Chapter 1: Delirium
This was a prompt for whumptober day 3 (delirium.) I initially didn't use gender or names. I wasn't intending to continue the story here. I got a really good response so I continued it, but this is where it began.
Gavin knew it was too late to make a getaway with Sam. He had to admit, he hadn't exactly expected their team to bring the cavalry. Maybe Sam means more to them than I thought. He glanced at them, slumped and tied to a chair with their arms bound behind them. No. I'm not wrong. Sam had been so easy to break. So easy it almost wasn't fun. The location of their base? He knew now. The names and weaknesses of every member of the team? Carefully recorded for future use. Gavin knew how much the team knew about him. He knew what the team going to do next. All of it. Why keep around such a liability? I would have put a bullet in their head to prevent them from revealing all that.
The sound of gunfire grew louder. They were getting closer. Gavin couldn't bring Sam with him in their state. He'd have to leave them behind.
It wouldn't be a total loss, though.
Gavin approached Sam, unmoving in the chair. "Hey." He smacked them lightly across the face. "Sam. Rise and shine."
A whimper. "No...please..."
"Hey, hey, none of that. I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm done with all that." He lifted the Sam's face with a hand gripping their hair. "But you know who's coming for you now?"
He relished the briefest flicker of fear that flashed across Sam's face. "N...no..."
Gavin smiled crookedly, looking almost sympathetic. "It's your team! They're coming for you. They're almost here."
The look of hope that brought some life into Sam's eyes was even more delicious. "They...they're..."
"Yup." He let go of their hair abruptly and let their head drop. Sam struggled to lift their eyes to Gavin's, hopeful and broken. Gavin turned down the corners of his mouth. "That's not good for you though, is it?"
Confusion. A corner of the mouth turned down. "But...why?" Sam’s eyes had a glassy sheen to them that made them look so vulnerable.
"Oh, honey." Gavin ran his fingers through Sam's hair. They cringed away from his hand. It was still stained with their blood. "What do you think they're gonna do to you when they find out what you told me?"
Sam's face shattered into agony as the realization came crashing down. "No...I told...no..." A high, keening sob started in their throat. "No..."
"Yes." Gavin continued running his hands through their hair. "They're gonna be so unhappy with you. They might even do to you what I did. They might hurt you, Sam. There's nothing you can do to stop that from happening. Unless..." He pulled a knife from his pocket and cut the rope tying Sam's wrists. He drew a gun from the waistband of his pants and pressed it into Sam's hand. "...you protect yourself. You can defend yourself against them. Kill them when they come for you, and you can avoid more pain. You don't want more pain, do you?" Sam's lip quivered as their eyes turned up once again to Gavin's. Delirium clouded their face. Is it the dehydration, or the shock? From the way they were trembling it was anyone's guess. It might just be the pain. I may have just completely broken them.
Gavin squeezed Sam's hand around the gun and moved their finger over the trigger guard. "Ok? Shoot your team when they come for you. If you don't, I wouldn't want to see what they do to you for betraying them." He backed towards the door. He took one long, lingering look as Sam stared at the gun in their hands, shaking so badly he doubted they could actually hit anyone if they tried. It's worth a shot. Gavin turned and ran.
Isaac burst through the door, his own weapon sweeping the room as he looked for Sam. His heart caught in his throat as he saw them: teetering on the edge of a chair in the middle of the room, shaking from head to toe and cringing at the sound of the door banging open. Their arms and legs were a mess of lacerations and burns. Their hair hung limp and bloodied, soaked with sweat. Or water. As he took a step closer he heard Sam draw a painful-sounding, wet breath. It was all he needed to confirm his suspicions. They were waterboarded. His stomach burned with rage.
"Guys! I found them! I found Sam!" he called over his shoulder as he holstered his weapon. He heard Vera and Gray behind him as they stepped in the room behind him. "Hey Sam..." he murmured in a low voice. "Sam, are you..."
That's when he noticed the firearm clutched in Sam's hand.
"Sam..." He took a step closer, hands outstretched and empty. He heard gasps behind him as Vera and Gray saw Sam for the first time.
Sam jerkily stood and lifted the gun to point it squarely at Isaac's heart.
"Hey Sam," Isaac murmured in a soothing voice. "You're ok. It's us. You're safe. We're here to get you."
Sam's hand shook. "Gavin said you would come for me." Their voice was thick with tears.
"Yeah," Isaac said gently. "Yeah, we came for you." Another step closer.
"Stop." Sam's hand spasmed on the gun. Tears began to leak from the corners of their eyes. "Please. Just let me go. Please don't...please..." Their face contorted as they choked down a sob.
Isaac's stomach swelled with icy dread. His eyes roamed over Sam's body again, looking for something he was obviously missing. Sam's hands shook, but there was something else. Their eyes looked unfocused. Their skin was too pale, much too pale, and slick with sweat. They almost stumbled as sobs wracked their body. What did Gavin do to them.
"We can't let you go, Sam. We have to take you back to base and get you cleaned up. You're hurt. Let us take you back -"
"No." The word tore out of them with another sob. "You can't go back there. I told Gavin... I told him everything... He knows where you are now. He knows who you are. I'm sorry... I... I didn't want to... He... He hurt me and I... He tortured me and I..."
"I know what he did, Sam," Isaac whispered, swallowing a lump in his throat. "I'm so sorry we let him get to you. Please let us take you home. We'll find another safehouse. Let us help you, please."
Sam's body was convulsing with sobs. "Please, no..." They took a faltering step back, their hands still pointing the gun at Isaac. "You can't... I betrayed you all. I told him... I told him everything. Please just let me go. I'm sorry. Gavin said I had to kill you or you would hurt me... Please don't hurt me, please just let me go..."
"No, Sam." Isaac's voice was low and husky. "I can't do that. I won't hurt you, I promise." He watched as Sam swayed on their feet. "Give me the gun. I won't hurt you."
Sam took one shuddering gasp as a sob tore through them. "I can't," they moaned. They put the gun to their own head.
"NO," Isaac bellowed as he lunged at them. His hand closed around the gun and he forced it away from Sam as they pulled the trigger. The bullet went wide, burying itself into the ceiling. The shot deafened Isaac for a moment.
Sam collapsed in his arms, sobbing. "No..." they moaned. "Please..."
"Come on," Isaac whispered as he gathered them into his arms. "It's ok. I got you. You're ok." Sam weakly pushed against his chest. He lifted them in his arms and carried them from the room. Vera and Gray pressed their hands against Sam's back, their hair, their face. They whispered soothingly to them, quieting their cries as Isaac jostled their wounds. Sam took another rattling gasp and coughed on their tears and the water still in their lungs. Their body pressed against Isaac's body heat as his arms tightened around them. Sam's quiet sobs echoed off the walls of the hallway as the team carried them out of the compound.
Chapter 2: Unconscious
This was the other whumptober prompt that convinced me I could continue with the story.
"How're they doing?" Isaac's voice was brittle with worry as he glanced in the rear view mirror. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
Vera turned from her spot in the passenger seat and reached a hand back towards Sam. They lay across the back seat, their head in Gray’s lap. Gray stroked Sam’s hair away from their face. Sam shuddered away from the touch, tears soaking into Gray’s pants.
"Not good," they said. "I don't know what's wrong..." They stripped off their jacket and laid it over Sam. They pulled the jacket closer, curling in on themselves.
"P...please..." they mumbled, lips trembling. "Please..."
Isaac swallowed hard. "We need to get them someplace safe. Somewhere Finn can look them over. But I don't..." He shook his head. "Where can we..." He trailed off, a realization jumping to his mind. "There's an old safehouse I used to use. It's not far from here. Sam never knew about it, so Gavin can’t know either. I haven't used it in months, but..." He thrust the radio at Vera. "Radio Finn. Tell them to meet us at 2208 Pineview Lane." She relayed the address.
Isaac’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel as he accelerated. "It's only about 20 minutes away. I can't believe I didn't think of it before."
"Hey..." Gray spoke from the back seat. Their voice was shaking. "I can't wake Sam up."
"What?" Isaac threw a glance over his shoulder. Sam was limp in Gray’s arms. "No no no no..." He slammed the gas pedal down.
"What are we gonna do?" Vera’s eyes were wide with concern.
"We can't stop," Isaac said through gritted teeth.
"But Finn and Ellis are at least an hour away..."
"We'll do the best we can with what we have." His eyes were fixed on the road in front of him. He tried not to let the tears in his eyes blur his vision.
Isaac slammed the car into park and jumped out, ripping the key from the ignition. The safehouse looked like it hadn't been touched in months. Thank god. "Stay here with Sam until I clear it," he ordered. He pulled his gun and carefully made his way into the house. He swept it room by room, finding no signs that anyone had been there since he abandoned it. I'm grateful this place can help us again. He leaned out the door and signaled the team to come inside.
While they carried Sam in, Isaac went to the closet he remembered held the blankets. I hope they're still usable. He pulled a few out and shook them out. Some dead insects fell out, but they were dry. They'll do.
"Here, on the couch." He beckoned the team over. Gray was carrying Sam, their arms and head hanging limply. Isaac felt his heart constrict with worry. I was supposed to protect them. They looked so small in Gray’s arms. I'm responsible for them.
They laid them on the couch, trying not to jostle their wounds. Sam moaned weakly as they put them down.
“We have to get these wet clothes off,” said Isaac. He pulled at Sam’s shirt and pants. He guided the shirt over the Sam’s head and gasped. Bruises covered their chest and abdomen.
Sam whimpered as the teammates stripped away their clothes. “No…please…”
“It’s ok Sam, it’s us. We have to get you out of these wet clothes.” Isaac spread a blanket over them, and then another.
Sam’s eyelids fluttered open.
"Hey," Isaac whispered soothingly. He sank to his knees beside them, gently running a hand through their hair. "Hey, Sam." He stroked their face with his thumb.
Sam’s eyes slowly focused. "Isaac?" Their voice was ragged.
Isaac laughed with relief. "Yeah Sam, it's me. We've got you. You're going to be ok."
Sam's eyes filled with tears. "I gave you all up," they whispered, their lips trembling. "I told Gavin everything. I didn't want to...I just wanted him to stop hurting me."
Isaac stroked their hair. "Hey, don't worry about that now. We're all ok. We’re safe and we'll find a new base. What matters is that we got you back..." The unspoken word hung in the air: alive.
"He wouldn't stop hurting me," Sam sobbed quietly. "I tried to hold on but he just...kept...torturing me." Tears rolled down their cheeks.
"I know," Isaac said. "I know he did. I'm not angry with you for what happened."
Sam swallowed hard, pressing their lips together. "I'm sorry," they whispered. A sob tore out of their throat and they began to shake with sobs.
"Hey, hey, it's ok." Isaac took Sam into his arms. They threw their arms around him and clutched him to them.
"I'm sorry," they wailed. "I'm sorry." Their shoulders shuddered as their body convulsed with sobs. Their fingers dug into Isaac’s shirt. "I'm sorry."
Gray crouched on the floor next to Isaac and laid their arms across Sam. Their fingers trailed gently up and down their back.
Vera leaned over the edge of the couch and stroked Sam's damp hair. She pressed her mouth against her arm as tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Shh, I got you." Isaac rocked Sam as they choked on their tears and coughed. "We've got you."
Chapter 3: Continuation
My whumptober days 3 and 15 (delirium and unconscious) got so much more attention than I expected. I decided to take it and run with it and oooooh my god did I get some tasty ideas.
I decided to give some of the characters gender, just because they were seeming to write themselves with a gender in my mind anyway. I haven’t had a good dude whump since I started on Tumblr and I loooove dude whump.
The leader’s name is Isaac, villain’s name is Gavin, whumpee’s name is Sam.
The phone rang and Isaac jolted awake. He looked over at his teammates, all asleep in a pile on the couch. Sam was huddled between them, sound asleep. They looked peaceful.
Another ring. He padded his pockets, searching for their phone. He pulled it out and stared at the number. It was unfamiliar. It might be one of the others on a burner phone.
He hit the button to answer it and put it to his ear. “Hello?”
His blood chilled at the sound of Gavin’s voice over the phone. “Gavin? How did you get this number?”
“Oh, Sam gave it to me. I guess I should say, they begged me to let them give it. I don’t think they would have lasted much longer if they’d forced me to keep beating them.”
Isaac’s throat constricted. “What do you want?”
“I want Sam back. You interrupted me getting to know them…it was such fun. Easy, but fun. I want to see them again. You’re going to give them to me.”
“Like hell I will,” Isaac hissed. He got up off his nest of blankets on the floor and stalked to the kitchen, not wanting to wake the team. “You’ll never get to us. Sam didn’t tell you everything. We’re somewhere you will never find us.”
“So you’re not at 2208 Pineview Lane?”
Isaac’s blood ran cold. “N…no.”
“Hm. The tracker I forced Sam to swallow begs to differ.”
All the blood ran out of his face. He stumbled and caught himself on the counter. “…what?”
“The tracker. In Sam’s system.”
“So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to send Sam to me. You don’t have to tell them why, just…send them out to the main road. I’ll be waiting there. If you don’t…” Isaac held his breath as Gavin paused. “I am poised to blow the whole house to hell, right now.”
Isaac swallowed hard. “No. You can’t have them. They…they’re ours…”
“Then you choose for everyone to die?”
Isaac took a deep breath as his hand clenched into a fist. “Take me.”
There was a surprised pause on the other line. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.” His voice was urgent. “Leave Sam alone and take me. You want someone to torture, I’m fresh. I can take more. Sam’s broken, they won’t…” They shivered as they said the words. “They won’t be any fun.”
A delighted laugh came over the line. “Take…you? Wow. I’ve heard so much about you. Your bravery…Sam had wonderful things to say. I guess they’re all true. I accept.”
“How do I know you’ll leave Sam alone if you take me?”
“Well, you don’t. But the tracker will work its way out of their system in the next few hours. As long as they’re away from your team when it happens, that’s it for me. I won’t be able to find them after that.”
I have to take that chance. I can’t let him have Sam. “Ok. I’ll meet you at the road.”
“Can’t wait.” With a click, the line went dead.
Isaac felt his stomach drop to his shoes. I can’t let him have Sam. I can’t. It should have been me the first time. It should have been me. He pressed his face into his hands, feeling the burn of tears behind his eyes. I have to go. It should have been me. He turned away from the kitchen towards the door –
And nearly collided with Sam.
Oh, no. Did they hear…?
Sam swallowed a sob and Isaac knew they had.
“You…you can’t…” they whispered.
Isaac’s hands fell to his sides. “I don’t have a choice, Sam. I have to go. I have to. I can’t…can’t let him have you.”
Tears were streaming down Sam’s face. “Isaac, please…please don’t. Just let me go. He can have me, he can…I already told him everything…it wouldn’t put anyone at risk…”
Isaac stepped forward and gripped Sam’s shoulders. Sam winced slightly as his hands pressed against the wounds on their arms, but they didn’t pull away. “No. Absolutely not. You’ve been through enough, Sam. Stay here, tell the others what happened once I leave. Did you hear the part about -”
“- the tracker, yes. I heard. I…” Sam began to sob quietly. “I led him straight to you…I’m sorry, I didn’t know…he told me it was poison, I thought…I’m so sorry…” They began to crumple in on themselves.
“No, Sam,” Isaac whispered fiercely. “None of this is your fault. But I…” He took a step towards the door. “I have to go.”
Sam moved in front of him. “No. I won’t let you. Please…” Their hands tangled in his shirt. “Please don’t do this…”
Isaac wrapped his hands gently around Sam’s wrists and guided their hands off his shirt. “Let me go, Sam.”
They took a shuddering gasp. “I’ll wake the others. We’ll all stop you. You can’t leave, please Isaac, don’t…”
He felt like a stone had settled in his stomach. “Don’t make me hurt you, Sam.” His throat ached with the strain of keeping his voice even. Tears pricked at his eyes. “You need to let me go.”
Sam opened their mouth to shout.
Isaac lunged forward and clapped his hand over their mouth. Their eyes went wide over his hands. They weakly pulled at his arms as he moved behind them, grabbing both of their wrists in one hand and holding them down. Sam struggled and screamed under his hands. They’re so weak still. Isaac hated himself as he felt their struggles become lethargic and slow. I have to do this. Tears burned on his face and fell into Sam’s hair.
Sam slowly grew still. That’s it, tire yourself out. Isaac pulled his hand away from their face and their head drooped on his shoulder. He placed them on the ground in the nest of blankets he’d made on the floor and covered them with one. They were already starting to wake up again. I have to go. Now. He dashed to the door, grabbing the car keys on the way out.
Tears burned down Isaac’s face as he pulled away from the house. I hurt Sam. I hurt them. I’m no better than Gavin. He wiped his face with his hand. I had to keep them safe. This is my job. I have to keep them all safe. He bumped along the dirt path leading out to the main road. It was just a few miles. It wouldn’t take long.
He felt a rising wave of nausea. What is he going to do to me? He beat Sam…and cut them, and burned them… He tried to put it out of his mind. If I think about it too much, I’m going to turn back. He knew he wouldn’t. Not really. It just hurt to think about.
He felt guilty, so guilty, for leaving the team without a vehicle. Maybe they’ll find it at the road. Or they can radio the others, let them know they need a new vehicle. They’ll be taken care of. His throat constricted. I’m not going to be there to protect them. But…this is how I keep them safe. Keep Gavin so distracted with me he won’t look for them. He pulled in a deep breath. This is how I keep them safe.
Soon, far too soon, he broke the line of trees and pulled onto the main road. He shuddered as he saw a car already there waiting for him. Gavin said he’d be waiting for me. He shut the car off and pressed his forehead against the steering wheel. This is how I keep them safe. He calmly got out of the car, leaving the keys on the driver’s seat.
Three people got out of the other car. Gavin was the last to get out. He was beaming, almost giggling with excitement. Isaac clenched his jaw and walked towards them.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” Gavin babbled. “Oh my god. I got Isaac.” He laughed. “This is so unexpected. I wasn’t even sure if you were going to come. Maybe make some daring attempt to save everyone…but you didn’t…you’re here…” Gavin clasped his hands together under his chin. “It is so great to meet you.”
Isaac met his gaze with an even stare. His arms hung limply by his sides. “I’m here. You have me.” His lips trembled and he pressed them together in a hard line. “Let’s just go.”
Gavin grinned at him. “Oh, sure. But how do I know you won’t attack us as soon as we turn our backs? You decimated my people at the compound. You might be able to overpower us here, too.”
Isaac clenched his jaw. “I won’t. I told you that you could have me, and here I am. The longer we stay here, the greater chance the others show up and try to help me. So let’s…just…” For a moment, an image of his team asleep on the couch flashed through his mind. “Let’s go.”
Gavin cocked his head. “I need some kind of insurance. I can’t just have you in my car…unfettered.” He waggled his eyebrows at Isaac suggestively.
For a moment Isaac stood rigid in front of Gavin, clenching and unclenching his fists. Then, with a deep breath, he held his wrists out to him in a sign of submission.
“Uh uh.” Gavin shook his head. “On your knees.”
Isaac’s throat felt tight with humiliation. He closed his eyes and again pictured his team. This is how I keep them safe. He lowered himself to his knees.
“And?” Gavin’s eyes shone with excitement.
Isaac’s face was resigned as he held up his wrists again.
“Perfect.” Gavin stepped forward and pulled a length of rope out of his pocket. He wound it a few times around Isaac’s wrists, pulled it tight, and knotted it. “Let’s go.” The two others pulled Isaac to his feet and guided him into the car.
One of Gavin’s thugs drove while the other sat in the back seat with Isaac, his gun trained on his heart. It was the second time in six hours Isaac had had a gun pointed at him. Gavin was babbling away in the passenger seat, happy to the point of ecstasy.
“I can’t believe, I seriously just cannot believe you came to me. Here I was, thinking I’d be dragging Sam with me back to base, but instead I have you! You just…you can’t know how excited this makes me,” Gavin gushed. “I mean, I’ve been making a habit of torturing people for a long time. Fun as it is, it kinda loses its appeal after a while with the same weak people. But with you -”
“Sam’s not weak.” Isaac’s voice cracked like a whip.
Gavin paused, a smile drifting across his face. “…oh?”
“They’re not weak.”
Gavin laughed. “I beg to differ. You’ve seen them at their best, maybe at their worst too. But I’ve seen them at their lowest.” His voice dropped to a low, suggestive murmur. “I made them scream. I made them beg. I’d challenge you to tell me you’ve seen them in such a vulnerable position. At the rate I was going, they would have given me their damned mother’s social security number if I asked it. You have no idea how weak they are. They let you come to me in their place, didn’t they?”
Isaac didn’t care about the gun pointed at him. He launched himself across the car, his bound hands reaching for Gavin’s throat. Before his fingers could close around his neck, the thug with the gun slammed one arm across Isaac’s chest and knocked him back against his seat. The thug threw his weight on top of Isaac and pressed the gun to the side of his head. Isaac gritted his teeth, bracing for the shot.
“No no no!” Gavin screamed. “I swear to god James, if you shoot him I will fire you.”
After a moment, James grunted and pulled his gun away from Isaac’s head. He settled himself back in his own seat, staring Isaac down with a glower.
“James, if you shoot him, I will be so…” Gavin squeezed his hands together like he was crushing an imaginary windpipe. “Did you not just hear me say I was looking forward to this one?”
“Sorry, boss,” came the unapologetic reply.
Isaac glared at Gavin, his eyes shooting daggers across the car – from a safe distance for Gavin. “Sam is not weak. They tried to stop me. They tried to go to you. They tried not to let me take their place. So how…dare you…”
“And yet you still came. They must not have tried very hard.”
Isaac swallowed his hatred and sat still, shaking. “Sam has more courage in their little finger than you do in your entire life.”
Gavin snorted. “I adore your loyalty to your little team. It’s cute, it really is. You’re so…protective. Is that why you came in Sam’s place? Wanted to protect your little team?”
Isaac swallowed hard. His voice was barely above a whisper. “It should have been me. I messed up on the raid. Left them unprotected. You should have taken me.”
“And now you’re punishing yourself for your mistake. Adorable. I assure you, though…” His voice became ominous. “By the time I’m done with you, you’ll wish you had let them come to me. I only had them for, what, two days? Three? But you I’ll have for a long, long time.”
“You had them for 63 hours,” Isaac said, his jaw tight. “And when will you be done with me? What exactly do you have in mind here? You just gonna…” He tried to conceal the shaking in his voice. “…torture me forever?”
Gavin grinned. “Yeah, something like that.”
Isaac fell back a little more into his seat. I just have to make it…maybe…eight hours. Long enough for the tracker to leave Sam’s system. Then I can think of escape.
“Still think you made the right decision?” Gavin’s tone was mocking.
This is how I keep them safe. “Yes.”
The car pulled off the highway and turned onto a county road that stretched as far into the horizon as Isaac could see. Gavin seemed to watch his thought process. “What? I couldn’t very well take you back to the same compound. I’m taking you back to my base. I have more…facilities there.” He giggled. “Your team didn’t manage to find this one too, did they?” Isaac shook his head stiffly. “Thought not.”
Isaac tried to look directly in front of him, nowhere else. We only found his other compound because one of his thugs made a mistake. Didn’t check to see if they had a tail. How is the team going to find me at this place? Then, with a chill, are they even going to come after me? He swallowed hard. Doesn’t matter. This is how I keep them safe.
He closed his eyes and rested his head back against the headrest. He really was exhausted. He wasn’t too worried about Gavin killing him while he rested since he had already shown he wanted Isaac alive. Isaac had only gotten to sleep for about two hours after the team had brought Sam back to the safehouse. It was a long 63 hours. Patrols, searches, waiting for one of Gavin’s thugs to move and hopefully lead them to Sam. The worrying. The guilt. It should have been me.
His mind began to wander to his team. Vera, with her nervous tics and intensity under pressure. Gray, with their nurturing and strong presence. Finn, their medic, always chomping at the bit to be in the thick of things with the others. Finn’s partner Ellis, sarcastic and guarded. They’re my family and I’d do anything for them. He shuddered as he pictured the look of the bruises across Sam’s chest and back as the team lifted their shirt. Anything.
He drooped in his seat, exhaustion taking him. He didn’t know how long he drifted.
He jolted awake, throwing his hands in front of his face at the sound of Gavin’s voice. He remembered in one horrifying moment that they were bound, and why.
The car was stopped. Gavin was staring at him with an irritated and expectant look on his face.
“We’re here! Home sweet home.”
Isaac looked out the window at an industrial-looking building in the middle of nowhere. “This is your base?”
“Yup!” Isaac detected a hint of pride in Gavin’s voice. “To the outside eye it looks like a warehouse, although why there would be a warehouse out here is beyond me.” Gavin winked at Isaac. “Kinda conceals the several underground floors, don’t ya think?”
Isaac drew in a deep breath. “Sure.”
Gavin jumped out of the car and motioned to his thugs. “Come on, get him out.”
Isaac pulled at the door handle with his bound hands, groaning as his body unfolded after being in the car so long. “I can get out myself, thanks.” The two thugs quickly closed on him and grabbed both his arms. “How long was I asleep?”
“About three hours.” Gavin raised his arms theatrically. “You ready to get this show on the road? Or do you want me to go grab Sam instead? You can totally leave, if you want.” He paused and glared at his thugs. “You can leave if you want.” He motioned them away from him with one hand and rolled his eyes in mock annoyance as they stepped away from him. “Final offer, though. Once we pass those doors, you’re mine forever and Sam’s free. What do you think? Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?”
Isaac cast a look behind him, the way they had come. He couldn’t see anything but the road stretching into the horizon. He turned to look at the imposing structure into which he was about to disappear, maybe forever. He flexed his wrists, feeling the rope tight on his skin. He drew in a deep, slow breath and met Gavin’s gaze.
“Let’s do this.”
Gavin grinned. “Excellent.” He motioned with his head to his thugs. “James, Leo, let’s do it.” They grabbed Isaac’s arms and began to march him into the building.
Isaac felt his heart begin to sink as the building loomed above him. No no no… Isaac had been roughed up by thugs before, thrown around during combat training, even stabbed once on one of his first missions. But he’d never been captured by the enemy. He’d never been so helpless.
And he’d never been at the mercy of an unhinged sadist.
Gavin noticed. “Aw, come on. It’s gonna be fun.” He snorted. “Well, maybe not for you. But I am gonna have the time. Of. My. Life.” He jabbed his finger into Isaac’s chest with each word. As he reached the door, he pulled it open for the four of them, motioning them all in with a flourish.
The inside wasn’t nearly what Isaac expected. He was greeted by the brightly lit interior of a warehouse bustling with people, vehicles, and equipment. Before he could look around to take in any details, Gavin began to laugh maniacally.
“Welcome to my evil lair,” he said dramatically. “Not as scary as you thought, right?”
Isaac looked straight ahead and said nothing.
Gavin cuffed him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, the scary stuff is all a few floors down. That’s where we’re going.” He led them down an aisle bordered on both sides by stacks of boxes. Danger: explosive was printed in big letters on the sides. He turned to relish Isaac’s wary look. “Don’t worry, this stuff only goes boom out there.” He gestured vaguely towards the door they had come in.
He marched them to an elevator and pressed the button to call it. As he waited for the elevator to arrive, he turned to shoot a satisfied glance at Isaac. “Nervous yet?”
Isaac’s jaw clenched. “Nervous isn’t the word I’d use.”
Gavin’s eyes widened. “Aw, are you scared? Are you seriously scared right now?” His jaw fell open like he’d been mortally wounded.
Isaac’s eyes snapped to Gavin’s. “Of course I’m scared. I didn’t do this because I thought it would be a good time, I did it to save my team.”
Gavin’s open-mouthed gape pulled up slowly into a smile. “I…love that, actually. You’re terrified, but you’re here anyway. For the good of the team.” He drew out the word mockingly. “Do they know you’re such a softie? Do they appreciate you the way they should?”
Isaac turned back to the elevator, his face like stone. “I might have rethought this if I’d known you were going to talk so damned much.”
“Rude.” The elevator doors opened. The thugs pushed Isaac in and Gavin followed, pressing the button that said B3. He typed a 6-digit code into the keypad on the wall and the elevator started to move down.
As the floors went by, Gavin whistled a few notes. It didn’t sound like a song. When the doors opened again, he stepped out and Isaac was pushed out right behind him.
This was more of what Isaac was expecting. The hallway had a low ceiling with pipes running the length of it. The fluorescent lights flickered on the ceiling as Gavin guided them to a door a few dozen paces down the hall from the elevator. I’ll need to remember this for when I escape. Five hours and then I can try.
Then Gavin pushed the door open and Isaac’s stomach dropped.
The room was dimly lit, but Isaac could still see what it was. Chains hung from the ceiling on pulley systems, out of reach now but ready for use at a moment’s notice. The floor sloped just slightly towards a drain in the center of the room. There were no windows. Of course, we’re underground. But the thing that made Isaac’s stomach pitch in revulsion and terror was the table at the far side of the room. It held every imaginable torture instrument and some Isaac couldn’t even guess at the purpose of. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He turned his face away from Gavin, who seemed to be drinking in Isaac’s fear like it was water on a hot day.
“Much as a love a hero all tied up,” Gavin mocked, his voice sickly sweet, “I need to get you into something a bit more…sturdy.” He went to the table and picked up a heavy pair of manacles. He slowly approached Isaac, closely watching his every move.
Isaac’s instincts kicked in and for a moment, he forgot why he had come. He pulled against his captors, eyes fixed on the manacles. Once he gets me in those, I’m trapped.
Gavin held up one finger. “Uh uh uh, I thought you were going to play nice?”
Isaac froze, trembling against his captors’ grasp. This…is how…I keep them…safe.
Gavin smiled. “Much better. Hold out your hands.”
Isaac held them out. They were trembling.
Gavin snorted and locked the manacles around Isaac’s wrists. He held out a hand to Leo. “Knife.” Leo pulled one out of his pocket and handed it over. Gavin cut through the rope on Isaac’s wrists and slipped the knife into his own pocket. He stepped back, admiring the look of Isaac in chains. “You just look so much…better than Sam did. A broken little thing all tied up is just…pathetic. But you…” Gavin took a step closer, eyes dancing over Isaac. “My guys tell me you killed some of my people when you came in for Sam. You, personally. Killed my guys.” He patted Isaac’s face, and not gently either. “And now you’re here, in my basement, chained up and ready to take torture for your team. It’s just…so…good!” He turned away and moved to a corner of the room where a chain stretched down from the ceiling. He guided it up through the pulley system, lowering the other end of the chain almost directly over Isaac’s head. It had a hook on the end of it and Isaac could guess what was coming next.
The thugs pulled his arms up over his head and hooked the manacles to the chain hanging from the ceiling. Gavin began to pull down on his end of the chain, lifting Isaac’s hands higher above his head. Isaac was seized with panic for just a moment. I can’t let him do this. I could run, I could fight this. The look on Sam’s face when they realized they were rescued flashed across his mind and burned into the backs of his eyes like he had been staring into the sun. He let his body go slack. Then he felt the manacles pull tight against his wrists. Even if I tried, I couldn’t get away now. Sam is safe. Sam is safe from me and my weakness.
Gavin’s thugs let go of his arms and stepped away from him. “Thanks guys, that’ll be it for now.” Isaac heard them leave the room and close the door behind them. It closed with a forbidding thud.
Gavin slowly sauntered up to Isaac, relishing every second of Isaac’s fear. Gavin watched as his eyes went a little wider than before, his breaths a little faster. He tightened his fists in dread and anticipation for what was to come. “Wanna know what I’m gonna start you off with?”
Isaac glared at him, his jaw tightening. “Just because I came willingly doesn’t mean I have to play your little games. We both know what you’re going to do. So just…do it.”
Gavin rolled his eyes. “Ok fine, no guessing game.” He walked slowly around Isaac. As he started to move into Isaac’s periphery, Isaac turned his head to follow him. Gavin’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the hair, turning his head away from him. Isaac jumped as he heard the knife open again and before he could react, he felt the cold on his neck as Gavin cut away his T-shirt. He shivered as the blade moved from the neck of his shirt down his back until it stopped almost at the hem. Gavin tore the last few inches of fabric himself. He cut down the back of each shoulder until the shirt felt off Isaac and made a small heap of fabric at his feet. Gavin stalked to the table, his hand moving across his torture instruments. His hand stopped on a long, heavy-looking length of leather. His fingers curved lovingly around the handle and he wound it a few times around his hand as he approached Isaac again. “We can start with the next thing I was going to do to poor Sam before you interrupted me.”
Isaac’s blood ran cold. “You were going to whip them? Seriously?” He swallowed hard. “How far would you have gone with them if we hadn’t come? Would you have…would you have killed them in the end?”
Gavin’s hand made a fist in Isaac’s hair as he dragged him forward. “Honestly…” Isaac shuddered as he felt Gavin’s breath on his face. “I’m kinda surprised you didn’t kill them after everything they told me.” He tossed Isaac’s head back and moved behind him again.
“Gavin, please,” Isaac whispered. He could hear Gavin stop behind him. “Please don’t do this.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Gavin again appeared in front of Isaac and he slapped him across the face. “Are you kidding me right now? You’re begging? Already?” He grabbed Isaac’s face and pulled him close. “If I wanted some pathetic whining and begging, I would have stuck with Sam! I wanted you -” His hand tightened on Isaac’s jaw. “- because I wanted something different. I thought you would be different, Isaac. Sam told me all about how brave you are, that you wouldn’t break if it was you I was torturing, that you’d be coming for them, that you’d save them.” Tears pricked at Isaac’s eyes. “Oh, you didn’t know about that? They didn’t tell you how they screamed for you, begged me to stop and begged for you to save them, how they sang your praises after I cut them over and over again?” A feverish light was dancing in Gavin’s eyes. “They idolize you, Isaac. You’re their hero. How would they feel if they saw you now, begging like they did?” He pulled Isaac so close their noses were almost touching. “I will hear you beg, but after I’ve earned it. Do you understand?”
Isaac nodded slowly.
“I haven’t even touched you yet. I can go get Sam instead if you can’t take this for them.”
The tears threatened to spill over. Gavin released his face with a shove and moved behind him again.
“Now.” Isaac heard the length of the whip smack against the ground as Gavin released it. “You ever been whipped before?” Gavin’s manic tone was back. Isaac shook his head, afraid that if he spoke his voice would shake. “Ooh, excellent. You have no idea what to expect. Perfect. Well, I haven’t tried it myself but if my prior experience with other people means anything to you, apparently it’s…excruciating.”
Nothing could have prepared Isaac for the first blow. The impact stunned him first, made his breath freeze in his chest before he even felt the pain. The pain came a moment after that. A line of fire arced across his back and he gasped.
Before the sting of the first blow had a chance to fade, Gavin whipped the leather across his back again. Isaac cried out as the whip drew another line of fire across his back, diagonal to the first. Remembering Gavin’s threat to go after Sam, he bit down on his lips and tried to bite back the scream that tore from his throat on the third swing. On the fourth, Isaac’s broken sob echoed off the walls.
Gavin laughed. “Much better. Come on Isaac, be strong for me. Be strong like Sam thinks you are.”
Isaac tried to force down his anguished cry.
He couldn’t draw breath. His chest was frozen in agony.
He saw a blinding flash of light as the pain crashed through him.
He didn’t try to hold back his scream. He couldn’t.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. No no no no I can’t be weak, can’t let him go after Sam-
He sagged against the manacles around his wrists. He pressed his mouth against his arm and sobbed. Each time he breathed his chest was wracked with pain. He thought he could feel the warm trickle of blood down his back over the searing agony of each lash mark.
It took him a moment to notice the lashes had stopped. His eyes fluttered open and he gasped to see Gavin’s face only inches from his own. He pressed his face against his arm, trying to hide the tears burning his cheeks. I can’t be weak, I can’t let him get Sam…
“Oh no no no no, don’t hide from me.” That hand was in his hair again. “That was just getting really good.”
Isaac frantically shook his head. “No, I can do this, I can…”
“I know. You’re doing great.”
Isaac dragged in a shuddering breath. “You…you were going to do this to Sam…”
Gavin grinned. “Yup. Isn’t it great? Can’t you just imagine how they would have screamed?”
“No…” Isaac shook his head, trying to clear it. He could imagine it. He couldn’t bear to think about it.
“That was ten.”
“That was ten. Lashes. Think you could take another ten without breaking?”
Isaac couldn’t catch the sob on its way out. He didn’t think he could take another one without breaking, let alone ten.
“Oh come ooooon, Isaac,” Gavin whined. “Come on. Please? Pretty please?” He pouted his lips.
This is how I keep them safe. Isaac tried his best to stop his lips from trembling. Then, slowly, he nodded.
Isaac squeezed his eyes shut again and felt the air move as Gavin disappeared behind him again.
“Brace yourself, hero.”
Isaac gritted his teeth as the lash came down on his back.
“Twenty-five.” Isaac had long since abandoned his attempts to hold in his screams. They seemed to shake apart the room.
“Twenty-six. Holy shit, Isaac, are you seriously going to make it to thirty?”
He broke. “PLEASE!”
The whip fell to Gavin’s side as he lowered his arm, disappointed. “Aw. Twenty-eight. So close.”
“Please,” sobbed Isaac. “Please, I can’t…”
“You want me to stop?” Gavin’s fist tightened around the whip.
“Y- Yes, please, please stop, please…”
“We’re so close to the end. Two more.”
“No no no god no, please…” Isaac trailed off into whimpers. He hung limp from the manacles, his legs shaking too badly to hold him up. The steel dug into his wrists until he thought they would bleed.
“Hey, chill out. You’re done.” Gavin placed his hands on Isaac’s face and pulled it up so he could see the effects of his work. Isaac’s face was haggard with agony, his cheeks wet with tears. His skin shimmered with sweat and blood. His eyes were glassy and unfocused.
Isaac choked out a desperate sob. “I…I’m done…?”
“Yeah.” Gavin grabbed Isaac’s face in one hand. “That…was…awesome.” He could see confusion in Isaac’s pain-drawn features. “Don’t get me wrong, you had me going for a minute there. I was really worried you’d break too fast, beg, but…wow. You lasted twenty-eight lashes. You know the next-highest number anyone’s ever gotten through with me was seventeen?” Isaac’s eyes rolled back. “Seventeen. You did that plus eleven more.” He shoved his face towards Isaac’s. “I really am so, so impressed.”
Isaac groaned. “I…had to keep them…safe…”
Gavin patted his face. “Look at you. You did great.”
Isaac looked at him, trying to focus his eyes. He realized the right side of Gavin’s face, chest, and arm were spattered with his blood. How much am I bleeding? More importantly – “How long has it been?”
“Since…what? Since we got here? Since I last had a donut? Since the Romans invaded Britain? What?”
“Since you started…torturing me?”
Gavin’s mouth slid into a wicked grin. “Now…why would you want to know that?”
“Because you want to know how much longer you have to hold on before there’s no risk of me going back for Sam?”
Gavin stepped behind Isaac again. He pulled at the manacles, cringing in on himself in expectation of more lashes. Instead, Gavin pressed the flat of his palm against Isaac’s back. He hissed and cried out, pulling away from Gavin and nearly stumbling. His weight fell hard on his wrists again.
“Don’t tell me you’re powering through this because you think you only have to last for a few hours.” Gavin pulled his hand away from Isaac’s back and smacked him over the bleeding welts. Isaac screamed. “Because that would be so, so disappointing.”
“No no no no…”
Another slap. Another tortured scream. “Good. Because I want to remind you that I only had Sam for sixty or so hours, however many you said. And look how broken I made them. I broke them so hard, they truly believed you were coming to kill them.”
“I didn’t know if they’d even be capable of killing you in the state I left them in. I figured it was worth a shot, at least.” Gavin snorted. “So to speak. So I want you to forget anything about holding out until they’re safe. Fact is, if I want to find them, I will. I’ll only leave them alone if you prove to be more interesting than they were. And make no mistake. If I could convince Sam, sweet, innocent, loyal Sam that their hero was coming to punish them, to kill them for breaking under torture after just a few days, what do you think I’ll be able to do to you after, say…a week? A month?” He scoffed. “A year, if you live that long? I intend to keep you alive as long as humanly possible and I happen to have a kickass medical dude on my staff who can help me with that.” He grabbed Isaac’s face in a vise-like grip. “What I’m trying to say is, don’t worry how long it’s been. That’s not your concern. Your concern is this: remaining worth my while.”
