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The Twelve Labors of Sean Parker

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Here's a riddle for you.
Heart, mind, and body walk into a bar.
They raze it to the ground.

 

| now |

In the fall of 2004, on the same Saturday morning that (you might remember this) some record-breaking seven thousand joggers take to the autumn-limned street to race for the cure, Sean Parker wakes up in handcuffs.

It's earlier than his throbbing, protesting skull would like it to be, but a combination of biological clock and his insistent bladder forces him into consciousness, face-down on cheap, gritty carpeting and his hands hooked uncomfortably in the small of his back. The left side of his face is numb, hatched in a pebbly texture when he finally peels it away from the carpet, feeling it flush red with sudden blood flow.

He opens his eyes and his mouth in the same beat.

Where am I? he asks the handcuffs, confused.

The only light there is comes from the cracks around the doors, illuminating grainy outlines of seatbacks and blacked-out windows, and his visibility doesn't grow any clearer as he blinks the gumminess from his eyes. He's in the back of a van; when he touches it with his mind, it huffs back at him, hostile. Its engines are still warm, giving its ignition a spark of bad temper that stabs Sean right behind the eyes.

We're under orders not to tell you that, the handcuffs reply bitingly, in a tone of pure steel, giving no head-way under the twist of Sean's wrists.

Dude, Sean retorts. Uncool.

And that's when it finally occurs to him to be afraid.

 

 

Okay, whatever, Sean's opened a book or two in his lifetime, and he's done his research, because shit like this is kind of pertinent to his life.

There's this one in paricular. It's one of his favorite stories, although the book itself disappeared a couple moves ago and his idle forays into second-hand shops has yet to unearth another. It's an old Jaina tradition, originating from the sky-clad ascetics of southern India and passed word-of-mouth for generations, until a second-century poet was so struck by it that he wrote it down. Eventually, it got incorporated into canonical Jaina doctrine, and followed the people in their diaspora from India during British occupation, and finally a copy of it found its way into Sean's hands at an impressionable age.

It's a story, right, about cosmology, and it says the whole of the universe and all the things in it are divided into two categories: the jiva, the things with soul, and the ajiva, the things without.

In the beginning, all the jiva spoke a common language. The trees talked to the wind, the wind told stories to the dancing fire, the fire laughed up at the birds cartwheeling in the sky, and the birds told the man about the grass and the seeds and the small earthy worms.

One-by-one, though, jiva forgot and fell silent and had no more to say to each other, choosing instead to speak only to their own kind about their own things. Their words were swallowed by ajiva, which filled the cracks between the smallest spaces and can best be found in the awkward silences that fall in the middle of family dinners. The language was lost to the ceaseless march of time.

But, it's said, all things remember what it felt like to speak the fluid, silvery jiva language, and -- somewhere in that soft, dark space of our hearts, the space we're only aware of at our most vulnerable -- each of us long to speak it again.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a baby will be born and there will be a silver word underneath that baby's tongue. With that word kept safe in that place, the baby will grow and be able to whisper to the fire, or the trees, or the birds in the vast, quiet sky. And, depending on the word, those things will be able to talk back.

So the story goes.

Of course, silvertonguing was never illegal in India, so there's a whole wealth of different legends about its origins, fed to growing children right alongside Mickey Mouse and stories of the great devas, as natural as anything.

 

 

When Sean Parker was born, he was red and wrinkly and probably really gross, although he tells people he came out throwing up devil's horns or a middle-fingered salute, depending on the audience and whether or not he'll get quoted online, because come on, badassery is in the Parker blood and haters are just going to have to hate.

Anyway, it was this blustery, cold day sometime at the tail end of September, right as the weather started its nosedive towards winter. His mom was there (well, duh,) with huge pit stains under her arms and her legs akimbo and a nurse saying questionable things about her vagina (dilation is a weird word, okay?) She only remembered to send someone to fetch Mr. Parker right towards the end, so when he arrived, he didn't even have a chance to get worked up. He beelined straight for his wife's side and grabbed her reaching hand with his, completely forgetting the umbrella he was holding in the other. He was this tall, thinning man with a black coat pulled over a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and loafers, holding an open umbrella right in the middle of a delivery room like it was going to start raining on their heads any second.

So yeah. This is who greets Sean on the other side of the vaginal canal. He doesn't remember it, but it was probably kind of an underwhelming welcome.

They cut the umbilical cord and, even before they wrapped him in swaddling clothes or whatever, they handed him all slippery and slimy to the nurse off to the side, and she tilted down so as to better put her ear right over his mouth.

Mr. and Mrs. Parker watched ... well, not nervously, because nervousness implies some sort of complicit guilt, but carefully. They watched carefully, because, because ... sometimes it runs in the family. Not that anyone's saying silvertonguing is a dominant trait in the Parker genetics, it's really the exact opposite, honest, it's just that you can never tell sometimes, and it's important to know. That's all.

But the nurse adjusted her ear trumpet, lifting her head and giving them the practiced, professional, reassuring smile of all medical personnel the world over, and she said, "He's just fine."

Mr. and Mrs. Parker breathed out simultaneously. It wasn't that they were worried, because everyone knows silvertongues are rare. The government says so, and hospitals only report maybe two or three a year.

It's just better to know these things for certain, you know.

 

As for how Sean came to be handcuffed in the back of a van, well, now, that's an interesting story.

No, really, this shit is going to have mileage.

And it begins, as most of these kinds of stories do, with a girl.

 

| then |

Her name's Amelia Ritter. She's from Orinda, her dad's in commercial real estate (which you'd think would be a fairly safe, average thing to be, right? God, Sean can't stop yawning just bringing it up,) and she goes to a school she's too smart for, because Stanford is crazy whack and turned her down. She's majoring in French and taking every assorted class under the sun, even the ones Sean can't pronounce, simply to prove she can do it all.

In the beginning, when she was still fresh off the high of owning her own place and good-natured enough to put up with Sean's unceremonious residence on her sofa, he genuinely had no idea she was a silvertongue.

Fine, yes, there were signs, but they're only the kinds of signs that Sean notices when he's looking back on it. The contacts, for one, because he was pretty sure she was always careful to have them in when he was around, even when he caught her self-consciously tossing back eyedrops like they were crack candy for her eyeballs. For another, she got these thick, manila envelopes in the mail at least once every two weeks, which she filled out secretively and always tucked into her backpack when she left the next morning.

In hindsight, he bets she's got beast-speech. Statistically, it's the most common kind of silvertongue.

Or, at least, the most commonly registered.

The deal with beast-speech is that not a lot of animals are patient enough to slow down and talk to humans. The ones that live with them as a matter of course -- domesticated dogs, cats, hamsters, goldfish, frat boys, so on and so forth -- have had the gift of speech tamed right out of them, and a lot of the wild beasts still remember why all the jiva things stopped talking to each other in the first place, so they're a fat lot of help. Even Dustin, who's arguably the most practiced beast-speaker Sean knows ("You may call me ... the Beast Master!" he often proclaims, flipping his hood up over his head and masking his eyes with his hands like a ninja, and okay, so he's the only beast-speaker Sean's ever spent large amounts of time with, as far as representative samples go,) communicates with a just a small handful of the animals out there.

"Horses are clearest," is Dustin's thoughtful assessment. "Although you don't get a lot of them just trotting around the city, outside of police on horseback, and L-O-L, I am not going to try talking to a cop's mount while he's sitting on it."

"Why do I get the feeling you've tried?" Sean deadpans.

Dustin points at him warningly, but otherwise ignores the comment. When Sean first met him, he was trying to get three Canadian geese to help him tie a zip-line to the neighboring building. Birds, he says, are the easiest animals to talk to outside of horses, and they, at least, are everywhere.

So, no, Sean isn't really sure Amy's got beast-speech, but he kind of likes the idea of her being able to throw her windows open and whistle a merry tune and have, like, a shit-ton of sparrows and canaries and jaybirds come flocking to sing back to her, like she's one of those cartoon princesses Sean and his brother grew up on, back before the major networks censored them for suggestive themes.

But he does know she's a silvertongue, and it's kind of a shock to the system. He's spent so many years learning about silvertongues, mostly through the lens of textbooks and pamphlets at the doctor's offices, that for one to come out of a completely unexpected direction -- it feels a lot like he's been studying a foreign language and didn't realize how incompetent he really is at it until he meets a native speaker. Amy leaves one of the envelopes out one morning, askew underneath a plate of Eggo's and the sun coming in through the enormous bay window. Sean Private Behavior is a Relic of the Past Parker steals a bite of waffle and catches the glimpse of the US government postmark.

It's just a simple questionnaire. He takes one look (please quantify your last paycheck) and knows this is how they keep track of registered silvertongues. This is how the Bureau of Internal Affairs reassures the average populace that silvertongues aren't cheating, aren't using their speech gifts to get ahead, aren't terrorizing their children on the playground or whatever hell-raising scheme normal people are afraid of this year.

This ... actually explains why Amy got rejected from Stanford.

He's still staring at it, Eggo softening in his mouth, when he hears Amy's scuffle of bare feet on her hardwood floors and then she's in the doorway, hair curler in one hand and her eyes on the questionnaire.

He starts chewing quickly, because the sooner his mouth is free, the sooner he can start talking. If there's one thing Sean Parker is really fucking good at it, it's talking people to distraction.

The hand holding the curler falls, leaving a single loose ringlet against her cheek. The rest of her hair is straight, crimped in the back from where she usually has it in a ponytail.

Her eyes flick from the paper to him and then past him, to the window.

She takes a breath. "You know, I think we all secretly hold onto the hope that it's not always going to be like this. We're all waiting for the day when it's okay. Like," she makes a gesture with her hands. "If we keep our heads down and play along, the rest of the world will wake up one day and suddenly not hate us anymore."

Sean swallows.

Amy says, "But we're so busy waiting that nobody's fighting. That's the problem, isn't it? We've all just been trained to take a step back and expect someone else to be vocal for us, and nobody is. A hundred thousand voices, and not a single one of them will come out and say that silvertongues are human, too."

"I've seen those websites," Sean tips the fork in her direction in acknowledgement. The dot-orgs that try to speculate on the state of silvertongue's souls (read: basic existence, as if somehow the state of your tongue makes you something else entirely,) which is probably another reason why Sean prefers the Jaina view of things: at least in those stories, their kind are created equal with the fire, the water, the wind, and the man.

The smile that pulls at the corner of her mouth is a sad one. "All this speech, and nobody's saying a thing."

There's a resonant kind of significance to that remark, and Sean almost points at her and says, that's good, that's good, we can use that, but he bites his tongue, because that would reveal himself, and it doesn't matter if Amy just basically came out to him, some things are completely hard-wired into him, and the art of being brash, obnoxious, and loud to keep people from looking too close is one of those things. There's, like, poetic pain in that, or some shit.

Later, though, when she breezes out the door on her way to biochem with the questionnaire dutifully postmarked in her backpack, her computer says to Sean, I have something that might help her, if you want.

It's so quiet he almost misses it, and then he startles. As a general rule, other people's appliances are slow to warm up to him, even the ones that have gone from owner-to-owner for longer than Sean's been alive. Everything talks, and things get so used to babbling at their owners without ever getting a reply that Sean coming along makes them clam up, like preschoolers with overwhelming stage fright.

I've been doing some searches, see, on the Internet, the computer continues, and pulls up a browser window. Sean doesn't even have time to have a minor heart palpitation over the thought of there being a record of those searches before the computer hastily adds with a furious whir of its processors, Don't look at me like that, I know how to be discreet.

He crosses the room, settling into the chair and drumming his fingers across his lips.

I'm listening, he allows, and the cursor leaps to life.

Which is how Sean Parker finds the Harvard Connection.

 

 

Now, this is a heavy-handed, doom-and-gloom outlook on the whole thing. Sean's kind of fond of making it sound like the Salem Witch Hunts, like they're rounding up silvertongues in the street, because it makes for a good story and if Sean can't dramatize a good story out of it, then what's the point.

In actuality, it's nowhere near that exciting. For the most part, silvertongues don't have a substantial impact on everybody else's daily lives. Nobody wants to be a silvertongue, sure, or to give birth to a silvertongue, but it's the same way couples hope in a vague, nebulous way that their baby is born with all the right parts in the right places and doesn't have Down's Syndrome. Babies born with a word detected under their tongues are registered, absolutely, but that's just for the common good, kind of like the sex offender registry. If there's a kid in your neighborhood that could start a fire in your backyard with a single whisper, you'd want to be sure that kid was carefully kept in check, too.

And as for those cases where the nurse doesn't hear a word even though there's one there, well ... those are probably really rare, right?

Around the time Sean is four or five and just starting to, like, get really involved in eating worms and glue and all that exciting shit, the silvertongue issue suddenly makes it to the forefront of media attention, after centuries of enduring a blanket ban on their existence with little fanfare. The practice of silvertonguing has been illegal in most Western civilizations since even before some colonists got it into their heads to vandalize a couple East Indian trading vessels in the Boston harbor, but it was never illegal to be one.

(Nor, however, was it illegal to discriminate against silvertongue applicants on employment, housing, schooling, etc, so that was a double-edged blade.)

The most publicized case happened in upstate New York in the late eighties, when a pair of twins born to a middle-class couple were both determined to have whispers of silver under their tongues.

Their mother politely refused to have them registered. The hospital insisted. Their mother said that it was within her right as a patient to deny any legislation or treatment the hospital wished to give her, and that right included filling out anything besides a birth certificate for her newborn children. The hospital called the state.

Albrecht vs. New York became absolutely landmark.

Like, Roy Raymond, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Victoria's Secret kind of landmark.

First, not only did it demonstrate just how desperately in need of updating most laws involving silvertongues were, but registering "silvertongue" as a disability was so widely accepted up to that point that, to most mainstream Americans, it'd never occurred to them that it could go any other way. Albrecht vs. New York was an eyeopener and a wake-up call.

The state won, of course, but it set the stage for the era to come, an era that was supposed to be about discussion and acceptance.

Sean learned about it in the eighth grade, sitting in a desk by the window and listening to the pencil sharpener grumble about the pencil shavings caught in its nether regions. It was almost summer then (which he remembers less by actually remembering it and more because it had to have been; they only talk about recent developments at the very end of any elementary social studies course,) so he wasn't really paying attention. All that batshit craziness, and nobody mentions what happened to the Albrecht babies after the lawsuit was over.

They grew up, he supposes, and are out there somewhere, tagged by the government and trying to get by, filling out questionnaires and waiting for somebody else to do something first.

 

 

The Harvard Connection turns out to be a row of grungy, anonymous office buildings clustered in a huddle behind a strip mall, down at the seedier end of Brooklyn.

Sean's level of surprise at this development is so nonexistent it would probably have most fifteenth-century cartographers totally convinced that it's flat enough to sail right off the edge. There's a structure to these kinds of things, anyone can tell you that. If you want political reform, you go to DC; if you want to change the world, you go to Silicon Valley; if you want social reform, then you either start in New York City or you go home.

Double-checking the street address, he steps out into the road.

It's so cold out that the air burns going into his lungs, and makes his nostrils stick together. It gets foggy and chilly in California during the winter, sure, but he forgot how East Coast winters make you go cold all the way to your bones.

There are three buildings, side-by-side, standing together like cookie-cutter copies of each other; they could be any cluster of insurance companies or telecommuting offices that Sean's ever seen, the kind of place that has him thinking of cubicles and fake potted plants and telephones that sigh tiredly all the time and live in perpetual fear of being slammed.

Puffing warm air onto his hands as he approaches the front door, he rubs them together and cups them against the glass window, peering through the glare.

It's empty inside. The only features seem to be a vacuum cleaner propped up against a wall, next to a small row of paint cans with a tarp thrown over them. It's like they finished the place and then never bothered to move anybody in.

He frowns and steps back. He glances up again, even though he knows the frosted street number is going to match what's written on the inside of his arm. This doesn't exactly look like the headquarters of a game-changing underground movement, the way he was lead to believe from their website. Granted, though, office buildings would be a classy choice -- they're a step up from abandoned warehouses or meeting in somebody's garage, because technically, offices are a lot more anonymous than any of the other places, because who really looks at office buildings?

Sean turns around, and as he does, his eyes catch on something curious.

It's a cheerful "welcome to" plaque, inlaid into the low stone wall caging in the winter-bare landscaping, except whatever was underneath has been scribbled over and replaced with a scrawled, graffitied, MT AUBURN STREET, BITCH, and underneath that, an angry emoticon with heavily emphasized eyebrows, like somebody hadn't gotten the memo that you don't need to use emoticons in real life. >:]

There's an arrow underneath that, faded into the brickwork but still visible, and he follows it around the corner of the building, into the alleyway between it and the one next to it.

And he laughs.

There's a delivery entrance for big trucks, set below street level, and the snow piled at the top of the stairs has been worked into slush by foot traffic; big bootprints and the quick-stepping shuffle of slippers. The windows to the basement have thick prison bars on them, frosted so he can't seen through them. Clambering over the snowdrift, he descends the stairs. On the front door, there's another spray-painted MT AUBURN STREET, faded like the aboveground arrows. Someone's attached a flyer that says, "Merry Christmas to all our aunts and uncles! Thank you for all you do! :)" in haphazard Clip Art style, and right underneath it, another sign, this one handwritten, that says, "CHANUKAH SAMEACH, LOSERS. love from da eastside," accompanied by an angry-looking menorah making a gang sign with its outermost candle-holders.

Sean is still studying these when, without warning, the door opens.

He plasters himself back against the wall in alarm.

The doorway is filled with the breadth of a man who looks like he could fold Sean into a knot like a cherry stem. He's got thick quarterback shoulders and muscles like bungee cords, and his eyes narrow in suspicion when he takes in the sight of Sean, standing there with his hair greased back and his stylish leather coat that's too thin to protect him against the weather.

Oh shit, says Sean's survival instincts.

"Hey, big guy!" says his mouth, which never listens to his survival instincts, and turns up his grin. "What's up?"

The big guy's eyebrows tick up.

"So, hey, I don't know if there's some special handshake or super-secret password I need in order to get in, but I'm looking for the Harvard Connection. Is this it?"

"..." says the big guy.

Sean isn't really a big fan of getting knotted up like a cherry stem. "Um," he says, million-watt smile beginning to falter. "Okay, I'll just ..."

"Woah, woah, woah, no, hey!" The voice belongs to a girl, who skids in underneath the big guy's arm on sock feet, catching herself against the doorframe. Her hoop earrings swing erratically. "He's good, Bobby, let him in. We're letting out all the warm air."

