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The Umbrella Academy: Winter Soldier

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He’s pretty the way a dead thing is pretty. All pale skin and bags under the eyes, all bite and no bark. He’s beautiful, you think. A soft, solid thing to look at. Your beautiful dead thing. Your calm in this storm.

You like to look at him. You can’t take your eyes off him, sometimes. Him with his bright smiles and loud laughter and gentle touches and it’s like you were made to look at him, like it’s all you were meant to do. You can’t not look at him.

It’s easiest to look at him when he sleeps. You can’t be caught this way, and he isn’t there to look at you back.

His staring is different than yours. It’s full of love and promise and tenderness and the kind of devotion that isn’t meant for men like you. Your insides aren’t melted chocolate chips like his are. He’s warm and gooey, soft to the touch, lets the love leak out the sides. You are the dead thing. You are the after, the crisp edges, the dark and twisty, the part no one wants. You won’t let Dave look at you back. He might not want you. The outsides match the insides.

He’s most peaceful when he sleeps, too. That’s another thing you’ve learned in your months of holding him to your chest and watching him breathe. You’d always thought he was peaceful most of the time, because that’s just who he is: bright and warm and soft and gooey. A good man, a gentle one, the kind of man who only ever made non-lethal shots even though you know he has perfect aim.

Still, when he’s sleeping you can tell just how much the day really takes out of him. He doesn’t show it, doesn’t talk about it (nobody ever talks about it), but when he’s curled in your arms with his head on your chest, his mouth hangs open and his brows release their permanent furrow and he looks a little less wartorn. Beautiful. He looks best like this, both dead and alive.  

He talks in his sleep. Just a little, not enough to wake you, though it’s not like you sleep anyways, what with all the darkness and the excess quiet and the looking . You like listening to him more than you like looking at him. You stay a little too still as he twists and turns in his sleep and for half a second you think it’s a nightmare, that your demons have finally gotten to him, but instead he sleepily rubs his eyes and he calls your name.  

‘Klaus…’

He says it like a prayer. Like a holy thing, something that shouldn’t be said. It sounds too bitter for his soft mouth. He says it again.

‘Klaus?’

He’s grabbing for you this time, searching for you and your hard mouth in his half-conscious state. You concede. Shift closer, slowly wrap your arms around him. His home away from home. His presses his body flesh to yours and you can smell him, smell the dust from outside and the soap he’d used to scrub it off his hands, and you think you love him.

You’d never let yourself think it before, not fully. Obscure synonyms in place of it, maybe ( he makes me happier than the stars ), or gentle touches in intimate places that let him know as much, but you never say it. He smiles at you and your heart squeezes like you’re dying and you know what this means. You swallow the feeling along with your heart and you keep quiet, keep looking, keep not saying it, keep not saying it, keep not saying it---

You say it. You’re in the middle of Hell and you’re going to die anyway so might as well get it over with.

You place a kiss on his forehead and hold him closer as he drifts.

‘Dave?’ something whispered, something soft, just checking to make sure.

‘Davey?’ once more, because you’re annoying and you have to make sure, because you couldn’t take it if he didn’t say it back. He’s asleep so he can’t, so it’s okay, so it’s only you and the moon who knows.  

A sigh, you hold him close, breathe in how he smells. You and the moon. ‘I love you, Dave.’

He shifts in his sleep. The moon illuminates his figure, dances off his cheekbones. Beautiful. You smile.

You said you loved him. Do you regret it? Would you take it back? Yes, no. Theories: there’s another life where you’re braver. You don’t say ‘i love you’ to a dying boy, and when you kiss him for the last time you don’t taste blood. His hand is in yours. You get married in the summer in the mountains, surrounded by friends / no family. You say ‘i love you’ and he doesn't die before he’s supposed to. You aren’t haunted anymore.