Tears ran silent down Isaac’s face.
“Did you really think you were going to escape this after a few hours? You figured you’d just hold out for a few hours of torture and then fight your way out?” Gavin laughed. “No no no no. You are gonna be my plaything, my stress relief, my entertainment for as long as you stay interesting. As soon as that stops being true…” He drew his finger across his throat. “…I’m going to kill you, the way you should have killed Sam for betraying you, and hunt them down so I can take them back.”
“No.” The power in his voice surprised him.
Gavin looked taken aback. “No?”
Isaac set his jaw. “You’re never going to look for them. You’re going to keep me. I can give you what they couldn’t.” He trembled and the power in his voice faltered. “Please. Keep me.”
For a moment, Gavin looked enraptured. “Oh. Do that again.”
Gavin’s smile turned dark and terrifying. “Beg me to torture you. Beg me to torture you in every way you dread.”
Isaac swallowed his pride and his fear. This is how I keep them safe. His voice shook. “Please…I want you to…” He couldn’t stop a soft sob from working its way out of his throat. “Please hurt me like you hurt Sam. Tie me down. Beat me. Please. Whip me, chain me up, waterboard me…” I don’t know that much about how one person can torture another.
Gavin looked like he might cry from happiness. “Don’t stop, keep going. If you run out of ideas, just say the same ones again.”
Isaac blinked tears out of his eyes. “Gavin, please…hurt me. Make my life a misery, make me wish for death, beg for it, torture me, torture me, Gavin, please…” He had to stop to take a gasping breath. “Just torture me, leave them alone. Don’t hurt them. Hurt me, please. I’m the one you want. Don’t look for them. Please.” His throat tightened. “Please,” he whispered.
Gavin looked beyond pleased. He looked ecstatic. “Ok.” He walked to the wall and jerked down on the chain attached to Isaac’s manacles, releasing it. Isaac crumpled to the floor. He grunted as the impact sent pain lancing through his wounds.
Gavin kicked him firmly in the back. He cried out, dragging himself away from him. Gavin watched him for a moment as he tried to crawl away with his hands still chained together. He aimed another kick at his shoulder, pitching him onto his side. He began to sob. Gavin bent over and patted his face, streaked with blood and sweat. “You have a deal. You’re too much fun.” He stood to leave, stepping over Isaac’s prone form as he lay on the ground and cried.
Sam groaned and rolled onto their side. Their mind spun. What was I…? What just…? They heard the sound of the car starting and it all came back in a rush.
They stumbled to their feet and launched themselves at the front door. “Gray!” they screamed, their voice cracking. “Vera!” The two teammates on the couch jumped at Sam’s shout and staggered towards them.
“What?” Gray’s voice was thick with sleep. “What is it?”
Sam didn’t stop. They threw themselves out of the door, stumbling as they tried to run. “Isaac!” they screamed, tears pouring down their face. “Isaac, no!” They chased after the car as it pulled onto the trail and out into the woods. “Isaac!” The car turned a corner and disappeared into the trees. Sam tripped and splayed out into the mud. It was cold and gritty on their hands. Their eyes were fixed on the forest where Isaac had disappeared. They began to sob, their body rocking forward with each painful breath. They felt Vera skid to a halt beside them, her hands urgent on their shoulder.
“Sam!” she panted. “What happened?!” She pulled them up roughly by their shirt.
They collapsed again, knees hitting the cold ground hard. “No…no…” They clutched at Vera’s hands.
“What happened?” Gray was right behind her, breathing hard. “Sam, what is it?”
Vera’s voice was strained. “Why did Isaac leave with the car?”
Sam tried to calm their breathing as best they could. “He…” They gulped and heaved another sob. “He went…” A wail cut off their words.
“It’s ok, Sam.” Gray’s voice was low, right in their ear. “Just breathe, take your time. Tell us what happened.”
Sam pressed their hands to their face in shame. “G- G- Gavin called him, told him to send me back to him and Isaac…” They curled in on themselves, trembling violently. “Isaac…went in my place…he wouldn’t let me stop him…I tried to…I tried…” Their throat felt like it would tear open.
“What?” Vera’s eyes followed Sam’s gaze into the woods. “No, why would he…?”
“Gavin found us,” they moaned. “He made me swallow a tracker, I’m so sorry, he said it was poison and he’d only give me the antidote if I…told him more about you…” Vera and Gray looked horrified. They ducked their head. “He tracked us here and…I don’t know what he was going to do, I don’t know, but Isaac said he would take my place because I’m too…broken…” Their sob drew out into a scream.
“Oh my god,” Gray breathed. “What are we…” They turned their gaze to Sam and helped them up out of the mud. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and we’ll make our plan from there.”
Sam was inconsolable. “If I had just…no…if I had stopped him, if I had gone…if I had…died…under Gavin’s torture…Isaac wouldn’t be…” Their legs wouldn’t hold them up. “Isaac…no…” Gray gathered them up in their arms and began to carry them to the house. Sam didn’t seem to notice. They continued to sob into Gray’s shoulder.
“I’ll get Finn and Ellis on the radio,” Vera said. “They should have been here by now.” She jogged back to the house.
“Gray…” Sam sobbed. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“Shh…” they whispered. “It’s ok. It’s not your fault, Sam. It’s not your fault. We’ll get Isaac back.”
“We’ll never get him back,” they wailed. “How will be get him back with just us?”
“We’ll figure something out.” Gray pressed their lips into Sam’s hair. “We’ll get him back. He’s strong. He’ll survive until we get there.”
“You don’t know that…” Sam whimpered. “You don’t know what Gavin does, what he…” They swallowed a sob. “He got inside my head. And he hurt me…it didn’t stop, he just kept hurting me…I thought he was going to kill me but it just didn’t…end…”
“Shh,” Gray murmured. “Shh. We’re going to find him.” They climbed up the steps and walked through the door with Sam.
Vera was talking quickly into the radio. “That’s what I said, Finn. Gavin has him. We need you to get here as soon as you can so we can start strategizing his rescue.”
“We’re getting there as soon as we can. Can you give us any additional info?”
“Not over the radio. We don’t know what’s compromised and what isn’t.” She threw a glance at Sam and Gray as they came through the door. Gray set Sam gently on the floor. They swayed, but stayed on their feet. “Just…get here, ok?”
“Ok. See you soon.”
Vera blew out a slow breath through her lips. “They’re about half an hour out, still. They nearly ran into one of Gavin’s patrols and had to take another route.”
“They’re probably…” Sam’s voice shook. “Probably protecting Gavin. He met I- Isaac out by the main road. I wonder…if they…”
“…if they’re protecting him as he falls back,” Gray finished. “Maybe. We’ll have to ask the others which route they were taking. Might give us a good starting point for at least the direction they took him.”
“Should we…” Sam stared at the floor. “Should we move once they get here? Since G- Gavin knows where we are?”
Vera shook her head. “No. If he’s got a tracker in you, might as well stay here. After all, he had the option to come here and kill all of us, and he didn’t. Once you…uh…pass it, then we can move.” Her eyes moved between Gray and Sam. “Either of you two have any secret safehouses you haven’t thought to mention?”
Gray shook their head.
“If I did, they wouldn’t be safe anymore,” Sam said, their voice weak with shame.
“Don’t do that.” Vera’s voice was harsher than she meant for it to be. Sam flinched. “I’m sorry, just…don’t you dare hate yourself for this. Gavin captured you and tortured you. You did…” She took their hand. “You did so well, Sam. We’re proud of you. But we need you at your best right now. Isaac…” She swallowed hard. “Isaac needs you. Ok? I know you want to help him. And the best way you can is to…I need you to keep being strong for him, ok?”
Sam nodded miserably.
Gray put a hand on their shoulder. “I know you just want to break right now. We’re going to help you as much as we can. I wish we could just…care for you and take care of you the way you deserve. But we need to focus on the next step, ok? And the next.” Sam struggled not to let the tears in their eyes roll down their cheeks. “Hey.” Gray wiped their tears away with their fingers. “We are going to be here for you. We are. You are not forgotten.”
Sam shook their head. “I’m not worried about me. I’m f- fine. I just want to get Isaac back. You don’t know what it’s like, what Gavin will do to him…”
“Stop.” Gray shook them gently. “If you need to talk about what you went through, we are happy to help you and hear it. But don’t get lost thinking about Isaac. We need to think about his rescue. Ok?”
Sam wiped their nose against their muddy shirt. “Ok.”
Gray wrapped their arms around Sam. “We’re gonna get him back, ok?” Over Sam’s shoulder, Vera saw Gray’s eyes bright with tears. “We have to get him back.”
Isaac groaned at the sound of the door opening again. “No…”
“Oh, come on,” Gavin huffed, walking into the room with Leo close behind. “I gave you 20 minutes to recover. And didn’t you just beg me to torture you? Come on, Isaac, mixed messages here.” He grinned and turned to Leo. “Get him up.”
Leo yanked him to a seated position. He cried out weakly as the welts on his back stretched and bled a little more with the movement. Leo pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked one of the manacles. Confused, Isaac raised his eyes to Gavin. He paled when he saw that Gavin was carrying a bucket of water.
“What…no…” The tears started again as Leo wrenched his arms behind his back and shackled his hands behind him. “Wait…”
Gavin set the bucket on the floor and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “I swear to god, if I have to remind you about Sam every damned time I start into you, I’m gonna get real tired of that real fast.”
Isaac’s eyes were wide and fixed on the bucket. “I…I can be scared and still know why I’m here…”
Gavin rolled his eyes. “And why are you here? I’m sure we could all use a reminder.”
Isaac swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “Sam. I’m here for Sam.”
“Good. Come here.”
Trembling, Isaac drew himself to his feet. He stopped in front of Gavin, staring at the water.
“Get on your knees.”
Isaac fought back a sob. Of all things, all things Gavin could have done, he decided to start with this…
“Get on your knees. I’m not going to ask again.” Gavin’s voice had a hard edge to it.
This is…this is how… Isaac couldn’t seem to think straight. He couldn’t think of his team. He couldn’t picture their faces. The only thing that occupied his mind was the bucket of water in front of him and what he knew was about to happen.
He went down as Leo kicked him in the back of the leg. Leo forced him to his knees and yanked his head back with a hand in his hair. He could barely draw breath past the sobs. “No no no no no no…”
“No no no no please no…”
Gavin slapped him across the face. “Isaac.”
That brought him back, a little. “What…”
“You’re the one psyching yourself out right now. Have I done anything to you? Seriously.”
“No… No, I…”
“Then chill out. I’m just talking to you right now.”
Isaac nodded, shaking from head to toe.
Gavin laughed. “Well, if I doubted you were scared of drowning before I wouldn’t doubt it now. Christ.” He watched as Isaac did his best to draw in deep inhales and blow out slow exhales. He waited a few breaths. “Isaac.”
Isaac tremulously met his gaze. “What?”
“Do you know why I decided to do this next?”
Panic clutched at his stomach again. “No…”
Gavin’s slap knocked Isaac’s head to the side, despite the hold Leo had on his hair. Isaac cried out. Gavin shoved his face at Isaac as he trembled in Leo’s grasp. “I swear to god, Isaac, get your shit together right now or I kill you right here and go after Sam.”
Isaac blinked the tears out of his eyes and dragged in another breath. “No.”
“Ok then. Can I continue? Please?”
Isaac nodded and pressed his lips together.
“Thanks so much.” Gavin rolled his eyes and sat crosslegged on the ground in front of Isaac, the bucket between them. “Let’s talk.”
Isaac watched him warily, his head still pulled back by Leo’s hand in his hair.
“Do you know how I knew bringing this in here would freak you out?” He nudged the bucket with his foot. Isaac flinched away as the bucket moved and stiffened as Leo tightened his grip on his hair.
“No,” he whispered.
“Oh, come on. Not even a guess?” Gavin grinned up at Isaac.
Isaac felt a chill creep into his stomach. He kept his eyes fixed on the wall behind Gavin and pressed his lips together.
Gavin glanced up at Leo and nodded. Without hesitation, Leo forced Isaac forward and plunged his head into the bucket.
Panic gripped him immediately. The feeling of cold on his face made him gasp and he drew water into his throat. He bucked hard against the hands on his shoulder and hair, but Leo’s grip was like iron as he held his head under the water. He screamed as his pulse raged in his ears. His lungs spasmed as he choked, dragging more water in.
Abruptly his head was pulled from the water. He dragged in a ragged gasp and coughed until his ribs ached. Water poured from his nose and mouth. Tears mixed with the water on his face.
Gavin reached out and grabbed his chin. “That is gonna happen every time to refuse to answer me.”
Isaac’s chest heaved with each breath as he began to sob. “You’ll…never…get anything out of me.”
Gavin tilted his head. “Aw. There’s that strong leader Sam kept going on about. But I don’t want information from you. Even if you do know things Sam doesn’t, I don’t really feel the need. I’m content I have enough if I ever need to hunt them all down.”
Gavin held up a finger. “I’m not here for information. Like I said, I just want to talk.” Water dripped off Isaac’s face onto his bare chest and onto the floor. “So. Do you know why I knew to do this?”
A whimper made its way out of Isaac’s throat. “Sam told you.”
“Bingo!” Gavin laughed.
Isaac shook his head. “I don’t blame them for that.” His knees were beginning to ache.
Gavin grinned wickedly. “Oh? Would you blame them if I told you they volunteered that information?”
Isaac swallowed hard. “There’s…no way.”
He laughed again. “Think again! I told you they broke, and they broke fast. This was, like, day one.” He gestured to the bucket. “All I told them was to tell me something interesting about you. They volunteered your greatest fear all on their own.”
Isaac clenched his jaw. “They’re young. And inexperienced. It’s not their fault.”
“Oh, please. How old are they? I know every single thing they’re afraid or ashamed of and yet…how old they are just never made it into the conversation.”
Isaac hesitated before speaking. “They’re 19.”
Gavin snorted. “Ok, yeah, that is pretty young. But still, aren’t you even…the slightest bit mad at them?”
Isaac shook his head. “You tortured them. It’s not their fault.”
Gavin’s eyes narrowed. “What are they to you? You’re so god damned protective of them, to the point of idiocy. There was absolutely no need for you to take their place. If anything, you’ve left your team vulnerable without you. So why?”
“They…” He swallowed. “They’re Sam. They’re just…good. They didn’t deserve this.”
“People don’t go to their deaths for people who are just good.”
Isaac’s voice shook. “I didn’t know you were going to kill me.”
“Would that have changed anything?”
“You know what I think?” Gavin scooted himself closer until his shins were pressed against the bucket. “I think you would have done this for Ellis, or Gray, or anyone else on your team. Yes, of course I know all their names. And do you know why?” Isaac glared at him. “This team is all you have. And I don’t mean just, ‘they’re family’ or anything like that. No. You came because…what else do you have to offer them? Besides your life?”
“Really, I mean it. You’re not the smartest on the team, that’s obviously Finn. You’re not the best at taking care of people. That’s Gray. You’re not the most skilled, that’s Vera. And Ellis obviously has a sense of humor, so they’ve got you beat there.” Isaac’s eyes widened. “Oh come on. I had almost three days with Sam. You think I didn’t get to know your team intimately well? But what do you bring to the table?”
His head plunged into the bucket again. He did his best not to breathe the water in but his body betrayed him. He yanked hard against the hand in his hair, but it was unrelenting. When the hand let him up again his lungs were burning for air. He choked on the water in his throat.
“What do you bring to the table, Isaac?”
He couldn’t answer. His throat was too constricted with coughing.
Gavin sighed. “I’ll wait.”
When Isaac could finally catch his breath he said, “I’m their leader.”
Gavin rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Obviously. But what do you actually do for the team that no one else does? More importantly…” He adjusted his seat. “What it is about your life that makes you so keen to give it for another?”
Tears burned in Isaac’s eyes. “I…don’t…”
“Let me tell you what I think.” Gavin’s voice was intense. “I think you know you’re not the hero Sam thinks you are. You aren’t even a particularly good leader. After all…” Gavin clicked his tongue. “I took Sam because of a mistake you made. I think you came to me because you know that’s all you’re good for: dying so someone else doesn’t have to.”
The tears spilled over.
“Aw, someone’s sensitive. I’m right, though, aren’t I?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“Oh, yes I do.” Gavin got up on his knees so he was at Isaac’s eye level. “I think you know, deep down, that you’re not the person Sam thinks you are. You came here because you wanted to earn that place in their eyes. With Sam, with everyone. Deep down, you know you’re as weak as they are.”
“Sam’s not weak!”
“You keep saying that with all evidence to the contrary. But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you.” He tapped Isaac on the nose. “See, by coming here you guarantee the last thing they remember about you is this incredibly brave and selfless thing you did for your sweet and innocent Sam. Everyone will love you for it. Sam will hold you in their mind as their hero forever. And the team doesn’t ever have to see you when you’re at your weakest.” He grinned. “They don’t have to see how you begged before the whip even touched you. Or how you begged just because you saw a bucket of water. They don’t have to see how terrified you are…” He made a beckoning motion to Leo. Leo slowly forced his head down to the water.
“NO! No no no, please, PLEASE, don’t…” Leo stopped with Isaac’s face an inch from the water. He sobbed and writhed against his grasp. “Please…”
Gavin chuckled. “See? My point is made.” He placed his hand on the back of Isaac’s head and dunked his face into the bucket. He allowed him right back out of the water and let Leo draw him back upright. Isaac coughed and spluttered. “And I think you refuse to believe that Sam is weak because you want to believe you sacrificed yourself for someone good. Because if your sacrifice means nothing, and you are nothing without your sacrifice -”
“You’re wrong. Sam is good. And brave. And kind.”
“…that’s all you’re gonna correct me on? Does that mean everything else is true?”
“You’re a coward,” Isaac spat through his teeth.
Gavin’s face slid slowly into a smile. “Wow. You’re really taking this personally. Methinks I hit a nerve.” Isaac clenched his jaw shut. “You didn’t correct me, though. Which means you know. Deep down, maybe, but you know that you’re weak, you’re nothing, and this was the only thing you could think to do to convince your team that you’re worthy of the trust and love they give you. Or maybe you needed to convince yourself.”
Isaac held his gaze with a glare.
Gavin smiled. “Tell me who you really are, Isaac.”
Tears dripped off his face onto the floor.
“Isaac, you have a choice here. You can either…” He put his hand on his head and forced his face down toward the water. He cried out in protest. “…drown again, or tell me the truth about who you are.” They stood still for a moment, Isaac whimpering as he stared down into the water. “Wow. You would rather face your worst fear than tell me the truth about yourself?”
It’s not the truth. He tried to steel himself for the water, tried to push down his panic. But he broke. “Ok,” he gasped. “Ok.” Gavin released his head.
Isaac swallowed hard. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Dunk him,” came the order. Leo shoved him forward and forced his head into the water. He tried to hold his breath. A hand pressed against the welts on his back to keep him there. For one beat, two, three…
He was pulled up again. He gasped and coughed. When he opened his eyes, Gavin was leaning towards him.
“This isn’t complicated. I want you to tell me why you’re really here.”
“Is this what you did to Sam?” Isaac panted. “Tried to get inside their head?”
Gavin smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “Oh, I didn’t just try. I convinced them you were there to torture and kill them, remember?”
Isaac pulled against the thug restraining him. “What did you do to them?”
Gavin laughed. “It didn’t take much. I just helped them realize they were weak and a liability to their team.”
“Screw you,” Isaac said bitterly.
“Should you be so lucky,” Gavin murmured, leaning closer. After a moment, he sat back. “But I digress.”
Isaac struggled against Leo’s hands. “What’s the point of this? You want me to say I believe my life is worthless? That I came here to try to make it up to Sam for failing them? Fine. If you want to put words in my mouth on pain of torture, fine. There you go. I said the words.”
That terrifying smile again. “I never actually said those things. You came up with them on your own.” He signaled to Leo again.
“No!” Isaac screamed. Before Leo could get his head under the water, he threw himself to the side and slammed his leg against the bucket. It tipped over, splashing everyone with water. Gavin shouted and fell backwards away from the spray. As Isaac fell to the floor, Leo’s weight crashed on top of him, pinning him to the ground. He cried out as the thug moved his knee onto Isaac’s lower back, his hands pinning Isaac’s head to the floor and his hands against his back.
Gavin laughed, surveying his wet clothing. “Fair enough.”
Isaac’s face was pressed against the wet concrete floor as the water rushed to the drain. He groaned at the weight on his back. Gavin got on his knees beside him and smiled, bringing his face so close to Isaac that he could feel his breath. “Alright. No more drowning for now. I’ll have to move on to something else.” He got to his feet. “I’m going to go change. Leo, tie him up. I don’t want metal on him for the next part.”
As the door closed, the pressure on Isaac's back let up. He groaned with relief. Leo jerked his arms back, dragging him to his feet.
"No no no..."
A punch smashed into this stomach. He doubled over, eyes streaming. He dragged in a choked gasp, limp in Leo's grasp. Leo wrestled him to one side of the room. He tried to pull away but Leo picked him up and slammed him on his back against --
A table. The impact drove what little breath he had out of his lungs. Isaac could feel the table was made of wood, not metal. His chest heaving, he could feel one manacle coming away from his wrist and his hands being pulled up over his head. Then the other manacle dropped away from his wrist. His chest ached with the effort of dragging in each breath. He felt the bite of rope around his wrists and the tension as they were tied down to an anchor at the top of the table. Then Leo was at his feet, binding his ankles together and securing them to an anchor at the foot of the table. Isaac pulled uselessly at the ropes, tears of rage hot on his cheeks.
"So this is what you do?" he spat at Leo. "Do whatever he tells you to do? Hurt people? Kill people?"
"Uh huh." There was no emotion in Leo's voice as he stepped away from the table and leaned against the wall, closer to the door.
"And that makes you happy, huh? You content to torture people for him?"
That made Leo turn and look at Isaac. Isaac felt pinned down by the cold look in his eyes. "Yes."
Isaac gulped and turned his gaze to the ceiling. He could see the beams and cement that made up the floor above. He wondered how many beams there were from one side of the room to the other. I'm guessing I'll be intimately familiar with that by the time he's done with me. He shuddered. He'll be done with me when I'm dead.
He didn't mean to. He didn't want to let them in, not now. But the faces of his team invaded his mind. Vera. Gray. Finn. Ellis.
Sam, who didn't deserve this. Sam, who survived three days of this. I wonder if I broke faster than they did. His stomach welled up with shame. I'm supposed to be the strong one, I was supposed to protect them. Another tear rolled down the side of his face and into his wet hair.
The door opened. "Knock knock!"
Isaac swallowed the whimper that rose in his throat.
"Oh, nice. Thank you Leo. Perfect." Isaac heard Gavin grow closer until he was at his side. He put a hand on Isaac's shoulder. "How you holding up?"
Isaac refused to look at him, staring at the ceiling.
"Oh, so now you're deciding to go all stoic?" Gavin snickered. "Ok. Suit yourself. I'll have you screaming in a minute anyway."
Isaac closed his eyes and more tears ran down into his hair.
"So." Gavin quickly toweled Isaac off and began to put cold stickers on his body. At the top and bottom of his legs, on his abdomen, his wrists, his shoulders. He shivered at the touch. "This is why I didn't want manacles on you. This little box..." He bent over to pick something up and set it on the table beside Isaac's head. "...is what I like to call the shocky box. It delivers a shock to your body that is excruciating, but completely harmless. Well, unless one of the spasms makes you break a bone, of course. By harmless I mean, it won't stop your heart or cause any brain damage or anything. Something about direct voltage and alternating charge and...something..." He threw up his hands. "I don't really know how it works. All I know is, it won't kill ya."
It was so hard to hold the sobs down. Isaac shuddered, his eyes still tightly closed. Gavin plugged wires coming from the box onto each sticker. He mumbled to himself. "Ok...right shoulder here...left...lower leg...right abdomen, left abdomen...there..." He clicked the last wire in place. "Hey. Open up."
Isaac slowly opened his eyes, blinking the tears away. He saw Gavin holding a rolled kerchief in front of his face. He realized Gavin meant, open his mouth. He shook his head.
"Believe me, you want this." Gavin smiled. "The last thing you want is to break a molar, or bite your tongue. This baby's got kick." He patted the box almost affectionately.
Isaac rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, resigned. He opened his mouth. Gavin stuffed the cloth between his teeth. He lifted his head and let Gavin tie the gag behind his head. He let his head drop back to the table. At least I can't beg like this.
Gavin plugged the box into an outlet on the wall and turned back to Isaac almost gleefully. "Oooh...I love this thing. You ready?"
Before Isaac could respond, Gavin flipped a switch and pressed a button. Isaac's world shattered into pain.
Every muscle in his body spasmed as the electricity gripped him. He heard an agonized scream tearing through the room, but he couldn't tell where it was coming from. It couldn’t be him. The muscles of his chest were frozen, locked in place at the current coursed through him.
Then, abruptly, it was over. His body fell limp against the table. He sobbed weakly, the gag muffling the sound as tears poured down his face. He couldn't move. He couldn't do anything but focus on the air moving in and out of his lungs and weep.
Gavin was laughing. "Really kicks your ass, huh? That wasn't even the highest setting. That was about middle of the road. Wanna feel it higher?"
Isaac weakly shook his head, his breath hitching in his chest. A moment later the pain shattered him again.
He could feel his muscles straining against the bonds tying him to the table. His entire body was wracked with agony. Every nerve was on fire. He tried to draw breath, tried to move, tried to scream. He was locked in his body, in a prison of pain.
Then it ended. He pulled in a shuddering sob. His skin was slick with sweat. He tried to move his wrists against the rope. He could feel the skin had torn, he'd been pulling against the rope so hard. He moaned helplessly.
"You done?" Gavin's face leered over him. "You had enough?"
Isaac sobbed through the gag. I can't take it.
Gavin patted Isaac's face. He weakly turned away from his hand. "Isaac, do you want me to stop?"
Isaac nodded. He trembled.
"I'll tell you what. I'll stop when you tell me to stop." His hand reached for the button.
Isaac roared his plea, tried to beg, tried so desperately, no, please, I can't take it, stop, I can't take it, it's too much. The gag muffled his words until they were broken whimpers.
The pain tore through him again. He screamed, the sound forced out of his spasming chest. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. It was beyond pain, beyond agony.
Stillness again. He felt scraped hollow. He couldn't hear anything but the roaring in his ears and the sobs that made their way out of his throat.
Again. The world was on fire, it was crawling into his veins and setting him ablaze, too, it was hell, it was...
Relief. His hair was soaked in sweat now. It dripped down his face, his chest, soaking the pants he'd been captured in, making him shiver.
Pain. He was torn apart, there was nothing left of him, he was pain, he was nothing, there was nothing but this...
Nothing. He tried to beg. Please. I can't take it. I can't take this. Please. Kill me, let me die, just stop this pain. He could get nothing past the gag.
"This is as high as it goes."
He felt every fiber of his being cry out. His body spasmed and yanked against the ropes tying him to the table. A scream tore out of his throat as the electricity crushed his chest. He tried to draw breath, to refill his lungs, but his chest felt like it was trapped in a vice. This was agony. This was torture. This was death. His lungs screamed for air. He began to panic, trying to move or breathe or think but he was trapped in the prison of his own body, trapped without air. A buzzing begun in his head, and he felt dizzy, the world starting to spin. I'm going to die it hurts it hurts I'm going to die.
Then it was over. His mouth gaped open uselessly, his chest heaving. His eyes rolled back in his head. He couldn't get air. Couldn't get air.
He pulled uselessly at the ropes. Can't breathe.
He fell back against the table, gasping.
"Isaac, I am not doing mouth to mouth on you. Breathe or you're going to die here on this table."
His chest, gasp by gasp, began to release. He could draw small breaths. Then bigger ones. It wasn't enough, it wasn't enough, but he could breathe. He trembled against the ropes holding him to the table, drenched with sweat, tears rolling down his face.
A finger tapped his face. "Iiiiiiisaac..."
He willed his spasmed chest to expand, then fall. Air moved around the gag. He kept his eyes closed, helpless.
Gavin pulled the gag from his mouth. He giggled. "I don't know if you had a good time with that, but that...was...awesome."
"Yeah, you're done for a bit. I can't do that one for very long. Something about electrode imbalances and heart de-rhythms and stuff...I think...you should really meet my medic. He's great."
Gavin laughed. "Oh, you'll meet him at some point. Believe me, you will. I don't play nice and you will absolutely need him soon. Be grateful. I could just...leave you to suffer without medical care..."
Tears rolled down Isaac's face from his closed eyes. "Please...please kill me...I can't..."
"Oh, sure you can. I won't make it that bad again for a while. I just wanted to give you a taste of what real pain is. Maybe you won't complain so much next time I whip you...or when I waterboard you, or beat you, or...what is it you asked me to do?" He shrugged. "Oh, well. We'll get to it all eventually. For now..." Isaac felt the ropes snap under Gavin's knife. "I'll leave you with food and water. Make sure you eat and drink. I don't need you passing out on me." He laughed, patting Isaac's face. Isaac heard him walk to the door, conversing quietly with Leo. Then the door closed and he was left alone. He sobbed.
The front door slammed against the wall as Finn nearly kicked it open. Vera jumped and crossed the room in three strides, throwing her arms around them. “Finn. Thank god.” Ellis was right behind them. She turned to them and pulled them into her arms. “How you two holding up? You ok?”
“Yeah.” Finn’s voice was low and grave. “Yeah, we’re fine. Glad you’re ok.”
Gray poked their head in from the other room at the sound of voices and heaved a sigh of relief, crossing to them. “Oh thank god.” They put a hand on each of the others’ shoulders, their gaze flicking between them. “We were worried we lost you, too.”
They all flinched.
“So…how’s Sam? They ok?” Ellis shuffled anxiously, their hands in their pockets.
“Yeah,” said Finn, twisting their hands together. “I need to go check them out. They doing ok?” No one would meet their gaze. They pressed their lips into a line. “…as expected?”
Gray nodded. “They’re in the bedroom. Asleep, finally. They’ve been through…”
A grave silence fell on the team. Finn ran a hand over their face, stress etching deep lines around their eyes. “Ok. I’ll let them sleep for a bit. I want to take a look at them as soon as they wake up. I want a good idea of what I’m dealing with, what…Gavin…did to them.”
Ellis ground their teeth, hate seething out of their eyes. “I can’t believe he took Isaac. I cannot…fucking believe he took Isaac.” They leaned their elbows on the counter, hands pulling through their hair. They turned their eyes to Vera and Gray, desperate. “How did this happen?”
Gray did their best to keep their voice steady. “While Gavin was…when he had Sam, he forced them to swallow a tracker. He told them it was poison. Sounds like some mind game because he told them he’d give them the antidote if they gave up more information about us.” Finn paled. “We’d only been here for a few hours when Gavin called Isaac and demanded he give Sam back. Sounds like he…” Gray swallowed their disgust. “…he wanted Sam back because they were…fun.”
“Son of a bitch,” Ellis whispered.
“Isaac said he would go in their place. He sacrificed himself. I don’t know what Gavin threatened. It must have been something terrible for Isaac to have gone to him.”
“Isaac’s never been one to avoid pain for our sake,” interjected Vera. “It doesn’t matter what Gavin threatened. Isaac knew he would take Sam back.”
Gray pushed out a slow breath. “You’re right.” They looked around at the team and saw they all wore the same horrified expression. “Isaac took the car and went up to the main road to meet Gavin.”
“We saw it as we came in.” Finn had their arms hugged tight to their chest.
“After that, we figured Gavin headed east if you almost ran into his people coming from where you were staged. It gives us a good starting point to start going after Isaac.”
“Is that the plan now?” Ellis looked from Gray to Vera and back. “Going after Isaac?”
Vera spoke up. “The tracker Gavin placed is still in Sam. We don’t go anywhere until it’s out of their system.”
“And then after that, yes, the plan is to go after Isaac,” Gray finished.
Finn nodded. “Well, you know I’m in. But we have nothing to go on. Where do we even start?”
Gray was staring at the floor. “We start with ‘east.’ It’s the only think we have to go on for now.” They raised their eyes to the group.
“What about Sam?” Finn’s voice was low. “Can they travel? How badly hurt are they? Can they walk? What do they remember about being with Gavin?”
“I remember everything.” The team jumped at Sam’s voice and all turned to see them leaning against the wall, pale and trembling.
Finn rushed to their side, their hands on them in an instant. Feeling for injuries. “Hey, Sam. Hey buddy. You doing ok? You need to sit down?”
“No, no, I…” They swayed on their feet. “I’m ok…”
“No, you’re not.” Finn’s voice became gentle and steady. “Let’s get you to the couch.”
“I’m…fine…” A thin sheen of sweat appeared on Sam’s face from their effort to stay standing.
“No, you’re not. Couch. Now.” Finn grasped Sam under one arm and began to guide them to the couch. Sam sank into it. Finn knelt in front of them, brushing sweaty hair away from their forehead. “You’ve got a little bit of a temperature.”
Sam shook their head, whimpering. “No… No I’m ok… I have to be ok… We have to get Isaac…” They bit down on their lip. Gray and Vera appeared over the back of the couch, and Ellis took a seat beside Sam. “We have to focus on Isaac.”
“We don’t have to focus on anything but you right now,” Finn insisted gently. “Until that tracker’s out of you, we can’t do anything for him. Right now I need to make sure you’re going to be ok.”
Tears of shame ran down Sam’s face. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I tried to make him stay…” They looked back at Gray and Vera. “I tried to wake you…” They sobbed weakly.
Ellis jerked their hands towards Sam and then pulled back, uncertain how to touch them.
“We know you did, sweetheart.” Vera’s voice cracked. “We know. But don’t focus on that right now, ok? Focus on getting better. Focus on the next steps.” She squeezed Sam’s shoulders over the back of the couch.
Sam took a hiccoughing inhale and coughed wetly. They gasped as their chest heaved with each spasm. Finn looked worriedly at Gray. “Waterboarding,” they whispered. Finn looked back to Sam, eyes wide with concern.
“Sam.” They rubbed their back in soothing circles as Sam took deep, shuddering breaths. “Can you tell me what Gavin did to you? Or do you want to go back to bed?”
“I can tell you,” Sam said miserably, folding in on themselves. “I’ll tell you everything.”
Isaac quivered on the table, exhausted, skin prickling still from the electricity. He felt the rope fall away from his wrists and ankles as he moved. He rolled to one side, muscles twitching. The welts on his back left streaks of blood on the table. He said he’d leave me water.
His eyes were blurry with tears as he looked towards the door. Gavin had been true to his word, at least. He had left a bottle of water and a sandwich on the floor on his way out. Isaac groaned as he grasped at the edge of the table. He tried to swing his legs over the side. The rest of his body followed and he collapsed in a heap. His legs felt like they were made of putty. He sobbed weakly and began to drag himself across the floor.
His mind was blank as he made his way to the door. The only thing he could feel was the uncomprehending, tremulous shock of what Gavin had done. I can do this. I can take it. His hand closed around the bottle. He pulled himself up until he was sitting and cracked the seal. He downed the bottle in seconds. He turned to the sandwich, gritty from being on the floor. He didn’t even dust it off. He ate the whole thing in five bites.
He felt a little stronger. I can do this. Vaguely, he wondered if the team was safe yet. Is the tracker still in Sam? Have they started running? He felt tears in his eyes as he pictured their faces. Now it was safe. Now, while he was alone, he could be with them.
He wrapped his arms around himself and tried to quiet his sobs. They’re my family. They’re the only family I have. And I’ll never see them again. He briefly wondered how long he would survive. He supposed it didn’t matter now. I just hope they’re smart enough to get as far away from Gavin as they can.
A terrible, selfish thought crept into his soul. I want them to come back for me. He pressed his face against his hands and curled in on himself, shaking. I can’t want that. I want them to be safe. As much as he hated himself for it, though, he wanted them to come for him. I don’t want to hurt anymore. It hasn’t even been a day and I just want it to stop. A sob made its way out of his throat. I just want to be with them again.
He crawled to the other side of the room, as far as he could get from the door, and slumped in the corner. Tears poured down his face even as he tried to stop himself from crying. Maybe it’s ok if I’m weak when I’m all by myself. If I don’t let Gavin see, maybe I’m not betraying them. He bit down hard on his hand. The sobs kept wrenching themselves from his chest. Maybe it’s ok.
He pressed his face into his arm. It didn’t feel like he had a choice to be strong anymore. His stomach dropped through the floor as he pictured his team, his family, separately, together, laughing, sleeping in a pile, packed into their car and running for their lives, building fires when they couldn’t find somewhere safe for the night, doing jobs together, sabotaging the criminals they hated so much, protecting each other, fighting with each other. Loving each other. His heart ached to be with them again. He wrapped his arms around himself and wept, and wept, and wept.
Chapter 13: Pneumonia
Guess who got their Bad Things Happen Bingo card! I'll be using the card as inspiration for my next several chapters, with the prompt as the title of each chapter.
The sound of Sam’s labored breathing woke Finn up. They turned on the lamp beside the bed and rolled over, feeling blearily for Sam. When Finn’s hand touched them, Finn flinched away. Their skin was burning.
“Oh no, no no no, no, Sam…” They sat up and rolled Sam over onto their back. Their skin was slick with sweat, hair plastered to their forehead, clothes soaked beneath the blankets. Sam’s eyes were glazed over and unfocused. In the light of the lamp Finn could see their pulse jumping in their neck. Too fast. They felt Sam’s wrist. Way too fast. “Shit, shit, shit.”
They pulled the blankets off Sam, exposing them to the chilly air in the safehouse. Sam shivered and blindly reached for the covers, eyes lazing over the ceiling, unseeing. Finn dashed to the living room where Ellis and Vera were slumped on the couch asleep and Gray was stretched out on the floor. The team had elected to give Finn and Sam the bed so Sam could be comfortable and Finn could monitor them during the night. I was supposed to watch out for them and I failed. Shit!
“Ellis,” they hissed. Ellis stirred on the couch, slowly lifting their head and looking around. “Ellis,” they whispered. “Get up, I need you.” They didn’t look back as they rushed out the door to the car, grabbing their med kit and dashing back inside. Ellis was still sitting on the couch, groggy and confused. “Come on.” Finn pulled their arm, pulling them up off the couch and into the bedroom, Ellis weakly complaining the whole way. As soon as they saw Sam, they fell silent, frozen. They were shaken out of their reverie by Finn tossing the blood pressure cuff and stethoscope at them. “Get me a blood pressure,” they said without looking up from the bag. Ellis shook themselves and jumped onto the bed beside Sam, pulling their arm out of their sleeve.
Finn pulled out an IV kit and tied the tourniquet around Sam’s arm. Sam stirred, mewling weakly at the touch and at the cold. While the veins filled, Finn passed a thermometer over their forehead. Then again, disbelieving. They shook their head. Again. “104.2. Shit.” They assembled the IV set-up and sanitized the inside of Sam’s elbow. Too quickly for Sam to even flinch, Finn had the needle in, withdrawn, and connected to the extension set. They taped the IV down and turned to Ellis. “What have you got?”
Ellis shook their head, taking the stethoscope out of their ears. “Um…76/48?”
“Take it again.”
Hands shaking, Ellis pumped up the cuff and tried again. Finn’s heartbeat seemed to deafen them as they watched Ellis, holding their breath.
“Shit.” They felt for a pulse. “132 on the pulse. No no no…” Their hand went to Sam’s forehead, sweeping the hair back from their face. They held out their hand for the stethoscope and listened to Sam’s lungs. The lower part of the right side rumbled with infection.
“What are we gonna do?” whispered Ellis.
“They’re septic,” moaned Finn. “They need antibiotics. And a lot of other things but…antibiotics mostly. And I don’t have any…” Their face fell into their hands. “None of the last four groups we ran into were selling, either. But I…” They looked helplessly at Sam. “If they don’t get them, they’ll die. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe sooner.”