Sean beams, clapping the big guy on the shoulder when he steps back, letting him in. The door shuts behind him, deadbolts sliding into place. The big guy gets a long-suffering look on his face, like he's thinking about grabbing Sean's forearm and snapping it like a toothpick, which is more Sean's speed; most people look like that around him.

"This is Bobby, the door guy," says Christy. She lets Sean lean in for a showy kiss to the cheek, and pinches him hard in the ribs in retaliation, her nails sharp and manicured.

"Hey, Bobby," says Sean cheerfully, making a face at Christy behind his back because seriously, did she have to do her nails up like Edward Scissorhands?

"..." says Bobby.

"You're late," says Christy, lifting her eyebrows. "The boss-man doesn't appreciate tardiness."

Sean frowns back at her. "You told me he wanted to meet me."

Her lips peel back off her teeth, grinning. "Oh, he does, don't worry. It's not the boss-man you're going to have to win over, though. Come on!" she gestures sharply, so he falls in behind her and she takes off, gathering momentum and sliding the rest of the way on her socks on the stone floor, rounding the corner like a batter running for home base. Her hip-hugging jeans are candy-red, the bright color of Christmas cherries.

The whole place is a windowless warren, a labyrinthian maze of low concrete corridors and naked light fixtures, like the basement of office buildings the world over. Personal touches have been added everywhere; strings of red-and-green Christmas lights snake along the walls (and in one hallway, inexplicably, a row of portraits of the Harvard presidents dating back to before the United States was even an independent country,) and everything smells like industrial-strength floor cleaner, frying bacon, and, bizarrely, a little bit like wet dog.

"Living quarters are that way!" Christy says cheerfully, gesturing down one corridor when they pass it; it ends in a T junction, and Sean can just make out the signs that point left and right, one saying "boys" and the other saying "LADIES!", with exactly that emphasis. On the girl's side, there's a taped-up print-out of Jessica Rabbit. The boy's side has Peewee Herman.

Sean's 99% certain that's Christy's handiwork.

"Rec room!" Christy says, popping into another doorway. Around her outstretched arm, Sean sees a ring of couches and a television with rabbit-ear antennae, which is tuned into a college basketball game. Someone's asleep on one of the couches, blanket tucked up underneath her chin, but on another couch is -- "That's Cameron and Tyler. They're practically furniture in this room," Christy goes, dismissive, and when the two identical men, both of them Bobby's shape and size, turn their heads in her direction, frowning, she adds quickly, "Although very handsome, good-looking furniture, please don't beat me up."

"Ha," deadpans the twin on the left, around the toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth.

Neither of them have their contacts in, so their eyes are naked, colorless and fogged over like a misty morning on the Potomac, their pupils all but obliterated. Sean stares, thrown off for a beat, because he's never met a silvertongue comfortable enough with themselves to take out their contacts.

"Water-walkers," he breathes, and when Christy gives the twins a sardonic salute and pulls him away, he leans in and whispers, "They're both water-walkers."

"Yes," she acknowledges. "The white eyes give them away. Like yellow eyes on a fire-talker and red eyes on a beast-speaker."

Sean's fascinated. "Do twins usually have the same type of speech?" he asks.

"You know, I don't know. I think it's more likely for identical twins to have identical types of speech, like Cameron and Tyler, but I don't know about fraternal twins. I'd assume they'd have the same likelihood of being silvertgonues as any regular sibling pair. You should ask Divya, he likes to research that kind of stuff. Here's the computer lab!"

She doesn't need to announce this last one; Sean can already hear them, a cheerful, chattering mass of hard drives and California-made processors, buzzing in his ears like an energetic kindergarten class even before she throws open the door to show him a cluster of consoles, the majority of which look like donated, boxy Windows monitors, but Sean did just spend the last year or so floating around Silicon Valley, so he might be biased.

"That's Lucy in the corner, she's mine," says Christy helpfully. "I'm majoring in Computer Science; there's a group of us, actually, I'll introduce you sometime."

Sean nods. She's the webmaster of the forum that Amy's computer told Sean about -- it's how he found the Harvard Connection, although it took him at least three weeks to convince Christy to set him up a meeting with her boss-man, and he almost asked if they could meet on an abandoned playground just for kicks. Sean Parker is absolutely that creep mothers tell their children to watch out for on the Internet.

Hello, Lucy, he says to the computer, and from the doorway, he can hear the way its processors hiccup in surprise. He grins.

"I was in the same geographic location as Bill Gates once," Christy tells him, wistful, pulling the door shut again. "He was delivering a lecture at Harvard, but," she shrugs, her smile turning rueful around the edges. "I'm registered, and they check those kinds of things very carefully." Before Sean can quite figure out an appropriate response, she stops him in front of another door, saying, "And this is it."

"How do I look?" Sean asks her, cheeky.

She looks him up and down. "Like a used car salesman," she deadpans, and raps out a song of sixpence on the door. "Hey, boss-man?" she pokes her head in. "Sean Parker finally showed up."

Inside, the whole room is done up like a university professor's study; dark, bold colors and wooden bookshelves, lined up close enough to each other to present a possible fire hazard, soaking up all the light and leaving everything steeped in shadows. A desk is the room's centerpiece, its sole feature a small, battered-looking laptop and a bottle of Heineken, sitting three inches off from the coaster it's supposed to be resting on.

There's even an armchair, high-backed and upholstered in a rich red, all Godfather and shit, and in it, is --

Sean's first thought is diminutive.

His second thought is really fucking young.

Mark Zuckerberg, self-fashioned crime lord (fine, fine, "entrepreneur"), is an angular-faced man with fingers as thin as pipecleaners, steepled in front of him, and eyes the blue-grey color of winter seas. He can't be more than a year or two out of high school. Neither can the girl with her legs drawn up on the broad arm of the armchair, twining a length of thread around the tip of her index finger; she has brown hair down to the center of her back and long shins like a colt, and standing at attention at the back of the room is a second man, dressed up in a ridiculous suit like he watched too many James Bond movies growing up, and Sean would have overlooked him completely if it wasn't for the sharp, biting voice of his gun, tucked into its holster inside the jacket, close to the warmth of his heart. Bodyguard, Sean assumes.

He takes all this in, and then addresses Mark. "You must be Mark. And you," he says to the girl. "Must be --"

"Erica," she finishes for him, tilting her head. The thread around her finger unravels, and she ignores it in favor of dropping her hand to Mark's shoulder, which he immediately covers with his. Sean pretends not to see the gesture; she must be who Christy meant when she said win over. "I'm Erica Albright."

"Nice to meet you," Sean smiles. "Good job with all this. I almost didn't find it."

"Pleased you could join us, Mr. Parker," she returns.

"Your reputation precedes you," and that's Mark. Sean still can't get over it; this is so not living up to his Godfather-level expectations for a mob boss. He wouldn't be surprised if he used to chase this kid around the gym during high school games of dodgeball. "You founded Napster when you were nineteen."

"Yes, I did," says Sean modestly.

It hadn't been that hard, to be honest. He'd been young and on his own for awhile at that point, and scrappy, and his best friend in the world was an early-model laptop with no tolerance for Sean's bullshit and a secretive habit of ripping things from the Internet without paying for them and giving them to Sean like a cat bringing back dead birds as presents. It's from that laptop that Sean became attached to the idea that music is a condition of the human soul, and therefore must be as free as speech. Thus, Napster.

It'd seemed like a good idea at the time.

Mark tilts his head. He has heavy eyebrows like a caveman, Sean notes, and eyes that slit as thin as dimes. "You never went to court," he says. He doesn't say it like it's a question, but Sean hears one there anyway.

"I was being sued by everybody who's ever been to the Grammys," he smirks, because that's a fun story. "And my talents didn't lie in the music industry. I couldn't afford to fight lawsuits all day, and I didn't want them looking too closely at me, so I folded up shop and left."

"Why? Why didn't you stay and fight?"

Sean spreads his hands, palms up in a gesture of surrender. He's turned paranoia of the government into an art form. He'd accept bankruptcy and homelessness over bureaucracy any day.

"You're broke," Erica extrapolates, before he can come up with something quippy to say, and he bites back the urge to scowl. She is throwing off his groove. "And so you've come to us."

"Hey," says Sean, with what he considers to be great dignity. "I'm just a fan who came to say hi."

"Are you really?" says Mark without a change of tone.

You're a people-speaker, Sean realizes, the thought jolting through him like missing a step in the dark, and he knows he's right. People-speech is, arguably, the most dangerous kind of speech -- well, second; Sean likes to think that he's the most dangerous kind there is -- and therefore, obviously, is the most blatantly abused. People-speakers are hard to resist, difficult to argue with, and are capable of eerie levels of persuasion, though of course none of them can outwardly claim it's because of their people-speech.

Most of the world's most famous politicians, prophets, and revolutionary leaders were people-speakers. At least a third of Congress are probably hush-hush people-speakers; maybe not the same amount that are millionaires, but it's a possibility.

And some of them, like Al Capone, were criminal masterminds, too.

"Well," he drags it out. "Let's just say I really think you could use my talents. It'd be a shame for you to pass me up."

Mark leans forward in the armchair, dislodging Erica's hand from his shoulder. "Why is that?" he wants to know.

Never let it be said that Sean Parker doesn't have a flair for the dramatic.

"Because," he says, pauses deliberately, and then smiles. "I'm an unregistered thing-speaker."

At the back, the bodyguard guy jolts, an involuntary shift forward onto the balls of his feet, and he truly looks at Sean for the first time. Erica's eyebrows lift, not looking nearly as impressed by this as Sean thinks she should.

Slowly, slowly, like he's enjoying a very good joke, Mark begins to smile.

 

 

| now |

Sean really needs to pee.

It's gone from that vague 'oh look it's morning' kind of need to a 'mayday, mayday, your bladder has reached critical mass' kind of overwhelming urgency, and he's trying damn hard to ignore it, because never let it be said that Sean Parker isn't stalwart in the face of hardship.

Trying to distract himself, he rotates his wrists in the handcuffs, searching for any loose give. There is none; the cuffs growl as such at him, pointedly, but he keeps twisting, drawing his knees up and pushing against the carpet with his shoulders. With his hands behind his back, he can't quite lever himself up into a sitting position, so he stays like he is, face plastered to the carpet and his butt high in the air. It is the least dignified position he's been in since that one time with the stripper in Laredo.

He's still there, humming a little bit of the tune from the Great Escape, when there's a sound like the whole world being ripped apart, as sudden and roaringly loud as the oncoming apocalypse, making him jolt like he's been shot at.

Light pours in, blinding him completely, and it's only when he hears somebody grunt, derisive, does he realize that the noise must have been the van door rattling open on its track.

He thins his eyes to slits, trying to peer through the glare of sunshine, and reaches out with his mind in the meantime. There are two men, silhouetted in the open doorway; neither of them have guns that Sean can hear, but one of them has an EpiPen tucked into his breast pocket and three sharp, titanium pins holding his knee in place. Their suits are the same expensive kind that Eduardo likes to wear, except they actually seem dignified and settled on these guys, where Eduardo always looked like somebody in a school play, all stage make-up and flash.

Fabric retains memories longer than most metals do, becoming soft and worn with them, so Sean greets their clothes first, antsy. He gets no reply.

He makes one futile attempt to sit up and only manages to flop himself further along the floor of the van. This earns him a snort from one of the men, and then the guy says, "So nice to see you again, Mr. Parker."

Sean's stomach sinks. He knows exactly who that is.

He squints. "Which one of you is Roth?" he goes, because nobody had thought to gag him. Come on, Kidnapping 101 -- never let Sean Parker run his mouth if there's an alternate option. "No," he corrects himself. "Manningham? Mitchell Manningham?"

"You do remember us!" says one. "I was beginning to worry. He didn't send me a Christmas card," this is aimed at the other agent. "Did you get one, Roth?"

"I didn't." Roth's features come into focus. He's got a stomach that sags over the front of his slacks, forming deep wrinkles in his shirt, and a face shaped like a pear, with a large, protruding double chin. He's the one with the EpiPen and the knee replacement. Sean touches at them with his mind, wanting to learn something, but they keep quiet.

"I'm devastated," says Manningham, flat and cracked as dirt. "After all we've been through together, Mr. Parker."

"Hey, baby, don't be like that," Sean cracks back, sickly sweet and cajoling. "I didn't know what your winter-themed holiday of choice was, so I thought I'd send flowers on our anniversary. How do you feel about gardenias, Mitch?"

The van cants on its springs when Manningham clambers in, crouching down next to Sean's head. From this angle, Sean can see straight past the beginnings of a cold sore on his upper lip, right up his nostrils. It's not his most attractive angle, either.

"That's Agent Manningham to you, Sean, if you please," he says, his voice as raspy as an old woman who smokes too much. He's as fit as Roth is not, his suit jacket nicely cut over his shoulders and his face smooth, smelling strongly of aftershave. The similarities to Eduardo in terms of his height and sleek greyhound build are not lost on Sean, who thinks he might be looking at who Eduardo might have been, had he not decided that Mark Zuckerberg's right-hand side was the only place he wanted to be.

"Right, right," he manages with a solemn nod, his cheek scraping against the carpet. "How is the good old BIA these days? Still managing to be the government's most incompetent branch for ... oh, how many years running?"

Manningham smiles at him like he's imagining flushing Sean's head down the toilet. Somewhere behind Sean's ass, he hears the driver's side door open, and then the van cants in the other direction as Roth hauls himself in. Manningham braces himself with a hand on the seat back as the van starts up with a dull snarl of its engines and pulls into traffic.

"We're more curious about you," he says. "How is it that a twenty-four year old narcissist like you, who's constantly in the limelight, manages to hide the fact that he's a thing-speaker from the world?"

"Aw, shucks, Mitch, you're making me blush," says Sean, who then promptly begins to panic.

Thing-speaking is the most mysterious branch of silvertonguing. (Not the rarest, though. Technically, the rarest form of silvertonguing is wood-talking; whereas some types of silvertonguing, like people-speaking and fire-talking, were encouraged in early civilizations for their usefulness as weapons of diplomacy and war, respectively, and pointedly bred just to make them more prominent, wood-talking was just never particularly advantageous, and petered out accordingly.

In modern America, especially, nobody can afford to take their time and listen to the slow, pondering thoughts of a tree as it grows.

"That's one theory," allows Stephanie Attis, when their conversation finally meanders its way onto this subject. "Another is that wood-talking is, actually, the most common kind of silvertonguing. So common, in fact, that most people have it without even realizing that they do."

"How so?" Sean frowns. Up until this point, the only thing he knows about Stephanie Attis is that Dustin has a crush on her the size of a small European country, but will probably never admit it out loud, because Stephanie is 5'10", 260lb, has a squarish face that makes her more handsome than pretty, and dresses like a bouncer for a grungy, neo-goth nightclub, with enough piercings to set off every metal detector from here to Long Island. Or that might be the reason why Dustin has a crush on her. Sean has no idea what goes on in that boy's head.

"Well," says Stephanie, soft. "Books used to be trees before they were given words, so books talk to anybody who will listen. Everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing when they read their favorite novel, right?")

Like most everything involving genetics, there's no real way to determine exactly what kind of thing-speaking you're going to get. Some people have very specialized versions -- the stripper in Laredo, for instance, could talk only to car engines, and had a very lucrative business hotwiring rental cars along the Mexico border. And others, like Sean, can make friends with almost any inanimate object he wishes, although he works best with the things that have a little bite to them, like metal: computers and guns and the security checkpoints at airports.

It's this unpredictability when it comes to thing-speaking that makes the government twice as anxious to keep track of them. You can see why, of course: how do you promise a good, law-abiding citizen that they're safe in their beds when their next-door neighbor can ask locks to unlock, or guns to backfire, or computers to give up their passwords?

When Sean was four or five years old -- this was around the time the Albrecht case was a constant scrolling marquee on CNN -- he and his brother were playing on the school playground, waiting for their mother to get off work and come to pick them up. Thomas kept hogging the good swing, and finally, Sean got fed up and asked the rusty, stiff swingset if it would please dump his big nincompoop of a brother onto his face.

Gladly, the swingset replied. I'm getting too old for this nonsense.

The fall knocked out two of Thomas's teeth and stained the entire inside of his mouth red like he'd been sucking on a cherry slushie. Sean was so completely, utterly terrified by the blood and Thomas's tears that it didn't even occur to him to lie. His panicked parents washed out Thomas's mouth and the grit off his face and gave him an ice cube to suck on, and when they asked Sean what happened, he told the truth.

They got very quiet, very fast, which somehow was even more scary to Sean than Thomas's hiccuping sobs.

When his brother got down from the counter, his face still blotchy, and pinned Sean down on the kitchen floor and hit his face again and again with one balled-up fist, they didn't stop him.

That was the first time it occurred to him that not everybody could hear the things that Sean could. This was the first moment the idea of silvertonguing was introduced to Sean's tiny little world.

Never tell anyone, Thomas beat into him with each strike of his fist. Never tell anyone. Never let anyone know you're a silvertongue. Ever.

So Sean grew up to be everything else imaginable, because to say the lesson hit home is something of an understatement: you can be anything, Sean Parker, anything you want. You can be a delinquent or a drunk or a drop-out, just don't be a silvertongue.

He meets Manningham's eyes and holds them steady. He's not afraid of some goons in suits from the Bureau of Internal Affairs, not even if they cuff him in the back of a van.

It takes them about twenty-five minutes to relocate to wherever they're going, during which time the urgent need to pee starts to outweigh even Sean's thin bravado. When they roll to a stop, all Sean can see through the window is sky, and another van in the parking stall immediately next to them. Manningham makes to leave, rolling the van door open without a word to Sean.

He takes a stab before his pride lets the moment go.

"Hey, guys," he says. "Before you throw a hood over my head and toss me in the Hudson, do you think we could stop somewhere? I really need to pee."

Manningham snorts, a dank, chesty sound like a coughing bulldog, and he says to Roth in a musing tone, "That's the problem with the way we're raising 'em now-a-days, isn't it?" His eyes are narrowed and flinty. "We give these kids the world on a silver platter and they just think they deserve more. Just sit tight, Mr. Parker."

With a deeply disgusted noise, he shoves off and leaves. Roth gives Sean an ironic salute and follows. The van door rattles shut, taking most of the light with it, and Sean turns his face into the gritty carpet and muffles a frustrated moan, one that quickly turns into a half-constricted sobbing noise. His bladder feels like it's going to peel apart. He shifts, tucking his knees up under his body and using his heels to push down like he's staunching a bleeding wound, trying to relieve some of the pressure.

Police brutality, he thinks, desperate. This is police brutality.

