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Absence

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Their days usually ran like clockwork. They started early in the day, all of them dreary and not quite there yet, staring off into space wondering when their coffee would kick in so they would be prepared to actually see what the day held for them. After said coffee did finally kick in, they would see what New York City had to offer them in terms of the sinister and vile that were hidden in plain sight. They would visit a scene, and if Malcolm was not already waiting there with a pleasant smile on his face serving a stark contrast to the gory scene that typically surrounded him, then he was always close on their tail and arriving just a hair shy of fashionably late.

They would look at the scene and get the rest of the details. They would piece it apart bit by bit. Bright would shed light on something they’d missed or overlooked, and Edrisa would always be the first – and likely only – person to actually admit that what he’d said was genius. Which, was a testament to the reason he was there in the first place. They would handle whatever mess it was that had plopped itself in their laps. They would talk to witnesses and to suspects, and there would likely be a scrape or two along the way before they eventually found their resolution. With this group in particular, it was always guaranteed that something was going to go wrong before they reached their end goal. It was never a surprise. It was more along the lines of ‘What took you so long?’

Regardless, they would wrap up the case. Sometimes the ending was sadder than they’d like to admit. But they weren’t in the business of making happy endings— they were just in the business of finding an ending eventually. And they always did, one way or another. The fine details were always different, but they never were. They were a team. It had taken a while to get the ball rolling, but now that they’d found their footing, they were taking off. They knew each other— their quirks and their strengths and their weaknesses. They were friends. The kind of friends were it was an unspoken fondness. The kind of friendship where they might not even really notice, until someone asked them point-blank, and they had no choice but to stop short and say: “…I guess I do care about them.”

It was little steps, that worked together to accumulate into something bigger. Little steps like forming the tradition of going out together after cases, to celebrate a job well done. Then getting together for reasons entirely unrelated to work. Dani and Malcolm began to text because they wanted to, not because they had to. Edrisa stumbled over herself just a little bit less, but her nervousness was something the group was used to as well, and had embraced. Just like there was an unspoken understanding that when they went out to eat, Malcolm wouldn’t order much, if anything. That when he showed up to work with bags under his eyes that were darker than normal, with an expression that was more drawn or more strained, that they weren’t to comment on that, either.

It was a slow process.

But what process wasn’t? That was worth it, anyway.

Their routine was well-established, and by now it was second nature. So much so, that they didn’t even need to glance over their shoulder and see who it was that was approaching them as they stood in the midst of the crime scene. All it took was the sound of his footsteps, and they recognized the newcomer. “She was just found by a couple out on their morning run,” Gil explained. Malcolm would have frowned at the mental image, if he hadn’t already looked sick at the image that was already in front of him.

The body was horribly mutilated. He imagined if you found her parents, if you found her closest friend, her boyfriend, her fiancé, someone that knew her inside and out, not a single one of them would be able to identify her. To say the sight was sickening was an overwhelming understatement. There was hardly an inch of skin that had been left unmarred. From head to toe, she was a gory mess of injuries. The areas of her skin that weren’t cut open were bruised or swollen, or burnt— second, even third-degree burns. Her left cheek had been cut away; you could clearly see into her mouth, and see her teeth. The ones that were left, anyway. Her palm was facing the sky, despite the fact her arm was not. Her ankle was broken as well, to a lesser degree but obviously noticeable.

“Hope they had breakfast first,” JT grumbled under his breath.

Anyone else’s instinct might have been to immediately turn away from the sight. To get sick, even. But Malcolm’s eyes were immediately scouring every inch of her; he was drinking in every detail he could, slowly walking closer and bending lower to get a better look. His expression was heavy, and only growing heavier the more he saw. When he saw that beneath the fresher injuries, there were just more ugly, horrible scars. “There’s nothing here but suffering…” he murmured, talking mostly to himself, though he knew he had a rapt audience. “Extensive scarring…old scarring…whoever did this to her, they’d been hurting her for a long time. On average, it takes six to eight weeks for injured tissue to remodel fully. But…I would say these are definitely older than that…”

“Her gums are healed, where her teeth were pulled,” Edrisa chimed in. “If we’re assuming she wasn’t already missing them. Which…I am.” By the time she was through speaking, her voice was more of a mumble. JT eyed her, but said nothing. “She’s extremely malnourished, too…her hair and nails are brittle, and you can see all the bony prominences,” she tacked on.

That frown was back on his face— saddened and pained but thoughtful, too. “This person was obviously more interested in the torture aspect…the murder was a lower priority…if it was even a priority in the first place.” He crouched low, his eyes narrowing as he leaned down close to look at both wrists. Then he shifted over to look at both ankles. He had to focus in order to make it out. His voice still stayed that thoughtful mumble. “She doesn’t have as much scarring or injury, here…she wasn’t restrained recently.” He pulled back more. “Which…means she couldn’t even fight back.” He glanced at her stomach, and the ribs he could plainly see, underneath her torn and tattered shirt. “She was so starved and injured, she had no choice but to endure it all.”

“That kind of weight loss…” Dani didn’t need to finish the thought. They all knew.

Malcolm stood back up. He glanced at Gil. “I guess you don’t know who this is?”

“Not yet. But we’re working on it,” he replied. “We’ve got people rooting through the latest missing persons cases, too, trying to see if they can’t narrow down a selection.” It was awfully hard to do, given her disfigurement. But eye and hair color could go pretty far, when it was all you had.

He looked back at their victim again. If anyone ever qualified for the title of being a victim, it was her. He tore his gaze away and looked instead at their surroundings. “This is where the body was found?” he asked, uselessly, because he already knew that it was. Gil nodded, waiting for what he knew was going to come. Malcolm looked to the side, at the trail that was winding not twenty yards away. He looked back at the body. “She was exactly like this? Nothing was moved?"

"What’s it mean, Bright?” Gil just prompted, skipping over all the steps it would take to get to the explanation.

Malcolm hesitated, like he was making sure of it himself. He inhaled sharply, and shook his head. “This meant something,” he declared. “Our killer was more than capable. To keep a person hidden like this for months on end, while torturing them and to not have a single bit of suspicion placed on you— that’s impressive. Or— you know what I mean,” he rushed to add, when Dani shot him a look. “They accomplished all of this— if they could do that much, disposing of a body without being caught should have been just as simple. But…they just left her out in the open. On the side of a trail that’s always populated, especially during this time of year, when it’s starting to get warmer.” He shook his head. “He wanted her to be found. He wanted people to see.”