Ellis reached for Finn’s hand. “Let me go find some.”
“No.” Finn’s voice was hard. “It’s too dangerous. Gavin’s people might be out there looking for us right now. No way.”
Ellis squeezed. “Either I risk that, or Sam dies. Right? There’s no way they could survive without antibiotics?”
Finn shook their head. “Well…probably not, but…we could find…we could do something…” They grabbed Ellis’ hand with both of theirs. “You’re my partner.”
Ellis smiled crookedly. “Don’t I know it. I can’t get rid of you.” They got off the bed. “But I’m going. I love Sam, too.” Their eyes swept Sam’s body, hot and flushed and trembling on the bed.
Finn opened their mouth to protest, then let it close with a sigh. “You’re right. Let me follow you out so I can grab my stuff. Take a radio with you. Don’t go far. If you’re gone for longer than a day, it won’t matter.” Their breath caught in their throat, shame chilling their insides. “I mean…”
“I get it.” Ellis took Finn’s chin and made them look at them. “I know you have to be that way with patients. Right now, Sam’s your patient.” They turned to leave the bedroom. Finn followed right behind.
Finn was proud of their cache of equipment. It had taken them a long time to collect and had cost more than all the team’s other needs combined, but it was worth it in times like this. They grabbed the cardiac monitor they had had to trade a car for and their sack of saline bags. Ellis grabbed the oxygen concentrator that was Finn’s prized possession, and the extra batteries for it.
As they carried the equipment inside, Gray stirred. “What’s goin’ on?” they mumbled. Finn walked right past them into the bedroom.
Ellis dropped to one knee and whispered so as not to wake Vera. “Sam got worse. Finn is gonna do what they can here, and I’m gonna go get antibiotics.”
“I’ll go with you.” Gray clumsily got to their feet.
“No.” Finn poked their head into the hall, having dropped their equipment. “Too dangerous. I hate risking Ellis. I can’t risk you, too.”
“I’m of more use helping Ellis than I am here,” Gray whispered back.
Finn hesitated in the doorway for a moment. Then they sighed. “Take the radio, let me know what you find. Don’t be gone longer than 24 hours.” They disappeared back into the room.
Ellis and Gray left silently, trying to let Vera sleep. It had been days since any of them had gotten proper rest. No use in waking her up if it wasn’t necessary.
Finn looked down at Sam and watched their eyes move slowly under the lids. Then they swallowed hard and got to work.
Finn covered Sam back up with only the thinnest blanket on the bed. Sam was already starting to shiver, but it was better to let them cool off a bit than to let them sweat under the covers. They spiked a bag of saline and hung it from a nail in the wall. They assumed it once held a picture, but whatever was there before was gone. They attached the saline to Sam’s IV and let it run wide open.
Finn dug a portable pulse ox out of their bag and clipped in onto Sam’s finger. They waited for the little machine to beep, normalize, get a reading… 89%.
They cursed silently and reached back into their bag for a nasal cannula. They put it on Sam’s face and plugged it into the oxygen concentrator. They turned it on and within minutes the number on the pulse ox was rising. 91%...94%...96%... Finn pulled up some IV Tylenol, checked the dose, and ran it into the IV.
No one on the team had ever been this sick before. They had treated scrapes and cuts, broken bones, even sutured a graze from a bullet that nearly killed Ellis when they first met, but they’d never done anything like this. Finn wasn’t deluded. They knew their team trusted them too much to take care of them. They knew if someone took a bullet to the gut, or got a concussion bad enough, or got an illness that couldn’t be treated with Tylenol and fluids, they would die without a hospital. And hospitals were run, almost without exception, by the syndicates. The only safe hospitals were inordinately expensive. Finn shook their head wearily. They were a stopgap. A glorified band-aid distributor. The pharmacy aisle at a convenience store could help more than they could.
They buried their face in their hands, tears of frustration burning their eyes. They’d signed up to be a combat medic when they were 18, when the governments were still pretending to fight the criminal organizations that now ran the world. They’d gotten through their first three weeks of medical training when their base had been attacked and destroyed. Every person found on the base, military or not, had been shot execution style where they stood. Finn was one of the only ones that escaped. They’d been on the run ever since. They couldn’t remember much of anything they learned in basic training, and most of the medicine they knew was what they had picked up along the way. The only difference between them and anyone else on the team was that three weeks of training. A monkey could do what I can do, and be almost as successful. A tear ran down their cheek.
Snap out of it, idiot. There was no time for self-pity when Sam was dying. They couldn’t do much without antibiotics, but they might be able do enough to keep Sam alive until they arrived.
Content for now, Finn turned to their bag to do a quick inventory. Aside from their regular med kit, they had 12 bags of saline left, 4 lithium ion batteries for the oxygen concentrator, and one extra battery for the monitor. They did some quick math in their head. If Sam is 60 kilos, give or take, they’ll need 1800 mL fluids in the first three hours, or is it 1200 mL, shit, why can’t I remember this right now…this is when I need to know this stuff… They glanced at the liter of fluid hanging from the wall. Half of it was already gone. Screw it. I keep their blood pressure up. If they need similar boluses after that then I’ll have a little less than 24 hours before I run out. They closed their eyes. I guess it won’t matter after that. I told them they have 24 hours. Their hands reached vaguely towards the lithium batteries, thinking. Each battery lasts for four-ish hours, give or take, so including the one already running we’ll have…20 hours of O2, minimum. They ran a tense hand through their hair. That’s more than cutting it damned close.
They pumped up the blood pressure cuff and took another pressure. 80/54. They could pretend it was improvement.
I can’t think of another damned thing I can do for them. Most of their equipment was for trauma, anyway. They wracked their brain for another moment before they slumped, giving in to their worry.
They crawled next to Sam and lay down next to them over the thin blanket, flinching at the heat coming off their skin. They laid their head next to Sam’s and wrapped one arm around their waist, reaching across them and holding their hand.
“You know,” Finn whispered against Sam’s ear, “we’re gonna get through this. You’re gonna get better, we’re gonna get Isaac back, and we’re all gonna run away together somewhere safe. Somewhere Gavin can’t find us. Someday this is all gonna be some terrible memory. Maybe you can go to college, would you like that? I could actually become a medic. Or maybe even do medical school. Who knows. Vera could get that dog she’s always talking about, and we could all go over to mine and Ellis’ house on the weekends to have cookouts and go swimming in our pool and watch movies. Ellis could be safe, they could go to therapy, they could…I don’t know, maybe write their book?” Finn laughed gently. “Isaac can finally relax and figure out what he wants to do. You know, I’ve never once heard him talk about what he would do if we were safe? Anyway, we’d be far away from the crime and the death and the running, we’d be safe, maybe we could have a garden, a cat… What would you go to school for? I don’t think I remember. I know we’ve talked about it. You’ll have to tell me when you get better.” They pressed a kiss against Sam’s temple. “You know I hate it when they leave me behind? Drives me insane. I just want to help, I just want to contribute like they do, and they say it’s because I’m an asset but anyone could do what I do…honestly, not complicated…maybe if I had some actual medicines to work with but…with what I have to work with…” They sighed. “I just want to be in it with you. I want to feel how it feels to raid a compound, pull the trigger and watch some piece-of-shit murderer go down, I want to feel the way you all do when you work together and pull off a mission…” They pressed their lips together and tried to ignore the tears running down their face and into the pillow.
“I’m so sorry we let this happen to you.” Their voice was shaking. “I know Isaac blames himself, but it’s all of our faults. We left you unprotected. We should never have expected you to…” They shook their head. “Once we get you better, I swear to you, we will keep you safe, we’ll never put you in danger again. Just…hold on for us, Sam. Hold on for me. You just have to hold on until they get back with the antibiotics…just for a few hours, I promise…” They soothed their sweat-soaked curls away from their face. “Please, Sam. Please just fight this. Please stay alive.”
As they put their hand back in Sam’s, Finn felt them squeeze weakly. They smiled through their tears and squeezed back.
Chapter 14: Grabbed by the Hair
Isaac was woken from a deep sleep by a hand in his hair. He was dragged away from where he was slumped against the wall and thrown across the floor. He cried out in fear and surprise, throwing his hands over his head to protect himself.
“Wakey wakey!” Gavin’s voice was cheery. Aggressively so.
Isaac scurried away from him towards the door. He collided with a pair of legs and Leo’s hands closed around his shoulder. Leo dragged him back to the table where Gavin had tortured him and slammed him onto his back. It knocked the breath out of him. He gasped, stunned. Leo locked his hands around his wrists and wrenched them up above his head.
“No no no…” He whimpered. He tried to yank his hands out of Leo’s grasp. He kicked at him frantically, his foot hitting Leo squarely in the chest. He let out a grunt. He struggled with renewed force, straining against Leo’s grasp.
He felt a hand in his hair again and the cold, sharp edge of a blade under his chin and instantly went still.
“As much as I love watching Leo throw you around,” came Gavin’s cool voice in his ear, “let me make a small suggestion: don’t move, let him tie you down, or I cut right here -” He pressed the tip of the blade against Isaac’s throat, right over the pulse. “- and watch you bleed out on this table.”
Leo guided Isaac’s wrists up and Isaac pulled against him. The hand in his hair tightened and the knife pressed against the skin. “You think I’m kidding? Try that again and this story ends right here.” Gavin jerked Isaac’s head up and thumped it back against the table for emphasis.
“What does it matter?” Isaac spat through his teeth. “You’re just gonna kill me anyway. Why not let it be now?”
Gavin smiled. “Ok, I’ll call that bluff. Go ahead. Try it.”
For a moment Isaac lay frozen, still straining against Leo’s grip. Then he surrendered, letting his hands be pulled above his head. He shut his eyes against the tears threatening to spill. Gavin stepped back.
Leo quickly bound his wrists together and tied them to the table. “Feet, too?”
“Naw.” Gavin looked at Isaac with amusement. “He’s gonna hold still, right?” He winked.
Isaac stared straight at the ceiling, burning with shame.
“I take your silence as an emphatic yes.” Gavin twirled the knife in his hand. “Can you guess what we’re going to do today?” Isaac remained motionless, lips pressed together. Gavin stepped closer and stabbed the knife into the table, inches from Isaac’s head. He relished the little jump it caused. “I said,” he murmured, leaning close, “what do you think we’re going to do today?”
Isaac said nothing.
Gavin chuckled. “You’re confusing my admiration of your strength for a desire for you to be silent. I want you to scream, yes, but I also want to have a conversation with you, Isaac. Where’s the fun if you just lay there and don’t talk to me? What?” He pouted. “Am I boring you already?” He watched for a moment for a reaction. “What is this, like…a pride thing? You upset that I broke you and now you’re trying to make up for it? Do you honestly think it matters to your team how you take this? They have no idea what I’m doing to you. You could be dead, as far as they’re concerned. What’s the harm in just…talking to me?” He sighed and tapped the side of the knife against Isaac’s face. “Fine. I can work with this. I’ll make you a deal. I’m gonna torture you with this knife. Obviously. If you move, try to kick me, do anything like that, I cut your throat and you bleed out.” He waited for a reaction. “Anything? No? Yikes, you’re already boring me. Anyway, other option is you take the torture and I stop when you beg me to. Sound good?” He waved a hand in front of Isaac’s face. “You home?” Isaac’s jaw tightened. “Jeez, are you seriously just gonna lay there and take it just because of your pride? Whatever.” He set the tip of the knife against Isaac’s skin, just below the left collarbone. “I can take this as a personal challenge.”
He drew the tip of the knife down Isaac’s chest, down his abdomen to his waistband with a feather-light touch. He looked up at Isaac with a playful grin. “Don’t wanna beg yet? No? Yeah, I’d be disappointed if you did.” He returned the knife to the same spot and drew the knife along the same path, the tip leaving a white scratch. “No? Sweet.”
He placed the knife in the same spot and began to scrape it down his chest, leaving a raised red line. Isaac’s quick intake of breath was the only reaction he gave.
“Here’s a fun fact for you,” said Gavin conversationally. “Most of the nerve endings in your skin lie pretty close to the surface. Once you get deep enough into the body, there are hardly any nerve endings at all. So if done right, a pretty shallow cut can hurt more than a stab wound. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Every person I ever stabbed complained quite a bit so I’m thinking that little fact isn’t entirely true.” He returned the knife to the spot below Isaac’s collarbone and followed the line he was making. The knife parted the first few layers of skin, leaving a line of blood welling up in the cut. Isaac gasped and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Open your eyes.” Isaac kept them shut. Gavin pressed the knife against his throat again. “Open your eyes or die.” Isaac blinked his eyes open, hate coiled tightly in them. “That’s better. I want you to see what I’m doing, and I want to watch you hurt.” Isaac fixed his eyes on the ceiling again and Gavin went back to work.
The next line began a centimeter from the first. Gavin pressed the knife down, cutting Isaac on the first path. Isaac grunted at the pain, straining not to make a sound.
Gavin smiled. “Ok, I’m actually really enjoying this. It’s adorable to see you try to keep quiet. Like it’s going to matter. You are absolutely going to scream from this, no matter how hard you try. But I appreciate the effort.” The knife moved down Isaac’s chest again. His breath froze in his chest with the effort to be quiet. Again, the knife moved in a long line. Isaac could feel a hot trail of blood roll down his chest and dribble off his side onto the table. Gavin blew gently on the cuts and Isaac shivered.
“You doing ok still?” No answer. “Ok.” Another cut. Deeper.
Isaac groaned, unable to stop himself. “Ooh,” Gavin cooed. “That one might need stitches. Maybe not, though.” He moved the knife to the other side of Isaac’s chest, below the collarbone. “I’m a sucker for symmetry.” Isaac bit his lip as the knife cut him down to his waistband. Then the knife drew another line in blood. Isaac felt his body break into a sweat. The salt stung the lines Gavin had made.
As Gavin drew the third line down the right side of Isaac’s chest, he whimpered. Gavin grinned. “Now that’s a good sound. Do you understand now why this is so much fun for me?” Another cut. The pain burning across Isaac’s chest was rising, tearing through his mind, breaking through his defense of silence. Tears began to roll down his cheeks and he started to sob quietly.
As Gavin made another cut, Isaac pulled at the ropes on his wrists, trying to resist the pain. His muscles strained as he trembled under the knife, sobbing. Gavin leaned back slightly to admire his work. “That’s better, now it’s even.” He rested the tip of the knife in the hollow of Isaac’s throat where his collarbones came together. He dragged it down Isaac’s sternum.
“There we go!” Gavin was grinning. “Had enough? Want me to stop?” Isaac whimpered high in his throat. Gavin laughed and shook his head. “This really makes no sense to me. You could stop me from hurting you right now. Just beg me to stop.” Isaac kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Why? Why won’t you just beg me, and spare yourself the hurt? You holding out like this is meaningless. Why keep hurting like this when it won’t make your team safer? When it won’t make Sam feel better when they wake up screaming from nightmares of what I did to them?” Isaac’s eyes snapped to his, fury boiling in them. “Ha, thought that would get your attention. You’re just an interesting person, Isaac. I don’t get it.”
He turned the knife on him again. Isaac cried out as Gavin raked the blade along his ribs, blood beading immediately in the cut. Before Isaac could catch his breath, Gavin was making another cut. His chest heaved. “Careful. Keep breathing that hard and I might cut you deeper than I mean to.” Another cut and Isaac was screaming so hard his throat felt raw.
Over and over again, Gavin cut him. His chest looked like he had been flayed. Blood pooled on the table and dripped onto the floor.
“It’s really not as bad as it looks,” Gavin said gleefully. “There are just a lot of cuts, and the skin is so thin where I’m cutting you. Bleeds easily.” He cut him again. And again.
Gavin prepared to take the knife to Isaac again. He couldn’t count how many cuts he’d made already. He pressed the knife in enough that it parted Isaac’s skin before he started to draw the line.
Isaac screamed. “Please.”
Gavin pulled his hand back, the knife hovering an inch above his skin. “Please what?”
Isaac sobbed. “P- Please stop, please, I can’t do it.”
Gavin grinned. “So I was right?” Isaac licked his lips and swallowed hard. Gavin grabbed Isaac by the hair and wrenched his head to the side, forcing him to look at him. “Say it.”
Tears poured down Isaac’s face. “You were right.”
“Right about what?”
Isaac’s cheeks burned in shame. “I broke. I can’t take it.”
Gavin released his hair. “Yup. You broke. Again. I’m, what, four for four with you now, right?”
Rage flashed in Isaac’s eyes. “How about you trade places with me and we’ll see how well you do?”
Gavin laughed. “There’s that snarky leader. No thanks, though, I’ll pass. I’m better at this and, let’s be honest, you look so much better like this than you would doing what I’m doing.” He held his hand out behind him and Leo stepped forward. Isaac had forgotten he was even there. “One more thing.”
Leo handed Gavin a spray bottle and stepped back again. Gavin grinned at Isaac. “Gotta keep those cuts clean.” He sprayed Isaac’s chest once.
He smelled rubbing alcohol for a moment before he disintegrated into agony. Every cut was suddenly shot through with bright, hot pain that obliterated every other thought in his head. He screamed, back arching up off the table. Over the sound of his own screams, he could hear Gavin laughing.
Chapter 15: Cradling someone in their arms
Finn only had to wait four hours.
They jumped at the sound of the car approaching the safehouse, gun in hand. If Gavin’s come back for Sam, they’ll die before he gets them back to his base. They let out the breath they didn’t realize they were holding when Gray jumped out of the car. Ellis got out with a package in hand.
“Is that them?” Vera looked in from the kitchen. She’d been able to sleep for another few hours after Gray and Ellis left, and then Finn had explained everything. She was busy inventorying the safehouse, figuring out what they had and what they could take with them. It wasn’t much.
Gray burst through the door, Ellis close on their heels. They pushed the package into Finn’s hands.
“What did you get?” Finn worked to tear open the bag.
“A…zithro…?” Ellis stumbled over the word.
“Azithromycin?” Finn was incredulous. “It’s perfect. How did you find it?” They tore the package all the way off and dumped the bottle into their hand. They read the label, searching for the dosage. Qty: 10. 250mg.
“Is it enough?” Ellis searched Finn’s face with desperate eyes.
“It’s…it’s perfect. I can’t believe you found it.” They rushed to the bedroom where Sam lay still in the bed. They all followed them in.
Sam was a little better than when they left. Empty saline bags lay on the floor with another one running into the IV in Sam’s arm.
“How’re they doing?” came Gray’s tentative voice.
Finn shook their head. “They’re going through saline like nobody’s business. I’ve been able to keep their blood pressure up and their fever down a little bit with the Tylenol, but…this is what’s going to help…” They kneeled on the bed and put a hand on Sam’s forehead, brushing the hair away from their face. “Help me get them sitting up.”
They all jumped to help. Finn sat themselves on the bed against the headboard as Gray and Vera pulled Sam’s arms up, trying to cradle their lolling head. Sam’s skin was hot and soaked with sweat. They leaned them against the headboard.
“Ellis, will you get me a glass of water?” Finn was busy opening the bottle of medication. Ellis was gone and back in seconds. They handed the glass to Finn.
“Hey, Sam,” Finn murmured against their ear. “I’ve got some medicine for you. You’re gonna be ok. Can you wake up and take some medicine?” Sam moaned weakly, eyes moving slowly under the lids. “Hey.” Finn pinched Sam’s shoulder, deep in the muscle. They moaned and opened their eyes, their hand pushing weakly at Finn’s. “There you go. Let’s take some medicine, huh?” Sam looked around the room, dazed and nearly delirious. “You think you could take a few pills?”
Sam nodded weakly, eyes closing and head falling back against the headboard. Finn poured two pills onto the sheets and picked them up, water in their other hand. “Hey Sam.” They pinched their shoulder again. “Let’s do this. You’ll feel a lot better, ok?” Sam let their mouth fall open and Finn dropped the pills in. They brought the glass to their lips and let Sam take a sip. Then another. Sam swallowed the pills painfully down.
“Do you want any more water?” Finn couldn’t tell if Sam shook their head. Their head drooped to the side, eyes closing again.
“Were we too late?” Ellis sounded like they were close to tears.
Finn pulled Sam against their chest, letting their head drop to their shoulder. “I don’t know.” Their voice was weary. “They’re really sick. But…they have what they need. All there is left to do is wait. I’ll keep their blood pressure up, keep their fever down. The rest is up to them.” They smoothed a hand through their damp hair and cradled them in their arms. “We should know in the next 24 hours whether it’s working.”
Vera sank to the bed, squeezing Sam’s foot over the blanket. “Stay with us, sweetheart,” she whispered. “We love you.”
Gray sat on the other side of the bed beside Finn and placed a hand on Finn’s back. “You’ve done so well,” they whispered into their ear. “Sam’s in good hands. They’ll be alright.”
Finn pressed their hands against Sam to hide how badly they were shaking.
Chapter 16: Blindfolded
Gavin’s medic had come and gone hours ago. In the end Isaac only needed five stitches from where the knife had dipped just a little too far into his flesh. Otherwise the lines had been clean and relatively shallow. Isaac shuddered to imagine how many people had suffered under Gavin’s knife as he honed his skill.
He’d been left on the table, hands still tied and pulled up above his head. He felt so exposed. He’d remained that way while Gavin’s medic – “well, he’s not technically a doctor, not anymore” – had cleaned his wounds, stitched him up, and placed bandages over his chest. Given him water. “I’d rather not have you free to attack my medical dude. Especially not when he’s here to fix you up.” He’d lain on the table, still save only for when he flinched from the antiseptic, tears of shame running down his face. I gave up. I stopped fighting. Isaac swallowed the lump in his throat. He told me he’d kill me when I stopped being fun. Is this what he wants from me? Am I keeping myself alive like this?
The door opened again.
Isaac tried to stifle the sob he made at the sound of the footsteps entering the room. He lifted his head from the table momentarily to see who Gavin had brought. Leo again. He wondered if Gavin really had fired James for nearly shooting him in the car.
“Tie his ankles.” Gavin had a sickening smile on his face.
Isaac gasped and sobbed in terror and despair. He couldn’t hold still while Leo tied him down again. He couldn’t. When he was tied down, he was hurt. He was helpless. He flinched away from Leo’s iron grip on his ankle, cringing in on himself. “No no no…please…” He threw his dignity aside. He didn’t care if Gavin killed him now. If the past two days were any indication of what the rest of his life would be, he didn’t want to live it. Better to die now and save himself the pain.
He gasped as Sam’s face flashed unbidden in his mind. No…I don’t want to think of you now, I just want to stop hurting… The damage was done, though. He surrendered to Leo’s grasp and felt the rope tighten around his ankles. Leo secured the rope to the table again and stepped back into the shadows. Isaac whimpered in resignation.
Gavin approached him on the table, grinning from ear to ear. He was holding his hands behind his back like he was hiding something. Isaac rolled his head from side to side, a weak attempt at shaking his head. “No…”
Gavin tilted his head. “No what?”
Isaac closed his eyes, sending more tears streaming down his face, and said nothing.
Gavin shrugged. He leaned over Isaac, staring at the gauze on his chest. “How you holding up there, champ?”
Isaac’s lips quivered. “You don’t give a damn about how I’m holding up.”
Gavin looked offended. “Yeah, I do! I give many damns! I want to know how close you are to your breaking point, how much more you can take. I wanna know how much longer you’re going to be interesting.”
Isaac opened his eyes in surprise. “What do you mean, my ‘breaking point’? You…already…” Is this really the best time to bring this up?
Gavin laughed and stood at the head of the table over Isaac. “No no no. Yeah, I’ve broken you, but you’re not, like, broken broken. Not like Sam was. You remember how Sam was, don’t you? Ready to kill you just to spare themselves more pain? Because they thought you were there to torture them? Remember that?”
“Yes, I remember.” Isaac’s voice seethed in hatred.
“Right. Like I said, not broken. You’re not ready to give up your friends just for a break from what I’m doing to you, right?”
Isaac set his jaw. “Never.”
“Aw. That’s cute.” Gavin brought one hand from behind his back and pat Isaac on the head like he was a child. “I’m bored with this game, though. Bored with you. So I’m here to break you, then go back to Sam. This was fun while it lasted, really, it was. But I’ll be honest…I’m done with you.” He pulled his other hand from behind his back and produced a blindfold. Before Isaac could pull away, Gavin had the cloth over his eyes and tied behind his head.
“What…” Isaac’s voice was shaking so badly he could barely get the words out. “What do you mean you…no…please…” Tears began to wet the blindfold.
“Exactly what I said. I’m done with you. You’re just not as fun as I thought you would be. I was lying before, though. I do need some more information about your team before I go hunt Sam down like an animal and drag them back here, kicking and screaming. Might even show them your body before I start into them. That would really set the tone, huh?”
“I am not! I’m just bored. And creative.”
“I won’t give you a damn thing…I won’t give you anything, you might as well just kill me now…”
“Not just yet.” Isaac felt cold steel press against his head and knew it was a gun.
“No…” He whimpered. “Please don’t do this…I can, I can be better, just tell me what you want, I’ll do whatever you want, be whatever you want…”
“You don’t get it,” came Gavin’s voice. “I don’t want you to be anything. I just wanted you to be yourself. And yourself isn’t…interesting. Sam was.”
A sigh. “Are you begging for Sam’s life? Or yours?”
“Sam. And mine. Both. Please, please Gavin…”
A hand wrapped around his chin and pulled his head up harder against the barrel of Gavin’s gun. “Decision’s been made. Sorry honey, not everyone can make varsity. Gotta make some cuts.” Gavin giggled. “I do have some questions about your team, though.”
Isaac shook his head against Gavin’s grasp. “Never. Never.”
“Yeah, I can understand why this wouldn’t be a proper motivator. I mean, why tell me what I want to know when I’m just going to kill you at the end?” Isaac felt Gavin’s hands leave his head and heard him move to his side. “You don’t need your kneecaps if you’re dead, right?”
Not more pain. “No! Please!” He couldn’t take it. Not now. And he absolutely knew Gavin would do it. “Please…” He dissolved into sobs. “Please…I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, anything, just not about my team. I’ll tell you anything else. Please. Please just…leave them alone.” A pause. He held his breath, waiting for the burst of agony. It never came. Gavin moved up behind his head again.
“Hm.” Isaac felt a hand pulling his head back by his hair and the gun pressed to him again. “Anything?”
“Yes.” Isaac nodded frantically against Gavin’s grasp. “Anything. I swear.”
He heard a gentle laugh. “Ok, I’ll bite. Tell me about you.”
“You refused to tell me about yourself while I was drowning you. So…tell me about yourself, Isaac. If you don’t I will start at your kneecaps and work my way up.”
“What do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything. Please.” He sobbed with terror.
“Tell me why you made the decision to come to me. Do you really love your team that much? Hey, that’s a fair question, it doesn’t betray them or help me find them, right?”
Isaac swallowed hard. “They…they’re all I’ve got…”
“What, you seriously have no other family?”
Isaac sniffed. “Not anymore.”
“…ok, what does that mean?”
“I…why do you want to know this?”
“Ok, kneecaps it is.”
“No no no no! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll tell you. I…I don’t have any other family, no. I don’t have any siblings. My…d- dad was killed in a car crash.” He hadn’t talked about this in years. It felt so strange to be telling Gavin, of all people, and at the end of a gun.
“And my mom, she…she started…drinking, couldn’t handle his death, and she…she’d ask me to go get more booze for her when she was too drunk to walk, told me where to go to get it, things were just starting to get bad so it was easy to get if you know where to look…”
“‘Getting bad’…as in…”
“The syndicates were taking over already at that point.”
“Ah, yes. My people. ‘Syndicates.’ Is that really what you call us?” Gavin snorted.
“Yeah…what do you call yourselves?”
“Uh…same thing everyone calls themselves I guess… Keep talking.”
“Ok, ok. She would, um…she wouldn’t hit me, but she’d tell me all these terrible things…like she never wanted me and she should have…” His lower lip quivered. He pressed his lips together to try and stop it.
“She should have what?”
“Should have left me on the street for the criminals to find because…because it was all my fault…”
“Was your dad’s death your fault?”
Isaac couldn’t help the sob that tore out of him. “I…no…”
“…that sounded fake.”
Isaac tried to swallow the whine coming from his throat. “No…he…he died while he was grocery shopping for us… he had to get milk because I finished it that morning and didn’t tell them we were almost out…”
“That doesn’t sound like your fault, then.”
Isaac whimpered. “I know it wasn’t, I know it, but…I still blame myself…”
“Oh, come on, don’t be an idiot. I’d say that pretty definitively wasn’t your fault. I would tell you if it was, believe me. You need to learn the difference, Isaac. For example: your father’s death and your mother’s subsequent alcoholism? Not your fault. Me capturing Sam and destroying them forever? Definitely your fault.”
Isaac sobbed. “Sam’s not destroyed.”
Gavin chuckled. “Oh, I beg to differ.”
“You didn’t destroy them. They’re strong. And…the team will take care of them.”
“The fiery defensiveness is really, truly touching. Seriously, what are they to you? You having misplaced older brother vibes? You…” Isaac felt his breath on his face. “You into them or something?”
“No…” Isaac shook his head. “Not that. I just…”
“You just what?”
“I told you before. They’re good. And sweet, and honest, and brave. I love them.”
A snort. “You love them?”
Isaac couldn’t bite back his hateful retort. “Just because you wouldn’t know a damned thing about that, doesn’t mean we’re all monsters.” He gasped in a breath and braced himself for the pain – or the shot.
Gavin paused. “That was rude.” He adjusted his grip on Isaac’s hair. “So that’s it? You love them, and you go to your death for them? That sounds…stupid. And I don’t think it’s just the way I’m saying it.”
“I can’t explain it beyond that. I just love them. I love all of them.”
“Would you have done this for any of them?”
“Yes.” There was no hesitation.
“Huh.” He tapped the gun against Isaac’s head. Isaac flinched. “Do you think they’d all do the same for you?”
Isaac couldn’t answer as quickly. “I wouldn’t let them.”
“So that’s a no.”
Gavin sighed. “It’s a no. I can hear it in your voice.” Tears rolled down Isaac’s face behind the blindfold. “Aw. Poor Isaac. That’s sad.” He blew his breath out from between his lips. “So your mom. Alcoholic. Abusive. Go on.”
Isaac swallowed hard. “I left when I was fourteen. I didn’t want to buy her alcohol anymore. Someone tried to snatch me off the street, and I think they were planning on selling me, but…someone saved me. Grabbed me right out of the criminal’s hands. They took me back to their base. Back when there were resistance movements. They taught me how to fight, shoot, forage for what I needed…they gave me a family.”
“You said you have no other family.”
“I know. I left them when I was about 21.”
Isaac’s stomach spasmed in shame. “They…were…”
Gavin sighed. “What?”
Isaac shook his head. “They were going to go fight. And I didn’t…”
“You were scared.”
A whimper. “Yes.”
“Did they all die or something?”
Isaac licked his lips. “No. Most of them came back.”
He could barely say the words. “They told me…there was no place for me if I couldn’t…do what was necessary. They told me to choose. Fight or leave.”
“And you left.”
Another sigh. “And yet…you gunned down my people at my compound not three days ago.”
Isaac swallowed hard. “I learned to be ok with it. Things got harder. I had to be ok with killing people to survive.” His jaw clenched. “I wouldn’t have touched your people if you had left us alone. If you hadn’t taken Sam.”
“Hey, you were raiding me!”
Isaac didn’t have a response to that.
“How many people have you killed?” Isaac whimpered. Gavin yanked his head back and pressed the gun harder to his head. “How. Many.”
“Including the four of yours?” Isaac thrust his chin at Gavin.
“Yeah, including those.”
“Seriously? You doubled your number with me?”
Isaac’s voice was cold and hard. He surprised himself. “I told you, you should have left Sam alone.”
“Hm.” Gavin shifted his weight. “Fair enough.” He leaned farther over Isaac. “Well, my interest has run out. I don’t want to hear another thing out of your mouth that isn’t exactly how to find your team.”
Isaac shuddered, nearly crying out in fear. He pressed his lips together. Then you’ll get nothing. Gavin yanked Isaac’s hair so hard his neck twisted. He groaned.
“Nothing? Not even any last words?”
Tears ran freely down his face. The blindfold was soaked through.
“Ok. Goodbye, Isaac. Five, four…”
“No…” he whimpered.
He squeezed his eyes shut behind the blindfold. I love you all.
Isaac jumped so hard the rope cut into his wrists again. The shot echoed around the room, vibrating the walls, the impact percussing Isaac’s chest.
He took a breath.
He collapsed into sobs. Gavin pulled the knot on the blindfold and slid the cloth off his face. He threw his gaze around the room, uncomprehending, not able to believe he was alive. Gavin leaned over him and patted his face.
“Are you kidding?” he laughed, tucking the gun into the waistband of his pants. “Isaac, you are so much damned fun. How could I lose interest in you when you give me shit like that to work with? That was just…so fucking fun. Seriously, I’ve got so much I want to do with you. You are…the best I’ve had, Isaac. Wouldn’t you like a t shirt with that on the fucking front. How could I want to give up on you when you hold out under that?” He turned away, beckoning to Leo. “Cut him loose. He’s earned a break, I think.” He walked out of the room, shaking his head and muttering to himself. “That…was…awesome.”
Isaac lay motionless as Leo cut the ropes tying him to the table, sobbing so hard his throat felt swollen. When his hands were free, he covered his face and curled into himself, holding himself. Leo walked out the door behind Gavin. Isaac didn’t know if he felt relieved or not.
Chapter 17: You can scream all you want
Gavin was good to his word for a few hours, at least. Isaac didn’t know how long he lay trembling on the table. His wrists stung from the burn from the ropes, and his ankles were raw. He pressed his face into his hands and sobbed. How can I know what’s real? How can I know what he wants, or when he’s actually going to kill me? He tried to force the old memories from his mind. I never wanted to think about my mother again. Or Michael, or William, or Jordan, or Lexi, or Rosa…any of them. He wondered if they were still alive. He wondered if they had been successful in the war they had decided to fight after seven years of laying low. If I had gone with them, would my life have been different?
He rolled and swung his legs off the table. Gavin’s “medical dude,” Ex-Dr. Bodhi, had done his best to clean and sanitize the table after Gavin had bled him all over it. There were still some streaks of dried blood in the grain of the wood. He shuddered and suddenly very much wanted off.
He collapsed in a heap next to the table and leaned against one of the legs, trembling. He barely had the strength to sit up. His muscles ached from the spasms from Gavin electrocuting him. His chest burned like he was lying on an open flame. The welts on his back had cooled to deep bruises marking his skin. A few still bled. His throat was sore from screaming. Gavin was right. He had claimed every bit of Isaac: his body, his voice, his dignity…his past. He thought he had put it behind him. Forgotten. Focusing on his new team, his new family. It did him no good to dwell on the past, he knew. But his heart still ached for the homes he’d had before. With his parents. Then just with his mother. Then with the band of rebels who had taken him in. Then… Sam. Gray. Finn. Ellis. Vera. He’d left them. He’d left them without protection, to go suffer in Sam’s place. Now he was locked away in a basement somewhere, a plaything for a monster. I’m going to die in this room and then he’ll go after Sam. He hated the tempting pull towards death that offered him peace. As long as I’m alive, I’ll suffer. He hung his head. But as long as I’m alive, Sam and the rest are safe. I keep them safe by staying alive.
He crawled to the corner of the room farthest away from the door and slumped to the floor, his body aching with every movement. He curled in on himself, trying to push the sobs down. He’d never felt so alone in his life. He shivered against the cold cement floor.
Mercifully, unbelievably, he fell asleep. He drifted for a long time. Sometimes he dreamed, sometimes he just disappeared into his own mind. Pain moved underneath the blackness like magma under the earth. He whimpered in his sleep.
Far too soon, the door swung open again. Isaac was awake in an instant, shooting upright and moaning as pain shot through all his wounds. He threw his hands in front of him.
Gavin smiled. “Aw, you’re awake already! Have a good nap?” Isaac glared at him. “Enjoying the memories I dug up?” Gavin snorted. “I, for one, would think you’d appreciate the time alone with your thoughts. At least I’m not torturing you then, right?” He wiggled his eyebrows as if he could read Isaac’s mind. The thoughts you pulled out of my mind are torture.
Leo didn’t approach, but stood behind Gavin with his hands behind his back. Isaac watched Gavin for a moment, measuring his intent, waiting for him to move in and hurt him.
Gavin stared straight at Isaac and said, smoothly, “get on your knees and face the wall.”
Isaac paled. “Why?”
Gavin threw his hands in the hair, shaking his head. “Does it matter? I feel like blowing off some steam, and you are here in my dungeon available for just that. I’m going to hurt you, dumbass. Does that answer your question?”
Isaac bit his lip, trembling. This is what I’m here for. This is what I’m here to do. He pushed himself up to his knees and turned around.
“Over here.” He turned to look at where Gavin was pointing, across the room.
Slowly, he got to his feet. He wobbled as he came fully upright and leaned against the wall. “Doing ok?” Gavin’s voice was too gleeful. He wrapped his arms around his middle, being careful not to press against the cuts. He staggered the few steps across the room and fell to his knees where Gavin was pointing. He looked down and noticed an anchor loop on the floor in front of him. He whimpered.
Leo moved at last, stepping out from behind Gavin and pulling a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. He snapped one cuff around Isaac’s wrist and passed the other through the anchor loop on the floor before snapping it onto Isaac’s other wrist. Isaac whimpered, pulling weakly against the cuffs.
Gavin crossed the room behind him to the table with all of his tools. He didn’t browse, but went right to the whip. He ran his fingers over the handle before picking it up and weighing it in his hands. Isaac took a shuddering gasp and closed his eyes, turning away.
“I’m really a simple creature, at the end of the day,” Gavin said casually. “Yeah, I’ve got a lot of things over here to choose from, but honestly it’s more for intimidation than anything else. I like what I like. And one of the things I happen to like…” He cracked the whip and Isaac flinched away like it had hit him. “Is a good old-fashioned whipping. Let’s see how long you can take this one.”
Isaac could barely get words out through the sobs. “P-Please, Gavin…not again, I…I c-can’t…”
“I want you to count this time. I did all the work last time. You made it to…um…twenty eight last time? Is that right?” He waited for Isaac’s response. He got none. “I think it was twenty eight. But you were fresh then, right? I bet you’re tired. I bet you’re hurting. So we’ll say…I’ll go to twenty-five. Twenty-five lashes. You count.” He approached Isaac from the side, making sure he could see him and the whip. Isaac pulled away. The cuffs tightened around his wrists and he whined softly. Gavin put the handle of the whip under Isaac’s chin and tilted his head up. Isaac met his gaze with eyes wide with terror and pain. “Keep counting…or I start over.” He released Isaac’s chin and walked behind him.
The first lash came without warning. Isaac cried out as the pain crossed the marks already on his back. He gasped, pulling at the handcuffs, waiting for the pain to subside. It didn’t. “Come on, hero,” Gavin mocked. “Count it, or we start from one again.”
“One!” Isaac gasped out.
Another. Isaac screamed. It hurt so much worse than the first time, the whip cutting into the bruises crossing his back. He felt blood begin to ooze down his back. “Two!”
Isaac shook his head frantically. I can’t take it, I can’t do this. He swallowed hard. But I can’t start over. “Three!”
He screamed the word. “Four!”
His chest heaved with sobs. He couldn’t form the word. His lips were numb, his back was on fire. “Ah…”
Gavin’s voice was low and dangerous. “Count, or we start over.”
Isaac pressed his forehead against the wall, shaking violently with the pain. “Six!”
“See, Isaac? This is fun. At least, it’s more fun for me this way.” He laughed.
The whip curled around Isaac to snap against this shoulder. He jumped away, wrists dragging against the handcuffs. He looked at the mark where the whip had touched him. It’s not bleeding. “Seven!”
Isaac gasped desperately. He couldn’t breathe and if he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t count. His head spun sickeningly as the pain flooded his mind. He tried to push it away, tried to push away everything but the next number. “Eight!” He screamed with air he didn’t know he had.
He rocked forward with the blow. He choked on the word. “N-” He wailed, tears pouring down his face.
“Please tell me you can count higher than eight, Isaac.”
