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From Strings Liberated

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Date: NOV 9TH, 2028
Time: AM 06:02:16

Connor is not in a particularly good mood this morning. He has forgotten to charge his iPod last night. Again. Which means, he’s currently left with randomly swirling thoughts in his head while going through his morning jog. And he doesn’t like being left with his thoughts. He prefers to have music to listen to when doing a regular routine such as this.

It’s a different matter altogether during training. He has something to focus on so his thoughts don’t end up distracting him left, right and center.

But right now, he needs to get his thoughts in order. First, he wonders if he’s pushing himself too hard lately. There’s always a constant soreness to his muscles in recent weeks and he gets himself injured more often than he’d like.

No. He shouldn’t ease off. That’s not how he is. He always strives to be the best he can be. A few sore muscles and small, insignificant wounds won’t deter him.

Besides, there’s an actual reason why he’s doubling his training efforts. A few months back, Amanda had called him aside for a short discussion about his performance—she’s certainly impressed with his constantly-improving skills and how much focus and determination he pours out on being always on top of his game. He feels quite accomplished with her praise.

But. There’s always a but.

She lets him know that she’s a bit disappointed that he was defeated by Markus during the sparring match she had arranged. And subtly tells him to do better.

Right. That sparring match. Well, what Amanda doesn’t know was that he intentionally lost to Markus.

Which now leads to the majority of what’s occupying his thoughts in the recent weeks—his friendship with Markus. It certainly has become quite strained after that incident. And what’s frustrating him is that he has no idea why that is the case. They had talked and cleared things up. But it never went back to how they were before. And what baffles him is the fact that it’s Markus who’s causing this gap between them.

So when Markus visits his room earlier just as he woke up and takes it upon himself to invite him to meet up at the usual—meaning the rundown buildings near the recently abandoned freighter, Connor doesn’t hesitate to agree.

After a quick shower, he grabs his jacket—it’s getting chillier as the days pass by, and a lone game token he remembers randomly picking up during one of their treks in one of the abandoned buildings from the bedside table, and proceeds to quietly sneak out of the main facility.

Connor eventually finishes his morning run just as he reaches the abandoned parking lot. He glances up and sees Markus standing by the edge of a lower roof, staring at the intricate graffiti that looks to be three overlaying faces – a woman, a robot’s exterior, and what he guesses symbolizes the robot’s interior based on the network of gears, cables and… were those computer chips? He wasn’t sure. He’s never particularly good at deciphering or understanding artworks. That’s Markus’ expertise.

The graffiti wasn’t there the last time they met up here—which technically was around a week after they had that sparring match.

He opts to go for a light-hearted teasing—It’s what Markus usually does when he was trying to get Connor out of his more serious moods.

“Are you just going to stare at it the whole morning?”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as Markus was still staring at the graffiti with a blank expression on his face. Connor was starting to get… worried.

“Markus—”

“They gave me my first mission.”

What? Out of everything he was predicting Markus would be telling him, this was not one of them. And in hindsight, it does make a sense. Most trainees get their first mission once they finish their training by the age of seventeen. Connor seemed to have forgotten about that fact.

Markus was looking at him now—face not betraying any sort of emotion other than curiosity to how Connor would respond.

He’s still trying to process what he’s been told when he sees the minute shift in Markus’ expression—a familiar glint he gets in his eyes when he’s planning something up to no good.

“Race you to the captain’s cabin!”

And there he goes. Well. At least he seems to be in a much cheerful mood now. But it doesn’t help to loosen the knot in Connor’s chest as it sinks in that Markus getting his first mission means that—

He swallows a lump that has formed in his throat. No. He’ll think about that later. He has a race to win first. He jumps onto the empty dumpster conveniently placed near him and vaults himself up to the roof as he starts his pursuit.

After a few minutes of jumping, dashing and parkouring around the different deteriorated structures in the area, he reaches one of the rundown buildings that still has its several pillars intact. He looks around and tries to recall the correct direction. He sees the huge hole on the far left and finally remembers that it’s the nearest route to the abandoned freighter. He swiftly makes his way out and up the short set of stairs.

He's visibly surprised when he sees Markus standing outside. But it was the rising sun that caught most of his attention. He realizes it’s actually the first time he’s seen how the sky fills up with various shades of orange and pink at daybreak. It’s quite…

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Markus was now looking at him with a smile and an emotion in his eyes that Connor can’t seem to decipher.

Wait. Weren’t they supposed to be racing? They’re barely halfway to the finish line.

“Actually, I wanted to tell you something.”

Puzzled, Connor ends up telling his friend that they could have just done away with the pretense of racing each other and talk as they normally do.

“And miss this view?” Markus laughs.

Well. Connor lets him get away with that. He’s does have a point. It’s certainly… a mesmerizing view.

Markus starts to slowly walk backwards and leans his weight against the wall once he reaches it.

“Look…” He starts, “I’m sorry if it seems as if I’m avoiding you recently. That… wasn’t my intention. I just have a lot of things on my mind and I didn’t want to end up bothering you with them.”

Though confused as to why Markus would think it would be an inconvenience for him to listen to whatever was plaguing his mind, he does accept the apology.

They stay in companionable silence for a while, watching the sun still rising up in the sky. That is until Markus ruins the moment altogether.

“You know, you gotta stop getting injured as often as you get since I won’t be here to patch you up anymore.”

So he noticed. Connor had hoped he wouldn’t.

“Or… were you intentionally getting yourself scraped up so that we could spend more time together?”

Connor snaps his neck to his left and sees Markus with a teasing smile. The nerve!

“Says the one who pretends that he cannot get the grasp of doing little coin tricks and intentionally sucks at it even though he can perfectly nail them during the second try.”

Connor sasses back just as he swiftly pulls the lone game token he brought out of his pocket and tosses it in Markus’ direction. He catches it effortlessly and smoothly turns the tide again.

“If you knew, then why didn’t you call me out on it?”

Markus then starts rolling the token over his knuckles in a way that looks like he could have done it in his sleep, with a cheeky grin to match.

Fine. Markus wins this round. Besides, he’ll take this banter over getting avoided by his friend anytime.

But then he suddenly remembers what Markus had first said earlier—his first mission. There might have been a noticeable change in his own expression when he sees Markus looking at him inquisitively, as if encouraging him to speak out what’s on his mind.

“When do you leave?”

Markus seems to deflate at that.

“At midnight.”

What?

“And you didn’t think to tell me earlier?”

Connor totally ignores how his voice had managed to gone a little higher.

“They told me just yesterday, okay? That’s also another reason why I wanted to talk to you.”

Logically, Connor should have seen this coming from miles away. But he’s inadvertently gotten used to Markus’ familiar presence over the past few years that the thought of them eventually getting separated once Markus finishes his training totally slipped from his mind.

The fault is entirely his own. He’s become too attached—something they were warned against doing and was drilled into their skulls over the years. He never understood the severity of it, until now that is—when the first person who ever showed him genuine concern and offered him his friendship years ago is finally leaving.

He gets startled out of his thoughts when he feels a hand on his shoulder, grip firm and warm.

“Hey, you’ll be fine.”

No, he won’t. Not when he’s going to be alone once more. Not when he’ll be losing one of his motivations in aiming to do his best. Not when he’s going to need to patch himself up from this point onwards.

But there’s no point in saying things such as these out loud. It won’t change anything. There’s nothing they can do about it. That’s how it always goes. So he remains silent and takes it in stride.

He suddenly feels a strong gust of wind despite the sun shining brightly across the sky and thinks that he won’t be looking forwards wintertime this year. No, scratch that. He’ll probably hate it twice as much.

So much for hoping that his mood might improve over the day. Now all he wants to do is stay in his room and drown himself in his favorite haunting melodies.


And here now comes the sweet corrupting reality
And I come to, it’s resin all over me
Will I awake, will I get ride with you
In this race of two

Chapter Text

Date: OCT 20TH, 2038
Time: PM 05:46:04

[MISSION BRIEFING]
[PRIORITY LEVEL: FOR IMMEDIATE ACTION]

TARGET: Kara Williams [Photo attached]
INFO:
Current employment: CyberLife – R&D
Current address: 4203 Harrison Street, North Corktown, Detroit
Known family member(s): Todd Williams (Uncle) – recently arrested for a drug-related crime

TARGET: Alice [Surname unknown] [Photo attached]
INFO:
Potential candidate for a CyberLife – R&D Program
No additional information available

DETAILS:
Track down and eliminate Kara Williams and Alice.

Alice, a potential candidate for a CyberLife – R&D Program has escaped from a CyberLife facility in Ferndale with Kara Williams, a current CyberLife – R&D employee. Due to having obtained confidential information and knowledge, both are now considered liabilities to CyberLife. RK8, you are to assassinate both targets and other potential accomplices. Ensure a clean kill and zero casualties.


Connor is idly flicking a quarter coin between his hands while waiting for a set of new gear he has requested when he gets the message. He’s not particularly keen on getting missions with such priority level since he prefers to have at least a small window of time to analyze and decide on the best way to proceed for a perfectly successful outcome. But he has to make do. He doesn’t get to choose the missions. They’re assigned.

The man who went into the storage room earlier to grab his gear hasn’t returned yet so he makes the decision to start working and takes out a tracking device and searches for the woman’s information and traces her current location through her phone—conveniently provided by her employers. It’s certainly a clever contingency plan for when these types of situation do happen.

The device indicates that she’s traveling to the direction of North Corktown. She’s going back home then. Too easy. It’s not very far from his current location. Hijacking an autonomous taxi would do. Best to get there at the soonest time possible.

The man finally comes back out from the storage room with his gear. And after a few seconds of mental deliberation, Connor looks at him with a cold smile and tells him, “I might need that sniper rifle after all.”


Connor gives credit to the woman for being wise enough deciding not to stay at her place of residence and for moving as quickly as she can as he sees her and the young girl rushing to get on the bus just as he arrives outside her home.

She’s aware of the dangers then. But she obviously lacks the experience of properly handling the situation she inadvertently gotten herself involved in.

He’s able to quickly notice that there are two additional passengers on the bus. It might turn out messy if he takes action now, so direct approach at this point in time is not an option then. He must find an alternative.

A quick perimeter scan of the area leads him to see a motorcycle parked across the street.

It’s a possible option, but not discreet enough. The targets—at least the woman—might get alerted, which could lead back to the first scenario.

Checking for other options, he sees an autonomous taxi approaching from his left.

Tsk. Seems like he needs to this a second time around.

No passengers. Good.

He brings out a circular device—perfectly concealed in the palm of his hand and checks to see if there are possible witnesses about. When he’s satisfied that there aren’t, he squats down and pretends to be picking something up from the ground just as the vehicle passes by in front of him. He then quickly attaches the device beneath it and activates it—effectively deactivating the taxi.

He pushes a button on the device, which opens up the taxi door, and gets inside. Once he gets the door closed, he takes the long equipment bag he was carrying off his back and puts it down on the seat. He pulls out another device from his pocket—a unique type of flash drive specially developed by CyberLife and starts looking for a hidden compartment beneath the dashboard.

Though transport trucks can be easily switched to manual drive, the taxis are a different matter. After a few seconds, he manages to open the compartment and sticks the flash drive into the hidden slot.

The taxi reboots and the dashboard screen flashes an inquiry for the manual drive option. He presses it to accept. The program within the flash drive will erase any travel record from the time it was slotted in place until it gets removed. Any record gaps will simply appear as a system database error.

Perfect. Now to trail the targets until they arrive at their destination.


Date: OCT 20TH, 2038
Time: PM 09:21:05

That destination apparently is the Ravendale District and Connor is mildly curious as to why she decided to come here. It’s certainly not the safest place she can find refuge in. Though the area is almost deserted by this time of night, he still sees a number of people milling about. The convenience store nearby is open 24 hours. He needs to exercise caution if he wants to accomplish this cleanly, with zero casualties as indicated.

He eventually notices them heading towards the direction of the Eastern Motel, across the other side of the street.

Is she planning to stay the night? That would certainly make his job easier. He simply needs them to get settled in their room and then make the kill. But they could also be just asking for directions.

In any case, he quickly looks around and decides to find a perfect spot. The building on his left seems to have a good elevation relative to the other buildings in the area. And it’s located across from the motel.

That’ll do.

Once he’s perfectly perched on top of the building—sniper rifle all set-up and ready as he starts observing while lying in wait, unbidden thoughts slowly enter his mind.