“Why, though?” Dani asked. “Just…to scare people?”

Malcolm shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so…” He was looking at all the old injuries that riddled her body, along with the fresher ones. “It’s a possibility, but…it doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem like it’s…enough.” It was on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t quite land it. It was just out of grasp; he was left reaching out for absolutely nothing. The look on his face was telling enough for the rest of them. Dani crossed her arms and sighed, and JT left to go speak to another officer.

Gil paced forward so he was at Malcolm’s side. No ideas?” he asked.

Malcolm didn’t reply. But his answer was clearly seen in the troubled, puzzled way he was staring at their Jane Doe.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“Kaelyn Foster.” The three looked up as Gil strode into the room with the announcement. Immediately, they were all perking. He set the file down in front of them and they wasted no time before opening it and looking inside. Sure enough, this girl had the same red hair. Her body shape seemed to fit, though it was difficult to tell when she didn’t have all those horrible injuries, and when her weight was actually appropriate. But it was their girl. “Twenty-six; she was a bartender.”

“Family?” Dani asked, before Malcolm got the chance to.

Gil shook his head. “She grew up in foster care. Her parents were abusive drug addicts. When she was seven years old she was put into the system.” Malcolm’s eyes flashed. “She was passed from household to household until she turned eighteen. No college.” Malcolm stared at him, still waiting. Sure enough, Gil went on. “The only run-in with the law she’s had was in 2012. She called 911 late one night; her boyfriend had come home drunk and started beating her. She locked herself in the bathroom and called for help— apparently he’d been abusing her for years, and she just never had the courage to say anything.”

Dani’s expression was growing more and more solemn. “What happened to the boyfriend?” It was the most immediate assumption, to pin the crime on him. It was pretty much everyone’s knee-jerk reaction.

But Gil was quick to shake his head, having already had the thought himself. “Apparently, he’d thought he’d graduate to murder, a while back. He’s been incarcerated since 2015; he’s still got twenty more years to go.” Dani made a face, looking back down at the file.

“Her boyfriend was abusive?” Malcolm asked. Everyone looked at him. “And her parents?”

“I guess she has a type,” JT offered, just a little untastefully. This earned him a look from Dani.

But Malcolm wasn’t eyeing him. In fact, he was doing the opposite— he was agreeing. “She does…” Dani looked at Malcolm, now. With him, it was much less sharp. She looked confused. Malcolm just got up and walked towards the board, where they’d already pinned up all the photos of the body— of Kaelyn. “People who are exposed to abuse and neglect from a young age tend to gravitate towards it later in life without even realizing it…”

“You think this was from another abusive relationship?” Dani asked, doubt layering her voice.

He clasped his hand behind his back, looking at everything they had. Still, he could feel that one thing taunting him. He knew there was something, and it was just out of reach. Frustration was beginning to itch under his skin— he did his best to push it down, knowing that it would only make it harder to think clearly. No, he didn’t think that. This wasn’t that simple— this was something else entirely. It was a different level. He was sure of it. It was methodical, careful…inhumane. And she clearly showed enough self-awareness to know when things had gone far enough, given that she’d called the police.

Something…there was something.

Just out of reach. Something he wasn’t thinking about.

“Who could we start looking at?” Dani asked slowly, once she realized Malcolm was too deep in thought to say anything himself. “Someone…that knew her, and…wanted to make a point, like Bright said?”

“We could track the parents down,” JT offered. “It’s a start.”

“It’s a start,” Gil echoed eventually.

The other two nodded. Malcolm stayed staring at the board.

“Bright.” He perked. Turned to Gil. The man raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Right,” Malcolm agreed. He turned back to the board, looking at it from top to bottom. His voice was softer when he murmured under his breath: “It’s a start…”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

They all cheered, raising their glasses and clinking them together, to toast another case well-wrapped. Dani was grinning from ear to ear— even JT managed to look happy. He was saying something to Edrisa which was getting her laughing. Dani’s eyes caught on Malcolm, and she perked a little. A frown worried her features. He had been the only one not to toast; now, he was sitting with his shoulders slightly hunched, resting on his arms and ducking his head as if he was trying to memorize the look of the table. She leaned to the side, loud enough so she could talk to him over the music that was playing, and soft enough so hopefully, nobody else would overhear.

“Bright?” He didn’t react at first. She leaned even closer. “Bright.” He looked at her, blinking rapidly. He looked surprised. She titled her head a little. “What’s up You aren’t happy?” They’d just solved a murder of a very highly-respected philanthropist. He wasn’t one to jump up and down for joy, but she at least expected him to look satisfied.

He offered her a smile, but it was flimsy. It was too weak to be real. “Of course I am.”

She was skeptical. “You don’t seem like it.” His smile dropped. He didn’t actually reply, but he did shrug one shoulder. She softened a little, with sympathy. “It’s okay, Bright…” He made a face, leaning even more on his arms. She’d figured he wouldn’t take kindly to any of her efforts of comfort. She was trying, anyway. “Sometimes you don’t get all of them. It’s sad, but…it happens. And we’re not giving up on the investigation…we’re just…putting it on the back burner until new evidence shows up.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. She offered him a smile. Hers was much stronger than the one he’d tried to give her. “We’ll figure it out, eventually.”

He just returned a noncommittal: “Sure.”

She hesitated, before she looked at him in a way that demanded he meet her gaze. Her expression was reassuring. “And…you know it’s not just on you, right?” He didn’t answer right away. She shook her head. “It’s on all of us. Kaelyn Foster isn’t resting just on you. Okay?” It took a second for it to sink in. Once it did, she could see him change. She saw him warm, and the edge of his lips twitch up into the tiniest of grins. She made up for this by smiling wide enough for the both of them.

Without thinking, she reached out and put her hand comfortingly on his shoulder. Lightly. He didn’t shrug her off, and when she insisted: “It’s going to be okay,” he didn’t scoff at her, either.

He just smiled a little more.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

The second Gil answered the phone, he was yelling. He didn’t even have time to say hi, and Malcolm was taking off. Which might have been alright, if it wasn’t three in the morning. Granted, Gil was close to Malcolm, so he, unfortunately, was not a stranger to these types of calls. He’d just hoped that the lack of any recent screams at three in the morning meant that the habit had been kicked. Yet here he was, being disappointed. Again. Hoping was really on him, though— he should have known better.

