Be Merciful


harlow2_icon.gif joseph_icon.gif

Scene Title Be Merciful
Synopsis Harlow introduces herself, and tells Joseph everything and nothing. An opportunity is granted, and taken.
Date September 15, 2009

Monmouth Country Jail

Natural light filters in pure white through the barred window of neighboring cells, deceptively cheerful in its play off concrete walls cracked and worn a smooth, uniform grey above a waist-high band of neutral blue. The floors are clean, for the most part - large drain grates worked into cement flooring every so often likely responsible for that. The cell entrances are barred over as well, chained and padlocked where the original mechanism is chewed over thick with rust. The hallway outside looks exactly like the interior, smooth and lifeless and flat, stretching on for God only knows how long before the next locked door looms out of cold sunlight to cut off any hope of escape.

She's blonde. Like Claira, though that isn't something that he's supposed to be doing his ex-wife the indignity of thinking, not when the woman walks her impossibly long legs through the unfiltered sunshine, the dense pallor of her functional khakis slotting a blight of shadowy silhouette through despite that it isn't dark, and she isn't dark, she's blonde, fair, her build somewhere between coltishly gangly and supernally, spun sugar slender, light. Her shoes have squared toes. Brown leather. Laced.

They halt with a sharp-edged thok and a clunk in front of his door, interjected between the bigger, blacker, blunter-noisy brutes of boots that form her calvacade of— guards? Escort? Not wardens, and the men let her in with a scratch of keys conspicuously clean from rust. They do not lock the gate again behind her, so she comes in, drops to a crouch with the bars clawing stripes through her halo like a fork parts cake, and it becomes evident that there is something wrong with her eyes, if only what's wrong with all of their eyes. When they smile, here in this dungeon where Raquelle's baby Billy Jean has gone conspicuously quiet and Felix Ivanov is beginning to reek, of ammonia, liquor puris, dead cells, sweat. The stink is incessant. Comes in waves, syncopated to the atmospheric disruptions of people passing.

It follows the woman in through the door now: the scent of pestilence.

"My name is Harlow." She has a bad phone voice, unless you're into that sort of thing: the syllabic clarity of her unplaceable accent is disrupted by the carding of underlying husk. She's a tall woman, and her voice comes in at a register low enough to acknowledge it. "Do you know why I hate your people?"

He'd been confused, at first, about why they kept him bound to the chair. It wasn't as though he had anywhere to go, not with the locks they have, the guns they point. Then he endured a few days like this and he stopped being confused about it. Routine has set in, as inexplicable as some of it is, as obvious as other facets are. Joseph's arms and legs ache from stillness, setting in uncomfortable tension to his shoulders, up his neck, down his back. Hunger has curled low in his stomach, and an itchier craving he identifies with somewhere higher.

The foot steps stirred nothing— often they roam up and down the hallways for whatever reason, more inexplicable/obvious routine— but at the sound of someone entering the room, he lifts his head. With the burlap sack having slid to the ground from where they'd last dumped it in his lap, he can watch her walk in, black eyes going up and down her form as if perhaps he's supposed to remember who she is.

His dark hair is greasy, stuck to his brow, the nape his neck, and his expression is his attempt at blank. It actually looks guarded, wary, miserable. Better at that when he was young. Voice emerging small and a little dry at the edges, Joseph suggests, "Because we're monsters?"

"That's right. My mother, especially." There's a story impending, judging from the roll and toll of her voice, and her fingers fidgeting in the air just below the lobe of her ear. Her elbow is propped up on her other forearm, folded loosely across her chest. She doesn't bite her nails, but she looks like maybe she used to before she broke that particular habit. There's that livewire energy coiled in the kink of her wrist, the kick of her heels, a nervous little girl buried somewhere behind the long, latticed bones and skin, eyes too wide, electrically blue.

