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The Ability to Survive

Chapter Text

Connor’s chest burned, though not from exertion.

He moved through the darkening park at a pace only slightly too dignified to be called running. The daylight had dwindled to a barely perceptible lighting of the gloom. The streetlamps had flickered on, the artificial yellow light added extra shape to his slender cheekbones and the hollows at his temples but leeched his already pale face of any natural color; made the purple circles beneath his eyes darker and harsher. The sickly yellow made the teenager pale and ghost-like in the night, thinner than he already was.
Connor should not be out this late. Amanda would be livid; tardiness never sat well with her.

Anxiety clawed at his chest, climbing up his ribs like rungs of a ladder, and his breathing burned him. His thoughts were so solely focused on getting back to home—to where he should be—that he almost didn’t see it at all.

After years of taking this route through the park, Connor was well accustomed to the path and terrain; so much so he didn’t even need to look where he was walking any more. What he wasn’t accustomed to was the unexpected flash of yellow in the darkness.

Police tape stretched between the trees, cordoning off a large square of the park to his left. He blinked at the weaving beams of light from the flashlights of the police officers on the scene. Glancing ahead toward the road, Connor saw the whole entourage of parked police cars, lights and sirens all switched off; perhaps to avoid too much unnecessary attention from the public or press, if the presence of so many marked police vehicles hadn’t alerted them already. Or perhaps the time for discretion and first responders was over.

Connor stopped walking.

Around him, the shadows lengthened. Time ticked on, a clock in the distance chimed eight O’clock. Connor really needed to get home. Amanda would be furious with him. But… his interest had been captured, and he couldn’t turn away.

He stepped off the path, his sneakers silent as they pressed into the moist earth. Police tape in Detroit usually meant one thing: evidence that couldn’t be moved for a few hours.

Everything pointed to murder.

To say the least, Connor had been taken by a morbid fascination he didn’t understand.
He reached the police line within seconds, his strides decisive despite the cry of long-ingrained instincts that screamed at him to go home. Still in full view—despite the clamor of so many people all around it—lay the mutilated corpse. He couldn’t—at least from this distance—discern the age of the man. If it wasn’t for the solid, square shape of the body, he wouldn’t have known it to be a man at all.

The reason for this, the victim’s face had completely been burned away, and the teenager unflinchingly recognized the stench of burning flesh.

Even from behind the waist-high police tape, Connor could see the way the acid had eaten into the man’s skull, effectively removing the corpse’s facial features. The hand he could see—the left—seemed to have received similar treatment, and scarred, damaged bone poked through the crumples of bubbled flesh. His clothes were ripped and disheveled in a fashion they couldn’t have settled in where he’d fallen or been dumped.

Unperturbed, the teenage boy stepped closer to the line, his head tilted in curiosity when two rough male hands gripped him by his slim shoulders. He recoiled, dodging the hands that threatened him, turning in a smooth, if slightly panicked pivot to face his assailant.

It was a police officer in uniform. Connor relaxed a little, but didn’t lower his guard, still nervous the man might attempt to make a grab for him again.

“You shouldn’t be here, kid. Just…” He sighed. “Just don’t look, okay? Go home.” The officer’s ginger hair, faded and thinning, had receded all the way the apex of his skull. Connor noted he looked rather ill; pale, beads of sweat forming slowly across his forehead. He also noted the reminder of his need to get back to Amanda, but something pulled at him to stay.

He frowned almost imperceptibly. “Why didn’t you close off the whole park?”

“That’s not my job, ok? Now would you go home? You shouldn’t be walking around in the dark by yourself, anyway. Not in this city.” The officer didn’t look angry, he looked sad. Concerned. Perhaps a little frustrated. He shifted his weight and put his hands on his hips.

Connor knew perfectly well he should go home, and that he shouldn’t be walking around in the dark alone, but… he was so intrigued. He was unsure why, but he found himself determined to stay. Risk versus reward. This wasn’t worth it, and he should leave. But he could help; he knew all about these scenarios—had been reading about them since he could understand the words.

“Officer,” Connor said, lowering his chin and filling his voice with respect, but resolute in his decision to stay. “With all due respect, I think I may be able to help.”
Half afraid the officer might physically remove him from the scene, when he suddenly moved his hand to rub at his face, Connor flinched, fighting the urge to take several steps away.

“Kid… what’s your name?” He asked, moving his hand only to pinch the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed.

“Connor Stern.”

“Connor. Listen, if we let every civilian—let alone a minor—that said they might be able to help onto a crime scene, there would be no point in this here police tape.” He sighed as he made a tired gesture to the yellow tape as if he’d said all this a thousand times. “Everyone wants to be Sherlock Holmes, Connor. Everyone. If I were you, I’d leave it to the detectives—the real Sherlocks. Sorry, kid, but you’re more likely to contaminate evidence than anything. You need to leave. It’s not pretty over there, so I’d rather you go now.”

The teenager didn’t scowl, but his face rather remained completely neutral. Connor himself still had no clue why he wasn’t leaving. Next time, Connor himself might very well be the murder victim, once Amanda had eaten at him for his lateness.

The officer wasn’t convinced by Connor, so it was clear he required a suggestion of proof. Fitting of an officer, he supposed. If he wasn’t at least a little skeptical, he wouldn’t be doing his job.

“Sir,” Connor began again, and the officer’s shoulders dropped heavily enough for Connor to begin to feel quite guilty. “I am certain I can help. For one, I can tell you what acid melted that man’s skin without having to lab test it. I can explain a little about the mentality of the killer, and perhaps even a possible motive. Depending on the evidence, I can give an approximate height and body type for a suspect. Really, officer, I can aid this investigation.”

Staring at him with something of a mix between horror and fascination, the officer opened his mouth and closed it again. “Let me get… just… I’m going to get my boss.”
Connor didn’t know whether that was progress or if the officer was simply sick of trying to talk him down.

The officer ducked the police tape and there were a few moments where the officer disappeared into the small crowd of personnel. He returned, however, accompanied by a middle-aged Asian man with recently dyed black hair and a distracted look in his eyes.

“I don’t know who you think you are, young man, but I cannot possibly let you onto this crime scene. Especially as a minor.”

Connor had already heard this, and so repeated his own words again, describing what he could do for the investigation. He only hoped it was enough.

The black-haired man, whom Connor assumed to be a captain, stared at him with such intensity the teenager ducked his head once more; a respectful, submissive gesture which seemed to gain him a few points.

“Alright… young man—”

“Connor Stern,” Supplied the ginger officer in uniform, a little over-eagerly.

“Yes, thank you, Wells, you can go now.”
Wells left. The captain never even looked away from Connor as he spoke, gazing at the teenager with an intensity that made Connor deeply uncomfortable.
“Listen here, Connor,” he began, and Connor sighed silently through his nose. It was clear the captain was going to feed him the same spiel he’d heard from Wells. “I’m going to tell you frankly, I don’t believe in or care about whatever you’re claiming, so go home. I can’t let you onto a crime scene, just as my officer told you.”

Connor stared at the man unblinkingly, thinking fast. “Captain, if I can’t come onto the crime scene, which is completely understandable considering my age and status as a civilian,” he forced a reassuring smile onto his face despite his anxieties and confusion "at least allow me to tell you what I’ve noticed from my side of the line.”

The captain squinted at him. “Alright, alright,” he shook his head with something akin to resignation, “I’m Captain Schuler. 10th precinct,” He extended his hand and Connor took it, giving it a firm shake. “Tell me what you think, then beat it.”