“Gil!”

He cringed, twisting his head just enough to see the clock. When he saw the time looking back at him, he closed his eyes and took in a slow breath, praying to whatever higher being that existed to give him the patience it took to deal with Malcolm Bright. “Malcolm…why are you calling me at three in the morning?” he exhaled. He reached up to rub at his eyes, before he added in more of a grumble: “For your sake, I hope you’re dead over there.”

Malcolm decided to bypass the threat against his life, as he’d heard it before. “Why didn’t you call me about Bennett Rogers!?”

It took him a while. He made a face. “The…why would I call you about that? It’s just a—”

“Just a missing person case?” Malcolm finished for him, his voice sharp.

“You’re a consult for murders, Bright,” he sighed, letting his eyes close again. His lips were hardly moving, he was so tired. He was going to fall back asleep still holding the phone. “And it’s not even a big concern right now— he hasn’t been missing for that long…they’re just overly protective—”

“Because he’s gone missing before,” Malcolm snapped, just as hotly.

Gil let his arm fall back onto the bed. “Why are you this awake at three in the morning?”

“Bennett Rogers was kidnapped when he was ten— he was found when he was thirteen,” Malcolm said, instead of actually answering. “Wilson Myers kept him in his basement and subjected him to abuse relentlessly, for three years.”

“I know the case, Bright,” he sighs. “He’s barely been ‘missing’ for 72 hours, he’s twenty-two now— think of all the potentially-concerning things you were doing when you were twenty-two. You’re responsible for each and every one of my gray hairs…”

“He’s gone missing…just like Kaelyn Foster had.” Gil opened his eyes again. He sobered a little. Malcolm must have sensed the difference. He spoke slower, and more purposefully. “I’ve been struggling to figure out what made Kaelyn Foster the target of such a horrible crime, why would someone attack a seemingly-innocent person, who’s never appeared to mind anyone but herself? What makes her a target, when everything else checked out? If the killer is trying to make a point, what is he trying to make a point about?” He waited for a second, like he was giving Gil the opportunity to suddenly reach the conclusion himself, and join in the conversation. But he stayed silent. So Malcolm finished for him. “It’s her past.”

“Her past?” he repeats dumbly.

“It’s tragic,” he states. “Abused as a young girl, tossed from house to house in the foster system— years of abuse by the hands of someone she thought loved her— it’s all there. Her past was tragic, it was hard. It finally clicked, once I heard about Bennett.”

Gil sat up slowly. He was holding the phone tighter. “You think they’re connected?”

“Kaelyn Foster went missing. She wasn’t found, and shows up months later in a wide-open space, for anyone to see. A little over a month goes by of nothing, and then someone else goes missing? Someone with a similarly-horrible past?” He stares straight ahead, listening intently, fully awake now. There was a pit opening up in his stomach as Malcolm, once again, spelled it all out. “Bennett suffered for years and came out of a horrible situation to move on with his life just like Kaelyn. It’s just a hunch at this point…but…”

Gil held the phone even closer to his ear. “But what?”

“But…I really think I should be brought into the case.”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

Malcolm had a foul taste in his mouth. Not because of what he was staring at. Not exactly.

The body was in pieces, in a misshapen pile on the ground. One of the arms was twisted into what was almost a sickening knot. The eyes had been gouged out. Not recently, either. He was staring at something horrifying and grotesque, but all he felt was hollow disappointment. He’d failed. He’d known what would eventually come, yet he hadn’t been able to stop it. Now he was staring at the second victim.

Edrisa stood beside him. She looked upset, but when she turned and saw the look that was on Malcolm’s face, she straightened. “Hey…” He glanced at her. She weakened. “Think of it this way…” Though her voice remained weak, she fought to try and make herself sound much more optimistic than she really felt. “Now you know your theory is right.”

He just shook his head once. He didn’t reply. He couldn’t bring himself to.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

He stood between JT and Dani, wracking his brain.

Nothing…how in the world could there be nothing? At all?

They all heard the door open at the same time. At the same time, they all turned.

Gil was standing in the doorway, a heavy expression on his face.

Already warning them of what they were dreading.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“How are you holding up?”

Malcolm had been staring at the board with a blank look in his eyes. The kind of staring where you were looking intently at something, but at the same time you weren’t actually seeing it. He didn’t need to look at it. By this point, he had every detail of it memorized. All the photos and theories and connections— he could still see them even if he closed his eyes. So when he heard her voice he jerked a little, jarred out of the thoughts that had been swirling around in his head.

Dani was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed and her expression bordering on sympathy. “You know…standing there all night isn’t going to accomplish anything.” It was almost nine. He’d probably been standing there for nearly an hour straight, hardly moving. The ache in his muscles, which he actually noticed now that he was paying attention, was a testament to the fact. He grimaced a bit, and shook his leg out a little bit. But all he did was turn back to the board. Dani hesitated, before she started over.

She stopped to stand beside him and for a while, the two of them stood together, silently observing the evidence that was piling up. The third victim had been a forty-nine-year-old man. Marvin Thompson. A war veteran. It hadn’t been long at all since they’d found Bennett. Less than a month. At least with Bennet, there was just a little more than a month between him and Kaelyn. This one hadn’t taken as long.

For the past hour, the thought had paced relentlessly back and forth. Back and forth.

This one hadn’t taken that long. Taken that long. Taken that long. Taken that long.

“Bright.” When he looked at her, her sympathy was a bit more overt. Her voice was gentle, but it was firm as well. “You need to take a break from all of this.” She already knew he was going to object, and she saw the look on his face that signaled her hunch about his stubbornness was right. So she was going on, before he had the chance to even try. “You’re going to drive yourself crazy, and I haven’t seen you eat a single thing all day.”

He grimaced and sighed. “I’m really not hungry…”

She was prepared for that, too. “Well, then you can come with me to a restaurant and just watch me, eat, then.” He shot her an exasperated look. Her only response was to add a snider: “Plus, Gil went home thirty minutes ago— he tried to tell you but you didn’t even turn around. So. I am now officially your ride home. You kind of don’t have a choice. Unless you wanna walk.” His exasperation lingered for a second more. But when she smirked at him, he found that he couldn’t keep hold of the frustration for very long. It slipped away, and he found himself cracking a smile. That just grew more, when he saw Dani’s.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“Why snakes, though?” Dani asked. “I’ve heard of ‘a boy and his dog’ but I’ve never heard of ‘a boy and his snakes.’” She popped another fry into her mouth as she leaned back in her chair. The dinner was mostly over. She was almost through with her plate. Malcolm had ordered something small and had only pecked at it. He’d started out stiff and distracted, but now he was actually talking more; he was even cracking smiles. He smiled again, with this comment. It spurred her on. Laughter bubbled up underneath her voice when she pressed: “I’ve never actually met someone that had a snake when they were little. Much less snakes. As in more than one.”