“Nine, it’s nine, please…”
He cried out, throat straining. “Ten.”
“There we go. Getting into a rhythm here.”
A scream. “Eleven!”
Isaac gasped. “Please…” he begged. “Please no…”
“Count it, Isaac!” Gavin shouted. “Or we start over from one!”
Helplessly, Isaac sobbed. “Thirteen!”
His mind was blank, flooded with nothing but pain. What number comes next, what number…
“Come on, Isaac, I feel like I’m coaching you or something. Count. Now.”
No no no no… Please, what number…
“Say it or I start over in three…two…”
“Fourteen! It’s fourteen, please don’t…”
Isaac sobbed breathlessly. “No…”
“Come on Isaac, you’re more than halfway through. It would be a shame to start over now.”
The sound that tore out of Isaac was almost inhuman. His mind spun. What was I… “Sixteen!”
“Not even ten more. This isn’t that bad, right?”
Isaac’s breath was frozen in his chest and for a moment he didn’t make a sound.
“Don’t mess up this streak, Isaac.”
Isaac thought he might pass out. The room was spinning. The pain was rising in his back and he thought he might be sick. It was inescapable, unending.
What number comes next.
Isaac’s mouth gaped open in panic. No no no…I can’t, I can’t start over… He cast about in his mind for the number, the damned number, but there was no room in his brain for anything, anything but the pain. His stomach dropped at the thought of an additional twenty-five lashes. I’ll die.
“Guess we start over.”
He lurched forward. “Eighteen!”
Gavin paused. Isaac could hear every heartbeat like they were shaking apart the room. His heart pounded in his chest.
“Ok, I’ll give that to you.”
Isaac screamed, long and broken. His throat was raw. “Nine…” He swallowed. “Nineteen…”
Gavin laughed. “Thought you were going back to nine there for a minute. We can, if you want…”
“No!” Isaac panted. “No, please…”
He sagged against the wall. “Ah…twenty…”
“Last five! Let’s make ‘em count.”
Isaac felt the whip cut into him and a fresh stream of blood run down his back. He leaned against the wall, uncomprehending. He didn’t know how it was possible to be in more pain. His mouth hung open in agony.
“Are you seriously gonna make me start over now? I’ll be honest, Isaac, I’m getting a little tired. This takes effort on my part, too. Have some fucking respect.”
The whip cut him again, across the back of his neck. He moaned. I have to finish this before I pass out. “Twenty-two.”
“Three more. I’m loving this.”
Isaac felt like the scream had been ripped out of his chest. His very bones were on fire. “Twenty-three!”
Sweat poured down Isaac’s back. It ran into his eyes and burned him there, too. It mixed with the tears on his face as he sobbed. “Twenty-four.”
“Last one! This one’s gonna hurt.”
The whip wrapped around him, striking him across the chest. Isaac’s breath rushed out of him in a guttural scream. “Twenty-…five.”
He slumped to the ground, handcuffs pulling his arms out to the side. He was too exhausted to sob. Tears leaked out of his eyes and dripped onto the concrete. His mind was a mess of pain and terror.
He felt a hand on his head and flinched. “No no no…” he whimpered.
Gavin pulled his hand through Isaac’s hair. “Have I mentioned yet today that I love torturing you?” he said fondly. Isaac lay on the floor, shuddering under the touch.
“But…” Gavin’s hand became hard and he yanked Isaac’s head up so he could see his face. Isaac’s eyes were bright and unfocused. “I’m not quite done yet. Hasn’t really…hit the spot. I could go for a bit more.” He dropped Isaac’s head to the floor.
Isaac’s mouth fell open in despair. He couldn’t move from where he lay, couldn’t get up, couldn’t press himself against the wall. A whine rose in his throat.
Gavin let the end of the whip smack against the ground. “Don’t try to hold back for me this time, Isaac. You can scream all you want. I just want to hear you.”
The lash split Isaac’s mind with brilliant agony. He felt his throat go tight and raw again, but he couldn’t hear his screams over the anguish in his mind.
Chapter 18: Kind Restraints
Sam blinked their eyes open. Their gaze moved around the room, settling on things and then moving again, never really focusing. The window. The shelves on the wall. The lamp. The door. The IV running into their arm. They reached for it, touched it with one finger. They followed it up the line to the bag of saline hanging on the wall. They squinted, uncomprehending. They moved their gaze to the figure slumped in the seat next to the bed, arms across their chest, head bent. Sleeping.
Sam opened their mouth to speak. Their voice croaked. Finn raised their head, confused for a moment. Their eyes settled on Sam and they jumped out of the chair.
“Sam.” Their hand went to their face, pushing back their damp hair. “Oh my god, Sam. Your fever’s down.” They reached with a shaking hand for the thermometer on the nightstand and swiped it across their forehead. They mopped their forehead dry and swiped the thermometer again. “Oh my god.” They turned the thermometer around to show Sam. “100.2”
Sam put a hand to their head. “Ugh. What…what happened?”
Finn’s eyebrows pulled together in a look of…guilt? “You got worse. A lot worse. We found some antibiotics for you. How do you feel?”
Sam squeezed their eyes shut for a moment. “Um…like I really have to pee.”
Finn laughed. They sounded so relieved. “Ok. I’ll help you to the bathroom.” They gingerly pulled the blanket off Sam and they swung their legs over the side of the bed. Their head spun for a moment. “Whoa. You ok?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Just a little dizzy.”
Finn disconnected the line from the IV and hung it up from the nail on the wall. Sam slowly placed their feet on the floor and stood up. Finn tucked a hand under their arm and helped them up. Sam wobbled for a moment, stabilized, and began to walk to the bathroom. “How you doing?”
“I feel ok.” Sam looked like they were concentrating hard. “Just a little out of it.”
Finn guided Sam to the door and held back, their hand still on their arm. “You gonna be ok by yourself?”
Sam blushed. “Yeah. I’ll be fine. And, um…”
“I’m kinda…hungry. Is there…soup? Maybe?”
Finn smiled gently. “Hungry’s a good sign. Yeah, I can heat up some soup for you. Holler if you need anything and I’ll hear you.”
“Ok.” Sam closed the door and Finn walked to the kitchen. They reached for a bowl in the cupboard. The house was quiet with only them and Sam in it.
Distractedly, they reached for a can of soup. They didn’t read the table before they peeled off the aluminum lid and dumped it into the bowl. They vaguely noticed the smell of chicken noodle. At least I picked a good flavor. They added water and put the bowl in the microwave.
They looked around the empty safehouse. The blankets were piled in a tangle on the couch. The others had taken all their other belongings when they had-
They shivered. They didn’t want to think about it. Not until it as absolutely necessary.
The beep of the microwave saved them from their thoughts. They pulled the bowl out and stirred it with a spoon they grabbed from a drawer. Their eyes were unfocused, distracted as the steam rose. Finn’s mouth watered. It had been some time since they’d eaten, too. Some time since they’d slept well. Maybe they could sleep after…
No. They shook themselves out of their reverie and carried the bowl to the bedroom. Sam was sitting on the bed, wrapped in the light blanket. They perked up at the sight of the soup. “Chicken noodle. My favorite. Thanks, Finn.” They reached their hands out to take it.
“Would you like to eat in bed, or at the table?”
Sam paused for a moment. “I can…I can eat at the table…” They pushed themselves up off the bed onto their feet again. They swayed for a moment.
Finn hurriedly put the bowl of soup on the nightstand and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Nope. Bed it is.” They guided Sam back until they were sitting upright against the headboard. They handed Sam the soup and sat on the bed next to them as they watched them eat.
Sam devoured the soup, first scooping the chicken, noodles, and vegetables out of the broth and then drinking the broth straight from the bowl. They licked their lips and wiped their mouth with their shirt, wincing a little when they realized how damp it was. They handed the bowl back to Finn. “Thank you.” They looked like they had some color back in their cheeks.
Finn reached out a hand and stroked Sam’s hair. “No problem. How you feeling?”
“Better. Um.” Sam’s face turned a brilliant red. “I…uh…” Finn waited. “The tracker, um…”
“The tracker’s gone?”
Sam nodded. “Yup.”
A smile broke across Finn’s face. “Excellent. That’s a huge weight off our shoulders, huh?”
Sam nodded again. Took a breath. “Where’s everyone else?”
Finn’s eyes grew hard. “They’re…um…”
Sam’s eyebrows rose. “What? Are they ok? Are they in trouble?”
Finn waved a hand. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. They’re fine. They…um…” They looked at their hands, lacing and unlacing their fingers together. “Ellis…made a plan to get Isaac back.”
Sam brightened. “Great! Are we going to rescue him? How can I help? Can I-” They pushed out of bed.
Finn’s hands pushed Sam’s shoulders down. “No. You are staying right here until they get back.”
“No, I want to…let me talk to them, maybe I can help them…”
Finn’s hands wrapped gently around Sam’s wrists. “No. You’re staying put. Don’t make me tie you down.” Their lips quirked up into a smile.
Sam stiffened. Fuck. Finn pulled their hands back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…I didn’t mean that…”
Sam’s eyes filled with tears. “I know…I know you didn’t. You were joking. I know.” Their lips quivered. They sagged slightly, some of the pain returning to their face. “I’m sorry…this is my fault…”
Finn reached for Sam’s hand and clasped it between their own. “Nobody blames you, Sam. I should have…” They bit their lip. “We should have protected you. And…I should have…kept better watch over you. I should have made sure you were ok. You got so sick, so fast, I couldn’t…”
Sam covered Finn’s hands with theirs. “No…” They fixed Finn with their wide eyes. “Please don’t blame yourself.”
Finn took a breath and blew it out between their lips. “Ellis…and the others…they’ll be here soon to pick us up. They’ll take us to the next place for a while.”
“‘Next place’? Why are they gone? What are they doing? Finn…” They licked their cracked lips. “What’s going on? How are we going to get Isaac back?”
Finn stared at the bedspread as they spoke. Their voice was low, robotic. “We know of one of Gavin’s lieutenants who lives nearby. He’s in charge of…something or other. I don’t know. The others left to…take him…and…” They shook their head. “They’re going to take him to an abandoned power plant near here. They’re going to leave him with Vera and Ellis while Gray comes to pick us up in the car.” They spoke as if they had rehearsed it in their head, over and over. It was a good plan. “Gray will take us to them and we’re going to…ask him where Isaac is.”
“…ask him?” Finn slowly raised their eyes to Sam. They looked horrified.
Finn swallowed. “Um. Yeah. We’re going to ask him where we can find Isaac and Gavin. And then we’re going to…call Gavin…his number is on the phone Isaac left…and we’re going to…trade his lieutenant…for Isaac.”
Sam took in a sharp inhale. “You’re going to ransom him?”
“Trade him.” Finn’s voice was hard. “We’re going to trade him. For Isaac. Get Isaac back.”
“And…what if he doesn’t…want to tell you where Isaac is?”
Finn’s lips pressed into a hard line. “We’re going to interrogate him.”
Sam swallowed hard. “You’re going to torture him.”
Finn jerked their head in what must have been a nod. “Yes.”
Sam pulled their hands out of Finn’s grasp. Finn wouldn’t meet their eyes. “And…this was Ellis’ idea?”
Finn slowly raised their gaze to Sam. Tears were pouring down their cheeks as they looked at Finn, disbelieving.
Finn nodded slowly. “Gavin’s syndicate killed their whole family, Sam. And nearly killed them. Isaac is family to them. They…we…are willing to do anything to get him back.”
“Isaac is family to me, too,” they whispered. Finn looked away, guilt painted on their face. “But you would do to someone…what Gavin did to me?”
Finn’s face spasmed. They swallowed hot tears. “What else can we do, Sam?” Their face was hot with desperation. “Tell me what else we can do. Tell me you have a better plan. We’re fighting people who have no qualms. Gavin will never give Isaac back. He will torture him to death if we don’t get him. And…I’d be willing to bet he’d come for you before Isaac’s body was cold.” Sam cringed against the bed. “Gavin is insane. We can’t reason with him. We just have to hope…” They swallowed hard. “We just have to hope this lieutenant means more to him than Isaac does.”
Sam was watching Finn’s face in horror. “I…”
Finn grabbed Sam’s wrist. Their voice was strained with tears. “What would you do, Sam? What would you do to get Isaac back?”
Sam opened their mouth, shaking their head. “I…don’t…”
Finn was crying now, too. “This team is all I have. All any of us have. Isaac…will...d-” Their throat spasmed and they choked. “Isaac will die if we don’t get him back. I can’t…” They shook their head violently. “We can’t let him kill Isaac.” Their voice dropped to a whisper. “I can’t let him kill Isaac.” They grabbed Sam’s hands like they were pleading.
Sam shuddered. Finn pulled their hands back and covered their face, their body heaving with sobs of shame. Sam listened as their voice rose in desperate anguish, shaking in their chair. Sam’s chest began to shake with sobs as they reached out to touch Finn’s shoulder.
Chapter 19: Parting Words Regret
Isaac drifted in and out of awareness. He was conscious…he thought. He could feel the cold cement below him. He could feel the sensation of his wrists not in the handcuffs anymore. He wasn’t restrained at all; it was an almost unfamiliar sensation. He was splayed on his back in the middle of the floor, blood pooling slowly beneath him. It was warm and wet and the smell made him dizzy.
Over it all, almost pushing out every other sensation, was the pain. He trembled as he counted his heartbeats, waiting for the pain to ease. He remained trapped in it, unable to escape to a corner of his mind. Unable to imagine a world, a time, when he had not been in agony.
His eyes were half closed and unfocused. His breaths came ragged and harsh. Every moment hurt, but breathing was torture. Every movement of his lungs pierced him with pain again. Again, and again, with every breath until he thought he would lose his mind.
Gavin had whipped him twelve more times before he decided he was finished. Twelve more times the whip had cut into his back, raising welts that opened up and bled. Eventually he’d stopped begging, stopped pleading for Gavin to stop. He’d stopped pleading for Gavin to kill him. Eventually he just screamed. Then Leo had unlocked the handcuffs from around his wrists and dragged him by one arm to the middle of the room. He’d thrown Isaac onto his back, wrenching another scream from him. Then he’d stepped back into the shadows again, silent as Gavin set crosslegged on the floor and watched Isaac suffer.
Isaac could feel Gavin’s eyes on him, but he didn’t care. There was no room in his mind for it. It was simply another sensation: cold cement, free wrists, warm blood, the eyes of his torturer. Pain. Always pain under that.
Gavin watched Isaac’s chest heave with sobs. He watched as he trembled in every limb, sweat beading on his forehead even though the beating had stopped a while ago. He watched the mouth open in desperate gasps, needing the air and then being torn apart by pain for taking it. He watched the blood oozing onto the floor. Nothing needed to be done about it. It would stop on its own, he knew. He’d been careful.
Then he got bored.
He cleared his throat. “Leo, get him water. And food, please. And electrolytes.” Leo nodded and stalked out the door without a word.
“Wh-” Isaac’s voice broke. He licked his lips. “Why…are you…”
“Why am I giving you water? Feeding you?”
Isaac trembled with the effort to speak. “Please just…let me die. I can’t. If you do that again…I can’t.”
“No can do, boss.” Gavin tsked. “I want you strong and…you know…alive…so I kinda have to feed you. Don’t complain.”
Isaac fell silent, lost in his pain. When Leo came back with water, an electrolyte drink, and a small sandwich, Isaac didn’t stir.
Leo knelt beside Isaac and placed the tray on the ground next to him. Gavin scooted himself over to Isaac and pulled on one arm. “Sit up.” Isaac lay still. “Seriously, get up. Leo, help me…”
Leo came behind Isaac and pulled him up to sitting by his shoulders. Isaac cried out as Leo placed his hands directly onto the lash marks. Leo knelt behind Isaac and braced him against his knee. Isaac whimpered at the pressure on his back. Gavin held out a bottle of water, holding him steady with one hand. Isaac reached for it and stiffened as his wounds protested. His face shone with tears and sweat. His hand extended, shaking. He bit his lip with the effort. Then his pain overcame him and he shuddered, dropping his hand and slumping forward.
“Whoa, whoa.” Gavin straightened him upright with his hands on his shoulders. Isaac sobbed weakly, wordlessly. Gavin pursed his lips. “Get your shit together, Isaac. I’m trying to help you.” Isaac’s eyes rolled in his head. “Fine.” He picked up the bottle of water and opened it. He cradled Isaac’s chin in his palm and held the bottle to his lips. Isaac took one sip, then another. It hurt to swallow. The cool water tasted so good on his tongue. He parted his lips for more, and took in gulps of water. Gavin spilled some in his lap as he took in a gasping breath, then drank more. The bottle emptied quickly. Gavin cracked open the electrolyte drink and held it to Isaac’s lips. Isaac drank deeply, savoring the sweetness on his tongue. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. Or hungry. He pulled away from the bottle to take a breath, and his eyes darted to the sandwich.
Gavin followed his gaze. “Hungry too, huh?” Isaac nodded slowly, too weak to lie. “See if you can hold it.” He held out the sandwich and Isaac strained to take it. His hand dipped as his strength failed. “Jesus. What a big baby.” Gavin shook his head and held the sandwich to Isaac’s mouth. He took the biggest bite he could. Slowly, Gavin fed him the rest of the sandwich, and helped him drink the last of the electrolyte drink. Gavin watched Isaac’s face as he slumped back against Leo. Gavin looked up at Leo. “You can lay him down now. Thanks.” Leo stood up abruptly and Isaac toppled backwards. He grunted as his back hit the floor and his mind was shot through with white-hot pain. He let his eyes close.
He moaned. “No. I can’t. Please.”
“Relax, I just wanna talk.”
Isaac shuddered. There was a rustling of clothing as Gavin moved. Isaac’s eyes went wide with horror as Gavin stepped over him and straddled him, his hips against Isaac’s stomach. He whined at the pressure against the cuts on his abdomen, and the fresh wounds on his back. His hands went up to push against Gavin’s chest. He trembled with the effort and his arms fell back uselessly to the floor. Gavin chuckled.
“Please…” Isaac whispered. “Please, no…”
“Oh, relax. I’m not gonna do anything to you. You don’t believe me?”
Isaac weakly shook his head. “No…”
Gavin snorted. “That’s fair. I’ve been fucking with you this whole time. I understand. This time, though…” He leaned over Isaac and drew an X across his chest, just over his heart. “I promise. No torture. Just chatting.”
Isaac closed his eyes and pressed his lips together. Surrendering.
“I’ve really been enjoying learning about you. I wanna explore this relationship with Sam more, though. Tell me about it. When did you meet them?”
Isaac sighed. It was useless to argue. This is better than him hurting me. I won’t give him anything he can use to find them. “About a year ago.”
Gavin paused. “…kay… Care to elaborate?”
Isaac shook his head helplessly. “They were laying low, trying to stay out of the way of the syndi- of your people. They were doing well. Staying with safe people, traveling in large groups, staying out of contentious cities… But…they…” He blinked tears out of his eyes as he thought of Sam when they first met: barely eighteen, terrified, and alone in the world. His heart wrenched to remember. “They were caught in the crossfire of two warring syndicates. Each one thought Sam was working for the other. So…they ran. We found them a few days later. They’d been on the run and were out of supplies and they were huddled in a safehouse begging for food from whoever passed through…” He cleared his throat. “We took them in. Kept them safe. Taught them how to protect themselves.”
“You clearly didn’t do a good job.”
Isaac grimaced, turning his face away from Gavin. “I know,” he whispered.
“I’m confused, though. Why did you have to teach them how to survive? Weren’t they already surviving on their own?”
“Surviving and being on the run from warring syndicates are two very different things.”
Gavin nodded. “Ah. Fair.”
Isaac’s eyebrows pulled together. “You didn’t ask them all this while you had them?”
“Honestly? Not really.” Gavin shrugged. “I was more interested in your team at that point than in their tragic backstory. And they broke so fast…I honestly didn’t get everything out of them that I needed. I was lucky to get what I did.”
Isaac squeezed his eyes shut, trembling. “Damn you.”
Gavin leaned over Isaac, twisting a hand in his hair, pulling his head back and baring his throat. His smile was poisonous. “Why do you love them so much?”
Isaac shook his head, straining away from Gavin’s gaze. Gavin wrapped his hand around Isaac’s throat and forced him to look at him.
“Please…” Isaac grabbed at Gavin’s wrists, but he couldn’t budge his grasp. He shuddered with exhaustion.
“Answer the question, Isaac. Why do you love them so much?”
Isaac began to cry in earnest, tears rolling down the sides of his face and into his hair. Gavin tightened his grasp on his hair and throat. “Because…”
Gavin wrenched his head back harder. “Because?”
Isaac was sobbing. “Because they…are the only person…who loves me…thinks I’m good…believes in me…no matter what…” He swallowed hard. “…I never had to prove it to them. I never…had to provide, had to earn it, they just…love me…for no reason…” He gasped and dissolved into sobs.
“Your team doesn’t love you?” Gavin inspected Isaac’s face closely.
“No, they…they do…” He sniffed. “They love me. I know they do. But…I have to…I have to prove it to them…every day that I…that I deserve it, that I deserve their trust…” He whimpered. “I know if I failed them, if I messed up…they would…they’d stop trusting me…they’d stop loving me…” He couldn’t catch his breath. “They’d reject me…” He gasped. He couldn’t breathe.
Gavin watched in fascination as Isaac spiraled into a panic attack. Gavin turned Isaac’s head back and forth, squeezing his throat, watching the reaction, releasing it. He watched Isaac gasp for air, squirming under him, trying to throw him off, to get free. Gavin smiled. Isaac was so weak. He lay under Gavin’s weight, helpless, thrashing weakly. He clawed uselessly at Gavin’s wrists pinning him down.
Gavin laughed, low in his throat. “That’s why you made this sacrifice. When I broke Sam I made them believe you had failed them. Betrayed them. I made them believe you were going to hurt them. And that…fucking…destroyed you.” He brought his face closer to Isaac until Isaac could feel his breath. “I took the one person in the world who trusts you completely and I ruined it.”
Isaac took a shuddering gasp and sobbed. His eyes were desperate, his mouth pulled open almost into a scream.
Gavin spoke quietly, just loud enough to cut through to Isaac. “And you couldn’t let that happen again, could you? You got them back, I bet as soon as they started to perk up again they threw themselves on you, felt your protection, realized you were there to help…” He chuckled. “I bet they forgave you, took you back in an instant. I bet they blame themselves. Don’t they?” Isaac struggled, breathless. Gavin jerked Isaac’s hair. “Don’t they?”
“Yes,” he gasped.
“Hm.” He smiled. “And you couldn’t stand to see it happen again. You couldn’t stand to hand them over to me, knowing I’d just break them again, and harder. You couldn’t stand knowing I could take them away from you again. You’d rather die. Wouldn’t you?” His hands tightened around his hair in a vicious jerk. “Is that true?”
Isaac tried to nod against the grip Gavin had on his hair.
Isaac clenched his jaw. “I’d rather die.”
“Say the whole thing.”
Isaac sobbed. “I’d rather die than lose Sam’s trust in me again.”
Gavin laughed. “There it is.” His hand softened in Isaac’s hair, but his other hand remained locked around his throat. “Did you at least leave on good terms? Did you share a tearful goodbye?”
Isaac squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his lips together. Gavin’s hand tightened cruelly in his hair. He cried out.
“Isaac, answer the question.”
He whimpered. “We…we didn’t…”
Gavin grinned. “Oh? Tell me about it.”
Isaac stared at the ceiling above Gavin’s head, sobbing helplessly. “They…” He pulled once again at Gavin’s wrists, trying in vain to escape.
Gavin pulled the hand on Isaac’s throat away from his grasp and slapped him across the face, hard. Isaac cried out, shuddering and falling still. Gavin’s hand returned to Isaac’s throat. “Continue.”
“They…” He swallowed hard. “They tried to go to you. Everyone else was asleep. I told them to let me go but they…they got in my way. Threatened to wake the others, make me stay. So I…I grabbed them…” His sob drew out into a whine. “I grabbed…them…I hurt them, I know I did…I kept them from screaming…and they were still so weak so I…just waited for them to pass out…left them there, took the keys…” His mouth pulled open into a choked scream as he remembered it. Shame burned in his chest.
Gavin was smiling wide. “Wow. So the last time you saw them, when you left them forever, you hurt them.”
Isaac nodded, crying hard.
“That’s the last thing they’ll remember of you.” Isaac felt like he was being torn apart from the inside. “The very last time they ever saw you, you were hurting them. Holding them down.” Gavin’s grin pulled bigger, showing his teeth. “Just like I did.”
Isaac whined as he squeezed his eyes shut.
“I wonder what they think of you now.”
“No, I’m serious. I wonder what they think of you. Their hero. You hurt them, then you abandoned them.”
Gavin chuckled. “How do you think they feel about you, now that you’ve betrayed them like that?”
Isaac wept bitterly. “They hate me. I know they do.”
Gavin smiled and nodded at the admission. “Oh, I don’t know if it’s that bad. You really think they hate you?”
“I…I know they d-do. I can’t believe I…after everything you did to them, and I…”
“Not only did you sacrifice your life for them, you sacrificed their trust in you, too. I wonder who they can trust now? I wonder who will keep them safe?”
Isaac thrashed on the floor, sobbing in agony. “Please…”
“I don’t know what you’re begging me for. It’s Sam you should be begging. For forgiveness. I doubt they would, though. You hurt them and they’ll never forget it. Do you understand me?” He pulled Isaac’s face close to his. “Even after you’re long dead, if they live that long, if they can somehow escape me…” His lips slid into a wicked grin. “They will never forget how you hurt them. Never.”
Isaac twisted against Gavin’s grip on his hair. His chest heaved with sobs, long and tortured.
“You should be grateful. They’ll never see you again and I’m doing you a favor. Can you even imagine what they would say to you if they got the chance to see you again? Would they even want you?”
Isaac’s misery was beyond words. Grief tore at his chest, made it difficult to breathe.
Gavin leaned back, releasing his holds on Isaac’s hair and throat. He shook his head pityingly. “You’re a fucking mess, Isaac.” Isaac pulled his arms into himself, shielding his head from blows that weren’t coming. He turned away from Gavin as far as he could with his weight still pressing down on him.
Gavin grabbed Isaac’s hair again and yanked his face towards him again. “Honestly, I feel really bad for you. You gave up your life for someone who hates you. How does that even feel?”
Isaac whimpered. “Don’t…care…”
Gavin blinked. “Say what?”
Isaac weakly shook his head. “Don’t care. Doesn’t matter. They’re safe…they can hate me if they want…but they’re safe…” A whine pulled at his throat painfully.
Gavin smiled, hostility coiling in his eyes like a snake. “Keep telling yourself that, hun. Whatever you need to believe.” He stood up and dusted himself off. “Anyway, I have shit to do. Thanks for the talk. It’s been fun.” He stalked out of the room with Leo in tow, carrying the empty bottles.
Chapter 20: Hand gagging
The man didn’t look scared. His face was pulled into a mask of seething smugness as Ellis paced back and forth in front of him. When Gray walked in carrying Sam, they sighed with relief and went to hug Finn as they walked in behind them. “Thank god. We were worried…” Vera crossed to Sam and Gray, putting a hand on each of their shoulders.
Finn cast their eyes down, avoiding looking at the man tied to a chair. “We’re fine. Just…took a little bit to convince Sam to come with us.”
Ellis looked to Sam as Vera helped Gray set them down against the wall. They were pale, but looking so much better than when they had left. Their gaze was fixed on the captive, eyes wide with horror and fear. Ellis looked back to Finn, caressing their cheek with one hand. “You saved them, Finn. It’ll be ok. This is just the next step. This is how we save Isaac.”
Finn didn’t want to see the coldness that had settled in Ellis’ eyes. They looked down as Ellis pulled their face up. “Hey.” They slowly raised their eyes to Ellis. “I can handle this if you need to go.”
“No,” Finn whispered. “I…need to be here. I need to make sure we get Isaac back.”
“Glad the family reunion’s going so well.” The captive’s voice was sharp with hostility.
Ellis stiffened and slowly turned to look at the captive. “For those of us who just showed up…this is Mark. Gavin’s cousin.”
Finn forced down a gasp. They hadn’t known the lieutenant was a relative. That made this worse. No. It’s better. Gavin will want his cousin back. This helps guarantee Isaac’s return.
Mark looked from teammate to teammate, eyes burning with hatred. Ellis pressed their lips together and crossed their arms over their chest.
“Let me very clear.” A chill raced through Finn. They had never heard Ellis’ voice so full of hate. “This can be a simple process if you let it. It’s entirely up to you. How familiar are you with Gavin’s movements, whereabouts, plans…?”
Mark snorted. “If this is about Gavin, you’re all fucked. He’s going to find you and I’m not going to tell you a damned thing before then.”
Ellis lunged forward and punched the captive squarely in the jaw. He cried out and slumped to the side as Ellis shook out their hand. Vera pulled him upright again without a word. “Apparently I wasn’t clear enough.” Ellis towered over Mark as he moved his jaw from side to side. “I’m trying to make this simple for you but I can make it very complicated if you don’t cooperate. Gavin has one of our people. We want him back. Tell us where to find him, and we’ll make a trade. No one else has to get hurt.”
Mark’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. “Oh, you truly are that stupid. You think you can torture me and hand me over to Gavin and he’ll just…what…let you live?”
Ellis seized a handful of Mark’s hair and yanked his head back. “I have not begun to torture you. Right now we’re having a conversation. Believe me, you will know if I decide I need to torture you.”
Sam whimpered from where they were sitting, across the room. Gray stepped in and put a hand on Ellis’ shoulder. “Ellis.” Their voice was even. “Take a breath.”
Ellis pulled away from Gray’s touch and fixed them with a glare. “Take a step back, Gray. I’m good.”
Gray held Ellis’ gaze for a moment longer, then stepped back. They crossed their arms over their chest. Vera watched Ellis with careful eyes.
Mark’s eyes were fixed on Sam. “Guess not everyone’s on board with this plan, huh? You don’t look too good, buddy. This making you nauseous?” He leaned forward in the chair, arms straining back against the ropes tying his wrists behind him. He grinned at Sam.
Ellis stepped in front of Mark, obscuring his view of Sam. “They are irrelevant. Try to stay on topic.” They swallowed hard. “Tell me where Gavin is keeping Isaac, and this all ends.”
Recognition dawned in Mark’s face and his lips pulled back over his teeth in a wicked grin. “Isaac. Where have I heard that name before? Isaac…” He cocked his head. “Oh, right. Gavin told me about this a few days ago. Some idiot traded himself for one of Gavin’s playthings. I’m guessing…” He leaned around Ellis and pinned Sam down with his gaze. “…that plaything was you.”
Sam cringed back against the wall, crawling backwards on their hands to get away from Mark’s stare. Gray knelt down in front of them, cradling their face in their hands. “If you need to go, we go,” they whispered.
“No,” Sam whispered back, trembling. Their breaths came in gasps. “Have to get Isaac back. Wanna stay here.”
Mark laughed. “Had some time with Gavin, huh? Yeah, he will fuck you up for sure. Did you get in his way? Or was it just for fun?”
“Shut up.” Ellis’ voice was brittle.
“You know what he’s doing to Isaac right now, right? Well…” He threw a glance at Sam. “You do. But have you told them?” He looked at every teammate in turn. “Have you told them what Gavin’s doing to Isaac?” Sam stared at Mark with terrified eyes. “I know what he’s doing. Hell, I’ve helped him do it a few times.”
“Stop.” Vera spoke for the first time. Her hands were squeezed into fists.
Mark looked at her, amused. “Or what?”
She stared him down, a flush rising in her face. “Isaac means very much to us. I’ll let you decide whether it’s a good idea to continue down this road.”
Mark smirked. He turned his gaze back to Sam. Gray was kneeling in front of them, pulling them into their arms. Sam was shaking like a leaf. “I wonder if Gavin’s killed him yet. Sometimes he’ll get bored. Sometimes someone won’t break the way he wants. I’m guessing he enjoyed you. He usually kills his playthings within a few days. There are only so many things you can do to a person before they just-”
Ellis slapped their hand over Mark’s mouth. Their other hand yanked his head back as they leaned into him, tears blurring their vision. “Shut up,” they growled. For the first time, Mark’s eyes betrayed a hint of fear. “Shut the fuck up. Tell us how to get to Isaac right now or we walk out and leave you here forever. You’ll live for three, maybe four days? Maybe all of Gavin’s people are as careless as you, you asshole. We’ll take another one to make the trade. I don’t care. I don’t care how many of you I have to go through. I’m getting Isaac back. You have three seconds to decide whether you stay alive for that process.”
Ellis felt their own tears falling on their hand as they pulled it away from Mark’s mouth. Something deep inside them savored the look of fear that tensed his features.
“Ok.” Mark cleared his throat, forcing a smile across his face again. “I’ll tell you. I’ll make the trade.”
Chapter 21: Slammed into a wall
Gavin threw the door open so hard it banged off the wall, nearly hitting him as he stormed through it. Isaac was huddled in the corner, his blood congealing on the floor from where he had been bleeding hours ago.
Gavin smashed his hand across Isaac’s face. Isaac flew to the side, stunned, raising his hands uselessly to defend himself. Gavin’s grip tightened around his hair as he wrenched him up off the ground. Isaac cried out, grabbing Gavin’s wrists and standing as best he could. Gavin slammed him hard against the wall, forcing a scream from Isaac’s chest as the lash marks broke open and bled again.
“What do you know about this?!” Gavin screamed in his face.
“I don’t know what-”
Gavin threw a vicious backhand across Isaac’s face. “Shut up! My cousin is missing. His post was just a few hours from the safehouse where your team -” His lip curled around the word. “- was hiding out. And I know, I know -” He slammed Isaac’s head back against the wall as he said the word. “- that your people had something to do with it. So what did you do, huh?” One hand wrapped around Isaac’s throat, choking off his air. Tears began to stream down Isaac’s face. “You plan this with them? You figured you’d take Sam’s place, wait a few days, and then snatch my fucking cousin to make a trade? Huh?”
Isaac’s eyes rolled back as he tried to drag in a breath, weakly shaking his head. His mouth gaped open.
Gavin released his throat. As Isaac coughed and gasped for breath, Gavin drilled a punch into his abdomen. Isaac grunted and doubled over. Gavin threw him to the ground. He lay on his back, gasping.
Gavin knelt beside his head and jerked Isaac’s head up, eyes blazing with rage. “You better fucking pray that they want to make a trade and they didn’t just kill him. Because I swear to god if he’s dead, I will tear you apart, do you fucking hear me?”
Isaac sobbed. “I didn’t…I swear, I didn’t plan this…please…”
Gavin threw Isaac’s head back onto the floor and stood up, throwing a kick at Isaac’s back. He screamed, curling in on himself. “I’ll be back as soon as I know who did this,” he spat over his shoulder. “You better fucking hope he doesn’t die. You will die screaming if he does.” He slammed the door behind him. Isaac sobbed in pain and terror.
Chapter 22: Mercy killing
Isaac lay beaten on the ground, wrists bound behind him. He listened distantly to the blood dripping off his back and onto the floor. The seconds ticked by, seconds becoming minutes, minutes becoming hours, hours becoming days. Have I been here for days? I think so. His eyes swam with tears. Had he ever been anywhere else but here?
He heard the door swing slowly open behind him. He whimpered, curling in on himself. I can’t take any more.
His heart stopped in his chest. Sam. He tried to sit up, tried to raise his head to see, but he couldn’t. His limbs felt leaden. Steps approached him slowly. Many pairs of feet. The whole team is here?
He felt a hand on his back and cringed away, crying out softly. The hand moved to his hair, stroking gently through. He melted into the touch. He turned his head towards the person kneeling over him.
“Sam,” he breathed.
They nodded. “And Vera, and Gray, and Finn and Ellis. We’re all here.”
They all knelt around Isaac, gently placing their hands on him. Gray massaged the back of his neck, avoiding the lash mark there. Finn squeezed his calf. Vera grasped his hand, still bound behind him. Ellis stroked their fingertips along his arm.
“I missed you all,” he whispered, weeping.
“We missed you too, Isaac.” Sam ran their fingers through his filthy hair. They looked whole, healthy. “Thank you. Thank you for doing this in my place.”
Isaac gazed up at Sam, tears pouring down his face. “Of course. Anything for you.” He looked around to the others. “For any of you.” His head dropped to the floor. He pulled weakly at the rope binding his wrists. “I’m so tired.” He whimpered. “I hurt and I…I’m so tired…”
“We know you are, Isaac.” Ellis smiled down at him. “You’ve been so brave.”
Isaac leaned into their touch. “Are you here for me? Did you come to get me out?”
Sam’s eyes were sad. “No, Isaac.” Their hand continued to card through Isaac’s hair.
Isaac shivered. “What…” He gazed at Sam, imploring. “Please. Please. It hurts, Sam. Please help me…”
Sam shook their head gently. “Isaac, we can’t save you.” Their eyes scanned his body. “Look at you. You’re too badly damaged. Gavin destroyed you.”
“No…please…” His lips trembled. “Please…don’t leave me here, I don’t think I’ll survive.”
“You won’t, Isaac.” Gray’s voice was gentle. Their fingers worked into the tired muscles of Isaac’s neck. “That’s why we’re here.”
“We don’t want you to suffer anymore, Isaac.” Vera squeezed his bound hand and smiled at him.
“Then please,” he begged, “please, please don’t leave me, please take me with you…” He pulled against the rope. “Please untie me and I…I’ll walk out, you don’t have to carry me…”
“This is the kindest thing we can do for you now.” Finn’s voice was soothing. Their fingers tightened on Isaac’s calf.
Sam pulled a knife from their belt. “No…no…” Isaac sobbed, trembling. Sam bent over and pressed their lips against Isaac’s hair.
“You’re dying, Isaac,” they whispered against his ear. “Gavin will make it hurt. He’ll make you suffer. I want to do it this way. It’ll be a mercy.” Sam’s face betrayed the pain they were in. “Believe me. I know.”
“Please…” Isaac sobbed. One by one, they kissed him. On his cheek, his shoulder, his forehead. Gray ran their fingers down the back of his neck. He shivered. “Please don’t do this…”
Sam eased Isaac’s head into their lap and pressed their lips to his forehead. “I love you, Isaac.”
“Please no…” He closed his eyes as Sam held the knife to his throat. He gasped as he felt the blade cut into his neck, tried to twist away but the knife cut deeper. He choked as blood poured into Sam’s lap, staining their pants and spilling across the floor. Tears wet his cheeks as he pulled weakly against the rope around his wrists. He shuddered and continued to bleed.
Chapter 23: Hostage video
Isaac woke with a scream, his hand flying to his throat. He winced as his back and chest flared with pain. He erupted into sobs. They weren’t here. He pressed his face into his hands to try to muffle the noise he was making. They weren’t here. They wouldn’t kill me. He trembled. They wouldn’t kill me. His mind swam with pain. I don’t think they would kill me.
He pushed himself up into a sitting position and froze as he heard raised voices coming from beyond the door. He pressed himself into the corner, as far away from the door as he could get. The door flew open and Gavin stepped through, his eyes fixing immediately on Isaac. Leo followed quickly behind. Gavin threw the bag he was carrying to the ground and crossed the room in three strides. His hand closed around Isaac’s hair and he heaved him out of the corner into the middle of the floor.
Gavin’s hand whipped across his face. Isaac was stunned for a moment as Gavin straddled his chest, pinning his arms under his legs. Both hands went around his neck.
“I was right,” Gavin growled. Isaac whined and tried to twist out of his grasp. “Your people just called me, demanded a trade. Said I’d never see Mark again if I didn’t agree.” He sneered. “Who’d have known they’d be so damned resourceful? Although, you did track me back to my bunker when I had Sam.” He leaned over Isaac, his voice mocking. “They’re still at least five hours away, though. I figure, why not light a fire under their asses? I’ve got nothing better to do until they get here.”