He’s never really questioned most of the missions he’s been given throughout the years. It’s simple: Get mission. Accomplish mission. Rinse and repeat. It’s what he was trained to do. It’s all he’s known his entire life—a constant stream of following orders, survival, and death. That’s why he’s considered Amanda’s best. He always succeeds.

He pauses at that and frowns.

No. That’s not case anymore, unfortunately. But he could pretend his record is still in pristine condition, as long as Amanda doesn’t find out. He’ll chalk it up to… a lapse in judgement. Besides, that was five months ago. He’s had no problem perfectly accomplishing every single mission after that one.

So why is he suddenly having a sense of…uneasiness?

As he observes his targets through the rifle scope, he comes to the realization that it’s the first time he was given an order to eliminate a child.

Why is this child a target—is his immediate thought. The simplest answer can be found in the mission details and that’s not what he’s really asking.

Is it necessary? The child is powerless and doesn’t pose any threat against a whole organization. What’s the point?

Then again, he’s not supposed to be asking these questions. It’s a job and an order’s an order. However, he can’t help but feel a certain…wrongness to this.

He hates it when he gets like this—doubts and questions plaguing his mind, when he should be focusing on the task at hand.

He’s startled out of his thoughts when he starts feeling small droplets of water hitting his skin, signaling the onset of a rainfall.

There’s both an advantage and a disadvantage of having the rain as a companion during a mission. It’ll certainly help to drown out sounds of gunshots and is a good way to avoid unnecessary witnesses. On the other hand, visibility can get tricky at times. But this is fairly easy mission.

Or so he thinks.

It’s too late when he realizes that the woman has been talking to the receptionist for far longer than should be the case if she’s only asking for a room.

Shit. She’s spilled. It’s definitely obvious in her body language and the highly concerned expression on the man’s face.

He berates himself for not immediately noticing what’s going on, which is exactly the reason why he hates being distracted by unnecessary thoughts during a mission.

The man is now considered an accomplice then and he’s made himself into a target.

Tsk.

He fires the shot without any second thought.

If someone were to ask him later why he’d chosen to eliminate the accomplice first, he’ll simply explain that it would make the situation easier by taking down the more capable party.

The window shatters as the bullet perfectly hits its target—straight through the man’s right temple. His body falls to the ground. The woman freezes in shock. The child screams.

Everything seems to be frozen in time for a few seconds—even him. He knows he should be readying his next shot, but he couldn’t move. It’s as if he was subconsciously waiting for what the woman intends to do next.

Again, he gives the woman credit for being able to quickly recover from the initial shock of witnessing someone getting shot upfront. He surmises that having a drug-dependent relative has given her a good sense of survival instinct.

He notices the backdoor the same time she sees the opportunity.

This is not going smoothly as he wanted it to go. Time for plan B.

He leaves his rifle and quickly runs down the building’s fire exit stairs to finally make a dash across the street. Fortunately, there aren’t any cars passing by.

It was obviously easy to chase and pin them down through the alleyway they went into. Without any of the skills he has perfected over the years, the woman and the child have no hope of actually running away from him. And as bad luck would have it, there was a fence blocking their way, further hindering their chance to escape.

He sees the child slip due to the puddles of water on the ground and let out a painful cry as she ends up scraping her knee.

“Alice!” The woman cries out name of the young girl.

He slows down and approaches them without any need to rush. Since it was getting late into the night, it was quite dark with no visible light source. Additionally, the lack of visibility due to the rain-turned-downpour helps to keep him hidden in the shadows.

He pulls out his gun from the holster and points it directly at the woman, whose first instinct was to use her body to cover the child behind her.

As he sees the woman trembling in fear, he fails to understand why she’s still trying to protect the child. They both will end up dead before this night ends anyway.

“Please! She’s just a child. You have to spare her. You have to let her go!” The woman valiantly pleads.

It’s then he realizes that the woman was only pleading for the child’s life, not hers. And he is suddenly reminded of that one mission he had failed five months ago.

You’re not afraid to die.

No, not really. I’ve honestly been expecting this for years so it doesn’t scare me anymore. But you’ll spare my dad, right? He doesn’t know anything.

No! He won’t allow himself to repeat the same mistake of having his emo—lapse of judgement get the better of him again.

The woman gasps and stumbles backwards onto the ground as he takes a few more steps forward, still hidden in the shadows. The child inches towards her and the woman turns around to hug the young girl tightly to her. The child lets out a small sniffle, which gradually turned into loud, uncontrollable sobs.

Despite the downpour, the deafening click of the gun’s hammer can be clearly heard over the rain.

It took him a few more seconds to clear his mind of any hesitation and he was finally ready to pull the trigger—until he hears the woman start rambling a variety of nonsensical things to the child. That ultimately tugs at something within him that he remembers burying a long time ago.

This wasn’t like the other mission in which his target’s situation had unfortunately hit too close to home and he ended up sparing him. No, this is different. The woman was saying things that reminded him of memories that had long felt like faraway dreams.

“You’ll be fine Alice. It’ll be over soon…”

Hey, you’ll be fine.

As he senses his…emotions trying to fight against the logical side of his mind that’s keeping him focused on his mission, his hand which is currently holding the gun starts shaking.

“I’ll patch up your scraped knee later, okay?”

…gotta stop getting injured… won’t be here to patch you up anymore…

At this point, he feels as if he’s fighting a losing battle.

“I’ll read you a story, sing you a lullaby…”

The woman’s voice was rising to a more hysterical pitch as she kept going. He doesn’t remember any lullabies being sung to him. But he remembers hearing beautiful melodies being brought to life by adept fingers gliding over ivory and ebony keys.

And he knows right then and there that the probability of him accomplishing this mission is at zero percent. In short, mission failed.

As much as he’s already used to repressing his emotions—especially during a job, he knows that he can’t fully eradicate them. It’s not possible, no matter how much Amanda thinks it is.

He’s found a way around that over the years though, more so recently. During the times when there are no missions to deal with, he lets down a small part of his wall and takes moments for himself. He’s always careful and aware not to indulge too much, since those are all just temporary reprieves. Sometimes he lets himself think that they are rewards for himself for a well-accomplished mission.

But for this one single moment, he allows himself to feel—to let his emotions run free, accepting the fact that he can’t kill the terrified woman and child in front of him. If he did, somehow, he knows that deep down he’ll come to regret it. He goes back to his earlier thoughts—to the feeling of wrongness about the mission.

Right now, he doesn’t want to think about the repercussions of his actions. Maybe later, when he has managed to get a hold of himself. When he’s in a much better and calmer state of mind. When he longer has thoughts of regrets and guilt.

A beat later, the woman finally realizes that he never pulled the trigger and turns to face him in confusion and trepidation. He thinks he also sees a trickle of hope in her eyes. And for some reason, that stirs up another myriad of emotions in him that he doesn’t have the luxury of picking apart and analyzing at this point in time.

Belatedly, he notices that his hand is still shaking so he slowly drops his arm down to his side and lowers his head.

He shouldn’t be exhausted at all. But he is. He feels strung out—as if trying to control his warring thoughts and emotions had depleted all of his energy.

He eventually lets out a long shuddering sigh and forces out a single word before he ends up changing his mind.

“Go.”

It takes a few seconds before he hears them scrambling up the dumpster and over the fence—away from him, to safety.

He finally looks back ahead in front of him to see the woman and the child turn around a corner. He locks and pockets his gun and walks over to the left alley wall. He leans his back heavily against it while lifting his head up and closing his eyes, letting the rain fall freely down his face.

If someone were to ask him the real reason why he’d chosen to eliminate the accomplice first, it was probably because it gave him the excuse to delay taking down his actual intended targets.

Maybe the mission was already doomed to fail at that point. He was just trying to convince himself that he could still salvage it, only to make a complete fool out of himself by not having the guts to pull the trigger at the last second when he could have easily made the kill.

He knows that he should be disappointed in himself. What good is he as an assassin when he can’t even finish the job properly.

But to be honest, all he feels right now is a momentary relief. Momentary—because once he sends over his report, he knows Amanda will call him in. There’s no way he can cover this up, unlike last time. And he’s not sure what to expect. There’s a tiny part of him that fears Amanda will have him executed. But he’s known and heard about some operatives also failing a rare few missions in the past, and they were given second chances. Perhaps he just needs to convince her that it won’t happen again. He certainly needs to come up with a good excuse though. He’ll think about it on his way back to the tower.

The fact that he’s even entertaining the idea of making an excuse is tantamount to him being afraid of dying. He’s never really understood why though. It didn’t use to be the case. But now’s not a good time to be pondering about it.

The thing with Amanda is that, although he’s known her for almost his whole life, she remains an unpredictable mystery to him until now. Perhaps that is what makes her so powerful.

He stops mulling over the inevitable and decides that he might as well just face the music and get it over with.

And if there’s one more thing he’s disappointed about tonight is that he won’t be able to pet a certain St. Bernard any time soon. He was definitely looking forward to that. Maybe another time. 


[MISSION REPORT]
DETAILS: Failed to eliminate targets. Targets escaped. One presumed accomplice terminated.

“I don’t understand how the targets managed to escape.”

“Isn’t it obvious? He let them escape.”

Spoken as if—

“—You were expecting him to.”

A pause.

“What’s our next course of action?”

“Call him in. It’s time he and I have another talk."

“What about the woman and the child?”

“Leave them be. We’ll deal with them later. We have more important things to prioritize right now.”

“Understood.”

“And Perkins, one more thing: Contact Floyd Mills. We’re going to hunt a ghost.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Chapter Text

Date: OCT 20TH, 2038
Time: PM 10:32:08

Kara wasn’t entirely sure how she managed to turn her life upside down—from working a normal job to being on the run and needing to find a place of refuge—in a span of just a few hours. She knows that life can be unpredictable at times, but this is just going to the extremes. And she’s certainly not prepared for any of it.

Looking back, she could probably blame it on having mixed up the directions in her head as she was heading back to her department and somehow ended up on a totally different section of the building facility that she hadn’t been to before. It had been just a simple carelessness on her part, that she never expected to spiral out of control.

If she had been more careful, she wouldn’t have overheard a conversation that led her to seeing CyberLife in a different light. There had been a man—whose appearance and built would make one assume that he’s part of a SWAT team—and a male employee, based on the similarities of his uniform and hers, with a few minor differences. Between them were to two scared-looking children—both male—around the age of then, give or take.

They were having a discussion about a young girl about the same age as the other two children with them, who managed to run away from the main facility compound and that she needed to be found immediately.

The young girl turned out to be Alice—who she had found through the fire exit door by the corridor she was on at that time. She had been huddled in a corner, shaking like a leaf. She was obviously so terrified that it took her a few attempts to calm her down. She even thought that Kara was going to send her back to wherever she had run away from.

Even if she doesn’t have the faintest inkling what sort of dubious activities her employers were operating under, what she saw—innocent children being involved and terrorized—was ultimately wrong in her books. Which is why she managed to convince herself that she needs to protect Alice and get her as far away from that place as possible. Though there was a nagging voice in some part of her head that was warning her that she might come to regret that decision.

She doesn’t regret helping Alice escape, that’s for sure. Though it would have been better if she actually had a concrete plan in her mind. But she had been acting on impulse then. She was just lucky that making the decision to go back home had led to a possible solution to their problem.

But she can’t help but feel guilty about what had happened to Joseph. She ended up indirectly causing his untimely death because she thought he might be able to help them due to him being an ex-cop. And help them he did—but at the cost of his own life. He warned them about the dangers they’ll be facing. But ironically, he was the one who took the fall.

She remembers the shock—a sudden ringing in her ears. The sound of a window shattering and a gunshot.

Everything happened so fast. One moment, she and Alice were running through the alleyway. Then in the next, they were trapped—the barrel of a gun pointed directly at them.

It was at that moment she discovered what pure terror felt like. Not when her uncle would fall into a drug-induced rage. Not when she made the impulsive decision to help Alice escape knowing they might get caught. Not even when she saw Joseph getting shot through his skull right in front of her. No. It was having a hired killer point a gun at you and knowing that they kill in cold blood without remorse.

But despite her fear and knowing that she was looking at death in the eye, she desperately tried to plead for Alice’s life. If he spared her, then at least Joseph’s death wouldn’t have gone to waste.

It was all a blur afterwards. All she remembered was that her pleas initially fell on deaf ears when the man took a few more steps forwards. Alice had started to sob and she ended up crying as well, hugging the terrified girl tightly to her.

