Life is fucking stressful.
It only occurred to you during a brief moment of solitude how heavily the last two weeks have been weighing down on you. Things have been… wild. There’s been good to go with the bad, but it’s all been so non-stop. You need a break, a breather. You need a few hours not being bombarded by chaos.
So, here you are: sitting in the mediocre bar of the mediocre hotel that the NeoScum are calling home for the night, nursing a flat, room-temperature Coke that tastes like jack shit, because you bottled out of getting solo tipsy before you even walked into the room. Alcohol’s not your vice and you feel quietly embarrassed that you were going to pretend like it was.
You’re totally head-full-of-static zoned out when a hand taps you on the shoulder and brings you back to reality. Fully expecting it to be one of your fellow scummers, you turn around--
And it’s not a scummer.
You have to do a double take. She looks about as surprised to see you as you are to see her, like she didn’t quite believe it was actually going to be you sitting here. She’s not in armour, or any apparent uniform this time; just a plain shirt, jeans, boots.
The first words that fall out of your mouth are: “Holy shit,” followed promptly by: “No fucking way.”
“Are you following me again?” She smirks, and suddenly, nothing else matters; not the flashbacks, not the hackers, not 4GET, not Marco, not the fatigue of it all, because Aubrey is standing right here in front of you, and she shouldn’t be, because meeting her even once seemed impossible, but she is. Perhaps whatever powers-that-be that govern this shitty little world decided you’ve suffered enough lately to earn this.
"No," you blurt out, not initially registering the joke and only laughing when Aubrey does a second later. "I just-- What are you doing here?"
"End of the line. We dropped off our shipment, but I'm not headed home until tomorrow. Are you here for the night?"
"Yeah. We needed a break for a little bit."
"From driving, or from each other?" With one eyebrow raised, Aubrey glances around, like she’s expecting the rest of your crew to pop up at any second.
"Driving, but the latter would probably do us some good." You chuckle. "No, I just... needed some space for a minute."
"Is this a bad time? I can go, if you want me to."
"No! No." You shake your head quickly. God fucking no. "You can stay. It's fine."
"If you say so." She nods at the drink you still have one hand clasped around. "That any good?"
“It's just Coke. And no.” Having almost forgotten about it in the first place, you slide the drink back across the counter. You can cut your ¥3 loss on this one. You've got your head on a swivel as much as Aubrey, half expecting Pox or Dak or Tech to come sweeping in. It's not that you don't want them to know about Aubrey--Dak already kind of does--but… you want this time with her uninterrupted. There's so much you want to talk about. You love your fellow scummers, but they can be… overbearing, to say the least.
“You okay there?”
You only realise on blinking yourself back to reality that you'd zoned out again.
“Sorry. Yeah. I'm okay.” You press one hand to your head and sigh heavily. “The last few weeks have been. A lot. I think I'm just tired.”
There's silence for a moment, and then in the section of your vision unobstructed by your arm, you see Aubrey slide into one of the bar stools beside you.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Yes, is the resounding answer in your head. Yes, yes, yes, absolutely, because if anyone is going to understand anything about what's going on in your brain, it's going to be her. It has to be her. If only saying all of that was as easy as thinking it.
“Not here,” you answer, finally, straightening up and throwing another glance around the room. It’s not busy, per se, but there are still people around. More than you’re comfortable with. There are too many people following you, too many who’ve managed to track your location against the odds. You’re not risking that. There’s another pause from Aubrey, and then:
You make tentative-but-hopeful eye contact.
“If you want.”
"As long as you don't turn on me and try anything stupid." She winks, flashes one of her guns for just a second, and you’re smiling, already hopping off your chair to follow her out to the elevator in the lobby.
Two minutes later, she’s swiping you into her room--one that looks a lot less like four idiots have gone to town on it and made a mess of the place, probably because four idiots haven’t gone to town on it and made a mess of the place.
"Take the chair, if you want," Aubrey says, waving a hand over at the small armchair by the window with a few items of clothing folded on the seat. "You can move the clothes. Or sit on the bed. Whatever."
Is taking the bed a little much? It feels like a little much, but she did offer. You stare intently at the chair for a moment, but when you start walking you find yourself veering left, towards the bed, where Aubrey has already thrown herself down with her head against the headboard. Alright. This is what we’re doing. To be fair, given the company you keep, this is the last thing you should have hang-ups about.
It’s Aubrey who speaks first, as you plop down beside her and get yourself comfy with a pillow behind your head. "Long few weeks, then, huh?"
"Don't get me started." You groan and drag your hands down your face. "Or do, I guess, since that's why I'm here."
"What are you even doing? What got you into this mess?"
"A lot of things. Let's just say our crew has some... baggage. I told you, a lot of people are angry at us. It'd take me ten years to explain it all. Honestly, that might not even be the worst part. It’s all the other stupid shit that keeps happening while we’re trying to avoid them."
“Lonestar. Technomancers. Overzealous dragon worshippers. Some freaky cyborg bison things--that was bad. Let’s not get into that. It just feels like every time we’re back on our feet, something else decides to punch us in the dick. We’ve gone days without sleeping properly sometimes. We keep getting hurt. Someone stole all our gas the other day.” You scrub at your face with your hands again. “I mean, we’re okay, or about as okay as we can be right now, but it’s like--it’s just a lot. Overwhelming.”
"...Yeah, sounds like," Aubrey says. You can’t tell if she sounds impressed or concerned. Both? Probably both. “You’re… safe now, though, right? You’ve seen medics?”
“Tech’s a wizard, and Pox can do some first aid.”
“And you can defend yourselves?”
“Oh, God, yeah,” you laugh. “Don’t worry. We have that covered. Maybe a little too covered.”
Apparently satisfied with the answer, the smile returns to Aubrey’s face. "So, you do--what, decker stuff? You look like a decker."
You roll your eyes and gesture to the back of your head. "Oh, what, is it all this stuff on display?"
"No--You could grow your hair out!"
“Nope. I tried. There’s not enough of it and it just looks fuckin’ stupid. But yeah, I do ‘decker stuff’. Still pretty handy with one of these, though,” you finish, raising your hand and flicking out your one remaining machine pistol for a second.
"But..." Aubrey hesitates, though you know what’s coming: "You don't remember anything? From training?"
"...No." You shake your head slowly. It’s not totally untrue. "I know what to do. I know the motions. I just don't remember how I learned any of it."
“...Hm.” She just… looks away for a minute, then turns back to you and props her head up against one hand. "What's the run, right now?"
"Are you sure you're not gonna rat me out to Lonestar?"
"No!" Aubrey laughs in response to the sly grin you shoot her. "You could probably run rings around them."
"Already have, and definitely will again. I don't know, it's some big fucking... pod thing. Dak's the one who took on the job, and he didn't tell us much about it. It gives me the creeps."
“Why?” Loaded question. Measured answer.
"It just does. It's cold. We're apparently not allowed to open it under any circumstances. I think there might be liquid in there? I don't know. We've had a couple of close calls with Lonestar. They didn't give us any papers for it or anything, so, you know, that's helpful."
"So it's definitely, like, a bunch of organs in there, right?" Aubrey grins wickedly, and you find yourself laughing, trying to ignore the chill in your spine that comes with her uncomfortably close guess as to the contents of the pod, if the doctor at the IASSD hospital had correctly identified it.