Because you can find countless footage of police, completely secure in their own safety, with their batons out or their mace guns primed, turning their weapons on unarmed women, or minorities, or silvertongues, and that kind of blatant abuse makes headlines. There's never any real kind of fallout from it, just some scolding, so cops have just learned to be more discreet.

Sean is on his knees, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes because of how badly he's trying not to urinate on himself, and true police brutality, he thinks, is this: the quiet, senseless stripping away of every dignity, just because they can.

 

| then |

Living in the headquarters for the Harvard Connection is a lot like what he imagined living in a boarding school or a college dorm might be like, and it's three days before Sean realizes that that's exactly the point.

"It is," Mark Zuckerberg insists. He uses his hands a lot as he talks, gesticulating in sharp, precise movements like a conductor. "It's exactly like college, Sean, except we're the ones in charge. We're the presidents. We teach what we need to teach, we learn what we need to learn, without the lens of prejudicial complacency that the public school platform is always pushing on us. We've taken the entire college experience and we've given it to silvertongues."

"Right, right, I see it," says Sean, who thinks it's brilliant. The whole thing leaves him trembling, because this is exactly what he's been looking for since he was a little boy, pinned underneath his big brother and getting his face beat in for being different.

The Harvard Connection was created to be the social networking platform that kids like them would otherwise be missing; kids like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the water-walkers, and Christy Lee, the fire-talker, all of whom have the capability to go to Ivy League but will, of course, always be denied the opportunity, just like Amy -- hence the name for the group as a whole, the Harvard Connection, and their headquarters in particular, Mt Auburn Street, which Christy tells him is Mark's way of giving Harvard and the other Ivy Leagues the middle finger for rejecting him, even though he got a straight 1600 on the SATs.

What Sean thought was an underground movement meant to champion silvertongue rights was so much more than that: it's a spiderweb network of programs and opportunities, spread all throughout Brooklyn.

The goal isn't to appeal to the powers that be to change their circumstances. The goal is to do it themselves.

"What did you think we did?" Dustin comments, amused, and hands off a scarlet macaw for Sean to hold while he tends to a squabbling pair of trumpeter swans. Usually, Alice -- another beast-speaker who lives at Mt Auburn Street, with a smile so gorgeous it sets Sean's knees to knocking entirely against his will -- is the one who accompanies Dustin during his educational presentations at the area elementary schools, but she was on holiday for Diwali, so Sean volunteered.

"Well ..." he drags out, after Dustin settles the fight with a series of fast, sharp honks, pinching his nostrils to give it a nasal sound ("the more nasal, the more swan it is. The less nasal, more goose. It's like the difference between cockney and posh English.") The swans look unrepentant, but they settle down, huffily turning their backs on each other. Perched daintily on Sean's wrist, the macaw turns his head to watch the proceedings with one beady eye, looking severely unimpressed.

"Drug trafficking?" Dustin fills in, grinning. He has down clinging to the ends of his hair. "Smuggling of priceless artworks? Assassination? We're not thugs and the Harvard Connection isn't a gang. The true urban battles aren't fought with guns or bribes, Sean, they're fought in schools."

There are anywhere from fifteen to twenty people who live at Mt Auburn Street permanently, but there are always kids trekking in and out, using the rec room and the cafeteria and the activities room. Most of them are high school age, some of them younger and some of them older, but all of them are silvertongues, and all of them are old enough to start to grasp what it means to be a silvertongue, and just how quiet and constant the oppression is going to be from now on.

Trying to get all members of the Harvard Connection together at once is sort of an exercise in herding cats, because most of the time they're out and about: like Christy, a lot of them are enrolled at the community college, and others have work, and when they're not doing those things, they can be found on the basketball courts in the inner city or in the libraries, running programs for kids like them.

The Harvard Connection has dug their fingers in most every extracurricular, after-school activity, because where else are kids like them supposed to go?

"Give them something to do," Mark pushes, relentless. "Give them some way to channel their energy and their talents. Nobody likes being told that they're useless, so show them that they have worth exactly as they are, their types of speech included, and you'll find yourself with a whole new generation of people who don't swallow exactly what they're fed."

"Fuck the system," says Sean thoughtfully.

Mark nods, a firm jerk of his chin. "Fuck the system," he agrees. "And fuck their society. We'll make our own."

Sean tilts his head, studying him. Never mind that he's a nineteen-year-old crime lord (ugh, "entrepreneur") and looks absolutely nothing like the part, Mark completely fails to live up to his expectations of a people-speaker, too. When Sean thinks people-speaker, he thinks Sylvester Malone levels of suave, sophisticated, and instead, here's Mark Zuckerberg, who has the conversational graces of a slug. He's shifty, and doesn't really look anybody in the eye; he's flat, abrupt, rude, or all of the above.

It isn't until Sean sees him actually use his speech to wheedle an extension out of a recalcitrant school principal that he gets it: unlike those who cannot just persuade people into doing what they want, Mark Zuckerberg simply does not see the point in talking to people as anything other than what he is.

"He's never used people-speech on us, and he's never tried to manipulate us for his own gain," Alice tells him, in her quiet way, tucking her shining black hair behind one ear. "It's why I trust him."

Where Mark won't use people-speech on his own kind, he has no qualms about using it on others.

"We have to. A lot of our programs run on the money we can raise or otherwise guilt people out of," Erica tells him on the way home from the basketball court, after saying good-bye to the area kids and promising a rematch -- the same kids that left the "chanukah sameach" on the front door of Mt Auburn Street the day Sean arrived. They call her Aunt Erica, the same way a lot of the silvertongue kids call everyone else Aunt Christy, Uncle Dustin, Uncle Divya. So Sean can't shake the mob family analogy altogether.

At Sean's look, she shrugs. "Social revolution costs money, Sean. Apparently, so do empathy and common human decency, and these days, everybody feels a little broke."

Blurting out bald truths like this is one of Erica's habits, which is probably why she makes Sean so uncomfortable.

He's not really sure how much he buys the Hugs, Not Drugs mission statement that the Harvard Connection is pushing on him, because wandering the labyrinth of Mt Auburn Street, it doesn't take much effort for him to hear the whispers of guns in every bedroom; simple handguns and sawed-off shotguns and AK-47s alike. The makeshift living quarters were assembled out of several tiny custodial office spaces with a communal bathroom at the end of the hall, and almost all the permanent residents have their own room. Sean's doesn't have much in it yet, so he mostly just listens to other peoples', which is how he finds the guns. They'll always be able to defend themselves, he supposes, regardless of whether or not speech is an option.

That's not the only thing Sean finds weird; a lot of the appliances at Mt Auburn Street are quiet. This isn't usually the case. All things like to talk, are constantly talking, and even normal people can hear it sometimes -- the hum of a furnace on a quiet winter night or the echo inside of a conch shell, so the fact that nothing in Mt Auburn Street is particularly chatty makes Sean wonder if maybe they haven't had another thing-speaker come through here before.

He thinks about asking, but decides he doesn't really want to know the answer, because if there's another thing-speaker around, then Sean's not as useful to them as he likes to boast.

As for Erica, he just initially writes her off as a mob princess. She's a silvertongue, he's figured that much out, but she keeps her contacts in, so he can't tell what type of speech she has, and asking her gets him nowhere. He thinks about sneaking into her room, except her doorknob is polite enough to tell him that he should probably always knock before entering, because she has a very wide selection of piano wire, strung up along her wall in all the major chords, and she knows full well how to use them.

At which point, Sean realizes he's gotten it all wrong. Anyone can have a gun and use a gun, but the girl who can strangle someone with a piano wire is the one you need to watch out for.

"It's always dangerous when we let those two out to play together," Christy says in an undertone, watching Erica grab Mark by the coat-sleeve and reel him back in so that she can wrap a scarf around his neck. At Sean's curious look, she elaborates, "They feed off each other. One justifies the other's actions."

Erica Albright, it turns out, kidnaps rowdy frat boys.

Kind of, like, just as a hobby.

It's definitely the most mob-like thing Sean's seen any of them do thusfar. She holds them hostage just to mess with them, turn the tables on them and let them feel what it's like to be caught and helpless, which has the added benefit of scaring the shit out of the privileged scumbags and also helps build up the Harvard Connection's reputation on the street.

"Tell me, can you sing a-capella?" says Erica on one such occasion, her hat perched at a jaunty angle on top of her head and the ball of her foot resting menacingly over the groin of her latest catch. "No? Would you like to?"

"P-p-please," the guy goes, waveringly. Sean thinks his name might actually be Bob.

"Shut up," says Erica cheerfully. "Or I'll cut out your dead human tongue."

It's hard for him to believe at first, that this little person with the long brown hair could have it in her, the same way he'd looked at short, twiggy Mark Zuckerberg and laughed at the thought of him running a crime syndicate. But, with a certain amount of aplomb, Erica takes him into the kitchen and shows him how to cut wheels of cheese with a garrote. The wire flashes dangerously in her hand, and it says nothing, and Sean looks at the neatly severed semi-circles of sharp cheddar and swallows against a suddenly dry throat.

 

 

The hierarchy within the Harvard Connection isn't hard to figure out.

You have Mark at the top. He doesn't dress like much of a mob boss, with soft, laundry-worn sweatshirts and the same basketball shorts as the kids they work with. Erica is directly beside him on the totem pole, because, she says, "no one man should have all that power." The two of them are a combined entity, and everyone calls them boss-man and boss-lady. Sean assumes they're banging, but that's just how his mind works.

The most powerful person after them, surprisingly, is the bodyguard; the tall, willowy drink of a man with the gun tucked inside his suit jacket like it's no more remarkable than a businessman carrying a phone. After Erica, and maybe Christy, he's probably the most dangerous member of Mt Auburn Street; he doesn't put it past the guy to level that gun against his head should Sean cross Mark or the Harvard Connection in any way. Something tells him he's done it before.

Sean tries to impress him exactly once.

"Fabric has a long memory, you know," he tells him conversationally, sidling his chair over to join him at the cafeteria table. "And it likes to talk to its humans a lot. Even normal people can hear it sometimes: haven't you ever seen someone bury their face in a blanket and breathe in deep, trying to get a sense memory out of it?" It just earns him a single raised eyebrow, and fine, taciturn, Sean can work with taciturn; he's survived Mark so far, hasn't he? "Do you want to know what the fabric in your ... um ... expensive suit is telling me?"

The other eyebrow joins the first. Sean takes it as a challenge.

He closes his eyes and opens his mouth, coaxingly striking up a conversation, pulling away with a story as softly woven as the fabric itself. "Your suit remembers being made," he says, opening his eyes again. "It remembers the man who did it, because he was preoccupied and talking to himself a lot. He was in love with another man's wife. What's worse, though, is that the wife loved him back, but nothing was to be done about it. 'Not all love is meant to be acted upon,' the man said to himself, repeating it again and again, until even the very thread itself could hear him over the roar of factory madness. 'Sometimes it's meant to be kept and grown with, so that every action has the taint and flavor of love in it. Sometimes, it's not a matter of great action done with a little love, but more many, many little actions done with great love.' He decided that's what he was going to tell his children, always and forever. If you're going to do something, little ones, then you've got to do it for love."

"You really like to hear yourself talk, don't you?" is all the guy says, when Sean finishes.

And here's the mind-boggling thing:

The bodyguard hates him.

Like, really. Sean even overhears him once, saying low and fierce in Mark's ear, petulant as a child, "why are we keeping him around, exactly? We don't need him."

Which ... hurts, to be honest.

As a rule of thumb, Sean goes to great lengths to be generally liked by everybody, because it makes him both memorable and forgettable at the same time, and it's the best tool he has at his disposal. For some unfathomable reason, Mark's right-hand man just doesn't like him.

It's ... absurd.

Frankly, Sean can't help feeling just a little bit insulted, because hello, he's basically an Internet rock star.

 

 

He worries at what he calls The Bodyguard Situation for those first couple weeks, like he's picking at a hangnail.

He's at the YMCA before dawn, when he sits up straight and says, "hey," forgetting where he is. The word bounces off the tile and the walls, echoing way too loud, and he cringes. In the tank, the Winklevoss twins stop, the water swirling in slow eddies around their waists, and look up at him with their fog-colored eyes, curious. "Who's the suit that's always following Mark around?"

They look perplexed for half a beat.

"... are you talking about Eduardo?" goes Cameron, and next to him, Tyler skates the flats of his palms over the water's surface, creating a scrim of water as thin as dragonfly wings.

"Yeah," goes Sean, who realizes he hasn't actually heard the dude's name before. "Like, is he a silvertongue or what?"

On the other side of the pool, slacks rolled up to his knees and calves dangling in the shallow end, Divya pipes up. "He fetches a mean pizza," he says, and shows teeth. Divya is not Mark's biggest fan, and Sean isn't sure if it's because they've butted heads over procedural issues or if it's somehow a universal law that people-speakers just don't get along with each other. It would certainly explain why the hell Congress never gets any shit done.

Tyler snorts ungraciously.

Cameron rolls his eyes. "He and Mark ride the subways fourteen hours a day in order to keep our heads afloat," he reminds them, pointed. "They deserve the damn pizza."

"Mark really needs a bodyguard that badly?"

"Uh, yeah," says Divya derisively. "You have talked to the guy, right?"

"Touche," Sean allows.

He lets it go, and gradually, still talking amongst themselves, the twins go back to what they were doing. Sean doesn't think he'll ever get tired of watching them, not really; Cameron and Tyler move in careful, synchronized movements in the middle of the pool, making shapes with their hands and pushing them through the air like they're doing tai-chi, and the water follows where it's bid like it's been polarized.

Without the Winklevoss twins, there'd be no Harvard Connection. Mark is the very first person to admit this.

"They found me," he says, with bald honesty. "And they gave me the idea."

"Why?" Sean asks, curious.

Something passes over Mark's face at that, something edging towards bitter. "They had dreams of competitive sports once," is all he says.

A chill of understanding goes straight down Sean's spine. Of course, being water-walkers, Cameron and Tyler would never be able to join a sports team, to play basketball or do gymnastics or row crew, because they'd have an unfair advantage and nobody wants to compete against a silvertongue. Higher education, competitive sports, equal housing: a lot of things are closed to silvertongues because of what they can do, so the Winklevosses set out to do something about it.

They had money to back them, because their father, Sean learns, is the kind of powerful, influential, rich-cat that he otherwise would have no problem hating on principle, except for the fact Mr. Winklevoss wants and has only ever wanted the best for his sons. He's friends with the president of Harvard University; Cameron and Tyler grew up alongside the Summers children, and routinely, when they get bored, they take the train down to Cambridge to harass Mr. Summers for no reason other than they can and there's nothing the former US Treasury Secretary can do about it.

It was on one of these trips that they found Mark, who, then just seventeen years old, kept crashing Harvard's wireless network from a remote server well off-campus, which in turned caused the whole school a great deal of grief.

"I got a 1600 on the SATs, and they said they'd consider me, but I shouldn't keep my hopes up," is all Mark has to say on the subject, darkly monotone.

So Cameron and Tyler looked into him, the same way they'd looked into Sean before Sean came up to New York to meet them.

"There wasn't a lot to find, to be honest, not like with you," says Tyler around an enormous mouthful of roast beef. Mt Auburn Street has a subterranean cafeteria, which has an industrial-strength stainless steel kitchen and rows of tables that makes Sean think he's back at William Taft, and there's always someone in there. Meals aren't very dignified ordeals; all the utensils are plastic and the paper plates are usually a couple holidays out of date. The one that Tyler's eating off of currently has a Jack-o-Lantern face. "It's like the dude didn't exist before he came out of prodigal nowhere by basically getting nothing wrong on his standardized tests."

"He had a website, though," offers Cameron. "He was using it to test the capabilities of projecting people-speech through Internet mediums, like steaming video. He seemed like the kind of guy we could use."

So they tracked him down, found him living with Erica in low-rent housing in the seedy district of Boston, and offered him a job. The five of them founded the Harvard Connection together; the Winklevoss twins as a single entity, Mark Zuckerberg and Erica Albright as a single identity, and Eduardo Saverin as Mark's partner, which makes Sean wonder what Eduardo's job was before he became Mark's de-facto bodyguard.

The twins stay at the Harvard Connection year-round because they want to; a decision that their parents fully support. And when the holidays come around, they go home. Alice and Dustin, too, have family elsewhere in the United States that they go home to -- pretty much just like they would if the Harvard Connection was a real boarding school.

"That's really weird," Sean decides, watching Cameron and Tyler pile into a taxi at the end of the street. He hasn't voluntarily spent a holiday with his family since he was fifteen years old. He didn't even bother graduating from high school; he just split.

"Their father loves them," says a voice behind him. It's Eduardo, the bodyguard, coming up the steps to stand with him at the mouth of the alley. His voice has the usual edge of dislike in it, and Sean's hackles are about to go up before he recognizes the undercurrent in it; he's wistful about it, too.

"Things not so sunny with you?"

Eduardo cuts him a thin smile. "No. Disowned. Mark's lackey is the furthest from what my mother and father imagined for me."

Sean frowns. "That's rough," he says, because he knows, at least, that his family would welcome him if he ever truly needed to go home. Granted, their love is completely conditional on the fact that Sean keep his head down and be exactly what they want him to be, and Sean's been broke, homeless, starving, and alone, but he's never been that desperate.

It earns him a curious look, like Eduardo honestly wasn't expecting Sean's sympathy. They turn together, going back down the stairs and into Mt Auburn Street. "It really isn't," he goes finally, and his eyes flick away, where, down the hallway, Mark's head comes up like one of Pavlov's dogs hearing a ringing bell, and looks in their direction.

 

 

Sean's been looking for a way to ingratiate himself with the Harvard Connection on a large scale since he arrived, so at midnight on New Years, he decides the most brilliant idea is to kiss everybody at least once. He's not quite drunk enough for it, but he does it anyway, because he's Sean I Founded Napster When I was Nineteen Parker and it'll make a great story to tell later.

Some people, like Christy, kiss him back enthusiastically, digging her Edward Scissorhand nails into his scalp in retaliation, and others, like Mark, bat at him feebly in protest but let him peck their mouths. Some people, like Dustin, kiss him before he can kiss them, taking special care to make loud, slobbering noises like a dog until the bottom half of Sean's face is slick with spit and they're too busy collapsing like a card tower, laughing so hard their stomachs spasm, to kiss anymore.

When he tries to kiss Eduardo, he just gets arms barred across his chest, and a very dry, "No thanks, once is enough."

It's odd, because Sean doesn't think he kissed Eduardo already, but whatever. Maybe he lost track.