“Ah. Well— I hate to break it to you this way, Dani,” he said, feigning remorse. “But, contrary to popular belief…I actually didn’t have that normal a childhood.”

She faked dramatic surprise. “Really?” He laughed, ducking his head a little and shaking it. “No. You? Not having a normal childhood? You’ve gotta be pulling my leg.”

“I’m afraid not; it’s a lesser-known fact about me.”

She laughed again. Ate another fry as she offered around her mouthful: “Y’know, people don’t give you enough credit; you can actually be a little funny when you put your mind to it.”

“I’d imagine if a person were to have my life, they’d need a sense of humor,” he scoffs, which makes her laugh again. He sits up a little more, his eyebrows knitting together. “Who implied I wasn’t funny?” he demanded. She just laughs and rolls her eyes, the waitress coming over before she could answer. She made a move like she was going to get out her wallet, but Malcolm was already handing the woman his card before she could even reach her pocket. He didn’t even glance at the price.

She shot him a look, as the waitress turned and went back to ring them up. “You didn’t have to pay— it was my idea to come out here; you barely even had anything to eat.”

He waved her off. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.” She eyed him skeptically. He sobered more, before he cleared his throat and said a little quieter: “Besides, it was…nice. To…get away from everything. For a second.” She perked. Her only-halfway-accusatory look was dropping. Her own expression was growing more solemn. He noticed the fact, but he just smiled at her. A sincere, genuine smile. His voice was genuine as well, when he added: “Thanks. For…dragging me out here.”

She softened. Her smile grew much warmer. “Anytime.”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“She’s cute.” Dani peered through the bars of the birdcage at the tiny parakeet that was inside. She was up on her perch and apparently very interested in the newcomer that was now surveying her. She was surveying Dani right back, her wings twitching and her head titling as she hopped a little from side to side. Her tweets were tiny and soft, but they were constant, like she was trying to engage in conversation.

“You can hold her. If you want,” Malcolm was putting his leftover food in the fridge. Dani had refused to leave the restaurant until he’d boxed it up, and he’d finally given in after a while. Though the both of them were fairly certain on the fact that it was a pointless venture— he wasn’t likely to touch it at all. Usually with food, for him it was out of sight and out of mind. He preferred it that way. But he also preferred not still sitting in a restaurant filled with people until two in the morning, so he’d pacified her. He put the box up on the top shelf and shut the door. He started back over to her, nodding to his bird. “She usually doesn’t bite…even when she does, you don’t feel it. But she likes attention, if you want to…”

Dani opened the door and reached in tentatively. Sure enough, Sunshine hopped onto her finger, fluttering her wings and twittering louder. Dani was careful as she brought her out. The little bird was moving her head up and down fast, like she was trying to bounce. Her wings keep flapping, and Dani stifled a laugh. “She does like attention.”

Malcolm leaned back against the kitchen island, his expression uncharacteristically soft as he looked at the bird. It surprised her, when she noticed it. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him look the way he did when he looked at Sunshine. At least, not as openly. “Yeah— we complement each other that way,” he jokes, and it gets Dani to laugh a little. “She doesn’t usually see company, either. She’s probably ecstatic to have someone other than me around.”

This wasn’t said as jokingly.

It took away Dani’s smile.

When he caught her eyes, he didn’t look away. The air got heavy with tension. Only briefly. Before Dani took in a quick breath, blinking rapidly before she looked back down at Sunshine. “You don’t give yourself enough credit,” she says, being careful to make her voice the exact amount of lightness she knew would get her point across but not put him down. It was a careful balance. But she was perfecting it, over time. “I’m sure she thinks you’re just fine company.”

As if Sunshine had heard and wanted to prove Dani right, all of a sudden she chirped louder, and flew off of her finger. She flew over to Malcolm instead. She flew fast and without warning, but Malcolm didn’t even flinch. He didn’t move a single muscle, when she flew over and landed on top of his head. Dani giggled, watching the parakeet immediately duck down and start teasing his hair. Malcolm cracked a smile, especially when she walked a little closer to watch Sunshine peck at him. “Yeah. She does that,” Malcolm sighed, and she laughed again.

Malcolm’s smile was soft, lingering on his face a little longer than normal as Sunshine hopped around on top of his head, slowly but surely, in miniscule ways, working to mess up his hair. Dani’s expression was a bit softer than normal, too. Their eyes locked once more, and their smiles stayed. Again, she was just a tad surprised. He’d smiled a lot more than he normally did, tonight. And certainly more than he’d smiled recently.

The silence stretched longer than both of them seemed to anticipate. Both their smiles dropped, yet they still stared at one another, like they were waiting for the other to speak. But the other wouldn’t. And yet the other also didn’t seem to want to move away, because their gazes held. There this was different from the one they’d had in the car, or at some points during their dinner. This was somehow heavier. It demanded more attention. It seemed to take up the entire apartment. It seemed, for some reason, unbreakable.

But it was. Sunshine broke it, when all of a sudden she let out a particularly loud chirp and flew off of Malcolm’s head. Both of them jumped, at the sound. Instead of going for her cage, she landed on Dani’s head, instead. Once she realized, she laughed a little, making a face as she felt the bird’s tiny feet pitter back and forth through her hair. Malcolm hurried forward, muttering a soft, “Sorry” the way a parent might do if their kid had rushed up to a stranger in the store and started talking to them.

“Sunshine. C’mere.” Malcolm held out his finger for her, but she was apparently feeling rebellious. Dani still felt her feet going everywhere. She stifled another laugh when Malcolm made a face. “Sunshine,” he cooed, reaching for her, but the tiny bird just returned an indignant squawk and kept going. Dani snickered, waiting awkwardly. Malcolm’s face pulled a little more. “Sunshine.” His voice was just the tiniest bit impatient. She didn’t change, and he huffed. “Sorry,” he apologized again, almost stressed, like he thought it was an actual ordeal.