She had wanted to tell Alice how sorry she was for not being able to protect her and get her to safety as she promised she would do. She had started praying—hoping that it was all just a nightmare and that she’ll wake up at the comfort of her own bed.

By the time she had rambled one too many nonsensical things to Alice, she eventually realized that it had been a few seconds too long of bracing for the pain that never came.

The man had decided to spare them.

Though her mind had still been swimming in a mix of surprise, confusion, and apprehension, she had acknowledged one predominant thought—that it was their chance to escape.

Not wasting any more time, they did the only thing they could do—they ran, as fast as they could.

But after a while of running through the deserted streets and sidewalks, she had slowly felt the adrenaline rush beginning to fade away. The bone-deep exhaustion had started to settle in and there was a constant shivering brought about by her wet clothes clinging to her body. The rain didn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.

They had eventually slowed down to a stop by the mouth of a narrow alley to catch their breath. Taking a glance at Alice, she was obviously worse for wear.

At that point, she was beginning to think that they had just taken one step forward, two steps back when a man had approached them wanting to help. But due to the fact that they had just been chased down earlier almost to their deaths, their reactions of wariness and suspicion would be understandable.

It took a few exchanges before the man managed to convince them to follow him.

She was initially confused as to why they were heading to an abandoned house. But as he led them inside—through a small hidden entryway, she was flabbergasted that the house’s interior is surprisingly well-furnished. It wasn’t extravagant by any means—quite spartan-looking actually—except for the various monitors and devices scattered on the table by the wall on one side of the room. Additionally, the whole area was dimly lighted.

The man had introduced himself simply as Ralph and had gotten them settled in by offering food, some change of clothes—which totally baffled Kara as to why he had extra clothes for both her and Alice when he’s living by himself—and a first aid kit for Alice’s scraped knee.

Apparently, the house is a hideout and the dilapidated look from the outside is for people to assume that nobody lives inside. There’s also a hidden underground passage for getting out safely, if there’s a need to.

As much as he wanted to trust him—and she’s definitely thankful for the help he had provided them so far, she still couldn’t shake off some feeling of skepticism with the whole situation.

But embarrassingly enough, she had ended up blatantly staring at his facial scars—one across his left temple and the other on his left cheekbone, both at a diagonal angle. She was about to apologize, but Ralph had beaten her to it by telling her how he got them.

He had gotten shot while helping two kids escape to safety a few months back.

And it was then she understood his motivation for helping them. He knew the feeling of what she and Alice had went through, because he had been through it himself. And somehow, any lingering suspicion she had felt for him finally dissipated.

She was pulled out of her reverie when Ralph had let her know that Alice was out for the night. And true enough, she had turned her head and saw that Alice had fallen asleep on the couch she was on, out of exhaustion. And it pains her to know that Alice has gone through these terrible experiences at such a young age.

With Ralph’s help, she ended up tucking Alice in, in the bedroom upstairs. And they decided to continue their conversation once they were back downstairs, taking a seat opposite each other across the unused table in the room.

“So, do you actually have a destination in mind?” Ralph asks her in open curiosity.

She does actually—with Joseph’s help. He had told her about a boarding school—an institute—for children who were involved in cases like Alice’s that either have no known surviving family members or have no other place to go to.

She supposes it’s alright to tell him. He could have an idea of its exact location, which will make it easier for her and Alice.

“Yes. We were told to head for the east end and find this institute owned by—”

“—Carl Manfred.” He finishes for her.

“How did you know?” She knits her eyebrows in confusion.

Ralph gives her a sort of enigmatic smile and tells her, “You’re in luck. I was actually thinking about whether it’ll be a good idea to bring the two of you there.”

And for a second, she’s completely floored and isn’t sure how to take in these series of fortunate coincidences.

But wait. About what he just said, “You mentioned you were thinking of bringing us there—why?”

That doesn’t seem to be a question Ralph was expecting her to ask as he frowns and deflects her question with his own by asking her if she knew who was following them.

That’s right. Ralph knew they were being tracked earlier. It was how he managed to convince her.

She shakes her head and tells him no, but suddenly remembers the conversation she had overheard.

“But maybe…”

She realizes she’s been silent a second too long when Ralph prompts her to continue. Though she doesn’t really want to rehash everything all over again, she can probably provide a few vital details. She ends up saying that it could have been someone from where she and Alice ran away from.

“And where’s that?”

She wasn’t sure if it’s actually necessary for him to know, but there’s probably no harm in mentioning it to him.

“CyberLife.”

And promptly realizes it was the wrong decision when Ralph tenses up and looks at her with a twisted expression on his face, scars adding to the effect of a seemingly simmering rage beneath the surface.

It disappears a few seconds later as he composes himself. She starts to get the feeling that CyberLife has the knack of either scaring or angering people off. And based on his reaction combined with their similar experiences of escaping with a child—or children in his case, it’s safe to guess that CyberLife is another common denominator.

“Why wouldn’t it be CyberLife?” He spits out with a sardonic chuckle while shaking his head.

Belatedly, she realizes that he had started tapping his foot when she notices that his right leg was shaking. It’s probably a nervous tic of his when he gets agitated.

Hearing Ralph mention the name with such contempt, it occurs to her that there’s a certain disconnect between what CyberLife is publicly known to be and the situation both Ralph and her have been involved in. CyberLife is currently the leading company in the field of electronics and technology. It develops and manufactures the most advanced computer systems and devices, so why are children getting involved? It doesn’t make sense.

Her thoughts get interrupted though, when he suddenly straightens up in alertness and asks if she has her phone with her right now. She nods her head yes and he immediately tells her that they need to dismantle it.

She realizes that it might have been how she and Alice were tracked earlier.

She quickly pulls out her phone and sees that the battery’s dead. It probably ran out sometime during the bus ride, but she wasn’t sure. She hadn’t bothered to check. He tells her that’s fine since the battery’s dead. But it’s best to take precautions.

She certainly agrees with that, especially since it’s CyberLife that’s involved in this scenario. And she’s relieved to know that it’s one less possibility of being tracked again.

It takes just a short amount of time for Ralph to dismantle her phone—she can probably get a new one once they get to the institute. Speaking of…

She calls his name to get his attention and he turns his head to look at her.

“How did you find out about the institute?”

He leans back slowly on his chair and crosses his arm. He stays silent for a few moments, almost causing Kara to think that he has no plans of giving her an answer. He eventually tells her that he had heard rumors going around and decided to take the risk.

“You mean back when you were still working at CyberLife?”

It suddenly crosses Kara’s mind that she never saw him at the facility. But she remembers him mentioning that this happened a few months back—she probably hadn’t been hired yet during that time.

He nods and continues, “But as you already knew, they won’t let you off that easily.”

That’s true. She shudders as she remembers the feeling of utter terror by being held at gunpoint.

She finds out that they were relatively close to the institute’s location when the person sent to take them down caught up to them. He got hit—which explains the scars.

She gasps as he struggles to tells her how one of the children got killed. Fortunately, the other one managed to survived when he was able to cover the child beneath him when they both fell to the ground.

She gives the man a moment to collect himself as the pain of the memory washes over him.

“I was sure that was the end of it.”

He certainly had it much worse than her. She couldn’t fathom how much it would horrify her if Alice did end up getting killed under her watch and she never wants to find out.

By some divine intervention, he and the surviving child were saved by a number of people from the institute and they managed to make the tracker back off.

Wait. What?

“I thought the institute is a school?”

She’s starting to get a nagging feeling that similar to CyberLife, this—institute is more than just a simple school or safe haven for children like Alice.

“Yes—a heavily-protected school.”

Apparently, Carl Manfred has enough powerful connections to ward off whatever CyberLife is doing behind closed doors and Ralph proceeds to point out that it’s the reason why the institute is her best option right now and reassures her that Alice will be safe there.

That does certainly make sense. But where does Ralph come into play in all of this? She guesses that the surviving child who was with him was taken in by institute. But how did he end up living here? And isn’t CyberLife still tracking him down?

He informs her that him staying in this house is only a temporary setup and that he’s actually an informant for the institute.

“This is just one of their hideouts scattered around the city.”

So that explains the monitors and why the house is camouflaged to look uninhabited, though she’s curious as to how he ended up becoming an informant.

He tells her that since he was obviously unemployed after the incident, they had asked him if he wanted to work there. But he refused.

That unfortunately reminds her that she’s currently out of a job as well, after all that fiasco. It’s… a problem she’ll deal with later.

“Why? Won’t you be much safer there?”

If the institute is as heavily-guarded as he claims it to be, then logically, it would make his life easier to stay there.

“Yes, I suppose. But seeing the kids there… They’re just going to remind me of—”

He doesn’t need to continue that line of thought.

“I understand.”

Seeing as he easily gets triggered by mentions of CyberLife and the strain he feels whenever he has to recall the trauma of what had happened, she can see why he would be reluctant to stay in a place where he might end up getting reminded of those things. Though personally, she feels that interacting and being around other people could help get over these sorts of trauma, it might be different for Ralph. Maybe he prefers to be in solitude.

He tells her that they had offered him an alternative. He can be on lookout for cases such as hers and Alice’s. And they can provide him with some sort of protection in return. Additionally, he and the other informants shuffle around the different hideouts across the city every few weeks or so.

It then starts to really sink in that she probably can never go back to her normal life. Just like Ralph, she inadvertently got herself involved in matters way beyond her pay grade. It’s not just a simple matter of wanting to stand by your morals and convictions and helping an innocent person escape from an organization’s evil schemes. It’s their lives at stake here. And if the only way of survival is to leave whatever life she had behind to run and hide, then she supposes she has no choice but to take it in stride.

Her musings were finally interrupted when he curiously and intriguingly asks her, “By the way, how did you manage to escape the ones tracking you down?”

“Actually… He let us escape.”

Now that Ralph brought it up, she starts to wonder why their would-be killer had done what he did. Not that she’s implying he shouldn’t have. But she knows that people like him are usually ruthless and cold-blooded. They won’t hesitate to pull the trigger if it means it will accomplish whatever it is that they need to do.

“What!?” He exclaims in surprise.

Understandable.

“He had us at gunpoint. I was pleading for Alice’s life…”

Please! She’s just a child. You have to spare her. You have to let her go!

“I thought that was the end for us as well.”

She sees Ralph clenching his jaw.

“But he—He lowered his gun and told us to go. I didn’t bother trying to question it, just that it was our chance to escape.”

“And he didn’t follow you?”

Ralph seems to be having a hard time trying to take in the fact that a hired killer let them escape, just like that. Kara shakes her head in answer.

But perhaps… Perhaps not all of them are cold-hearted killers after all. Maybe… Maybe seeing a child still managed to bring out some sort of compassion in his heart.

After a long moment of silence, they both turn their heads at the sudden noise by the staircase. They see Alice standing at the foot of the stairs, looking quite lonely and frightened. And Kara’s heart goes out to her.

“Alice…”

She sees Alice hugging herself, as if to protect her from whatever it was that was scaring her.

“I woke up… I was alone… And it was dark… I was scared.”

Ralph chooses that moment to end their conversation and suggest that she go accompany Alice to bed.

“I’ll go make a call to get someone to pick us up by morning. It’ll be much safer that way.”

He stands up and starts heading to check on the monitors but not before giving Kara some more words of reassurance.

“You and Alice get some sleep. I’ll be on lookout.”

She nods in acknowledgement and stands up as well. Just before heading back up the stairs, she lets him know that she’s very grateful for his help. She and Alice wouldn’t have survived the night if he hadn’t been there to take them in. He gives her a sincere smile in return.


Ralph was standing by one of the windows, vigilantly looking out between two wooden boards for any signs of danger—just as he had promised Kara he would do. The rain has finally let up so he’s able to see much more clearly. Holding a phone to his ear, he waits for the person on the other end of the line to pick-up. 

Come on. Pick-up. Pick-up.

He starts fidgeting in impatience—eyes darting around and right foot tapping on the floor—when someone finally answers.

“Yes?”

Rose’s warm, motherly voice always manages to give him a sense of comfort whenever he gets into an agitated state.

“Sorry I’m calling this late.”

He sees the digital clock on the table—11:18 PM.

“That’s fine. Why did you call? Did something come up?”

Right. Kara and Alice.

“I have a child here, with a woman.”

Rose’s voice shifts to alertness and takes a much more serious tone when she responds.

“I see. Were they followed?”

He still doesn’t entirely believe Kara’s story of being allowed to escape—unscathed with just Alice’s scraped knee and a lifetime worth of trauma.