"Whatever. I just want it gone. We're ditching it the second we get to LA, we get our payout, and then we're on vacation." You slide down against the pillows until you’re almost lying flat on the bed and heave a heavy sigh. "Or, we're supposed to be. I don't know how likely that is right now, but us being us, we'll figure it out." You let your head roll lazily to the left to look over at Aubrey. "I bet it's nice having legal work sometimes, huh?"
"Technically, it's not," she huffs, rolling her eyes. "All of my ID is based on false documents. But I got lucky. The corp I work for was willing to overlook that when they found out. They like me too much to let me go." That ever-present self-assured smile quickly returns to her lips. "I'm a real ace up the sleeve for them."
“What were you bringing in this time?”
“Hey, I signed NDAs, okay?” She reaches over to jab you in the side, and succeeds, despite your attempt to bat her hand away. “My hands are tied.”
“I thought they liked you too much to fire you?”
“They like me enough not to care that there’s no record of me existing before I was seventeen. They do care about me breaking legally binding contracts.”
“Okay, okay.” You hold your hands up, having to concede this one. “I can respect that.”
“You’re right, though,” she adds. “Probably beats smuggling contraband with every idiot in the country with a gun trying to put bullets in our heads. You should give it a try.”
“I’m good, thanks,” you answer, and the look of distaste on your face has her snorting. “You’re not gonna catch me going anywhere near corp work any time soon. Or ever.”
“Suit yourself. I mean, I get it. We--people like you and me--weren’t exactly set up to live normal lives.”
You pause, briefly, considering your next question for a moment before deciding to take the plunge and ask it.
“You said there were others with you when you got away.” Aubrey nods slowly. “You don’t have contact with them at all anymore?”
She shakes her head.
“Do you ever wonder where they are?”
“...Sometimes.” She looks away, at the wall opposite the bed. “Not a lot. I don’t--I don’t know if I want to know what happened to them.” An all-too-familiar sentiment.
“...Yeah. I know the feeling. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d want to know anyone from back then, before I met you. I still don’t know if I do. But you were right there, and I felt like I just… had to. It was too much of an opportunity to pass up.”
“Do you regret it?”
“No.” You look up at her as she brings her gaze back to meet yours. “Do you?”
She purses her lips, but can’t stop a faint smile from creeping back onto her face.
It's quiet, out on the balcony. Quiet is something you’ve lost touch with over the past few weeks. It feels strange to sit there alone in the open air, with no company but the hum of traffic on the other side of the building, on the roads across from you. Quiet was something you had frequently, once, not long ago at all, but now, when you look back on it, it feels so weird to have existed that way.
It almost feels kind of lonely.
Any semblance of loneliness is swept away when you hear the door behind you slide open; Aubrey pads out onto the balcony and takes a seat beside you.
"Hey," she says, swinging her legs through the bars like you have. Her hair, still wet from her shower, is pulled back in a ponytail, exposing her implants; anything stray or too short to be tied back clings damply to the almost-bare sides of her head. "Having fun on your own out here?"
You laugh. "I’m fine. I was just... thinking. About how quiet it is. I don't get a lot of that, these days, not when we're all packed in the truck, or a motel room, or whatever. I mean, I used to, but..." You trail off. The conversation is headed in a sombre direction you're not sure you want to take it. "Y'know. It's... I don't know." There's a brief pause, and then:
"No, go on." Aubrey cocks her head slightly. "If you want to." You hesitate for a moment before continuing.
"I've only spent, what, two, three weeks with these guys? I mean, Dak I've known for a lot longer, and we did some shit in Seattle--we did some shit in Seattle--but Pox, and Tech. And living with other people is not something I've ever really done. Not willingly. I don't know that I could say I got into this willingly, actually, but-- Point is, I’ve been on my own all this time, thinking I wanted it to be that way, and it'd always be that way, and it's just. Weird. Because I don't think I want to go back to that, anymore."
Your uncharacteristic outpouring has brought a lump to your throat, and you stare down at your hands, fingers half-mindedly fidgeting with one another. You remember what you wrote: what you said, what you didn't, what you've already gone back on, what you might do as soon as within the next few minutes, if the conversation so far is indicative of how the rest of your night is going to play out.
"You won't. Trust me. I was the exact same." You glance at Aubrey, and she's staring out over the buildings, her head resting against the balustrade. "Once I left... the others, I thought that was it. I didn't want to know anyone. I couldn't trust anyone. I was just... convinced C&C were gonna come after me, and I couldn't take that risk. I couldn't go back to that, even if it meant treating everyone and everything as a threat. Maybe it was justified. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know."
She tilts her head and makes eye contact with you. "You probably had your fair share of unsavoury characters to run from, too, I guess."
"Yeah. I... Yeah." The last two years of your life have been you fighting your way through unfamiliar territory, never really knowing who you can place your trust in. You’ve made a lot of mistakes in that time.
"But then something changes, right?" she continues, turning her gaze back to the cityscape. "You find new people, or a new place, or whatever it takes. You spend your life thinking that isolating yourself is the only option, like you're supposed to be able to cope with it, like it's sustainable, and then you--you just--"
"Something just clicks."
"Right. Like I said, I've been doing this for a couple of weeks, and I had this moment the other day that was just like, 'Oh, this is what I should be doing. This is where I'm meant to be.'"
"Exactly! You get a job, or you start spending time with the right people, or you move to the right city, and you realise that there's... there's a place in the world for you."
She grins, and a warmth spreads through your chest. It's something like the first time you met, only better, stronger, swelling in your heart. This is where I'm meant to be. This is another one of those things you never thought you wanted or needed, but now that you have it, now that you're out here, on this balcony, with--with whatever the fuck this is that you two have--you're getting that feeling again, like you just found another piece of something within yourself that you didn't even know was incomplete.
There's silence again for a minute, but not an uncomfortable one. You let your hands settle in your lap and lean into the balustrade, staring down at the several-storey drop that opens up beneath you. You wonder, briefly, if the others have managed to keep from accidentally killing anyone in your absence, but a lack of notifications on your AR feed puts the concern to rest.
"What are you gonna do after this run?"
The question catches you completely off-guard, and you scramble to pull together an answer. It's... difficult.
"I... I don't know."
"You said you were gonna be on vacation in LA, right?" Aubrey brings one leg up, resting her foot on the edge of the balcony, her elbow on her knee, and her head against her hand. "Lucky you, making the big bucks with your weird box of corpses or whatever."
You scoff and try to set aside the discomfort that comes with even thinking about the pod. "Yeah, sure, lucky. For what we're doing, the pay isn't even that great, and the vacation is probably gonna have to wait until we've convinced people to stop trying to murder us."
"By murdering them back?"
"That's usually how it plays out."
"Are they chasing you, or what?"
"I mean, yeah, basically."
"You never did explain any of that. Who’s after you? What did you do? "
You laugh, because that’s the only thing you can do in the face of a question like that.
"Where do I fuckin’ start? Well, we were supposed to do some death races in Indianapolis, except we forgot, because we were in Chicago, so the guy organising that got pissed off, and he already kinda hated us for getting his top racer’s jaw blown off. Not strictly our fault, but that’s another story. Anyway, turns out that Dak has just about every gang in Chicago after his head, so we had to bail, and death race guy sent a bunch of his goons after us after the no-show thing. Then--"
It strikes you that you’re on the brink of divulging possibly the most sensitive part of the whole ordeal. You run a quick flowchart in your head and decide that, yes, it’s safe for Aubrey to know, and a quick matrix sweep tells you there's no suspicious devices around that might pick up your conversation, but you lower your voice anyway, in case any eavesdroppers happen to be loitering on the adjacent balconies.