He swallowed nervously. He had to get this right.
Glancing back toward the charred outline of the corpse of the male figure for a moment, Connor took in the clothes, approximate height and weight and calculated everything he could in spite of his limited perspective.

There wasn’t much he could give. From this distance, he couldn’t even begin to define the type of corrosive or see any signs of struggle beyond his disheveled clothes.
Then, Connor spied a footprint. He focused all of his attention on it, choosing to dismiss the victim entirely. It was unlikely he could tell Schuler anything his detectives hadn’t already. The faint boot print had no yellow evidence marker set beside it, and Connor knew he had struck gold. Scanning the immediate area, he located its fainter twin.
He looked back to the captain, deciding hastily on his key points. He was trying to impress; they had to be good. Why he was so set on this, Connor still had no idea.

“The suspect is male, approximately six feet, two inches tall. They left the scene at a fast walking pace as they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves by running. The suspect’s stride length is around ninety centimeters. They likely have a low-income status and a slight limp, favoring their right leg, potentially due to defensive wounds from the victim.” He spoke fast, careful not to hesitate. Hesitation indicated lying, or at least fabricated truths.

At some point during his profile, Captain Schuler’s mouth had fallen open, either in disbelief or amazement. Connor sincerely hoped for the latter.

“How—”

“Captain, I think it necessary to inform you that there is a pair of footprints near to the scene,” He pointed. They were close by, and he found it strange that nobody had noted them as of yet. “They don’t belong to any of your personnel on scene at present. The ground is hard now. The suspect left them when this ground was wet and muddy. That will have been at least twenty-four hours ago for the ground to be thing dry, since the temperature hasn’t been very high.”

A long period of silence, ensued, in which Connor realized that he had interrupted, and took a small step back, suddenly intensely anxious once again. He should apologize. He should—

“You don’t talk like a teenager, kid.” Was all the captain said after a full minute of silence.

Connor blinked, but otherwise, his expression remained unchanged. “My mother doesn’t approve of ‘delinquent speech’.”

The captain looked troubled, flashlights backlighting his face and giving it more lines than he really had. Those flashlights were now the only source of light, as night had now fallen completely. “I can’t let you over this line, even if I want to.”
Connor didn’t move, didn’t show any signs of anger or disappointment. He only stood there, quiet.
“But you’ve given me more to go on than any of my people and you’re on the side of the line where you shouldn’t be able to,” he grinned in a kind of perplexed way, “I’m impressed.” He turned and shouted something Connor didn’t catch but assumed to be the captain telling his detectives about the prints. He faced the young man once again. “Tell me how.”

Connor shifted slightly. He still fidgeted, even after sixteen years of being reprimanded for it.
“If you divide the length of a footprint by point fifteen it gives an approximate height. And the speed at which the person moved can be determined by how deep the impression is from the ball of the foot. The suspect is male from the width, proportion and rough brand type, and from the same details, I determined a probable low income. A deeper impression in one print indicates a limp since the dirt is at an even consistency. Oh, and stride length comes from the distance between the two prints, with some margin of error considering the limp, obviously.” He tugged at the edge of his jacket, locking his muscles to stop them shivering in the cold night air. He’d come out without a coat.

“Obviously,” Echoed the captain faintly. “Exactly how old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“Damn.” He said, impressed once again. “Well, thank you. That is some very useful information. But I really must ask you to move along now, thanks again.”
The captain turned away, and Connor was filled with a strange sense of loss, and then dread, as he realized once again just how late he was.

He took one swift step away from the line and back toward the path before he heard the captain call out his name. He spun on his heel, giving the captain a polite smile. Schuler ducked under the police tape and faced him once more, “Hey, Stern, can I have your number, or your email or something? Just in case I see an opportunity for you with enforcement in the future. If your profile pans out, then you’ve got talent and you need to use it.”

The polite smile faded. “I’m flattered, Captain Schuler, but I don’t actually have my own cell phone.”

“Can you give me your mom’s, then? Or, whoever, you know. Parent or guardian.”

The teenager grimaced. Amanda would never allow him giving out her number, so he couldn’t possibly do that, but he could give him the landline. Surely that wouldn’t be so bad.
Connor gave him the number, which he wrote on the Captain’s notepad with a biro. Schuler reached out to shake his hand once more, but as Connor moved to take it, another hand appeared from his left and smacked the teenager’s hand away with an all too familiar force. If Connor had been unfazed by the presence of a mutilated dead body, the appearance of his enraged mother clearly had some impact.

His head snapped to the side to meet her gaze, his eyes blown wide, his whole posture going even more rigid than it had previously been. The portrait of a teenager caught doing something strictly forbidden.

Amanda caught his wrist in a death grip, strong fingers squeezing hard enough to hurt. “Connor,” she uttered, her voice quietly furious. “What do you think you are doing.” It wasn’t a question.

Connor, paralyzed, didn’t respond, but his silence didn’t matter, because the dark-haired woman span and turned her coolly enraged gaze on the captain. “And who are you, mmm?
Why did you let him anyway near here? He is a minor and has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.”

Connor wished he could vanish. Disappear into the ground.

Amanda’s sharp eyes had the captain pinned.

“Ma’am, I’m Captain Schuler, 10th precinct, and I assure you, your son has given me reason to believe he knows exactly what he’s doing. Proven it, actually. He’s given me more to go on than all my people put together.”

Connor winced.

The captain hardly looked flustered, and as a person who had been on the receiving end of that look countless times, Connor had to give him credit for that, but he regarded Amanda with wary eyes.

“And you assumed what he told you is correct, did you? How foolish,” She half turned and swept Connor up and down with a single deeply disappointed, disapproving look, turned back to the man. “I would have expected better instincts from a police captain.” She still has her finger clasped tightly around his wrist, and Connor could already feel the bruise that would later emerge. He never let a hint of that pain tighten his face or jaw; never let himself wince or show a single reflexive flinch.

“Ma’am, with respect—” The captain started, but Amanda cut him off.

“Don’t ‘with respect’ me, sir. I am this boy’s mother, and I know my son. Whatever you think you know, you’re wrong. I know what’s best for him, and I will not be tested by a man
who has talked to him for all of two minutes.”

Schuler tilted his head. “You talk as if he can’t look after himself.”

“He can’t.” She lifted her chin, “Good evening, Captain.”

And she turned on her heel and marched off, dragging Connor along with her, still not alleviating any pressure from his wrist. Evidently, nobody had dared to stop her as she marched toward the police tape. A woman on the warpath. A divine intervention couldn’t have stopped her, even if Connor had on occasion prayed for one over the years.
Amanda said nothing as she marched down the park path and to the street, past the police cars and forced him into the passenger seat of her own car. Only then did she let go of him.
Connor did not rub the pain away, afraid of angering her further. In fact, he did not move at all.
Amanda still refused to speak as the car rumbled to life and did not utter a single word throughout the journey back to their apartment; a small, but not inadequate living space with two bedrooms, one bathroom with an adjoined kitchen and living room along with a small study from which his mother worked.
God, what had he been thinking? He hadn’t been. That’s what Amanda would say, and she would be right. She was always right.
He shouldn’t have done that. He should’ve seen that police tape and walked faster. Should’ve run. What was wrong with him?
The silence, unbearable for Connor, stretched on, and he knew she knew it, too. She knew she tortured him with the lack of outward anger; letting his anxious mind wonder what would follow the calm before the storm.