“Not anymore. They were on the run the whole night though so, they’re exhausted and are currently asleep.”

He takes a quick glance at the monitors.

“Sensors are indicating no suspicious movement outside. But I’m on lookout just to be sure.”

It takes a few seconds before Rose replies—probably figuring out the safest way to get them to the institute.

“Alright, I’ll have Luther and Adam pick you up at around 5:30 in the morning by the underground tunnel.”

That’s about six hours more of being on guard. He’ll… manage. This is his life now. Might as well be of some use.

“Got it.”

Chapter Text

Date: OCT 21ST, 2038
Time: AM 06:22:04

Getting to watch the breathtaking sunrise over the horizon certainly puts things at a different perspective for Kara. It almost feels as if everything that had happened the day before was just a horrible nightmare waiting to be forgotten.

Ralph had woken them up at around half past four to get ready as they needed to be at the pick-up point by 5:30 AM. They all left through a hidden trapdoor that led to the basement and eventually through an underground tunnel—as Ralph had mentioned the previous night. And right on time, there was a heavily-tinted car—with a red and gray color combination—waiting for them. The three of them quickly slid into the car with Kara getting behind the driver’s seat and Ralph on the other side with Alice seated between them.

Just as the car immediately starts moving, the man on the front passenger seat turns around and introduces himself as Adam Chapman. He looks to be around in his mid-20’s, possibly a few years younger than her. He explains that he usually runs several different errands for his mother since she’s busy with running the institute. Kara gets confused there for a second.

“I thought Carl Manfred owns the institute?”

Adam clears it up by informing her that although Carl is the owner, he’s already reached his retirement age and is a paraplegic, so he has someone else he trusts to manage the place—Rose, who Ralph had contacted last night. So far, Kara is getting the impression that this woman takes her responsibilities very seriously. To be fair, managing a place like the institute and ensuring people’s safety are quite heavy responsibilities to undertake.

Once they were done with initial introductions, Adam turns back to the front and takes his phone out—presumably to inform his mother that they’re on the way. And the car is left with a sort of comfortable silence.

When Kara glances to her right, she sees Ralph leaning his head by the window and staring outside. He certainly looks tired yet still alert. He probably hasn’t had the chance to sleep yet, as he had been on constant vigilance the whole night. She wonders if this is how her new life will turn out to be as well—always expecting danger, never letting her guard down. It’s certainly quite an exhausting way to live.

Her thoughts get distracted when Alice shifts her head minutely and curiously stares at the only person who has remained silent so far during the ride—their current driver, Luther. Though Kara can’t see him properly as she’s sitting directly behind him, she did manage to get a quick glance when they had entered the car. His built certainly makes him give off an intimidating aura as far as first impressions go, but the kind expression on his face quickly dispels that notion. He might look big and tough but he probably has a gentle soul inside—kind of like a… gentle giant. Kara smiles at that thought. Even Alice seems to think so too, if the small smile she has on her lips is anything to go by.

Satisfied that Alice seems to be in better spirits this morning, Kara looks back out the window and resumes gazing at the beautiful morning sky.


Some twenty minutes later, Luther calmly announces that they’re closely approaching the Manfred Estate.

…Estate?

She hadn’t noticed that she had whispered it out loud until she heard a soft chuckle from Ralph. He leans to her side and tells her that they’re in for a surprise, voice quiet enough so that only she and Alice would hear it.

And soon enough, she starts seeing an expansive piece of land at a distance. When she was told about Carl Manfred’s institute, she was expecting it to be a huge enough building located in one of the districts by the east end of Detroit, not this entirely separate property that looks as if it’s owned by a multi-millionaire. Then again, Ralph did mention that he has powerful connections—which can most of the time mean that said person is filthy rich. But she certainly wasn’t expecting it to be—well, this.

They reach the main gates where she sees a number of armed personnel standing guard. They probably have more scattered around the whole outside perimeter and most likely, within the premises as well. Ralph was definitely right about it being heavily-protected. Both Luther and Adam open their respective windows for a quick inspection and once that’s done, they eventually drive through the gates.

Being used to living within the city for most her life surrounded by skyscrapers, mass public transport systems, and all kinds of modern technology, this change of scenery is certainly quite refreshing. She can spot a small cluster of houses by the far right, but couldn’t see them very well as there were many clumps of trees spread all over the area, together with small gardens and even ponds. She’s sure there are other structures within in the estate, but that’s not her main concern at the moment.

She can certainly recognize the charm of living in this sort of place. The relaxing and peaceful atmosphere would clearly benefit someone who needs to walk away from something terrible that has happened in their life.

Eventually, they arrive outside what she probably guesses is the largest building in the whole property and surely is what they came here for, as the name of the building indicates—Manfred Institute for Learning.

A dark-skinned woman was waiting for them as Luther pulls the car to a stop. That’s probably Rose. She’s dressed quite casually—a light blue vest over a checkered, light pink and blue polo shirt—and is not how Kara had pictured her to be when Adam had mentioned her. She was imagining someone more… she supposes stern could be the word. This woman, on the other hand, looks very much like how a warm and protective mother would be. It does make sense though—since it’s basically children and adolescents that she’s handling.

Except for Luther, they all get out of the car as Rose approaches them and introduces herself.

“Hi, my name’s Rose—as my son Adam probably already mentioned. You must be Kara.”

Kara nods and gives her a small smile. Rose then turns to Alice with a warm smile of her own.

“And hello there to young Alice.”

Alice responds with soft and curious hello.

After that initial exchange, Rose tells Adam that she’ll be taking it from here and Kara finds out that there’s a farm somewhere within the estate as Adam gets a reminder from Rose to check on the pumpkins.

As Adam leaves, Luther takes the opportunity to inform Rose that he’ll be driving Ralph to a different hideout where he’ll be staying for a few weeks or so.

Rose turns to Ralph with a concerned look.

“You’re leaving already? Won’t you stay for a while?”

Ralph, who was leaning his back against the car with his hands in his pockets, looks a bit embarrassed with the attention as he looks away and shrugs.

“You know I…”

He doesn’t continue but Rose seems to understand his dilemma and lets him know that it’s alright. She further tells him to remember that there’s always a place for him here—be it the institute or the estate in general—if he decides to change his mind.

That gets Ralph to look back at Rose and Kara sees his eyes swirling with sincere gratitude.

“Yeah… Thanks Rose.”

Just as Ralph was about to get back in the car, they were all surprised when Alice turns to him and tugs him down for a hug.

“Thank you for all your help Ralph.”

Ralph’s initial reaction of momentary surprise turns into a huge smile and he ends up returning Alice’s hug. This small touching moment manages to get Kara and Rose smiling as well—even Luther can be seen nodding in approval with a small, barely-there smile of his own.

Once they have left, Rose eventually leads Kara and Alice inside. And instead of a modernistic and minimalist design most building interiors in the city have these days, the lobby is surrounded by mahogany walls—giving off a warm and cozy atmosphere. A chandelier that seems to be a mix of old fashion and modern design hung from the ceiling at the center of the lobby. There were lamps, utilizing warm lights, placed along the left and right hallways. And lastly, a staircase in the middle that leads to the upper floor.

Kara is definitely impressed by what she’s seen so far and has a thought that living here might feel as if it’s a home away from home. But she realizes it does seem too quiet if a number of students are staying here.

Rose tells her that it’s because it’s still too early and that most of them would still be sleeping at this hour.

Oh right. She had forgotten about the time. She does ask Rose about the teachers and staff as an afterthought and finds out that most of them live by the cluster of houses she saw when they first entered the estate premises, though a rare few—usually temporary personnel—do take the bus as means of travel.

Rose then leads them to the administration office located by the middle of the left hallway. The first thing Kara notices when they enter the office is the small waiting area at the side—a two-seater sofa, a coffee table, and a large bookshelf against the wall where various books—children’s books included, art materials, small trinkets and even a few toys can be seen.

It’s obvious that Alice’s quite interested when she starts moving towards the bookshelf but stops herself and glances back at the adults in the room, as if asking for permission. Rose immediately tells her to go ahead.

“Feel free to check out whatever book you’d like to read or even take a shot at some art while Kara and I talk for a while, okay?”

Alice nods and smiles as she starts looking for a book she’d be interested in reading.

Rose then leads Kara further into the office where she offers her a seat by the table and something to drink.

“Would you like anything? Coffee? Water?”

“Water would be fine. Thank you.”

Rose pours her a glass of water and sits down behind the table as they begin their discussion.

“So, Kara—what brings you and Alice here?”

Rose gestures with her hand, encouraging Kara to tell their story.

“Didn’t Ralph tell you?”

Rose informs her that Ralph only mentioned about them being on the run, but didn’t go into details. She further tells her that it’s also better to hear her story directly so that nothing will be missed out.

She does make a good point on that. Though a bit reluctant to recap her whole story for the umpteenth time, she doesn’t really have much of a choice since it would be pointless coming here if she doesn’t. Besides, it does seem to get easier each time.

Kara proceeds to tell Rose about how it started out at CyberLife and discovering something they’re covering up and eventually finding Alice. She talks about running, finding out about the institute and getting chased down by a hitman—who chose to let them go in the end. And finally, Ralph offering them help and so here they are.

Kara patiently waits as Rose takes a moment to process her whole story, face showing a myriad of emotions—mostly sympathy and concern.

“You’re both fortunate that he seems to have a conscience.”

Unlike what happened to Ralph and the other kid he had escaped with—is probably the same thought that’s running in both of their minds.

After a short of moment of silence, Rose confirms what Ralph had already told her—that Alice can stay here as a student. She does ask if Alice had mentioned about any existing family. It’s a good thing Kara had asked about it in passing on the way to her house after they first escaped from CyberLife’s building. Sadly, Alice doesn’t know where her family is as she was abandoned and had been put under a foster care system before eventually ending up in CyberLife’s grasp.

Rose tells her it’s a familiar story that’s common with the children they have taken in over the years. They can’t stop it from happening but they’ll do their best to try and save those that they can. Kara is relieved to know that there are at least people who put their power to good use.

They’ll also fix up new papers and documents for Alice so that once she’s reached legal age, she can choose to leave and freely pursue whatever she wants outside the institute. But for now, the priority is to keep her safe and off the radar.

Kara understands that though it’s not really the best-case scenario, but with their current situation, it’s definitely the best option. Besides, Alice won’t be alone. There will be other students around her age who she’ll be interacting with and if the teachers and staff are as warm and friendly as Rose is, then Alice is in good hands.

Once they’re done discussing about Alice, Rose turns her attention to her.

“What about you Kara? What would you like do?”

She tells Rose that to be honest, she’s not sure. What she does know is that she can’t go back to whatever her life was before all this. Rose agrees with that and gives her a suggestion.

“I can see that Alice has already formed an attachment with you. It’ll be nice for her to have you around while she’s still adjusting.”

Rose certainly has a point and Kara can see what she is getting at. Rose further suggests that she can work here as a staff or that she can even help out with the farm if she so chooses and tells her to take her pick. But… It can’t be that easy.

“As simple as that?”

Rose gives her another one of her motherly smiles.

“Yes. After what you’ve been through, you deserve to take it easy. Besides, I can sense how determined you were to make sure Alice gets here safe and sound. That is enough for me.”

Kara is greatly moved by that and just as she was about to thank her for giving her this chance to start anew, they were interrupted by the sound of the door opening as a woman enters.

“Hey Rose, thought you might be here.”

Based on the woman’s very casual and straightforward greeting, Kara gets the impression that she’s someone who doesn’t like to beat around the bush and seems to exude an air of confidence around her.

A man follows her inside and greets Rose a polite yet friendly good morning. Compared to the woman, he seems to be quite calm and collected, someone who does not easily get fazed.

Rose stands up and returns their greeting as well with a respective nod to both of them.

“Good morning North, Markus. Come meet Kara and Alice.”

After some initial exchange of pleasantries, Kara gets to know that North also helps Rose out in managing the institute. She actually grew up and studied here and as a show of gratitude and not really wanting to live elsewhere, it was an easy decision for her to make.

Markus on the other hand is the owner’s surrogate son. He volunteers and also helps out from time to time by sharing his skills in the music and the arts to the students who have an inclination to that field.

North and Rose eventually end up having some kind of discussion with regards to setting up Alice’s schedule, and living arrangements for both of them. Kara was dutifully listening at first but gets distracted when she notices Markus wandering off to Alice’s side as he tries to engage her in a conversation.