“It’s fine,” she just laughed, and he relaxed a little more. He took another tiny step closer, begging Sunshine to just get on his finger so he could put her back. Dani’s smile faded as he did, when she realized how close they suddenly were. Malcolm was too busy trying to wrangle in his bird; he wasn’t even looking. But she was awfully aware that there were only a couple inches between them. She found herself glancing more down at the floor. Malcolm finally coaxed Sunshine to him and when she got back onto his hand, he lit up.

When he sat back more into his heels, he jerked, actually realizing just how close he’d accidentally gotten. His smile was quick to fade, and Dani felt bad when it did. He cleared his throat and looked from her to Sunshine. Before he pointed out a little stupidly: “I got her.” Dani managed a nod. He quickly turned to put her back in her cage and properly lock it, stepping away from her in the process. Sunshine seemed a little put-out about being put back, at first. But she must have quickly forgotten, because she turned and went over to her water not a second after.

Malcolm watched her intently. Dani wondered if it was just because he didn’t want to turn back to her. A couple moments passed, before she cleared her throat and repeated herself from before. “She’s cute.” He glanced back at his parakeet and smiled a little. Softened in that way he had before. It made her feel just a little better. She was able to regain her smile, and feel less like she’d done something wrong. Which was odd, considering she hadn’t even done anything in the first place. She glanced at the clock, and frowned. “I should probably go…it’s gotten awfully late.” And for some reason, she felt she’d overstayed her welcome. Though she didn’t add that last part.

He looked at the clock too, but wasn’t nearly as alarmed. “Oh. Yeah.”

She eyed him. “You’re going to sleep, Bright— right?”

This made him smirk. “I’d imagine at some point I’ll get my usual two hours,” he offered, sounding like he was only half-joking. She kept eyeing him, and he laughed a little before he relented with a tiny nod. “I’m sure I will. My head’s a…bit clearer, now.” This seemed genuine. That was another fact that was nudging at her, demanding to be noticed. He was being genuine, tonight. Not that he wasn’t always genuine, but this was just…a different type of genuine. “Thank you for dinner,” he added.

“You’re the one that paid for it; I just drove,” she laughed off. But smiled nonetheless and returned: “You’re welcome. Thanks for paying.” There was a tiny, awkward silence, where neither of them seemed sure what to do, in. Dani had had her limit of awkward moments for the day, though; she cleared her throat and cut it short. “Goodnight, Bright…I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Dani.”

She starts to leave. But she stops short. She hesitates for a second, like she’s unsure. Before she steels herself and turns around again. “You know it’s not your fault, right?” Malcolm’s smile was immediately dying. He said nothing, but she could see the guilt on his face. “We’re all working this case together. We win together, or we lost together. That’s how a team works…that’s how partners work.” She pauses, but shakes her head. “Bight…you’ve done amazing things for us.” His eyes flashed. “You’ve solved cases that…otherwise probably would have never been solved. We owe a lot to you. You’ve done so much. Don’t feel like you have to do everything. And don’t feel like you have to do it alone.”

He digests the sentiment. After contemplation, his smile is creeping back over his face. “Thanks, Dani,” he manages eventually. It wasn’t much, but she could pick up on whatever else he wasn’t saying. She could see it on his face, and she could hear it in his voice, and that was enough for her. “I appreciate it,” he adds, even lower, “I know you…didn’t have to…” He trails off.

She just shakes her head. “I wanted to. Promise.”

He seems doubtful, but he couldn’t argue. He couldn’t keep the smile from coming back.

Her smile is much softer now. She repeats, in barely a murmur: “Goodnight.”

He matches her tone. Her volume. Her quiet thoughtfulness. “Goodnight.”

This time, when she leaves, she walks the entire way. Down the steps and out the door, towards her car, leaving him behind. She doesn’t double back, she doesn’t say anything else.

It wasn’t until she got all the way home and parked, sitting in the dark of her car, did she realize how much she’d wanted to, though.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

Gil calls him at six in the morning. He wastes no time at all. Just asks him to get down there.

He does.

He walks into the room and can immediately tell that something is wrong. Gil looked horribly trouble, staring off into space; he didn’t even notice Malcolm walk in. JT looked furious, pacing from one wall to the other. Edrisa’s expression was heavy…Malcolm wasn’t sure, but he thought that he saw her eyes were the tiniest bit shinier than they usually were, with unshed tears. Dani was sitting at the table, looking strained as she propped her head up on her hand. Once she saw Malcolm she stood up quickly, drawing everyone’s attention as well.

They all look at him. But nobody says anything.

“What?” Nobody speaks. There’s something bad hanging in the air. “What is it, what happened?”

He knew something was wrong. Something awful, to get them all to act this way, especially JT.

But he hadn’t been prepared at all for the news. Not in the slightest.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

There were new, horrible additions…just adding to the overall gore. The newest victim had been added. An eight-year-old girl. Amelia Hull. She’d been the only member of her family to survive a house fire that had taken place when she was six. Now, she had joined all these other poor souls. Her injuries were not nearly as extensive. Her body had not been mutilated. But still…

“What’s going through your head, kid?” Gil was wearing that look again. The look that he wore when he was worried but trying to make it seem like he wasn’t. For a cop, he was pretty bad at keeping it cool…at least when it came to Malcolm. He tried not to distract himself by thinking about what that implied. He just turned, looking back at all the photographs. Gil kept walking, until he was standing at his side. Malcolm felt his eyes burning a hole through him. The tension in the air was demanding an answer.

He gave it reluctantly. His voice was just a weak sigh. “We’re going in circles…I’m trying to figure a way out— there’s gotta be a way out…it’s…just…” His forehead creased. Gil still kept studying him carefully. Given that he was just standing there, Malcolm figured that he now counted as an audience. He automatically shifted to thinking out loud. “This guy is smart. He covers every track you could think of. There’s nothing remaining on the bodies, no DNA…there’s no symbol he leaves behind. He can hold victims for months, torturing them relentlessly, yet he never gets caught. And then he proceeds to…just dump the bodies. Out of range of security cameras, but in a highly-populated enough area to have a guarantee of at least one person finding the victim fairly quickly.”

Gil nods slowly. “Why do you think he does it?” he presses.

This, Malcolm considered for a few more moments. His voice was slow and thoughtful when he started. “He’s trying to make a point,” he states his theory from before- the one he’s sticking with. “He’s shown he can fly under the radar, no problem, even with an active investigation— why risk it all by depositing the bodies somewhere populated?” He shook his head. “These murders mean something…he’s trying to prove something, and he doesn’t want to prove something to just himself.” He shrugs. “What’s the point, if nobody else knows?”