 

 

One of the interesting things about living in Mt Auburn Street with fifteen to twenty other silvertongues is that, every two weeks, everybody gathers in the cafeteria early in the morning to dutifully fill out their government questionnaires.

Sean doesn't quite know how to describe the atmosphere at these get-togethers, because the mood can be anywhere from resentful, like each one of them is feeling like they're on the end of a leash, to practically jovial, as the registered silvertongues pass a hot pot of coffee around and gleefully mark all the boxes they're supposed to mark to indicate that they're timid, law-abiding little citizens getting by on the BIA's tender, loving care.

"I take great pleasure in looking forward to the day when I can answer these completely outrageously and they can't do a damn thing about it," says Christy at one of these. "'Have you had any altercations in the past fourteen days that might be considered unlawful? If so, please specifiy'. Yes, I did. I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, exposed Bonnie and Clyde in public, and made out with a bald eagle in the name of freedom!"

"I look forward to the day when I don't have to fill these out at all," says Alice, which sobers Christy right up.

Sean really has nothing to do at these things besides drink coffee, and he's surprised to find he's not the only one. Eduardo doesn't fill out questionnaires, either; Sean's starting to suspect that he's not actually a silvertongue insomuch as he's Mark's better, more personable, hygienic other half.

But there's another unregistered silvertongue living in Mt Auburn Street: Divya Narendra.

"Was your nurse faulty, too?" Sean asks him, surprised; the only reason he's unregistered is because the nurse with the ear trumpet present at his birth simply just didn't hear the silver word under his tongue. They lean up against the kitchen counters, out of earshot of everybody else, who are bent over their forms with their No. 2 pencils.

Occasionally, one of them will go replace the pot of coffee going around with a fresh one.

Divya shakes his head. "Not faulty, just paid off," he says. His eyes are as black as beetle shells. People-speaking is one of the two branches of silvertongue that doesn't manifest itself in eye color. Thing-speaking is the other one. "My parents gave the nurse with the ear trumpet a hefty bribe in order to give me a clean bill of health."

"That was ... nice of them," Sean says diplomatically.

The corner of Divya's mouth twitches up, rueful. "They said they just wanted to give me a chance at an extraordinary life, without the restraints of government registration. Which worked, up until I got my acceptance letter to Harvard."

"Oi, waitress!" somebody at the table shouts. It's Christy, waving the empty pot of coffee.

Sean retrieves it from her and replaces it with a new one, rolling his eyes when she leers at him. Going back into the kitchen, he asks, "What changed your mind?"

"I met Cameron and Tyler at the freshmen address. Mr. Summers gave us this huge, long soliloquy on how Harvard is the time to let our imaginations run away with us." He draws himself up, taking on an affected air that Sean assumes is supposed to be a caricature of the Harvard president. "Harvard students believe," he says, drawling out 'Harvard' so it sounds like 'hah-vard'. "That it is better to create a job than it is to find one."

He drops the persona, giving Sean a droll look. "I didn't even last the semester. I told my parents thanks, but no thanks. Their idea of an extraordinary life and my idea of an extraordinary life really had nothing to do with each other. If I wanted to create my own job, then I had to do it on my own merit, which meant that I had to do it openly, as a silvertongue. Cam and Ty were the first people who made me think that not only was that possible, it was also perfectly okay."

"So here you are," Sean finishes for him. "With the Harvard Connection --"

"Working fourteen hour days to keep my own head afloat and to volunteer with kids who never had my opportunities," Divya agrees.

"-- and Mark."

"And Mark." His voice turns dry. In unison, they cast another glance out at the table. Sean can just make out the curly crown of Mark's head around Bobby's general bulk. "He's as classy as a cockroach," Divya continues. "And I hate his guts, but he's brilliant. You don't have to start riots to enact change; change starts so much smaller than that. It's when we teach people that laughing at a joke at the expense of silvertongues, or the disabled, or gays -- that's not okay. You stop laughing at the jokes, and then you stop making them. That's how you teach respect. If there's anyone who can prove to the world that being a silvertongue is not a handicap, it's us, doing this. With Mark Zuckerberg as our boss-man."

Sean nods back, understanding what he means. The thing about having the gift of speech is that if you're going to talk, then someone should be listening. Mark is so used to his power that it never occurred to him to learn how to talk to people just for the sake of talking; it's why he comes off monosyllabic and antagonistic. He doesn't know how to listen.

"You know, bro," he says, turning to Divya and tilting his head. "I don't think I've ever heard you use people-speech, either."

Divya is quiet for a long moment, his brows furrowed and his gaze locked on some middle point in the distance. Then he says, "Have you ever heard of transference?"

Sean stands up a little straighter. "In theory, yes," he hedges.

As a child, he used to secretively pour over the brief blurbs they had about silvertonguing in his textbooks, trying to find something that resonated with him. It wasn't until his sophomore year of high school that he realized his textbooks all had the same watered-down view, so he set off to find one of his own. Transference was one of the things he read about, because it had affected the political climate in the Crusades-era Mediterranean, where most of the world powers at the time were all people-speakers.

"It's the concept that every time we speak to something, be it the wind or the water or people or," he inclines his head in Sean's direction, "to inanimate objects, then we leave a little bit of ourselves in them. It would explain why it's so much easier to talk to something after we've already talked to it once. But, at the same time, you can see how this would become a major problem for people-speakers. If we use our speech on someone once, then," he seesaws a hand back and forth. "Theoretically, we leave a little bit of ourselves in them. They will never be able to forget us."

"That'd be really handy on a campaign trail."

"You got it in one," says Divya. "And less handy when you're trying not to attract attention to yourself."

Sean completes the thought for him. "That's why you don't use your people-speech. You're afraid of transference."

Again, a pause. "Yes and no," he says, speaking slowly, like he's still trying to piece his thoughts together. "It's less ..." He falters and then changes tract. "What do you think happens when a people-speaker tries to people-speak another silvertongue? When you try to use your speech on someone who's made of the same material you are?" Jiva, Sean thinks. "What happens then?"

Sean just lifts his hands, perplexed.

"I've been trying to find a scientific study done on it pretty much since I joined up with the Harvard Connection, but it's hard to find reliable research concerning matters of the soul." He folds his arms across his chest, drumming his fingernails on his biceps. "Too many of them like to speculate on whether or not we have them at all. But when people-speakers use their speech on another silvertongue -- the both of them made of the same spiritual alloy," jiva, Sean thinks again, "then there's the slight chance that their souls will ..." His mouth makes a funny shape, like it's trying to revolt against the word that's about to come out of it. "Bond."

"Soul-bonding?" Sean lifts his eyebrows.

"Every thought, word, action, and memory becomes shared. Slight chance," Divya reiterates. "But it's the same way you have a slight chance of getting struck by lightning. It's really unlikely, but you're still not going to go jogging in the rain holding a lightning rod. Likewise, I don't go around using my people-speech unless I know for certain the person I'm using it on isn't a silvertongue." He shrugs. "Just in case."

The loud scraping of chairs out in the cafeteria signals that the others are finishing up with their questionnaires.

Sean claps Divya on the back, half in a show of solidarity and half in thanks for what he confided in him just now. "I wonder how many of us there are," he says, switching the subject. "Unregistered silvertongues, I mean."

"There are probably more than we realize," Divya goes, gamely. "Ear-trumpet nursing is probably one of the most corrupted professions, along with the public records office and limo drivers. The amount of bribes they receive annually probably edges into the ridiculous."

"And us?" Sean asks, curious, thinking of Erica saying, empathy and common human decency cost money, and everyone's feeling broke. "How corrupted are we?"

"Corruption depends on who has the most material and who's going to write the story later," says Divya immediately. "The same way war stories are always written by the victor. Here, do you want the last of the coffee?"

 

 

At the beginning of February, Chris Hughes comes home.

Sean's in the rec room, setting up a ping pong table with Dustin's help. At least, that's the theory; it's more like Dustin's sort of vaguely handing him things while making doe eyes at Stephanie Attis, who's reading Scaramouche with her legs drawn up under her on one of the couches.

"Why do we need a ping pong table, anyway?" Sean huffs.

"Mt Auburn Street, Sean," Dustin stresses. "It's not Mt Auburn Street without a ping pong table. Actually," he admits, when Sean just raises an eyebrow at him. "I think it's Mark's way of giving the middle finger to somebody, but I don't know who. There are a lot of people Mark likes giving the middle finger to. Throw a dart in a crowded room, and you'll probably hit somebody who's pissed Mark off."

And then footsteps come pounding down the hall, accompanied by loud girl shrieks, and before either of them have the time to do more than lift their heads, Christy and Alice come slamming into the doorway on their sock feet, jostling each other to fit. Their voices overlap each other, exuberant.

"Chris is home!"

"Chris is back! Come on!"

"Eduardo's getting gyros!"

"Food! Food! Food!"

Dustin makes a high-pitched noise like a tire deflating and flails his hands at them, vocalizing his delight in a series of non-words. Alice beams so wide it's like her mouth takes up her entire face, and Christy drags her off, their voices echoing back as they find someone else to spread the good news to.

"Who's Chris?" seems like an intelligent question to ask at this juncture. "And where has he been?"

Chris, Sean learns, has been in Chicago since November, schmoozing with the Illinois Senators and gathering information on the political environment for the upcoming 2004 elections, which will determine the type of treatment silvertongues can expect for the next four years of American presidency. From this, Sean assumes that Chris is a people-speaker, so the truth, when he hears it, comes as a complete surprise.

Chris Hughes isn't a silvertongue at all.

"He's our secret weapon!" says Dustin excitedly. "Our super-stealthy ninja warrior!"

"What Dustin means," pipes up Stephanie, hooking her finger in between the pages of her book to mark her place and standing up. "Is that because he's perfectly normal, he can go places the rest of us can't."

"Like a spy!" Dustin beams at her.

She looks amused, but concedes the point. "Like a spy. He provides us with information that we can't get otherwise, because the government always communicates with us through that filter of 'there, there, little ones, let Uncle Sam take care of you now. Don't ask questions.' It's infuriating, so we have Chris circumnavigate it."

The three of them leave the ping pong table where it is, still only half-assembled, and head down to the cafeteria. There, Chris -- a slender man Dustin's age with a full head of blonde hair and very straight teeth -- sits in the middle of at least half of Mt Auburn Street like a king holding court.

He's talking very rapidly, "-- screwed either way. All the candidates whose platforms I studied at length are too focused on foreign affairs to have much time for us. Sweeping the internal affairs under the rug seems to be the method of choice this go-around."

"Do you think Bush will get reelected?" Divya demands.

Chris's mouth thins at that. "It's likely."

Such is the look on his face that Dustin breaks, giving a great shout of "Christopher Hughes!" that echoes and makes everyone except Bobby the door guy jump. Chris only just has time to get to his feet before Dustin clambers over the tables to get to him, throwing his arms around his neck. Sean imagines that if Dustin's geese were here, they'd be echoing Dustin's delight by clamoring and honking so hard nobody could hear themselves think.

They're still playing catch-up when Eduardo's arrival is heralded by a sudden, intense waft of the smell of Greek seasoning.

He appears in the doorway, arms laid down with three dozen foil-wrapped gyros.

They throw an impromptu celebration up on the roof, with folding chairs dug out of storage, big thick quilts they tug and wrestle over their laps, and a fire pit that Christy lights with a snap of her fingers, sparks catching briefly at the yellow of her eyes. Up here is one of Sean's favorite places to be; granted, there's not much of a view, unless you really like parking lots, but it's got a real summer campfire feel to it, like they should be roasting s'mores and singing kumbayah. It feels like the kind of place you'd go only with your real friends.

Usually, they come up here late at night, after most of the Brooklyn kids have gone home, to sit around the fire and drink and talk story. It's unspoken that during these times, nobody is boss-man or boss-lady or aunts or uncles, and so they talk like peers, playing haphazard games of I Never and asking questions, like the time they all got to discussing what they'd do if they knew they were going to die the next day. ("I," says Sean grandly. "Would take ecstasy and have sex. If it's the last time you're going to have sex, you should definitely do it hyped up on ecstasy, because I hear it's the most unreal experience and will completely ruin you for all sex you ever have again. So! Do it last."

Eduardo says acidly, "I never took you for the type who needs an excuse to take ecstasy and sleep with anything that moves," which earns him a woah, down, boy, from Christy.

Sean claps a hand to his heart. "You wound me, sir!" he protests.

"Have you ever been on a date in your life?" Eduardo continues. Sean wonders if he's a nasty drunk, or if he's just usually that nasty and is too professional most of the time to vocalize it.

"Yes," says Sean immediately. "Her name was Rin. She was a Victoria's Secret model." Which sets him off on the story about Roy Raymond and the Golden Gate Bridge, because that one never stops being deeply metaphorical and shit. Don't get him wrong, he adores women. He thinks women are, rightly, the most amazing things that were ever put on this earth. He loves having sex with them and he likes to think the feeling's mutual, and he even stays until morning, but while Sean is a fantastic lay, thank you very much, he doesn't actually respect himself enough to date women. He thinks they deserve better, and he's usually right.)

Sean takes the opportunity when he sees it, and when a spot opens up next to Chris, he flops himself down into it.

"Sean Parker," he introduces himself. He didn't think to grab Chris a new beer, but his has barely been touched, so he offers his Solo cup instead.

Chris nods, acknowledging, but waves off the beer. People have been plying him with congratulatory drinks since the alcohol showed up. "The new guy," he goes. "I heard about you. Nice to meet you."

"You should have heard the commotion earlier when the news came in you were back, dude," Sean nudges him. "It was like the prodigal son returned."

"I doubt that," says Chris, but the tips of his ears go pink, pleased.

He, Sean learns, is in charge of the Harvard Connection's public outreach. The threads of bureaucracy that Mark and Erica like to tangle up, he carefully unknots.

"Humans have voices too," Chris says. "And our own way of speech. For too long, we've been using our speech to send messages of hate and intolerance. Silvertongues don't have to stand up and fight the dominant power on their own."

Sean nods, because throughout his life, he's met all walks of humans with opinions on silvertongues; humans who vocally dislike them, talking them down in the same breath they talk down the blacks, the gays, the immigrants. You have people who don't like or dislike them. You have people who are their friends, but only conditionally, and out of all humans, those are probably the worst: the so-called friends who say things like, "you're fine the way you are, except I don't trust being alone in a tent with you at night." They're the ones that do the most damage, like termites eating away at a house's foundations.

And then you have people like Chris.

"He's so ... genuine," he enthuses to Christy, tipsy enough to be honest, and she smiles at him like she thinks he's adorable, reaching out to pat his curly head.

"Yes," she says musingly, letting him pillow his head on her shoulder. "It's kind of sad that it should be that shocking, isn't it? That it's harder to find someone who doesn't have a deep-rooted set of prejudices against us?"

"Mmhmm."

"It doesn't help that silvertonguing falls along race lines, either," Christy continues, warming to this topic. Curious, Sean sits up, because this tingles familiarly in the back of his mind: he maybe remembers reading something about this when he was younger, sneakily fishing for pamphlets in the doctor's office: How At Risk at Your Children for the Silvertongue Condition? "They did some kind of study in the 50s, right as the civil rights movement was really beginning to pick up. It was a classic strategy: the richest 1% of the population trying to find some 'scientific' method of justifying their prejudices, because it takes less effort than actually changing their own behavior."

The folding chair on the other side of Sean creaks as Mark joins their huddle, shoulders bunched up against the cold. Sean offers him the tail end of his blanket.

"Problem is," says Christy, catching their attention again. "It's true. Silvertonguing is genetic, so certain types of speech are more prominent in different geographic locations, depending on where they were considered most useful. So different forms of speech are more common in different races. You can find all types here in America," she gestures around the fire to encompass the types of silvertongues represented in this tableau alone; water-walkers, fire-talkers, people- and thing-speakers. "Because America's a melting pot of race and culture. But, for example, water-walkers? You can trace their ancestry back to the Nordic lands."

Unbidden, Sean looks over at ferret-faced Gretchen, sitting with Erica and Eduardo on the other side of the fire. Unlike the Winklevoss twins, who are most comfortable with moving water, Gretchen's brand of water-walking specializes in ice.

"The same way everybody with blue eyes can follow their lineage back to a single ancestor, all wind-talkers have a common ancestor, who lived in the high steppes of Mongolia, so you'll find a lot of wind-talkers in the Far East. As for fire-talkers, ancient kingdoms in the Middle East and Southeast Asia used to breed us as soldiers for their armies, so we've always run really strong there. It's why there's so much flames-of-tongue imagery in early Christianity and Islam."

"Aren't you Chinese?" asks Mark, frowning at her.

She rolls her eyes so hard the whites show. "I'm Cambodian, you ass," she says, and points a warning finger at him. "And don't even get me started on the anti-Zionist propaganda I can cite that went to great lengths to prove that people-speaking, though a global condition, runs particularly strong in Jewish families."

Mark shrugs at that. "That's a perfectly acceptable thing to assert," he says unapologetically. "It's like saying that Stephanie Attis is fat. Because she is. Exactly my point," he goes quickly, when Christy lifts a palm like she's going in for a smack, eyes wide with outrage. "Fat is not synonymous with ugly, disgusting, or undesirable: you've simply been indoctrinated to think it does. It is a physical description of her attributes, just like 'silvertongue' and 'people-speaker' do not automatically mean sneaky, sly, or money-mongering!"

His voice rises up into a shout on the end of this, incensed, and Eduardo materializes behind Mark like there's a little bell somewhere that summons him.

"Okay, guys, time to go," he says, digging his fingers under Mark's armpits and hauling him up. "We can argue all we want about race politics when we're sober."

Mark gives a token protest concealed by an equally token insult, which Eduardo tolerates good-naturedly.

Because they were just talking about it, Sean tilts his head, taking the opportunity to study Eduardo. He could almost pass as white, he thinks, and if he'd kept to his aspirations of Madison Avenue the way Mr. Saverin had wanted, people could have easily looked at him and seen a fit, rich, white man, because that's what they'd been culturally conditioned to see.

The truth, Sean sees with all the soothsaying skills of the very drunk, is in the eyebrows. Eduardo's eyebrows are just too thick. And there's the dark flush of brown skin around the edges of his fingernails. He's thinking Hispanic, maybe, or Cuban, before he remembers that he's seen Eduardo spell "Brazil" with an 's' before.

I suppose I could just ask, he thinks, but it's almost more fun to figure it out on his own.

Eduardo hauls Mark off, saying good night and welcome home to Chris as they go. Distractedly, Christy pulls at her underwire, and her mouth turns down at the end in a moue of disappointment.