“Sorry. So, 4GET are after us, because of… some reasons. The owner is Pox’s dad, and he’s dead set on dragging her back to England. I don’t… know, exactly, what he wants to do with her, but I know it’s not good, and he’s happy for the rest of us to die if it means getting her back.” You can literally see Aubrey’s expression grow more and more shocked with every single word, and it’s just now hitting you how absolutely batshit insane your situation is.
“That’s Pox’s deal, and there’s a bounty out for all of us on Darkmovers in the Denver area, courtesy of 4GET chairman himself. Death race guy started working with him after we killed most of his guys. We maaaybe killed a bunch of Devil Girls, too, so they have it out for us. Oh, and Dak got himself kicked out of the Truckers’ Guild or League or whatever it is, so they’re liable to attack us on sight.”
Aubrey blinks slowly.
“Is that everything?”
“It’s most of it.”
“What the fuck, Zenith? What are you gonna do? ”
"Pox is convinced she's gonna kill her dad, and I think we're all fine with that. He's also holding her sister captive, so we’ve gotta get her out while we’re taking care of him. At some point we need to go back to Denver, because Tech has some family issue with the mayor, and Dak wants to get his kid back from the technomancers there. Kinda my fault he got caught up with them in the first place, actually. Aside from that? I don’t know. We’re just taking each day as it comes."
"You're fucking crazy, you know that?" she laughs, disbelievingly, shaking her head. "You're gonna kill the owner of one of the biggest megacorps on the planet, and then what? What do you think is gonna happen? What does your life look like after that?"
It's your turn to stare vacantly as you try to summon an answer and come up with... nothing. Your life has never existed more than a few days into the future. This is no different.
"I never really thought that far ahead."
"Clearly." Another sigh; another pause. Aubrey drops her leg back over the edge of the balcony and hunches her shoulders. You can’t tell if she’s… angry? Worried? Uncomfortable? "And-- You're still chasing C&C?"
"Yeah." You nod slowly. "Did you--did you know they have another company?"
“Legacy of Adam?”
“You know them?”
She snorts. “They trained us. How did you find that one out?”
"The technomancers in Denver. I don't know if you've ever been through there, but their whole matrix setup is... the wildest thing I’ve ever seen. You have to let them know everything about you just to use it. They knew everything about me, even stuff that I didn't know." That lump is back in your throat; you try to swallow it down to no avail. "They can get at all the things in my head that I can't even get at."
"And that's all they gave you? That name?"
"Yeah. That, C&C, and--" You stop, abruptly, mid-sentence. You never told anyone else what you saw. If anything, you've tried to forget it entirely; it didn’t seem useful, it didn’t explain anything. But there it is again, now, in the forefront of your mind, so clear you can almost hear the metal scraping the inside of your skull.
"Surgery." The next thing you know, you're clinging to the balustrade, shaking, metal rattling against metal, and the ground beneath you is twisting, spinning, falling away. You cover your mouth with your free hand, but you don't think it would do much against the tide of vomit threatening to rise up your throat. "Fuck. I remember being in surgery. I was awake. Fuck. Shit. Fuck. "
"Zenith--" In a flash, Aubrey is crawling over to you, and her hands are on your shoulders, the weight of her body pressed into yours as she sits behind you. "Breathe, okay? Come on."
Okay. Breathe. You can do that. You're already doing that, taking in short, sharp, shallow pants, but that's probably not what she means. You force yourself to inhale deeply instead, willing your body as hard as you possibly can not to empty the contents of your stomach onto some unsuspecting stranger six storeys down, and it works, kind of. You can still feel the dead weight of your limbs and the heavy fuzz of sedatives juxtaposed with the ice cold precision of steel on flesh, but it's duller, now; not quite so visceral. Your hands slowly fall back into your lap and you press your forehead to the bars, trying to focus instead on the here and the now: the warm air, the feeling of your legs hanging in open space, Aubrey's hands on your shoulders--No, she has her arms wrapped around you, now, with her head settled on your shoulder, and she's talking again.
You're convinced you're just going to start screaming the second you try to talk, the way the sound of your own shrieking is still ringing in your ears. It's a surprise--and a relief--when you don't.
"It's fine." Your mouth feels like the fucking Sahara Desert. Bile is still burning in the back of your throat. "It's not your fault."
"No. I'm sorry you had to go through it in the first place. None of us should have. It's not--It's not fair." You look down at her, because now her voice is wavering, and she's not looking at you (maybe deliberately), but you swear you can see tears glisten in the corner of her eye. "It's not fair. We deserved better than that."
Hearing her voice crack is like being punched in the sternum.
You manage to slide an arm in between the two of you, around her, pulling her into your side. You're 99% sure she's crying, judging by the way she keeps sniffling, which is fine, because you're crying, too, and for once, you don't hate yourself for it.
"You're right," you whisper. "We did."
The two of you just sit there like that for you-don't-know how long. Despite the circumstances, like earlier lulls in conversation, it isn't uncomfortable. It’s natural, almost. If you were going to talk about this to anyone, be upset about this with anyone, cry over this with anyone, then it seems only fitting it should be with her. With one of your own. Emotional intimacy is far from your realm of experience, and you’ve never been great at comforting people, but this? This feels like you’re doing enough. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. For you, it’s as close to catharsis as you’ve ever come. Despite everything, you feel… at peace.
She sits up, eventually, prying herself away from you to wipe at her eyes. You do the same, heaving a deep sigh and noting that the nausea from the flashback is gone, mostly. The first time around, you'd been too preoccupied with Max and with how you were going to keep Dak from ripping your head off with his bare hands to really process it. Maybe that was for the best.
"It's just bullshit," Aubrey says, flatly, sticking her legs back through the bars and wrapping her arms loosely around herself. "I didn't ask to be like this. We didn't ask to be like this."
"You're kind of preaching to the choir, here."
"I know! I just--" She stops, closes her eyes, exhales slowly, then opens them again. "And you don't know what we did to people."
Your stomach coils into a tight knot again as a more recent flashback comes into focus.
"I have an idea."
"They told you about that, too?"
You shake your head slowly. "No. I got that one on my own. I remember... there was a campsite, and--" Your voice falters unexpectedly, and as your hands ball into fists, Aubrey reaches over and places one of hers on your arm.
"Don't. You don't have to." You just barely nod and unclench your hands as hers retreats.
"It's not like anyone would set me up with cybernetics like this for good reasons, anyway," you say, quietly. For a minute, there's no answer.
"Zenith?" she asks, still not making eye contact.
"Do me a favour. If you find whoever's at the top of all of this: kill them. Kill all of them." You don't know how to respond. It might happen regardless of what she asks, given your track record, but with so little to go on--no idea who these people are, where they are, what this company does--all you can do is give an uncertain nod.
"I mean it." Aubrey glances over at you. She looks tired. Angry, but tired. "Get rid of them. I don't know if they're still making people like us, but it has to stop. I don't want anyone else being subjected to this."
This time, your nod carries more conviction. The image in your head of countless other people, countless other children, being forced through what you endured is more than enough to win you over. "Yeah. Yeah, okay. I'll stop it. If I can find them."
"If anyone can do it, it’s probably you," she says, laughing weakly and rubbing at the corner of her eye again. “It sounds like you guys already love putting yourselves in danger.”