“You think he’s trying to make a point?” he asks. “By doing something over and over again?”

By doing something over and over again… Malcolm slowly took a few steps forward, reaching out and tracing over each of the victims’ photos. There was a spark slowly growing to life, in the back of his eyes. Getting brighter, the more he spoke. He thought best when there was someone there to listen— to bounce off of. He’d been debating for ages now, whether or not going to see his father would have to be the course of action he took. Now, it seemed Gil was helping him in a similar way. “It’s an experiment…” he breathed, the understanding slowly dawning. “These…these are his variables.”

“The victims?” Gil asked.

“They’re the constants. Their tragic pasts. That’s their inclusion factor. The dependent variable is how long they can last. He measures it against what he changes…what he does to them…” He thinks of the similar injuries they’d seen, from body to body. “He takes someone who he knows has suffered…” His eyes are gleaming, by now. Resolution and certainty was cementing itself on his face. “He takes them, and he sees how long it takes to break them. All the old injuries on Kaelyn…she must have lasted the longest out of all of them. He tortures them until they can’t last any longer. Until they die, or— or maybe until they beg for death…he just wants to see how far they can be pushed. How resilient they can stay, since they’ve shown resilience in the past...”

“What’s the point of making sure other people see it? Why’s it worth the risk of being caught?”

He struggled to reach out. To grab that one detail that had constantly been evading him. He felt his fingers finally start to latch around it. He felt it finally start to reel in. “Because he wants to brag,” he murmured. Gil frowns, but Malcolm’s expression was only lightening. “He wants to brag,” he repeats, louder. “That’s why they never live— he wants to see how long they can last, but he doesn’t, really. There’s not actually an option of surviving. No matter how much you can withstand, no matter how long you last, it’s only a matter of time. He wants to brag that they couldn’t make it. That they couldn’t suffer through it.” He looks at Gil, only growing more excited. “He wants to brag…that he made it farther than they did.”

His forehead creased. “‘Farther?’” he echoes.

He’s constant, too.” He turns back to the evidence, putting together all the pieces. “He had a traumatic past. Something happened to him, something profound, that ruined his entire life…he’s never been able to get past it. The one thing that lets him believe he’s gotten past it…is by seeing himself outlasting others…” Gil’s expression was freezing into a look of muted horror and understanding. “He takes people that have suffered and he tortures them— adds more suffering— makes them feel what he feels must be the equivalent to what happened to him…and he keeps going until they’re killed. He wants to see himself outlast them, so he can feel stronger, in comparison.”

Gil was silent, trying to take this all in. His eyes were scanning the photographs, just like Bright’s were. Trying to see the connection, however horrible it was beginning to look. “And…that’s why he’s so careless with the bodies…”

“It’s because that’s not the point. His end goal isn’t to get away with murder.” He knew it now. Now, after ages and ages of fumbling and grasping emptily in the dark, Malcolm had finally gotten his fingers around what had been in front of him this entire time. He was talking faster, and more certainly. Despite the macabre speech he was delivering, his eyes continued to gleam. “His end goal isn’t to remain free so he can keep torturing people— it’s to prove that he’s the strongest when it comes to adversity. Not only to himself…he wants others to know, too. The police— they see all these victims, how horrible they look, and how much they suffered, and their first impulse is pity. To think about how they eventually couldn’t go on— that’s what our killer wants. He wants everyone to know that these people weren’t as strong as they were once seen. That he’s stronger.”

The older man’s eyes were dark. “They never had a chance…” he murmured.

Malcolm shook his head. “No. From the very beginning, their fates were sealed. He tortured each and every one of them with the intent to eventually break them and kill them— he just probably wasn’t even aware of that. Maybe he thinks that if they were stronger – if they were as strong as he was – then maybe they would have lived. Not even understanding that wasn’t ever an option. It would explain the differences in time.” He pointed his finger at each of their photos as he spoke. “Kaelyn lasted the longest…she bore injuries and scars that show as much. But eventually, she died. Bennett didn’t last as long— that’s why he was found just barely a month later. Marvin only lasted two and a half weeks before he succumbed to the torture. Amelia…” His stare was heavier as his finger lingered on the young girl. “She was only missing for a handful of days…”

“He always does the same thing…”

“It’s just up to them, how long they last,” Malcolm completed the thought.

Gil glanced at Malcolm, his eyes flashing. He wasn’t even aware; he was too busy looking at everything in front of them. “In that case…he’s probably already found someone else, by now.” Malcolm says nothing, but he notices the tiny frown that plays onto his face. “How do we take this information and track down the killer before he can add another victim to the roster?”

Malcolm hesitates, before he shakes his head a tiny fraction. “That…I don’t know yet,” he admits, almost absently. “That’s what we’ll have to figure out. In the meantime…” His expression darkens. His voice is quieter when he says: “Whoever’s up next will hopefully last long enough for us to do that.”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“Thanks, for driving me,” Malcolm repeats. For about the third time.

Dani flashes him a smile. “It’s no trouble.”

It was late and the two were heading home, Dani making a pitstop to drop Malcolm off at his place before going to hers and hopefully sleeping for a solid ten hours straight. With Bright’s deductions, they’d thrown themselves even harder into the thick of this perplexing case. There wasn’t a lot to go off of, so it made it even more difficult to grasp at straws, the way they were doing. But with Malcolm’s help, it was a little clearer. The two of them had stayed back late, looking up people in the age range he considered applicable to their killer and trying to sort through and find a profile that fit. Someone with a horrible past, unadjusted, possibly had run-ins with the law, in-and-out incarcerations, so on and so forth.

As one might imagine, their search was in no means narrowed. Eventually, they’d called it quits, only for tonight. Now, they were almost to Bright’s. He wore a pensive look on his face. She turned and offered him a small grin, however odd it felt, in the context of the situation. “I told you, didn’t I?” He seemed confused. “I told you that you’d eventually crack it.”

He smiles, a tired and strained smile. “I didn’t crack anything, yet.”

“Of course you have.” She shoots him a look. The kind of look that urges him to stop and actually use his head. For someone that was so smart, he also had a remarkable streak of not using the thing between his ears. Especially when it came to himself. “Don’t discount yourself, Bright.” Her words are encouraging, but her voice has an edge to it, simply to get him to actually listen to her. His eyes flash but he stays silent. “What you did today was important. We’re getting somewhere now, because of you. You deserve to feel good about it, even if it’s not exactly what you want.”