"How are Bonnie and Clyde today?" Sean asks her, mouthing at the rim of his cup.

"Lopsided," she replies, tugging some. Her fingers slip over the worn, red lace of her bra, the collar of her shirt stretched so she could reach. Sean appreciates the view. "Again."

Talking to Christy is sometimes a lot like talking to three people at once: there's Christy herself, yellow-eyed and gorgeous, and then there's Bonnie, her left boob, and Clyde, her right boob. Clyde's bigger than Bonnie, which causes the three of them no end of drama. "It's embarrassing," Christy always complains, throwing her hands up when people tell her they honestly can't tell the difference. "He's a 38C and she's a 36C, how can you not see that? Clyde's an outward representation of my dominant personality, and he makes me so strange looking. I'm like freaking Quasimodo, all right, always leaning to one side. Ma-a-a-aster," she goes, flopping around with an exaggerated limp like Igor, which is mixing up her classical allusions some, but.

Every time she gets sent somewhere, she'll grab whoever's closest to the exit on the way out and go, "am I even?"

The answer is always yes, no matter if it's apparent that she's lined the cups of her bra with nylon. Even Mark knows better than to lie to her, and Mark has never given the socially-acceptable answer to anything in his life.

"You look lovely by firelight," Chris tells her patiently, as Sean pushes himself up and more-or-less steadily goes to get her another drink. The smoke is making his eyes itch and his lungs feel tight; he sends out a question in his head and gets an answer from his inhaler, tucked in the side pocket of his duffel three floors down.

He sits down next to Christy, coughing and waving the smoke away. He picks up her iPod from on top of the blanket and immediately tabs over to the artists, looking for familiar names, the way you always do when you obtain an mp3 player that isn't yours.

Her iPod, it turns out, is full of self-questing, soul-pain music; Linkin Park and Evanescence and other bands favored mostly by fourteen-year-olds with a brand new blooming existential awareness.

He doesn't even say anything; Christy takes one look at the expression on his face and snatches it out of his hands, a movement that rips her earbuds from her ears and makes her grimace. "Don't judge!" she goes flippantly. Sean lifts his eyebrows up at her, so she huffs, "Bonnie doesn't approve," and, "fuck you," as an afterthought, and walks off, ponytail swinging behind her. A snap of her fingers sends Sean skittering out of the way of a hot flush of embers.

Beating sparks off the cuffs of his pants, he cuts a look over at Chris, who looks deeply unsympathetic. "She's kind of crazy, you know that, right?"

"No, she isn't," says Chris instantaneously, and looks at him, clear-eyed and steady. "Just because we don't really understand what goes on in her head doesn't make her crazy."

 

 

Around the time the community college goes off for spring break, Sean is finally entrusted with his first real job as a member of the Harvard Connection.

"We need you to lead a raid into this facility here," Mark points at a grid of Brooklyn on his laptop screen, indicating a warehouse right on the water's edge. "It's BIA property," he continues in that sharp, clipped way he gets when he is all Mark Zuckerberg, youngest mob boss in the history of, like, ever, which answers Sean's next question. The government is full of amateurs, he thinks dryly. Dockside warehouses, really? You might as well scream, we solemnly swear we are up to no good! "We have reason to believe they're holding a silvertongue there."

Sean blinks. "Like, prisoner?" he goes, startled.

Mark nods shortly, saying, "I'm sure they call it something else," and then spares him a wry look. "Don't tell me you're actually surprised, Sean," he says. "You're the one with all the conspiracy theories about acts of mass government cruelty. I thought you'd be the first to leap on the bandwagon when proof actually turned up."

"Well, yes, but." Sean snaps his mouth shut, realizing he doesn't know how he was going to finish that sentence.

This is his chance to live up to the claim he made at that first meeting with Mark, and his chance to live down Eduardo's darkly muttered, we don't need him. He agrees without missing a beat.

The plan is this: because it's spring break, the Harvard Connection will have all hands on deck, which is why it's the opportune time to do a raid of this profile; it'll be easier to work around everyone's schedules. While Sean and a couple others are sneaking into the facility to spring out their errant silvertongue (Sharon Trotsky, Sean learns; she's sixteen years old, has a short-ish pixie brown haircut, and was reported missing by the members of her neighborhood softball team, who learned that Sharon was an unregistered beast-speaker just a few days before she disappeared,) the rest of them are going to systematically commit small, petty crimes all over Brooklyn to keep NYPD busy and up to their necks in reports, so that nobody will look too closely if something out of the ordinary happens down at a dockside warehouse.

"I knew you guys were criminals!" Sean says, feeling giddy with anticipation.

Covering his mouth with a rag and testing the pressure in a can of red spray paint, Chris says, "Of course we're criminals," with a voice as dry as dust. "Anyone who goes against the status quo is a criminal. So, yeah, I guess that basically makes us the mob."

Sean's allowed to pick his own team. He foregoes Christy ("the plan is stealth, woman, and burning the place down like it's 28 Days Later is not stealthy,") and instead picks Bobby and Gretchen, because there's no such thing as too much protection detail, not when it's Sean Parker.

"Seems legit," is Mark's assessment.

The raid goes down on the Friday of spring break, during peak party hours, after a busy day of vandalism, disturbance of the peace, and unsolicited acts of silvertonguing ("I wanted to blow something up!" Christy says in her defense, leaning on Eduardo and hobbling; she'd twisted her ankle in the ensuing police chase. "Oh, come on, fires in trashcans never hurt anyone.")

The docks are completely quiet, the weekday workers home early and the weekend workers not here yet, and it's almost no trouble at all to sneak past the guard and find the target warehouse. There are several large, white, nondescript vans parked out front in a row, but when Sean closes his eyes and casts his mind inside, none of the things he touches say I belong to a person, so that rules out the possibility of a heavy guard presence. Except --

There. A girl's golden hoop earrings, a sweet sixteen present from a grandmother whose hands trembled with Parkinsons's when she put them in a gift box.

"Found her," he whispers, opening his eyes and reconciling the voice with his current location. "She's on the second floor." He turns and looks over his shoulder, mind catching on the familiar voices of the guns the two of them cradle in their hands. "Do we even know what the point of the BIA is? Like, within the US government?"

"The Bureau of Internal Affairs?" says Gretchen. "I know that they've been mishandling Native American policy since before President Andrew Jackson got it into his head that a winter march through the Oklahoma countryside was a good idea."

"Fabulous," grumbles Sean. "You guys ready?"

"Yes," says Gretchen.

"..." says Bobby.

Like Christy, Bobby's a fire-talker, but unlike her, he's outgrown the need to use it every chance he gets, which makes him less exciting but also more reliable. Sean wouldn't even have known about it if only Christy hadn't told him, because he's never seen Bobby use his fire-speech for anything.

Gretchen ... okay, Sean mostly picked Gretchen because she's fascinating, and he kind of wanted to get to know her better. She is one of maybe three people over the age of twenty-five who lives at Mt Auburn Street full-time: she was a teenager when the Albrecht case dominated the world news, when most kids her age were set in their ways, indoctrinated into the same beliefs of their parents -- that silvertongues were something to be ignored, not looked at directly, or otherwise pitied. Gretchen, however, took to the case like a shark smelling blood in the water, and started thinking outside the box.

She was in her second year of law school when the United States declared its war on terrorism, and she dropped out in order to serve her country, because it was the honorable thing to do.

She was only overseas in Iraq for a month before she was given an honorable discharge and sent home, because someone, somewhere, forgot to cross a t and dot an i and neglected to check the box that said "silvertongue" in Gretchen's file.

I saved the lives of three men in my platoon, she told him, with a fierce, hard, quiet kind of dignity. I spoke Urdu and Pashtu and I never, never did anything that could cause harm to a civilian's life, and they discharged me for putting ice cubes in our water canteens in the middle of the fucking desert.

That's a really good reason to hate the US government, he said.

No it isn't, she replied. It is, however, a good reason to change the US government. She spread out her hands, as if to say, 'so here I am.'

They go in. As quietly as possible, Sean tells the security cameras that something incredibly interesting is happening over there, yeah, no, just keep looking over there, I swear I saw something, and he keeps Bobby and Gretchen in his peripheral as they climb the back staircase. The amount of thing-speaking that Sean's trying to juggle at once -- asking doors to unlock, telling cameras to look away, listening to the guns at his back in case they're suddenly turned on something, and listening to the storytelling of Sharon's earrings -- makes his head throb like a bad hangover.

It's worth it, though, when he puts his hand on the lock of a door and asks it to please open up, and it does, letting light spill in across a bare mattress on the floor and a short-haired girl in a ragged softball uniform.

"Sharon Trotsky?" Sean asks, crouching down to get eye level, the way you do with children and frightened animals.

She nods uncertainly, eyes flicking from him to Bobby and Gretchen and back again. They're beast-speaker eyes, faint and red, but he can see how maybe people could have mistaken it for a light brown all her life.

"I'm Sean. I'm with the Harvard Connection. We're going to get you out of here, okay?"

 

 

They give Sharon a day to settle in and recover from her unexpected stint in captivity ("I did everything they told me to," she tells Erica and Eduardo, sitting curled in the armchair in Mark's study with a mug of cocoa in her hands. Mark's not there, because, and Sean will always quote this, your face will scare her off, Mark, she's just had a horrible ordeal and you have the sensitivity of a two-by-four, go elsewhere. "I was at summer camp when I realized that the horses weren't talking to everybody else the same way they were talking to me, so I went straight to the county office and I told them there must have been a mistake. I don't ... I don't have parents, you know, so I thought there'd probably been something missing from my records. I was a silvertongue. I just wanted to get registered. That's what we're supposed to do, right? So why did they treat me like I had been deliberately hiding it from them?") before they throw her a welcome party, which for the Harvard Connection just means pizza from this place in Manhattan and a beer that comes in imported bottles instead of Bud Light cans.

Sean insists on the party hats, though. Those are completely necessary.

Sharon sticks close to Sean at first, and he preens under the attention because he doesn't often get to play the chivalrous white knight, but eventually she's coaxed over to sit with Dustin, Andrew, and Alice, the other beast-speakers. Riding the high of a successful job and petty crimes committed in the name of a higher good, everyone seems to have collectively forgotten that Sharon's sixteen, because they keep on throwing her beers.

"I thought you were on the softball team," Sean says, after the second bottle sails past her ear and smashes into brilliant shards of glass against the corner of the table.

"I am!" she replies, shoulders hunched up around her ears and her eyes enormously wide. "But we use softballs, not beer bottles!"

On the other end of the table, Mark and Erica have their heads together, talking lowly and seemingly not interested in joining the mass gluttony. When their voices start to rise into an argument, agitated, most everyone manages to politely ignore them. Sean casts a curious glance or two in their direction, but a quarreling couple is not enough to ruin his glow.

And then --

Erica: "Why are you so adamant that --"

"-- because you're just a beast-speaker!" Mark blurts out, so loudly that it cuts through all other conversation in the cafeteria, and a shocked, uncomfortable silence falls, all eyes turning towards them.

Sitting across from him, Erica's expression goes completely incandescent with rage, her mouth twitching like she's unable to even form words, and the look is so intense that Sean's momentarily convinced that she's about to go for the nearest sharp object, or go into the kitchen to grab a garrote and come back out here to behead Mark like a block of cheese.

To Sean's right, Chris takes an uneasy pull from his beer. The sound of the bottle hitting the tabletop again is unusually loud, and he flinches.

Mark seems to realize exactly how far he just shoved his foot into his mouth, because his throat bobs nervously and he goes, "do you want to get some food?" in the pathetic voice of a nineteen-year-old boy and not the semi-prodigious crime boss who can people-speak his way through a committee of bureaucrats twice his height and girth.

Erica, her eyes darting sideways with dawning awareness of their audience, gets to her feet and gathers up her things in careful, very controlled movements.

"I am sorry," she starts, biting out each word. "That you are not sufficiently impressed with my form of speech. Maybe you should look at your own prejudices before you try to go out into the world and change everybody else's!"

Back straight, she turns and marches out.

Mark wets his lips. Keeping his head bowed low, he pushes his chair back and leaves through the door at the opposite end of the cafeteria. Eduardo downs the last of his beer in one big gulp, grimacing, and then ghosts after him. The door clicks shut behind him.

Sean and Christy exchange a look. She widens her eyes, like, wow, did that just happen? and Sean makes a face.

He gets up and claps his hands together. "Well!" he goes, forcing out an awkward laugh. "That's our show for tonight, folks." A few unsettled laughs come back to him: Sean cannot, in recent memory, recall a time Mark and Erica had a fight that serious. They squabble all the time, bickering like any couple did, but never to the point of seriously attacking each other. "Now come on. This is a party!"

Let it never be said that Sean Parker isn't capable of gearing anyone into a party mood, because it takes just a little more cajoling (and a threat to start dancing on the table, because that will never not be funny,) before boss-man and boss-lady's altercation has mostly passed over.

He goes back and sits next to Dustin, who toasts him with a slice of four-cheese.

"You know," Sean says thoughtfully, unconsciously looking towards where Erica disappeared. "I have never actually asked for confirmation, but Mark and Erica. Are they even --"

"I don't think about it," says Dustin flatly. "Absolutely and never. I work for them, they are my boss-man and boss-lady, that is gross and I need it out of my brain. If I start thinking about them having sex, I'll never be able to take them seriously ever again."

There's a pause, where in they both try very, very hard to think of anything other than what they're actually thinking about, which is --

"It'd be really bony," Dustin decides, and Sean barks a laugh so loud it sounds like he's being shot at. "Like, really, just, with the scrawny and the --" At this point, Dustin is laughing too hard to keep going, and he and Sean hold onto each other to keep from falling out of their chairs, laughing until they wheeze. All it takes is one of them going, "bony," and they set each other off again.

Still weakly chuckling, Sean eventually gets up and grabs a paper plate and a couple slices of pizza, because Mark and Erica stormed out without getting any food. Out of the two of them, Erica probably needs the sympathy more, but Sean passes the computer lab in order to check Mark's study first: if Mark's in there, then he won't be in Erica's room. Sean doesn't really want to interrupt them if they're making up, because it's hilarious in theory and altogether nothing he actually wants in his eyeballs.

The door to Mark's study is ajar, so Sean nudges it further open with his elbow, and then freezes.

Mark's in the Godfather armchair. Give him fifty years, a dove-grey suit, and a cigar, and Sean would totally buy the mob boss persona, but as is, he just looks like a kid swallowed up by his grandfather's chair. Eduardo's with him, and Sean arrives just in time to see him turn on his heel and say, low and fierce, "you idiot."

He thinks, for half a beat, that he's interrupting another fight, and is about to loudly announce his presence when the words stopper up in his throat like they've been corked.

Eduardo closes the distance between himself and Mark, planting a hand on the back of the Godfather armchair and bracing his weight with a knee up on the cushion. Sean knows what he's going to do the second before he does it, because the expression on his face goes hard, clear, bright as light and universally recognizable. A frisson of shock ripples down his spine.

Mark must see it too, because he gets out, "Wardo," in a kind of voice Sean doesn't even want to think about, before Eduardo leans in the rest of the way.

He can't see the kiss from this angle, but he knows it happens from the way Eduardo's eyes lid, slow and blissful, the way his neck bends into it.

"You idiot," he says again, and Sean thinks, bizarrely, that he's only really hearing half a conversation, but Eduardo leans in again, mouth already parted in anticipation, and Mark stretches up to meet him, the line of his neck going soft, eager, like this has happened many, many times before. Still frozen in the doorway, Sean's left reeling, like the earth has shifted an inch or two along its crust and left him standing just a little bit to the right of where he's always been.

Mark's hand comes up, catching against Eduardo's stomach, and Sean doesn't really notice what it's doing until he realizes he can't see it anymore, because Eduardo's suit jacket and dress shirt have fallen open, obscuring its movements.

This, finally, is what jolts him into action, and he backs up, double-time, until his back hits the far wall.

"Suddenly," he says to no one in particular, keeping his voice down. "My life makes a lot more sense."

That's nice, dear, the doorknob replies.

 

| now |

He loses track of how much time passes before the door to the van is ripped open again. It's not Roth or Manningham this time, but two ubiquitous cops, federal underlings dressed in full riot gear; all Sean can see of them is the square lines of their jaws underneath the mirrored lenses of their visors, and when he touches their equipment with his mind, he hears nothing but the static of complete and utter stone-cold loyalty.

"Up," barks one, and they don't even wait for him to struggle before they hook their hands underneath his elbows, hauling him to his feet.

Sean staggers hard. After so long in one position, his feet no longer want to support his weight, and the sudden release of the pressure on his bladder makes it scream, and Sean whimpers, not even bothering to be ashamed of it. Pride is the only thing left that keeps him from peeing his pants, and even that's hanging on by a hair.

The cops don't bother waiting for the pins and needles in Sean's numb feet to go away; they manhandle him out of the van and across pavement, at which point Sean manages to get his legs under him and sort of help. The sunshine is back to being blinding, so he keeps his eyes closed.

Hello again, something whispers in his mind, and he startles, badly, tripping over his own feet. The cop on his right gives an annoyed shout when he almost topples them both, and the wrench he gives Sean's arm in reply feels like it's going to rip it right out of its socket.

Hello? he says back, probing.

It's you again, we haven't seen you in awhile, it's such a pity we're not allowed to help you this time, the voice continues happily, and it's only when they pass through a wide open doorway that it clicks, everything pinging familiarly in his mind. He's at the dockside warehouse where the BIA held Sharon Trotsky captive. It's been almost six months since then, but the locks on the doors remember him, just because he was nice to them.

That's ... that's okay, he manages. Could you let me know if anybody comes to rescue me, though?

I'm not sure that's something we can do, the lock says timidly. But we could ask?

"Hey," goes one of the cops, loud enough to shake Sean right out of his conversation. The pain in his body comes roaring back to him, wrenched shoulder and over-full bladder and stiff back. The cop steadies him as he starts to sway. "Whatever you're talking to, stop it."

And he punches Sean right across the face.

He's not expecting it at all, so he goes down hard, hitting the concrete floor with an almighty crack of his skull.

"No thing-speaking, you hear me?" the cop says, sounding very, very far away.

Sean groans, nonverbal, so the cops haul him up again. He doesn't have control of his hands, so he has no way to catch himself when they punch him again, this time across the other side of his face; he'll have a matching shiner later. It's like he can see the punch coming, but can't make the connections from his brain to his body in time to get out of the way. Blood spurts through his mouth, hot and stingingly metallic, and the wind goes out of him when he hits the ground.