Chapter Text

Every knock on the door, rare as they were, was another heart attack for Connor. He didn't like loud noises or strangers, and a knock on the apartment door invariably meant both.

They didn't get many visitors in their shabby apartment block, as it was a quiet building, and Amanda didn't often have friends who would call in; only work associates who called the landline, but never came to the apartment. Connor didn't have friends either, had no opportunity for them. He was home-schooled by his mother and filled his days with working and reading. There wasn't much else to do. It was rare he left the apartment, save for running errands for Amanda, or getting out of her way when she wanted the place to herself, so he didn't have friends the way other boys his age did.

One person he did consider a friend was Alice. She lived a floor below him with her father, and despite her only being seven years old, Connor liked her. Alice was a lot like him. They had a lot in common.

She didn't smile much, but he always tried to make her laugh.

Honestly, there wasn't much else to do.

He often went running. It cleared his often-crowded mind, and it was the one sport Amanda approved of. It didn't cost money and it got him out of the house for an hour or so at a time.

So, day after day, Connor worked for his education (which, at 16, he had pretty much completed with the accelerated rate he progressed at), and he read the books he found interesting and obeyed his mother's rules. It was sometimes boring, and Connor's mind, equally as fidgety as his body, often screamed for something else to do but Connor knew that one day, his hard work would pay off. He'd get a good job and give Amanda most of the money, so they could live in a nice house somewhere and Amanda herself wouldn't have to work anymore.

Sat at the old, but immaculate dining table in the kitchen with perfect posture, Connor diligently completed his schoolwork whilst Amanda worked from her study down the hall. The knock on the door, just three short taps, startled him from concentration and he stared, unsure, toward the doorknob.

He padded out of the kitchen and down the hall on silent feet. Knocking on this door himself, he waited twenty seconds before being called inside. He wasn't about to walk in uninvited. Not when he was still deep in the doghouse.
Amanda turned; her reading glasses perched on her nose.

"What is it? Did you finish already? I'm working, Connor." She sighed through her nose and turned back to her old computer.

"There's someone at the door."

Straight-faced, she stood, smoothed her shirt and skirt, and stalked past him without another word. He flattened himself to the wall to let her pass in the narrow hall. Unsure whether she'd want him in the kitchen or out of the way, Connor hovered, uncertain, in the hall, balancing on the balls of his feet, listening.

He heard the jingle of keys and the door opening, and Connor was surprised to hear Captain Schuler's confident voice floating down the corridor towards him.
"Good afternoon, Ms Stern. I've clearly got the right address." Connor could actually hear his polite smile. "May I come in?"

"Of course, Captain." Similarly, Connor could hear the lack of warmth in Amanda's own tone.

"Is Connor here?"

"I don't see why that's any of your concern. I'm sure whatever you're here for can be discussed with me." She sighed. "Is this about him at that crime scene? I'm sorry if he confused anybody with false information. Would you care to sit?"

The scrape of chairs against the floor. The captain must know Connor was here; he'd left his notepad and textbook on the table. Perhaps it could be passed off as Amanda's own studies, but the captain was probably smarter than that. Why was Amanda bothering to deny it when it was obvious that he was here? Control, he supposed. His mother always preferred to be in control of situations, so Connor stayed there, hiding, silent in the hall.

"No, ma'am this isn't about misinformation. In fact, the information Connor gave me proved to be concrete. We apprehended the suspect this morning."
Despite his remaining guilt, his chest swelled with pride. A dangerous pride that he quickly quashed.

Amanda said nothing, and there was a beat of silence before Schuler said; "May I speak with Connor? He did the force a good service, probably saved a good few lives."

"Yes, I suppose so." Amanda's voice was so sour she might as well have been sucking a lemon. "Connor!" After listening with such intent, Connor startled at the loud call of his name and abruptly darted forward into the kitchen.
Amanda glared at him as he came into view, though he was unsure what he'd done wrong.

"Hello, Captain Schuler." He brought the same polite smile to his face that he had first worn when he met the captain. It was a little more difficult under Amanda's scrutiny.

"Hi, Connor," Said Schuler kindly, "I don't know if you heard me telling your mother here, but we apprehended your suspect this morning. Fit your profile to the letter, and that is really... seriously impressive. No one on my team put that information together, never mind on their own. It's clear that you've got a talent."

Connor didn't know what to say to that, but the swelling of pride had grown even further. He defaulted to "Thank you, sir."

Amanda finally took her scrutinous gaze off Connor and fixed the captain with a similar look. "If you don't mind me asking, captain," She said coldly, "How exactly did you find this address?"

The captain was holding out against the cold emanating from Amanda much better than Connor had ever with sixteen years of practice. "Well, Connor helpfully gave me the landline number, so I just ran it through the database."

Connor tried not to cringe too obviously.

"And why is my house phone number in the police database."

"All home phones are on the police database along with the accompanying address. Nothing to worry about ma'am, I assure you."

It was only through an acutely trained eye that Connor saw Amanda relax minutely.

"Why did you feel the need to personally arrive on the doorstep when you apparently" She shot a look over her shoulder at Connor, "could've called any time."

The captain smiled confidently again, something Connor found more and more impressive the longer that he was subject to Amanda's freezing cold gaze and icy tone. Despite himself, Connor decided that he liked him. "In light of Connor's astounding demonstration of talent, I have a proposal for him. One that will invariably result in a highly successful career within the police force, should he agree to participate."

Amanda said nothing. Connor stayed rooted to the spot. What.

"Should he pass the entry tests, which I have a sneaking suspicion that he will with flying colours, I would like Connor to attend Detroit Police Aca—"

"Connor, wait outside please."

Connor, who had been standing stock still with his mouth agape, was so shell shocked at what he was hearing, what he thought the captain might mean that it took him a moment to process Amanda's interruption. He blinked, surprised. The captain looked as surprised as he felt.

"Connor." She repeated, which was in itself a dangerous sign. Amanda didn't repeat herself. "Outside, please."

Connor knew better than to think that she simply meant to leave the room. He hastened to obey her instruction; if she had to repeat herself again, she would not be happy. In his hurry, he didn't bother with shoes but rather slipped out of the door barefoot.
For a moment he hovered outside the apartment door, indecisive. He reached for the quarter that he used to occupy his hands when Amanda wasn't watching but realised he wasn't wearing his jacket. He paced two lines on the smooth floor of the corridor, changed his mind and made his way towards the stairwell instead.
He often found himself pacing but found it much more satisfying to count steps as he went up and down.

One floor up. 16 steps.

Had Captain Schuler really been about to suggest Connor go to the police academy?

Another floor up, the top of the building. Another 16 steps.

Maybe Amanda would actually let him go.

32 steps down. Back on the third floor.

No, Amanda hated the police. She was probably so mad at Connor for bringing Schuler to the flat.

16 steps down. 80 steps in total.

He turned the corner and nearly broke his neck tripping over the tiny figure hunched on the next step down. The figure made a surprised noise as Connor tripped his way back onto his feet on the flat of the stairwell. "Alice?" He said at the same time the figure said:
"Connor?"

"Alice," He said again, this time smiling. "Hi. You scared the life out of me."

She shifted on the step into a more comfortable position. "Sorry." Her voice was small.

"Don't worry, no harm done." He spun on the spot and smiled at her to show he was unharmed. She gave a tiny smile in return. It was small, but it was genuine.
Alice was only seven, but Connor considered her his best friend. His only friend. More like a sister than anything.