Kara curiously observes the exchange. Alice seems quite hesitant at first—understandably, but with what she’s seen of Markus so far, she’s sure that Alice will warm up to him in no time. And she’s right. Alice does start talking to him, though it’s more of Markus asking questions and Alice giving short or one-word answers. But it’s a start.

Eventually, Alice points to her direction and Markus glances at her. He looks back at Alice and asks her something and Alice nods with a smile. He returns it with a warm smile of his own. Seems like she’s become their new topic of discussion. She ends up wondering what it’s about, but if their smiles are anything to go by, then she guesses it’s probably something positive.

And it was at that point that Kara realizes something—Alice was actually starting to openly talk with Markus, even initiating some parts of their conversation.

“You look surprised.”

She gets startled with North’s sudden comment and turns to see that she’s looking at her with a knowing smile. She hadn’t even noticed that North and Rose had paused their conversation.

She tells her that Alice has been relatively quiet and shy since they met yesterday under arduous circumstances and it’s the first time she’s seen Alice openly talking with someone.

North chuckles softly and Kara sees a fond expression on her face.

“He does have that effect on people—especially children.”

It was a few moments later when something unexpected happened. Markus seems to have taken interest in what Alice has drawn—Kara hadn’t even known that Alice liked to draw. But that wasn’t the important part right now. It was the jarring shift of Markus’ expression to a suddenly alarmed one and his body seemingly tensing up in reflex. He momentarily looks away and composes himself. Once he turns back to Alice, he seems to be back to normal except for the noticeable tightness in his eyes—if one is observant enough.

Distantly, Kara hears him asking Alice if she’d be interested in learning how to paint some time and he gets an enthusiastic nod in return.

He gives her a soft, “Okay.”—Smile not quite reaching his eyes.

North and Rose didn’t seem to notice this subtle turn of events as they had returned to their discussion. It was only when Markus excuses himself and informs them that he has something he needs to do that both women turn to him with matching looks of confusion.

Markus was almost out through the door when North reminds him to show up during Josh’s break in the afternoon—probably one of their friends who’s working here.

After a, “Will do North.” He leaves the room, as if in a hurry.

Kara wasn’t exactly sure what just happened since she barely knows these people. But hearing Rose asking North if Markus is okay and North replying that he was perfectly fine earlier gives her an idea that Markus suddenly walking out with a flimsy excuse—because that certainly sounded like an excuse to her—is not something he would commonly do and is a cause for concern.

Alice seems to be the only one who’s unaffected by the whole exchange as she’s back to sketching a new drawing—which Kara finds quite amusing. She’s intrigued though. What did Alice draw that ended up with Markus abruptly making his leave?

She goes to sit beside Alice and takes a look at her finished artwork. It’s a colored sketch that’s obviously done by a child and in a hurry—evident by the haphazardly-finished lines and disproportionate sizes of the different elements in the drawing.

At first, she isn’t sure what she’s looking at. But as she takes the time to really look at it, she realizes that it’s Alice’s interpretation of CyberLife’s R&D building interior—or at least the area that Kara discovered by accident. There were a few faceless figures, both tall and short—probably a representation of the employees and the other children, respectively. But it was the figure at the center that ultimately got Kara’s attention. It was a rough sketch of a woman—black hair, dark-skinned—wearing a long white top and it looks like Alice tried to make her appear severe-looking by the high-arching eyebrows she had attempted to draw on the woman’s face.

Does Markus know about this place? This woman? Is that why he reacted the way he did?

Her train of thoughts eventually gets interrupted by Rose, who lets her know that she’ll be showing her and Alice to their rooms and give her a tour of the institute and around the estate as well.

Well then, those questions can probably wait for another time.

Chapter Text

Date: OCT 25TH, 2038
Time: PM 05:15:08

Markus is currently at the institute lounge, patiently waiting for his friends to arrive when he frustratingly realizes that he’s been reading the same poem line from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale repeatedly for five times now. Knowing that he’s too distracted, he eventually gives up reading altogether and pretends as if he’s doing so while in reality, he’s actually busy mulling over his thoughts.

He certainly feels guilty for not showing up a few days ago to catch up with his friends as he had promised North. But he did send a message over saying that he’ll make it up to them.

Hey North, sorry I wasn’t able to keep my promise to show up and catch up with you guys. Got held up with some art gallery matters. Will make it up next time. :)

It’s true though. He’s busy helping out in organizing and preparing for an upcoming gallery viewing to be held during the second week of next month at the art gallery owned by his surrogate father, Carl. What’s great about this yearly event is that painters from all over Detroit—both celebrated and budding alike—get to showcase their talent and skills.

But he knows that it wasn’t the only reason why he had skipped out on catching up with his friends. He just doesn’t like them worrying over him, especially North.

He remembers being a bit intimidated by her when he first came to know her. She’s a woman who speaks out her mind and can be a bit intense at times, but she means well. She’s quite perceptive too, especially when it comes to her friends or people who she cares about.

But for all the toughness she shows most of the time, there’s also a different side to her.

He recalls the time when he had an impulsive idea to invite her for a morning run during earlier days of their budding friendship only to find out that she’s not a morning person and refuses to set her alarm to ring at any time before 8 AM.

It was certainly a nice change of pace when he got the chance to tease her the other morning when she showed up just as he had finished his morning jog since he’s usually the one getting teased by her.

Unfortunately for him, she easily got her revenge when she had started talking about Josh and Simon’s ridiculous bets about him.  Some silly ones like holing himself up in his room for days to read a book.

He might have actually done that once or twice…

Other more realistic ones like getting hit up by a jolt of inspiration and trying to finish a painting in one whole sitting.

He wishes he could do that.

And some rather farfetched ones such as spending time in a hidden alcove somewhere in the estate with a secret lover.

He had been visibly mortified by that and North had the gall to laugh at his expense, with absolutely no guilt at all.

Speak of the devil, he looks up to see North standing nearby and staring at him as if trying to figure out if he’s okay or not. He gives her a sheepish smile and breaks eye contact just as he hears Simon and Josh coming in.

“Look who finally shows up.” Josh teases him right off the bat by way of greeting as he takes a seat on the counter stool beside him.

“I did say I was going to make it up to you guys.” He replies with a grin and Josh goes on to continue by asking him about the painting that he’s supposed to be working on.

Oh right. He remembers that other than helping in organizing the gallery viewing, he also wanted to come up with his own work that he can put up during the event. But until now, he still doesn’t have an idea on what to paint. Talk about artist’s block.

Josh encourages him by saying that he still has around two more weeks to go and is certain that he’ll come up with something soon.

And although he’s grateful for his friend’s confidence in him, he hopes that inspiration will hit sooner than later.

Josh eventually tells them about an embarrassing moment during his class lecture where he was left confused as to why his students were staring at him as if he were talking in gibberish. As it happened, he belatedly realized that he unfortunately got side-tracked on the topic of discussion by talking about concepts that were far beyond the level that the students can comprehend at that point.

When North had introduced Josh to him and mentioned that he started teaching at the institute about six years ago—one year before he himself arrived—she said that she found it odd that Josh ended up as a teacher instead of pursuing a career in engineering or research and development. She thinks that he could have gone far in those fields especially with the amount of passion and interest he has.

He can certainly agree with that.

Josh did eventually reveal his reasons to them. He claims that he’s doesn’t want to get involve in workplace politics and company bureaucracies and that it’ll be more fulfilling for him to impart his knowledge to someone who’s just enthusiastic to learn. Besides, he can still do his own personal research when time permits.

Their conversation soon comes to a pause when the daily local news program currently playing on the nearby television grabs their attention.

He ends up furrowing his eyebrows as he sees the first one.

[Detroit: Home of World’s First Trillion Dollar Company]

“Our top story tonight: Detroit-based computer systems developer and manufacturer CyberLife—founded by Elijah Kamski twenty years ago—has officially become the world’s first trillion-dollar company and is currently experiencing the fastest economic growth in history…”

Elijah Kamski… He was kicked out of the board around a decade ago. It wasn’t known to the public as to the reason why but Markus knows there’s something suspicious about the whole thing. There has been no word of him ever since—as if he totally disappeared from the face of the earth.

[Eden Club Raid: Still No Official Statement]

“Two nights ago—October 23, 2038, the Detroit Police Department raided The Detroit Eden Club, located in Woodward Avenue after obtaining a tip from a credible source regarding an alleged drug deal. Although no evidence was found, two suspects were detained and sent to the police station for questioning. As of today, Eden Club’s manager—Floyd Mills, has not provided any official statement and has remained silent regarding the issue.”

“That’s nothing new. Give it a few days and it’ll be—no substantial evidence—as usual and everything will be back to normal.”

Josh is most certainly right about that, knowing that corrupt cops are involved. But Markus is more worried about…Leo.

Ever since the man he now calls his father took him in, his biological son—Leo, and himself have been at odds with each other. Though to be honest, it’s usually just Leo being hostile to him.

It hadn’t been like that initially. Leo had been welcoming as well, though not as enthusiastic as to how his father had been. There were a few awkward conversations and dinners—when Leo decided to come home. It’s quite understandable actually—since Leo was used being an only child for most of his life. And on Markus’ part, he had felt like an intruder for the first few months of living in their father’s manor.

He guesses that the hostility started when he kept refusing to accompany Leo to his frequent visits at the Eden Club and his drug-dealing shenanigans.

To add fuel to the fire, his father—having had enough of Leo’s drug addiction—quite bluntly told his son to get his act together and to be more responsible like Markus for a change.

Markus had been in the room at that time and it was a second too late when the older man realized his mistake. Leo had stormed out in anger and things got worse over time.

Going back to the present, he realizes that he must have looked quite obvious in his concern when North ended up thinking he was worried that Leo could have been one of the suspects and if that had been the case, their father or Rose would have already gotten a call from the DPD.

“I know… I’m just worried that he might actually get himself arrested one day.” He clarifies.

“And what’s so bad about that? It’ll serve him a lesson.” Came North’s harsh reply.

And he understands why Leo is certainly not in her good books. She hates the guy’s guts for being an utter douchebag—her words, not his. If not out of respect for the man who had given her a place to call home, he’s pretty sure she’d have already kicked Leo where it’ll hurt the most, or worse. Not that he can’t do that himself, but he’s sworn off violence after having enough of it in one lifetime.

“Just that it’ll end up worsening his and dad’s relationship more. If he’ll just listen and get himself into rehab, then things might actually turn for the better.” He tells North.

He then sees a look of understanding on his friend’s face. She knows he feels guilty for being the indirect reason as to why his father and Leo’s already strained father-son relationship to begin with has resulted to an even bigger gap ever since he came into the picture.

Thankfully, their discussion about Leo eventually trails off when they hear the final news of the hour being broadcasted.

It was about a young woman—an Emma Phillips, who has decided to post on her social media account about being stalked around four years ago, during her late teenage years. She’s encouraging everyone who has went through the same experience as her at any point in their lives to seek professional help to deal with the trauma. It’s the reason she’s finally able to open up and talk about the incident now.

The reporter continues and relates this story to a news that occurred also four years ago about a man committing suicide. During the investigation, several photos of Emma was plastered to the wall of his bedroom, indicating that he was stalking her. However, the Phillips family refused to give an interview regarding the incident and the story was eventually forgotten, until now that is.

He admires the young woman for finally being able to move past that ordeal she had gone through. It’s not easy to face one’s past, accept that it’s always going to be a part of you, and then moving forward with your head held high.

He would know.

He’s startled out of his thoughts when he hears Simon’s comment that suddenly came out of the blue.

“It wasn’t suicide.”

Simon suddenly looks as if he’s a deer caught in the headlights when all three of them turned to him in various expressions of surprise and North immediately decides to question him.

“What? And how would you know that?”

It seems that Simon had blurted it out subconsciously rather than intentionally when he starts groaning while rubbing a palm over his face and murmuring something like, “Fuck. Shouldn’t have opened my mouth.”

“What are you talking about?” He calmly asks his friend, urging him to continue.

After a while, Simon looks to have made a decision but not before taking a quick glance around them as if to check if anyone is listening in.

Something classified then?

“Okay, look.” Simon leans in and lowers down his voice to make sure that only they could hear him.“What I’m about to tell you guys is a highly classified information—”

“Woah, woah!” Josh cuts him off, “Hold up right there. If it’s highly classified, why are you even telling us? Isn’t that going to get you in trouble?”

North seems to agree with Josh as she adds, “And how did you manage to get involved in something that has to do with classified information anyways?”