While he's down there, his eyes slide across the concrete floor. He's in a tiny, cell-like room, he realizes; not unlike the one they kept little Sharon Trotsky in. There's a big, fat, grey rat in the corner, watching him with beady red eyes.

Erica likes rats, he remembers dimly. Erica's a beast-speaker, like Alice and Dustin and Andrew and Sharon, because beast-speaking is statistically the most common kind of speech in the United States, the way wind-talking is in Japan and fire-talking is in India, which is where Bobby's from. But just because it's the most common doesn't mean that the silvertongues who have it are any less extraordinary than, say, people-speakers or thing-speakers. That was the mistake Mark Zuckerberg made.

Dustin liked to talk to birds and Alice liked to talk to horses, and Erica liked rats the same way she liked Mark; she saw in them something nobody else did.

They're very intelligent creatures, she told Sean once, while he helped her garrote a whole wheel of cheddar. It was summer then, so there were rats everywhere in the alley when they climbed the steps out of Mt Auburn Street, carrying morsels of cheese to entice them with. And they're very polite, granted that you're polite to them first, and most people aren't. They look at rats and see only the worst kind of vermin.

What have they told you? he wanted to know.

She smiled at him, dimples appearing in her cheeks.

Their favorite thing is the smell of bookbinding glue.

Hands on him again, hauling him up to stand on his own two feet, and Sean doesn't want to be here for this. He can feel blood flecking down his chin, and can't do anything to wipe it away. He wonders if Erica's here somewhere. He sees a black-gloved fist cock back in preparation to punch, and closes his eyes again, cringing away and retreating deep into his head, beyond even all forms of thing-speech.

He remembers another time, with Erica, not all that long after Sean's successful raid. She'd been sitting in her room, which was covered in posters featuring famous pages from different novels, and a calendar that hadn't been turned over to the new month yet. He'd lingered in the doorway, watching her straighten her hair. It's naturally curlier than he thought.

Mark and Eduardo ... he finally started, and she looked up, eyebrows lifted. How long have they ...

Oh, she sounded surprised. You didn't know? Pretty much ... yeah, pretty much since the beginning. Eduardo was our partner, originally, and our friend before that. She lowered the straightener. Mark tried to people-speak him once, in the early days. Wanted something out of him that Wardo didn't want to give.

Just the once? Sean had asked.

She'd given him a darkly significant look. Once was all it took.

 

 

| then |

Sometime after Halloween, during one of the Harvard Connection's monthly raids on Goodwill, Sean makes an unexpected discovery.

He finds the book of Jaina traditions from his childhood on one of the shelves in a drunken, leaning stack, behind a battered and duct-taped copy of Fellowship of the Ring.

The title is obliterated by the bright red "BANNED" sticker stamped over the spine, but something about the shape pings familiarly at Sean's mind, stills his fingertips. He pulls the book out, heart swelling in instant recognition at the sight of the blue-painted man sitting Indian style on the front cover, his eyes downcast and his fingers curled into a mudra, resting on his knees. The pages are musty with age, their edges nuclear yellow.

He pays fifteen cents for it, and on the subway home, he finds the section on jiva and ajiva and reads it again, the words as familiar to him as a Hail Mary.

And so it is said that in the beginning, the universe was made of two things: those which were things, and those that were not. Those which were things became those with soul, and the not-things became soulless. Those with soul became the man, the beasts, the fire, the water, the wind, and the growing wood, and all them spoke a single language.

"What's ajiva, then?" Mark asks when Sean brings the book into his study, thinking he would tuck it among the other banned books for future members of the Harvard Connection to find.

"Empty matter, I think," Sean says, leaning against the desk. Mark watches him from the armchair, laptop open in the cradle of his thighs and his head tilted to one side. "Things that exist but don't have substance. Thoughts, for example, or time and space. Gravity. Probably emotions, too -- prejudice and instinct, and so on."

Mark muses on this. "Do you think it's possible that jiva things are filled with the ajiva?"

"Like?"

"Humans," his mouth forms bitingly around the word, spits it like the shell of a sunflower seed. "Sometimes I think they're nothing but dark and soulless."

Sean frowns at him, unsettled. He knows Mark's misanthropic to an almost anarchistic degree, but usually he saves his venom for just one or two individuals, not people as a whole. He shifts his weight, remembering the cheerful way Erica said shut up, or I'll cut out your dead human tongue, not liking where this is going. They're talking about Chris and Eduardo here, who are some of the best humans that Sean knows.

Reminding himself that Mark is only nineteen, he starts to say, "That doesn't make us better than them --"

"Sure it does," Mark cuts him off. He blinks, lizard-like. "We're silvertongues."

Only nineteen, Sean thinks again, because there is an overwhelming, inherent danger in thinking that one is automatically superior to the other. But before he can sort out his response, something very interesting happens to Mark's face. His expression shifts and sharpens, eyes sliding to focus on some middle distance, like a dog straining to hear the sound of its master's key in the lock. The next beat, and he goes pale with fear.

"Mark?" Sean goes, but the lid of Mark's laptop slams shut and he's on his feet in a movement like a coiling spring, raw panic visible in his eyes.

"They have Erica," Mark says, clipped and tight.

How do you know that? Sean thinks, disbelieving, because it literally looks like Mark just received that information via radio signal beamed directly into his brain, but Mark's already out the door, and Sean hears his sandals go flapping down the hall at a dead run.

"The fuck?" he says out loud, but panic is infectious and his heartbeat picks up in response to it. He might be projecting, but he thinks he can hear the distant echo of shouting in the corridors; Divya's voice canting loud, Mark yelling in response.

He turns around, intending to follow and see what's going on, when he hears something else; a whisper, tugging at his ear like a breeze that signals the secret exit to a locked room in movies, faint and wispy. We have a secret, it tells him, and his head swivels, trying to follow it. He's never been alone in boss-man's study before, he realizes; there's any number of interesting things he could find. He listens hard.

We have a secret! There it is, a gleeful whisper in his mind -- something, not someone -- and he circles the desk, running his fingers along the edge and feeling a lot like he's in the Thomas Crown Affair.

No, shhh, you're not supposed to find us! We have a secret!

He doesn't find a switch to a hidden compartment, but what he does find is a raised ridge of tape, worn ragged with age. Heart pounding, he crouches down and picks at it. Whatever's been taped to the underside of the desk, it's not very big, or thick. In fact, he thinks as he peels away more tape, feeling the giggling shape of no, no, no, we're a secret!, it feels a lot like --

They fall loose into his palm.

Fingers catching around a smooth, varnished surface and hard plastic, he pulls out two IDs: driver's licenses for the state of Massachusetts, one with Mark's face on it and the other with Erica's, the both of them looking childish and even younger than the real deal. He pulls them into the light to get a better look.

For a split second, Sean's tempted to laugh, thinking that he's looking at a pair of fake IDs, so juvenile they're practically adorable.

But that's not right, because these aren't Class O licenses. These are learner's permits: bold print proclaiming that the card-holders are not allowed to drive without someone 21 years or older in the passenger seat. He has one half-beat to realize that these are completely genuine, relics from Mark and Erica's lives before the Harvard Connection, and then he notices two things at once.

One, the birthdays are the same on both cards; day, month, and year.

Two, the names aren't the ones he knows.

Erica Albrecht, says one.

Mark Albrecht, says the other.

And suddenly, everything clicks.

Sean's fingers go numb, nerveless, and the IDs slip right out of them, clattering to the cement floor. It doesn't matter, because he's pretty sure the information is seared across his brain, a permanent brand.

The Albrecht twins. The babies born in upstate New York when Sean was preschool age, the landmark court case that spawned the surge of the silvertongue civil rights movement, the babies who disappeared somewhere and grew up while kids like Sean were learning about them in school the same dull way they learned about revolutionaries long dead ... and after all this time, here they are, right in front of his face.

Mark and Erica are the Albrecht twins.

Mark and Erica are the Albrecht twins.

Adults now, which is weird to think, because every time Sean's read about the Albrecht case, it was always about the infants, so somewhere in the back of his mind, it's like he expected them to stay little babies forever, except here they are, with new identities and their own criminal organization that run after-school programs for at-risk silvertongue teens, who call them boss-man and boss-lady.

It's exactly what the suits at the BIA are afraid of -- the Albrecht twins becoming the touchstone of a revolution.

They could, he knows. If at any point they came out with their real names, people would rally to them. They would.

If one domino goes, the others go.

Holy shit, it's so weird to think. Mark and Erica are twins.

They're brother and sister.

"Oh god," says Sean, suddenly and keenly mortified for all the times he's casually thought about them having sex, because they were always in each other's personal space, and -- and come on, how was he supposed to know? "Dude!" he says emphatically. "Awkward!"

Told you we had a secret, the IDs tell him, unsympathetic.

 

 

Still dazed, feeling off-center by the blow of the revelation, Sean wanders out into the hall. Distantly, he's aware of more shouting, and only then does he remember Mark sprinting out of the study, the raw terror on his face like some silent alarm had been tripped. The panic comes back, and he sets off down the hall at a run.

Everybody, it seems, is gathered in the front hall: there's Bobby, even, hovering uncomfortably by the door with his massive arms folded across his chest, a clear brand of fear making his eyes tight around the corners; Chris, grim-faced, with a bizarrely shirtless Dustin hovering nervously at his elbow; Mark and Divya square off in the middle, shouting.

"-- going to beat the shit out of them with a hammer!" Divya roars, just as Sean elbows through the knot that Christy, Alice, and Sharon make at the end of the hall.

The front door bangs open, and Cameron stumbles in, Tyler directly behind him. Rainwater runs in rivulets off their clothes; their jeans are soaked up to the knees, like they'd been splashed by a car going through gutter water. It hadn't been storming that hard when Sean made the trek back from Goodwill, but glancing around the breadth of their shoulders and he spots a jagged tongue of lightning as it splits the sky in half.

As soon as he claps eyes on them, Mark tries to launch himself at the Winklevosses, fingers shaped into claws. Eduardo grabs him, restraining him with an arm across the chest.

"What happened," Mark barks out, struggling against the hold. "Where is she?"

With identical horrorstruck expressions making their eyes huge as saucers, the twins trip over each other in their hurry to reply.

"We heard it in the rain and we sent Divya to come tell you --"

"-- told us that there was a girl and a van. The rain said the men in the van took the girl and --"

"-- because it had to have been Erica. The rain told us what she looked like and it had to be her because the rain didn't really know how to describe that beanie hat she likes, you know, and anyway --"

"-- we tried to follow, but it's like chasing the Karate Kid around a high school gym. We probably looked ridiculous."

"-- you know how she is. One of those frat boys she likes to terrorize probably recognized her and called --"

"Where did they take her?" Mark cuts in, all but vibrating with his impatience. "Ask the rain! Where is she now!"

In synchrony, the Winklevoss twins lift their hands. Their fingers are taped up, raw from the abuse they withstand at work, but they twitch so very minutely, like they're running over a thousand miniscule threads. They close their eyes, and Sean suddenly realizes he doesn't need to hear the answer, because he already knows. Where else do you take an errant silvertongue?

Head ducking down so as not to attract attention, he backs out, retreating through the maze-like halls down towards his room.

His mind is a whole cacophony of different thoughts, half-plans, a spinning mess of the little bighorn plan and they're the Albrecht twins and the fractal-bright memory of his big brother holding him down on the kitchen tile and beating his face in and the look on Sharon's face when they unlocked the door to her room, like she was expecting to be hit.

A brother needs his sister. The boss-man needs his boss-lady. The Brooklyn kids need their aunt.

Nothing, Sean realizes, is quite more important than what he's going to do right now.

All right, Sean Parker, he thinks, and tilts his head side to side, cracking his neck. He's going to need to do something big. This is your moment. Let's see how fast you can piss off the US government.

 

 

| now |

When he comes back to himself, it's to find a new set of hands on him, coaxing and hauling him up by the shoulders to make him kneel, rewarding him with an almost gentle touch to his chin when he goes, his kneecaps creaking and gone numb on the cold cement floor. He sways there, not opening his eyes, but a cursory touch of his mind tells him that the policemen are gone and this isn't them.

The soft, near-fatherly touch almost lulls him into a sense of security, which is why the next punch knocks everything out of him. Stars collide on the insides of his eyelids and his mind pushes through the last bit of deliriousness and suddenly goes bright and fever-focused.

He opens his eyes, now very awake.

"That," says Manningham, very calm and standing over him with his fist still raised. "Is for the mess that you and the Harvard Connection have left for me and my people to clean up."

Sean laughs raspily, lifting his head off the concrete. "Then you shouldn't have kidnapped Erica," he says.

"Why not? She hasn't even been in our custody for twenty-four hours before it did exactly what we wanted it to do. You all came crawling out of hiding pretty much immediately, didn't you? It's kind of like smashing in that last bit of drywall and watching all the cockroaches scatter."

This time, Sean manages it on his own. He draws his knees up under him and uses the ball of his shoulder as leverage to push himself back up into a kneeling position, balancing on his haunches.

"Do you know how long you've been a thorn in my side?" Manningham continues, as pleasantly as if they're talking about the last Green Bay Packers game. "Since your brother Thomas made that ... accidental slip-up in that interview about his sweet baby brother, the founder of Napster. Very curious, don't you think, the way he kept on mentioning how you talked to computers when you were a kid? It's a pity music piracy is still a federal offense."

I always thought they came down on me really hard for that, Sean thinks, viciously hating his brother for one nova-hot moment, before even that passes through him.

He tips his head to the side, licking back blood and saliva and hawking it out: the spray of spit coats the floor, droplets glittering dark as rubies.

"Imagine my surprise when our security cameras casually mention that they were asked to look the other way by this very suave young man, the same day a beast-speaker goes missing from this very facility. That was very, very sloppy of you, Sean. You're not as good at this criminal thing as you think you are."

Sean ignores the jab. He takes a moment to gather himself, before he turns around to face the front, looking Manningham dead in the eye. "Let me tell you something," he goes. "Do you want to know why holding me here, the same way you're constantly trying to push oppression on the rest of us, is futile?"

"Because your rhetoric is so important to me," Manningham returns, sarcasm dripping from every word. "Please, entertain me. I'd love to hear it."

"You know what's cooler than the government, cooler than the elite majority, cooler than you?" Sean murmurs, only a little rhetorically, thinking of the way Mark said because we're silvertongues and not even pretending to be smarmy anymore. "Us. But the thing is, Mitch, is that human beings, by the very nature of their souls, are taught to respect a love story."

"Mm." Manningham makes a sharp, impatient noise in the back of his throat.

"We are," Sean insists. "It doesn't matter if we're silvertongue or not, black or white, CEO or CFO or paper-pushing lackey. Each and every one of us has gone out of our way to avoid maligning something that somebody else loves, even if we don't understand it. We respect people who are in love, even if we think they're crazy. Love is a part of all of us, the one thing we respect above everything else; we don't do great actions with only a little love. We do many, many little things, all with great love."

"Very touching, Mr. Parker, but are you going to arrive at the point?"

"What happens when a heart, a mind, and a body walk into a bar?" He doesn't even wait for an answer. "They raze it to the ground."

Sean gives him a shark's grin, slim and toothy, and says, very soft, "Case equity, bro. You're so busy parading around in your ridiculous suits, trying to outsmart a mastermind that you don't get it. Mark Zuckerberg loves two things in this world and two things only, and neither of those things is his own damn cleverness. He loves Erica, and he loves Eduardo."

And he just has time to see Manningham's expression shift, eyes widening fractionally with sudden realization, before Sean hears the most blessed, blessed sound in the world, crackling at the back of his mind.

It's the ringing, spitfire calvary charge of Eduardo's gun.

 

 

Somewhere deep in the warehouse, an alarm begins to sound: short, sharp, piercing wails that makes Sean's soul lift practically into his throat.

Manningham ticks his eyes sideways and draws in an exaggerated sigh. "And here come the rabble," he says. "An agent's work is never done. I'll be back," he promises, and sidles on out the door, like he's in absolutely no hurry to meet what's coming for him, or rather, like he's not worried about meeting what's coming for him. Sean grits his teeth.

He really hopes Christy sets him on fire.

It's only a matter of about sixty seconds before the door to Sean's makeshift holding cell bangs open.

Chris fills the doorway, black bandana pulled up around his mouth. The gun in his hand purrs in delight, saying I see you, Sean, we found you!, settled in Chris's hand like a natural extension of his arm, the way objects do when they truly love their owners, and the feeling of it settles inside Sean's ribs, warm as coal. The bright, focused look on Chris's face breaks for a moment, becoming something complicated at the sight of Sean, kneeling on the floor with his clothes askew, blood and snot dripping unattractively from his face.

"No homo, bro," Sean goes fervently. "But you are maybe the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my entire life."

The gun lowers, safety clicking on, and Chris tugs the bandana down around his neck, revealing a smile as wide as a slice of the moon.

"Well," Sean admits, because he can man up. "Okay, that was a little homo," and Chris snorts, both fond and relieved at once. He holsters his gun and kneels down, wrapping his arm around Sean's waist and helping him to his feet. Sean isn't proud to admit, but his knees wobble and he leans into Chris's warmth with a pathetic amount of gratefulness.

"I don't suppose --" he starts, and wriggles his hands behind his back.

"Please," goes Chris immediately. "I might not be a thing-speaker, but even I know how to pick a pair of handcuffs."

They go out into the hallway, where Sean turns his back to Chris, letting Chris's fingers turn his wrists up so that the lock on the handcuffs faces upwards. At the end of the hallway, he can see where it widens out onto a platform that looks over the main storage area of the warehouse. It's dark, gloomily unlit, even though outside it has to be the height of afternoon. The instant the handcuffs click open, Sean pulls his arms loose.

The unexpected pain almost knocks him down; his arms had been trapped in that position for so long that they cramp horribly, and Sean hisses sharp between his teeth, ending on a whimper.

"Sorry," whispers Chris, touching the flat of his shoulder reassuringly. "I should have warned you."

"Don't worry about it," Sean replies, because he has bigger things to worry about. His hands are free. "I apologize about this in advance," he says preemptively, and sprints the rest of the way down the hall, unzipping his jeans as he goes and reaching in. With no small amount of satisfaction, he pees right over the edge of the platform, all over whatever it is the BIA keeps down there.

He throws his head back, groaning out in sheer, unadulterated bliss as his bladder empties at long last.

"Scratch everything I've ever said," he says to Chris, who hovers a respectful distance away, his eyebrows hiked up very high on his forehead. "This is the most amazing feeling in the entire world."

"I will ... take your word for it," Chris replies.