Connor remembered when Alice and her parents had moved in, just three years ago. On his wanderings through the building Connor had often heard Todd and Alice’s mother screaming about money and family and work and everything beyond, whilst the pitiful wailing of a toddler droned in the background. A few months later, two, maybe three, Alice’s mother disappeared without a word to anyone. Todd had never tried to do anything about it. Alice had been left with Todd all by herself at the age of four, and Connor had made the decision then and there to become Alice’s older brother. He couldn’t do much to help, wouldn’t know where to begin, but he could do little things. Help her smile sometimes, bandage her up, give her a piggy back down the hall every now and then.

He wished he could do more for her, but Amanda didn’t like him to be out of the apartment for very long, save for rare occasions. And Connor didn’t like to make her mad at him.

"It was my fault; I should've known to check your spot before turning the corner so quickly." Connor's voice was still a little scratchy. He'd barely talked today, so he cleared his throat. He had already talked to Alice more than he had talked to his mother today by a long shot. With Alice, he was probably the most animated he ever was. She wasn't a happy girl, so he made up for it by being twice his personality. In all honesty, Connor wasn't sure he knew what his personality was at all. He hadn't had much chance to figure it out.

Connor took a seat on the step beside her, close, but not quite touching her shoulder with his. Neither of them was used to physical affection, and the closeness was more than enough for them both. They sat in quiet companionship for a few minutes, listening to each other breathing.

Connor wondered what Amanda was saying to the captain now if she wasn't murdering him for suggesting her son should leave.

"Stop it, Connor." Said Alice out of the blue.

"What?" He looked up, surprised.

She pointed at his hands, clasped in front of him, his elbows resting on his knees. "You're doing that thing again."

He looked. His skin was red where he'd pulled at it. He sometimes worried his hands without realising it. Sometimes he'd make them bleed before he noticed.

"Oh." He said. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," she said with too much weariness for a girl of seven years, "Just stop before you hurt yourself. Fiddle with your clothes instead. You do that all the time, that won't hurt you."

A bottle smashed somewhere inside the nearest apartment. Alice flinched. Connor had startled slightly at the sound, too. It was sad really, the two of them sat cowering in a stairwell, jumping at loud noises like cornered animals.
The noise jarred a thought loose in his brain, and he half-turned to look his friend over. "You all right, Alice? You need anything?"

"Thanks, Connor. No. It's just a few bruises."

"Right." Connor had lied to her about bruises enough times that he knew she was telling the truth.

He sighed, and so did she.

They both sat there feeling miserable, waiting for something to happen. He didn't know what, exactly. Connor wanted to get back to the apartment soon, but he didn't want to leave Alice on her own again, though he knew there was nothing he could do to help her. They were both as helpless as each other. It didn't matter that Connor was a sixteen-year-old boy, he could do little more than the seven-year-old next to him. He patched her up when she needed it and that was all that could be done.

But this was normal. This was life.

And now… Connor might be going to a police academy. But… He didn't want to. Well, he did, but the thought terrified him. The police? He was sixteen. The captain was surely… He couldn't have cleared this with the people who actually had the power to make these decisions, could he? It was impossible.

The thought of it was terrifying and… and so horribly wonderful. It would be amazing to be in an environment where he could learn the things that interested him so much; fascinated him. To be in a place where he could practice the skills that he had already developed completely by accident… To be in a position where he could achieve a career in something that he loved to be knowledgeable about… it was beyond anything Connor had ever imagined for himself.

But…

Connor didn't know how to be away from Amanda. He didn't know how to act alone. He wasn't an adult; he had no social skills or life experience. He knew he relied on Amanda for everything.

Alice batted at his hands. "Stop it, Connor."

"Sorry," He said again, stuffing his now sore hands into his pockets.

A door opened on the floor above. Connor jumped to his feet. "Have to run, bye Alice."

"Bye," She echoed rather miserably as he ran up the stairs with his bare feet, taking the steps in twos and threes at a time. The resigned quality of her voice was too old for her little body. It made his heart hurt.

Amanda was peering out along the corridor with a barely visible frown, evidently wondering where he had got to. He made sure to make his steps audible and she turned.

"Come back inside Connor. The captain would like to talk to you." Connor tensed as she placed her hands between his shoulder blades and steered him inside.

Surprisingly, Schuler looked none the worse for wear after facing Amanda alone and directed an amiable smile at Connor as he was steered by his mother into the chair where she had previously sat. Without another word, she left the room, disappearing back into her study.

He stared after her, even more confused about what was happening than before. All he knew was that things were never good when Amanda was silent. But that wasn't always a concrete rule. It depended on context, and here, Connor had no clue what the context was.

He didn't have enough data to draw a conclusion or determine the correct course of action.

The captain also watched Amanda leave with some level of confusion but appeared to shake it off without much difficulty.

Connor was unable to indulge in this, however.
He just wanted to know how angry Amanda actually was with him. If he knew, he could deal with it. It was and always had been the unknown quantity of any situation that bothered him.

"So," Schuler began as Connor struggled to refocus his attention to the present situation, "I was intending to ask your opinion of this before a decision was made,"
Ah. So Amanda had stopped this already. He was surprised at the sheer amount of disappointment that he felt at the news. But he'd been stupid to get his hopes up. Of course, it never could've happened.

"But I'm still going to ask you," Why? "Would you like to go to the Detroit Police Academy?"

Connor said nothing, conflicted. Yes, he did. So, so badly, but for one thing, he didn't know how he would cope in such a foreign environment, or if he could cope at all. And it didn't matter at all if Amanda had already vetoed the whole concept.

"Okay, I know it's overwhelming, but I want to know how you feel about it."

That didn't matter, though. How did that matter?

"You have a talent, Connor. And it's pretty fucking rare to have something like that. You helped apprehend a killer. You helped save lives. That's a really good thing. You have the ability to do this, the ability to help people. Is it so unbelievable that I want to help you put that talent into practice as quickly as possible?" There were lines in the captain's brow, his shoulders pressed forward with his hands clasped in front of him on the immaculately clean table. It was obvious that Schuler was convinced by this, intent on getting an answer.

"Yes," Connor said, a little breathlessly, worried Amanda might hear him disagreeing with her. Might hear him saying he wanted to leave her. "Yes, I want to go. I want to learn about all that, and—and I want to help people. I would like that, I think."
Schuler looked incredibly pleased. This was highly frustrating for Connor.

"But it doesn't matter, does it. My mother--she doesn't want me to go."

The captain leant back in his chair with a surprised look on his face. "Actually, your mom has agreed to let you come to the Academy as soon as the new term starts. Expressly asked for it, actually."

Connor stared around the kitchen and realised that the world had gone completely mad.

Chapter Text

Connor spent the days preceding his debut at the police academy in complete and utter turmoil.

He’d had over a month to come to terms with this wild and unexpected turn in his life, and yet he was still brimming full of guilt and confusion about going into this unknown situation.

And there was the fact that Connor was looking forward to it. He hadn’t looked forward to anything in a long time. And he knew that he shouldn't look forward to going to a place where he would be away from Amanda. She was the only person who loved him… it made the knot in his chest tighten. His emotions were a hopeless tangle and he couldn’t even summon the energy to tug on a string to see where it led. There was too much to unpack. So much he knew he understood nothing about.

What kind of a son was he to Amanda if he was happy to do something that would take him away from her? This would be for periods of time longer than he had ever spent without her.
Though he knew Amanda wanted him to go, he couldn’t stop the crushing guilt that kept him up at night and distracted him without mercy, even in daylight hours.