“Because I’ve been keeping this knowledge for four freaking years and now that it’s come up again, if I don’t talk about it to someone else, I’m going to end up thinking about it for weeks on end. Again. And that totally sucked the last time.” Simon manages in one breath.

He can certainly understand his friend’s frustration since he’s obviously not used to dealing with these kinds of things, unlike himself.

“Besides, the case has been closed for years.” Simon finishes much more calmly.

When no one seems to be volunteering a comment, he decides to continue, “And to answer North’s question, it was favor from Rose—one of her contacts in the FBI was looking for someone skilled enough for the job and Rose recommended me.” And ends with a shrug.

That’s new. He knows that Simon has top-class programming skills but he never knew he took on these kinds of jobs.

But about what he just said…

“FBI? How did they get involved if DPD was the one handling the case?”

Simon looks even more worried now but tells them that he trusts them not to sell him out.

Basically, someone had sent an anonymous tip to the FBI—a copy of a fully decrypted message file that was intercepted during transmission. The fact that it was intercepted in the first place means that the person is most probably a highly-skilled hacker.

He further explains, “What they wanted me to do was to trace who the sender was. Since it was anonymous, even if the message contains substantial evidence, it’s not going to help in solving the case.”

“Were you able to trace it then?” Josh asks in curiosity and Simon sighs.

“Unfortunately, no. Like I said, this person is very highly-skilled and managed to cover their tracks and made it fully untraceable.”

North then proceeds to ask the most important question so far, “What was in the message file?”

“It was a mission briefing. Someone was hired to find out who the stalker was and to assassinate him. Make it appear like a suicide.”

Simon’s reply suddenly gives Markus a sinking feeling in his stomach.

In hindsight, he should have already expected this at it wasn’t suicide. But even if he had, he’s not prepared to have this sort of conversation with his friends. Not now. Not when they know nothing about his past.

Due to the panicked thoughts he’s currently having, he fails to catch the next part of the discussion, until his ears manage to pick up one vital information from Simon.

“…under the file name… cypher.”

His mind halts to a stop.

They don’t recognize what it is or what it stands for. But he does.

They can’t know. They can’t know that he had been a part of that.

They’re still talking about it. And as much as he wants to tune them all out right now, his mind still registers bits and pieces of his friends’ various reactions.

Simon is saying that he remembers the feeling of a chill running down his spine after getting to read the whole message and knowing how it was related to the suicide news. It was too clinical—as if killing someone was just a simple task to do.

Markus is afraid of knowing if his friend would also have the same feeling of fear towards him once he realizes that he could easily pull a trigger If he needs to—that it’s an instinct bred into him that he can’t get rid of, even if he hasn’t held a gun in years. And that although he’s full of regret and remorse of what he ended up becoming, he used to kill people because it was his job—not because of personal reasons.

Josh can’t believe that this is what they have to live with in their everyday lives. Making a business out of killing people. It’s just an endless cycle of violence and revenge. An eye for and the world goes blind.

What would Josh say if he found out that he used to be in the business of killing people as well? Would he think him a hypocrite for being an advocate of non-violence? He doesn’t want to find out.

And North? Though they had an agreement that they won’t talk about each other past, he’s afraid that it might feel like a betrayal to her—that the person who she knows he is, is too far different from who he was before.

He’s afraid of losing their friendship that he’s worked to build up over the past few years. And he can’t let that happen.

He never realized that he had fallen into a daze, not until he hears North calling out his name.

“Markus!”

He looks at them with mild alarm when he notices that they were all openly staring at him concern.

“Hey, are you alright?” Simon asks him softly, worry evident in his eyes.

A beat later, he stammers out a reply, “I—Sorry… Got lost in my thoughts there.”

He has to quickly change the subject if he intends to avoid any of his friends’ further questions. He never expected that he would need to use his skill of masking his emotions ever again, but he does. It feels unnerving to do it, especially to his friends.

“Are any of you guys heading to Greektown any time soon?” He asks them curiously, talking in a way as if they weren’t discussing something remotely unsettling just a bit earlier.

Josh was ultimately baffled at the 180-degree turn, but still manages to give him answer—probably some time in the next week or so. Simon just looks relieved that the topic of conversation has changed.

On the other hand, he knows North is itching to ask him about what had just transpired so he avoids looking at her in the eye. Eventually, they had ended up simply chatting about trivial matters—a stark contrasts to what they had been talking about a few minutes prior.

And as Markus leaves for dinner with his father at the manor, he never notices that he’d left the book he was reading earlier while waiting for his friends to arrive.

Chapter Text

Date: OCT 25TH, 2038
Time: PM 06:28:17

If Markus had known that showing up at the institute lounge and catching up with his friends would result in an unceremonious reminder of the past he had decided to leave behind five years prior, he wouldn’t have showed up at all. But that’s just it—he couldn’t have known. He might be proficient in several different skills, but clairvoyance isn’t one of them.

Just as he couldn’t have known that taking a curious peek at a child’s presumably innocent artwork would have him remembering the most vicious woman he has ever known. She’s somewhat of a frightening enigma. He used to be curious as to what made her become such a heartless person—how she could treat people as simple subjects in her experiments. But now, all he wants to do is to forget her existence. Unfortunately, it’s rather impossible to do when things that she’s involved in pop up every now and then. It’s as if she’s secretly mocking him for thinking he could live his life with some semblance of normalcy.

But he’s been doing okay so far. It’s not perfect by any means. For one, he’s not able to leave the estate premises since he came to live here. He was initially worried that he’ll eventually go crazy with his new living arrangements. But despite the limitations, it oddly feels refreshing to not have the need to be always on alert, always looking behind his back every minute of his life.

With no more eyes tracking his every movement, he’s now free to choose what he wants to do. Without the need to repress his emotions any longer, he’s now able to freely express what he feels. And without any absurd rules to follow, he’s now able to have normal friendships unlike before.

It’s why he partially feels bad for abruptly changing the topic earlier during the conversation with his friends after they had pulled him out of the daze that he got stuck in. North and Simon are best friends and have been inseparable ever since they were kids—if he feels a pang of envy or regret whenever he sees them bantering or silently communicating through mere eye contact, he simply chooses to ignore it.

Six years ago, Josh came in the picture and they became a trio. On the other hand, he was the newcomer. It wasn’t as if everything clicked into place when he first got here. It took months for him to adjust to his new life and even then, he’s usually by himself. However, there was that one time he had been painting at the institute’s art studio—back when he wasn’t quite comfortable doing so in the manor’s sun room—when North saw him all by his lonesome left. And promptly decided that he should join her and her friends for lunch.

He remembers staring at her in confusion with his mouth hanging open for a few awkward seconds before she ends up laughing and introduces herself with a quirk of her lips, “Name’s North.”

And the rest was history. Belatedly, he found out that it was his surrogate father who had subtly sent her his way.

Speaking of…

“A penny for your thoughts, Markus?”

Right. He’s supposed to be having dinner with his father. Instead, he’s been stuck inside his head for lord knows how many minutes now, while idly poking the food on the plate with his fork.

He lifts his head and sees his father looking at him with a concerned smile.

His father

He doesn’t exactly remember when he started comfortably acknowledging the man as such. Maybe it was when he gets reminded by said man time and time again that this is his home now—that he can be who he wants to be, without judgement or expectations. Maybe it’s because of all the little things—playing a slow game of chess, discussing about the different meanings one painting could have, having simple conversations about the mundane things in life. Or perhaps it was simply after getting used to being called his son, too many times to count.

It’s surreal to think that he gets to have this—a second chance to live the life that was taken away from him. That’s why he tries his best not to let the man worry about him too much.

“It’s nothing you need to worry about, dad. Just thinking about the conversation with the others earlier.” He replies reassuringly, with a small smile in return.

For that, he gets a look from the older man that basically says to cut the bullcrap because he knows Markus is merely deflecting, but he’ll let it pass because he also knows and understands that he doesn’t want to talk about it.

It’s one of the many things Markus appreciates about him—He doesn’t force him to talk about things he’s not comfortable or ready to talk about. He certainly gets worried, that’s for sure—any father who greatly cares for his son would, but he doesn’t push.

“Suit yourself. Just remember that the day you stop being stubborn will be the day that I stop worrying.” The older man tells him lightly with a shrug, as he puts down his utensils and leans back on his wheelchair, resting his forearms comfortably on the armrests.

Markus doubts that. He’s pretty sure his father will keep on worrying about him even—even after he’s finally able to tell him everything. His gut instincts tell him that the older man knows something, even if he claims otherwise.

“Why not play something for me, son?” His father suddenly suggests with an encouraging smile.

Markus perks up at that.

Yeah, why not. Playing the piano has always helped him calm his mind when his thoughts start to overwhelm him.

He stands up from his seat and heads towards the opposite end of the room where the grand piano is located. He notices David—his father’s caretaker—standing at attention by the main door of the room, as he passes by him and acknowledges him with a nod, that is respectfully returned.

Once he reaches the piano, he sits down on the bench and contemplates what to play.

It takes him a short while to choose from the many musical pieces he has learnt over the years but he eventually settles for something he has recently heard a student play at the institute’s music room. He remembers how the piece called to him as the music spoke of finding hope despite being lost in an unfamiliar world. He recalls asking about it then searching for the music in the internet and deciding to learn it by heart.

He lifts his fingers onto the keys and begins playing the first few notes. It starts on a lower register—perfectly conveying the feeling of sadness and melancholy, of wandering around aimlessly not knowing where to go. Just as he had felt during the first few weeks of living in this new and peaceful yet unfamiliar place.

Then, the entry of higher notes—a sudden feeling of hope blooming within. He remembers his surrogate father’s small encouragements, the first stroke of a paintbrush after a long while, and new faces encountered, unsure if he’ll be welcomed.

As the music rises up towards a crescendo, the artist communicates the feeling of being surer of himself, of finding a new purpose in his life, of forging new friendships and bonds.

And finally, the music slowly comes down until it is back to the point where it started. And yet, there’s a sense of acceptance—that even if the sadness and melancholy might never go away, there’s that newfound hope to cling onto, ever present even during the darkest of days.

As he finishes, Markus lets the last wave of emotions settle down within himself until all that’s left is a welcomed feeling of peace and calmness. He looks up from the piano and is a bit surprised to see that his father had wheeled himself nearby. He must have gotten too lost in the music to not have noticed.

“It’s a very beautiful piece.” The older man tells him with a satisfied smile.

And with that, Markus thinks that he’ll be able to get through this night after all despite his earlier tumultuous thoughts.

That is—until he hears the purr of a motorcycle engine approaching the manor. He resists the urge to outwardly groan.

Of all the times Leo chooses to show up, why did it have to be tonight?

Seems like his father has a similar thought—judging by the sudden downturn of his lips. And amusingly, he also notices David’s slightly annoyed expression as the caretaker takes his place behind his charge, as a precaution just in case Leo is one of his drug-induced moods.

He stands up from the piano bench just as he hears Leo’s uneven footsteps drawing near. He does often wonder how Leo manages to reach his destination safely on his bike while under the effect of drugs.

He doesn’t get the chance to ponder on that further as Leo comes in through the automatic sliding doors—his body moving all fidgety.

He jerks his head as he takes a quick look at the rooms’ occupants and finally settles his unfocused gaze on their father.

“Hey dad…” He calls out nervously.

“Finally decided to come home again, huh? What sort of trouble did you get into this time?” The older man asks him sternly.

“No! Nothing! I didn’t get in any trouble. I swear!” Leo starts waving his hands in defense. But he’s fooling no one in the room as he gets various looks of suspicion and doubt in return. Knowing that no one will believe him anyway, he decides to get straight to the point of why he came home in the first place.

“Look dad, I uh… I just need some cash…” He utters lamely.

The older man stares at his son for a long while and simply tells him, “No.”

“What—Why!?” Leo exclaims in frustration and angrily points towards Markus.

“You always give him money without him needing to ask—your other son.

Markus can clearly hear the contempt and mockery on that last word.

“What makes me any different?” Leo finishes bitterly.

The older man then gives his son a sad look, “You already know the answer to that Leo. We’ve talked about this too many times already.”

Leo doesn’t immediately respond. But a second later, he takes a quick glance at Markus and looks back at his father.

“Yeah, yeah… I think I do know why.” He’s starting to sound a bit on the hysterical side, which—Markus thinks—will definitely lead to one of his verbal rants, anytime now.

“Ever since he came into our lives, all you do is ignore me. Why?”