She steps around his chair, tilts her head, studies him with a herky-jerky twitch of eyes in their sockets, as if they were miniscule mannequin parts strung along by a talentless puppetmaster. "She was quick. Quicker than you'd need to be to get around a fat five-year-old girl, but that didn't stop her from putting her knee up my groin because I did my toilet on the bed. I'm not sure what I resent more. That Evolved gifts— the Suresh linkage complex— mutation is indiscriminate, or that she was." She pauses here. Twists her mouth, its unprepossessing shade of pink, the lupine line of her jaw tightening, veins standing out in the hollow of her throat, briefly.

There's a flare of teeth, abrupt: a snarl or a sneer. She twists on a heel and kicks him, then, hard and vicious, a parabolic arc of motion that cleaves hard into the good pastor's body, heat lancing the same tender parts of his body that her narrative had traced her mother's abuse. Kinesthesis bursts apart in white agony, ripping up through his gut. The chair gives the floor a companionable little scritch, begins to teeter backward, gently, gently, and to fall in motion that seems slow and sweet in diametric comparison.

There's also a story about how a man blew up and killed 150,000 people. Joseph listens— and is genuinely listening, sparing glances at her with as much wariness as there seems to be a genuine investment in hearing what she has to say, if only for his own sake. There's no attempt to interrupt, his mouth pressed into a line and jaw looking more angular than it has in years with a tight kind of tension, even though his body is loose and relaxed to compensate for every other stress put on it.

The swing of the kick is comprehended only when it hits. Breath is driven out of his lungs in a surprised, breathy kind of grunt, and it he only tries to gain it back when he and chair hit the ground with an unclean clatter. No air for any kind of yelp of pain when an arm is crushed between chair and cement, he can only drag in a long and deliberate inhale, lets it out in a shudder.

"There are…" World off-kilter, there's a scrape as his body shudders against the tripped chair. He can't close his eyes for long. "Lots of bad people— abusive— that're just like you." Joseph isn't sure why he argues. It probably has to do with being a preacher. Making a living and a life off having something to say and argue, of having something to teach. His words are breathless, but steady as he adds; "Monsters everywhere."

Concrete walls and dirt-marked floor suppurate slightly, slide, inflate and cave back inward with a fleecy wash and gravelly blow of static, a pounding ache that rocks in and out of Joseph's body. The woman is crouching down beside his head. She doesn't say anything else for awhile, waits while the groan of blood essays in and out of his hearing, waits for his vision to clear and his thoughts to express themselves in the tidy pick of words he gives her. It takes awhile.

She sits down, after that while, apparently unmindful that the color of the floor isn't going to go with the color of her pants, even if the hygiene in here is a vast improvement over the one— Ivanov's she had passed on the way. She folds her long fingers around the point of her knee and rounds her angular shoulders down, around a huddle, as if the chill of the prison, its depth, bleak exposure, and inherently insulation of the building materials bother her. Or otherwise, something that he'd said.

Not likely.

"Do you know why I hate your people?" The exact same tone, the exact same words, the upward arpeggio of query at the end. She tips her head back, sloughing her ponytail down the long, wiry dorsal line of her spine. "Because I was raped, and beaten, and left for dead. A job in Florida. There were twelve of us and three of you, and they didn't kill me because I was a woman. They said—" she snares long fingers through his hair, over his scalp, wrenches the bowl of his skull as if trying to set it properly on the flat of its base.

She jams his neck around an uncomfortable angle, instead, and studies him from upside-down. Enunciates the words with exaggerated diction: "I was an incubator."

The sharp pain is responded with an equally sharp and startled hiss, body shuddering, squirming against bindings with the same futility that had defeated him long before this point. It's brief; Joseph is still a moment later, brow twisted into a look that would better fit consternation than pain. Throat drawn awkward from his shirt, the collar of his once pristine jacket, the fairy thin rope of golden chain catches awkward across the shifting hollow beneath his adam's apple. The tiny glimmering cross on the end is tucked somewhere safe beneath blue cotton, twisted around.