Eventually, Connor couldn’t take it anymore. He had to know. He needed to understand. Because this didn’t make sense to him, and that scared him. He was having trouble finding a single reason why Amanda would actually want him to go.

He resolved, with some trepidation, to ask her.

One evening he waited for Amanda to emerge from her study, having finished working for the day. She never went into the office anymore. He had noticed that a while ago. She went in less and less. After a while, she stopped going altogether.

With great caution, he intercepted her as she made her way into the kitchen, but before he could say anything, she smiled at him; “What is it, Connor? You look worried.”

“Um, yes. If you don’t mind me asking, I’d like to know--”

“One moment, Connor,” Amanda interjected kindly, “If you have something to ask, why don’t we sit down and talk about it? You do look quite worried, my dear.”
She touched his shoulder in a gentle direction towards the kitchen, indicating for him to sit at the kitchen table. He did.

Connor’s throat constricted. She appeared to be in a good mood, so it was possible she wouldn’t mind the question. But questions, especially big ones, were always rocky ground.
His mother set about making tea, and after a minute she also set a steaming cup down in front of him. Graceful as always, she sat adjacent to him.

“If something’s bothering you, Connor, you should tell me. You know you can always tell me.” Her voice was smooth as always, warm now where it was sometimes cold.

“Yes. Um,” Was this ok? “I just wanted to ask, to ask why you want me to go to the academy. It’s been bothering me a bit.” He tried to be respectful as possible; to be meek and quiet because Amanda hated the wrong questions, and he didn’t know if this was a right one.

“Why?” She leant forward a little, and something had changed. He felt it. “You don’t want to go?” She sounded and looked casual, but it was a studied casualness, learned from years of practice. Connor knew it when he saw it. He had years of practice too. In an instant, his heart was in his mouth, beating adrenaline into his veins.

He had asked a wrong question.

At once, all his attention homed in on every line of Amanda’s expression and body language.

In a panic, Connor defaulted to a basic response, “I want whatever you want, mother. I know that you must know what is best for me.”

When Connor panicked, he knew he spoke like a robot, referring to default responses in his desperation in hopes of appeasing her.

Almost as an instinct, his position crept to the very edge of his seat.

This was no longer a discussion. Amanda was holding court in the kitchen, and the defence was failing miserably.

“So, we agree," She was still smiling at him, "I know what is best for you.” The false calm was holding out, but her tone was turning glacial.

“Yes.” Fear crept into his lungs like he was inhaling in a blizzard. His hands were numb. He’d upset her.

“You understand that other children trust their mothers? Other people’s sons do not doubt that the adult responsible for them has their reasons, or do you disagree?” Her voice was cold enough to burn.

Connor felt like he was melting. “No, no of course not, I—”

“Well you are giving me the impression that you do disagree,” her voice had finally begun to rise, everything about her body rigid. “the fact that you feel you have to question my decisions, that you feel you have the right to do that... That you feel anything at all about my choices, gives me the impression that you don’t respect me.”

His voice was very small, “I do resp—"

“So, why, Connor, are you questioning me?” And, without warning, she lashed out and Connor yelled as near-boiling tea scalded his thighs and stomach. He sprang out of his chair and crashed back into the wall behind him, panting hard to get through the pain. The cup lay in shards in a pool of undrunk tea.

Amanda remained in her chair, pinning him with an imperious stare.

Connor just tried to breathe.

In one fluid movement, she was away from the table and in front of him, pulling a fist back near her face to hit him. Brain running at a thousand miles per hour, his voice constricted by fear and pain, Connor blurted; “The academy!”

Amanda paused, her hand raised, and Connor cowered; pushing his back against the wall as if he could sink into it and simply disappear from view.

She usually didn’t like to bruise his face, especially now that he was going to be surrounded by police tomorrow.

“Fine,” She spat, lowered her hand. “Don’t move.”

Connor knew better than to think that she would leave him alone now, that it was over. She would return with a belt and the stripes she would carve into his back would be easy to hide beneath a t-shirt and a polite smile.

He leant on the table edge in front of him and waited, blood pumping a sporadic bass line in his ears.

Her footsteps approached him, and it was all he could to do remind himself to breathe once more.

Just breathe through it. It’ll be over soon. Breathe.

“You’re the one who made this ugly, Connor.”

He choked as he heard the leather belt uncurl. Heard it hit the tile floor with a snapping thud.

. . . . . .

He slept on his front that night, leaving his shirt off to get some air to the stripes. It was much less painful that way.

There was no point feeling sorry for himself or getting annoyed at Amanda; that wasn't something Connor was really capable of anymore. There was no one to blame in this situation but himself. He’d screwed up and he knew it.

Pain ran through every breath, every movement. It was abstract, he knew, but nothing had ever seemed so real.

And no matter how much he wanted to cry as he forced himself to try to sleep, he refused to let himself. There was no use crying; it would achieve nothing other than letting himself wallow in self-pity. That was a weakness he couldn't afford to show.

Hours later, he quieted his noisy, turbulent mind, and fell into a pain infused sleep.

The first thing he noticed when he woke in the morning was the smell of pancakes, and then the pain. It returned in near-blinding throbs as Connor pulled himself agonisingly slowly out of bed.

After a quick, ice cold shower (to numb his back) he dressed like a zombie, trying to let the sweet lull of wafting pancakes drag him away from reality. A reality where every slight movement burned as fabric rubbed across raw skin.

In the kitchen, Amanda was serving up their breakfast. Pancakes, as expected. She always made pancakes the morning after they had an argument.

Amanda always made pancakes with immaculate precision, every surface around her spotless. Sunshine was streaming in through the window, backlighting her as if she were some heavenly being.

He hovered in the doorway and she turned to face him, her eyebrows raised in an expectant expression, a smile gracing her lips. The way the sun shone behind her, he couldn't see if it reached her eyes.

“I’m really sorry,” Said Connor, feeling small. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” She said and handed him a plate of pancakes, patting him on the shoulder.

He near sagged with relief, so much so he didn’t even wince.

“Thank you,” he sat and waited for her to join him at the table.

. . . . . .

Before they left, Connor knew he had to say goodbye to Alice. The source of at least half of his guilt. He was abandoning her; she’d be all alone with only Todd for company. She wasn’t going to have Connor to help patch her up anymore.

He found her playing in the hall a floor below Todd’s apartment. She didn’t play often, but she was a seven-year-old girl at heart, no matter how mature her mind had become, forced to grow up so quickly.

She was skipping up and down the hall with a somewhat dirtied pink stuffed rabbit hanging from her fist. Connor smiled as he saw her, despite everything.

“Connor!” She cried as she saw him, a wide illuminating her often so solemn expression.

“Hi Alice,” He greeted her, “Who’s this?” He gestured to the mildly grimy rabbit toy.

She grinned, waving the rabbit by one rain washed pink arm, “This is Jessica! I found her in the park!”
Lost toys made up the majority of Alice’s possessions, and Connor had found more than a few for her in the past. The discovery of a new one explained her sudden jubilation.

“Nice work! Um, Alice, I brought you something else.” He indicated the small plastic box in his hands.

“You did?”

“Yeah, um, I don’t know if you remember but today is the day that I go, um, to the police academy.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Her face fell, “So what’s that?” She pointed at the box.

Guilt clawed at his chest and throat. “It’s my first-aid kit. I figured since I’m not going to be here most of the time, and I won’t be able to help you, that I can at least give you this so you can try to do it yourself when you need it.” This was horrible to have to say this to her.

