she can’t find the words, something careful and incredibly hesitant in her eyes. They meet yours for just a second, but then they dart down to your hands covering your chest and you can’t help but button your shirt again. You feel too exposed, too vulnerable, but you’ve taken too many choices from her to not allow her control of the situation now.
“Ne me force pas à le dire.”
“Oh.” You don’t have to think too hard about what she means. You have no answer to offer either, not one that would satisfy either of you. Plenty of excuses, but no explanations. A grim smile flashes across your face, mad amusement in the face of your own doom. If only she knew how easily she could undo you.
With how clever she is, she has to realize it eventually, if she hasn’t already.
You find that you don’t really mind. Or care.
Since when was there a difference?
“Never mind that.” Mortum waves a hand at you and there’s a note of irritation in her voice that makes you cringe. She turns around again and you realize that, even though you had felt exposed under her touch, you feel desolate without it.
The moment has passed, the air is clear again and you feel goosebumps run down your spine.
“You should have shot me.” You hadn’t meant to voice the thought. You can see her tense and she actually stops on her way back to her seat, though she doesn’t turn back around. “You could have. Why didn’t you?”
“Maybe I couldn’t be bothered.”
“Bullshit.” You raise your voice before you have any idea what you’re doing, but somehow you’re angry, you’re angry and you hunger, old greed and new pain cutting wounds in you that her words strew salt in. “You… I was right there. You could have pulled that trigger with no effort whatsoever.”
“And what of it?” There’s something in her voice, simmering just below the surface. It’s dangerous. It’s familiar.
You hate how it calls to you, how it taunts and pulls you in by the throat, too helpless to resist.
“You wanted to. So why didn’t you?” There’s a bang and you jump, muscles already locked halfway into a defensive stance before it sinks in that it was the doctor’s palm slammed flat against the table.
“You refused to answer my question. I don’t see why I should extend you the courtesy.”
“Maybe the answers are the same.” Your words are bold, unwarranted.
You have no idea what you’re doing anymore.
“Would it change anything?” She looks back at you, cracks in her façade and you want to look away, though you know you couldn’t bear it if you did.
“Would it?” You deflect, an old habit, because you don’t know. The waters are too deep now and you’re only diving deeper.
There’s a brief, precious moment where she almost turns around again. A moment where she raises her hand and her hand almost, almost, reaches for your face, tracing the outline of your cheekbone without touching it.
“Je suis condamné,” She breathes and turns again, striding away, a certain finality to her every step.
You steadfastly ignore the feeling of light peeking through a cracked door that sends your head spinning. Hope is a frivolity you cannot allow yourself.
You’re left on the edge of a table, heartbeat embarrassingly quick, in the empty laboratory of the woman who could destroy you with a single word.
It takes you a while to get your bearings, longer than it should.
You’re supposed to be in enemy territory. Your training shouldn’t permit you this degree of vulnerability.
Letting yourself wait it out in silence feels like a victory and a defeat all at once.
The taste of it lingers in the back of your throat as you finally leave Mortum’s workplace, taking care to fix the touchpad on your way out.