For a moment he can only breathe, his hands gripping onto the chains of his cuffs and his legs locked to the chair as much as the bindings do it for him. Eventually, he asks—

"What was the job?"

Even this close, brown eyes appear mostly just black as he blinks up at her, at the upside angles of her face. Blonde like Claira, but none of that well-fed softness that disguised certain sharper qualities, unlike Harlow. His voice is a tremor. "Why did they kill you all?" It's not the argument he desires to make, if he even desires to argue, but the words stutter out anyway.

"Territorial disputes," she answers. Lies, really. Squats low over his head, the shadow of her legs throwing its translucent bow down over his head. Above and behind her head, the light from the corridor threads through the fleecy bright of her hair, reforging the segmented halo around her harshly angled face. "Gun-runners.

"It's hard to explain to a pastor, but it was good work. Honest, for all it wasn't legal.

"You know?" Her features tip down to study his, shadows lidding in over the steep curvature of her brows, ridging the spaces between her painfully white teeth. "If your people had carried a few more guns between yourselves, Mimi might never have bothered with you. We do prefer to prey on the weak. It's practical up to a point." She presses a long index finger and middle into her trouser pocket, pulls a syringe free, its incremental markings laddering their way up the shift of the cylindrical container. "Speaking of that— what is your job?"

The needle uncaps, with a scappy click of ridged plastic on plastic; she pulls the lid out with her lips, frowns down at him. Clarifies, as if to be helpful: "You don't need to explain being a pastor to me."

Mimi. Joseph can't help it - even knocked over where he is, aching where he is, he can't help the confused tip of his brow, eyes darting towards the left as that name sticks a splinter into conversation he was otherwise following. No questions, though, a baleful look in his eye when he returns his gaze straight back up at her. "We're gonna— gonna have to start carryin' guns between us," he concedes, and wishes he could match the defiance of his tilted posture and stare with his voice, but the voice refuses. Voice comes out still stammering and uncertain and fearful. "We'll start learnin', don't you worry."

He flicks a look towards the needle, and any shifting or fidgeting drains away. Conversation might dictate where that pixie's eye point goes, it might not.

Joseph works his wrists restlessly against the handcuffs, chafing red over yellower bruises. "It's the same job. Guidance. Shepherding. One's spiritual, one's practical. Keepin' people safe, 's all. Not just us. You, too." Us and them, the once unfamiliar dichotomy easing into his vocabulary as if he'd always talked that way. He can't really remember if he didn't before or not.

"I'm sorry." It's bleated, suddenly, along with a resisting tug both against her grip and the colder restraints. "What happened to you. It was— was wrong, no matter why."

'Us and them.' The dichotomy is terribly catchy. So is— the influence of whatever she then, promptly and without overmuch ceremony, injects him with. There's a sawing fly's bite that pierces through his nerves, the needle sinking deep into the soft flesh of his neck. Its contents dumped in with a shove of the plunger, his chin trapped, locked fast in the vise of long fingers. Callused fingers, though you wouldn'tve been able to tell just from looking at them, the pink stones of her nails immaculately groomed, wrists wiry, corded thin.

There are two Harlows, suddenly. Staring down at him, translucent where their shoulders meet. Her voice seems to find its origin at a vanishing point that his eyes can't quite identify, and even the cold concrete certainty of the floor beneath him admits to a figment of doubt: his elbow burns, faintly, where he'd fallen too hard into it, and the cuffs around his wrists are striped with unrealistic heat. "You say that," she says. Three words that don't end quite right, smashing apart the completion of that notion with the remorseless wrecking ball of their beginning. You say that.

"And you mean it, don't you?" Her pinkie has found its way in between her teeth, bared, bitten down on the first knuckle, turning the round bump of it milkily, anemic white under the pressure of locked jaws. She smiles down at him, and it's almost like flirting. "The Christians I can understand prefer God turn the ankles of their enemies so that they might recognize them by their limp." A beat's pause. "And can tell when they're being fucked with. What kind are you?"