“Leo—” The older man firmly tries to stop his son from continuing, but to no avail as Leo shouts the next word out.

“—Because!” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “Because he’s the perfect son that I couldn’t be for you, right!? Just because I don’t paint! Can’t play the piano! Don’t share the same interest in the things that you like! You even let him handle almost everything around here! But me? Me!? You never actually ever loved me—”

“That’s not true!”

Markus usually tries to see where Leo was coming from. He tries to understand the frustration that Leo feels whenever it seems that their father is favoring his surrogate son over his biological one. But that’s the thing—It’s Leo that doesn’t see the whole picture. He’s too angry to understand that his father loves and cares for him greatly, but it deeply saddens the older man that to know that he can’t even convince his own son to change for the better—to turn over a new leaf.

And that’s why he decided to finally interject. Both Leo and their father turn to him in surprise.

“Leo, you know that’s not true.” He tells him as gently as possible, knowing that he’s treading on thin ice here.

He quickly continues before Leo could get a word in edgewise, “You know deep down inside that dad loves you. All he wants is for you to get better—to overcome your drug addiction by going into rehab and seeking—”

“Shut up!” Leo rudely cuts him off, “Just shut the fuck up!”

As Markus sees Leo walking purposely towards him with anger evident in his eyes, he belatedly realizes that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to have interrupted after all, as Leo was obviously not in a good mental state of mind to actually listen to anything he has to say.

“Leo, please calm down—” He slightly raises his right hand while taking a small step back in an attempt to pacify the other man.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up!?”

By this point, Leo is now standing directly in front of him as he continues his tirade.

“You know what? I’ve been thinking. You suddenly come barging into our lives one day and I don’t even how or why you ended up here with us. You never even step foot outside the estate. Why’s that, huh?”

Markus is sure that he hears their father frantically trying to get Leo to stop talking altogether, but it doesn’t register in his head as he starts feeling a rising dread to where this might lead to. And it must have shown in his face since he sees the other man’s expression transform from anger to a smug sneer.

“Hit a sore spot, didn’t I?”

He resists the urge to make any response at all since saying anything now might spur Leo more. But it proves to be useless as the other man plows on.

“What? Did some bad shit in the past and you had to run away and hide?”

How did he—!

No, he doesn’t know. He merely took a guess—if the equal look of shock on the other man’s face is anything to go by. But he couldn’t help his own reaction. He’s been very careful not to give anything away. He never calls Leo out even though he’s well-aware that he’s the culprit for the numerous failed attempts at stealing their father’s paintings.

But hearing something he’s been hoping never to hear, so casually thrown at him in accusation—even if it was just a guess—had rendered him frozen in shock.

Now that he fell for it, he sees the realization dawn on Leo’s face and braces for what the other man might end up saying next, with the opening he has inadvertently given him.

“Heh. Who knew that the perfect son isn’t so perfect after all?”

He hates it. He hates it every time Leo uses that word to mock him.

“Yeah, things do make more sense now.”

He’s just someone with so many flaws and regrets that he just wants to—

“You think you can fool everybody by being a goody two shoes?”

That’s not it!

“Why don’t you tell the truth, huh? Tell dad—”

“—Leo, that’s enough!”

Leo totally ignores their father and continues, “Tell your friends. See what they have to say.”

“Shut up!”

He hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

“Oh, now you want me shut up. How about—No.”

Markus clenches his jaw and tells the other man, “Leo, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Yeah, no. See, there’s only one thing to understand here.” Leo gets confident and jabs a finger to his chest, “It’s that you’re a hypocrite. And a coward. You’re a coward, you hear! You’re a fucking co—what the fuck!?”

For a moment, Markus isn’t sure why everything suddenly sounded muffled around him. He distantly hears someone calling his name and he feels a weird pressure against his right arm.

It’s when he has finally come back to his senses that he realizes what had happened—or rather, what he had done.

Leo’s taunting had finally made him snap and he now has the other man pinned against the wall with his left forearm beside one of the bookshelves.

“Markus!” His father calls out to him in alarm—and probably has been doing so a few times now.

He quickly looks over his right shoulder and realizes that the pressure he was feeling is actually David holding back his arm to prevent him from fully attacking Leo with a punch to the face.

A swift glance back lets him see the other man staring at him in equal parts shock and fear so he releases the tension in his body and immediately backs off.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t…” He attempts to apologize but seeing Leo flinching has him taking a few more steps back.

The initial look of shock and fear on Leo’s face has disappeared by now and all that remains is a mix of confusion and uncertainty. He opens his mouth as if wanting to say something but ends up closing it again as he changes his mind and shakes his head.

As Leo looks at him straight in the eye, his expression changes again to something akin to—was that regret? He wasn’t entirely sure—until it finally shifts to a look of resignation.

He eventually breaks eye contact with him and takes a final glance at their father before he quickly turns around and leaves through the way he came in.

Feeling quite drained, Markus walks towards the nearest sofa and slowly takes a seat. He leans forward, forearms on his thighs, and tries to makes sense of what had just happened. He hears David quietly excusing himself and taking his leave, then sees his father approaching by the corner of his eye.

He lifts his head to see the older man looking at him worriedly. But at the same time, there was a hint of firm resolve in his eyes.

“Son, listen to me.” He starts, “Remember what I have always been telling you. Whoever you were or whatever you did in the past, it doesn’t define who you are now. No one’s perfect. We all have our own flaws and mistakes. It’s what we decide to do about them that matters.”

Markus can’t help but smile at that. Though it doesn’t fully stop the turmoil he was feeling inside, it still helps to slightly lift his spirits, knowing that his father is always on his side, ready to ground him back whenever he feels lost and unsure.

“Thanks dad.”

His father eventually pulls him into a hug, gives him a fond pat on his back and tells him to call it a night. Knowing that there’s no way he’s going to be accomplishing anything else, he obediently follows his father’s advice.

To be honest, there had been some truth to what Leo had said, even if he had been acting irrationally and spurred on by his anger combined with being under the effect of drugs. It was why he had lashed out and ended up attacking Leo in reflex. He immediately regretted it of course.

So much for swearing off violence.

He’s been living in a bubble of comfort all these years. He has a doting father. He has people he considers his closest friends. And he has all the time in the world to indulge in his hobbies that he never got to fully explore in the past. But he never really entertained the idea of what-ifs.

What if that bubble bursts? What if he gets found out? What if—

Leo’s taunts did a mighty good job of slapping some sense of reality into him. That’s why he reacted so negatively. Deep down, he didn’t want to acknowledge that truth. All this while, he’s been trying to run away from a past he simply wants to leave behind.

It was only much later when he wakes up in a cold sweat from one of the worst nightmares he has had to date—

He was on the ground—white strings wrapped tightly around his upper body, digging into his skin, drawing blood.

Leo, flinching back in fear, then transforming into Simon with the same look of fear in his eyes.

Leo’s voice, accusing him of being a hypocrite, overlaid with Josh’s voice telling him the same thing.

His father looking at him in disappointment and turning away.

North staring at him with a look of contempt.

Amanda, suddenly appearing behind her, holding her by the shoulders and at the same time, North transforming into a teenage boy with a set of brown eyes that he remembers quite clearly even after a decade past.

Connor pointing a gun at him.

Finally, a resounding gunshot.

—That he realizes he can never fully escape from his past.


Date: OCT 26TH, 2038
Time: AM 12:17:05

Connor is exhausted. Though not in the physical sense, no.

He has just managed to survive the talk he had with Amanda. And by her standards, talk actually meant isolating someone in a room for days while playing mind games with them.

It had started out disastrously at first—him giving all the wrong answers to her questions. It was probably due to the fact that he was still reeling from what had transpired during the mission.

By the fifth day of being stuck in a room doing absolutely nothing—He wasn’t even allowed the simple luxury of having his quarter coin with him to pass the time—and getting sick with the smell of roses that Amanda had brought in during her visits, he knew he had to play her current mind game wisely and accordingly—to her rules.

Fortunately, years of communicating with the woman has taught him a thing or two on how to best approach a conversation with her and he was more prepared come her next visit.

Somehow, he knew Amanda was trying to pull out every inch of truth he was trying to hide. But he did his best to deflect and improvise. At one point, he had feared that Amanda might have seen through him. But after giving him a long hard look, she simply stood up, told him that he’s free to leave the room and to be on standby on for his next mission.

He had been ultimately relieved afterwards, but his instincts were telling him that there was something off with how Amanda had abruptly ended the conversation. However, he no longer had the mental energy to analyze it. The whole encounter had left him agitated, restless, and utterly exhausted—which is why the first thing he did when he left the tower was to proceed with his original plan if he had been successful with his mission then.

And so, he now finds himself sitting comfortably on a kitchen floor, back leaning against the wall, petting a certain St. Bernard—Sumo—who has his head contentedly leaning against his propped-up knees.

To be honest, he never expected that he’ll unwittingly form an attachment to Sumo, ever since one fateful encounter with the house’s current occupant around a year ago.

He’s still staring straight in front of him when he hears the said occupant—Hank Anderson turn the corner and gruffly tells him, “When will you start coming through the front door like a normal person, huh?”

He sounds as if he just woke up from being passed out drunk. But he’s teasing him. That’s a good sign then.

He turns his head to look up at the older man and replies in kind, “Where would the fun in that be?”

He wonders if his exhaustion is showing through too much, by the way Hank is currently frowning at him in worry at the moment. But the other man doesn’t ask or comment on it.

Hank has never been adept at talking about anything that has to do with emotions. And the same goes for him obviously, so he’s perfectly fine with it.

It’s enough for him that Hank considers him someone he chooses to worry over, and that the other man allows him to trespass on his property and lets him spend time with his pet dog every now and then.

He leans his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, knowing that he can finally take a break—at least for tonight.

Chapter Text

Date: NOV 2ND, 2038
Time: AM 09:05:11

It had just been a week the last time he decided to crash on Hank’s couch for the night—as Hank likes to put it—and he ends up doing so again, just last night. He usually avoids making such short intervals between visits, as a precaution. He normally waits until about two to three weeks have passed before he comes over. And although the GPS cloaking device Hank has installed in his house ensures that no one from HQ will be able to track him to this location, it’s certainly not a bad thing to be too careful. It’s also why he only stays over for a very short time to rest.

He’s used to staying at random places to spend the night, especially during missions. But there’s a certain sense of comfort he feels when he wakes up in the morning on the very couch he’s sitting on at the moment. Compared to how he was able to easily acknowledge why he has taken a liking to Sumo, he hadn’t initially understood why had formed an attachment to an inanimate object. But he eventually realized what the reason was. And it had everything to do with the first time he had encountered Hank.

It had been around early Autumn of the previous year when he had gotten a particularly more difficult mission than the ones he usually gets. It involved having a high-profile drug lord—one Carlos Ortiz as the target. Due to it being a more dangerous mission, he was partnered with another operative to ensure a smoother success. Unfortunately, he had been partnered with a slightly less competent operative who at the same time, wasn’t too keen of having him as a partner in the first place. The feeling was mutual.

To sum things up, it had gotten a bit messy—on his part at least. He had successfully eliminated the target while his partner covered him and took care of Ortiz’s men. However, his partner failed to spot one and he ended up getting shot. Fortunately, it wasn’t a critical wound but it had been a deep one. Knowing he needed to get medical attention, he had instructed his partner to chase the remaining lackey down.

At that point, the mission was technically accomplished and done so he knew the other operative wouldn’t even bother to check on him.

If it had been—

No. He’d rather not think about what-ifs and what-could-have-been. It’s pointless to do so.

Anyway, he had been quickly losing blood and due to his weakened state, had only managed to trudge through a medium distance when he ended up collapsing by the mouth of a narrow alleyway. His dizziness was causing his vision to become blurry but he remembers hearing a sound of probably a shop door opening and then a loud exclamation of, “Jesus Christ!”

He was initially alarmed that it might have been a random civilian who spotted him but when he heard the person announcing that he’ll be bringing him to a hospital, his concern abruptly shifted.

“No! No hospital…” He rasped out with difficulty.

He wasn’t sure if the other person had heard him but he remembers getting helped into a car and a tourniquet being applied to him arm. Mid-way through the car ride, he had struggled to remain conscious and had ended up passing out.

The next time he woke up, it took a few seconds to realize he was lying down on a couch, in someone’s house. He had started to wonder how he got there and why he was feeling strangely groggy when memories of the night before came rushing in—the mission, getting shot, getting helped by someone.