"Yeah, we have a habit of doing that, whether we mean to or not." As she smiles, so do you. Just a little bit. "I'm gonna get to the bottom of this, one way or another. If I can do any kind of damage control, I will. I promise."
"Thank you," Aubrey says, stopping to clear her slightly-hoarse voice. "Hey, look, it's late, and I'm pretty tired, so-- Are you planning on going back to your friends?"
You shrug, feigning nonchalance, though the thought is more disappointing than you want to admit.
"I can, if you want."
"Do you want to stay here?"
"Do you want me to stay here?"
"I wouldn't hate it." Aaaand that disappointment is gone. She's pulling her legs back through the bars and getting to her feet, and you do the same, following her back into the room and sliding the balcony door shut.
You ping one message into the NeoScum group chat:
You are fourteen years old.
The sun beats down oppressively hot on the concrete just feet away, but you take refuge in the cool shadow of one of the warehouses looming around you. They stand in imposing rows that seem to go on for miles in every direction.
More specifically, you're beneath a metal staircase. You need to--it takes a moment for you to remember--you need to check and see if anyone is nearby. You pop your drone out to peer around the corners, and find nothing. With the drone back in place and having verified that it's safe to move, you pry yourself away from the wall to get a better look at the stairs. They lead up to a platform with a door that you know you have to go through. There's a lock, but zooming in, it looks like it's digital, so you can crack it.
The steel framework barely makes a sound as you breeze up it, and the lock breaks almost instantly, allowing you onto the walkway on the other side. Nobody else is up here, but you immediately lock onto several targets below, walking among the rows of huge crates that line the floor. They’re armed, but don't seem to have noticed the door open. You're smiling. This should be child's play.
You flick out your guns and open fire.
Everything changes in a split second. You dispatch the first few with ease as the room fills with shouting and the blaring of alarms. You have to dodge some return fire, but they're panicking and their aim suffers for it. Now that they know your position, though, they're taking cover, forcing you to move ahead to be able to target the ones that remain. You have no choice, they're going to keep firing whether you stay or go, and if you rush them then you might be able to pick them off before they have a chance to--
A bullet strikes you squarely in the stomach and sends you reeling backwards. You hit the barrier of the walkway. You tip. You fall.
You hit the dusty floor hard, and with a terrible, sickening bursting sensation somewhere in your abdomen that brings with it a searing flood of pain. Winded, disoriented and deafened by the cacophony going on around you, you try to pick yourself up from the ground anyway. You fucked up. You can't stay here. Blood is spilling out of a tear in the front of your uniform (you don't want to know what it looks like underneath) and mixing with the chalky dirt under your hands. Alarms are still going off. There are still people with guns who want to fucking kill you and you have to get out now before they make good on that wish.
You try to stand up straight but you can't. As soon as you do, pain rips through your stomach again and you double over, staggering and landing against the nearby wall. Except there's not just a wall. There's a--there's a door? Was there always a door? You don't know. It doesn't make sense but there's a fucking door and you throw yourself at the release bar with all the strength you can muster; it gives easily, flying open and spitting you back outside into the blinding sunlight where you trip and promptly crumple back into a heap on the ground. The sun is so fucking bright, you can't see anything, and it's hot, burning your skin even through your uniform--
No. The burning isn't coming from the outside.
"No." You say it aloud this time. You try to look up, but the sun: even with your drone, it drowns everything. You can feel the warning heat, the prickling feeling of thousands of tiny needles brushing the inside of your skin, taunting you, and you can't do this, not again, you don't deserve this-- "No, no, please, don't do it, please, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry-- "
It hits, and all you can do is scream.
You're still writhing when you run out of air and your throat is raw, and it still feels like you're being eaten alive from the inside, and you don't know why it's lasting this long because it shouldn't last this long and you just want it to stop but it won't; everything is dirt and blood and pain and it shouldn't be, this isn't right, this isn't your life, you left this behind, this isn’t happeningitisn’thappening
You are twenty-three years old. You are in a hotel somewhere in southeast Utah, and the sun has barely risen.
The first thing you do is sit bolt upright, because if you don't you're always scared you'll either choke on your own puke or fall back asleep and relive the whole thing all over again. Neither has ever happened, but the fear is there.
You glance to your right, and are reminded that you’re not alone. Sharing beds isn’t an unfamiliar phenomenon on the road, but this is an exceptional case. You look at Zenith and you feel a seething jealousy like nothing else you have ever felt in your life.
What you would give to wipe your mind clean.
Thinking about it isn't helping with the nausea, so you turn away and try to ground yourself with some deep breathing instead. It doesn't do much, but it’s better than nothing. The images remain lodged in your head and every fibre of your being still aches, right down to your bones. There's painkillers in the bathroom but you don't trust your legs not to fold under you if you try to stand; your mind and body will have to battle that one out for a while. Besides, moving might wake Zenith, and you don't know if you're ready for that.
For now, you're stuck there. You can feel the burn in your stomach where the bullet hit and you have to press your hands to your intact abdomen just to remind yourself that it never happened, it wasn't real, you're not hurt, despite the lies your nervous system is telling you. It doesn't help. Eventually, the pain outweighs your fear of awkward conversations or not being able to walk; you tentatively lower your feet to the floor and rise from the bed.
It's like you've run a marathon, the way your muscles hurt, but you don't collapse, so that's something. You've felt worse. Zenith doesn't stir, either. Thank God. You grab a half-empty water bottle from the nightstand and take a swig as you pace the length of the room a few times, hoping the movement might release some of the tension and relieve the pain on its own. It does, kind of, but not enough. Pills it is, then. You try not to look at your reflection in the bathroom mirror as you knock them back. You already know you look like shit. You don't need to come face-to-face with the fact.
You hover in the doorway, then, unsure of what to do with yourself. Your mind is screaming at you to get out of this horrible little room, to go outside, let the cold air whip the heat away from your skin, to walk until you can believe the pain is just exhaustion, but Zenith is still sleeping and you don't want to disappear on hir.
So, you have to compromise. You dip back into the bathroom and run the sink full of cold water. It gives you goosebumps as you splash it over your face and the back of your neck, but as you stand there, leaning over the countertop, water droplets running down off your nose and chin, you're grateful for some other sensation to focus on that isn't pain. This hurts less, you guess, than forcing yourself through a three-mile trek to nowhere, but the bathroom is cramped and claustrophobic. You can't stand it much longer, and you don't. You pull the plug on the sink and step back out into the main room, where you find yourself pacing again.
It isn't a whole lot better than the bathroom. The water dries and the burning comes back. It's quiet, too fucking quiet, and your brain fills in the silence with its own ambient noise: gunfire, alarms, shouting. You reach for some other memory, something better to drown it out, but the shouting turns into screaming and the alarms turn into sirens and the heat you feel is roaring flame and you can't, you can't fucking do this, you need to get out. You spin 180 degrees and beeline towards the balcony door, hands shaking as you pry it open. If Zenith wakes up, you'll just have to fucking deal with it.
You gasp as the fresh air hits, like your lungs have been filled with smoke this whole time and you can finally breathe again. You drink it down in huge gulps, staring out over the city. Though many of the tower blocks are dark, electronic billboards and neon signs affixed to the buildings around you still illuminate the streets below. The horizon is tinted peach and glowing with pale yellow light. The silence is broken by the hum of early traffic. A light breeze tickles at your bare legs and the steel floor of the balcony is icy cold on the soles of your feet; you can already feel it sapping the heat away. This is better. Not much, but better.
