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like a ghost

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The sun glares off Nine’s glasses; he turns his head just enough to avoid it, sending sweat trickling down his temples. He wipes his upper lip on his shoulder; it does no good. The shirt is already damp with his sweat, and he’s only smearing it around. Disgusting. He could use a shower, but there’s so much to do now.

He does not envy the law enforcement officers, doubtless happily chewing off time with their lunches, in cool dark offices, avoiding duty. Some of them aren’t, on a narrow path, but they still can’t see the poison headed straight down from the top. Then again, is there less responsibility on the backs of ordinary citizens? Nine’s not the arbiter of that, anyway; he is on his own narrow path, its end in full view. 

Twelve looks up from his phone screen, his thumb poised over the surface. He’s been scrolling through the latest version of the plan, the one Nine had sent him at three in the morning, revised when he’d woken up to another nightmare and sent while he was too close to sleep to worry about double-checking the details. 

“A blackout, huh?”

“Yes. We’ll give them advance warning.”

The next round of simulations has completed on Nine’s computer. The subways are regular enough that this step in their plan ought to go without a hitch. It’s almost too predictable, but ti’s another thing they have to rely on, as they rely on the rusty gears of society to turn and flake in such a way for their words to come to light. People act in certain ways; they respond to threats in certain ways.It’s ingrained in society, from wherever it had come--biology, evolution, something completely arbitrary; that much doesn’t matter. It is there, waiting to be exploited in its reliable schedules, orderly evacuations, systems of detection that only scrape away the mold on the surface, over and over, rather than stopping the cause.

“Is the warning so they don’t call it an act of God?”

“If we’re doing our jobs, they’ll know it was us even if we don’t tell them,” says Nine.

Though that’s the trouble with people, part of the reason for all this in the first place. It’s so easy for them to shift blame onto others, onto themselves, onto God, whichever is the most convenient villain for the situation they’re in. They can wallow in hatred, self-pity, or helplessness. It’s not as hard as confronting the unknown, or pulling out the tangles strand by strand, root by root. 

And, even if individual people know or suspect, if the government wishes to deny with a straight face, to say that of course it was an accident, that no bomb was released, what can those individuals do? Can they trust in their own knowledge and suspicion? It is better to yell as loudly as they can, leave a paper trail in neon colors, to blaze their path brightly, than to work completely in the shadows. After all, what’s shadow without light? And haven’t they been screaming into a silent void for too long?

Nine rubs the back of his neck; the sweat on his palm mixes with the sweat there; the ends of his hair are soaked. He needs a haircut. In the middle of all of this, his hair still grows; his sweat glands still work. He supposes it’s good to know.

“You are only human,” Twelve says. “They didn’t really take that from us.”

The smile on his face is bitter and oversteeped. Nine forces himself to keep looking; Twelve had put on that expression for him. There is no one else to see it.

“They’ll remember,” Twelve says.

His fingers drag down Nine’s wrist, skidding in the sweat and grime.

Nine is up at three in the morning again, the moon shining in low through the window, nearly full. It’s brighter than the distant lights of the rest of the city, shooting out into the night, neon and LED, drowning out the stars. When they release the bomb, will people see the stars again from the streets, from the back alleys full of smoke from kitchens and cars and cigarettes? Will he live to see that much? He has to believe in it, or he won’t be able to hold onto this reality. The ringing in his ears will be louder than any words. 

He watches the kettle on the stove, turning it off as soon as steam begins pouring from the spout, preempting the whistle, and gingerly lifts it to pour over the tea leaves. He replaces it a little too loudly, but when he looks up, Twelve is already up, leaning against the doorway. He’d come in silence like an apparition. Like a ghost, but he’s still alive. The moonlight casts a strange pallor on his face. He sniffs the air.

(If Nine hadn’t meant for him to wake, why had he made oolong tea when that’s Twelve’s favorite? Perhaps, again, his subconscious has gotten the better of him, pulling him along behind it.)

When the tea is ready, Twelve drags Nine over to the couch, away from his laptop. He doesn’t need to work, but if he’s up he might as well be useful; the thoughts act and counteract, a game of Old Maid where the players continue shuffling around the same card.

“Let’s play chess,” says Twelve, rummaging under the coffee table for their set.

(Twelve had bought it after they’d moved in, at an old thrift shop; Nine had told him not to get too friendly with the shopkeeper, and that they could have played on their phones or on the computer. But this late at night, he’ll admit that he likes the feel of the wood in his hands and the sound of the pieces on the board. And they already have the set; the damage has been done, if it was damage at all.)

Nine wins five of five games. The tea is cold in their cups when Twelve clears the board aside and flops forward onto his chest. Twelve’s words are an incoherent mumble, and Nine wakes up with his fingers somehow entwined in Twelve’s hair.