He shakes himself off and tucks back in, zipping up his jeans. His bladder still hurts, upsettingly enough, and Sean didn't even know a sore bladder could be a thing, but there you go. He pulls his sleeve down over his fist and starts wiping at the mess on his face when he hears another familiar voice; a gun he usually hears tucked safe into a holster pressed close to a heart.

"Eduardo," is all he gets out in warning, a beat before the man himself appears on the other end of the platform.

Dark-colored eyes flicking from Chris to Sean and back again, he says in a very controlled voice, "I got him, Chris. You go help Mark look for Erica."

Sean isn't even sure that Erica's being held here, which is a little frustrating. But he's been casting his mind out ever since he arrived, trying to find her clothes or jewelry or that white beanie cap of hers, the one she was wearing when she got kidnapped, but he can't. He can't hear her.

"I can't hear her," Eduardo says, in an eerie echo of Sean's own thoughts, and he blinks over at him, unsettled by it.

"Are you sure?" Chris looks ill at ease, but Eduardo just shakes his head. They exchange a significant look, quiet except for the continuous drone of the overhead alarm, before Chris turns around and goes clattering down the stairs.

Sean reaches out and grabs Eduardo's sleeve, tugging on it pointedly. "Hey, hey," he goes, a sudden thought surfacing in his mind as something Manningham said about the warehouse's security cameras finally starts to make sense. "I think the other agent guy, Roth, might be --"

"Another thing-speaker," Eduardo finishes for him, distracted, shifting his torso around to face him. His eyes flick back and forth between Sean's eyes, like he's checking pupil size. "Are you all right?"

"I am now," Sean goes, not even bothering to try and sound casual, because whatever, at this point he's pretty sure he's thrown his lot in with the Harvard Connection as far as it can go, if they jump, he jumps, never let me go, Jack, so on and so forth, and the corners of Eduardo's mouth twitch amusedly. "But do you think they really --"

"Yes," is the instant reply. And then, "Always with that look of surprise, Sean, every single time. It's like, no matter what you always say and how much you play up your paranoia of its goings-on, you're still somehow caught off guard whenever the government turns out to be as two-faced as you think it is. Yes, I think not only is the BIA perfectly capable of detesting silvertongues and using them for its own gain at the same time, I think it's absolutely true."

Sean digests this.

"Fuck him," he says seriously, meaning Manningham. "Fuck him very much. I'm going to tell him that when I see him next, I promise you that right now."

"We're going to have to find him first," Eduardo answers, like it's a perfectly reasonable suggestion. "Which is going to be hard, if Roth has thing-speaked everything in this building to keep mum and not do anything that might aid our search."

There's something wrong with this picture, Sean thinks, and feels the weight of this thought very keenly.

"Wait," he says, and very slowly, turns his head. "How do you know that?"

Eduardo just looks at him patiently, and the silence stretches for several seconds, because Sean knows he's missing something here, because how does Eduardo know that about the locks on the doors and the cameras, how does he know about the thing-speaking.

He wants me to tell you that you're being very slow, says Eduardo's gun. But he'll forgive you on account of you having been held in captivity for the better part of the day.

And there it is. The puzzle piece that didn't quite fit where Sean was trying to make it fit, falling into place like it was just waiting all along, and he feels his eyes double in size, leaping from Eduardo to the gun cradled capably in his hands the same way a businessman can handle a Blackberry, and back again.

The gun that spoke to him.

Eduardo spoke to him through the gun.

"You're a thing-speaker," he says. "You. You're a thing-speaker!"

"There you go," Eduardo murmurs, and Sean's brain clicks into overdrive, because of course, of course, of course, he'd always wondered if maybe there'd been another thing-speaker who'd gone through Mt Auburn Street, because the appliances all kept their silence, like they already knew they had somebody to talk to. Everybody else knew, everybody else had to know, but they kept quiet because Sean was so adamant that he was useful as a one-of-a-kind, an unregistered thing-speaker.

When, of course, there was already an unregistered thing-speaker on the premise. No wonder Eduardo had been so mulish, following Mark around and saying things like, we don't need him.

Because they didn't.

Oh, god, everybody must have laughed their asses off.

"Dude," he goes wonderingly, tilting his head up to look at Eduardo with the same shock people usually reserve for risen members of the undead. "This explains everything. Dude, dude, dude," he shakes Eduardo's sleeve again. "Do you know how much I've heard about you?"

"Do I want to know?"

"Nothing," comes out of him, admiringly, and it looks like Eduardo can't help the smile he gives at that one. "How did you manage to keep it a secret all this time?"

"I hadn't really planned on it," Eduardo admits. "Mark and I just wanted to know what you were made of -- the Winklevii had done all that research on you, sure, but we could go on the Internet and read any number of untrue things, so we wanted to get the measure of you without the lens of competition."

He pauses, like he's waiting for Sean to ask more questions, but Sean just kind of wants to know everything, so he flaps his wrist around to get Eduardo to keep going.

"When I was born, my parents bought out the nurse's silence, and then since silence became kind of running theme in my household, I didn't tell them what I could do. I think my parents are still under the impression that I'm some kind of beast-speaker."

Sean shrugs. "Hey, you can get Mark to shower. I consider that a pretty impressive form of beast-speaking," he says, and is gratified when Eduardo actually barks laughter.

"I was eighteen and bagging cookies in the mall when Mark and Erica found me. They wanted my chess algorithm, but what they got was an unregistered thing-speaker. The rest, I think, is history."

"Snookies?" Sean goes, uncertain as to where he gleaned this information from -- it might have been from one of those drinking nights around the fire pit up on the roof of the empty office building -- but feeling the truth of it anyway. "Snookies Cookies?"

"Yeah."

"I love that place!" he enthuses, and a quick glance at the expression on Eduardo's face tells him this probably isn't the time or the place. He lets go of his sleeve, and says, "But, seriously, dude, you could have offed me at any point. I never would have seen it coming -- I thought you were as human as they come -- and Mark doesn't need two thing-speakers. I was a threat to your position. I am a threat to your position."

Eduardo snorts at that, smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, like he's enjoying a private joke.

And then.

Something in his expression shifts, changes, and his eyes go from their usual warm cat's eye gleam to something familiarly reptilian.

"You're really not," he says, and it's Eduardo's voice, but not his tone, and Sean looks at him and realizes that someone else entirely is using his mouth to speak. "I'm glad to see you're all right, Sean," it continues, matter-of-fact and a little brusque. "Thank you for ... for what you did. I appreciate it," and understanding slams into Sean like a hammer blow, felling him neatly.

He hears the far-off echo of Divya's voice, saying, what do you know about transference?

Transference: the possibility of an irreversible connection formed between a people-speaker who tries to people-speak another silvertongue. It's a people-speaker's greatest fear, of becoming so dependently, fantastically bonded to somebody else, that their every thought, word, memory, and action become yours as well, and from that moment on, neither of you can ever be separated, and are never alone again.

"We look after our own, Sean," says Mark through Eduardo's mouth.

"Shit," Sean breathes out, because he's not sure how many more drastic reveals he can take. Mark and Erica are the Albrecht twins, Mark and Eduardo are soul-bonded through some hinky defect of silvertongue genetics, and Eduardo is a thing-speaker. It is seriously blowing his mind.

It also makes so much sense, though, because how many times has Sean thought it strange that whenever Mark and Eduardo spoke to each other, it was like they were having whole conversations in the wealth of a few words (he remembers Eduardo bending at the waist to kiss Mark's mouth, saying, you idiot, like it was a whole adoring soliloquy,) and how they always seemed to have a sixth sense for when the other needed back-up, and how strange it was that they were so subtle -- touchy, sure, because Eduardo was in close proximity more often than not, the two of them with their backs pressed together and turned in different directions (which he supposes now is their way of seeing 360º) -- but he had lived with them for three months without knowing that they were banging. He had to walk in on them making out before he figured it out.

Then again, why do you need to touch someone excessively when you can just ... do it in your heads?

"Shit," he says again, softer.

"You're one of us, Sean," it's Eduardo's inflection now, inside his own voice, and he nudges Sean with his elbow. "As long as there's a Harvard Connection, you'll have a place with us."

"That's ... fuck it, can I have a hug? I mean, I know neither of you two crazy kids are huggers, but I can't let that one go."

This startles Eduardo into laughing, who goes, "maybe later," with a tolerant air of long-suffering, before his face shifts again, and now that he's looking for it, Sean knows that he's seen this exact thing happen dozens upon dozens of times before: that moment when Mark or Eduardo see something important happen through each other's eyes.

"They found her," he goes, a wealth of wonder and relief so deep in his voice that it sounds like he's drowning. "Erica. She's alive."

Sean nods, and rubs at the red lines bitten into his wrists. He can hear it, down below: the shape of things in his mind that means Mark and the shape of things that mean Manningham, facing each other. He looks up and meets Eduardo's eyes.

His mouth set, Eduardo clicks the safety off his gun.

 

 

The warehouse control room is lit by the light of a single bulb, bare and swinging on the end of a chain. There's a bank of control switches against the far wall, levers that manage the floodlights and the skylights and the bay doors all flicked to off.

The first thing Sean sees when they bust in there is Manningham, unarmed with his shoulders held straight back, and Erica on a pallet behind him.

She's unconscious, flung out on her side with her shoulders drawn up like the wings of a bird; she's wearing nothing except for her tank top and black pajamas bottoms, rolled at the waist and decorated with Tweety Birds and the caption of dat's right, pussycat! all down the legs. She's soaked all the way through, her clothes clinging to her, and it looks too fresh for it to have been from the rain yesterday.

Hatred courses through Sean like vinegar in his veins.

Mark stands across from Manningham, also unarmed but trembling with scarcely-contained rage, his eyes flicking rapid-fast, back and forth, Erica's prone form to Manningham's smug face. The only thing that's keeping him from going to her are the cops, flanking him on either side with their handguns trained right on him. They're the same ones that beat Sean bloody; their guns are a nasty, offensive bark in his head, their stony silence from before broken by the promise of fresh bloodshed.

One of them spins around when Eduardo and Sean come in, the barrel pointing right at them and sending them to a skidding halt, but the other cop doesn't waver. Mark doesn't move to look at them, either, but he doesn't need to, not when Eduardo's standing right behind him.

Sean takes a moment to be grateful that nobody's handcuffed this time around.

There's a beat where everybody lets the reality of the circumstances sink in, and then Mark speaks.

"Good job," he goes, biting out each word. "Using our own invasion tactic against us. Pick a day when the NYPD is busy with a number of other things in other places, and act in the shadow of it."

"There are a lot of people out there, lacing up their jogging shoes and racing for the cure," Manningham agrees mildly. "I hear it's a record-breaking number." Mark says nothing, so he makes a small, interested noise. "It's called the little bighorn, Mr. Albrecht, you should look it up."

The use of Mark's real name acts pretty much like a cattle prod set directly against his spine: Mark's whole body jolts with it, eyes flying betrayingly wide before his face settles into a mask of cool indifference, mouth flattened out, like this is something he can't even be bothered with.

His voice, when he speaks, comes out silky and oily to the touch, so silverly smooth and persuasive that Sean leans towards it involuntarily.

"I don't know how you came by that information, Agent Manningham, but I think it would be best for the both of us if you just forgot --"

Manningham backhands Mark cleanly, almost casually, and his men step smartly out of the way when Mark hits the concrete. Eduardo bellows in outrage and pain, jerking forward, but a deliberate move on the part of the gun turned towards him makes him freeze again, eyes blazing the color of brimstone and hands white-knuckled on his handgun, hovering uselessly in front of him.

Mark scrambles to his feet again, red mark showing bright on his cheek.

"Don't try to people-speak me, Mark," says Manningham, voice cold. "Or I'm going to have to cut out that pretty silvery tongue of yours."

Mark is quiet.

"That's better," Manningham relaxes back onto his heels. "Now, do you know how ridiculous you and Ms. Albrecht here look with that ... ugh, does it even really deserve the name of a crime syndicate? It really isn't, is it, it's just you two pretending you can ... what, viva la revolucion with some therapy sessions for spoiled teens? Please, Mark, we both know the Harvard Connection isn't going anywhere but the bad end of Brooklyn."

Mark shrugs one shoulder. "Okay, that's fair," he goes. "But I believe I deserve some recognition from the Bureau."

This makes Manningham pause.

"I don't understand," he says, hard.

"Yes," answers Mark, like that's a given. "Which part?"

"You believe you deserve recognition?"

"Well, yes. We all do -- Erica, Eduardo, Sean, and I, with the help of our whole entire family. You know," he snorts derisively. "I think we've done a pretty good job severely undermining your frankly underwhelming attempts at controlling the silvertongue situation in Brooklyn. How many years has the Harvard Connection made the BIA look like idiots?"

Something passes over Manningham's face, something that blanks it out like a slate swept clean. The next moment, he sweeps forward and seizes Mark around the throat, hauling him up almost onto his tiptoes.

Mark's eyes bulge wide, pupils swelling with fear and edging out the blue-grey color, as Manningham's thumbs dig hard into his windpipe. The agent's face goes apoplectic, seemingly oblivious to Mark scrambling at his wrists, and everybody shouts at once: Eduardo and Sean and the two cops, overlapping each other. Sean can feel the cords in his throat standing out, and Manningham lets go, holding his palms up in surrender.

Knees giving out, Mark slides to the ground. Every breath he pulls in whistles through his nose. Eduardo shudders, full-body, and Sean flings an arm out sideways to stop him from moving.

Running his hands over his greased-back hair, steadily regaining his composure, Manningham paces in a tight circle before he turns around and kneels down next to Mark's head.

"Well now," he says. "Don't be shy, Mr. Albrecht. Is there anything you'd like to say?"

Mark throws him a deeply hateful look. "Yeah," he goes, his voice sounding like it had been raked backwards over hot coals, rasping like sandpaper. "Sean Parker says fuck you."

Unbidden, Manningham and his men cast a startled glance in Sean's direction, and Sean smirks, lifting his shoulder in an aw shucks, you mean little ole me? gesture. He swears his heart grows three sizes with pride.

Manningham's smile goes tight in the corners. He looks back at Mark and says, calmly, "Listen to me, you little shit. While you're busy playing chicken with me, my partner is out there rounding up your whole ragged crew, and he's going to bring them here and then we'll really see how thick that skin of yours is. Now, I've found that there are really some very interesting loopholes in silvertongue legislation -- did you know, for example, that it's generally frowned up to kill one, but it's legal to cut out their tongue?"

His eyes glitter at the thought. Mark doesn't look away.

"And I'm just one man, I'm prone to making mistakes. It would be so easy to miss, you know," Manningham touches the tip of his finger to Mark's jugular in a very, very pointed gesture.

It happens in a matter of seconds, in one blinking fall of the eyelids to the next, eternity unfolding like a child's finger puppet fortune teller game.

To Sean, everything suddenly slows way down.

Manningham's lip curls on the end of his threat, and there is just a beat, less than, for the implication to sink in.

A half-beat, and then Erica Albrecht unfolds.

She stands in one fluid movement, wide-eyed awake and wet hair clinging to her bare arms, and Sean catches a glimpse of something glimmering in her hands -- wire, he recognizes with a sharp metallic nip at the back of his mind, which she had worked out of the mattress the whole time they'd been talking. A step is all it takes for her to position herself behind Manningham, her face so cleanly set it looks like porcelain.

Then, still too fast for anyone to even realize she was standing, she loops the wire around his neck and garrotes him clean through.

Blood slashes out, glinting darkly red as it spills down Manningham's neck and stains the collar of his shirt. He drops, his strings completely cut loose, landing lopsided on the cement and skidding a bit with the momentum. Erica stands over him, hands splayed open and empty, her expression shining pure, so fierce in that moment it clenches at Sean's throat like he was the one she sliced open. He has less than a second to comprehend what she's done -- killed the man who threatened her twin and threatened to bring down her family, calmly and without pause.

In this second, in this moment, she reigns. Mob queen, boss-lady, and head of the family, blood on her bare toes and her eyes lifting.

She looks at her brother. Mark looks back.

We protect our own.

And then everything moves again.

Manningham's men lift their guns simultaneously, barrels pointed straight at Erica's chest and fingers pulling reflexively on the trigger, their mouths cast open in a rictus of horror. Mark leaps, pushing off at an ungainly angle like a long-distance sprinter, like he's going to throw himself in front of those guns.

There's no time to think -- Sean's already reaching, and meets Eduardo's hand half-way, and that's all it takes.

It's like his mind explodes outwards. A star, gone completely supernova, jiva thing speaking to jiva thing and receiving an answer.

Hold up two mirrors to each other, and what do they reflect?

It's an experience outside time, to suddenly have Eduardo's mind laid out in front of him, a whole spreadsheet of memories right there for Sean to touch. The reverse is true, too, of course; all of Sean's secrets bare for Eduardo to bring up at will, to remember, but it almost doesn't matter, because it's too fascinating. Without bidding it, scenes from Eduardo's life play out in front of his eyes: a sunlit parlor room, palm trees bobbing outside the window, and through Eduardo's ears he hears his mother's teacup warn her not to grip it around the handle, and feels Eduardo's mouth open to warn her, just as the cup breaks apart in her hands. He sees a distorted underwater view, sand rippling with an incoming wave and summer sunlight distortedly bright. He sees Christy, small and teenage with lime green rubber bands in her braces, and she snaps her fingers in front of his face, sparking off a candle flame. He sees Mark, head tilted up to compensate for Eduardo's height and his eyes burning, his voice going low and liquid as quicksilver -- the first and last time he used people-speech on Eduardo, saying, simply, I need the algorithm. Wardo.

There's Mark here, too, of course there is, because there's no Mark without Eduardo, no Eduardo without Mark. Sean can hear him, tinny like he's coming through a pair of headphones pulled low off his ears, both here in the present and as a constant echo in Eduardo's memories.

Brushing close to it is like tumbling a kaleidoscope, typeset and clicking faster than a machine-gun, and Sean cannot breathe with the force of it.

It could have been so easy to vaguely pity them, he realizes dimly, for being stuck with this: the thankless curse of always knowing what the other is thinking, seeing, doing. They had to have changed after the bond formed and sealed over like a cooling link in a hot metal chain, entirely against their will, because you cannot think for two people without changing in infinitesimal ways. Sean Parker may be a firm believer that privacy is a relic of the past, but that doesn't mean he's ready for what Mark and Eduardo have, that instantaneous knowing; he enjoyed having his mind to himself and assumed it was the best thing for everybody else, too.

The second stretches, everything suspended like dewdrops on a spider's web -- Erica with a corpse at her feet and the gunmen about to open fire and Eduardo and Sean with their fingers touching and Mark, coiled half in the action of catapulting himself forward, eyes on his sister -- and then it telescopes down, into one single feeling shining hot and bright through their chests like white light from a prism.