You can’t change it. You aren’t brave. You follow him to the front line, because he’s beautiful and you’re foolish and stupid and in love. Love makes you stupid. You get it now. You follow him and he dies, because they always do. Because you’re not the hero, you’re the harbinger. You kiss a boy and tell him you love him and he goes and dies. You regret it. You wouldn’t take it back. You love him. He loves you, and you know he loves you, because love is stupid and love gets you killed.

He loves you, and you know he loves you, because he told you as much. He cupped your face as you put pressure into his chest where the bullet lies (bandaid for a bullet wound; another phrase you understand now) and whispered his devotion with a smile- a hastily put together attempt at infamous last words.

He loves you and you believe him. Your insides soften. May you meet again.

 

 


 

By any and all means, Klaus Hargreeves should be happy.

It’s Sunday morning, his favorite day and his favorite time of day, and he saunters into the bathroom with his headphones in blasting an old Eurythmics album, nodding his head along to the beat and shuffling in time with the synths.

Ben leans against the wall next to the front end of the tub and laughs at his brother’s absolute lack of any sort of rhythm. Klaus pretends not to notice and slides over to the tub, picks up the bottle of bubble bath, and waves his arms around as he pours a healthy amount in.

“Alright, brother o’ mine,” Klaus smirks and places his fingertips on his chest, “Would you mind being a dear and helping your poor brother out?”

Ben shrugs. “It’s not like I got anything better to do.”

“That’s the spirit.” Klaus grins and purses his lips, “Pun not intended, of course.”

Ben snorts like he does when he’s pretending Klaus isn’t a comedic genius and waves towards the bath, “Just turn the damn water on.”

Klaus sticks his tongue out as Ben rolls his eyes. He then turns the music up as high as the mp3 will allow and turns the spigot.

Music was his best line of defense. War had already taken so much from him. It would not take this from him too.

The water is silent but he knows what the water is supposed to sound like so he turns his back and lets the music envelop him. He’s safe now. He’s one month free of a joint and celebrating with the bubble bath Vanya bought him to celebrate.

Klaus is ok. Klaus is ok. Klaus is ok.

A gentle hand rests on his shoulder.

He turns to Ben who mouths it’s full with a gentle smile. Danke . Klaus responds. Or, he thinks he responds. He tastes the vibrations of the word as it passes his lips, but the word failed to breach the synth defenses, so who the hell really knows if anything was said at all.

Klaus turns the water off and inhales the sweet aroma of vanilla chai. Oh that Vanya had just spoiled him now, hasn’t she. He makes a mental note to thank her.

He drops his towel (Ben’s shriek of horror failed to breach the synth’s defenses as well), slowly hovers off the ground, and lays himself gently into the bliss of the scalding hot water.

Levitation was the newest perk of sobriety; it was only about a week old and a pesky damn thing to control. So far, he could only hover five feet off the ground and long jump. No direct flying (to his dismay and Five’s relief), but last week he could only hover three feet off the ground, and with the drugs draining from his system with each passing day, he hoped flying would be right around the corner.

The song fades out. The silence brings sharp anger with it. If the old man had just listened, Klaus could’ve been—

The next track begins. Just as the anger starts, it vanishes. The one with the title of Father was dead and Klaus was on his way to recovery.

It’s a slow process. Tiring. He’s tired. It’d be easier to give in, to say fuck it , to go back to the numbness and the cold and the not feeling. He has half the mind to do so, because it’d be so easy, but his powers grow and he’s getting better and now he can levitate, and both Diego and Ben had smiled wide and Diego clapped him on the back and told him, good job. You’re doing great. Klaus doesn’t think he’s ever been great before.

So he’s recovering. Slowly and surely, but recovering nonetheless.

A few ghosts wail and his heart begins to slam with terror but he takes a breath, grits his teeth: “I’m relaxing now, having a little me time. So if you would just please… Leave me alone.”

The ghosts quiet.

By any and all means, Klaus Hargreeves should be happy.