Isaac’s eyes were wide as he frantically shook his head. “No no no…please…”
Gavin’s hands tightened around his throat. “Shut up.” With one hand still around his neck, Gavin pulled his phone out of his back pocket. “Just before I got down here I sent a link to the phone they called me from. The link connects them to a live feed that I am turning on…” He pressed a button on the screen. “Now.” He activated the camera on the front of the phone and spoke into it. “Hey team, Gavin here.” He grinned. “Just spending some quality time here with Isaac. I wouldn’t want you to get bored on that long car ride over here, so I figured I’d provide some entertainment for the drive.” He switched to the rear camera and shoved it into Isaac’s face. “Say hi, Isaac.” He closed his eyes and tried to turn away. “Aw, he’s being shy. Leo…” He passed the phone to Leo, who took it and kept it centered on Isaac.
Gavin released Isaac’s throat and stood up. Desperate, Isaac turned his face towards the camera. “No,” he begged. “Don’t come, please, he’ll hurt you, he won’t let you -” Gavin kicked him in the ribs. He screamed, pressing his face into the ground. Gavin yanked him up by his hair. “I’m ok,” he moaned. “It’s ok, please don’t -”
Gavin threw him again to the ground. “Does he look ok to you?” he mocked, addressing the camera. He dragged Isaac forward on his hands and knees, exposing his back. “We’ve had a lot of good times already. I’ve whipped him a few times, beat him…oh!” He wrapped a hand around his neck. “Check this out!” He tore the gauze away from Isaac’s chest, revealing the mess of cuts underneath. Isaac choked back a cry. “Let’s see, what else have we done…” He loosened his grip on Isaac’s throat and he slumped to the ground. “Oh! I drowned him…thanks, Sam, for spilling the beans on his fear of drowning…” He winked. “I electrocuted him…” He grinned. “Oh, right, I made him think I was going to kill him for not giving me more info on all of you! He didn’t break, though. Take a leaf out of his book, Sam. I guess the title of that book would be, ‘How To Not Betray Your Friends For Fun and Profit.’” He chuckled. “He’s been telling me all about how he doesn’t think you guys care enough about him. It’s been really heartwrenching stuff. Seriously, you should appreciate him more.” He grabbed Isaac’s face and lifted it from the floor, pointing him at the camera. “He’s a really great guy. Loves you all to death. Especially you, Sam. Oh man, the torture he has taken without complaint for you…” He shrugged. “Anyway, I’m not used to having an audience. So I’m gonna just…do my thing… I know you can’t send your own reactions through, since this link is one-way and I have no service for phone calls down here, but I can just…picture it.”
He turned away from the camera towards the table, running his hands back and forth in front of his tools. “What do I want…?” He turned to look over his shoulder. “Hey, Isaac. I can’t decide. Should I whip you again, or -”
Gavin smiled. “…or waterboard you?”
Isaac whimpered. “Please…”
“Make up your mind, Isaac, or I’ll do both.”
“Please…don’t come for me…”
Gavin balked as he realized Isaac wasn’t talking to him. He turned away from the table and approached Isaac. He tried to crawl away from him on his hands and knees. Gavin held out a hand to Leo. “Leo, do you still have your handcuffs? I’m not fond of the idea of him roaming about.”
“Sure thing.” Leo pulled the cuffs out of his pocket and dropped them into Gavin’s hand, still keeping the camera trained on Isaac.
“Thanks.” Gavin bent over and pulled at Isaac’s arms, snapping the cuffs onto his wrists. Gavin went to the wall and lowered a chain over him until it was almost touching the ground. He clipped the handcuffs into the hook dangling from the end of the chain and pulled, lifting Isaac from the floor by his wrists. He groaned as it stretched his arms up over his head, pulling him up onto his knees. Gavin stopped pulling on the chain, leaving Isaac kneeling. He shuddered from the effort of trying to stand to take the weight off his wrists. He could barely raise his head.
“Choose one, Isaac.” Gavin sounded almost bored. “Choose or I do both. Whipping or waterboarding. What will it be?”
“Please,” Isaac begged to the camera. “Please stay away, please…don’t come for me…please…he’ll kill you…”
Gavin shrugged. “Waterboarding first, then.” He pawed through the bag he had brought and pulled out some water bottles and a washcloth. He poured water over the cloth, soaking it through.
Isaac’s pleas rose in pitch as he struggled against the cuffs. “Please,” he sobbed. “Please don’t come, I’m not…” He pressed his lips together.
Gavin paused, momentarily forgetting the cloth in his hand. “You’re not what, Isaac?” Isaac shook his head. Gavin grabbed his hair and yanked his head back. “You’re not what?” His smile was too wide. “Suit yourself.” He slapped the soaked washcloth over Isaac’s nose and mouth.
He panicked immediately, trashing against the hand in his hair. “Something really interesting,” Gavin taunted over Isaac’s desperate gasps, “is that I don’t even have to pour water over this for you to feel the effects.” He let Isaac try to drag in one more tortured breath before he let him up. Isaac coughed and gasped, eyes wide with panic. “Now, you were saying something. You’re not what?”
Isaac sobbed and gasped out, “worth it.”
Gavin’s mouth fell open as he threw his head back in a peal of laughter. “Oh, that was good. Say it again, say it again. I want to make sure nobody missed that.”
Isaac squeezed his eyes shut and hung his head. Gavin grabbed his hair and yanked his face up with a ferocious jerk. “Say it again.”
His chest heaved with sobs. “I’m not, I’m not worth it. Please just leave me here. Don’t come for me.”
Gavin laughed. “God, this is so much fun. I should have thought of the link sooner.” He waved. “Hey there, cuz. Hope they’re treating you well. For their own sake.” He turned back to Isaac. “Let’s continue, shall we?”
Gavin put the cloth over Isaac’s face and pulled his head back again. With his other hand, he slowly poured the water over Isaac’s face.
Isaac stiffened into a full-body spasm as he pulled against Gavin’s hold. His scream was cut off with a choke. He strained against the handcuffs, trying to stand to give himself leverage against Gavin. He tried to duck his head but Gavin kept it back, holding Isaac’s head against his chest to keep him steady. Gavin let go and he pitched forward with a shudder. He coughed water out of his throat and dragged in a desperate gasp.
Gavin’s hand was in his hair again, stroking it almost gently. “What do you think?” He smiled. “Worse than drowning? Better? I’ve heard it feels pretty similar.”
Isaac sobbed, sagging against the handcuffs. His cheeks were wet with tears and water. Gavin pulled his shirt away from his chest and laughed. “You got me all wet, Isaac. Still, I prefer this to drowning you. It’s more…I don’t know, intimate? I can see your eyes as you fight. It’s good stuff. Again?”
Isaac violently shook his head. Gavin pulled his head back and began to pour the water on his face again. His body shook with panic and strain. When Gavin let him up again his chest heaved with each breath. They were coming too fast.
Again. Isaac screamed as the cloth covered his mouth until the sound was drowned by the water. His eyes rolled back as he convulsed mindlessly, fighting the sensation, trapped in it.
Gavin released him. He couldn’t slow his breathing down enough to get a proper breath in. He was getting dizzy. His head lolled as he sobbed.
Gavin walked in front of him and pulled his head up. His eyes were wide and unfocused. Gavin tsked disapprovingly. “You having another panic attack?” Isaac desperately drew in a breath, nodding violently. Gavin sighed. “Ok. We’ll take a pause on that. If you pass out it’s no fun.”
Isaac sagged with relief as Gavin threw the washcloth into the corner with a wet smack. He willed himself to slow down his breaths. His throat kept spasming from the water he’d inhaled. He gagged and shuddered. Slowly, slowly, he was able to take a breath that properly filled his lungs. He opened his eyes to see the camera in his face. He hung his head.
“No,” he moaned. “Don’t do this. Stay away from here, don’t do this…”
He shuddered as he heard the now-familiar slap of the whip against the floor. He cringed into himself, a sob tearing out of his throat.
“Beg them to come for you, Isaac.”
He shook his head, gasping and coughing between his sobs. “No, no no no…”
“Beg them to come for you, and this ends.”
He wailed helplessly. “I can’t, I can’t, please…”
The first lash tore him open from right shoulder to left hip. He screamed against his arm, dizzy with agony.
“Oops. That was a little deeper than I meant it to be. Sorry.”
His throat was raw with his next scream.
“Do it, Isaac. Beg them to come for you.”
“No no no, please…”
Another scream. He looked at the camera with streaming eyes. “Don’t do it, please don’t do it…”
His head spun uselessly as he bit his tongue, trying to bite back the scream. A strangled cry tore from him.
His scream was long and tortured.
“I can do this all day, Isaac.”
He gasped desperately. “Stop! Stop, please, I can’t…”
“No! God, please, no…”
“It’s not me you should be begging, Isaac. It’s them.”
“No no no no no no -”
“Scream for them, Isaac.”
He sobbed wordlessly.
Isaac whited out for a moment, forgetting where he was. His eyes rolled in his head.
“This is pretty easy, Isaac. Beg for them to come for you and I stop this.”
“Please!” he screamed, looking at the camera. Gavin paused for a moment. He walked around to Isaac’s front and pulled his head up. His face was wet with tears and sweat.
“What was that?” Gavin was grinning.
Isaac sobbed. “Please…”
“Please…just…just kill me, please, I can’t…”
Gavin’s face fell. “You weren’t begging them? That’s goddamn disappointing.”
Isaac weakly shook his head. “I can’t let them die, I can’t let you have them but…please…I can’t do this…please just kill me, I just want…”
Gavin released Isaac’s head. It slumped to his chest. His mouth hung open as he sobbed. Gavin sat back on his heels and looked at Isaac, a smile plastered to his face. “I’m wondering,” he said, his voice low, “if they would even listen to you if I could make you beg.” He turned over his shoulder to address the camera. “Would you? I mean, you’ve gotten this far, you have my cousin…” His lip curled. He turned back to Isaac. “Have you considered, Isaac, that you actually do mean a lot to them?”
Isaac sagged against the handcuffs, barely able to breathe through the agony.
Gavin smiled up at him. “Do you think you’ve earned their love now? I mean, look at you…” He motioned up and down Isaac’s body with his hand. “Look at what you’ve taken for them. What you’ve taken for Sam.” He grinned, looking at the camera. “Hey Sam, do you forgive him? Do you forgive him for hurting you and abandoning you?” He laughed. “Do all of you forgive him for abandoning you? Leaving you vulnerable?” He shook his head and playfully slapped Isaac across the face. He didn’t respond. “Has he suffered enough for you to love him now? Or are you mad at him for making this stupid decision?” He leered at the camera. “If he’d just let me have Sam, this whole thing would have been so much easier.” He shrugged. “Oh, well. This did turn out to be a lot of fun.”
He stood up, wiping his hands on his pants. “Well, I’m gonna get back to it. If I only have a few more hours with Isaac, I’m gonna make them count.” He guided Isaac’s face up. “What do you think? You ready to keep going?” Isaac moaned, his face contorting with agony. Gavin smiled. “Sweet.” He let Isaac’s head fall.
I wasn't planning on adding this chapter, but a few people asked to see the hostage video from the team's point of view. Here's what I whipped up.
“So you’ll do the trade?” Ellis’s voice was hard as their fingers tightened on the phone.
A low laugh. “Yeah, I’ll do the trade. Let me hear from him. I need to know he’s still alive.”
Ellis tore the tape from Mark’s mouth and held the phone close to his face. “Say something.”
Mark sneered. “I’m here, Gavin.”
Ellis slapped the tape back over his mouth and stepped away from where he was still sitting in the chair, hands bound. “There. He’s alive.”
A sigh. “When should I expect you?”
Ellis’s jaw flexed. “A little more than five hours. Be ready with Isaac or you’ll never see your cousin again.”
“Can’t wait.” Gavin hung up.
Ellis squeezed their eyes shut, tapping the phone against their forehead. They drew in a deep breath, let it out. They turned to see their team all watching them intently. “It’s happening. Let’s go.”
Everyone seemed to let out a breath.
“He really agreed?” Sam’s voice was shaking.
Ellis blew out a steady breath. “Yeah. He agreed. Let’s get moving. I don’t want to leave Isaac with him any longer than we absolutely have to.” They turned to Mark and reached out, grabbing him by the shirt. “Get your ass up. Try anything and I swear to god…” Mark laughed past the tape and shook his head. He stood and started to move. Vera fell in beside him and Finn walked behind him. Gray held a hand out to Sam, still slumped on the wall.
“I’m ok,” they whispered, pushing themselves painfully to their feet. “The antibiotics are working. I’m feeling better.”
Gray wrapped their arm around their shoulders. “Ok. Just let me know if you feel like you can’t make it, and I’ll carry you. No problem.” They both followed the team out of the room, down the hall, and out of the building.
They blinked at the sun in their eyes. As they approached the car, Mark snorted. “Shotgun.”
Ellis glared at him as they opened the trunk of the car. Mark’s face fell a little as he climbed in. As Ellis slammed the lid down, the phone in their pocket buzzed. They pulled it out and opened the notification.
Vera looked up. “What is it?”
A chill ran down Ellis’s spine. “I don’t know. I got it from Gavin’s number.”
Gray leaned into Ellis, trying to look over their shoulder. “But what is it?”
“It’s…it’s a link.” Ellis’s hand shook as they tapped it. It opened to a blank screen with a small circle spinning slowly above the words please wait.
Finn swallowed hard. “That’s from Gavin?” Ellis nodded slowly.
“What does it mean?” Sam’s voice was strained with dread.
Abruptly the link loaded and Gavin’s face filled up the screen.
Sam gasped and jumped away like Ellis was holding a snake. Their eyes were fixed on the phone as they dragged in panicked gasps. Gray pulled them into their arms as Gavin began to speak.
“Hey team, Gavin here. Just spending some quality time here with Isaac. I wouldn’t want you to get bored on that long car ride over here, so I figured I’d provide some entertainment for the drive.”
The screen went black for a moment and Isaac’s face appeared. Vera let out a scream as her hands flew to her mouth. Gray cringed back, holding Sam tighter in their arms as Sam began to sob.
“Say hi, Isaac.”
“No,” Finn breathed as Isaac turned away from the screen. Gavin’s hand was wrapped tight around his throat. His face was ragged and drawn with pain. His lips were cracked, his eyes raw from crying. Red marked his cheek in the clear pattern of a handprint.
“Aw, he’s being shy. Leo…”
The camera jostled as Gavin handed it off to whoever else was in the room. The image zoomed out until Isaac’s whole body filled it.
Gavin was straddling Isaac, his legs pinning Isaac’s chest and arms to the floor. The team watched in horror as Gavin stood, revealing a mess of gauze and tape on his chest and abdomen. Isaac rolled to the side, his eyes fixed on the camera in hollow desperation…
“No. Don’t come, please, he’ll hurt you, he won’t let you -”
Gavin kicked him viciously in the ribs and he cringed onto his side, pressing his face into the floor as he screamed. The air rushed out of Sam’s chest like they’d been kicked, too. They watched as Gavin dragged Isaac up by his hair, showing his bandages more clearly.
“I’m ok. It’s ok, please don’t -”
Finn hung on Ellis’s arm as Gavin threw Isaac to the ground in front of him.
“Does he look ok to you?”
He dragged Isaac forward and the team gasped at the sight of his back. Angry purple bruises and bleeding welts crisscrossed his back.
“We’ve had a lot of good times already. I’ve whipped him a few times, beat him…oh!”
A cry rose from Sam’s throat as Gavin wrapped a hand around Isaac’s neck, wrenching him up and tearing the gauze and tape away from his chest.
“Check this out!”
Sam gaped at the screen as Gavin revealed the mess of cuts across Isaac’s chest and abdomen, tearing a tortured scream from him.
“Let’s see, what else have we done…”
Isaac slumped to the ground as Gavin released his throat. Vera was weeping softly.
“Oh! I drowned him…thanks, Sam, for spilling the beans on his fear of drowning…”
Sam slipped out of Gray’s arms and fell to their knees with a scream, nearly drowning out what Gavin was saying next. “No…” they wailed. Gray tried to pull them back up into their arms but Sam was inconsolable, hands pressed against their mouth, unable to look away from the screen Ellis was clutching in their shaking hands. “I…I told him about that, that’s my fault, no…”
Ellis’s hand shot out and grabbed Sam’s shoulder, their eyes still fixed on the phone.
“…I made him think I was going to kill him for not giving me more info on all of you! He didn’t break, though. Take a leaf out of his book, Sam. I guess the title of that book would be, ‘How To Not Betray Your Friends For Fun and Profit’. He’s been telling me all about how he doesn’t think you guys care enough about him. It’s been really heartwrenching stuff. Seriously, you should appreciate him more.”
Sam cowered on their knees from the words, incoherent wails pouring from between their hands. Finn’s mouth was open in a silent scream of despair. Vera wobbled once and stumbled against Gray. They held each other as their faces burned with tears.
Gavin pulled Isaac’s face up and pointed it at the camera. They could see how lost he was in the agony of what Gavin had been doing to him for the past few days.
“He’s a really great guy. Loves you all to death. Especially you, Sam. Oh man, the torture he has taken without complaint for you… Anyway, I’m not used to having an audience. So I’m gonna just…do my thing… I know you can’t send your own reactions through, since this link is one-way and I have no service for phone calls down here, but I can just…picture it.”
He turned away, moving towards a table the team couldn’t see clearly in the dim light. It broke the spell for a moment.
Ellis pulled their fingers away from the phone, their hand spasming from how tightly they’d been gripping it. Their voice was icy. “We have to go. We have to go right now. We can’t let him do this.” They lurched towards the car, thrusting the phone into Finn’s fumbling hands.
Everyone stood frozen for a moment.
“Hey, Isaac. I can’t decide. Should I whip you again, or -”
“…or waterboard you?”
“Make up your mind, Isaac, or I’ll do both.”
“Please…don’t come for me…”
Ellis’s body convulsed as if they were going to be sick. “Come on!” they shouted. “We’re going!”
Finn tripped forward to the passenger seat. Vera walked to the back on shaking legs. Gray lifted Sam from the dusty concrete of the parking lot. They were limp in their arms, weeping bitterly. Gray eased them into the middle back seat and climbed in after them. The door wasn’t fully closed before Ellis turned on the car and slammed the accelerator.
Finn held the phone in numb hands so everyone in the back seat could see. Ellis kept their eyes firmly on the road, tears of rage pouring down their face. They angrily scrubbed their nose with their sleeve.
Gavin had handcuffed Isaac and was pulling him to his knees with a chain clipped to the cuffs. Vera bit her lip as Isaac’s injuries were displayed for them, rivulets of blood running from some of the cuts and lashes. Gray’s arms were wrapped tightly around Sam like they would fly apart if they didn’t have something to hold on to. They watched as Isaac gasped in agony, trying to lift his head.
“Choose one, Isaac. Choose or I do both. Whipping or waterboarding. What will it be?”
His eyes bored into the camera, bright with pain.
“Please stay away, please…don’t come for me…please…he’ll kill you…”
“Waterboarding first, then.”
“No!” Sam lurched forward, hands outstretched like Gavin could hear and obey their plea. “No no no…”
“Please. Please don’t come, I’m not…”
“You’re not what, Isaac?”
Finn felt like their eyes would melt out of their head as Gavin jerked Isaac’s head back by his hair.
“You’re not what?” A pause. “Suit yourself.”
The sound of Isaac’s choked scream cut through them all like a knife. Ellis’s hands jerked on the steering wheel. He gasped wetly through the soaked washcloth. Sam sobbed desperately.
“Something really interesting is that I don’t even have to pour water over this for you to feel the effects.”
Gavin finally let Isaac up. Gray and Vera took in the breath they didn’t know they were holding as Isaac gasped for air.
“Now, you were saying something. You’re not what?”
“No,” keened Sam. “I can’t, I can’t I can’t I can’t.” They pressed their hands against their face and sobbed against Gray’s shirt.
“We can’t stop watching, Sam.” Vera’s voice was hollow and haunted.
They turned their eyes to her, desperation making them wild. “Why?”
She pressed her lips together as she slowly turned to look at Sam. “We need to know if Gavin kills him.”
Chapter 25: No-holds-barred beatdown
Isaac could barely keep upright. Gavin had him on his knees with his hands tied behind him. Gagged. The world swam unsettlingly around him and his head spun. He hadn’t been able to remain standing during the elevator ride up to the ground floor where Gavin was going to meet the team and make the trade. He’d fallen to his knees, bracing his head against the wall of the elevator. Leo had bent down to pull him back to his feet when Gavin had stopped him. “I like him like that.” He’d had a sick smile on his face.
Every fiber of his being was in agony. After Gavin had gotten bored with the whip (after another fifteen lashes) he had let Isaac down and taken the knife to him again. This time, Gavin had heated the flat of the blade up over a lighter and pressed it to Isaac’s flesh again and again, one burn right next to the other, down the length of his arms. He had held him to the floor, pouring water slowly over his face, not enough to drown him but enough to make him frenzied with panic. During it all, especially the last hour, he’d whispered in his ear that his team was coming to get him. Rescue him. “If you just scream to them, beg them to help you, I’ll stop this. Why won’t you beg, Isaac? Are you ashamed to ask for help? Or are you afraid they won’t come if you do? Come on, Isaac, stop screaming and beg.”
He trembled as tears ran down his face into the gag. They’re coming for me and Gavin’s going to kill them. They’re going to die and it’ll be my fault.
He had begged in the end. Gavin had shoved him to the floor and pressed his hand against Isaac’s back, marking his hand with his blood in intersecting stripes. He’d pinned Isaac to the floor as he dripped rubbing alcohol over his wounds. Isaac had screamed, whiting out from the pain, before he’d wailed “please, please come, please make him stop this…” Gavin had straightened up and wiped his hand on his pants, grinning from ear to ear. His wounds continued to burn from the alcohol and he found no relief.
He swayed, falling against Gavin’s legs. Gavin nudged him upright. “Whoa. Personal bubble.” He grinned down at Isaac. His eyes were half closed as he sobbed weakly through the gag. Gavin checked his watch. “Tristan said five minutes. It’s been six. What the fuck -” He stopped short as the door opened.
Isaac dragged his head up as the team appeared one by one through the door. His eyes fell on Ellis as they dragged another man into the room, his hands tied behind his back. He looked vaguely like Gavin, maybe a few years older. His cousin. Ellis’ gaze found Isaac immediately and their eyes went cold with fury. Finn was right behind them. They froze for a moment, their eyes sweeping Isaac’s injuries. He saw the controlled look in their eyes they got when they were treating someone. They think they’re going to save me. They think I’m going to be their patient. Vera’s hand flew to her mouth and she gasped as soon as she walked in. Her eyes filled with tears as she reached her hand back for Gray. Gray was last through the door, Sam tucked firmly under their arm and supported by their grip.
“Isaac!” Sam cried out and rushed towards him.
“No!” Finn reached out and clamped their hand down on their arm. Sam sobbed as Finn pulled them back into their embrace, holding them upright as they trembled. “Not yet. Not until we have him back.” They ran a hand through Sam’s hair, cradling their face.
Isaac’s eyes were fixed on Sam as he shook his head and sobbed. No. Please. He’ll kill you. He tried to plead with his team to turn around, go, leave him there, but the gag muffled his words. Gavin laughed.
“Oh, that was as dramatic as I was hoping.” Sam stiffened at the sound of his voice and their gaze snapped to him. They shuddered and Finn moved in front of them, obscuring them from Gavin’s view. “Leo, get the door, will you?” Leo moved from Gavin’s side and stalked around the team, closing the door and standing in front of it. The team warily moved further into the room along the wall, keeping Leo in their field of vision.
Gavin smiled at Mark. “How you doin’, cuz?”
Mark smirked. “Fine. They’re harmless, really. It would be cute if this whole thing hadn’t been so fucking inconvenient.”
Gavin sighed. “Sorry about that. I’ve been having the time of my life. Sorry you had to get dragged into it.” He turned to the team. “Let’s do this.” He held out his hand. “Give me back my cousin.”
Ellis’ hand tightened on the collar of Mark’s shirt and their eyes narrowed. “Not a fucking chance. Give us Isaac. Then you get Mark back.”
Gavin laughed. “Ok. Isaac, stand up and walk over to them. We’re making a trade and you’re kinda holding us up.”
Isaac moaned in despair. He got to one knee, shivering an agony. Sweat beaded on his skin as he tried to stand. Tears of frustration burned in his eyes.
“Come on, Isaac.” Gavin made a let’s-speed-this-up motion with his hand. “Waiting on you. Go join your team over there.”
“Let us help him.” Vera’s voice was thick with tears. She pressed her hands together as she watched him struggle.
Gavin grinned as he eyed the team. “You really want him back?” His hand made a fist in Isaac’s hair and he yanked his head back, staring down at his eyes as he smiled. “I mean, look at him. What use do you have for him in this state?” He released his hair and kicked him to the floor.
Sam lunged against Finn’s hold and cried out, drowning out Isaac’s grunt as he came down hard on his left shoulder. Gavin’s hand closed around his hair and he dragged him backwards away from the team. His legs kicked out uselessly as he tried to escape his grasp. Gavin threw him to the floor and kicked him in the gut. He coughed and curled into himself, trying to protect himself with his hands bound behind him.
Finn was physically dragging Sam backwards as they fought, tears streaming, to get to Isaac. Their eyes were locked on him as he wheezed weakly on the floor.
Gavin turned to them, grinning wide. “Send my cousin over.”
“No.” Ellis jerked Mark backwards a step. “How do we know you’ll let us have Isaac once we do?”
Gavin shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He turned back to Isaac. “Hear that, Isaac?” Isaac moaned from where he lay sprawled on the floor. “They don’t want to send my cousin over. It’s almost like they don’t…” He punched Isaac in the arm, directly over the burns he had made. “…trust me or something.” Isaac screamed. “Which I don’t understand because…” He kicked Isaac in the ribs. He grunted. “…I’ve been nothing but…” A kick to the back. Gavin raised his voice above Isaac’s strangled cry. “…reasonable. I’ve only demanded you hold up your end of the deal you made, and they went back on it.” He dragged Isaac upright by his hair and punched him, sending a spray of blood from his nose as he fell back to the floor.
“No!” Gray’s voice was raw with tension. Eyes streaming over his bleeding nose, Isaac fixed them with a look, begging them not to break rank.
Gavin turned to survey the team. “What? We had an agreement, and you…” He kicked Isaac in the ribs and heard something snap. Isaac’s eyes rolled back as he shuddered with agony. “…tried to intervene. Isaac was happy to take Sam’s place.” He focused on Sam. “How are you, by the way? Doing ok? Have any nightmares recently?” Sam went rigid as their face went pale. Vera pulled them behind her and spread her arms in front of them, putting herself and Finn between them and Gavin. Gavin looked around her, trying to find Sam’s eyes. “What? I’m just curious. They obviously failed to kill you and I’m curious as to how things have gone for them since then.” He grinned. “Wanna trade places with Isaac again? We could make this a thing, like a back-and-forth deal.” He punched Isaac in his side. He jerked, mouth pulled open into a silent scream. “Uh oh. Might have broken him.” He looked back up at the team. “You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you Sam?” He kicked Isaac in the back. Isaac moaned weakly.
“Stop!” Gavin looked up to see Ellis holding a knife to Mark’s throat. He saw a flicker of fear in his cousins eyes as Ellis stared him down ferociously. “Stop or I cut his throat, right now.”
Gavin smiled. “Oh, really? I think you’re bluffing. I don’t think you’ll do it.”
Ellis’ hand shook and they hesitated, just for a moment. Leo lunged at them and twisted their arm, wrestling the knife out of their grasp. “No!” Ellis clutched at Mark’s arm.
Leo’s hand closed around Mark’s shirt and he hurled him forward, towards Gavin. Gavin caught him before he fell.
“NOW!” Gavin shouted. The door burst open and five more thugs poured into the room, grabbing the team and wrestling them each to the floor.
“No…” Ellis gasped. Their mouth fell open with a devastated scream. Vera yanked hard against her captor, throwing him to the side as she advanced on Gavin. He had his knife out and pressed to Isaac’s throat before she could reach him. She paused, flinched. In the split second before she could react again, she was wrestled to the ground, her arms pulled behind her and locked into handcuffs like the others.
Gavin cut the rope tying Mark’s hands behind him. He nudged his cousin towards the door and Mark left with a grin.
Through a fog of pain, Isaac watched as his team were pulled up and dragged to the sides of the room. Sam sobbed as they were forced to their knees against the wall, eyes never leaving Isaac. “No…” they wailed. “Isaac, no…”
Isaac gasped around the gag as his nose poured blood onto the floor. At Gavin’s command Leo dragged him out of the center of the room and dropped him in front of Sam. Shaking with each sob, they bent and pressed their forehead against Isaac’s temple, tears falling into his hair. “Go ahead and take that gag off.” Gavin waved at Leo dismissively. Sam flinched away as Leo roughly pulled the cloth gag away from Isaac’s face. He coughed blood out of his mouth. He looked up at Sam, agony straining his features. For a moment, his pain was forgotten and he began to sob at the sight of Sam on their knees, hands cuffed behind them, trembling in terror.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Sam. “I’m so sorry Isaac, we tried to get you, we…we couldn’t leave you here… He was going to kill you, wasn’t he?” It took almost more effort than he had to spare, but he nodded. Sam whined high in their throat, pressing their face into Isaac’s hair. “No no no…Isaac…”
Ellis stared helplessly at Finn as their chest began to heave with panicked breaths. “I’m so sorry,” they whispered. “Finn…I’m so sorry…” Finn’s eyes were wide and unfocused and darted around the room.
Gray pressed their lips together as tears rolled down their face. “It’s gonna be ok.” Their eyes bounced frantically between each member of the team. “Just breathe,” they said to mostly themselves. Vera had fallen completely silent, her eyes wide with horror as her lips moved soundlessly.
Gavin walked slowly in a circle around the room, hands clasped behind him and relaxed. “Thanks, everyone.” He nodded at his entourage. “Everyone can go except Leo and Torren.” The dismissed thugs nodded and walked out. Leo and Torren took stations at opposite corners of the room. Gavin looked down at each team member as he walked past them. Finn continued to hyperventilate as Ellis murmured shakily to them. Ellis looked up to glare at Gavin as he walked past. Vera trembled and closed her eyes, still mouthing silent words. Gray huddled against the wall, avoiding Gavin’s gaze.
Gavin smiled. “So. This is been fun. I’m more than a little bit disappointed that no one saw this coming, but…oh well. I’m sure you were distracted by the video I was sending you.” He raised his hands and began clapping softly in Isaac’s direction. “Bravo, of course, to our star. Couldn’t have done it without you, Isaac. You begging for them at the end there really has but the cherry on top of this whole experience.” Isaac whimpered softly.
“Now. Here’s what I want to know: whose idea was this?” He continued to pace slowly around the room, eyes moving from person to person. “Anyone?” He stopped. “Seriously, no one wants to take credit for this truly idiotic plan?”
“It was my idea.” Ellis’ voice shook. They swallowed hard. Finn’s eyes suddenly focused and they fixed on Ellis, horrified.
“No,” Finn whispered. “Ellis-”
Ellis set their jaw and met Gavin’s eye. “It was me. My idea.” They thrust their chin at Gavin defiantly. “So how about we get on with things, you let everyone else go. This is my fault and has nothing to do with them.”
Gavin snorted. “Oh no no no, Ellis. It’s Ellis, right? You’re shorter than I pictured you. No, I’m not choosing who stays to be tortured. I’m only deciding who goes first.”
Chapter 26: Reopening an old wound
I need to add a content warning for this one. Perhaps you remember me mentioning Ellis's family was gunned down by the syndicates... In this chapter, it's discussed at length. Ellis's two small children were killed in the violence. Nothing is discussed in graphic detail or anything, but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing then please be safe.
Also threats of death, torture, thoughts of suicide. None of these are new if you've read this whole story.
Gavin turned to Torren. "Get them up, please." He pointed at the floor in the middle of the room. "Right there." He turned to Leo. "Get the bag of stuff." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation as Torren grabbed Ellis's arm and dragged them to the center of the room. Ellis yanked against his grasp and Torren threw them to their knees in front of Gavin. Ellis stared him down, jaw locked with hatred as they waited for the pain to come.
"No..." Finn mumbled. They quaked with terror. "Ellis...n-no...no...E-Ellis...no..." Their tongue was sluggish in their mouth.
"It's ok, Finn," Ellis whispered. "It's ok." They never broke eye contact with Gavin.
Leo appeared again, handing Gavin the duffle bag he was carrying. "Perfect, thanks." He set it on the floor next to him and pushed the contents aside, looking for something.
He glanced at Ellis out the corner of his eye. He raised his eyebrows and grinned at their defiant stare. "You seem a little overconfident there, hun. What're you so smug about?"
Ellis didn't answer but simply stared back, loathing twisting their features.
Gavin chuckled to himself. "I always find it funny when people think they can handle the pain at first. Don't get me wrong, it just makes it that much more fun when they break, but it's so...predictable." He pulled a manila envelope from the bag. "Ah, here." He plunged his hand in. "People are so blind to their own weaknesses. It's perpetually fascinating." He pulled a sheaf of photographs from the envelope. "For example." He got down on one knee and placed a photo on the floor on front of Ellis.
Ellis froze, shuddered, swallowed hard. A smiling picture of their husband lay on the floor in front of them. They swallowed, gasped, swallowed again. Then they raised their eyes to Gavin, distilled hatred running cold in their blood.
Gavin laid another picture on the floor, a young child with Ellis's blue eyes and their husband's brown hair. She was frozen in the picture, eyes wide, fixed on the butterfly that sat light as gossamer on her arm. Ellis stared at the photo as it blurred with their tears.
Another photo, this one of a boy in a baseball uniform. He had taken an exaggerated stance with a bat in his hands, pantomiming like he was about to hit a home run. His face was screwed up in mock concentration. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
Another. The four of them together, Christopher's arm around Ellis's waist, Chloe balanced on his hip, Galen standing between them, hugging Ellis's arm as they reached down to hold him close.
Ellis took in a gasping sob, tears pouring down their face and splashing onto the photos. They blinked quickly, trying to clear the tears so they could see. Their eyes moved over the faces of their husband, their children, their dear children whose laughter they could almost hear, they could remember when that photo was taken, they'd been at a friend's house for some company when their friend had said "let me get a picture of you and the kids, they're growing so fast and I haven't seen you in a while"...
Another photo. Older. At a bar with bad lighting, Christopher balanced precariously on Ellis's lap with their lips pressed against his blushing cheek, eyes turned toward the camera with a twinkle in them like a secret...
Gavin smiled. "It was your idea to try to take my family away from me, Ellis. You should have known better. You know exactly how it feels, don't you? To have your family ripped away from you?"
Ellis's voice broke with a sob. "I...wasn't... I wouldn't..." Their eyes were fixed on the pictures.
Gavin ducked into their view and guided their chin up with one hand. "I don't give a fuck if you never intended to hurt him." Ellis's lip trembled.
He put another picture on the floor. A birthday party for Chloe, icing up to her elbows as she sat in her booster seat, delighted. A picture of Galen in his elementary school choir, mouth open in an "O" sound with 20 other students. Christopher standing with Ellis on their wedding day, sharing their first dance. Ellis holding Chloe tenderly in their arms as she reached for their face.
Ellis's body shook with sobs as each photo was placed in front of them. They wailed in agony as memories of their family flashed through their mind.
"It's funny," Gavin whispered. "They've been dead for years, and they still have the power to hurt you." He smiled. "I have to admit, when Sam told me all about what happened to them I didn't know what they were talking about. After all, I was only 17 when they were gunned down. It was my family, though. My 'syndicate', as Isaac calls it." He chuckled. "I made some calls, asked around. They remembered you, vaguely. Your husband stumbled across some of our business while he was out with your kids. That was back when we were trying to stay...ah...discreet. I doubt he even knew what he was seeing. We gunned him down, didn't we. Him and the kids." Ellis was choking, barely able to breathe past the sobs wracking their body. Gavin raised their chin until he could see their eyes. "Didn't we."
Ellis eyes were wild with rage and bitter agony. They wound back and spat directly in Gavin's face. He jumped back, wiping his face with his shirt. Ellis thrust their chin at him, teeth gritted against the pain, as if daring him to hit them.
Gavin laughed. "So eager for punishment."
Ellis trembled, their mouth falling open in a scream of desperation as they stared at their dead family. Their voice trailed off in a wail and then a shuddering, silent sob.
Gavin's hand shot out and grabbed the collar of Ellis's shirt. He dragged them forward, holding a knife under their chin.
Finn cried out from where they were slumped against the wall, lurching forward mindlessly as they saw the knife press against Ellis's throat. They froze as Leo took one step towards them, hand itching for the firearm in his waistband. Their wide eyes turned back to Ellis and they whimpered.
"I don't fucking care if you kill me," they sobbed. "Do it, I don't fucking care..." They trailed off into a whining sob and leaned into the blade. Their eyes were open, blazing and fixed on Gavin's shirt in front of them. Their lips twisted into a macabre smile.
Gavin tsked. "Aw, don't say that. You have a new family now, right? How do you think that makes Finn feel?" Gavin grabbed Ellis's chin and turned their face to Finn. Ellis squeezed their eyes shut at the sight of Finn's terror-stricken and tear stained face. They forced their head back to face Gavin and glared up at him. The knife bobbed against their throat as they swallowed hard.
"P-please," they breathed. "Do it."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Gavin grinned. "To go back to your family. To see them again. It's just not the same with Finn, isn't it? It's tainted by the pain. You were happy and there's that part of you, deep inside, that would trade them to be with your family again."
Ellis trembled, sobbing and leaning harder against the blade. They prayed for it to break their skin, prayed for the feeling of hot blood running down their chest, too fast to be stopped.
Gavin abruptly pulled the knife away. "I could torture you for hours and you wouldn't care," he hissed, his voice thick with mocking. "You'd scream and cry but you'd welcome it. No, I don't have to hurt you to torture you. I just have to hurt your family." His lips slid into a wicked grin.
Ellis's eyes widened. "No..." They shot a horrified look at Finn as Torren stepped up and closed a hand over their upper arm. Ellis lunged at Gavin, ready to rip his throat out with their teeth. Leo's hand closed around their hair and he yanked them back to their knees, pulling their head back and wrapping an arm around their throat. Gray’s body convulsed in a horrified scream and Vera rocked forward, eyes wild with fury. Before she could get to her feet Gavin rounded on her.
"Anyone moves on me and Ellis dies." Leo tightened his arm around Ellis's neck for emphasis. They froze, their mouth falling open as they gagged and choked against his hold. Vera sat back on her heels, shuddering with rage, tears pouring down her cheeks. Gray shook in every limb as they forced themselves to stay on their knees. Sam trembled where they were, eyes fixed on Finn, their body protectively, unconsciously leaning towards Isaac.
Torren threw Finn to the floor between Gavin and Ellis. They fell on their side, crying out as their shoulder hit the ground. They writhed as they tried to roll onto their stomach, legs kicking against the floor in a panic. They groaned as Gavin pressed his knee against the small of their back and leaned.
"Finn, no..." Ellis babbled, almost incoherent. "N-no...Finn...pl-please no no...no...F-Finn no..." They shook their head frantically as Finn looked up at them with abject panic plastered on their face. Finn's breaths were coming faster and faster as Ellis's voice rose.
"I've heard," Gavin said over the sound of Ellis's desperate begging, "that all a medic is, is a pair of hands and a brain and someone to drive the whole package around. Finn is your medic, yes?" He leered at Ellis. "Among other things." His hand closed around the back of their shirt as he dragged them up to sitting, pulling their arms behind them and forcing their hands flat to the floor.
"No no no..." Finn gasped. "No please...no no no no..." Tears poured down their face.
"Torren...?" He stepped forward at Gavin's command, kneeling in front of Finn and taking a fistful of their hair in his hand. He pulled his own knife from his belt and held it under Finn's chin. They jerked their head up in terror, away from the blade. They pulled back but Torren dragged their head forward as they sobbed uncontrollably. They pulled uselessly at the cuffs behind them.
Gavin wrapped his hand around one wrist and dragged it back to the floor. He stepped on the chain linking the cuffs, pinning Finn's hands down. They wailed, eyes fixed on Ellis as Ellis sobbed hard, looking down at them.
"I'm sorry," they gasped. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm so fucking sorry I'm sorry..."