“Thanks, Connor.” She cuddled Jessica to her chest. “And I get it. It’s okay. I’ll still see you sometimes, right?”

“You’ll see me whenever I’m here. You’re a priority.”

She smiled, still hugging Jessica. “Hey, will you give me one last piggy-back ride?” She giggled, dancing on her feet as if ready to jump on him at any moment.

He sometimes forgot how young she was. She switched from acting just as old as him to a joyful silly little girl in the blink of an eye.

And Connor, he wanted to give her a piggy-back more than anything else in the world. But having that pressure on his newly torn open back… he would pass out from the pain of it. Or at least vomit.

Damn his own stupidity. If he’d kept his mouth shut and not annoyed Amanda, he’d already have been running up and down this hall with a laughing Alice on his back. All Connor wanted was to make Alice laugh; make her a little bit happier. And now he couldn't, all because he'd suddenly decided that he had the authority to question his mother. Honestly, he didn't know what idiotic impulse made him decide to actually ask her.

“Sorry, Alice, I can’t.” He felt miserable. “My… my back isn’t—isn’t really up to that at the moment.”

“Oh," The comprehension in her young voice made him cringe. "That’s alright, I understand.” She looked a little sad, but he knew she was trying not to be disappointed.

“I could probably get you on my shoulders, though,” He was highly doubtful of this even as he said it, and his skin was already burning in protest even as he considered trying. His shoulders weren’t exactly safe from injury either; he was full of idiotic ideas recently.

Alice gazed up at his face with a look so searching that he wondered if she might actually be reading his thoughts. Admittedly, it was probable he looked like hell. He could practically feel how pale he was.

But he was lucky she had chosen the belt. She’d done a lot worse before. And had every right to. God, he’d been such an idiot.

“It’s fine, Connor. I don’t need a piggy-back. I need you to be okay.” She was still smiling up at him. Honestly, he didn’t know how she did it sometimes. She was a mystery to him.

To his absolute horror, Connor felt tears prick the back of his eyes. He blinked hard, desperately trying to clear his vision.

“I do need a hug, though.” She said, holding her arms out wide, “Just to say bye. Don’t worry, I won’t touch your back.”
Connor stared at her. Stared at this mature, understanding little girl who he had hugged twice in all the duration of knowing her. She was the only person that he had ever hugged. Whilst both of them were generally unused to positive physical contact, they had, on specific occasions found a little comfort in each other's presence.

So, Connor knelt and wrapped careful arms around her, and she didn’t touch him, much, as promised.

He was going to miss his little sister. So, so much. But he’d be back, and Alice would be here when he was.

. . . . . .

Captain Schuler arrived two minutes later than he said he would. During those extra two minutes, Amanda gave Connor the rundown of what she expected of him once more and complained about the captain’s tardiness.

It was everything Connor already had committed to memory. Call at 9:30 PM, no excuses. Be polite and respectful to everyone at the academy because they were older and knew better than him. Complete all tasks to the best of his ability and break no rules. Don’t let anyone see his back or any of his other scars.

None of this surprised him. Everyone was sure to be doing the same. They all must have scars too; Amanda said that all parents discipline their children, but that it wasn’t something people talked about. So, he had to hide the injuries, because that was what polite people did. It made sense.

The two extra minutes that Amanda spent reminding him of this felt like an age, and when the captain finally arrived it was a phenomenal relief. All his speculation would soon end thanks to the presence of the fact of the experience. Connor liked facts; they eliminated the possibility of a dangerous imagination.

“Hello, Ms Stern. Connor. You ready to go?” He was wearing his blue uniform today, the first time that he’d seen it. It must be for the induction or something similar. The sudden officiousness of his appearance made Connor a little jittery. For what felt like the hundredth time, the gravity of the reality he was currently living in hit him full force. It was surreal; the realisation hitting him in waves.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, please. Call me… well, I was about to say Robert, but you should probably just call me Captain since I'm going to be your superior and all that." He let out a short bark-like laugh. Captain Schuler seemed to become more chilled out with every meeting. Or he was just stressed the night that they met. "But I don’t really care. I’m not bothered about titles and stuff; all feels a bit pointless to me.” He turned to Amanda. “Before we go, I’m to let you know that because Connor is still a minor, he won’t be in dorms with the other candidates. He’ll get his own room with his own shower. It’ll be a little cramped, but way better than being in the dorm--I would know, I've been in those dorms. There’s a little bit of combat training, but Connor will always pair off with an instructor, and he won’t be handling guns until he’s of age to do so.”

Amanda smiled, warmth returning to her as though she had unexpectedly decided that she liked the captain.
“Thank you, captain. I’m confident that Connor will be safe under the care of the force.” The words were genuine, but there was an underlying threat beneath them, Connor could hear it. He'd heard that particular tone many, many times, though now he was having trouble distinguishing whether the threat was for him or for Schuler.

They shook hands, and the captain turned back to Connor, who was now his responsibility.

“Well, Connor, welcome to the force. We’ll see how you do. I know you'll be great, this is what you were born to do, I can feel it, and I've got great instincts.”

Chapter Text

“OK,” Said the captain as they drove through the city, the sky clouded with new rain, “Just to get things straight, this is going to be hard,” He looked sideways at Connor in the passenger seat, “I’m sure you already know this, but some of the people at the Academy might not take too kindly to a kid who’s better than them. I don’t think anything will happen, but it might be wise to just… I don’t know. Stay in the middle of the pack for a bit? If you think you can smoke all the morons that’ll eventually get kicked out, don’t bother. It’ll just make ‘em mad. And they’re all a bunch of hotheads. I know that you’re good, and you know that you’re good,” He grinned a little, refocusing on the road as they pulled away from traffic lights, “But maybe surprise them with that a little later down the line. I think that’s better, and hey, you’ll get to see the looks on their faces when you prove them all wrong. Should be pretty great.”

Connor nodded slowly, soaking in the advice. It was sound. Chances of harassment would be considerably lower if he kept his head down. That, he knew from solid experience.

“Thank you, Captain, I’ll do that.”

“Huh,” Murmured Schuler thoughtfully, “Maybe whilst you’re there you’ll learn to have a bit of fun. Loosen up a bit.

Connor stared at him in disbelief. Amanda would never say anything like that, so it must be wrong. However, Schuler was the adult—the authority—in this situation, so he just said; “Sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry. I don’t think it’s your fault.” Was the captain suggesting it was Amanda’s fault? If not, then who? Just because she tried to teach him to be more mature than other people his age didn’t mean she had done anything wrong. If anything she had protected Connor from the foolish behaviour of typical teenagers.

Connor fiercely fought the urge to glare at the captain, or say something that might be rude in her defence.

Schuler glanced at him, apparently reading between the lines of silence. “I’m not blaming your mom, kid, jeez, don’t worry. I’m just noticing that you’ve got posture like you’re tied to a maypole.”

Connor didn’t know what was happening anymore. “Then what did you mean?” Asked Connor, quietly, trying not to sit so straight, despite Amanda ingraining the habit into him since he could first hold himself up. He gave up, however, as his back gave a burst of pain to remind him to follow Amanda’s rules even when she wasn’t watching.

“I was—look,” He sighed, looking mildly frustrated, “It doesn’t matter. You’re a teenager. I was thinking you should maybe try some more classic teenager-y things; you know?”

Connor didn’t know, that sounded like a decidedly bad idea, but he nodded anyway, hastening to agree in case the captain grew more annoyed with him.