God, you are so tired.
Sleeping with Aubrey is weird, when you’ve gotten used to having at least one other person burrowing into your side or splayed out half-on top of you. She sleeps like you: flat on her back, hands at rest on her chest, barely moving. You kind of miss being dogpiled, the sounds of the people around you shifting and mumbling and sometimes doing much weirder things that you could maybe do without, but provide that sense of familiarity all the same.
But it's comfortable. You still fall asleep easily. There's still a warm body beside you and it's enough just to have her there.
You wake early, as usual, but rather than being met with two-maybe-three sleeping people (depending on whether or not Dak is taking a nap, and whether he's wandered off if he isn't) and the prospect of an hour or so of uninterrupted DragonStorm time, you instead find Aubrey, already awake. She's sitting upright, with her back to you. Not doing anything. Just... sitting. Initially, in your sleep inertia-addled state, you think nothing of it, but as you blink your way into full consciousness, you sense something is amiss.
When she finally moves, your eyes snap shut and you try your absolute hardest to look like you're still sleeping. You can feel her rise from the bed, hear her pad back and forth around the room for a minute. Pacing. She goes into the bathroom. She comes out. She goes back in. You hear the tap running and the splashing of pooled water, and then the gurgling of it draining away. She exits again and paces for a little longer before you hear the balcony door slide open and a cool breeze drifts over your face.
Just barely letting your drone flare to life, you confirm that she's out of sight before opening your eyes fully and sitting up a little. The sheets on her side are still rumpled, carelessly flung off her body and not laid back in place. You wait for a few minutes, catching up on your comm notifications to pass the time--fortunately, it's been a quiet night, with the most prominent message being one from Dak telling you to "be safe" and "don't get pregnant" ("especially if she's one of those Twilight vampires")--before finally caving to the urge to check on Aubrey and rising from the bed.
It's a little chilly outside this early, especially stepping onto the metal floor of the balcony, and you wish you'd put socks on or something, but whatever. You'll live. The sun will clear the buildings on the horizon soon. She's sitting, not with her legs through the bars this time, but crossed, hunched in on herself like she was on the bed. You both know that she knows you're there, but she offers no acknowledgement, leaving you hovering just outside the door until you close the distance and kneel beside her.
"Hey," you say, softly, reaching out to place a hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
The second your hand makes contact she flies into action, grabbing you by the wrist and twisting your arm into submission. If it weren't so early, you might have reacted in kind, but all you can do is blink, stunned by it. She stares at you, wide-eyed like a frightened animal, her gaze flicking between your face and your arm for a second before her expression softens slightly and she pulls her hand back, tucking it back against her side.
"Sorry," she mumbles, breaking eye contact. "I just... I just--"
"It's okay." You fall back into a sitting position much like hers, legs crossed. "Is it-- What did you--" You're struggling to find the wording. "Are you okay?" you repeat, again, finally. "Did something happen?"
"No. It's just... dreams. It happens. It's fine." She doesn't look fine at all.
"Are you sure?"
You get no answer, and you don't press her for one. Instead, you glance up at the sliver of sun breaking over the rooftops of the skyscrapers. There's just silence and that unspoken connection between the two of you that seems to be present so often, both nebulous and crystal clear in its messages all at once.
"I wish I didn't remember," she says, eventually. "I wish I could forget it all. I don't want to know. Maybe then I could at least argue that it wasn't really me. You're lucky."
"No, shut up. " Her head whips around to look at you; there's fire in her eyes. "Just shut up, okay? You are lucky. I don't know why you're so fucking hellbent on unearthing any of this shit. You don't have to remember everything they did to us. You don't have to remember everything we did. I have to live every fucking day, Zenith--I have to act like I wasn't brought into the world just to fucking shoot people. I have to act like I don't remember them cutting my arms out of my body and putting a cyberdeck in my brain while I was still conscious. I have to act like they didn't groom me as a kid to be a fucking--a terrorist, a weapon, like I wasn’t even a person. And all those things I did? I liked doing them! I fucking bombed buildings, and I--I torched entire street blocks, and I killed people, killed other kids, and I wanted to do it, like it was--like it was some kind of game. It made me happy. It's fucked up and I hate it. I--I fucking hate it so much."
Any anger that had initially started to boil within you freezes solid when her voice starts to break. By the end of the outburst, she's shaking, and then--then, she just collapses in on herself, crying, bawling in a way you could never have imagined her doing up until now. With your heart in your throat you reach out to touch her again; she initially pushes you away, but it's a weak attempt, and on the second try she offers no resistance as you wrap your arms tightly around her and draw her in close to you. She presses her face into the crook of your neck, and you lay your cheek against the top of her head.
She just cries for a while, and you don't say anything. You don't feel like you should, or that you can. Guilt coils in your stomach, but it fades as Aubrey's sobs do, until her wailing has diminished into quiet sniffling into your shirt.
"I'm sorry," you find the courage to say, eventually. She shakes her head a little bit and mumbles:
"It's fine." It's not, and you know it, but neither of you wants to argue, so you just squeeze her gently.
"I don't think it's your fault."
"How is it not? "
"You didn't have a choice. About doing what they said."
"I could have said no."
"I know what they did if you tried." You can feel her tense against you, like she's momentarily reliving the experience.
"...It hurt," she whispers--whines, almost, strained, like air creaking through an old metal pipe. "If I didn't listen, if I got it wrong, they--It hurt so much."
"I know." You draw in a deep breath as the memory of the campsite flashes through your mind again. "I remember it, too."
There's a short pause. And then:
"Maybe that's what we were happy about," you say quietly. "Not what we were doing. Just that we were pleasing them."
"Does that make it any better?"
"I don't know. We were just kids. We didn't know better. We didn’t understand." Are you trying to justify it to her, or to yourself? You press your face into her hair, breathing in deep the scent of shampoo that lingers from the previous night. The delayed impact of what you now know of her past and what it means for your own is finally hitting, and you feel sick again. Bombs, terrorism, arson. The forest, warm and humid and rattling with gunfire that soaks the damp ground in blood. Pain: pain that permeates your whole body, every nerve, every cell. A punishment. A reminder.
Not good enough. Not good enough.
You did all of that, and they still wanted more. How much worse did you do? How much farther did they push you?
Does your remorse now really mean anything?
You don't realise how hard you're gripping Aubrey until she grunts and tries to wriggle free of your grasp, at which point you return to reality and loosen your hold on her.
"Sorry," you say, and wow, you were not prepared for how obviously your voice shakes when you speak, or the fact that tears are already rolling down your cheek. Aubrey just watches for a few seconds, and then she opens her arms for you: now it’s your turn to lean into her, your own arms folded tight against your body, the vision in your right eye blurring,
And you just let go. You kind of knew, because you said it yourself--that nobody would kit you out the way you are for anything good--and you saw what you did to the campsite; but to face the confirmation, the undeniable reality of your fears--
You’re somewhere else. You can see bodies. Not bodies of people you know, like your dreams sometimes lay out for you. Not bodies of anyone you’ve killed recently. Not bodies of anyone you even remember ever seeing. But they’re there, tens of them, and there’s blood everywhere and your shoulders hurt and your uniform is clinging to your clammy skin.
It lasts mere seconds, but the vision makes you want to scream and shout and ask why, why did they make you do this? For what fucking purpose? What was so fucking important to them that it was worth bending your entire life to suit their desires?