Eyebrows bristle as he squeezes his eyes shut like someone much younger than he is might react to a needle. The throat is a merciless place, and it rankles for more than the sharp stab itself. The last one had been glowing blue and a very bittersweet kind of comfort; whatever this is, Joseph trusts it even less. His heart is a constant pounding in his chest, in his head, and everything else starts to tip over into a more dubious realm.

Trying to blink away the figment of two women smiling down at him, Joseph lets his head fall back against concrete. He doesn't want to talk, but there is nothing else he can do in this position. A warm shudder drives through him. "I'm the kind that— believes in sins. That bein' evil is a choice, not somethin' you're born with. The kind of Christian that loves his enemy."

He hears more than feels the dry chuckle that cards through his torso, barely escapes his mouth. "He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. You don't know me."

"It's the oldest hypocrisy in the world." By 'oldest hypocrisy in the world,' no doubt she means that the pastor has heard of all of this, before. She closes fingers on his throat, heaves him up off the floor like he is a sack of potatoes. Drags him upright, until the curl of his spine straightens and catches up the rickety chair bound to him, snaps its axis straight, levering its legs square, until he's rocked neatly back onto center. She lets go. He doesn't seesaw except once, before metal bolts creak back onto quiescent center. "He knew all of time before he invented time.

"He created an angel doomed to fall, a serpent to poison His children, and the weakness that the serpent would exploit, and still we ought to accept the blame for it. He ought to accept the blame for it.

"God, as-written, is the greatest argument for nihilism there is: if we are His children, we are His responsibility, and this is what he's chosen to do with it. Kindness— has no part." She bends her arm behind herself then above her head, flexing lean musculature that the weight of him— even short-changed of nourishment as he has been— might have actually taxed, a little. She pops her fingers open. Makes a fist, squared off by metacarpals and pointed knuckles, takes a long step, swinging shoulder in socket, hiking clavicles, before she scuffs her fingers through her hair. "Where's our kindness, pastor?"

He was down and then he was up. No resistance or assistance, body locking with tension as soon as he's vertical but it bleeds away again in the next moment. Joseph shakes his head briskly to clear it, which never works. The tiny golden crucifix falls back into place, catching on the clasp and resting below the center of his collarbones. Bruises sing together in pain that is both removed and vibrant.


Not right, he wants to say, but trying to cobble together why it's wrong— nothing fits together. "He gave us free will. Gave us the ability to fail— " Joseph's head rocks back against the joint of his neck, the ceiling swimming above him. "You never asked for kindness," he croaks out, hopelessly, Bible quotations and learnings as difficult to grip onto like sand through his fingers.

Shaking one's head— or any other extremity or body part, really, does wonders for circulation, though. While they're on that subject and, tacitly, they are. She's sitting herself down, her mantis-lengthed elbows folding over the willowy points of her knees, ankles set apart into a 'V' of curious symmetry.

Flitted by her fingers, her hair rests with bright, baby's breath levity across her brow and neck. "He gave us the destiny to fail. Free will and premeditated timeline don't agree with one another. And I don't agree with you." Arguably, the more important point out of the various available for her to make. She's wearing a tank top, a powdery dull shade of blue that coincides with the khakis to make her look like she just walked out of a safari van.

Her eyes slide in and out of focus. She sighs, and the movement of air out of her lungs seems fraudulent, somehow: instead of the hissing pressure of air, he hears a keening, mechanical, weeee, one-note, or else the hair cells of a frequency are all dying an inscrutable death in his ears and this is the last time he will ever hear that register of auditory feedback again.

It's too hot.