As he lays in his bath, music swelling and drowning out the distant moans of the damned, Klaus pretends that nothing is wrong.


 

Sunday mornings were beautiful. Klaus loves them because the whole family comes over for breakfast, and Grace makes her funfetti pancakes. It feels normal. There’s sibling chatter only sometimes resulting in arguments, and they tease each other and throw food and Grace tells them to behave now, children, and for those fifteen minutes every Sunday, it’s like it’s normal. If you squint, they look like any other family. Klaus closes his eyes and breathes deep and he can smell pancake batter and hear his siblings argue and for half a second he forgets this isn’t a home full of ghosts. It’s nice. Beautiful.

Klaus props his left foot on his nightstand as he finishes his last pinkie toe, a towel wrapped in a turban around his head. Ben sits at the other end of the bed and pretends he’s invested in a book.


“This is garbage.” Ben laughs, “Why did this become a worldwide phenomenon again?”

Klaus leans his head back and lets the towel turban fall off his head and tumble onto the sheets, “People can’t get enough of the kid-hero narrative, what can I say, we’ve set a trend!”

Ben closes the book and slides it on Klaus’ desk. “Do me a favor and pick out something good next time you and Vanya go out?”

“You got it. Y’know, it wouldn’t kill you to come along and pick something out for yourself.”

“Yea? It wouldn’t kill me?”

Klaus scrunches his nose as he giggles and narrowly avoids Ben’s playful swat. His fingertips barely graze the bottom of Klaus’ curls; he had grown it out over the past year, and now it just about reached his chin. It was nice to have something he liked about himself, something that motivated him to get up and take care of himself. Grace thinks his curls are lovely, Vanya likes running her hands through it, and Diego teases and says one bad guy gets too close and BAM! He has you by your hair and you’re done for. But Allison always puts it up in a little bun before they go out so he figures he’s fine.

There’s a gentle knock at the door. Klaus and Ben turn their heads and see Vanya standing in the doorframe: “Hey, Mom made breakfast for everyone. It’s almost ready.”

"Perfect, thanks V, but before you go!” Klaus grins and waves her in as he grabs a bottle of hair product off his nightstand, “Come in, come in. You have to tell us, how did it go with your little date last night?”

“Us? Oh, hi Ben!” She looks around the room until Klaus gently gestures next to him and she gives the spot at the foot of his bed a gentle wave. “Um, as for the uh. The date? Heh, it was ok. Yea, it was good! Y’know.” She takes a step inside and pulls her sleeves down over her hands, “She’s real sweet. Got me flowers.”

“Vanya!” Klaus lights up and starts running mousse through his hair, “That’s incredible!”

“Yea... but I-”

“No buts. Com’on, you deserve this!”

“Y-yea,” She continues pulling at her sleeves, “I guess I do. I just I’m just… Scared. After the whole...”

Klaus softens, “Hey. I get it. But, from what you’ve told me, Maddie’s super sweet and she likes you! If you’re that worried, I’m sure Diego would be more than happy to, y’know, check’er out and see what’s up.”

“No, thank you,” she stifles a laugh, “God forbid she catches him and then I gotta explain why my brother was stalking her and…”

“Ah, hm, you have a point there. Well! If she messes with you, let us know and we’ll mess her up.”

“Heh, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

He stands up, wriggles the foam separators from his toes, rubs his hands on his jeans (he knows Vanya hates the texture of the residue on his hands), and struts over to Vanya. He extends his arm out.

“M’lady, shall I escort you to the kitchen?”

“You don’t have to, I mean, I know the way.”

“I know, I know. I was just playing a bit.”

“Oh! Oh, ok!” Vanya smiles and takes his arm, “Yea, you can!”

Klaus grins and turns back into the room, “Come along, Sir Benjamin.”

Ben rolls his eyes playfully before hopping off Klaus’ bed and following them out the door.