Gavin raised his foot and stomped hard on Finn's left hand. There was a snap.
They keened in anguish, straining hard against the hand in their hair.
"No!" Ellis screamed, throwing themselves forward against Leo's grip. He dragged them backwards, strangling Ellis for just a moment. A whine escaped their throat and they coughed, eyes streaming.
Gavin laughed. "Are you a righty or a lefty, Finn?" They sobbed hard, falling against the knife at their throat. "Eh. I guess it doesn't matter." He stomped hard on their other hand.
Their scream cut through the room, drowning out the team's cries of horror. Finn dragged in a shuddering gasp as Gavin stepped off the handcuffs, arms retracting to bring their hands softly against their back. Their left hand was already swollen and inflamed. They trembled as waves of pain broke over them.
"Now for the brain."
Ellis lurched forward. "No no no, please Gavin no, I'll do anything, please..."
Gavin chuckled. "Aw. They mean a lot to you, don't they?"
"Torture me, not them, please, hurt me, leave them alone, god, please...I...I'll die if you want, please, just...me, not them..."
Finn tried to draw breath, to tell Ellis it was ok, they could take it, but their chest felt rigid with each gasping sob that tore out of them.
"I don't want to completely scramble them," Gavin said conversationally. "I risk killing them, or leaving them some drooling, senseless vegetable. Today I'm just gonna give dear Finn a little concussion. Just a little one. And then another one tomorrow, and another the next day, and another, and another. You're going to notice them change. Slowly. They're going to become different. Their personality will shift. They'll become more aggressive. They'll start to forget things. They'll become confused. Eventually they'll stop being...Finn." Ellis was raging against Leo's hold on them. Gavin turned and flashed a smile at them. "You've already lived through losing your family once. Stands to reason that you can do it again. If I told Torren to cut their throat right here you'd watch them bleed out, they'd die in your arms, and you'd mourn them. You'd scream, cry, rage, and they'd be dead. You'd find a way to move on, just like you did before. Maybe find a new family." Each one of Ellis's sobs tore from them like a scream. "But I can kill Finn, kill their mind, and leave their body walking around like a damned ghost. It might take weeks, or even months. But I guarantee you if I give them a concussion every day, they'll stop being them after a while. Their body would still be with you. I wonder, would that be enough for you? Would you still hold them, love them, kiss them after they didn't know who you are? Even after I've reduced them to some simple, trembling mess, would you be able to resist taking them? It would never be the same. You'd have their body, not their mind. How long would it take before you went crazy from that?"
Ellis was fighting Leo with everything they had, throwing elbows back at him, shrieking like a demon as they raged against his grip. Finn was sobbing still, praying for the pain in their hands to ease. They felt like they might throw up.
"Take the knife away from their throat," Gavin instructed Torren. He tucked the knife away. Before Finn could even flinch, Gavin pulled his arm back and crashed his fist into their temple.
They flew out of Torren's hands and slumped to the ground, convulsing once and lying still.
"No!" Ellis screamed, falling back against Leo's grasp. Finn lay stunned on the floor, eyes slightly open, lips parted. They flinched weakly as Torren dragged them back to their place along the wall and dropped them to the floor. Finn fell like a sack of flour from his grip. Leo let Ellis go at a sign from Gavin. They rushed, half crawling on their knees, to their side and erupted into sobs, leaning over them, needing in their bones to pick them up and cradle them. They pulled unthinkingly at the handcuffs, eyes wide and staring at Finn as they groaned and began to stir. "Finn..." they sobbed. "No...please..."
Gavin savored the sound of their pleas and turned to face the rest of the room, grinning. He rubbed his hands together. "Who's next?"
Chapter 27: Dissociation
“Really, no volunteers?” Gavin chuckled to himself. “Fine.” He pointed at Vera. “It’s Vera, right? You’re up next.”
“No…” Her body tensed as Torren approached her, dragging her to the center of the room. Ellis glanced up from where they were kneeling over Finn, still stretched out on the floor. Tears rolled down their face as Torren forced Vera to her knees in front of Gavin. Gray paled with horror as her eyes fixed on theirs, wide and terrified.
“Vera…” Isaac mumbled, shuddering on the ground as Sam pressed against their legs against his side.
Her breaths came in gasps. “It’s ok it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok,” she murmured to herself. Her eyes were fixed on the floor in front of her as Gavin sauntered in a circle around her, as if he was looking for weak spots. Chinks in the armor.
Gavin smiled as he returned stand in front of her. She kept her eyes fixed firmly on the floor. He reached a hand out to guide her face up. She flinched away at his touch, trembling as she was forced to look at him. She squeezed her eyes shut and counted in her head, one two three four five. Again. One two three four five. Again. One two three four five.
Gavin looked amused as her lips moved silently. “Vera.” She made no indication she had heard him. He knelt, looking at her. “Vera…” He snapped his fingers at her ear. Nothing. “Vera?” She didn’t respond.
His hand whipped across her face. Gray gasped, lurching forward slightly. Their eyes remained fixed on her. She slumped a little to the side, eyes flying open. Her lips kept moving. One two three four five.
Gavin inspected her face carefully. Her eyes were open, but glazed over. Unfocused. His forehead wrinkled as he watched her, waiting for the counting to cease. He pulled her hair back away from her face. She flinched slightly, lips still moving. One two three four five.
“What’re you doing?” He waved his hand in front of her face. Her eyes remained unfocused, staring straight ahead. He pulled her hair back farther as he tilted her head to the side. Thinking.
His eyes dropped to a scar on her throat. He bit his lip, leaning closer, pulling her head back to show more of it. He realized the slight discoloration was a ring of very faint scars, curving along her throat, long-healed. His lips pulled back into a grin. “Someone already broke you in,” he murmured. He stood and walked behind her. He grabbed the cuffs, pulling her arms away from her body. He smiled as he saw more scarring around her wrists, just as old. He dropped her hands against her back and sauntered around in front of her.
He slapped her across the face again. Her mouth fell open into a gasp, but she didn’t cry out. She didn’t make a sound. He laughed softly to himself. “Hm.” He paused a moment, thinking. Then… “Vera…you can speak.”
“Thank you, sir,” she whispered.
Ellis gasped. Their eyes turned from Finn as they lay on the floor, dazed but awake.
“Oh…” Gavin crooned. “Oh, man. There’s a whole slew of shit locked up in that brain of yours, isn’t there, Vera?”
She nodded robotically. “Yes, sir.”
He giggled. “Oooh shit. Oh god.” He rubbed his hands together. “Yes. Oh, fuck yes.” He cleared his throat, composing himself. “Vera, why didn’t you talk when I asked you a question before?”
She shook her head weakly. “Didn’t have permission to, sir.”
Gavin tilted his head. “And what happens when you do something without permission?”
She shuddered. “I…there’s punishment, sir.”
He grinned. “What kind of punishment?”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “…whatever you see fit.” Her voice wobbled. “Sir.”
Gavin let his head fall back as he drank in her words. “Vera, who made you like this?”
A silent sob shook her shoulders. “I…I am not allowed to know his name. Sir.”
“Uh huh. And what happened while you were with him?”
She swallowed hard. “He made me…g-good. Made me obey. Taught me the rules.”
He nodded. “What rules are those?”
She stiffened and began to recite. “Never speak without permission. Only eat or sleep when told to. Never scream unless he lets me. Take all punishments without complaint. Never take off the c-collar. Don’t -”
“Wait wait wait, the collar?”
She nodded. “Yes. He gave me the collar to remind me who I belonged to. So he could chain me down when…he...” She swallowed hard.
“Hm. Was this someone in…a syndicate?” He threw a wink in Isaac’s direction, though his gaze never left Vera. He was transfixed.
“Why did he keep you?”
“Because it made him happy.” Her voice was strained.
“How long did he keep you?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Days? Months? Years?”
“I…I think it was months. Maybe two.”
“And he made you like this?”
Her lips trembled. “I…” She hung her head.
“How long ago was this?”
She was shaking. “Fourteen years.”
“And you’ve carried this around in your head that whole time? And I activated it by…” He raised his hand like he was going to hit her again. She closed her eyes and didn’t flinch away.
He let his hand drop, laughing. He turned to the others. “Have you ever seen her like this?”
Gray’s eyes were wide as tears rolled down their cheeks. Their eyes were fixed on Vera with horror and revulsion. “No,” they whispered. Sam stared and cringed more into themselves. “No…” they whimpered. Finn couldn’t seem to focus on her. Ellis was shaking their head slowly.
Gray heaved a broken sob. “I’m sorry, Vera.” Their voice wavered. “I didn’t know…I had no idea…”
Gavin turned his attention back to Vera. She trembled under his gaze. He gently lifted her face with one hand. “You belong to me now,” he murmured softly. “And we’re going to have so much fun.” He let her head drop and her face shattered into agony. He stood and turned away from her, eyes locked on Sam and Isaac. She shook herself, eyes focusing again. “I can come back to her, though. For now, I have an itch.” He advanced on Sam.
She lurched to her feet and moved towards him. Torren lunged forward, grabbing her arms and pulling her back against him. Her hands were pressed between them both. She fumbled at his pocket. He threw her down against the floor. Her knees hit hard and she cried out softly.
Gavin turned back to Sam and Isaac. “Leo, help me with this.”
Chapter 28: Forced to hurt someone
Sam bleated with terror as Gavin descended on them. They watched with horror as Leo jerked Isaac to his knees and began to drag him to the center of the room. Gavin shook his head. “No…I want to do this with just them.” He leaned down to pull Sam from the floor. “I missed you,” he rasped into their ear. They cringed away, wailing.
Leo dragged Isaac out of the room, with Gavin right behind him dragging Sam. They moved down a hallway to another room that looked just like the first. Leo threw Isaac down to the floor. He gasped weakly, rolling onto his side. Blood dripped of his face onto the floor. Leo pulled him up until he was kneeling and stepped back against the wall.
Gavin forced Sam to their knees in front of Isaac. Turning to Leo, he said, “go back to Torren. Keep them all in line.” He turned his attention back to Sam and Isaac. Leo grunted and left the room.
Tears poured down Sam’s face as they looked at Isaac. He swayed where he was kneeling, wave after wave of agony breaking over him. Every breath hurt. His heart plummeted to the floor as he met Sam’s gaze.
“Isaac,” they sobbed. He pressed his lips together and shook his head. “Isaac…” Sam’s eyes didn’t move from his face. “Did he mean that? Was he telling the truth?” Isaac whined low in his throat, dizzy with pain. “Is it true you don’t think you’re worth saving?”
Isaac began to sob weakly, shoulders shaking with gasps. “Sam…”
“You have to know we love you, Isaac.” Their chest heaved with each sob. “I love you, Isaac, I love you, I’m so sorry, we tried to save you…we…” They wailed weakly. “We couldn’t let you die, I’m so sorry…”
They were cut off with a slap. They gasped, cringing away, biting down hard on their lip to keep the sobs in.
“No,” Isaac moaned. “Gavin, don’t…don’t hurt them…please…”
Gavin laughed. “I’m not going to hurt them, Isaac. Don’t worry. I’m not.” He knelt and pulled Isaac’s head up, gripping his hair. He shuddered. “You are.”
Isaac’s eyes went wide. “No.” He shook his head weakly. “No. I won’t. I…I can’t.”
Gavin pulled his gun from his waistband and pointed it at Isaac’s forehead. “Pretty sure you can.”
“No.” Tears ran down Isaac’s cheeks, making lines in the blood smeared on his face.
“It’s ok, Isaac.” Sam’s voice shook. “It’s ok. You can…you can do it. I can take it.”
Isaac jerked his head side to side. “I…I won’t…” He gritted his teeth and leaned forward against the gun.
“Then you die. Pretty simple.”
Isaac’s jaw locked. “Then I die,” he spat through his teeth.
“Isaac, no!” Sam wailed. “Please, Isaac, hurt me, please, Isaac please!”
Gavin’s lips pulled up into a grin. “Hear that? Sam wants you to hurt them. Do it, Isaac. Give them what they want.”
“I won’t do it!” Isaac screamed, almost falling forward as he pressed his forehead against the barrel of the gun. “Fucking kill me, Gavin, I won’t do it!”
Gavin’s smile grew wider and he pulled the gun away from Isaac’s head. “That wouldn’t be any fun.” Isaac’s chest heaved with each painful breath. Gavin stepped back, behind Sam. He pointed the gun at the back of their head. “Hurt Sam, or I kill them.”
Sam cringed away from the gun, crying out in terror as Gavin gripped their hair and pulled their head back against the barrel. Isaac’s mouth fell open in despair as his eyes fell from Gavin to Sam.
“It’s ok, Isaac.” They trembled as they wept, head pulled back, throat bared, helpless. “Please…”
Isaac pulled hard against the rope around his wrists. He winced as it pulled against the raw skin. “Sam…I can’t…”
Gavin pulled their head back harder. “You really want them to die, then? You really want that to happen?”
Isaac whimpered, adjusting his wrists, tugging against the rope.
“You have five seconds to agree to do this, or you’ll be cleaning Sam’s brains off the floor. I have all six of you now. I won’t cry over one dead Sammy.” He jerked Sam’s head back and they cried out, squeezing their eyes shut as Gavin looked down at them.
“No…” Isaac’s strength was fading as he twisted his wrist and yanked hard. He felt the skin at the base of his thumb begin to tear.
“No no no please…”
Sam forced their eyes open to look at Isaac. He felt a surge of energy though his limbs as he wrenched his wrist hard against the rope. He felt his thumb dislocate as the flesh of his hand tore deep. He screamed as he drew his hand through the rope binding him, blood pouring off his hand and down his back. He lunged at Gavin, forcing the gun away from Sam’s head as Gavin pulled the trigger. Isaac heard the shot, felt it, as he bowled Gavin over. Sam cried out as his weight fell on him.
Isaac roared with fury, drawing his hand back and bringing his fist down hard on Gavin’s face. Gavin pushed clumsily against Isaac’s chest as he raised his fist and punched him again. Over and over he punched him, smashing his fist against Gavin’s face until he felt bone begin to crack. Isaac watched as his blood dripped onto Gavin, falling from his nose and his hand. Blood began to pool on the floor.
He pulled his fist back to strike again and he felt someone press against his side. He paused for a moment, raising his gaze to Sam. Their eyes were wide, terrified. His fist hung frozen above Gavin. Then, slowly, he lowered it. He dissolved into sobs and slumped off Gavin onto the ground. Sam fell to their knees beside Isaac and pressed their face into his chest, taking deep, gasping sobs. Isaac numbly wrapped his arms around them, pressing his ruined hand against their back. He stayed there for a minute with them, rocking them softly, pressing kisses into the top of their head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Sam pulled away, their dark eyes wide. “No, Isaac. I…”
Isaac took a hiccoughing breath as his eyes moved to Gavin, sprawled on the floor, unmoving. He couldn’t tell if the blood smeared on his ruined face was his, or Gavin’s. He watched for a moment and noticed Gavin’s chest rising and falling slowly.
“He’s alive,” he whispered. He shuddered, the adrenaline slowly easing out of his body, leaving him trembling and weak with pain. “See if you can get the keys out of his pocket.”
Sam crouched over Gavin, cuffed hands reaching into his pocket. They pulled out the keys and dropped them in front of Isaac. He reached out with his left hand, handling them clumsily. He didn’t know where the blood was coming from. He quickly unlocked the cuffs from around Sam’s wrists. As the cuffs came away, Sam threw their arms around Isaac, nearly knocking him over. They buried their face into his shoulder, sobbing hard.
“I…he…Isaac…I’m so…” They tried to speak as the sobs ripped through them. Isaac’s tears fell against their shoulder.
“We have to go. We have to go get the others.” Sam pulled away, nodding as they wiped away their tears. Isaac whimpered softly as he tried to drag himself to his feet. Sam stumbled up under his arm, taking his weight as much as they could. They staggered and wrapped their arm firmly around his waist. He whined faintly as their arm pressed against his wounds. He took a moment to steady himself. He nodded. They began to move.
Sam paused for a moment as they felt a steady stream of hot blood run down their back. They pulled Isaac’s arm away from their shoulders, turning it in their hands. Their fingers slipped on the blood that covered his arm. Ice settling in their gut, they found the wound on Isaac’s forearm. The bullet had hit him.
An explosion rocked the building. The door blew open, sending them careening to the floor. Sam cried out as their leg buckled under them. Isaac grunted as the impact forced all the air out of their chest. Sam’s gaze found Isaac’s, their eyes wide with pain and terror.
“What was that?”
Chapter 29: Human shield
Another explosion rocked the building. Sam was flung to the ground again as the shocks rippled through the floor. They screamed wordlessly as they struggled to get their feet under them.
Adrenaline surged through Isaac. "Sam!" he screamed. "Sam get up, getupgetupgetup." Isaac's hands yanked at their clothes, smearing streaks of blood on their shirt. He cried out as his broken right hand scrabbled against Sam. "Come on. Get up." He got a grip on their shirt and shoved them forward through the destroyed door. "Come on, we can't stop."
Sam sobbed as they scrambled to their feet, clutching his arm. Their fingers were clumsy with panic. "Please," they begged. "Isaac…" They tried to limp on their ruined leg, fear propelling them forward as every step made bone crunch on bone.
Isaac drew an arm across his eyes, trying to clear the dust and smoke. He cast his memory back to when he’d first been brought to the complex. Door on the right, elevator to the left. Another door on the right. "I think it's this one!" He shoved his shoulder against it. He dragged Sam down the long corridor that led outside.
Another explosion rocked the corridor.
They both fell to their knees as the door they had just passed through blasted open. As Isaac went down he felt a crushing blow to his left shoulder as a piece of the door crashed into him.
"No," Sam wailed. "Isaac, please, please get up. Please. We have to get out." Their nails scrabbled against his right arm. "Pleasepleaseplease get up."
Groaning, Isaac pushed himself to his feet, his left arm hanging limply at his side. Sweat poured down his face as he tucked Sam under his right arm and staggered towards the double doors at the end of the hallway.
Sam sobbed and choked on the oppressive smoke. They stumbled and almost fell, their leg giving out from under them. "Please," they sobbed, over and over. "Please." Isaac's injured hand clamped down on the collar of their shirt as he dragged them towards the doors. So close. Just a few more steps.
Isaac slammed his hurt shoulder through the doors, his right arm still dragging Sam behind him. He hurled them out the doors ahead of him into the dark, sending them toppling into the dust. He took one faltering step and collapsed to the ground beside them, each breath coming in painful grunts.
"Isaac," Sam whimpered. "Isaac..." They dragged themselves to his side on their hands. In the light from the floodlights streaming from the building, they could see more clearly that he was far more injured than he had let on. His left shoulder was swollen and displaced. His shirt had been torn away where the debris had hit him and the flesh was torn, oozing blood. His breaths came in painful, creaking wheezes and Sam distantly wondered if he had broken more ribs. "Isaac," they cried, their hands fluttering over him, unsure where they could touch him without hurting him. "Isaac...thank you. I'm so sorry... Isaac..."
"Go," he whispered, rolling to his side. He pushed his hand against their chest. “You have to keep going.”
Chapter 30: I will only slow you down
“No. No way. No way I’m leaving you. Isaac…”
Isaac left bloody handprints on Sam’s shirt as he pushed against their chest. Tears left tracks in the soot and blood on his cheeks. “You have to go, Sam. Please. If they find you… If I…killed him…”
Sam pushed Isaac’s hands away and clutched at his shirt. “No. I’m not leaving without you.”
“I’ll only slow you down. Please…” Isaac whimpered. He curled up on his side, doing his best to cradle his left arm with his destroyed right hand. His eyes fluttered shut.
Sam’s hands tightened in his shirt. “No,” they hissed through their teeth. “If they find us then they find us. I’m not going anywhere without you. Come on, Isaac. You have to get up.” They leaned back, pulling on Isaac’s shirt with all their strength, their good foot scrabbling on the ground. They trembled, still weak from the fever. “Isaac please,” they begged. “Please.” Isaac lay still at their feet, eyes closed. They heaved a sob and released his shirt, falling to their hands and knees beside him. “Isaac…please…” They crawled to his side, mewling weakly as their broken leg jostled as they moved. They curled up next to him on the ground, fingers gently brushing against Isaac’s forearm. Their fingers came away bloody. They closed their eyes.
Sam stirred, unsure if they had imagined it.
They raised their head.
The voices were close.
Ellis. Sam sat up, slightly stunned. The smoke was thick, even outside. “Here!” They did their best to get to their feet. “We’re over here!”
“Sam!” The voices got closer. Vera.
Sam could make out movement in the dark. They waved their arms. “Over here!”
“Sam!” Ellis materialized out of the smoke, supporting a dazed-looking Finn. Vera was right behind them, holding onto Gray’s shirt. Ellis let go of Finn for a moment, rushing to Sam and falling to their knees beside them. “Sam!” They turned to shout over their shoulder. “Found them! Gray, go get the car!” They pulled the keys out of their pocket and tossed them to Gray. They caught them and turned, sprinting in the other direction.
Ellis turned back to Sam, hands moving over them in disbelief. “Sam. You’re ok.” Their eyes moved to Isaac, still lying unmoving on the ground. “Is he…”
“No.” Sam’s eyes filled with tears and spilled over. “He’s alive, he’s…he’s hurt, Ellis…” They looked helplessly at Finn, who was standing with their hands outstretched, a tortured expression on their face. They can’t help him with their broken hands… Vera kneeled behind Sam and held them as they swayed on their knees.
“What happened to him?” Ellis’s hands moved towards Isaac and stopped a few inches from his skin. “I…don’t…”
“He tore his hand getting out of the ropes,” Sam whimpered. Their hands wrapped around Vera’s wrists as she held them. “Gavin was going to…shoot me if he didn’t torture me…his thumb is…” They stared at him with wide eyes. “He hit Gavin. So many times…I think he killed him. His right hand is broken. And he…got shot…” They gasped.
Finn’s eyes seemed to focus at that. “He got shot? Where?” They knelt beside him.
“His forearm. There’s…a lot of blood…” Sam shuddered. “And in the explosion he…he got hit…his shoulder…”
Ellis took a hissing breath in through their teeth as they rolled Isaac slightly, angling him so Finn could inspect the wound. Blood was leaking from the torn skin.
“Right off the bat I s-see…” Finn’s words were a little slurred. “That shoulder’s dislocated, the thumb, too, and…the gunshot wound doesn’t look like it went through…” They wiped their eyes with their forearms. “I can’t see it clearly but I think it’s just a graze…” They squeezed their eyes shut. “And that’s all on top of his…other injuries…”
Sam shook their head slowly. “How did you all escape? What happened?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Vera said soothingly against their hair. “I’ll explain as soon as we’re all safe. I promise.”
They heard the car approaching. Ellis stood up as the headlights cut through the dark. Gray skidded to a stop beside them and jumped out, leaving the car running.
Ellis stood and moved to stand over Isaac’s head. “Help me with this. Gray, can you get his hips? I’ve got his torso… Vera, his legs?” They all nodded and moved into position around him. Sam stood to the side on one foot, trembling. Finn reached for them unsteadily. Sam folded into their arms and wrapped their arms around their waist.
Isaac cried out raggedly as they lifted him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Ellis whispered. They moved in step to carry Isaac to the car. They placed him as gently as they could in the back seat. Gray fumbled to put the seatbelt on. Isaac slumped against it.
“I’ll drive.” Gray carried Sam to the front seat and guided them in, helping them slide in to the middle.
“It’s ok.” Ellis’s voice was hard. “I can drive.” They moved towards the driver’s seat. Gray stopped them with a hand on their shoulder.
“I’m driving. I’m the only one Gavin didn’t torture. I’ll be able to focus on the road the best. Ok?”
Ellis fixed Gray with a steady look for a moment. Then they dropped their eyes and looked away. “Fine.”
“Ellis. Can you sit in the back with me? Be my hands?” Finn looked hopelessly down at their injured hands, tears rolling down their cheeks.
Ellis folded a little. “Of course.” They climbed in to sit next to Isaac, Finn getting in behind them. Ellis helped them with their seatbelt. Vera got into the passenger seat and Gray hit the accelerator.
“Sam.” Finn blinked slowly. “Did Isaac hit his head? Did he h-hit his head?”
“No. I mean, I…” Sam bit their lip. “I don’t think so? I didn’t see if he did. No?” They twisted around in their seat, their eyes fixed on Isaac.
“Ellis.” Finn licked their lips. “Pull his eyelids back. Look at his pupils. Turn on the overhead light.”
Ellis did as they were instructed. “What am I looking for?”
“Are they the same size?”
“Did they constrict when the light came on?”
“Cool. Feel his head. Feel for any bumps or soft patches or…um…crunching.”
Ellis winced, running their fingers hesitantly through Isaac’s hair. It was filthy and clotted with blood in some places. “I don’t feel anything weird.”
“Good. Now his neck. Feel the bones down the back. Keep going down his back to his tailbone.”
Ellis did it. “I think it all feels ok.”
Finn bit their lip. “You don’t have to check his ribs too much. I heard the snap back there. I know they’re broken. He seems to be breathing ok, right?”
Ellis watched him take a few breaths. “It seems normal, I think.”
“Feel his abdomen. Feel if it’s hot or like there’s something in there that shouldn’t be.”
Ellis pressed their fingers gently against the skin there.
“No, you have to kinda…dig in.”
“O-ok.” They did it. They winced as they pressed into the cuts there.
“Now push on his hips. Do they seem to be solid?”
“Ok. Feel down his legs for breaks.”
“I don’t feel anything.”
“Ok. Now for the part I know is going to suck. Try to sit him up a bit more so I can see his shoulder.”
Ellis rocked Isaac gently forward against the seatbelt. Finn could barely tell if it was dislocated, or completely fractured. The torn flesh of his shoulder leaked blood onto the seat of the car. They huffed an exhale out from between their lips. “I need to get in there and feel it.”
Finn winced. “I think only the left one is broken. Let me try.” Ellis moved a little as Finn reached across the car. Their fingers touched gingerly along Isaac’s shoulder, feeling the bones underneath. Isaac flinched and pulled away from Finn’s touch. Finn pressed as gently as they could into the torn flesh, feeling for bone fragments and sharp edges. Their hand ached.
“P…please…” Isaac whimpered.
Sam’s hand shot back towards Isaac.
“No…please…” Isaac whined pitifully, his eyes not fully open. “I can’t…”
“Isaac, you’re safe, you’re with us!” Sam’s dark eyes were riveted on Isaac.
Finn pulled their hand back like they’d been burned. Vera squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her fist against her lips. Gray’s hands tightened on the steering wheel.
Finn ground their teeth together. “I don’t think anything’s broken. Just dislocated. Ellis, hold him. I have to reset it.
Ellis swallowed hard. “What if something is broken?”
Finn pressed their lips together. “Then I make it a lot worse. I can’t be sure without an x-ray. But…we can’t go to a hospital…especially not now…now that…” They shook their head. “But I don’t…I don’t think it’s broken.” They pressed their wrist against their forehead. “I…don’t…” They squeezed their eyes shut. “I’m sorry, my head h-hurts…”
Ellis cupped their hand under Finn’s chin and tilted their head up. Finn met their eyes desperately. “I know it hurts.” Their voice broke. “I know. But I trust you.”
Tears formed in Finn’s eyes. “Even like this?”
Ellis pressed a kiss to their forehead. “Even like this. You just got your bell rung a little. You can do this.”
Finn turned their eyes back to Isaac. “O-ok. Ellis, I need you to…to hold him down.”
Ellis pressed their hands against Isaac’s chest and uninjured shoulder. Finn’s hand closed gingerly on Isaac’s wrist. Their hand trembled. They shook their head.
“This won’t work. You need to be able to hold him down better, and I need room to get his arm against the seat…” Finn bit their lip.
Ellis moved quickly, swinging around in front of Isaac and straddling his legs, wrapping their arms around him and the headrest behind him. Their body pressed against the length of his, holding him firmly to the seat. “Does this work?”
Finn nodded. “Yeah, that’ll be fine I think. Ok. I don’t know if he’ll wake up, but this is probably gonna hurt.”
“Have you ever done this before?” Sam’s eyes were wide with concern.
Finn pressed their lips together. “…no. But I’ve practiced on normal shoulders, and I’ve seen it work.” Their hand wrapped around Isaac’s wrist. They held it up so his forearm was at a 90 degree angle from his upper arm, pointing straight in front of him. Isaac stirred, whimpering against Ellis’s shoulder. Finn held their left forearm against his upper arm, holding it tight to his body. They nodded at Ellis. They tightened their hold around Isaac and closed their eyes.
Slowly, gently, Finn began to rotate his forearm out to the side. Isaac shuddered and pulled against Finn’s grasp. Ellis held him tight to the seat. He moaned, his voice rising into a scream. Sam pressed their hands against their mouth, pale with pain. Finn moved his forearm until it was flush with the seat. They watched his shoulder carefully as they gently began to ease it back. A slight bump reverberated down Isaac’s arm. As they rotated his arm back, they noticed the lump of displacement was gone. Isaac slumped back against the seat. Bracing Isaac’s arm against Ellis, they ran their unbroken hand over his shoulder. The torn skin still oozed blood, but the bone was in place. Finn pressed their thumb hard into Isaac’s nailbed. Isaac pulled away weakly. The skin blanched and color returned to it almost immediately. They let out a breath. “I think it worked.”
Everyone in the car let out a breath of their own. Finn held Isaac’s arm against his chest as Ellis crawled out from on top of him and settled back down into the seat.
“I need a sling for him.”
Everyone cast their eyes around for a sling. Sam started to pull off their shirt.
“No…I need the medical bag. Is it still in the trunk?”
“Yeah, but…” Gray swallowed. “I don’t want to stop. We have no idea who’s coming after us.”
Finn cast a glance behind them through the rear window. “I don’t see anyone. Gray, please…I need to stop the bleeding. I need my kit.”
Gray pushed out a slow breath. “Ok.” They eased the car to a stop. “Vera, can you -”
She was already out. The trunk slammed and she jumped back in, handing the bag back to Ellis. Gray started moving again.
Finn reached out for the bag, but Ellis pulled it away. Their paused with their hands out before letting them drop.
“Ok. Right. Ellis, get a triangle bandage from the side pocket. It’ll be…yeah. That.” Ellis unfolded it. “Tie a knot in this corner and put the knot against Isaac’s elbow.” Ellis followed their directions. “Now take the ends and pull them up around his neck and tie a knot.” Ellis leaned forward to do it, hands pressing against Isaac’s neck as they tied the sling.
Isaac’s eyes flew open and his broken hand slammed against Ellis’s chest, pinning them against the front seat. “No,” he growled.
Chapter 31: Passing out from pain
Ellis pawed at Isaac’s hand, trying to dislodge it but unwilling to hurt him. “It’s ok, Isaac,” they soothed. “It’s me. It’s Ellis. You’re safe. You got out.”
Isaac’s eyes were unfocused. His gaze slid around the car, as if struggling to grasp what he was seeing. “Not…not a dream?”
“No,” Ellis whispered. “We’re safe.”
Isaac whimpered. “I don’t…believe...” He slumped back, his hand falling from Ellis’s chest. “Please…don’t…kill me…again.”
Ellis pulled back with horror as Isaac’s eyes rolled back and he sagged against the seatbelt.
“Did…did he say…don’t kill him? Again?” Tears rolled down Sam’s cheeks.
Vera nodded slowly. “I think so.” She reached her hand back towards Isaac and pulled it back quickly. “What did Gavin do to him?”
Finn’s eyes turned to Gray. “Do you have somewhere in mind to go? I need to know how long we’re going to be driving before I do anything else for him.”
Gray bit their lip. “I have a friend who lives close by. I haven’t seen her in years, but…she might…give us somewhere safe to stay…for a little while…”
“How far away is this friend?”
Gray thought for a moment. “I think if we stay on this highway we’ll get there in…three hours? More, if we take side roads?”
“How much more?”
They shook their head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never gone that way. Maybe four and a half?”
Finn exhaled, eyes moving over Isaac. “I don’t know how much longer he has. I don’t know how bad he’s really hurt.” They thought for a moment. “I only have eight bags of saline left. I need more room to work than in a speeding car packed with six people.”
“If Gavin survived, if any of them survived, they’ll have everyone looking for us.” Vera’s voice was hard. “Does Isaac have four and a half hours?”
Finn bit their lip. “I don’t know. But if they catch us it won’t matter. We’ll all be dead.” They turned to Gray. “Side roads it is.”
They nodded. “Ellis, do you still have the phone? I’ll have you dial but let me talk to her.” Ellis nodded, typing the number Gray gave them. They handed the phone to Gray and they turned up the volume as loud as they could without putting it on speaker, holding it to their ear.
A woman answered. “If you’re calling this number this damned well better be an emergency.”
A pause. “Gray…?”
“Yeah, it’s me. And…it’s an emergency.”
A sigh. “What is it, Gray? What have you gotten into?”
Gray gritted their teeth. “Short version?”
“Whatever you want to tell me. Just do it fast.”
“Ok. Well…someone from the eastern syndicate took my people and tortured them. One of my people, he’s hurt…bad. I’ve got another with a busted ankle and a few more injures between us all. We…could use someplace to sleep. Get our injuries properly taken care of. We…we’re pretty ragged right now, Tori. The guy knows about all our safehouses and we have nowhere else to go. Just one night. Please.” They swallowed hard and their voice dropped to a murmur. “You know I wouldn’t call unless it was really bad.”
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with the explosion that’s all over the radio traffic now, would you?”
Gray paled. “It’s on the radios?”
“I figured that was you, if you were calling me now. An explosion at some boss’s hideout. Sounds like there were more than a few casualties, it wiped out vehicles and a good amount of explosives. Nobody seems to know who did it, or if you’re still alive.”
Vera stared at the dashboard. Gray shot a glance at her out the corner of their eye. “Yeah, that was us. We used the explosives to get out. What else have you heard about it?”
“That you didn’t kill the guy who took your people.”
Sam let out a small wail. “What?”
“Apparently he was airlifted to Central.”
Ellis eyes were fixed on the phone in Gray’s hand.
“Oh.” Gray swallowed. “That is…”
Anger darkened their tone. “Yes.”
“Tori…please. Everyone’s hurt but me. And it’s…it’s our leader that’s off the worst. He sacrificed himself. Please, Tori, he’s good. He’ll die if we don’t get him taken care of, get him to rest.” Their eyes burned with tears. “Please.”
A long pause. Then a sigh. “Fine. I have the room. You can stay, but only until everyone’s good enough to travel. Then you’re gone.”
Gray’s words rushed out of them. “That’s more than generous, Tori. Thank you. Thank you. We’re still a few hours out.”
“Call me on this number when you’re close.” She hung up.
Gray let out the breath they’d been holding. “Thank god,” they murmured. They threw a look into the back seat. “How’s he doing?”
Finn pressed their lips together. “I mean…I can stop the bleeding until we get there. But I can’t do any stitching or really anything else until we stop.”
“You can’t do any stitching at all.” Ellis’s voice was strained.
“I can do it one-handed.” They ducked their head. “If you help me.” Ellis nodded once, painfully.
“I’m not hurt.” Vera’s voice was hollow.
Gray blinked, glancing at her. “What?”
She stared straight ahead. “You said everyone was hurt but you. I’m not hurt.”
Gray surveyed her carefully, eyes flicking between her and the road. “You want to talk about what happened in there? What he…what he triggered?”
She jerked her head once to the side. “Nope.”
Gray’s eyebrows pulled together. “You know we’re going to have to talk about it at some point.”
Her lip wobbled and her eyes filled with tears. “I don’t think so.” She crossed her arms and looked out the window.
“Vera?” Finn’s voice was weak. After a moment she turned back to look at them. “I could use your help splinting Sam’s leg.”
She nodded once. “Of course.”
Finn pointed to what they needed and Ellis passed her a SAM splint and an ACE wrap. “Ok. Take the splint and unroll it. Fold it in half, then make it into…sort of a stirrup. It’ll go under Sam’s heel and up the sides of their leg.” She did it. “Ok. Now…make sure the leg is straight, that it’s not twisted at all, and put the splint on their leg.”
“Here. Can you put your leg in my lap?”
Sam winced and lifted their leg, gingerly placing it on Vera’s lap. They gasped as they put their leg down. They pressed back against Gray. Gray’s hand left the wheel momentarily to squeeze Sam’s hand.
Vera carefully fitted the splint onto their leg. Sam sucked in a breath, pressing their hand against their mouth to keep from crying out. Vera fixed them with apologetic eyes as she pressed the splint around their leg.
“Now just…bandage it with the ACE wrap. Secure it really well in the splint. Not too tight, though. We want good bloodflow still.”
“Ok.” Vera wrapped the bandage around Sam’s leg, stabilizing it in the splint. She pressed the Velcro end against the bandage. “Is that it?”
“Yeah, that’ll be fine for now. How does it feel, Sam?”
Tears spilled over. “It’s…it’s ok. It’s better. Really.” Their dark eyes fixed on Isaac.
“Let me worry about Isaac,” Finn said softly, reaching up for Sam’s hair, broken hand freezing just before they touched them. “If it starts to feel like it’s not in the right place, tell me.”
“Ok.” Sam turned to face the front, shuddering. Vera opened her arm to them and they curled against her side.
Finn looked back to Isaac, still slumped in his seat. They pulled in a deep breath. “Ellis, will you help me with the rest?”
“Of course.” Their hand tightened on their shoulder.
Chapter 32: This is for your own good
Sam jerked awake as the car slowed, pulling into a long gravel driveway. They yelped as they jostled their leg. “Are we here?”
Gray nodded. “Tori’s place. I haven’t been here in…a long time.”
Sam cast a glance into the back seat. Finn was slumped against Ellis, their head on their shoulder. Ellis’s head rested on top of Finn’s. One of Ellis’s hands laid gently under Finn’s. The other rested lightly on Isaac’s knee.
Vera sat up, looking around slowly. “We here?” she mumbled.
“Yup. Go ahead and wake the others.”
She reached back, shaking Ellis’s shoulder gently. “Ellis,” she whispered.
Their head lifted and they looked around, bleary. As their eyes focused they shook Finn’s shoulder. “Finn. Finn, we’re here. I’m so sorry…I let you fall asleep, I shouldn’t have done that…”
Finn’s eyes opened slowly and they smacked their lips. “That’s a myth.” Their voice was still slurred from sleep. “Going to sleep after a concussion is fine. I guess it just worried people because sometimes someone wouldn’t wake up after that but that’s probably because they had an intracranial hemorrhage and they woulda died anyway so -” They cut themselves off as Ellis took their chin in one hand.
“It’s good to know you didn’t get rung too hard,” Ellis whispered. Finn smiled shakily.
They all turned to Isaac, slumped against the window. His nose had leaked blood down the inside of the door. Ellis’s hands hovered over his body for a moment, choosing where to touch him without causing him more pain. Their hand gently touched his cheek. “Isaac…”
He moaned, stirred.
Hands shaking, they touched his undamaged right shoulder. “Isaac?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, pulling away slightly. “No…please…”
Ellis bit their lip as tears started in their eyes. “Isaac, it’s…it’s Ellis…wake up, we’re almost there…”
His eyes blinked open, moving around the car slowly and finally resting on Ellis as they leaned over him, eyebrows pulled together in concern. “E-Ellis?”
They smiled in relief. “Yeah. Everyone’s here. We all got out, Isaac.”
He sat up suddenly. “Sam…?”
“I’m here, Isaac.” They leaned over the seat and reached back towards him. “You got me out.” They pressed their lips together as tears blurred their eyes.
He stared at them, disbelieving. “He was going to -”
“But he didn’t.” They reached back farther, fingertips brushing his arm. “He didn’t. You stopped him.”
His eyes went wide suddenly, remembering. “Did I kill him? Is he…is he dead?”
Gray’s lips pressed together. “We don’t know. Apparently he was airlifted to Central Hospital, but that’s all we know.”
“How do you know that?”
“My friend Tori told me. She offered us a place to stay until we’re recovered. This is her house.” As they pulled around a bend the headlights fell on a stone house, tucked between the trees. The house looked to be two stories, extending back into the dark.