Why do you have to live with the weight of guilt for the actions of someone you never wanted to be?
You press your face into Aubrey’s chest. For now, the rest of the world does not exist. Your whole world is here, on this balcony, with the one person who knows your life, understands your trauma, and she has trauma of her own, and maybe she hasn't dealt with it any better than you have, but she's here and she gets it and that’s all you need right now. Maybe it’s another one of those things you’ve needed for a long time: somewhere for everything to just come out. And boy, does it fucking come out. It pours and pours and pours until you have nothing left and your chest aches.
"You had no idea, did you?" she whispers. There's no need for her to elaborate. You can't speak. You only shake your head, and she says nothing more; she pulls you in closer, slides one hand up to stroke the back of your neck, and kisses the top of your head. It’s better than anything she could have said.
Even when you finally stop shaking, Aubrey makes no attempt to move. You’re glad for it. The sun has cleared the skyline by now, the rays beginning to creep onto the edge of the balcony and bringing with them some welcome warmth that radiates through the metal. You're aware that, as it climbs higher into the sky, every minute brings you closer to having to leave Aubrey to rejoin the other scummers. Right now, you want to stay frozen in this moment forever. Her hand squeezes your side gently as she adjusts her position, but she may as well be squeezing your heart.
“Do you ever feel like--” She starts, but falters, her fingertips idly rubbing at your side. “No, it's… stupid. It's not anything. It's.. no.”
“No, what is it?” You tilt your head up slightly to look at her, but she’s avoiding eye contact again.
“It’s like--” Another mid-sentence stop, and she turns her head and stares off into the distance for a few moments before trying again. “Like you’re still just little kid,” she says, finally, quietly, struggling to keep her voice level. “And you don’t know how you’re supposed to get on with your life like a fucking--like a fucking normal person? Because everything you’ve ever known is so fundamentally at odds with how everyone else lives, and you never learned how to deal with the world, and it feels like--like you’re never really going to get away. Like they’re always going to control you.” She pauses. “God, what am I saying? They-- You don’t…”
You are so, so drained. But your body manages to summon a few more tears from somewhere.
“No,” you manage to croak back. “I--I think I get it.” She looks down at you, one eye bloodshot, the other dim, but averts her gaze slightly before speaking again.
“Everything is so fucking scary all the time,” she whispers. “And I can’t even tell anyone why.”
“You’ve--” You stumble, just because the words feel weird in your mouth, but: “You’ve got me.”
She says nothing more. She presses her face into your hair instead, and you can feel her shudder a couple of times, sniffle once or twice. You bring a hand up and rub her leg gently.
The sun continues to rise.
"You probably have to go soon, don't you?" she asks quietly, after a little while. You stare at the ground, at the sunlight that now bathes half of the balcony and is lapping at your legs.
"Probably," you agree, but you make no effort to move. She senses your reluctance to leave, proving it with her next question.
"Well, you technically don't have to, right?" Before you can respond, she sighs and shakes her head. "Sorry, that was… Jesus. Pretend I didn’t say that. Of course you do."
"No, it's… fine.” You sigh, too. "But I can't leave them. They need me, and... I need them. And I still have work to do."
"You have to..."
"Yeah." You let your eyes fall shut briefly. You don't want to spark another argument. Perhaps the blessing of the state you're both in is that neither of you has the energy left to do so. She could come with you, you think, but you can the idea as quickly as it occurred. She has a home, a job, a life to return to. Even if you asked, you know she would turn you down. She wants no part in your mission. You know this.
“Zenith,” she whispers. “If you do this, you’re--You’re gonna find some things out that are gonna be really difficult.”
“...I know,” you say, hesitating before responding. “Trust me, I… I know. I never thought this would be easy.” Aubrey nods and rests her head on top of yours.
"Just stay safe out there," she murmurs, and then she punctuates it by kissing your temple softly. You almost can’t cope with these gentle little displays of affection. They feel like something you don’t have a word for, and you’ve never been one for physical closeness, but they’re making your chest ache. "I know you’re gonna be... busy, to say the least, but... I don't want this to be the last time I see you."
"It won't be." Your reply comes quick and assertive. "As long as you stay safe, too."
For the first time all morning, you see something approximating a smile tugging at her lips.
"I will," she says. "I don't make a habit of pissing people off like you do."
"It’s not our fault!" Half the time, it absolutely is your fault.
"Are you sure?" She actually laughs, now, and you find yourself laughing, too, finally making a dent in the bleak mood that's been overshadowing your morning. "Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know what you get up to. I'm just... worried, Zenith. I don't want to walk away today, and then--"
"Hey." You straighten up a little, enough to meet her at eye level. "I'll be okay. I've done some of the craziest shit and made it out the other side, and I have people looking out for me. I'm not gonna disappear."
She holds your gaze for a few moments, as one of her hands slides from your side, along your arm, and wraps around one of your own.
Aubrey slowly, slowly tips her head forward so your foreheads touch; her eyes fall shut and for a minute, time slows, and you just bask in it. It mirrors that hug back in the alleyway of that no-name town what couldn't have been any more than a week ago at most. You don't want it to end, even though it has to, which seems to be a running theme in pretty much every interaction you have with her.
Again, she's the one who finally breaks the spell. She sits upright and wipes all the tear residue from her face and eye with her shirt, and you realise you should probably do the same.
"I still have time before I have to go anywhere," you say, glancing sideways at her with your drone as you rub the gunk out of your right eye. "Do you wanna go grab breakfast?"
"Sure." She sweeps her hair back behind her ear as she rises to her feet, and then: "Wait."
"You don't taste, either, do you?"
You just... blink, slowly, as your brain processes the layers of information this question has just delivered to you.
"Wait, that's--that's an us thing?"
"Are you fucking kidding me?" And you erupt with laughter; you're not even entirely sure why - maybe because you can't believe this has been a deliberate modification this whole time, or because you're immediately thinking of how you've been fucking with people with this for years, or maybe you're just straight delirious at this point. "Yeah, no. No, I don't. I had no idea. Fuck. Thank God, I don't have to keep that act up."
"Your friends don't know?"
"No." The answer sends Aubrey into a peal of laughter--leaning against the balustrade, slapping the metal with a clang every time her hand makes contact. Looks like you’ve both come full circle.
"It’s fun to mess with people." You're still grinning. "I’m playing the long game."
"You're a bastard," she manages to say between giggles. "Are you going to tell them?"
"Eventually, but the longer I wait, the better the payoff is gonna be when they find out. It's kind of a blessing, anyway. We are... not always great at finding decent food to eat."
"You--Actually, you know what? I am not even gonna ask." Aubrey raises a hand dismissively and steps back inside the room, with you following just behind. "That's why they made that little adjustment to us in the first place, though, so it sounds like it might be working as intended in your case."
"What, so we could just eat garbage?"
"Are you saying you've eaten garbage?"
"No," you answer, maybe a little too defensively. Aubrey's smirk and stifled chuckle do not go unnoticed.
"No, they didn't let us eat garbage. Not on purpose, anyway. It was so they could just give us this weird tasteless nutrient shit, but I definitely saw kids eating out of the trash more than once while we were out in the field."
“Hey, maybe you have eaten garbage. It’s not like you’d remember.”
“It--You--” You open your mouth, but your jaw just hangs slack, empty, wordless. Alright. Yeah. You have nothing. “Okay, fine. You win this time.”
“Can my prize be you buying breakfast?”
“Because the dumpster diver is loaded with breakfast money.”