It’s a desperate attempt to prolong the hour of normalcy he’s gifted. He’s afraid it’s too transparent, that Vanya will notice how his hands still shake and pull away and want to have a talk about how it’s okay to not be okay , but as the trio saunters down the hall, laughing and happy and alive, Klaus almost doesn’t care.

Klaus deserves to be happy, so Vanya’s hand rests on his arm and he’s smiling, genuine, as he animates a story with his hands and the pair saunter down the hall playing make believe like they’re kids again. Normal.

They bump into Diego on the stairwell. He looks at the duo curiously. He looks damn tired, eyes all dark and sunken... He hadn’t slept more than a few hours. Klaus recognizes insomnia’s carnage like an old friend.

Klaus gestures to Vanya, “I’m escorting the lovely lady of the hour to breakfast, care to join us?”

Diego snorts and takes a deep breath. “Yea, you know what? I will. Come on, sis.”

Vanya beams and Diego takes her other arm.

“So, Diego, I was just in the middle of telling Vanya about the time I accidentally ate soap mom made ‘cus it looked like a doughnut.”

Diego snorts, “You’re an idiot.”

“Maybe tell Mom to stop making such realistic looking soap then.”

Diego shakes his head and laughs. Klaus leans forward to peer around Vanya and checks to make sure it’s an actual laugh, not just a pity huff Diego’ll throw at him, and his chest swells when he sees Diego giving a real, genuine laugh.

The quartet walks past the living room and hears Allison cautioning Claire away from some dangerous niknak the old man had on display. They saw Allison the least; being an editor of a fashion magazine and single mother left little room for family visits, but they always left time for Sunday breakfast.

Klaus pauses and lights up, “Why, if isn’t my favorite niece!”

Claire looks away from the taxidermied aardvark and grins widely when she sees them standing in the doorway. The girl bounces over to them excited and grins, “Good morning!” Klaus looks down at her, “Would the Fräulein also like an escort to breakfast?”

Claire flaps her hands and laughs loudly. Allison walks out of the living and meets them by the bottom of the staircase, “Morning everyone.”

“Morning, m’lady.” Klaus bows his head. Vanya and Diego waves their good mornings. Allison smiles and gestures down to the stairs. “We’ll walk behind you, lead the way!”

They make their way down the steps as Claire swings Allison’s hand and sings, “Fräulein, zip line, forty-nine, stop sign!”

Klaus’ chest swells with endearment.

“Deadline, gold mine… Uh… Mom! I ran out of rhymes!”

“Oh, um, well,”

Ben leans in Klaus’ ear, “Coastline.”

“Coastline!” Klaus exclaims.

Claire gasps, “PERFECT!”

“Well, I can’t take the credit, kiddo. It was Uncle Ben’s idea.”

“UNCLE BEN! I want to see Uncle Ben!”

“After I’ve got some of G-Ma’s flapjacks, kiddo. I need to get my energy up. Tummy’s a’rumbling. Guuurrrr !”

Claire repeats the noise, delighted. Allison chuckles, hoisting Claire into her arms as she follows the group into the kitchen.  

Luther reads the paper at the head of the table. Grace turns around from the stove, smiling wide, and slides another pancake into the pancake holder. “Good morning everyone! You’re just in time, breakfast is just about ready!”

"Good morning!" Klaus sings as he takes Vanya and waltzes her into the kitchen, “Did everyone hear the good news!?”

Luther looks over the paper. “What good news?”

Klaus almost blurts out Vanya’s date, but he remembers her apprehension from earlier, how shy she had been, and he quickly switches the subject. He spots a calendar stuck to the fridge between scattered grocery lists and drawings Claire had gifted them. The date reads the fifteenth. Klaus leaps upward and hovers a foot off the ground. “I’m officially one month sober!”

Luther looks back to his newspaper, “That’s nice.”

Grace brings the pancake holder over to the table, “Klaus! That’s wonderful!”