Eduardo and Sean open their mouths in unison.

STOP, they say, or maybe DON'T or maybe they don't say anything at all, because there's no real way to vocalize what's going on inside their heads, the earth-shattering kind of love Sean feels -- love for Mark, love for Erica, love for every nook and cranny and beat-up person that makes up the Harvard Connection, and only half of it is his.

It's the kind of love that stops bullets midair.

The guns come apart. The bullets are unmade. They come out of the hands that hold them and lay down at their feet in pieces.

 

 

Now, you probably already know this, because Eduardo might have told you (don't ever believe what he tells you about the marlin, the dude can't hold his fish metaphors,) but Sean Parker has a land speed record for talking, it's kind of impressive.

However. It's always at this part of the retelling that Sean stops, because he forgets, momentarily, that there are words.

As far as he's always been concerned, things are not worth doing if he can't tell an awesome story about it later, but to the day he dies, he's not sure if he'll ever be able to express what it's like, to stand there and not even be sure he's part of his own body. He feels like he transcended the dimensions of his own skin, became pure jiva, talking to the jiva things like it was the beginning of the universe. He and Eduardo did something together, something so great that not even the most stubborn, spitfire gun could ignore their command.

It saved Erica's life.

It's ... okay, listen up, little ones, because Sean's only going to tell you once.

If you're going to do something devastating, if you're going to throw yourself off the Golden Gate Bridge or throw yourself in front of a bullet, if you're going to go to your knees and surrender to the police, if you're going pledge yourself to a crime family, if you're going to go up to that person bagging cookies in the mall just to try...

Then, little ones, then you've got to do it for love.

 

 

Sean drops Eduardo's hand. The connection breaks, leaving him reeling for one achingly lonely beat before his own mind folds back around him, comforting and familiar in its idiosyncrasies. He wonders if it's possible to give your own brain a welcoming hug.

"Time to go," Eduardo says shortly.

After that, everything seems to happen at once, a whole mess of things that Sean will only remember later in cinematic flashes, mental photographs that he uses as touchstones to build a whole story around.

Flash! There's Mark and Erica, colliding together in their haste to get their arms wrapped around each other.

Flash! There's Chris, arriving on the scene at last, coming around the corner leading with the barrel of his gun, which greets Sean and Eduardo both, loud and ecstatic and plainly relieved to find them in one piece. An autumn-haired woman follows right on Chris's heels; she's wearing a brown cotton skirt with a hankerchief hem that kicks up around the tops of her rainboots. She beelines straight for the empty-handed cops, touching their chins to get their attention and peppering them with questions.

Flash! There's Christy, a bandana pulled up over her mouth and her face lit up by the burning end of a molotov cocktail.

She says in grim promise, "Get everyone out. Bobby and I will clean up here."

Flash! Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss bar the exits of the warehouse, keeping a cluster of cops from swarming in with the sheer wide breadth of their shoulders and the size of their fists, their hands going liquid like puppetmasters as they slick water over the cop's visors, letting Sean and the rest slip out and away, racing along the waterside.

It takes three men in full body armor to wrestle the Winklevosses to the concrete, and when they haul him up in handcuffs, Sean swears he sees Tyler wink at them.

Flash! There's Mark and Eduardo, kissing up against the side of another building with the fervor of protestors in wartime, like they wouldn't even notice if the whole world burned screaming to the ground around them. Eduardo's gun is out, held steady off to one side with the safety still clicked off, and he takes one hand off the barrel in order to press it into Mark's spine, hauling him closer. Mark's spider-leg fingers catch him by the face, holding him in place for another deep, dragging kiss, before they slide up and into his hair.

Erica leans against the wall next to them, groggy, her strength clearly flagging. She cants to one side a little, pillowing her head against the blade of Eduardo's shoulder -- not like she's trying to get his attention, but more like he trusts that he's there for her to fall against. Her hair's beginning to dry, coiling up into corkscrew curls as it does, and Sean understands now, why she always meticulously straightened it. She and Mark don't really look like twins (their faces are shaped completely different; Mark's all hard angles and Erica's soft, heart-shaped) but the fewer visible similarities there are, the better.

She catches Sean's eye.

"The rats will come for Manningham," she tells him, completely serene. "I'll tell them to keep an eye out for Roth, too, shall I?"

He suppresses the shiver of dread as it creeps icily down his spine, the reality of today yawning mightily in his face. They're going to escape, they're going to make it, which is more than Sean thought when he woke up this morning with steel biting his wrists, but this is going to follow them. There are eyewitnesses who know that Erica Albright murdered Mitchell Manningham -- eyewitnesses that will conveniently forget that Manningham was threatening their lives.

There's the problem of Roth, too, who knows that Mark and Erica are the Albrecht twins. He knows that Sean's a thing-speaker, because he's one too.

Erica's fingers curl around Eduardo's elbow, eyes fluttering shut, and Sean sees Eduardo tremble with the effort of keeping still for Erica and kiss Mark enthusiastically at the same time. He forgets to be scared, because he doesn't feel safer than he does with these people, and the lengths they'll go to to protect each other.

We look after our own.

It's loud outside, the normal afternoon sounds of a city whose only major news story this evening will be about the turnout for the race for the cure, but it doesn't quite drown out the wet, smacking noises that Mark and Eduardo's mouths make, and Sean doesn't even bother being embarrassed about that, either, because he's been inside their heads. He knows how it feels to be them. The memories are retreating already, like the grand scale of a dream that can't be remembered upon waking, but he can feel the echo of what it's like, to love someone and feel them love you back, like mirrors turned in, love and love and love reflected a hundredfold.

It's hard to be embarrassed when you know what it's like to love someone like they're gravity, like you could fall into them and never reach the bottom, like being apart from them is like being amputated.

He's actually just glad the transference happened. In another world, he might have been worried for them.

Imagine how much things would suck if Mark and Eduardo actually had to communicate using words, without automatically knowing the thoughts and intentions behind them?

This whole time, he thinks. This whole time he's been treating Mark Zuckerberg like a crime boss, like he's the head of the family, the master and commander. But it's not entirely true, is it, because it's the three of them, here; Mark, Eduardo, and Erica. Remove any one of those pieces, and the Harvard Connection falls apart.

Erica's the body that walks the walk, Mark's the mind that talks the talk, and Eduardo is their heart. (A heart, a mind, and a body walk into a bar.)

You can leave best friends and you can leave girlfriends, but you can't leave family.

(They raze it to the ground.)

 

 

There's a clatter at the end of the alleyway, accompanied by the fierce, honking protest of a Canadian goose, and then Chris and the redheaded woman materialize around the corner, walking fast, with Dustin bringing up the rear. Mark peels away from Eduardo like he's performing the surgical separation of conjoined twins, and rounds on Chris the second he's within arm's reach.

"What was that back there? I thought I told you to bring back-up! NYPD or the kids from da eastside or something," he manages to get out, breathless and scowling.

"I did," Chris returns, unperturbed. "I brought you the most powerful back-up there is."

The woman steps forward like this is her cue, jutting her hand out between them. "Hi," she goes. "I'm Rachel, I'm with the Harvard Crimson."

Mark's eyebrows tick up, his mouth dropping open, but for a moment, he's completely unable to find the words.

Rachel helps him out. "It's the school newspaper for --"

"I know what the Crimson is," he breaks in, finding his voice again. "But --"

"Then you know what it means when I tell you that I have a sound-bite of almost everything that went down in there," says Rachel briskly. "And that the flagrant abuses that the BIA has leveled against US silvertongue civilians will be tomorrow's headlines."

Whatever Mark had been expecting, this plainly wasn't it. Completely floored, he blinks once or twice, and then looks over his shoulder at Eduardo and Erica for reassurance. Erica's eyes are sparkling, and she nods firmly -- this triggers some thought in Mark, because he twists around front.

"When you say you have a sound-bite of everything ..."

"Almost everything," Rachel stresses. She seems to know exactly what he's worried about, because her eyes flick between the twins. "Mr. Zuckerberg. Ms. Albright," she says, very deliberately.

The message couldn't be clearer: whatever Manningham may have said regarding their real identities, it's not for Rachel to reveal. Sean doesn't know if that makes her a really lousy journalist, or a fantastic one.

Mark breathes out in relief.

"Now," she continues. "Most media is controlled by its own rules and the conglomerate American bureaucracy, so even I'm curbed by some censorship. But. I can get you on the most important kind of news circuit -- the college level." She flicks a lock of her hair over her shoulder. "People are going to learn about what happened here today, and they're going to be curious. They're going to ask questions: both of themselves and of authority."

This, Sean realizes. This. This is the gift they've been waiting for -- a chance to affect people on a much, much larger scale than just the Brooklyn area.

This is no time to take your chips down, Mark, he thinks, but doesn't bother to vocalize, because he's pretty sure Mark already knows it, and doesn't need the advice.

Now that he's out of immediate danger, the strain of the day is starting to catch up to Sean, so he leans back against the wall and lets Rachel exchange rapid-fire communication with Mark, who is flanked by his sister on one side and his lover on the other -- the two people he loves more than anything in the entire world. It's nice to let someone else be in charge, and not have to put on any kind of Sean Parker Variety Hour, or to live up to anybody else's expectations, his own least of all.

Everyone has the gift of speech, Sean thinks, with a brain that feels overtired, heavy and swimming. Humans and silvertongues both. Everyone.

"Hey, guys, hey, hey," Dustin cuts in, lilting his voice up very loudly to be heard over Rachel and Mark's heated debate over how soon the story can break, before the BIA sends somebody in to sweep it under the rug, the way all accounts of police brutality are carefully made to just go away. Yale, Columbia, and Stanford, she's promising him, and they look over at Dustin, annoyed and distracted in turns.

"Dustin. What?"

"While you guys were busy with your search-and-rescue, I did some poking around," Dustin tells them. The goose waddles around his legs. "Usually I leave the master-hacking to Mark, or hell, I suppose I could outsource it to one of you thing-speakers, but hey, I know Mark was busy sticking his tongue all the way down Eduardo's throat -- and don't think I'm not going to make fun of you for the rest of your natural lives -- so I figured at least one of us should do our jobs," he waves a hand around with a lofty air, and then reaches into his pocket to pull out a datachip, the same size and shape of a postage stamp.

"This," Dustin says, with the air of a master magician pulling his coup de grace. "Is the government facebook for all the registered silvertongues in the United States."

A moment of stunned silence greets this announcement, and six pairs of wide eyes stare at Dustin, the same way you would at the person who just discovered the cure for cancer.

"All of them?" says Mark, in a very small voice.

"Names, addresses, forms of speech -- you name it, we got it," Dustin confirms, and then squawks noisily when Eduardo grabs him up, crushing him close in a hug that Chris joins in on, their faces split open and grinning, because this ... this is exactly what they've been waiting for.

 

 

They spend the next couple of nights lying low.

It goes against Sean's every instinct, which tells him that he needs to escape, to flee, before anyone knows who they're looking for. Hiding in the same state as the scene of the crime is not Sean Parker's main mode of transportation, but he's not really just Sean Parker anymore, is he? He's part of the Harvard Connection, and it takes time to make something as big as the Harvard Connection just ... vanish.

So Sean and Erica stay indoors through two piercingly bright autumn days, recovering. He's surprised to find that he needs it. His insides feel sore, battered, and Erica sleeps for thirteen hours straight before the bruise-colored marks under her eyes go away. They sleep on an air mattress in the unfurnished guest room of one of Gretchen's friends from law school, a meat-handed man she calls Sy. They quibble with each other in tones of exasperated fondness, passing plates of Bagel Bites back and forth across the dinner table.

During the day, the apartment is empty; Sy has work, but he leaves them the wireless access code. Erica pulls on thick socks that bag around the toes and curls up with Sean's book on Jaina traditions, running her fingers along the edges of the pages with quiet reverence as she reads.

"Maybe we'll go to India," Sean tells her when he catches her at it. "At least there we won't be breaking any laws. We'll become a famous traveling circus!" he warms up to the idea, thinking of Alice training horses to jump through hoops that Christy has charmed to blaze the same oranges and reds as Indian spices. "We'll wash ourselves clean on the holy days in the River Ganges, and meditate in the Nepalese mountains. Dustin can spend all day talking to cows!"

She laughs, covering her mouth with her hands.

Sy comes home shortly after six, and goes about making dinner out of assorted packages in his freezer, the way one does when they have unexpected guests and aren't used to preparing meals for anyone else. Mark, Gretchen, and Eduardo usually come home around ten, filling Sy's apartment to the brim. Mark falls on the leftovers with a ravenous hunger, and while his mouth is otherwise occupied, Eduardo tells them what they've accomplished.

"We can't just leave," he tells Sean and Erica, who don't need to be told. "Who's going to run the after-school programs, the Goodwill drives, the internships? We need to find someone trustworthy to run those after we split."

"It's a tangle of bureaucratic nonsense," says Gretchen happily; bureaucratic nonsense is bread and butter to her.

"And we need to round up everyone who's coming with us," adds Mark, scraping at the inside of a Tupperware container. "The people who are absolutely dependent on the Harvard Connection for survival."

"So, basically everyone who lived at Mt Auburn Street before the cops got to it," says Erica, and they all share a grimace. It wasn't even an hour after they got out of the warehouse that the BIA did a full-on SWAT raid of Mt Auburn Street; a combination of some fast texting and Dustin's army of city crows meant there was a forty-five minutes warning; the hard drives stripped clean and everything with their names on it destroyed before everyone at base who hadn't volunteered for the rescue mission melted into the afternoon light, scattering to the safety of the Brooklyn kids' homes.

They stay up into the early hours, planning. Mark and Erica sit close together, knees touching, and the first time they laugh together, it strikes Sean out of absolutely nowhere, the one similarity he was looking for that could reconcile the fact that they are fraternal twins: it's their dimples.

When Mark and Erica laugh, they dimple in the exact same way.

Afterwards, they sleep tangled like puppies in a basket on Sy's loud, flatulent air mattress. Eduardo doesn't even roll his eyes that hard when he wakes up to find Sean plastered to his back, just elbows him long-sufferingly until Sean's limbs retreat back into his own personal space.

That weird Vulcan mind-meld thing hasn't happened again, which Sean is both grateful for (because he would hate having to avoid touching Eduardo all the time, the guy is just too much fun to rib and push around,) and curious about, because what made it happen? Was it the stress of the situation, the sheer panic and desperation that turned them into creatures of pure jiva, communicating even on the subatomic? Is it something that thing-speakers can do only with each other, or is it possible for all silvertongues to do it? Is it like transference?

Once again, Sean's struck with how little anybody really knows about silvertongues.

Houston, I think we have a calling, he thinks to himself, and rubs his hands together.

Finally, at the end of the week, Sy comes in and shakes Sean and Erica awake at six in the morning, the places between their bodies bare. "Time to go," he says softly, procuring good New York bagels for them in a brown paper bag and leaving to let them pack. He presses a wad of twenties into each of their palms when they come out of the bedroom, ignoring their immediate protests. His eyes are gentle when he says, "good luck," and it's only when the building gate clicks shut behind them that Sean realizes he never asked if Sy was a silvertongue or not.

It doesn't matter, he supposes. Sometimes human kindness doesn't come with a price.

They meet in the basketball court; the locks chorus a warm greeting when Sean approaches, making him grin and magnanimously bow in their direction. They unravel willfully in his hands.

Joggers go by in windbreakers and seagulls cartwheel overhead, and the sun rises in a smear of grey, dark blue, and a gentle pink on the horizon. Within fifteen minutes of their arrival, the fragmented remains of the Harvard Connection materialize on the court, carrying duffel bags and small suitcases filled with all their worldly belongings, bundled up against the chill. Leaning against the hoop, Sean takes inventory of who they have left.

There's Bobby, who Erica runs for as soon as he slips through the gate. He meets her at the half-point line, scooping her up into a crushing hug and spinning her around.

There's Christy, who punches Sean's elbow in greeting and says, "I'm glad you're not dead, Parker," with her eyes as glittering yellow as a Japanese ladybug, her hair thrown back in a ponytail and hoop earrings swinging. Her jacket's unzipped far enough that he can see the soft ripple of gooseflesh on Bonnie and Clyde.

The Winklevoss twins are gone, of course, because even if they're already out on bail, they need to stay for their court date, but Divya, surprisingly, is there, crouched down next to the chain-link fence. Even more surprising than that: KC, the junior librarian who works with Divya's after-school program and is not a silvertongue, stands over him, talking quietly in a huddle with Alice, Sharon, Andrew (a heavyset beast-speaker who got Sean addicted to Harvest Moon, but shh, don't tell anyone,) and someone whose name Sean doesn't know; a slim Asian man with reflective aviator sunglasses and a fuzzy winter hat with a panda face on it, who Sean thinks might be a wind-talker.

As he watches, Divya catches KC's hand and kisses her palm, eyes lidded and grateful.

There's Dustin, Chris, Stephanie, and Gretchen, sitting in a semi-circle around Dustin's laptop. Mark stands over them, talking rapidly, and Sean takes a moment to study him. He looks strong, purposeful, completely in his element; this twiggy nineteen-year-old lit up, with power settling easily around his shoulders. The marks around his neck from where Manningham gripped him in a choke-hold have faded to a pale, sickly green, and mid-sentence, he lifts his fingers to them, hand covering bruise briefly.

Eduardo stands behind him, close as shadow, gun sparking close to his heart. Sean murmurs to it, something joking, and Eduardo glances over, eyes crinkling in a smile; where Mark's face is bright with power, Eduardo's face is soft with love, and loyalty.

With Erica tucked securely into his side, Bobby says, "Hey, fearless leader."

Mark startles, looking up, and Sean catches the flicker of shock widening his eyes. He doesn't think he's ever heard Bobby speak before, either.

"Where are we going?" Bobby asks.

Sean thinks, unbidden, of the list of silvertongues that Dustin has on that data chip he took from Manningham and Roth, the facebook, the endless wealth of people like them. Maybe some of them are perfectly fine with the status quo and don't want to change a thing, but not everybody, surely; someone will want to join them, someone will want to change the world and connect it. He thinks of the first entry, the possibilities; Ashleigh Abalt, water-walker, twenty years old, Atherton, California.

He thinks of the way Amy Ritter had looked that day, her eyes fixed somewhere beyond him, saying quietly, all this speech, and nobody's saying a thing.

He thinks, what's on your mind?

He steps up to Mark's side.

"You know," he offers smoothly, with a slow, creeping grin. "I hear California is nice this time of year."

 

 

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fin