The mission! His report—

He had tried to sit up as quickly as he can and reached for his phone in his pocket—relieved to know that he’s still wearing his own clothes—and checked to see that the other operative had already sent in the report, noting that the mission was successful but no mentions of him getting injured. It was probably because the other person hadn’t wanted to explain to Amanda why he managed to get her best assassin shot under his watch.

The next thing he noticed was that his gun—together with its holster, and his boot knife were placed on the coffee table nearby. It was then it clicked in his mind that his apparent savior was not a random civilian, like he was initially worried about.

He finally decided to check on his bullet wound and saw that it looks to be patched up quite well—definitely done by highly-skilled medical professional. He had expected to be feeling a lot more pain due to how deep the wound was but eventually realized that it was the painkillers dulling it out and causing the grogginess. It’s going take somewhat between three weeks to a month for the wound to fully heal. Fortunately, it wasn’t his dominant arm. But still, it’s going to slow him down—just a bit.

He went around the house to do some investigating and found out the person who saved him was a man named Hank Anderson. He’s an alcoholic—based on the numerous bottles of Black Lamb Scotch Whiskey scattered all over the place. He likes jazz and dark heavy metal music—Connor certainly approves of his musical tastes. Additionally, he seemed to favor traditional forms of media—based on the books and a number of vinyl records on display.

He also has a dog—who was awake and was staring at him curiously. It walked towards him in a non-threatening manner so he slowly squatted down and tentatively reached out his right hand. It ended up nuzzling his hand so he got more confident and eventually gave the dog a small pat on its head. Once the dog was satisfied, it went back to where it was originally lying down on the floor. He decided that he…likes the dog.

He also discovered that Hank probably likes to eat burgers—based on the leftover burger on his kitchen table, which he threw out and replaced with a new one he bought as a show of gratitude for saving his life. It’s probably not enough as a thank you but he doesn’t know the man well enough so it’ll do. Besides, he probably won’t be coming back anyways.

But apparently, he had been wrong. Around a month later after he had just accomplished a fairly normal mission, he oddly felt rattled and uneasy. He was pondering on the best way to get himself to calm down when he suddenly remembered Hank’s pet dog.

At first, he was debating with himself about why he shouldn’t be entertaining the idea at all. But he figured that since Hank utilizes a device that manages to cloak his actual location—another hint as to him not being just a normal civilian, it would be safe enough to do so. He’ll bring a bottle of whiskey as a peace offering, just in case.

He had been petting the dog by the kitchen floor—it had come running towards him when he had entered through the window—when Hank arrived home, shocked to find someone else inside his house.

“The fuck!? You planning to give me a heart attack, kid?”

It was then that he realized the man had a natural inclination to cursing when he talks.

“I wasn’t able to personally thank you for saving me last time.” He explains.

Hank doesn’t look convinced.

“You do realize you’re trespassing, right?”

“I apologize. I did ring the front bell but no one was answering. I took a guess that you might just be passed out drunk on the floor so I decided to enter through the window.” He replies, in his matter-of-fact way.

“What!?”

Hank had looked quite indignant at first but Connor noticed his face shifting to a sharper expression. Perhaps Hank realized that he had managed to bypass his alarm system that would alert him of any intruder and he quickly tried to convince the man that he had come to his house without any suspicious motives.

“I brought you a bottle of whiskey.”

Hank made a quick glance at the kitchen table to see that there was indeed a new bottle of whiskey on it and went back to stare at him. It had left Connor feeling unnerved at that time. It was very much different from how Amanda would give him her cold stares. This man was looking at him as if seeing through him and judging him for everything that he’d done so far in his life. He might look like a normal drunkard on the outside—untidy and unkempt. But Connor knew he wasn’t someone to be messed with. There’s a certain subtle aura of danger surrounding the man. Only someone like himself who’s trained and used to observing people would notice it.

After a few more seconds of staring each other down, Hank asked, “The burger?”

Connor was initially confused but then realized what he was referring to.

“Yes.”

He had given him another hard look before asking him his next question.

“How’s the arm?”

Connor had paused at that. He wasn’t expecting the man to ask about it, but he certainly…appreciated it.

“It has healed quite well.”

Hank nodded in satisfaction, “Good.”

And just at the right moment, the dog—probably getting annoyed as to why no one was paying it attention anymore—had let out a yip and started jumping in excitement.

“Down, Sumo.”

“Sumo…”

It seemed Sumo had appreciated him calling him by his given name as he ended up nuzzling his hand more enthusiastically.

“Seems he likes you.”

By the time Connor had looked back up, Hank was walking towards one of the cupboards.

“You drink?” Hank asked.

“No, I don’t. But thank you for the offer.” He replied.

The other man had shrugged and simply said, “Suit yourself.”

Hank had started pouring the whiskey into his glass when he asked him another question.

“You have name, kid?”

Connor didn’t immediately answer and had contemplated if he should tell him. It wouldn’t be a wise decision. He only has superficial knowledge about the man.

“Connor.” But against his better judgement, he had done so anyways.

“Connor.” Hank had nodded his head offhandedly, mumbling to himself, as if testing his name out.

A beat later, he realized that Hank doesn’t offer his name. He probably guessed that he already knows.

Hank had taken a drink from his glass and then told him, “And for the record, you’re still trespassing.”

He had initially thought that the other man was merely using a tactic by getting him comfortable enough to let his guard down and then going back to interrogate him once more of his real purpose for intruding upon his house. But then he realized that it hadn’t sounded accusatory at all. He was simply…teasing? He hadn’t known how to react then.

After a short moment of silence, he had stood up and decided to ask the question that had been bothering him for a month.

“May I…ask a question?”

“Yeah sure. Go ahead.” Hank had replied with a casual nod.

“I was a stranger. And yet you helped me. Why?”

He had gotten an incredulous look from the man in return.

“What? Was I supposed to just leave you there to bleed out all over the street!?”

There was another thing to note about this man—He tends to easily react with his emotions.

“It would have been the logical thing to do. You—”

“—Fuck logic! I don’t know who spouted that nonsense to you. But where I come from, you see someone bleeding his ass off, you help him—stranger or not.”

Hank had paused and looked at him as if he was remembering something—like a painful memory.

“Besides, if I had left you there to die, my conscience would probably eat me up. And I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.”

Hank then grabbed his glass, together with the bottle of whiskey and walked out of the kitchen, mumbling something about shitty logic and weird kids.

He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be insulted that the man refers to him as a kid.

It had been a good thing that Hank had initially cut him off. Belatedly, he realized that he had been about to tell the other man that he didn’t know if he had been involved in something nefarious and could have been dragged into the situation unwittingly. It had been a hypothetical reasoning on his part but then realistically speaking, it was exactly what it was. He needed to be more careful when conversing with him, make sure to steer clear of anything that might allude to what his job is.

But something about what he said—that he’s had enough of having his conscience eating him up—it made Connor wonder what sort of life the man had before ending up as this ill-tempered alcoholic, who seemed to be living his days in apathetic lethargy.

And although he was still mulling over Hank’s explanation for helping him, he was slowly coming to terms that the man had cared enough to even bother. It had been quite a long time since someone did that for him. It certainly felt…nice.

Coming out from his recollection, he looks around the living room. Everything’s quiet and peaceful—the morning sun casting its light through the windows. Both occupants of the house are still asleep. He decides to stay for little while longer.

Around twenty minutes later—while John Sykes’ Cautionary Warning was blasting heavy guitar riffs through his earphones, he sees his phone alerting him of an incoming message: Meet me at the garden.

He stares at the message as it flashes a few more times.

Amanda. He has a new mission. And it seems to be a majorly important one if she wants him to personally meet with her at her favorite place. Normally, mission assignments and details are simply sent through the network.

Time to get back to work then.

It isn’t until he has arrived at the tower entrance that he comes to the conclusion as to why it had just been a week’s time for him to make another sudden visit to Hank’s house—He had still been feeling unsettled over his last encounter with Amanda.


The Zen Garden is located on the higher portion of the tower, taking up at least five floors. The garden itself is real—including the small lake, different structures and various trees and plants scattered around the whole area. But the sky and the weather are mere simulations—much like the ones they would use back in the Ferndale training facility. Whoever created the simulations did an excellent job—in Connor’s opinion, as the environment can perfectly imitate any type of real weather condition. For example, Amanda has chosen to match the real weather outside this time.

Good thing he has his coat on then.

He sees Amanda on the middle island by the distance, tending to her roses as usual. As he makes his way towards her through the intricate pathways of the garden, he starts getting intrigued. And yet, he feels anxious at the same time.

Whatever his next mission will be, he has to do well. He must make up for his previous failure.

Amanda turns around and greets him, just as he reaches her.

“Hello Connor.”

“Good afternoon, Amanda.”

She then gives him a once-over and says, “You look better.”

Not waiting for his response, she further tells him, “Walk with me.”

He obeys as instructed and follows her as she walks away from the rose trellis and towards one of the bridges.

“Connor,” she starts, “you told me that the reason you had failed your previous mission was because you couldn’t help but feel a sense of pity for your targets and that you couldn’t find it in you to kill a child. In short, you had let your emotions cloud your judgement. Correct?”

She doesn’t say it accusatorily, just very matter-of-fact.

“Yes.”

He hadn’t intended to let her know that it had affected him in such a way. It was too much of a show of weakness and by her standards, a show of weakness that has one’s emotions involved amounts to a significant failure. But he had been tired of her mind games and had been itching to get out of the isolation she had put him in, so he had caved in.

He is suddenly worried that this will just be repeat of last time and he’s not sure if he’s ready for another round of that.

Amanda pauses with her walk and turns to him.

“When you first arrived at the facility, I saw such great potential in you. You were ruthless and calculating—surpassing all my expectations when you excelled in each and every test and challenge thrown at you. You had become the best operative that I could have ever hoped to mold.”

He used to revel in such high praise coming from her, used to feel a great sense of accomplishment when he hears those words—or something similar. But now, the praises have begun to lose their shine and sometimes he thinks he’d much rather not hear them at all.

Unexpectedly, Amanda raises her right hand and gently holds his face. The first thing that registers in his mind is that her hand is cold—so very cold and he resists the urge to flinch away.

“But now, I’ve been noticing several cracks. I merely want to understand what the cause is. And yet you refuse to tell me.”

Even though Amanda stands inches shorter than him, he doesn’t feel the comfort of being the taller one at the moment. The hard look she’s currently pinning him with makes him suddenly fear that she knows everything he’s desperately trying to hide. And she’s just waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.

“I assure you Amanda, there is nothing to tell.”

She stares at him for a few more seconds. He holds his ground, not daring to break eye contact.

She eventually nods at him in approval and says, “A perfect mask. I’ve indeed trained you well.”

He is relieved when she gives him one final look and finally puts her hand away.

“Very well. I did say that I will give you a chance to redeem yourself. Succeed in this mission and we can forget that you ever failed in the first place.”

That’s right. He’s almost forgotten the reason why he’s here. Once he finishes this mission, Amanda would stop doubting and questioning him, which will then stop making him so anxious and agitated all the time. Everything will go back to how it was, that is—if he succeeds.

He has a hunch that this mission is not going to be a walk in the park—that it’s going to be a test to prove himself and to gain back her confidence in him.

She hands him a small tablet-like device that she pulls out of the pocket of her tunic and says, “Here is you new mission.”

He takes the device from her and activates it. Once he sees what’s on the screen, he feels his heart skip a beat and then starts to pound like an erratic drum, going faster and faster. He fervently hopes Amanda doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t know how he manages to maintain his composure but he miraculously does.

Unfortunately, he must have not noticed that he was standing too stock still for far longer than he should be when he hears Amanda asking him, “Is there a problem, Connor?”

He forces his racing heart to calm down as he lifts his head and looks at her straight in the eye.

“No Amanda.”

“Good. I expect satisfactory results then.”

Connor gives her a perfunctory nod as he pockets the device. He turns around and starts walking away, while feeling Amanda’s eyes following him.

He can’t think properly right now. He needs to get out of the tower—fast. He didn’t even bother to read through the details. Seeing the target’s name was enough to almost make his mask fully crumble in front of Amanda.

His hunch was right. It is a test—one that he’s not sure how he’s going to pass. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

[MISSION BRIEFING]
TARGET: Markus


You are my instigator
You are my aggravator
You are my space invader
Cautionary warning I propose

You are my complicator
You are my instigator
You are my aggravator
Cautionary warning I propose

-Cautionary Warning (by John Sykes)