Klaus bows and floats back down, “Why danke, mutter.”

She kisses his forehead, “I’m very proud of you.”

Diego pats Klaus on the shoulder, “Good job, man.”

Vanya squeezes Klaus’ hand, her silent congratulations.

Claire looks up at Allison, “Why are we celebrating?”

“Uh, well, um, Klaus… It’s been one month since he’s been sick!”

“Yay! That’s a good reason to celebrate. I hate being sick. Mom gives me this horrible tasting medicine, I have to have a spoonful of chocolate syrup after I take it because it tastes so bad.”

Klaus takes a seat next to Diego, “Oooh, chocolate syrup, that would go well with breakfast, hey, Ma do you ha--”

Five bursts into the room mid-syllable and sits in the empty chair next to Klaus, “Morning everyone. Sorry I’m late. I had… Business.”

Diego slides Five a mug of coffee, “Any word from Chuck?”

“Nope,” Five sighs and grabs a plate, “Two weeks into the investigation and they don’t have anything. I thought the new hires down there were supposed to be helping .”

“Well.. Fresh faces…” Diego shrugs, “Maybe they just need some time to warm up.”

Five rolls his eyes. “Since when did you become Devil’s Advocate?”

“We all started somewhere.”

“Unless I get something in the next twenty-four hours, we might be taking a solo trip.”

The Umbrella Academy had banded back together, well, somewhat. Allison, Diego, and Vanya still have jobs of their own. Allison was an editor, Diego was still a vigilante, and Vanya continued her violin lessons and concerts. Luther doesn’t know how to live without someone directing him (Klaus recommended the military; Five reminded them that the military writes off people with ingrown toenails, and they probably wouldn’t accept someone of Luther’s… condition .) Whether he liked it or not, Five was fourteen, and he couldn’t exactly get a full time gig without child services knocking on the door.

And Klaus, well, he needed a stable place to detox before he could take on the world.

Which was totally fine, considering Grace is a god-tier caregiver. She sets various toppings down onto the table and claps her hands together, “Alright everyone, dig in!”

Klaus adds everything but the kitchen sink to his pancakes. Butter, syrup, fruit, whipped cream, the whole nine yards. Diego looks over and grimaces. “Bro. How can you eat that?”

“Easily. Like this.” Klaus takes the whipped cream and shoots it directly into his mouth. Claire laughs while Luther rolls his eyes. Grace walks over and refills Five’s coffee mug for him, “Now boys , behave yourself at the breakfast table.”

“Yes Mom.” They snort and try to hide their laughter, just like when they were kids. As soon as Grace turns around, Klaus leans over and squirts whipped cream into Five’s coffee. He stares at Klaus. “Disgusting. Thank you.”

The chatter continues, fading into background noise for Klaus as he soaks in the morning light, the good food, and the joy of being alive with his family. He thinks he’d always like to feel like this, all bright and warm and happy and fuzzy.

“Uncle Klaus ,” Claire wines and pulls him back down to Earth, “You promised…”

Klaus furrows his brow. Then it clicks. “AH! Right, ok,” he sets his fork down and cracks his knuckles, “Alright, Benny, you ready to say hi to your niece?” 

Caire bounces in her chair. Klaus rolls his head around and cracks his neck. Ben snorts, “You have to be that dramatic?”

“Yes, Ben, I’m prepping .”

Klaus squeezes his hands tight, his expression following suit as brows furrow in concentration. A moment passes, everyone waiting with bated breath, and then a blue light emits from around his knuckles to encompass his hands. He can’t help but smile as he closes his eyes, exhales deeply, and pulls Ben from the Ethereal Plane.

Claire bounds over to him and he laughs as he scoops her into his arms. Klaus keeps one hand in a fist to keep Ben grounded in this plane while he continues breakfast.

Grace walks over, “How are you feeling, Klaus? Are you doing ok?”