“None of it matters, anyway,” Schuler continued, “You’re going to be amazing at the Academy, and that’s all that counts. Look, we’re here.”

Sure enough, they were pulling through the automated barrier, which opened as the car drew up as if it recognised it. Scanned the number plate, Connor thought most likely.

Ahead, the Detroit Police Academy loomed as a mass of grey concrete and white pebbledash external buildings. It had the layout of a small campus, but it was cramped and understated. Ironically, it looked rather like a prison.

He didn’t know if it was on purpose, but the effect it had was thoroughly intimidating.

Not for the first time, Connor wondered what the hell he was doing. But Amanda said this was best for him; had beaten that quite literally into him, so here he would stay. He would learn and be successful and he would make Amanda proud even if it killed him.

Exiting the car in the bleak parking lot, Schuler said, “There’s going to be an induction, then you’ll all get split into your groups and shown around, it’s all ab—Captain Fowler!”

Confused, Connor turned at the strange interjection and clapped eyes who Schuler was addressing with such enthusiasm. The man was large, bald and dark-skinned, looking serious but peering curiously in Connor’s direction.

“Hello, Schuler. Long time no see,” The two captains shook hands, one more enthusiastically than the other. “And this is—?” Fowler queried over Schuler’s shoulder.

“Ah! This is Connor,” Schuler introduced, excitement evident in his voice, “Youngest ever recruit.”

Connor didn’t know what to say. He knew Fowler was technically the same rank as Schuler, but… there was something about him. Perhaps Connor had just grown used to Captain Schuler, but Fowler seemed to exude an aura of power, and effortlessly, he seemed to be in complete control at all times. Honestly, it was what he would have expected from a police captain, rather than Schuler’s laid-back approach to his position.

Fowler was intimidating and respectable. It was impossible not to respect him, even if he’d only witness him utter a grand total of two sentences thus far.

Flailing, Connor defaulted, “Hello, Captain Fowler, it is good to meet you.” He stretched out a hand to shake his.

He knew he sounded like a robot, but it just couldn’t be helped.

Fowler took the offered handshake. “Nice to meet you, Connor,” He smiled almost grimly. “Youngest ever recruit, eh?” He dropped his hand, murmuring, “And potentially most expensive lawsuit,” He began walking towards the main building. “I’ll see you both at induction.”

“Oh well,” Schuler patted Connor on the back in what was clearly meant to be a reassuring gesture, but the sudden pain made stars burst before his eyes and he tried not to sway as he clenched his jaw and fought to keep his expression strictly neutral.

Apparently oblivious to Connor’s sudden pain, Schuler carried on, “Don’t take it personally, he’s like that with everyone.”

Connor nodded forcefully, still breathing methodically to control the spike of pain.

“Let’s get going then,”

 

. . .

 

Standing at the back of a sports hall where Schuler had left him, Connor felt oddly abandoned. He hovered awkwardly, unable to stop scanning all the faces that kept gawking at him. Standing out in a crowd was not something he was used to, and he concluded fairly quickly that he absolutely loathed the sensation. He could feel eyes on him and his skin crawled with paranoia and mistrust. How competitive was the academy? Could these people, all older and therefore more experienced than he, already be plotting to take him out of the equation somehow?

There were a few young faces, some maybe just two or three years older than him. But eighteen and nineteen were still a big difference from sixteen, and they were just as intimidating as the slightly older recruits all around him.

He stared around, sensing eyes on him all around. But... there was something different, somewhere. He could tell. Someone who was… there; a man looking in his early twenties, with buzzed blonde hair and pale eyes who was staring at him with a kind of venom that Connor had never seen before. He was big; tall and lean with the demeanour that he could crush Connor’s skull and that he might be inclined to do so.

And as Connor momentarily met his eye, he smirked the most dangerous smirk Connor had ever seen. There wasn’t a single line of his face nor angle of his body that wasn’t malicious.

As quickly as he had looked, the now very nervous Connor adverted his gaze. Staying away from that guy was suddenly very high on his priority list.

Connor scowled to himself, frustrated. This unfounded ire he seemed to be drawing had the potential to throw a wrench in his plans. Mentally, he began running possibilities. There were hundreds, thousands in these unknown circumstances. He’d have to come up with the percentage later.

He liked to come up with probabilities of situations; it helped him make better sense of his circumstances. He’d always thought it was better to be hyperaware than oblivious. Safer at least.

The hall was nothing but wide, flat surfaces, and the plethora of voices and squeaking of shoes was a cacophony of echoes. It was chaos; it was distracting, and it made his mind focus on strange and specific details at an alarming pace.

Thankfully, Connor was soon rescued from the prying eyes of curious strangers as the room’s attention was snatched away by the high-pitched tone of a microphone being turned on. The raucous noise quieted almost instantly.

On a podium at the front of the hall, a ruddy-faced balding man stepped up to the microphone stand, chin held high on a thick neck and wide shoulders.

The commissioner. It must be, judging by the respect he commanded. Recognition lit the faces of the crowd, suggesting great publicity. Yes, this was he.

He must have much more important things to do; was probably only here out of personal sentiment and in favour of raising a kind of morale among them. He’d be retiring soon, Connor expected. His stooped posture, ticks of pain present in his flabby yet tense face, along with his receding gums; all pointed to potential late-stage osteoporosis. The commissioner kept shifting his feet and weight, suggesting a recent change in posture; the poor man had maybe already endured a vertebral fracture. Even if this theory was wrong, there was clearly something medically wrong with him, and even if he was a man confined to a desk job, he couldn’t go on with work much longer.

“Welcome, recruits of the Detroit Police Academy,” Connor dragged his thoughts away from potential diagnosis to listen. “Congratulations to you all on passing your entrance exam and interview, we look forward to seeing your continued progress as you learn more about the world of policing. I have faith in every one of you, and if you apply yourselves, if you respect your peers and uphold the laws you swear to protect, then you will be sure to excel. If not, then you will not make it to graduation.”

He paused, and Connor stared, not realising that these others had had to pass an acceptance exam or interview. Surprisingly, he found he felt a little bitter about that. Did Schuler not think he would pass the exam? Fail the interview? Connor didn’t feel annoyed very often, or at all in the last few years. Frustration, yes, but Connor hadn’t felt so… vexed in as long as he could remember.

Pushing it away, for now, he refocused on the commissioner. The remainder of his speech was largely of the same nature, and he found his gaze wandering to the other people in the room, especially the people whose attention was also straying from the commissioner and back towards Connor himself.

The man with the blonde buzzcut and pale eyes was the most notable. Connor determinedly avoided even glancing in his direction. It would be like staring down a lion in its own territory. This man, despite being a recruit like everyone else, clearly felt at absolute ease in his environment, and intended to be in complete control of everything around him. And for some reason, other than the obvious, he had singled Connor out as either a threat or someone to be dominated.

Connor didn’t particularly feel like being either one of those things.

The commissioner concluded his speech with well wishes and bumbled away from the podium with his poor posture and male pattern baldness.

He was replaced by a young Asian man who must have somehow been related to Schuler, the resemblance in the bone structure of his face was so similar.

“Alright everyone, we’re going to split you into your groups now. The groups will be your classes, the people you share dorms with, the people you learn with, and so on,” He regarded the hall with some level of scepticism. “Based on your success in your entrance exam, you have been placed into Classes A, B and C. There are three of my colleagues up at the front of the hall here; Ramirez here will start reading names. She’s the handler for Class A, so, if you get called, go over to her. She’ll take you where you need to go. Fletcher and Van Beek will read names for B and C in a moment. Clear? Good. I’ll see some of you tomorrow.”