Isaac stiffened. “You trust her? I’m sure they…the syndicates…”
Gray nodded. “I trust her with my life. I have, multiple times. She was involved in the resistance movements, back when they existed. Now she just lays low. She’ll help us. She’s trustworthy.” They shot a glance back at Isaac. “I promise. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Isaac’s eyes filled with tears. “That’s my job,” he whispered. “It’s my job to…protect you…” He looked around the car. “Protect you all…”
“What do you think you just did, Isaac?” Vera’s voice was gentle. “You sacrificed yourself to keep Sam safe. You protected us. Please let us take care of you.” Her eyes were wide, fixed on him.
“You…” He whispered. “Gavin did something to you. Are you alright? What was that?”
Her gaze hardened. “Nothing. It was nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
Gray shook their head. They pulled up to the front of the house and turned off the car. “Stay here.” They left the keys on the seat. “Let me go talk to her first.” They unfolded themselves from the car and walked stiffly to the front door. They drew in a deep breath, hand shaking, and knocked three times. The door swung open almost immediately. They swallowed. “Tori.”
She looked Gray up and down, guarded. “Gray. What have you brought me?”
They spread their hands in supplication. “Tori, I…I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have called…”
“I know.” She surveyed them for a moment longer, arms crossed in front of her. Then she held her arms out to them. “It’s been a long time.”
They folded into her embrace, towering a good eight inches over her but feeling so small. The younger woman had always been able to cut right to their heart with her kindness. They’d missed her. They felt tears burn their eyes and swallowed them down. I’m the least damaged. I can’t afford to lose it right now.
She pulled away, her hands still tight on their arms as she looked back to the car. “Tell me what you have. Do I have to worry about blood?”
Gray nodded, biting their lip. “Yeah. Our leader, Isaac…he’s hurt pretty badly…our medic Finn stopped the bleeding as well as they could, but he still might be -”
“Oh, you have a medic! Great.”
“Well…Gavin…that’s who took us…he broke their hands. Gave them a concussion.”
She looked at them with concern. “He knew what he was doing. Hurt the medic, and they can’t help the others.”
“It was also to…hurt their partner. Ellis. They aren’t physically hurt, but…Gavin dug up some old wounds and I’m sure they’re not doing well…”
“Ok. What else?”
“Our youngest one has a broken leg. They…Gavin took them and tortured them for three days. That’s why Isaac went in. He traded himself for them. They’ve been sick, but they’ve been on antibiotics for four or five days and they’re getting better, they’re just weak…”
“Is that everyone?”
“No. Vera. She isn’t too badly hurt, maybe got jostled in the explosion, but…Tori…” Their eyes were wide with quiet horror. “Gavin…did something to her. Activated something. She…I think she’s been conditioned…held in captivity…she said for two months. It’s like she went right back there. I had no idea…Tori…” They closed their eyes. “I thought I knew her and I missed this…massive, glaring…”
Tori shook their shoulders. “Stop that. Don’t do that. You said you’re the only one this Gavin didn’t torture?”
They nodded weakly. “Yes.”
“Then be strong for them. I know you have a kind heart, Gray. But you need to step up and take care of them.”
“Of course,” they whispered.
“Ok, then. Let’s get them in here.” She walked to the car, Gray right behind.
Sam watched carefully as the woman approached the car. She seemed…scary. Hard. They watched as Gray folded into her arms and let her hold them. Maybe she’s nice.
They watched warily as they both approached the car. She opened both doors on the left side.
“Ok, who’s who?”
Finn mumbled out their name first. “I’m F-Finn.” They felt Ellis’s hand on their shoulder, squeezing gently.
“The medic? Broken hands and concussion?”
“Yes…” Finn bit their lip.
“Ok. Next.” Her eyes moved to Ellis.
“I’m Ellis. I’m not hurt.” They swallowed.
“Not physically, right?”
“Look. I need to know what I’m bringing into my house. Who needs what care. Gavin screwed with your head, right?”
They cast their eyes down and away from Finn. “…yes.”
“Ok.” Her eyes moved to Isaac. “You? Isaac, I’m assuming?”
He nodded slowly. “I…” He swallowed hard. “I’m al-”
“If you say ‘you’re alright’ I’m going to lean in there and smack you.”
Isaac’s jaw flexed. He said nothing.
“What are your injuries?”
“Um,” Finn piped up. “Dislocated shoulder, I reduced it though, I reduced his dislocated thumb, too, he’s got some blast injuries to the same shoulder, a bullet wound – well, a graze – on his forearm, a deep laceration to his thumb, his right hand is broken, and he’s got…a lot of injuries from the torture itself -”
“Those injuries you just mentioned aren’t from torture?”
Isaac swallowed. “…no. I had to get out. Had to get out with S-Sam. I got h-hurt getting out.”
Tori’s eyes narrowed. “There’s a story there. You have to tell me once we get inside. What actual torture injuries?”
Isaac glanced around the car to his team. “Um…”
“I need to know, Isaac.”
“Can I…just…tell you privately?”
Tori sighed. “You’ll tell me once we get to the house. In my opinion, your teammates should know, too, but I’ll leave that up to you.” Her eyes moved to Vera. “You?”
“Vera.” Her jaw clenched. “And I’m not hurt,” she forced through her teeth.
Tori’s gaze lingered on her for a minute. “Ok.” She looked at Sam. “Last one. You?”
They swallowed. “Um…I’m Sam.”
“And what have you got going on?”
“Um…I broke my leg…” Vera put their arm protectively around them as they shrunk under Tori’s gaze.
“Why are you on antibiotics? I need to know if you’re going to be bringing something into my house.”
“Um, I have…pneumonia…from…um…” They swallowed again. “It’s not contagious, I don’t think…” They glanced at Finn for confirmation.
They nodded. “Not contagious. They’ve actually only got one dose left and then they’re done with the round.”
Tori nodded, letting her eyes roam around the car one more time. “Ok. Come on in.”
Vera got out first, helping Sam slide over the seat and supporting them as they wobbled on one leg. Finn slid shyly past Tori, and they and Ellis made their way to the other side of the car. Isaac moved to open the door and flinched back, the pain flaring in him. Ellis opened the door and he gasped.
“Let us help you, you idiot,” they whispered as they moved under his right arm. He slid painfully out of the car, holding back a scream of pain. His shirt stuck painfully to the cuts on his chest and his shoulder jostled, sending pain spiking through him until he thought he might pass out.
He sagged against Ellis. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Ellis gritted their teeth as tears formed in their eyes. “Don’t do that.”
Isaac hung his head as they all moved to the house.
It was cozy inside. Warm, with dark wood in with the dark stone. They moved through the front room, past a dining room, into a study at the back of the house. Gray’s eyebrows went up when he saw the mattresses, all made up with sheets and blankets on the floor. “Tori?”
She looked away for a moment, eyes cast down to the floor. Then she lifted her gaze to Gray. “You’re not the only one who’s been trying to do the right thing, you know.”
They shook their head in confusion. “I don’t -”
“My house is a…safehouse of sorts. I sometimes let people crash who have nowhere else to go. I help…well, I try to help…when people just need to be…safe. Safe from the syndicates.”
Gray’s mouth had fallen open. “Tori…I had no idea…”
“You weren’t supposed to. Secret safehouses only really work if they’re a secret.” Her lips quirked up.
They smiled gently. “Thank you, Tori. Truly. Thank you.”
She waved her hand at them dismissively. “Don’t mention it. Let’s get your people taken care of.”
Vera supported Sam and helped them down to a mattress. They winced as they rested their leg.
“I wasn’t sure if four was enough. I guess I should have asked.” Tori looked concerned.
“It’s perfect,” Ellis said as they helped Isaac down to the nearest mattress. “Finn can sleep with me, and Sam…would you be ok to sleep with Gray?”
They nodded, looking up at Gray. “Is that ok?”
Tori closely inspected the brace on Sam’s leg. She gently felt the bone. “How does it feel?”
Sam bit their lip. “It hurts.”
Tori smiled, blowing out an exhale. “Ok, but does it feel twisted? Do you feel numb anywhere? Tingly?”
“No, it just…” Sam’s eyes filled with tears. “It just hurts.” They pressed their lips together, doing their best to be brave.
“Ok. That’s good. That splint looks good for now. I’ll leave it alone. Are you ok otherwise?”
Sam nodded emphatically as their eyes moved to Isaac, still supported by Ellis.
Isaac moaned as Ellis and Gray lowered him down. He pressed his lips together against the sobs that rose in his throat. His back arched and he whimpered softly as they lowered him onto his back. He rolled to his right side, gasping. Tori knelt beside him, eyes scanning him. “What hurts the most?”
Isaac shook his head against the tears that starting running down his cheeks. “I don’t know,” he whispered. He swallowed hard. “I don’t know…” His throat tightened with sobs.
Finn kneeled next to Isaac, eyes wide and helpless. “I…” Their hands drifted towards him, almost unconsciously.
“Hey.” Tori stopped them with a look. “Your hands are broken, right?”
Finn nodded miserably. “I think just the left one. I can still help with my right, he needs stitches…”
“No.” Tori nearly glared at Finn. “Don’t touch him. Don’t make your hands worse.”
Tears shone in Finn’s eyes. “But I -”
“Finn. For your own good, don’t touch him. If you make your hands worse, you can’t help your team. Do you understand? If you want to be at your best for your team, rest. Let your hands heal. For your own good. Ok?”
Finn sniffed and nodded.
“Let me see.” She held her hands out to take theirs. Her fingers moved gently over the bones of their left hand. They keened softly as she felt the break. “Yeah, that one’s broken. Second and third metacarpal. Not displaced, though. We’ll see if I can whip up some kind of cast. Let’s see the other one.” Finn swallowed the whimpers down. “I agree, I don’t think that one’s broken. The bone is bruised, I’m guessing.” She turned to Ellis. “I’ll go find the NSAIDs in a second, but for now go to the kitchen and get some ice. Make yourself at home. Help them ice their hands.” They nodded and went to the kitchen.
She turned back to Isaac. His skin was damp with sweat, his shirt sticking to his chest. She saw faint streaks of blood striping his shirt like paint as his chest heaved. Every breath made him wince.
“Isaac.” Her gaze was soft and steady. “I need you to tell me what he did to you.”
“No.” Isaac’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t want them to hear. I don’t want them to know. Please,” he begged.
Tori blew out a steady breath. “Ok. We can let it wait, for now.” She slid her hand through the tear in Isaac’s shirt and peeled away the bandages Finn had had Ellis place on the way there. She hissed through her teeth. “Yup, you definitely need stitches. But I’m going to have to clean it first.”
Isaac sagged, his eyes closing. He nodded weakly.
Tori’s eyebrows drew together. She turned to Finn. “Do you have anything you can give him for pain?”
Finn looked down. “No. I’m sorry. I haven’t come across anyone selling in a while.”
Tori sighed. “Ok. I have something I can give him. I don’t have a big supply, and I don’t want to use it all.” She smoothed her hand through Isaac’s hair. “I’m sorry. It’s going to hurt, but I can help a little.”
Isaac nodded, surrendering.
Chapter 33: Doesn't realize they've been injured
Isaac lay on his side on the floor, towels piled under him. His shirt was off, the torn skin of his shoulder exposed. “I know it’s not comfortable,” Tori said apologetically. “But I don’t want to get the mattress wet.” She pulled the bottle of sterile water closer and drew some into the large syringe she was holding. “This is the part that’s going to hurt the most.” She looked up to Ellis and Gray. “I might need you to hold him.”
Isaac’s head spun uselessly with the pain pills Tori had given him. Ellis placed their hands on Isaac’s legs and pushed gently down. Gray got on the floor next to him and wrapped their arms around this torso, securing his left arm against his chest. Isaac forced down a groan as Gray pressed against the lash marks. Sam stared from where they were laying, eyebrows pulled together in concern.
Tori placed her hands gently on Isaac’s shoulder and pulled the wound open slightly. Isaac hissed and tried to pull away. Gray’s arms tightened around him.
Tori tsked. “Good call, Finn. It doesn’t look like anything’s broken.” She pursed her lips and glanced at Isaac. “You got lucky, all things considered.” Isaac’s head dropped to the floor as he huffed out an exasperated exhale. “Deep breath.” She brought the syringe to his shoulder.
She flushed the water into the wound as she pulled it open. Isaac stiffened, shuddered, forced out a scream between his teeth. Pink water and clots of blood and dust ran from the wound into the towels on the floor. She moved the stream methodically through the wound, following the tears in his skin. Isaac’s back arched and he quivered against the touch, sweat running into his eyes. He whimpered and Gray held him tighter, whispering soothingly, “it’s ok, Isaac. You’re doing so well. She’s almost done. Good job.”
She retreated with the syringe. The tension in Isaac’s body ran out of him and he slumped against the ground. “That part’s done.” Her hand moved through his hair. “You took that like a champ. Good job.” She reached for her suture kit. “Last part for this one. I just need to stitch you back up.”
Finn watched her as her fingers moved expertly along Isaac’s skin, drawing the wounds closed. “Where did you learn this?”
Tori glanced at Finn with a small smile. “Another life. A long time ago. I must admit, I’m a little out of practice.”
Finn looked down at their hands. “You’re really good at it. I can’t…” They looked at her with tears in their eyes. “I’m really grateful we’re here. Thank you…for…” They gestured vaguely to the team.
“Oh, hush.” She shook her head. “You’d be doing this for him if your hands weren’t messed up.”
Finn’s eyes filled with tears. “I can’t help them.”
“Finn, stop.” Her voice was stern and they jumped a little. “Don’t do that. They don’t need it, and neither do you. You were tortured. It wasn’t an accident. Gavin knew exactly how to break you.” She pulled the needle driver away from the wound. “But you’re not broken. If you’d fallen and broken both your arms, no one would be blaming you. And no one’s blaming you now. Ok?” She nudged their chin up with the back of her hand, avoiding the blood on her fingers. She glanced around the room, at their family. “Your family loves you. I can tell that just from watching you all for a few minutes.”
Finn glanced at Ellis, hands still on Isaac’s legs. Ellis’s eyes were fixed on them with a look of fierce devotion. They nodded.
Tori turned back to Isaac’s wound. “So don’t blame yourself. You don’t have to be useful to be worthy.”
Finn’s eyes filled with tears and they crumpled, pressing their face into their arms. Vera stood up shakily from her mattress and crossed to them. She sat down beside them, pulling them into her embrace. They threw their arms around her and sobbed. Her fingers carded through their hair as she pressed her cheek against the top of their head.
Tori clipped the ends of the last stitch. “There. Done. I’ll get some antibiotic ointment on that after I finish the rest of your stitches. Then don’t get it wet for a while, ok? Let’s get you up.” Gray helped Isaac sit up, wincing as their hands pressed into his wounds. Ellis went to Finn’s other side and put their arms around them, pressing kisses against their shoulder.
Sam shuddered at the sight of Isaac’s back, dozens of angry lashes overlaying deep purple and black bruises. Tori’s eyes moved over Isaac and he thought he detected the slightest hint of overwhelm in her gaze. Isaac felt like disappearing into the floor. The marks of Gavin’s torture were written on his body for all to see. The bruises from the beatings, the cuts that littered his chest, the marks from the whip crossing his back. The burns down his arms. The dried blood that stained everything else. He’d begged everyone to stay away while Tori treated him, and every single one had refused. “You did this for me, Isaac,” Sam had whispered. “I’m not leaving you.”
Tori sighed. “Ok. Let’s do the graze on your arm next.”
“Do you have to clean it?” Isaac’s head swam.
She lifted an eyebrow at him. “Do you want gangrene?”
He closed his eyes. “No.”
“Good. Let’s get that arm out of that sling.”
Isaac moaned softly as Gray untied the sling, letting his arm lower slowly onto his lap. She moved his arm gently, turning it so she had a better angle. She peeled the gauze away and pulled in a breath through her teeth. “Definitely sutureable. Don’t know what we’re going to do about these burns, though…” Her eyes moved up and down the length of Isaac’s arms, to the burns Gavin had left with his knife, heated over a lighter. “They’ve already started to scab up. I don’t want to risk opening them up again to get them clean. I’ll just have to watch them closely, make sure they don’t get infected.”
“I…thought…we wouldn’t be staying here that long.” Isaac tried to take deep breaths, looking away as she drew more water into the syringe.
She shrugged, looking at his arm. “I said you could stay until you’re well enough to travel. And you won’t be in shape to move for a long time.” She gripped his arm tighter. “Don’t pull back, ok?”
Isaac grunted as the water cleaned the wound. He was dizzy with pain and the medication Tori had given him. He was grateful for it, but he almost wished he hadn’t taken it. It gave everything a sleepy, disconnected quality that reminded him of his dreams. I don’t want to wake up from this one, even though it hurts.
Tori finished cleaning the graze and began to stitch it up. Isaac felt like his skull was full of cotton. “Um…” His mouth felt numb.
Tori looked up at him, holding a steadying hand against his shoulder. “Need to lie down again?”
He nodded weakly and she and Gray eased him back down to the floor onto the towels. He whimpered at the feeling of the rough towels against his back.
The corners of her mouth turned down. “We can’t get you laying down without touching something that hurts, huh?”
Isaac swallowed hard against the tears. “Um. No.”
She shook her head and went back to work. “So what did you do to piss of the syndicates, anyway? I haven’t seen someone this bad off in a while.”
“My fault,” Isaac whispered.
“It’s not -” Sam protested.
“My fault.” Isaac squeezed his eyes shut as Tori pulled the last stitch tight. She moved on to the tear on his hand.
“Hm. Anyone else want to weigh in?” She gently irrigated the torn skin.
“He sacrificed himself for me.” Tori’s hands paused as she turned to look at Sam. Her eyes moved back to Isaac. Thinking.
“What brought that about?”
Isaac swallowed hard. “I-”
“Gavin took me,” Sam spoke over Isaac. “We’ve been running small raids against him for a few months and I wanted to come along. I…got separated from them and…Gavin took me.” They swallowed hard.
“It was my f-fault -”
Tori glared at Isaac and started the first stitch. “Shh. Let them talk.”
Sam continued, “Gavin took me and…tortured me for a few days. Everybody tracked him down and…found me…” They licked their lips. “Gavin made me swallow a tracking device while I was with him and he tracked us all back to our safehouse. He told Isaac to send me back to him. Isaac went in my place.”
Tori watched Isaac carefully as she closed the tear. “Hm.”
“We kidnapped Gavin’s cousin to exchange him for Isaac. But when we showed up, Gavin took us all. He tortured Ellis, Finn, V-Vera…” Vera cast a furious glare at them. “Um…then he…um…t-took me and Isaac to another room and said he’d kill Isaac if he didn’t hurt me…”
Tori’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh.” She pulled the last stitch closed. Keeping her voice as casual as possible she asked, “did he?”
“No! No, he wouldn’t! But then Gavin said he’d kill me if he didn’t torture me. That’s when he tore his hand, getting out of the ropes. He knocked Gavin out…” Tori’s eyes flicked to Isaac’s right hand. “I broke my leg in the explosion and that’s when Isaac’s shoulder got hurt.”
“Right. Explosion. Anyone want to explain that one?”
Vera swallowed hard. “That was me.”
A smile flashed across Tori’s face, so fast Isaac thought he had imagined it. “Hm.”
“When one of Gavin’s thugs grabbed me I got the keys out of his pocket. Once Gavin left there was only one of them in the room so I unlocked my cuffs, knocked him out, and got everyone else out of theirs.” Sam was watching her with wide eyes. “When the other one came back we…subdued him too. I had everybody make a break for the doors while I made a quick…um…bomb.”
Tori turned completely around in her surprise. “You made a what?” She looked impressed.
“I made…a bomb. Gavin had a lot of explosives lying around and the detonator wasn’t that hard to jury rig. I knew we didn’t have a chance of getting to Isaac and Sam without a distraction. But once the bomb went off all I could find was Gavin.” Sam gasped. She threw them a regretful look. “I didn’t kill him. I assumed he was dead, given how his face looked. I figured you somehow got free so I went outside to join the others…that’s when we found you.”
“Where did you learn to make bombs?”
“I picked it up…”
“That seems to be a pretty specific skill. Seriously, where did you learn -”
“I don’t want to talk about me.”
The room went silent. Vera looked down apologetically. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” She glanced at Finn. “Let me get you more ice.” She stood and stalked out of the room. Tori watched her go, pensive.
“I’m sorry,” Gray mumbled. “She’s not -”
“She’s fine.” She looked down at Isaac. “When’s the last time you had a shower?”
He shrugged weakly, wincing when it jostled his shoulder. “Um…a week or two?”
“Well, I think you’ll feel a lot better once I get you cleaned up. I’ll help you wash the blood off with a rag and get you some clean clothes. Sound like a plan?”
Isaac’s eyes closed. “Sounds good.”
A crash came from the direction of the kitchen.
Gray was up and rushing for the door before anyone else had moved. Tori got to her feet and followed them out into the hall. Ellis pushed Finn firmly down to the bed before they dashed out, too.
Vera was clumsily trying to get to her feet, hand gripping the counter. Ice cubes littered the floor. “I’m fine,” she snapped, before anyone could touch her.
“You’re clearly not.” Tori’s voice was clipped. “Let me help you up.”
Vera jerked her arm away from Tori’s hand, staring her down as she got to her feet. She stood three inches taller than Tori as she drew herself up to her full height, seeming to unfold like a cobra’s hood. “I said I’m fine.” Her lips pulled back over her teeth as she bared them at Tori.
Tori held Vera’s gaze steadily. “Everybody else go back in the guest room. I want to talk to Vera alone.”
Vera’s nostrils flared with distrust as she watched the rest of the team warily back out of the kitchen. Her eyes snapped back to Tori and they bored into her.
Tori lowered her voice. “I know something happened to you. I know it got activated and you’re coming down off it. But that doesn’t mean you get to push away your friends like this.”
Vera seethed with rage. “You don’t have any fucking clue what happened to me.”
“I know, and neither does your family. Until today, they had no idea one of their own had suffered so terribly.”
That made Vera pause. Tori watched her carefully, like she was a wild animal about to bolt. Vera noticed. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because you’re not the first person I’ve met who’s been like this. And because you’re showing classic symptoms of PTSD.”
“So I have PTSD. So what? I can’t fix it. I can’t go back and undo it.”
“You don’t have to. But don’t you think you’d recover a little easier if you could be honest with your family?”
Vera spat the words through her teeth. “There. Is. No. Fucking. Recovery. From. This. Gavin slapped me and I went right back. That’s all it took to take me right back…to…” She felt a quivering roil of nausea and gripped the counter, body coiling tightly.
All the while Tori’s eyes watched patiently. “Someone kept you captive.”
Vera’s eyes flashed dark and dangerous in a way that made her look…feral. For a brief moment, Tori considered she might actually attack her. Then she sank to the floor, hugging her knees to herself, taking painful, gasping sobs. Tori knelt by her side and pulled her into her arms.
Vera didn’t return the embrace, but she didn’t pull away either. She sobbed hard and deep, pressing her hands tightly to her mouth to stifle the sound. Tori pulled her fingers through her hair and rocked her slowly.
“Hey, girl. I got you. You’re ok, you’re safe now.”
“They wouldn’t trust me if they knew.”
“Hey. You’re alright.”
“They’d always wonder if I’d fall back in.”
“They’d look at me different, knowing what happened, knowing what he did…” The last word was a scream. Vera shook apart in Tori’s arms, gasping, gagging with the force of her body heaving against the pain. She clutched at Tori, nails digging into her arms, face pressed against her shirt as Tori gently rocked her, smoothing her hair back.
“You’ve been carrying this for a long time.”
“Fourteen fucking years, and I can’t ever get away from it, fourteen years have passed and he’s still there, in my head, everything he did, he turned me into that thing that follows commands and never screams until he lets me and wears that…FUCKING…” She clawed at her throat, at the ghostly pressure of the collar that was no longer there. She choked helplessly, dragging in breath after breath and still feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the room.
“Ok. Come back. That’s enough of that, you felt it, let’s come back out now.”
Vera clutched Tori’s hand as she shuddered, sobbing, trying to stabilize herself again. “I…I can’t…”
“Yes you can. I don’t want to lose you in that place. Come back here, now, where I am.”
“N-no I -”
“Vera. Come back. I know you can do this. Come back to me, right now.”
Vera took a shuddering, desperate inhale and blew it out through pursed lips. “Ok,” she panted. “I can…ok.”
“That’s right. Good job. Oh. Um…are there things I shouldn’t say?”
Vera shakily shook her head. “Nothing that would come up in normal conversation.” Her lips twisted wryly as she forced out another exhale.
“Hm. Well if anything comes to mind you tell me, ok?”
Tori took Vera’s chin in her hand and gently guided her face up so she could see her eyes. “I’m serious. With the severity of Isaac’s injuries, you all are going to be here a while. Long enough that I could stumble on something. I need to know that I won’t send you right back there while you’re healing, ok?”
Vera nodded. “Ok. I will.”
“Good.” Tori gave her a squeezing hug. “Now. You didn’t fall because you got upset, did you?” Vera grudgingly shook her head. “Ok. Why did you fall?”
“Hm. How close were you to the blast, exactly?”
“Um…close enough that I got thrown. I didn’t really hit anything but…it made me dizzy for a second…I assumed I was fine.”
“Concussions can show up hours later, you know. That’s probably what you have going on. How do you feel right now?”
“Dizzy at all?”
“Ok. I hesitate to leave you alone, but if you feel alright, I’ll leave you to pull yourself together. Throw some water on your face. I’ll handle the ice for Finn. When you’re ready, join us in the guest room. I won’t tell them anything about what we talked about. That’ll be on you, when you’re ready. Ok?”
Vera nodded. “Thank you, Tori.”
“Oh.” Tori squeezed her hand and drew herself to her feet. “Don’t worry about it.” She turned to get a bag for the ice.
Chapter 34: Secret caretaking
Isaac woke to a knock at the door. He stirred, confused. Was Tori expecting anyone else? He sat up painfully from his bed. His team slept peacefully around him, unbothered by the knock. I guess I should go answer.
He made his way to the door, swaying unsteadily. As his hand closed around the doorknob, he felt a chill down his spine like someone was watching him. He turned to look back into the house. The rooms were all dark. Nothing moved. He shrugged and pulled the door open.
Gavin stood in the doorway with a grin on his face. He raised a gun and fired. The bullet punched through Isaac’s shoulder. The pain took his breath away as he stumbled back, hand pressing to the wound as blood poured hot through his fingers. Gavin pushed him back into the house.
“Where are the others?”
Isaac stumbled, mind reeling against the pain. “They’re not here,” he gasped.
“Oh, so you drove here on your own? Don’t insult me, Isaac. Tell me where they are and I might not shoot you right here.” He stalked down the hall to the room where they were all sleeping.
“No.” Isaac lurched after him, hand still pressed against his shoulder. The blood loss was making him dizzy. “Gavin, don’t -”
Gavin walked through the doorway to the guestroom and looked around at Isaac’s sleeping team. Gavin smiled. “All accounted for. Perfect.” He approached Vera, curled like a cat under the blankets. Gavin pointed his gun at her head and fired. Blood poured from the hole in her skull.
“NO!” Isaac screamed. No one stirred. He tried to take a step towards Gavin but felt his wrists pull against rope, tying them together behind him and holding him back.
Gavin moved to Finn and Ellis, Finn snugged in Ellis’s arms. Two more bullets tore through their skulls.
“Gavin, no!” Isaac screamed. “Gavin no, please, no…” Tears burned on his face as he pulled hard against the rope. It twisted his injured shoulder and he cried out.
Gavin finally moved to the mattress with Gray and Sam sleeping peacefully. He didn’t hesitate before putting a bullet in Gray’s head. Isaac begged in incoherent sobs, falling to his knees as Gavin put the gun to Sam’s head. He threw a poisonous grin back at Isaac as he pulled the trigger.
Isaac dissolved into a whimpering howl as he pressed his forehead against the floor. It was wet with his family’s blood. He heard Gavin’s footsteps as he approached him. He lifted his head, a mumbled plea on his numb lips. Merciful, for the first time since Isaac had heard his name, Gavin pressed the barrel of the gun against his head. Isaac squeezed his eyes shut so he wouldn’t have to see his family’s bodies as Gavin pulled the trigger.
He drew in a rattling, painful gasp. He lurched forward and shuddered as his shoulder protested. He was soaked in sweat, shivering as sobs tore through him one right after the other.
“Isaac, shh…” He felt a finger on his lips. His eyes focused and Tori’s face swam above his.
He pushed himself up off the mattress, casting his eyes around the room. It was dimly lit from the light on in the hall. His eyes moved from Ellis and Finn, to Vera, to Sam and Gray. All alive. All breathing. The floor was clean of blood, including his.
He fell back against the bed. He pressed his lips together, quieting his sobs as Tori gently stroked his hair. “There you go. Shh. Everybody’s still sleeping, don’t worry about them.”
“Yeah, it’s just me. You were having a nightmare. I came in to check on you.”
“Yeah. It’s almost 5 am. I wanted to get a few hours of sleep before morning.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, you can…” He swallowed. “I don’t want to keep you up…”
“Well, I’m up now.” She moved from where she was kneeling over him and sat down on the mattress beside him. “Let’s talk about that dream.”
Isaac shuddered and closed his eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Tori rolled her eyes. “I’m hearing that a lot from your family tonight. Come on. I want to let them sleep and I’m worried you’ll fall back in and have another nightmare if I just leave. They don’t have to hear about it. But you need to get it out.” She raised her eyebrows at him and he had a feeling she wasn’t talking about just the nightmare.
“Um…” He swallowed hard. “I dreamed that Gavin came here and…killed them all.”
She nodded slowly. “Oh.”
“He made me watch. Then he killed me.”
Her hand went back to smoothing his hair. “Ok.”
Tears leaked out the corners of his eyes. “I went to Gavin to keep them safe and they still ended up getting hurt. Because of me. Because I couldn’t…”
“Because you couldn’t what?”
Isaac set his jaw. “Gavin sent them a live video of him torturing me. He said he’d stop if I begged them to come for me.”
Tori’s voice became exceedingly gentle. “Did you beg for them?”
Shame settled in his stomach, cold and bitter. “Yes.”
“…and you think that makes what happened to them your fault?”
His throat felt tight. “Yes.”
“Hm. Tell me, did he send this video before or after they called with the trade?”
“Um.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “After.”
“So they were already planning on coming for you?”
“I…I guess they were.”
“Isaac.” Her hand moved soothingly through his hair. “Your family loves you. They’d do anything for you. Whether you begged or not, whether you broke or not, they were coming for you. What happened to them is not your fault. You need to stop carrying that around with you.”
“I couldn’t protect them.” His throat pulled tight as he whispered. “That’s my job and I couldn’t…keep them safe…”
“I just laid there and watched as Gavin pulled them into the middle of the room and tortured them one by one…”
“I listened to them scream and I didn’t do a damned thing about it…”
“Isaac.” His eyes focused on her as she stared him down. “Stop it. Sam would likely be dead right now if not for you. Finn told me how badly off they were. How close they were to dying. You…” Her hand found his undamaged one and she squeezed gently. “You did an incredibly brave thing, Isaac. You willingly handed yourself over for torture and pain for your family, tried to give your life for them. Yes, Gavin took them when they were trying to get you back. But that isn’t on you. That’s on him. Do you see that? You didn’t hurt them. He did. Then when he was going to kill Sam you found a way to stop him.” Her finger pointed against his chest over his shirt. “You did that.” She pulled her finger away as he whimpered at the pressure against the cut down his sternum. He pressed his lips together and tried to force the sound down. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry. I honestly can’t keep track of everywhere you’re hurt.” Her hand moved back to his hair. “Can you tell me about it now?”
He bit his lip, tears welling in his eyes. He closed them and two tears ran down the sides of his face.
“Um. He s-started by whipping me. He chained me up and whipped me until I begged him not to. Then h-he…” He took a steadying breath as his lips trembled. “While Sam was with him they made them tell him all our fears and I’m…afraid of drowning. He drowned me in a bucket…he forced my head under. But he…” He licked his lips. “He messed with my head, too. He got inside…told me he knew who I really was, why I was there…” He turned his head away.
“Ok. Why were you really there?” Her voice was soft, gentle.
Isaac’s voice rasped out in a shameful whisper, “because it’s the only way I know to make my team love me.”
Tori’s hand stopped moving through his hair and she bit the inside of her cheek. “Hm.” Her hand began to move again. “What else?”
“He…” He squeezed his eyes shut. “He tied me down and attached this…electrical box to me. With wires. He said it gave me a shock that was painful, but non-lethal. It…” The memory of it left him breathless for a moment. The tears started pouring steadily down his face. “I’ve never been in so much pain in my life.” Tori’s eyes were warm, her eyebrows pulled together in concern. “Then h-he…tied me down again and cut me. That’s what these are from.” He glanced down at his chest. “He blindfolded me, told me he was going to kill me if I didn’t tell him more about the team. I refused so he asked me questions about me. He m-made me tell him about…everything. My past, what I’m ashamed of…it’s like he knew exactly what to say to make me hurt. Then he handcuffed me to the floor and whipped me again.”
Tori drew a breath in through her teeth. “I was wondering. The marks looked like they were from different beatings.”
Isaac nodded, sniffling. “Then he…got right back in my head again. Asked me about Sam. Why I love them so much.” He looked over at their form in the dark, curled up next to Gray, a pillow under their leg.
Tori’s eyes bored into Isaac. “I can tell you love them.” She looked over at them, a small smile on her lips. “And I know they love you. They love you more than anything.”
Isaac smiled and two more tears ran into his hair.
“Is that when your team got to you?”
He laughed once, wryly. “No. That’s when he really got started. While he was sending the video he waterboarded me and whipped me again.” Tori shook her head slowly. “He burned me with his knife on my arms. He drowned me again.”
“He did all of this with your family watching?”
Isaac nodded slowly, lips trembling. “I never…I never wanted them to see it…”
“Of course not. Of course.” Tori smoothed the hair away from Isaac’s face. “Did he torture you once they got there?”
“He bound and gagged me and beat me while they watched.”
Tori closed her eyes. “Jesus.”
Isaac squirmed uncomfortably. She noticed and looked away for a moment. “Thank you for telling me. I don’t think I have to worry too much about any injuries that haven’t already been treated.” She looked around at the team. “Why don’t you want them hearing about this?”
Isaac shook his head. “They don’t need to. I can’t stand to have them look at me and know…that I was weak.”
Tori snorted. “Weak? Do you hear yourself? Did you hear the long list of indescribable torture you just told me Gavin put you through?”
He swallowed. “I broke. More than once. I went to Gavin because I thought I could be strong. Strong for them. I don’t want them hearing what he did to me and…knowing I couldn’t take it.”
Tori leaned over Isaac, cupping his face gently. “Isaac. Sweetheart. Believe me when I tell you this, please. You going to Gavin, taking the torture you did, pulling Sam out of that burning building despite all the injuries you had to your body…that was all an incredible act of love. But they loved you before you sacrificed so much for them. Do you know that? Do you know how much they’ve always loved you?”
Isaac’s lip quivered and a sob ripped from his throat. He rolled to his side, turning his face into the mattress.
“Hey,” she soothed. She leaned over him, covering him gently with her body, avoiding all his hurts and pain and holding him gently in an embrace. He sobbed as she cradled the back of his head, muffling his gasps against her shoulder as he felt waves of pain and terror move through him and out. “You’re safe now.” He trembled weakly, too wracked by pain to pull her close.
She let his sobs grow quieter as his energy began to run out. She pulled a clean tissue from a pocket and offered it to him. “I have a feeling I’ll be running out of these soon, with all that you all have been through.” He whimpered softly as she leaned back, smoothing his hair again. “I’ll tell you something I already told another one of your friends tonight,” she whispered. “Recovery is a lot easier when you trust the people who would do anything to help you.”
He sniffled. She looked him over for a moment and nodded once. “They love you, Isaac. They risked everything for you, just like you did for them. Personally, I hope you tell them. I think they should know. But it’s up to you.” She pushed herself to her feet. “If you’re doing alright, I’m going to head back to bed. I’ll try to be up in a few hours to help with breakfast.”
Isaac looked up at her. “Thank you, Tori. I’m sorry I woke you.”
She brushed off the apology. “When Gray called, I knew you would all need a lot of help. Please don’t apologize. I would have turned you away if I couldn’t give it.”
She smiled. “You’re welcome.” She turned and left the room, turning off the hallway light on her way back to her bed.
Isaac settled back into the blankets. Across the room, Sam closed their eyes, tears moving slowly down their cheeks.
Chapter 35: Claustrophobia
Ellis blinked awake. They could smell something, something like cedar musk and shampoo and something else. They rolled to one side, hand reaching out for their husband. He smelled so good. Their fingers brushed warm skin, soft clothing. They smiled gently and cuddled closer to his warmth.
They gasped. Their eyes focused on the face lying on the pillow next to them, hazel eyes and dark hair and a bruise staining their left temple and cheek. Finn. They swallowed the tears that burned their throat, their stomach clenching hard. They tried their best to smile as the wisps of their husband disappeared into their mind.
"Good morning." They reached out and gently touched the bruise on Finn's face. "How do you feel?"
"Ugh. Groggy." Finn tried to push themselves up off the bed and collapsed in a yelp of pain.
"Hey, hey." Ellis grabbed Finn's wrists, pulling their hands off the mattress. "Careful." Their left hand was swollen, bruised from their wrist to their knuckles. The right wasn't so bad off: bruised, but not as swollen. They helped Finn sit up as they cradled their hands in their lap.
"Look who's finally awake." Sam's face was pale and drawn with pain, but a playful smile tugged at the corner of their mouth. It's so good to see that again.
Sunlight from the window lit the room, illuminating the walls and the mattresses on the floor. Sam was sitting up on their bed, leg on a pillow, leaned back against their hands as they watched Ellis. Isaac lay on his side, eyes half closed, unfocused.
Ellis's eyebrows pulled together in concern as they got up from their mattress to make their way to Isaac. "Isaac? Are you..."
"I'm ok," he gasped out. He squeezed his eyes shut. "It just...hurts. Just trying not to move."
Sam's face crumpled. "I asked Tori if he could have more pain medicine but she said he can't have anymore for another two hours."
Ellis's hand rested gently on Isaac's forehead. His face softened and he pushed his head weakly into the touch. "I'm so sorry," they whispered. Isaac weakly shook his head.
"Where are Gray and Vera? And Tori?" Finn's words were still the slightest bit slurred. Ellis's stomach tightened with worry.
"They're in the kitchen. Making breakfast."
Ellis's stomach growled. "Oh." They licked their lips. When's the last time we all ate a proper meal? "What's for breakfast?"
"I'm not sure. I thought I heard something about eggs, but I don't really know."
"Hm. I'll go check. Stay here, invalids." They winced as the words left their mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." They ducked their head and left the room.
The kitchen was a happy mess. Bowls of batter and ingredients littered the countertops. There was a massive frying pain on the stove cooking eight eggs, and a countertop griddle frying pancakes. Gray was flipping pancakes, face creased into a look of intense concentration. Tori was poking the eggs gently with the spatula, testing them for doneness. Vera was standing awkwardly in the corner, arms crossed firmly over her chest, watching the two with wary eyes. Her head snapped to Ellis as they walked in.
"Wow." Ellis's mouth watered at the sight of the breakfast. "Need any help?"
"I asked the same thing." Vera's voice was strained. "Apparently 'there isn't much left to do, and I can just relax.'"
Tori pursed her lips as she threw a look of amusement in Vera's direction. "I was going to say exactly what she said." She turned to Ellis. "You hungry?"
They nodded, licking their lips. Their eyes followed Gray's spatula hungrily as they scooped a pile of the pancakes off the griddle and onto a plate warming in the oven. There was a pile of pancakes already on the plate, ready to topple.
"Well, we're almost done. I hope you like eggs and pancakes. I wasn't sure what everyone could or couldn't eat, but I figured this would be an alright bet."
Gray smiled softly. "It's perfect. Thank you, Tori." Vera ducked her head in a gesture of gratitude, her eyes fixed on the floor.