“I mean, when the dumpster diver isn’t ten years old anymore, I would expect so, yeah. ” She pauses, midway through pulling a hoodie on. “Are you seriously broke? Because I can get it.”
“No, no. It’s fine.” You smile as you tug your shoes on and pick your jacket up from where you discarded it on the floor by the end of the bed the previous night. There’s still no sign that Pox, Tech or Dak have woken yet. It looks like you might still have a couple hours of peace.
30 minutes later, you're back out on the balcony, hash browns in hand and with a cup of coffee sitting beside you. There's still a slightly chilly breeze, but the sun is enough at this point to cancel it out for the most part.
"I guess this means we have to trade numbers this time."
"If we want to stay in touch," Aubrey elaborates, as the first statement clicks into place in your head. "I don't think we can keep relying on chance to bring us together like this."
"Oh, right, right. Yeah, honestly, it was kind of hard to believe the first time around." You laugh, but she doesn't. She looks uncomfortable. The smile fades from your face. "What's up?"
"I just--" She stops mid-sentence and stares down at her coffee for a moment. "Last time, when I said I didn't think it was safe, and… you said you didn't want me getting caught up in everything you have going on." Ah. Yes.
"Aubrey..." You stop and start several times, grappling with the words before you finally settle on how you want to phrase it. "For what it's worth, nobody's getting in my head. I have this thing on lockdown, and I’ll encrypt your info." She's still avoiding eye contact, and doesn't look convinced.
"It's--Legacy, C&C, they’re powerful, they have resources. And someone big like 4GET, I wouldn't be surprised if they know them, and if they're tracking you, too--" She comes to a sharp stop. Both her voice and hands are shaking.
"Woah, woah, hey." You uncross your legs and scoot over to her, placing a hand on her knee, and try to quell the slightly guilty feeling bubbling up inside you. There've been enough tears in the last few hours. You can't stand to see any more. "We can work this out. You don't want them knowing where you are and what you're doing, right? We don't have to give running commentaries of our lives. We just... need to be able to ask if we're in the same area every once in a while. And it's all safe! The way we have our comms set up right now, nobody can get at our systems or data. We’re about as secure as I can get us."
She... doesn't look entirely convinced. She makes eye contact with you for a moment and then stares back down at her drink. The cup is still shaking, especially so as she lifts one hand to rub at her face, rake her fingers through her hair.
"I don't know, Zenith, I just-- They put all this stuff in us. You know what they used to do when we fucked up. There's probably things we don't even know about, and-- What if they can access that? What if they're like those technomancers, what if they--"
"Alright, put that down. You're gonna drop it." You pluck the cup from her hand and set it down beside her. She doesn't resist, and with both hands free, she pulls her knees up to her chest and folds in on herself, hands shoved down the back of her shirt.
"Aubrey." You put your own food down and slide your arm around her shoulders. "I swear to God, they are not gonna get you. They won't know where you are just from a couple of vague messages sent weeks apart. Even if they do find you, I think your company is gonna have something to say about them trying to cart off one of their employees."
Silence. You can feel her heave with each ragged breath. You know--You have to give her the out option. You don't want to, but that's selfish. You have to.
"I won't make you do this, if you don't want to," you say gently.
"No," she whines back immediately, shaking her head and meeting your gaze. "No, I want to. I'm--I'm okay. It's okay. You're right. I'm... worrying too much. I can do this. We can do this." She lowers her legs, picks up her coffee again and exhales deeply before taking a swig. Tentatively satisfied, you shuffle back to where your own drink is waiting. "Promise me something, though."
"If they do get me. You'll… You’ll come get me out, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah. We'll get you out. I promise." You hope the conviction, both in your tone and in the affirmative nod you give, carries over. It strikes you, very briefly, that it's almost funny, the way your whole team is going to wind up having personal rescue missions at this rate.
"And if you go dark on me and I have to rescue myself, I'm legally allowed to fucking kill you." She laughs weakly, midway into a sip of her drink.
"That's a questionable understanding of how the law works, but alright, sure."
"You're a shadowrunner."
"Hey, show me where I said I follow the law. I'm just pointing it out."
"Fine, then I'm illegally allowed to kill you. Better?"
"That doesn't make sense, but--" She's looking daggers at you, "--Okay, okay. Yeah. Sure." She breaks into laughter, real laughter, and Goddamn, it's such a relief to hear it. Any remaining tension just evaporates and your stomach uncoils enough for you to comfortably chomp down the last of your hash browns. You're screwing up the paper wrapping when a notification pops into your AR feed.
"Hey," you say to Aubrey, as she's draining the last of her drink and setting the empty cup aside. "What time do you have to be out of here?"
"I have to be at the airport for, like, 12 or something. Why? Do you have to go?"
"No, no," you say, shaking your head. "Not yet. I have to be at the truck for 11. Everyone's up, but they're going for breakfast, and... y'know. I just ate, so..."
"I won't be offended if you want to go back and hang out with them."
"No, I want to stay here." That sounded a little more desperate than you intended, but alright. "I--Y'know, I'm with them all the time. It's not like--" You're struggling with the words and you can feel your cheeks flushing slightly. "I don't know when I'm gonna get to see you again," you manage to say, finally. "I can catch up with them later. I don't want to leave yet."
Aubrey just cocks her head and... smiles.
"Good. I don't want you to leave, yet, either."
You lose yourself in the next few hours. You move on from the sad shit and find better things to talk about. Aubrey tells you about all the coworkers she loves and all the coworkers she hates and about the time one of them literally managed to shoot himself in the ass. You recount some of the less harrowing moments of the last couple of weeks; KJ shooting his own jaw out twice goes down smooth, and you end up pulling up some of his stupid videos. As pathetic as he is, you are glad he caught Tech’s drake phantasm on camera while you were rescuing the doctors from the downed chopper.
(You show her the video of Tech getting kicked in the balls, too, because at this point it’s practically archive-worthy.)
11 o'clock rolls around too fast. You exit the hotel lobby and round the corner to the parking lot; sure enough, Dak, Pox and Tech are all loitering by Xanadu, and they give you enthusiastic waves when they see you coming.
"Okay. Well." Aubrey turns to you, and you turn to her, and she reaches out and places a hand on your shoulder. "I guess this is it."
"Yeah." For a moment, you can only stare at her. Maybe you won't have to separate if you do it for long enough. "It was... good. To see you again."
"It was good to see you, too. Really good. Thanks for breakfast. And... everything else."
You both just stand there, staring, and then--then, you just throw yourselves into a hug, arms wrapped so tight around one another that the air is being squeezed from your lungs, but you don't care. This isn't like last time; two strangers acknowledging a shared experience before moving on like ships in the night. This, with a handful of your jacket in her fist, and your fingers digging into her back, and both of you unsteady on your feet because you're still trying to pull one another closer--this feels like you've sat on balconies in a hundred different cities; held each other through a hundred anxiety attacks; shared a hundred breakfasts. This feels like nothing you've ever known before and, maybe, like nothing you'll ever know with anyone else.
You're both panting by the time you let go, and you wish you could cling onto this feeling for the rest of your life.
"Be careful, okay?" she says softly, her hands still on your arms.
"I'll try." You're glad the others aren't within earshot to make some brazen comment about how at least one person in your party has a face-off with death every day. "I know you don't want us to communicate too much, but if anything happens, if you need anything... I don't know how much use I can be, but you should let me know."