And with that, the nameless relative of Captain Schuler exited the stand, and then the room, leaving Connor with an undiluted sense of panic. He hadn’t taken an exam; would he not be given a class, then? He wished that Captain Schuler had given him more insight into what would be happening; wished that Amanda had asked more questions before making her decision.

He hated the unknown, hated it.

Names began being read in a high, clear, female voice. For the most part, the names sailed over his head as he tried to focus for his own name in case it was spoken. One name, however, caught his attention. Or, the person it was attached to did. It was the lion: the man so confident in this territory it was as if he owned every inch of it.

Aeron Faust.

Then, a few alphabetised names later, Connor Stern was called. Called to be in Class A. With Faust.

The knotted bundle of emotions he experienced then would’ve taken too long to unpick. He just added the confusion to the pile of discarded feelings he kept so carefully guarded.

Dreamlike, he began walking, eyes sticking to him as he walked. Dutifully, he ignored them. He knew he was young, he knew he looked like some kid in the middle of a professional induction, because that’s exactly what he was, but he was going to prove that he could keep up. Schuler believed he was good enough, so he could at least try to prove himself, try to excel.

He had no comparison, no idea whether he deserved to be here, whether he could even try to compare or compete with these people; these adults who passed a test. He hadn’t passed any test. But he could play the game. He could pretend. He’d been playing a similar game since he’d began to understand Amanda; follow the rules, do everything right, and they can’t fault you. He still sometimes got it wrong, even after years and years; but it was less often. And he was less fragile.

Determination set itself into Connor’s bones and rooted there. He was going to do this; for Amanda, and for Schuler as well he supposed. But Amanda wanted him here, and therefore he would succeed if he died doing it.

 

.  .  .

 

Lieutenant Ramirez turned out to be relatively young for her rank, with dark hair scraped into a ponytail and a near-unreadable expression. She was taking a term helping at the academy after taking a bullet to the shoulder on duty. The lieutenant carried herself with earned confidence, and easily commanded respect from the recruits, bar a few of the rowdier men, a group of which unsurprisingly featured the bombastically confident and scornful personality that was Aeron Faust.

Class A had been led through several wide hallways during their introduction to Ramirez, all the while staring at Connor; the kid in their midst that seemed to think he was supposed to be here.

Since Ramirez wasn’t objecting to the presence of this teenager, neither did anyone else, although he did overhear himself become the butt of a few jokes made behind hands. Honestly, he had expected more maturity. Clearly, Amanda had done him a favour by teaching him respect from early on.

So, Class A side-eyed Connor as they walked and largely ignored him. That was better than it could have been, he supposed.

Eventually, Ramirez halted both her commentary and her walk and they followed suit, the group, maybe thirty people, crowded around their handler. They were in a different building now, attached to the main one.

“Right, this is the dorm building where you'll be sleeping.” She gestured to a pair of doors. “Women in here, men up those stairs. Men in two groups, women in two groups. Keep it even, and—not you Connor, you’ll come with me.”

He startled at being singled out, cringing at the attention, internally recoiling. Strangers, all of them. He didn’t know what would happen, but he knew he couldn’t trust any of them.

All eyes had turned to Connor, skinny and small in the crowd of adult police candidates.

Ramirez cleared her throat, drawing at least some attention back under her command. “Since you all obviously want to know, this is Connor,” She gestured at him in a sort of exasperated way, “He’s just as qualified to be here as all of you, possibly more so, so leave him alone. And whilst curiosity is an important quality in officers and detectives, I should think nosiness should be reserved for cases.”

Some of the class looked mildly abashed, although some scoffed.

“Anyway,” She said curtly, glaring at a few selected members of their number. “Four groups, go, now.”

They split into groups, leaving Connor hovering awkwardly between, unsure where to move to feel less stiff and gormless.

Then they were all given their instructions: unpack, make beds, always do your laundry, keep your area clean.

Faust caught his eye as he followed his friends up the stairs on the left toward their room, and the look he gave him, though somehow unidentifiable, was both completely foreign and horribly familiar.

As they all disappeared into their new dorms, Ramirez said; “Alright Connor, walk and talk.”

They began walking, Connor fidgeting with the hem of his shirt so that he wouldn’t pick at his hands. Somehow, in a different way, being alone with her was worse. Like this, she was a threat: unknown territory.

“Sorry about that, but there’s going to be more where that came from, unfortunately.”

He looked at her sideways, but said nothing. He was reluctant to start any line of communication until he was acquainted with what the rules were. Then, he could determine the best approach. Expectations were high here, he had been told numerous times by multiple people, but he was still unsure in what way.

She regarded him with a level of scepticism he was rapidly growing accustomed to, “You’re quiet then, it’s a nice change. Suggests you’re perceptive, you like to watch and listen instead of fill silences. Must be talented if you managed to get invited here at what, sixteen? In Class A, too.” She spoke with an upward crease in her brow, suggesting that she wanted to raise her eyebrows but was resisting the impulse. The common courtesy was lost on someone as observant as Connor. She was disbelieving at his presence, but was perhaps reserving some of her judgement for his performance.

It didn’t bother him particularly, but nothing much did. He’d already resolved to prove himself to these people, so she’d be proven wrong. He was going to do everything perfectly because Amanda wanted him to. Doing everything perfectly meant Amanda’s approval, Amanda’s trust, Amanda’s love. Earning that was the most important thing in his life, and that was, fundamentally, all he had ever wanted and all he likely ever would.

Ramirez led him up a different flight of stairs at the opposite end of the long corridor, then another. “You get your own room, as you’re a minor, so, lucky you, you get to avoid those dorms. They’re not great. Here,” They stopped outside a door. “Third floor, away from all the adults. Sounds like heaven. You got your own bedroom, own bathroom, your stuff is already in there. Same instructions apply to you; unpack now, always keep your space clean, yadda yadda, all that. Dinner’s at seven-thirty. Any questions?”

Connor shook his head, then “Thank you.” The first words we had spoken since arriving at the academy.

Ramirez smiled slightly, which was mildly reassuring. “You’re welcome, kid. See you tomorrow.” And with that, she handed him a key, and departed back down the stairs.

With some trepidation, Connor inserted the key and let himself into where he would now be living.

His new bedroom was larger than his one at home, and even had a desk. At home, he had to complete his studies at the kitchen table, his bedroom strictly a room in which he slept and stored clothing.

A flare of excitement rushed through him, then another wave of guilt. He couldn’t help feeling that he shouldn’t feel happy to be here if he was away from Amanda.

To distract himself, he suddenly jerked forward toward his case, containing his clothes and toiletries and as many books as he could fit alongside them, moving to unpack to occupy himself and his ever-turbulent mind. However, in his distracted state, he had grown complacent, had momentarily forgotten the pain scorching his back with too much movement. He was young, he healed quickly, and the skin was tightening as it fought to repair the tears.

His sudden movement towards his case tugged him in just a particular way, and he had to hurriedly stuff his fist into his mouth to stop the cry of pain as a sensation like burning flashed across his whole body. He staggered, bracing a hand against the wall for support.

Damn his stupidity. Why had he questioned her? Why had he… he’d been an idiot; let his emotions overwhelm him. Such weakness had deserved a punishment. He knew that, and he needed to stop thinking himself in circles like this. It wasn’t constructive. A waste of brain power.

Slowly, he set himself equally upon his two feet once again and moved at a more sensible pace to his belongings.