Tori nodded once. "Then it's time for more help. Ellis, if you could ask the others what they want? I figured we could all eat in the guest room together. Vera, could you grab some plates? Second cabinet from the bottom, to the right of the stove."
Ellis turned and walked back into the room. Finn and Sam eagerly turned to face them. "Eggs and pancakes. How many of each?"
Finn's eyes widened. "Three pancakes, four eggs."
Ellis looked at Sam. "Two pancakes, two eggs."
They looked at Isaac. He trembled, curling into himself. "I...I don't think I could eat anything."
The corners of Ellis's mouth turned down in concern. They went to Isaac's side and knelt in front of him. "Isaac...you have to eat something." Their fingers brushed lightly through his hair, still stained with blood and sweat but cleaner than yesterday.
Isaac's eyes closed. "I just..." They opened again and he bit his lip. "I'm sorry. It just hurts. I feel sick and so tired and it just...hurts..." A soft whimper rose from his throat.
Ellis pulled their fingers through his hair. "I'll bring you one pancake. You need to keep your strength up, Isaac. You won't heal if you don't eat."
Isaac nodded weakly in surrender. "I'll try to eat."
Ellis lingered for a moment at Isaac's side. They sighed and stood, walking back to the kitchen.
"Well?" Tori pulled the plate of pancakes from the oven and pulled the mitts off her hands.
"Three pancakes four eggs for Finn, two pancakes two eggs for Sam, one pancake for Isaac."
Tori's face darkened with worry. "...ok." She grabbed one plate from the counter and began loading it with food. She passed it back to Ellis. "Finn..." She loaded up another plate and passed it back. "Sam. How much do you want?"
"Um...three eggs, two pancakes."
"Great. Get that to them, I'll bring yours." She deposited a handful of silverware on one of the plates. Ellis returned to the guest room with the food.
"Here." They set the plates down in front of Sam and Finn. Sam dug into theirs ravenously, bringing the plate close to their mouth so they could shovel in the food.
Finn stared plaintively at the plate as Ellis sat down beside them.
"Don't worry," Ellis whispered, doing their best to be playful. "I'll feed you."
Finn raised their eyes to Ellis, tears threatening to fall. "Thank you."
"No problem." They cut a generous bite of pancakes and held the fork to Finn's mouth. Finn took it gratefully, eyes closing as they chewed. It didn't matter that there was no syrup.
Tori walked into the room with her plate and Ellis's. Vera carried her own. Gray carried theirs and Isaac's. Tori placed Ellis's plate in front of them. They looked up and smiled in thanks. She sat down on a mattress, crosslegged, and looked around the room. Gray sat down next to Isaac, placing both plates on the floor and pressing their hand gently to an unbroken patch of skin on Isaac's shoulder. He opened his eyes, holding back a whimper.
Vera paused, eyes moving around the room, flicking to each member of her team one by one. A strange look crossed her face before she crossed to Tori's mattress and sat. Tori kept her face carefully neutral.
The room was filled with the sound of clinking silverware and satisfied eating. Gray carefully cut small pieces of pancake for Isaac, coaxing them into his mouth. Isaac obediently ate, shivering where he lay.
"Oh. Water. Is anyone thirsty?
An emphatic chorus of confirmation went up.
"Ok. Let me get some."
"I'll help." Ellis scrambled to their feet.
Tori held out a hand. "It's ok. You're helping Finn."
Vera hesitated for a moment, watching Tori leave the room. She got up and stalked out to follow her. Gray watched her go before turning back to Isaac, another bite on the fork.
"You need to eat, too," Isaac protested weakly.
"Isaac, don't worry about me. I'm fine. Just...focus on you."
"I don't want to," he whispered. "It hurts."
Gray sagged with concern. Their hand moved to Isaac's hair and stroked softly through. He sighed, tears rolling into the pillow.
"This is the only place we can touch you that doesn't hurt, huh?"
Isaac shuddered. "My legs aren't too bad."
Gray's mouth twisted bitterly. They cut a bite for themselves before offering Isaac another bite.
Vera and Tori walked into the room with a pitcher of water and seven cups between them. They started pouring the water and passing it around the room. The cups were empty in minutes. Tori got up to fill the pitcher again, and again it was drained. Gray helped Isaac lift his head, gently easing the cup against Isaac's chapped lips.
Sam sat back contentedly, sated. They wiped their mouth with their hand. Tori smiled. "Done?" They nodded. "Anybody going to want seconds?"
Finn was devouring every bite Ellis offered, barely pausing to draw breath as Ellis alternated between feeding Finn and eating their own breakfast. The plates were almost empty. Gray's plate remained nearly untouched as they tried to coax Isaac to eat. He was taking his bites slower, head drooping to the mattress, curling in on himself and shuddering. Gray cast a glance of worry at Tori and she put her plate down, kneeling beside Isaac.
"What is it? You look like you're getting worse." Her hand rested gently on his cheek. She couldn't tell if his skin felt warmer than it should.
His eyes fell closed and he whimpered. "...h-hurts, Tori, please...it hurts..."
"What hurts, sweetheart?"
He moaned. "My...sh-shoulder and...my hand...my head hurts...please..."
"Does anything hurt more than yesterday?"
"Y-yes...no...I don't know..." He tucked his head against the pillow.
Suddenly the room felt stifling with Isaac's pain. Almost...claustrophobic. The team felt their stomachs drop in unison as they realized Isaac had been hiding how badly he was hurting.
"Please, Tori," he moaned. "Please...I need..." He whimpered. "It hurts..."
Tori felt Gray leaning over Isaac and felt Vera's presence beside her as she sat on the bed. Her hand went to Isaac's leg and she squeezed, moving her thumb in soothing circles.
"I can't give you any more pain medication for another hour, sweetheart. I don't want to make you sicker. What I'm giving you has tylenol in it, I can't double up."
A small sob escaped Isaac's lips as tears leaked from his eyes into the pillow. "No..." He pressed his trembling lips together.
"I'm so sorry, Isaac. I'm gonna do everything I can to make it stop hurting but...it's going to hurt." She lifted her head and saw tears on everyone's cheeks. "Ellis," she said evenly, "let's get more ice. That should help with the shoulder and hand. I've got some anesthetic ointment I can put on the burns and lash marks." She turned back to Isaac. "There isn't much I can do for your ribs except bind them and hope that support helps. Can you hold on for me while we do those things? Try to get you through until your next pill?"
Isaac tried to nod as he started to sob weakly. Gray's hand pulled into a fist as their other hand stroked through his hair. Every sound of agony Isaac made was like a knife to their heart. They looked around and knew everyone else felt it, too.
Chapter 36: Left for dead
Vera only had to take one painful breath to know where she was. The collar squeezed cruelly on her throat, tighter than usual, every movement making her muscles clench with panic that her air would be taken away. If he wants my air, he'll get it.
She was able to choke out a despairing sob as she sank to the floor, chains clanking from the cuffs around her wrists. She pressed her forehead against the rough, cold concrete. It's been a long time. She could feel already the weight in her limbs, the pull of submission, the burn of humiliation as she imagined what would be coming next. It doesn't matter what comes next. He'll do it, and I'll take it.
She figured she should have known she'd always end up right back here. Maybe I never left at all. Maybe all that time – fourteen years – was something I imagined. Something I made up to escape this place. She closed her eyes. There is no escape from this place.
The door opened and she rolled to her knees, pushing herself up until her hands rested in her lap. He likes me like this, she remembered. He likes it when I'm ready for him.
She blinked in confusion as someone shorter than the man she was expecting walked through the door. Their curls were ringed with light from the hallway. Behind them, a much bigger presence, then two more, then another. Something twinged in the back of her mind. I should know who these people are. She couldn't remember anything. Nothing but this room, and what happened to her in it.
"Vera." That voice. Soft, kind. Familiar. What could be so familiar about kindness? In spite of herself, she shook her head.
A soft hand touched her cheek. She stiffened, gasped, and held herself still. He doesn't like it when I pull away. But the hand was so warm. So warm in this cold cell, where the only thing she ever felt that wasn’t cold was when she felt her own blood run hot down her skin. She shivered.
"Where have you been?" Another voice, closer to her. Deep and steady. I've never been gone.
"We came here for you. We came here for the Vera we knew. But...we never really knew you, did we? We didn't know you were..." She felt the ghost of a hand motioning down her body. "...this."
She shuddered. She was not enough. She had made a mistake. She must have screamed, or pulled away, or maybe he could read her mind now and knew that she had wished for something else. Death would be enough.
"We can't take you with us." Another voice. "We can't risk it. If this is what you really are..." A rustle in the dark as the person shook their head.
A hand found its way under her chin and lifted her head. She could just make out the silhouette of someone she swore she knew, someone as close to her as family. Her sister? No. Her sister was dead. She remembered that, at least. She tried to make her eyes focus in the dark, focus on the owner of the hand that was cupping her face so gently.
"We're going to leave you here," the voice said. "This is where you belong. This is where you'll die."
She nodded. She understood. She knew her death was an inevitability. She couldn't be released. Not when she could tell someone who her captors were. Not that it mattered. She was broken, what would be the point? She lowered her head again, waiting patiently. How were they going to do it? She braced internally for the shot, the cut, the blow. It didn't come. One by one the people left the room, closing the door firmly behind them. Leaving her for dead.
Her heart leapt in her chest. She knew them! She remembered! Her team, her family! They came for her!
She screamed, throat straining against the collar that usually rendered her silent with the threat it carried alone. She screamed for them to come back, to save her, to take her away from this place and the man who loved hurting her so much. She screamed until she felt like her throat would tear open. She screamed until her voice was gone.
She sat up with a gasp. Her hands went to her throat immediately, reaching for a collar that wasn’t there. It hasn’t been there in fourteen years. It will never be there again. Her lungs burned as she caught her breath. The soft clothes Tori had given her clung to her skin, damp with sweat. She rolled to her side, throwing the covers off her, and padded to the kitchen.
After four days of being in Tori’s house, she knew her way around in the dark. She navigated the hallway, arms slightly extended. Her bare feet were cold on the wood floor. It was nothing compared to the coldness of the cell.
This nightmare had been different from the others. For the past three nights the nightmares had been familiar, different versions of the same old dream she’d been having ever since she escaped: she was cold, alone, and back in that cell, under the man’s knife and whip and fists, under everything he wanted to take to her. And she was silent. Always silent. Near the end she had hardly ever screamed at all, even when he permitted it. She was too gone to fight it. Too gone to do anything but disappear inside her own body and watch what was happening from the ceiling, if she was lucky.
Tonight was the first time it was different. Tonight was the first time she screamed.
Tonight was the first time her team had come for her.
She shuddered, shoving the thought away with practiced ferocity. I’m never going back there. Then, the thought that always seemed to follow: I’ll die first.
She reached the doorway to the kitchen and slid her hand along the wall, far enough away from the guest room that she felt safe turning on the light. It blazed on, blinding her for several moments as she squinted. She fumbled her way towards the cabinet where the cups were kept. She pulled one out and filled it in the sink. She took a sip, too distracted to taste the cool nothingness on her tongue. Her mind was trapped in that cell.
She jumped, nearly dropping the cup into the sink. She turned to see Tori walking clumsily into the kitchen, eyes bleary with sleep.
“Um.” She cleared her throat. “Yeah.”
“Um.” She cast her eyes to the floor, wishing it wasn’t so painfully obvious. “What do you mean, again?”
Tori smiled gently. “My house doesn’t have thin walls, but I know every sound that happens in it. You crying in your sleep is one that’s…new. And distinctive.”
Vera’s face flushed, skin prickling with humiliation. “I’m…not…”
Tori shook her head. “It is what it is, Vera. You can’t control what happens when you’re asleep. God knows you keep a tight lid on it when you’re awake.”
Vera flexed her jaw, eyes fixed on a dark knot in the swirl of the floor. “You weren’t supposed to know.”
Tori huffed out an amused exhale. “I know. You’ve made that perfectly clear.”
Vera’s eyes snapped up to Tori’s gaze, her eyebrows pulled together in guilt. A silent apology passed over her face before her eyes dropped to the floor again.
“You were scared.” Tori’s voice was kind.
“I was more than scared,” Vera snapped. She shut her mouth, regretting the words as soon as they left her lips. Tori had kept her distance after that first night when they had shown up on her doorstep. Vera knew she was trying to give her space, wasn’t trying to force her comfort on her, but she had to wonder if it was more than that. She had to wonder… “Are you scared of me?”
Tori’s face betrayed her surprise for a moment before the compassionate distance she showed a lot of the time took over. “…scared of you?”
“Scared I’ll hurt you.”
“You…don’t seem like the type, Vera.”
“To hurt you?”
She pressed her lips together. “I…I’m not.”
“I know.” Vera swallowed. “Have you told the rest of your team yet? About your nightmares? And what’s causing them?”
“I’m just curious. I’m not judging. I just…help me understand, Vera. I know you know they love you, would do anything for you. I’ve been watching you all for days and I’ve never seen a group of people that loves and trusts each other more. You know you can lean on them, look at how fiercely they all protect and care for Isaac. So…why is it different with you? Why can’t you let them help you?”
“I let you help me…”
Tori snorted. “That was different.”
Vera looked down. It was different, but she didn’t know why. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Because…they’ll wonder if they can trust me. They’ll wonder if it was real. Who I am, what I’ve told them.”
“What have you told them?”
“They know I was a cop. They know I left the force. I told them it was because it just didn’t work out, I saw too much…I didn’t want them asking questions.”
“So what actually happened?”
Vera took a deep breath. She didn’t know why she was telling Tori all this, why she was trusting someone she’d met four days ago with something she hadn’t shared with her own family. She knew, somehow, that she could trust her.
“I was a cop. Joined when I was eighteen. Back then they were so desperate for bodies they were taking people fresh out of high school. It was what I wanted to do, so I joined up. Spent three years on the streets before I got promoted to detective. It wasn’t hard, turnover was bad enough that you just had to not be a total fuckup and you’d get there eventually. And not get killed.” Her mouth twisted wryly. “We didn’t know how organized the syndicates were, even then. We thought it was just some sort of heightened criminal activity. I went undercover to infiltrate one of the more notorious groups in the area. I was supposed to collect evidence and provide what we would need to take them down. I was doing alright for a few weeks. Then I got made.”
“They realized I was a cop. I didn’t know it and I walked right into a trap. One of the higher-level criminals decided he didn’t want me killed. Wanted to keep me for himself. So he set up a usual meeting and had his people waiting for me when I got there. He took me back to his headquarters, kept me in a cell he had especially for…t-torturing people. I wasn’t his first and I doubt I was his last.”
“How long do you think you were there?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out ever since Gavin asked me. I thought it was two months, but it may have been closer to four.” Her jaw flexed. “It doesn’t matter. It was long enough that he broke me.” Her eyes focused again to see Tori watching her. She blinked and looked down, embarrassed. “What?”
“He didn’t break you.”
“You don’t fucking know that.” She inhaled sharply, ducking her head. “I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to keep doing that. I don’t mean to -”
“I know.” Vera raised her eyes to Tori, wide with gratitude and guilt. “I know you don’t. You’re unburying this all for the first time in over a decade. It’s going to come out…rough…sometimes.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you,” Vera whispered, pressing her hands together. “I don’t mean to take it out on you.”
“I know that. Hey.” Tori crossed slowly to her, pressing her hands against Vera’s upper arms. Despite having three inches on her, Vera felt so small in her hands. “I know you don’t mean to hurt me. I know. I want to help you get better, ok? I want to help you recover from this. I want to help you feel safe again.”
“Why?” Vera’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Why do you want to help me?”
Tori leaned back, biting her lip. “I don’t know. I just do. Do I need a reason? Some explanation?”
“Do you need an explanation for why you deserve to be helped? Cared for?”
That undid Vera. She slid to her knees, pressing her hands against her face as the tears spilled over.
“Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t…” Tori’s hands went to Vera’s hair, carding through, smoothing it down. Vera’s arms wrapped around Tori’s waist and she ducked her head against Tori’s stomach, tears wetting the front of her shirt. Tori’s hand went under Vera’s chin, guiding her head up until she could see her face. “Let’s go to the couch, ok?” Vera nodded, taking Tori’s hand as she helped her up.
Chapter 37: Attempted rape
Tori led her gently to the couch and sat down, giving Vera the choice of how much space to put between them. Vera paused, chewing the inside of her cheek. She sat next to Tori, the sides of their legs brushing together. Tori shook out a blanket that was folded over the armrest and put it over Vera. She pulled it tightly around her, staring straight ahead.
“Can I touch you?” She nodded. Tori’s hand went to her back and made gentle circles over the T shirt. Vera’s eyes closed gratefully and she melted a little into the touch.
“I get the feeling you’re usually the one taking care of others, instead of the other way around.”
Vera nodded, pursing her lips. “I like being there for them. I like helping.”
“I know.” Tori’s hand traced lightly across Vera’s shoulders. Vera sighed, rolling her neck, letting her hair fall into her face. She trembled at the gentle touch. “Is this ok?”
Vera nodded. Her eyes fluttered open, but she couldn’t raise her gaze to Tori. “Why are you doing this for us?”
Tori took a deep breath in. “Gray and I go way back. Fifteen years, almost.”
“Oh. …how old are you?”
“Thirty-three. I met Gray when I was 18 at a rally against the syndicates’ takeover of the government.” She laughed bitterly. “Back when there was one. We worked together, organizing resistance, doing our best to stop what was happening. They were kind of a…mentor. And a good friend.” She pressed her lips together, looking at the floor. “Then things got worse. So much worse. Gray wanted to join an armed resistance movement. I…I didn’t.”
Vera’s eyebrows drew together. “Why?”
Tori’s eyes closed and she forced out a slow exhale. “I thought things would get better. I hoped. I didn’t want a life of fighting, being constantly on the run and watching my friends die. I wanted to make a difference but I thought…I hoped…that wasn’t what was required of me to make that difference.” She bit her lip. “I know better now. I regret not going with them. But…I can’t take it back.” She looked around the dark room. “But I have this now.”
Tori smiled in the dark. “My safehouse. My checkpoint.”
Tori shrugged. “Sometimes…when it’s necessary…I help people on the run. Trying to get to a safer area, running from the syndicates…sometimes I’ll house people in the resistance movements. Give whatever assistance I can. I keep tabs on the syndicates’ radio traffic, pass on their movements, that kind of thing. It might be too little, too late, but it’s what I can do. It’s what I’m doing.”
Vera had to close her mouth. “You said you let people stay, but…you’re helping the resistance movements? I…we had no idea.”
Tori squeezed her shoulder gently. “I know. That’s kind of the point. I don’t broadcast it.”
“Why are you telling me?”
Tori bit her lip. “I don’t know. I just…I know I can trust you.”
Vera ducked her head. “Does Gray know?”
Tori shook her head. “No. I don’t know how to tell them. How do I say I’m trying now, now, when I should have done this years ago?”
Vera shrugged. “Maybe you say it just like that? We all do our best when we can. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hoping for a better world.”
Tori laughed once. “Yeah, here’s to that dream.” She fell silent, hand still moving across Vera’s back. Vera shivered. “You ok?”
“Yeah. Just cold.” Vera held perfectly still for a moment, not even breathing. Then, slowly, she leaned into Tori’s embrace, resting her head against her shoulder. Tori smiled and wrapped her arms around her. She trembled at the closeness. Tori’s hand moved to her hair and she smoothed it away from her face. It felt so…good. So safe.
“How did you get out?” Tori whispered against her hair.
Vera swallowed. “A resistance raid, actually. They weren’t there for me. They didn’t even know I was there until they found me. They were trying to garner attention through the media, prove that some people were fighting back. They destroyed the place, stealing hard drives where they found them, tearing down the décor, lighting fires. They made their way to the basement and found me. I tried to stop them from taking me because I was just…” She squeezed her eyes shut and tears ran into Tori’s shirt. “I was just so br-” She set her jaw. “I was so conditioned at that point. I was terrified he was going to hurt me for leaving. They had to drag me out in cuffs. And…and a gag.” She swallowed hard. “Because I bit one of them.”
Tori made a sound Vera didn’t understand. Her hands became impossibly soft on her skin, stroking along her arms, smoothing her hair. “Oh.”
Vera ducked her head lower against Tori’s shoulder. “I couldn’t stand to stay with them. I was so scared…and hurt, Jesus, it hurt…I ran away. I almost went back to him. Almost. I figured the torture he’d put me through if he found me was worth the chance to be free. So I ran. I was able to keep to myself, stayed away from people…I don’t know how else to explain it, Tori. I was broken. Finally some people took me in. They helped me. Well…she did.” She trembled and clutched Tori a little tighter. “Her husband…”
Tori became very still. “Did he hurt you?”
“He tried to.” Tears were running steadily down Vera’s face. “He tried to rape me.”
Tori’s sharp intake of breath made Vera curl in on herself. “I’m sorry, I should…I’m sorry.”
“No no no,” Tori soothed, cradling her gently. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel…the way you feel right now. What…what happened?”
“The wife was kind to me, helped me with my injuries, kept her distance. She knew something had happened but she didn’t know what. I think maybe she thought I was a fugitive…I don’t know. Her husband…took a lot of interest in me. In the marks on my neck. He cornered me in the bathroom once and he said he…um…” She gulped.
“You don’t have to talk about his, Vera. I want you to do whatever makes you feel safe.”
“I want to get it out.” Her cheeks were wet with tears. “I want to talk about it. I’ve never…I’ve never talked about this…not to anyone. Please. I just want to get it out. Please.”
“Ok.” Tori nodded against her hair. “Ok.”
“He um…” Her breaths were heavy and painful. “He said he wanted to…um…help me get better. Give me…a better experience than I had with…with him. The other one. He put his hand around my neck and I just…turned off. Like I did with…him. He…pinned me against the wall…he…he said he was going to help me get better…he said…” She gasped, shuddered, gritted her teeth and kept going. “I felt frozen. I couldn’t fucking move. I couldn’t push him away, I felt…I couldn’t. But I…I felt so sick and I knew I’d rather die than let it happen again…I pushed him back and shattered the mirror…I didn’t mean to, but as soon as it broke I decided I was going to cut my wrists with the glass…he slipped and fell against the sink and he hit his head and I…I realized I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to…to be fucking free…I ran. I didn’t stop to grab my stuff, or explain to his wife…I just ran. I didn’t stop running. I couldn’t stand for anyone else to know, I didn’t want anyone to know I had that inside my head, I didn’t want to find out it was all still there…” She whimpered. “I know my team would never hurt me but I didn’t want them to find out deep down that I’m…broken…”
She choked out a sob. She buried her face in Tori’s shoulder, shuddering as she let the memories come to the surface for the first time in so long. Her body shook as she cried, the tears and pain and sounds she made moving through her and out of her. Tori held her, not making a sound, letting her completely come apart in her arms as years of terror and shame and grief slowly made their way out.
After what felt like hours, Vera’s sobs began to quiet. She sniffled, pulling her shirt up to wipe her face. Tori chuckled softly and passed her a tissue from the box on the table. Vera blew her nose and settled back against Tori. Tori adjusted so she could lean back against the armrest, Vera snuggling deeper into her embrace.
“Thank you for telling me all that,” Tori whispered. “I know you don’t know me that well…I understand the gravity of the trust you put in me to let me hear that.”
Vera said nothing, just nodded against Tori’s chest. She felt warm in her arms. Safe.
“Thank you for…um…”
Tori nodded, understanding. Her hand moved slowly through Vera’s hair. Vera sagged into her embrace, exhausted in her bones. She felt like she’d clawed an unbearable weight out of her chest and she quivered at how raw she felt. Her eyes closed slowly as the energy left her limbs. She was dragged into unconsciousness as Tori’s hand moved gently through her hair.
Gray woke slowly. They laid in bed for a moment, listening to the sounds of their team breathing. When they were sleeping, they could pretend things were normal. When they were sleeping, they liked to pretend they were all safe.
They rolled to their other side, careful not to jostle Sam. Sam lay on their back, peaceful, a pillow braced under their leg. Their mouth was open slightly, their eyes rolling under the lids. When Sam was asleep, it struck Gray how young they looked. Barely more than a child. The pain and fear of Gavin’s torture wasn’t so evident on their face. They looked painfully innocent. It made Gray’s stomach twist to think of what they had endured.
Carefully, they pushed back the covers and stood, rolling their neck, stretching their arms over their head. I’m too old for this. They grinned ruefully. I’m too old to be on the run, couchsurfing, avoiding the syndicates. They could remember very clearly the way things were before they’d gotten bad. They were the only one on the team who remembered the world as it had been. They’d been in their early 20s when the news had started picking up on the increasing crime, the disappearances, the rumors about syndicates amassing and making plans to take over. They’d laughed with their friends about it. “Yeah, sure, just as long as when they take over they’ll criminalize changing lanes without a blinker.” “Haha yeah, or make letting your dog shit in someone’s yard a capital crime.” They’d had no idea. None at all.
Yawning, they drifted towards the kitchen. They stopped dead in their tracks as they rounded the corner, looking out into the living room.
Tori was stretched out on the couch, asleep, with her arms around Vera. Vera was cuddled against her chest, eyes closed, looking more peaceful than Gray had ever seen her. A blanket was draped over both of them.
Gray didn’t realize they were smiling like an idiot. They blinked and headed for the kitchen. They got the coffee down from the shelf and scooped some into the coffee maker. As they waited for it to brew, they leaned on the counter. Tori was their oldest friend. Oldest surviving friend, anyway. They’d been estranged for so long, but Gray still loved her dearly. Had never stopped loving her dearly. They’d known Vera for five years, fighting alongside her, caring for her the way she cared for them, and not once had they seen her look so vulnerable. So peaceful. Not once had they seen her without that weariness she carried around with her, the walls that never seemed to come down. They knew why they were there now, but that didn’t mean it didn’t still hurt to see. Gray smiled to know that their wonderful friend had been the one to bring Vera that peace.
They heard someone enter the kitchen and turned to see Tori, her hair messy, her cheeks pink. Vera wandered in a few steps behind her with the blanket from the couch wrapped tight around her shoulders. She was wearing an expression of sheepishness that made Gray smile even wider.
“I smell coffee.” Tori’s voice was thick with sleep.
Gray grabbed three cups from the cabinet and set them on the counter. “Freshly brewed. It’ll be done in a minute.”
Gray glanced at Vera. “Sleep well?”
Vera inexplicably blushed. “Um. Yeah.” She stared at the floor, militantly avoiding Gray’s gaze.
Gray shot a glance to Tori, who seemed unbothered. She smiled at them. “You?”
Gray sighed. “As well as could be expected, I guess. I’m so worried I’m going to jostle Sam’s leg that it’s hard to get comfortable.”
“They could sleep with me for a few nights.” Vera’s eyes were still down. “I don’t mind.”
Gray swallowed, choosing their words carefully. “If you really want to, but I thought it would be better if you had a bed to yourself.” They filled the first cup and handed it to her. “Give you some space to yourself.”
Vera took the cup with one hand, the other still clutched around the blanket. She raised her eyes slowly to Gray as they poured the next cup, searching their face for condescension or pity. All they saw was quiet concern. She swallowed, thinking back to her conversation with Tori the night before. I really would appreciate the space to myself. She worried she might hurt Sam if they rolled over onto her in the night. She worried the unexpected touch would send her over the edge into a panic again. “Actually…the space is nice. Thank you, Gray.”
Gray and Tori shared a look as they smiled, gratitude flooding Gray’s face. Tori looked down, pleased.
They all looked up to see Finn and Ellis wandering into the room. Finn’s hair stood on end and Gray chuckled. “We smelled coffee!”
Gray pulled two more cups from the cabinet. “I just made it.” They poured the two cups and passed them both to Ellis, their hands already stretched out for them. Ellis set them on the counter and went to the fridge, pulling out the milk and preparing the cups the way they and Finn liked them.
“We should bring Sam and Isaac some, too.” Tori took the milk from Ellis before they put it away and added some to her cup, too. “Do you know how they like it?”
“Sam likes theirs tasting more like a coffee milkshake than actual coffee.” Gray grinned. “Isaac takes a little milk.” They prepared the coffee and passed Sam’s cup to Tori. They carried Isaac’s as they all walked back to the guestroom.
Sam was sitting up already. “Oh thank god. I was worried you all left.” They smiled, joking, but their eyes betrayed a hint of real worry. They brightened at the look of the mugs. “Is that coffee?”
Tori knelt beside them and passed the cup into their hands. They took a sip and their gaze snapped back up, gratitude warming their features. “You remembered how I like it!”
Gray smiled, setting theirs on the floor and ruffling Sam’s hair. “I’ve been watching you mutilate your coffee for a year now, Sam. Of course I remember.”
Finn and Ellis sat down on their mattress together, Ellis helping Finn take a sip of their coffee first. Gray made their way over to Isaac and Vera and Tori sat together on her mattress.
Isaac was curled up on his side again, hunched into himself. His face was tight with pain. His eyes opened as Gray sat on the floor next to him. Gray pulled their hand through his hair and he trembled.
“Hey.” Gray’s voice was low. “Feeling good enough to sit up and have some coffee?”
Isaac bit his lip and nodded. Gray helped him sit up, leaning him against the wall. Gray clenched their jaw at the sound of Isaac’s quick intake of breath. They took Isaac’s cup and held it to his lips, helping him drink the way he’d needed ever since they arrived.
“We could actually probably get you out of that sling today, if you want,” Tori said from across the room. “As long as it doesn’t hurt too much, it should be ok. Just be careful not to reinjure your thumb. That brace needs to stay on for a few more weeks at least. What do you think?”
Isaac nodded. “That would be really nice. Thank you, Tori.”
She made her way over to him, picking her way around the mattresses and everyone’s tangled legs. She knelt by his side, undoing the knot at the back of his neck and guiding the sling off his arm. Finn watched her work with longing. Tori’s eyes lingered a moment on the bruises around Isaac’s neck, fading now to a purple-yellow. She swallowed and stood, returning to her spot next to Vera.
Isaac experimentally moved his arm, slowly rotating it in the socket. He gritted his teeth. “It hurts, but I think the pain is coming from the back. Where you had to give me stitches.” He circled his arm a few more times. “Feels good to move it again.” His gaze was full of gratitude. “Thank you.”
Tori smiled. “Good. I’m glad there wasn’t more damage.” She looked over at Finn, their eyes downcast. “You made a good call, Finn. He’d be much worse off if you hadn’t made the call to reduce it.”
Ellis nudged Finn’s shoulder with theirs, grinning at them. Finn shyly raised their eyes and ducked their head. “I just figured if it really was broken then it didn’t really matter anyway, because that kind of break would need surgery and there’s no way we could go to a hospital so as long as there was a chance that I could make him better I would do that because dislocations can be dangerous if they’re left unreduced too long and I didn’t want to -” They cut themselves off as they saw Ellis’s face, lips pulled up into a smile, gazing at them radiantly. Ellis pressed a quick kiss to their temple and they blushed.
Sam’s eyes were fixed on Isaac as Gray placed the mug in Isaac’s hand, palm up, so his thumb didn’t move as he took a sip. Isaac realized they were looking at him and he looked away, pain straining his features. Sam’s eyes filled with tears and they looked down.
“How’s everyone doing today?” Tori’s eyes moved around the room, starting with Sam.
“It still hurts, but less than before.” They glanced down at their leg.
“Good. I think it’s time we starting getting you up and moving. You look just about recovered from the pneumonia, too. How are you feeling overall?”
“I’m fine,” they said too quickly, glancing at Isaac. Tori lifted an eyebrow. They wilted. “Um. I still feel…um…” Their eyes flicked to Isaac again. Tori followed the look. “Things still…um…hurt.” They looked down at their arms, a few bandages covering the still-healing cuts and burns. And I…um…” Their cheeks flushed with shame as their eyes filled with tears. “It still just hurts.” Gray’s hand settled on their shoulders, rubbing the back of their neck. Sam smiled shakily at them. Gray stroked their hand through their hair.
“Ok. I’ll work on getting you some crutches so you can start getting around. Movement is going to do you a lot of good.” She moved on. “Finn? How’re the hands?”
They looked down at them. “Um. The swelling isn’t as bad. The right one…” They carefully touched the tip of each finger on their right hand to the thumb. “It’s still sore, but it really feels fine. Should be back to normal in a week, I’d say.” They looked mournfully at their left hand, wrapped in a makeshift brace Tori had put together. “The left is…um…still broken, I guess.” They shrugged, their shoulders bowing in.
“The left will heal, too.” Tori smiled at them. “I promise.”
They ducked their head. “I know.”
Tori took a sip of her coffee and looked around the room again. “What do you need? You’ve been here for a few days now. Do you need something from me you’re not getting? Is there something I could do to help you recover better?” With that, her eyes rested on Isaac. He looked down and away from her.
Gray blew out a slow breath. “Honestly, we could use some information. You mentioned you heard about the explosion over the radios. How much do you actually keep track of the syndicates? If you could give us that info, we could start strategizing our next step.”
Tori could feel Vera’s eyes boring into her. She glanced up and Vera was smiling at her. Encouraging. She swallowed. “Um.” She raised her eyes and saw them all looking at her. She blushed. “I…actually…know quite a bit about the syndicates’ movements.”
Gray’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Because…um…I’m…” She nearly lost her nerve. “…helping the resistance movements.”
Gray’s mouth fell open. “You…you are?”
Tori licked her lips. “Yeah.” She lifted her eyes and saw everyone looking at her with a look of…awe. Respect. She looked down again.
“Tori, why…” Gray shook their head in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Tori looked around, practically wilting under everyone’s gaze. “I didn’t think we’d be having this conversation like this. Um…” She ran a hand through her hair. “Because I didn’t know how to tell you. When I left you to find my own way I thought I was doing the right thing for me. I thought the world would get better and I wouldn’t have to sacrifice everything to make it that way.” She shook her head. “But I was wrong. I…regret not going with you. I’ve wondered every day since I left if I could have made a difference if I’d stayed.”
“Tori, I don’t -”
“Gray, please…” She held out a hand, brows pulled together. “Don’t do that.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. “So a few years ago I bought this house. I bought it with the express intention of running a safehouse out of it. Just for people on the run, or people who needed a place to crash, nothing special. Until I housed someone from the resistance. And I just…got sucked in. I couldn’t not help him. So I offered to keep him posted on anything I heard about them. I bought a radio programmed with the syndicates’ channels. Sometimes I’ll let resistance members stay here between missions.” She swallowed. “I know it’s too little too late, but…I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to tell you…”
Gray abandoned their coffee and knelt in front of her. They took both her hands in theirs and squeezed hard. They put a hand on her shoulder. “Please don’t apologize. Please. I don’t blame you for leaving. I never have. I wanted a happy life for you then, and I feel the same way now.” Tori glanced around the room, cringing internally from all the eyes on her. “And I am so proud of you. This?” They swept their hand around the room. “This is enough. It’s more than enough. Thank you, Tori. Thank you.” They pulled her into an embrace. Her arms went around them, pulling them close. She buried her face in their shoulder. Vera’s hand moved in small circles on her back.
Gray pulled away, eyes filled with tears. Tori blinked rapidly, hiding her own. “I just wish you’d told me sooner,” they said quietly, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Tori shrugged. “I didn’t know how. But now you know.” She squeezed their hand. “I’ll tell you everything I can. All I can say for now is that Gavin hasn’t left the hospital yet. I don’t know if that means he’s dead, or still recovering…they’re being very vague.”
Gray nodded. “Thank you. That’s good to know.” Their gaze jumped to Sam. Their face was tight with fear. “We can start planning our next moves to get as far away from him as possible.” Vera looked away. She took another sip of her coffee.
Finn awkwardly shifted the book in their hand. They had it propped against their left forearm, their right hand holding the pages open. It was one of Tori's, from her small library of books people left behind when they moved on from her safehouse. They could scarcely say what the book was about. It was some sort of dystopian fiction, but it wasn't engaging enough to really pull them in. The pages were dog-eared and the cover was worn. It smelled like diesel fuel. Finn wondered if the people who had left it were truckers of some kind.
Their mind wandered. Who owned this book before it fell to Tori? Who were they running from? Were they still alive? Their eyes passed over the same line over and over, absorbing none of it.
"Hey." They looked up, slightly startled, to see Ellis standing over them. They hadn't even noticed them approach, they'd been so deep in their own thoughts. Ellis held a hand out to them. "Wanna take a walk?"
Finn swallowed. "Is it...is it safe?"
"Yeah." Ellis smiled. "I checked with Tori, these woods go for miles around and no one lives close. Just a quick walk."
Finn set the book down, wincing slightly as their fingers relaxed. They followed Ellis out the back door and out into the sun.
It was midmorning, and still cool. Finn breathed deeply the smell of pine and dirt and chilly air. The sun filtered through the trees to the ground, dappling on their face. Ellis smiled at how it made their eyes seem to change colors. The bruise that had stained Finn’s temple and cheek was almost faded. They softly took Finn's wrist and guided them further into the trees.
They walked in silence, stepping over fallen branches and winding around trunks. Finn was a little unsteady on their feet, still wobbly from their concussion. Ellis let their hand brush against the weathered bark, their fingers bumping against the surface. The tension seemed to leave their face and they breathed deeper than they had in weeks. "It's beautiful here."
Finn smiled. "Yeah." They lifted their eyes to the canopy, where the tops of the trees creaked together, opening to the sun and closing in an endless dance with the breeze. When they looked down Ellis was gazing at them, eyes warm and soft.
"Maybe when this is all over," they murmured, taking a step closer to Finn, "we could build a house in a place like this. With the trees, and the sun, maybe find a lake or something." They took a step closer and touched Finn's shoulder, fingers moving down to their hand. "We could get a cat. Maybe a garden. Maybe we could..." They swallowed, tears suddenly pricking their eyes. "Maybe we could have kids. Adopt, or have some of our own. I don't know. I don't care." They carefully laced their fingers through Finn's. "I want a life. Not this constant running, the fear… We'd have a family together."
Finn looked at them with wide eyes. "You...you'd really want that? With me?"
Ellis's eyebrows pulled together. "Of course. Unless...unless that's not what you want."
Finn nodded. "No, I do." They looked down. "I do. I just...I didn't know if you'd ever want a family again."
Ellis's lips trembled. They pressed them together and closed their eyes. They opened them again when Finn took a step closer, their left hand pressing gently against Ellis's chest.
Ellis’s hands rested gently on Finn’s shoulders. "I'd want one if it was with you."
Finn's eyes fluttered shut as their lips pulled up into a smile. They leaned forward, resting their forehead against Ellis's. They breathed together, holding each other, listening to the wind and the birds and the rustling of the branches above them. Ellis stepped forward, gently pushing Finn back one step, then another. They pushed them back until Finn felt their back press against a tree, the rough bark scratching through their T shirt. They shivered as Ellis's hands moved from their shoulders to their waist as they leaned forward, breath tickling against their face. Ellis stood for a moment, eyes closed, the length of their body pressed gently against Finn.
Ellis raised a hand to Finn's cheek and kissed them softly.
Finn trembled at the kiss. They pulled Ellis closer, hissing at the pain that lanced through their left hand. Ellis pulled back, taking Finn's wrists in their hands and pulling their arms in to rest against their chest. Ellis licked their lips and pressed Finn back against the tree, feeling Finn's body melt at the sensation. They stroked their thumbs along the tops of their hands. Their tongue moved gently against Finn's lower lip and Finn shuddered, opening their mouth for more. Ellis smiled and kissed them deeper.
"There's nothing but us," they whispered against Finn's lips. Their mouth moved across their cheek, up to their forehead, pressing a soft kiss there, and down to Finn’s ear. Finn whimpered in the back of their throat as Ellis brushed their lips behind their ear.
"There's nothing but us, and these woods, and the wind. It's just you and me. Nothing else in the world matters right now. Not...not the past, not the future... You..." They cupped Finn's cheek in one hand, pulling back to meet their eyes. Finn looked almost desperate with longing, eyes flicking down to Ellis's lips. "...you're mine, and I'm yours, and there's nothing that can hurt us right now. It's just you and me, safe." They met Finn's lips with an open mouth. "Safe," they whispered. Finn's eyes closed and they disappeared further into the kiss.