There’s a long pause, before he reasons a soft: “I guess you’re right.”

Dani turns down his street. She states a firm: “I’m never wrong.”

This makes him laugh, and she’s almost caught off-guard by the chuckle, however small it was. His expression grew the tiniest bit lighter when he looked out the window. “Oh, right; how careless of me to forget.” They’d pulled up to his building, by now. The car stopped and they were thrown into a brief stint of silence. The kind of quiet people experienced when they were both certain they had to leave, but there was something still keeping them there. But eventually he repeated, as if in a means of reintroducing the concept: “Thanks. For…driving.”

The laughter was clearer in her voice when she repeated: “It’s no trouble.”

He flashed her a smile, which she returned at once. He nodded a little, before he turned and grabbed the door handle. He took in a slow, deep breath, like he was preparing to dive underwater, instead of just stepping outside. She interjected just before he could. “Bright.” He looked back. She hesitated, her mind going blank for a second as she realized she hadn’t actually had anything extra to say. He raised his eyebrows a bit, and she quickly shook herself back into the moment. She cleared her throat before she nodded her head towards his apartment. “Eat something, when you go in,” she snaps. His smile inches back with the look she gives him. “I know you still haven’t eaten your leftovers from the other night.”

“Should I be flattered you know me so well, or guilty that you’re correct?” he muses.

She rolled her eyes. “You should be hungry; you haven’t eaten all day.”

“Well, we can just go out to dinner again sometime, and I’ll eat then.” He says this teasingly back, without thinking. It’s only after it gets out, that it actually connects. He stops a little short. He opens his mouth, like he’s going to double back and correct himself.

But she just laughs, and he relaxes. “It seems like it,” she agrees, her voice warming just a little.

There’s a burst of silence again, where they just linger and smile at one another. It’s a little awkward, but it’s an odd sort of comfortable. Eventually, Malcolm’s eyes flash, when he realizes how long they’ve been sitting there just staring. He clears his throat and starts to shake his head. “Okay. Well. Then. I should go,” he manages. “I’ll— I’ll see you later.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Bright,” she says, trying not to giggle.

“Tomorrow,” he manages. He opens the door and steps out. He gives her an awkward smile. He opens his mouth like he wants to say something else, but nothing comes out. Dani snickers again when he just ends up shutting the door. He waves. He barely stops long enough to see her return the wave before he’s spinning around and walking away. He doesn’t waste much time at all before he goes into his building. She laughs again to herself, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.

She makes sure he gets inside alright, before she pulls away and starts home herself.

The entire way, her smile lingers.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

She gets into work on the later side. She’d stopped to get her daily-required coffee, and that had taken longer than usual. She was rushing in, to realize Gil was standing there, waiting. He looking impatient. She’d expected that part. But what she hadn’t expected, was the small double-take he did, and the way his eyes had flickered to look behind her. She hadn’t expected what he said to her, either. “There you are. Where’s Malcolm? Is he on his way?”

She’d started to turn back and follow his gaze, thinking she’d missed something. She frowns when he asks the question, though, and looks back. “No; I didn’t pick him up.” Usually, that was Gil. Or a cab. Sometimes an Uber but Malcolm mentioned one time that he didn’t like those as much— there was more leeway for something to go wrong there, and there was a greater risk of getting stuck with someone that wanted to talk a little too much. “He’s not here yet?” It was almost nine. And with the break in the case, and where they were heading with it, she would have thought he’d be here early. She wouldn’t have even put it past him to sleep there. She could see him now— curled up underneath a mound of files.

But Gil shakes his head. “No, he hasn’t shown up yet…” He pauses for a moment, staring off into space. Before he shakes himself, dragging his mind back from wherever it had started to wander. “Nevermind. JT is waiting for you. I’ll call him, and see where he is.” Dani hesitates, but nods. She turns and starts heading past him, doing as she was told. What she’d planned on doing in the first place.

Gil’s thoughtful look stays, as she brushes by. He gets out his phone and finds Malcolm in his contacts. He raises the phone to his ear, frowning as he listens to the ring. It rang and rang…but he didn’t pick up. The voicemail did. Gil’s look of thought was becoming more and more troubled. Was he sleeping in? Was he out doing something on his own? Was he screening his calls? He had no idea why. They’d broken ground yesterday— it wouldn’t be like Malcolm at all to just drop something when it was so hot like this. He was too invested, especially with this case. And he hardly ever screened Gil’s calls.

The voicemail beep is what brings him out of his thoughts. He straightens and clears his throat, shooing away everything else that was crowding his head. “Hey. It’s Gil,” he says, a little uselessly. “We’re waiting for you down here— we need you for this part. I was just…wondering where you are. You’re late.” Again, he pauses. But then he takes a deeper breath and just settles with: “Call me when you get this, I need to know when you’re gonna decide to come in.”

He hangs up, and his screen goes dark. He doesn’t move.

He just stands and stares at the black, a little confused.

Wondering why there was such an uneasy feeling in his gut.

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

The phone rings. And rings. And rings.

Nothing.

It was the fifth call that day that Malcolm had ignored. Gil was getting worried.

He called Ainsley.

She picked up on the fourth ring.

“Gil!” She doesn’t sound bothered. She sounds the same way she always does. Maybe that meant nothing was wrong. He found his thoughts leaping to that, immediately. Maybe that means nothing wrong, maybe that means he’s okay. Maybe that means everything is fine. The thoughts would seem paranoid to anyone else. Maybe they were. But he was already to that point. It was nearly five in the afternoon. All that time, and they’d heard nothing at all from Malcolm. During a very active investigation he’d thrown himself into for the past few months, now. That was bad.

Ainsley prompted after a couple seconds: “Hello?”

“Sorry! Hi, Ainsley,” he rushes. He wants nothing more than to catch up with her— especially since this whole mess has started, he’d been more or less distracted by everything else to even think about his personal life. But right now, there was an urgency, too. Apologetically, he gets right to the point. “Ainsley, I hate to bug you, but…have you heard from Malcolm today?”

“Malcolm? No, not today. He’s been busy with those murders.”

Gil drums his fingers on his desk, getting more on-edge. “When was the last time you heard from him?”