"...Okay. Yeah, yeah. Okay." Nodding slowly, her hands reluctantly slip from your arms. You want her to let go about as much as she does. She looks like she's about to start crying again and you really, really hope she doesn't, because that'll set you off, and you're still not sure you're ready for that to happen in front of the other scummers.
"Have a safe flight home," you say, clearing your throat of the lump slowly forming in it. "I'll speak to you... I mean, soon, I hope. But at some point. You… you look after yourself."
"Yeah, yeah. I will." Exhaling deeply, she sweeps a few stray hairs back from her face and gives you a smile. "I hope you can save your friend's sister, too. And your driver's kid."
“Thanks. I’ll pass that on. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.” You smile back at her, and pat her shoulder one last time before finally peeling yourself away and taking the first few steps towards Xanadu. “You know where we’re going, so, if you end up around--”
“I’ll let you know.” She nods, still smiling, her hands tucked into her jacket pockets. “I’ll see you later, Zenith.”
“Alright. Yeah. I’ll see you later.” And you finally turn away, now focusing your attention on Xanadu and the others as you draw closer.
“Hey, Zenith!” Dak is leaning back against one of the doors of the truck, but straightens up as you approach. “You have a good night?”
“It was… Yeah. It was good.” The barrage of jokes and innuendos you were expecting doesn’t come. What you get instead is a warm, knowing look--a sincere, wordless acknowledgement of understanding--as he walks past you to the driver side of the truck.
“Alright! Then let’s get outta here! C’mon, Z already made us late.”
You look at Pox and Tech, and they’re staring at-- Well, Aubrey must still be standing there. You wonder if they can make out her hands and drone from this distance. You could, but you know they’re there in the first place, and with your drone--
“She’s like you,” Pox says softly.
Okay. Question answered.
“Yeah,” you say, not sure what to do about the awkwardness stemming from the fact that you still have your back turned while Pox and Tech are looking directly right at her without a shred of discretion. “She is.”
“Wait, isn’t this a huge deal for you?” Tech hisses. “What’s she doing here? Can’t she come with us or something? Did she tell you anything, at least?”
“No! I mean-- Yes-- No, she can’t come with us. Yes, she told me things, but can we please get in the truck first?”
Tech is staring at Aubrey like he’s about to do that thing he does, where he marches over starts accosting someone despite it being, at best, awkward for everyone involved, and conflict-initiating at worst. As if on cue, though, and much to your relief, Xanadu’s engine roars to life and the horn blares, sending a nearby flock of pigeons scattering and drawing everyone’s attention.
“Come on, get in the truck already!”
You take the initiative and pull a door open, and moments later you’re all settled into the not-quite-white-anymore seats inside. Dak flips the radio on too loud and you have to make a subtle adjustment while he manoeuvres you out of a parking lot that was definitely not designed for Big Fucking Trucks, with Tech leaning halfway out of the passenger side window and yelling feedback to him so he doesn’t add another case of vehicular damage to your collective list of crimes.
Between them, they manage it. Just about. As you’re just edging out onto the road, you glance down, and… there’s Aubrey, on the sidewalk. She gives you a little smile and you don’t break eye contact until she disappears from your line of sight completely.
At which point, you turn around, and Pox has been staring intently out of your window the whole time, too.
“Who is she?”
“How did you find her?” Tech butts in, before you can answer.
“She found me this time."
“‘This time’? What do you mean this time? ”
“Yeah, I…” You trail off, and… just end up laughing to yourself as you sink down in your seat, over the realisation that you now have to figure out a coherent, concise way to tell this whole story. Pox is leaning over you, overenthusiastically interrogating you about where you met her before, what’s her name, are you sure she isn’t a 4GET agent, and
"Did she tell you anything about where you came from?"
This question makes you tense. You're not-- You don't know how to answer it. Aubrey didn't tell you a lot, and what she did tell you painted a grisly picture, one you're not sure you're ready to relive. Not so soon, and not like this, all at once, stuck in the cabin with no way out and all eyes set intently on you. No. You need some modicum of control.
"Yeah," you affirm anyway. "But it's-- I don't know. It's. A lot." Pox senses your discomfort, you guess, because she cuddles up to you and plops her head on your shoulder. You don't think twice about laying your head against hers. You should have, because you have to sweep wild curls of hair out of your eyes and mouth and nose about six times before you're comfortable.
"You wanna take a time out?" Dak offers, in another show of oddly restrained behaviour. It's weird, but Dak's just... like that. There's more wisdom and tact in him than he ever usually lets on, but it shines through on rare occasions. Somehow, he just knows when it's needed most.
"...Yeah. A time out would be good." You sigh in relief that he gave you an exit route. "We can talk about it later, okay? I've... had a pretty intense morning." It's true, so at least you don't have to feel guilty about feeding them a lie. The emotional drain is hitting hard and now you really do need to check out of life for a bit.
"Sure thing, buddy. Hey, pop that map up for me so I can see where the hell we're going."
Your drone zips out and the MapSoft display lights up in the front. Dak seems to know the area, which is good for you, because your brain is too fried to keep up with the conversation that follows.
"Are you okay?" you hear Pox ask quietly, once the others are suitably distracted. She moves her head out from under yours to peer up at you.
"I'm okay," you whisper back. "I think--I think this was good for me. I got a lot of things off my chest. I'm just tired. It was-- Like--" You falter, look down at your arm, flex your fingers a little and turn your hand over. "I had a lot to take in, as well. I have a lot to think about." Pox looks at your hand, too, then dives into her coat and starts rooting around in her pockets.
"You can have this, if it'll make you feel better," she says, producing... one lollipop, wrapped in bright blue plastic.
You stare at it for a second, and it… makes you think of that fucking conversation before breakfast, and the revelation about your lack of taste--God, what if you sprung that on her right now? No, no, you get to do this once, you better pick your moment carefully--and suddenly it is taking an ungodly amount of self-restraint to keep the smile on your face from splitting into full-blown laughter.
"You know what? Yeah. That will make me feel better." You take the candy and wrap an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her into a side-on hug. "Thanks, Pox."
She looks positively ecstatic that her tactic worked and happily bundles herself up in her coat in her seat, pulling out a neon green lollipop for herself. You unwrap yours and shove it in your mouth and it's about as enjoyable as sucking on a ball of plastic, but fuck it; one of your best friends is trying to cheer you up the best way she knows how and you love her for it.
Besides: it worked, didn’t it?
“Z, you can have your eye back," Dak announces. It’s the only thing you haven’t tuned out since offering up the map projection. You pull the drone back into place and settle back in your seat, letting your eyes drift shut. You’re exhausted, and you’ve learnt some things that you don’t like, and you’d be lying if you said you weren’t frightened of what you know is coming. It’s going to be dangerous. It’s going to be painful.
At the same time, you’ve never felt more certain that you have to face it. You have to know the truth. If people are still being hurt, you owe it to Aubrey and to all the names you don’t know to put a stop to it.
You owe it to yourself to find closure.
And when the dust settles, and it’s all over, your fucked-up little family will still be right here, by your side. Aubrey won’t have to be scared anymore. You can move on. You can rebuild, with nothing holding you down this time.
But enough. Your brain feels like rubber after everything that’s happened in the last--what, twelve, thirteen hours? You need a break from the repetitive thoughts cycling through your head, or you’ll lose your damn mind. You hop into VR, intending to kick back and relax with some mindless level grinding in DragonStorm.
A message notification pops up in your feed.