“Well, I’m running out of energy pretty quickly… I think I’m gonna need the whole jar of sprinkles to get me through this one.”

Grace smiles, knowing he’s teasing, but brings the can over anyway.

After fifteen minutes, Klaus' hand starts to cramp and he can feel Ben draining his energy like a nuclear power plant would drain a triple A battery.

"Alright," Klaus looks up, "This candle's gonna burn out in T-Minus eleven seconds so if you could all wrap it up?"

Everyone says their see ya later!'s and it was good to see you again!'s to Ben. Klaus releases his fist and Ben fades back into the Ethereal Plane.

Vanya leans over to him and notes, “That’s a whole thirty-two seconds more than last time you summoned him.”

“Getting stronger by the day.” Klaus muses as Ben grins at him, “Getting stronger by the day.”

 


 

Vanya had suggested meditation. Said it helped with her anxiety, so maybe it would help Klaus with his recovery too. Now, it had become a nightly ritual.

Klaus likes meditation. He likes how he can exercise his new ability and hover a few feet off the pillow he’s placed on the floorboards. Levitating was a gentle reminder of his progress; the representation of potential, a reminder to keep going. He’s worked so hard and gotten so far and he can do it if he really puts his mind to it. He’s capable of that. He deserves that.

That’s what Grace says, anyway.

A deep breath in through his nose, out through his mouth. He likes that, too. The steady breathing makes him feel whole. With every breath in he’s reattaching a piece of himself.

That’s all Klaus ever was: pieces. He was fragments and scraps and put together parts of everything everyone else liked best. He’s kind and caring and sensitive and he loves his siblings because he has to, because they need him to, because he has to be their light in the dark.

They need that. They need him . They’d fall apart without it. None of the others want to admit that they rely on someone else, but Klaus knows it. Klaus knows it and he also knows they’re all too proud to be that someone, so he does it for them. He breaks himself into pieces and shifts around his insides until he resembles something they need. They can’t get rid of him if they need him. He’s an addict and a junkie and good for nothing, but they need him.

It breaks him, just a little, to be a used thing. He’s picked apart piece by piece, chipped away at with greedy fingers, and now he’s on the floor breathing , just sitting here and breathing and trying to put himself back together.

In and out, in and out. He sits there and he feels. He’s allowed to just feel now. After chasing a numb for God knows how long, sitting there and feeling is a welcome change.

Hell, the last time he had felt this real was with…

No, no. Com’on. He was having such a good day. Why did he have to be reminded of him? Why do his thoughts always revolve back to him?

Klaus swallows and sinks to the floor with a gentle thud. His fingers brush the dog tags hanging from his neck.

KATZ. DAVID J. ER  65 225 121. O NEG. JUDAISM.

He knows the lettering by heart, the curve of every 2 and corner of every E. His fingers graze over the K, gingerly cross the Z, and pause on David . A beautiful name for a beautiful boy. He presses his thumb against the engraving. The word feels like home. David .

Damnit. Damnit. He was a goddamn moron. People aren’t homes. He should’ve known better. You can’t make homes out of dying boys. Didn’t anyone ever tell him that?

“Klaus?” Ben says softly.

“Yea, I’m... I’m fine.” He lies.

And just like that, the bliss of feeling runs dry. Klaus craves a joint between his lips. It’s been so long since the bliss of nothing . Numbness was better than this crippling heartache. It had to be.

“Why don’t you just go to bed?” Ben reaches out and places his hand on top of Klaus’, “It’s late. And you remember when Five said, right? More than likely we got a big day tomorrow.”

Ben must’ve developed mind reading abilities in the afterlife. Klaus nods. Ben stands and offers his hand. Klaus offers him a tight-lipped smile as he accepts it.