“Uh…maybe…three days ago?” He closes his eyes and rubs them hard, as he ducks his head. Ainsley must have picked up on the fact that that was not the answer he’d wanted to hear. “Why? Is something wrong?” she asks, earning her own nervousness.

“I…” He trails off, then bites it back and shakes his head. “Do you think you could try and call him? I’ve tried, but he hasn’t answered the phone— maybe he’ll answer for you.” Maybe he was just taking a break from the case. Maybe it was too much, and he was just trying to take a mental health break. The rationalization was weak at best, but he was grasping at nothing, trying to make it all make sense.

Trying to make it anything other than what he was fearing.

“Yeah; of course. I’ll call him right now,” she promises.

“Good…good, thank you, Ainsley.” He hangs up. Puts the phone on the desk. Stares. Waits.

She calls back in less than a minute. Less than a minute. He flinches as soon as she does.

He answers it, knowing full well what she was going to say. How she would sound.

But it in no way lessened the panic that burned straight through him when she nervously said: “He didn’t answer.”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

“Malcolm. It’s Gil again. I…look, I don’t know what’s wrong or what’s happening, but I need you to call me. As soon as you get this. Okay? It’s not even about work, by now, I just want to talk to you.”

“Malcolm, Gil keeps calling me. He sounds super worried, and at this point, I’m super worried, too. Could you just…call one of us back? Or text us? I’m out of town but I’ll be back by tomorrow. Just…it’d be a lot less trouble if you just let us know you were fine.”

“Malcolm. This isn’t funny anymore. I’m standing outside, I’ve knocked for ages now, just open the door. If something’s wrong, you can talk to me. …Malcolm.

“Malcolm, if you don’t call either of us back, I’m gonna have to use your key tomorrow and get in that way— I know you hate it when I do that, but would you rather Gil go to Mom? …Ugh. Just— call me back, and all of this will go away! You’re really starting to freak me out. Answer your phone.”

“Malcolm. Come on. You— …I know you hate when I worry and I try not to, but— …with this case…I just—…goddamn—”

“Malcolm, Gil wants to call Mom. I told him not to— I told him to wait, but…you’re not making this easy on me, you know? What are you doing?”

“Malcolm…it’s midnight…where are you, are you okay?”

“Fine. I’m going to bed. But I’m keeping my ringer on. Call me— I’m worried sick. …You can talk to me, Malcolm. …You can always talk to me…okay? …Okay. Goodnight…”

“Malcolm? …Kid? …Are you there…?”

(~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)              (~**~)

The next day, his phone stopped ringing entirely.

The second Ainsley got back, they were all going to his apartment. Ainsley, Gil, Dani, Edrisa, and JT all went together. Dani was surprised when JT added himself— they hadn’t even asked if he’d wanted to go, because they’d figured the answer would be no. But he fell right into step with them. His face was absolutely blank, but there was a briskness to his steps that got Dani privately assuming he was more concerned than he was letting on.

Ainsley had a key, so it wasn’t as if they were actually breaking and entering. Though the feeling was still in the same area code. They’d tried knocking, but he hadn’t answered. Ainsley and Gil had both shouted, but there was nothing. Once Ainsley unlocked it, her and Gil were rushing up the steps, taking them two at a time. The other three followed, their nervous looks only growing more so. “Malcolm!” Gil shouted, even before he hit the landing. But even when he did, and looked all around, there wasn’t anything to see. They already knew that, even from down there, but he kept yelling anyway “Malcolm!”

“Mal!” Ainsley started to rush around with him. The two were already tearing the place apart, but there was nothing to see. It was empty. The place was perfectly clean— spick and span, like it always was. It just didn’t have Malcolm in it, like they were hoping. Ainsley knew perfectly well the efforts were useless— Dani could see it on her face. But she kept walking, kept looking. Her voice was strained when she kept shouting. “Mal, are you in here!?”

Dani’s stomach was plummeting, the longer their cries were going unanswered. JT left to look up the stairs, but she didn’t bother. She knew it was a waste. Gil’s eyes were sweeping the premises, and they caught on hers. She could see the denial, that was there. The fact he was still looking only highlighted it. Dani took a deep breath, feeling like she was being choked. It took extra effort, somehow. She forced out the words that Gil was thinking and just didn’t want to say. “Don’t touch anything.”

He was breathing faster, now. He was coming undone, and she could see it. At first he didn’t say anything. He looked all around, like he was waiting for Malcolm to jump out from behind the couch or the kitchen island, laughing about how he’d tricked all of them. She could tell that he was praying for that, but she could also tell that he knew just as well as she did, that it was stupid. That that wasn’t what was happening.

And maybe what they were fearing wasn’t happening either. Maybe this was something entirely different; maybe Malcolm just decided he needed time away, maybe he was trying to take a break— hell, maybe he was out right this second grocery shopping, and they were just worrying over nothing. But he had been missing for well over 24 hours by now. And with everything they’ve seen, this was what they were leaping to. They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to even think it was remotely a possibility. And yet…

Dani’s eyes caught on something to her right. She turned, her heart sinking when she saw that Sunshine was hopping up and down, flapping her wings and singing out, like she was trying to get someone’s attention, or just say hello. She walked over to her cage, and her eyes fell lower. When she saw the detail, her stomach was gone entirely. It had dropped well past the floor, by now. She felt sick, when she saw the empty food and water bowl. She remembered the way Malcolm had looked at Sunshine— so softly, and lovingly. He would never leave Sunshine without food or water.

Ainsley walked up next to her and followed her gaze. She could tell by the way she paled, that the same line of thought was crossing through her head. The two women shared a look of mutual understanding and slowly-building horror. Ainsley looked over at Gil, who was staring at Malcolm’s coat. It was still here— draped over the couch. “Gil.” He turned to the blonde, already becoming even more put-off when he saw the look that was on her face. She stared at him searchingly for a moment before she said: “He didn’t leave food for Sunshine.”

The man’s eyes widened. He said nothing. But it was all there to see, on his face.

Sunshine was singing and hopping. Wanting to be let out.

Starved for attention.

Dani felt sick. She felt like the room was spinning. She felt like she was going to be ill.

She remembered how he’d smiled at her, and waved. Promised: Tomorrow.

She knew he hadn’t been planning on leaving.

Staring at his bird, Malcolm’s voice rang in the back of her mind. Scoffing, careless, unassuming.

I’d imagine if a person were to have my life, they’d need a sense of humor.