Right. Numbness meant sacrificing his brother. Ben was so happy when Klaus was sober enough to give him a hug that he didn’t let go for hours. After everything Ben’s done for him, he owes him this sobriety. Klaus crawls into bed and shuts out the light on his nightstand. He flops back onto his pillow as the fairy lights hanging above him gently illuminate his features. He tries to shrug the craving off. It’s a stubborn damned thing and refuses to budge. Klaus swallows and tugs his blanket up to his chin.

He has to stay strong. He can’t give in. The craving wants to play dirty? Fine. He can play dirty. Klaus would be just as stubborn. He’s not going back. He was recovering, goddamnit, everyone knew it and everyone was proud of him this morning and he can remember each of their faces when he came back into their lives high as a fucking kite with their rolled eyes and high pitched voices laced with fake concern and saturated with fake pity and those were faces he could not ever bear to see again.

Brushed off. Ignored. Belittled. No, God no, he can’t go back.

So he takes deep breaths, inhales seven seconds, exhales seven seconds, rinse and repeat just like Vanya taught him, and the craving finally surrenders. It always surrenders. Eventually.

That’s what Vanya told him, anyway.

Now if only he could get his damned heartache to go away. His last ghost, the final boss.

Where was the whole ‘time heals all wounds” bullshit everyone and their mother was always preaching about? A year later and his heart hadn’t mended the hole death had ripped out. He puts himself back together: the pieces go in wrong. His heart comes out a little crooked. He thinks he’ll always be like this: a little mangled, a little broken, a little less than.  

Deep breath. He just needed to sleep. His ghosts will still be ghosts tomorrow. Klaus lets his eyelids flutter shut and pretends his bed doesn’t feel empty.

 


 

 

The sound of efficiency in action: synchronicity. The clatter of typewriters working in unison, a constant metal hum echoing across the lab as dozens of people furiously bend over their desks hurry to finish the day’s work. The sound of it is music to The Handler’s ears.  

Her heels click against the linoleum of the facility as she makes her way down the hall surrounded by the sweet symphony.

The Handler pauses as the fluorescent lights flicker above her, once, then twice. Screams of agony bounce around the walls. She inhales, breathing in the sound of it.

She makes her way down the hall. The lights flicker and her heart skips a beat along with it.

The staff member opens the door for her, revealing a dilapidated room. It’s small, gloomy, and barren except for the soldier strapped to a chair and the staff members that wait with bated breath for their work to begin. The soldier bites on a mouthguard so hard his teeth might shatter. Electricity zaps from the two metal plates pressed to either side of his head and dances across the metal plate embedded in the center of his chest.

The Handler smiles; she’s delighted at the display. “How is The Commission's greatest achievement?” She turns to face a staff member, short, dark-haired, and analytical (received perfect scores on his end of year report.)

“Primed and polished, ma’am.” He taps his pen against the clipboard, “Emerged from cryostasis with no problems.”

“Wonderful.”

Another staff member, tall, lanky, with a high pitched voice (end of year report noted his potential but he’s just not quite there yet), picks up a notebook, flips it open, and opens his mouth: “Devo--”

“Ah, you mind if I say it?” The Handler interrupts. She scrunches her nose and walks over to him.

“Not at all.” He hands her the book.

“Perfect.” She doesn’t break eye contact from the soldier as she takes the book. She snaps it shut. “Devotion.”

Immediately the soldier stiffens. His pupils dilate.

“Valley. Thirty-nine. Dusk.”

The soldier's chest rises and falls rapidly. His arms twitch. The electricity crackles across his skin.

“Magazine. Glass. Soul.”

His arms stop twitching.

“Sixteen. Stay.”

She takes another step forward to see her work up close and personal. He doesn’t make eye contact, but The Handler can see the fear in his eyes. She smiles. The last word rolls off her tongue with the satisfaction of a bullet firing. Ready, aim, fire.

Medic .”

The electricity stops. The restraints open. The soldier stands.

The Handler looks up at him. “Soldier.”

His voice is hoarse, ragged, and stoic: “Ready to comply.”