And then she's beside him, suddenly, seated on a chair not unlike his own. Shoes kicked out in front of her, splayed into a lazy 'V' for peace, as long and gangly as fingers. She's a woman scrapped together of oddly androgynous parts, for all that she is recognizably, indisputably female as far as anatomy goes. Her skin has pulled itself back from the bones of her face, a skeleton's grimace, and her lips move around words— about— "— didn't hate your people for the longest time. It was mercenary work. You know mercenaries, don't you?"

Time compresses, stretches out, bends. Sweat prickles across his brow, tiny pinpricks of moisture. "Merc— yes," Joseph stutters out, trying to rake back lost words. Anxiety was always a burden. He'd taken medication for it before he moved in with Claira, and then had taken nothing at all. It builds, now, inside his chest, like hands against the insides of his ribs and pushing out. Rarely does it ever keel over into panic, but it could come close.

The chair shudders as he irrationally jerks against everything holding him to it. Threatens to teeter forward, break his nose on the ground, but four chair feet slam back into concrete before gravity can sink grappling hooks into him. It wakes him up a little.

"God's plan," Joseph mutters, squeezing his eyes shut, opening them. "They work together. Fate and free will. Why do you think I'm like them? Like the ones that hurt you? I didn't hurt you. I could have…" He's not sure what he's saying there, what he could have done, what he has to do with it. It occurs to him that she wears her edges on the outside, like Lucia did. "I know mercenaries," he tries again.

Her shadow returns from its pacing, panther circuit against the wall, reattaches itself to her feet. Her arm weaves like a vegetable frond in the air, briefly, as she reaches across his lap to grasp the edge of his seat, drag him around to face her.

It makes this awful sound. Retching, except it's just the chair clacking, creaking, rattling around abrasion of parts on floor until it settles in diametric opposition to the woman. Who's leaning over him now, peering into his eyes close, too close, as if she's hoping her lashes could stroke a concealed secret out of them. "No: I know what you mean." Her pupils waver in their cyanotic, glassy dishes. "That's your ability, isn't it? You tell people what's coming. You show them their futures. I can see how that would hurt. Robert was supposed to kill you the other week, wasn't he?"

She stops smiling, and it seems an uncalled-for interruption in the inertia of things thus far. The caramel ease of her tan disrupted, flattened out, too much doll and not enough bone biting through the contours of her skin.

She is sitting back again. Her knees drawn back together, fingers interlocked, turning measured circles, stretching exercises. "It was just money. And then I found out about my daughter. I was lying about my mother and the rapist." Lower now. Her voice is lower, as if she was caught on that word: daughter, is tasting it in her mouth like a sour stone of sulfur. "I didn't want to tell you because you don't have any children. I don't like the way you empathize with things you don't understand."

Maybe if he had hands, he could bring them up and hold his head, keep words inside in logical precision. As it happens, he doesn't feel like he has any, the cut of the cuffs sharp, feeling imbedded in him, as if they were attached to his bones and holding him in place. Lying? Incredulity angles his expression, incomprehension. "My sister was raped." Someone who sounds a lot like Joseph mutters this in his head, until he realises with a crushing kind of defeat that he strung those words together himself. "She blamed me too. Maybe— "

His voice is reverting back to that trembling, his body too removed from his brain to mimic it. "It wasn't a fair— that wasn't fair."

The words have that cowardly whine to them he's gotten used to, and he's twisting away from that intent study of her eyes, shrinking back into the chair. It's stifling, down here. "They keep tellin' me I'm going to die soon. 's in my— best interest to understand. But you're all— none o' you listen. Not a damn word."

"Well, I sincerely hope your sister got a daughter out of it, although mine's better."

It's possible she didn't really say that. Her profile doesn't change, austere. The overlap between backlight and shadow is fertile enough to mark in a sanguine flush of annoyance— or is it embarrassment on her face? She catches him looking, then, turns her eyes to pin him with a stare that's hauteur— suits her better than the furtive flit, the worry that had shadowed her eyes the moment before, the incorrigible tremor that had waded its way into the cold water of her voice.

She stares at him, through the uncertain distance between striking and screaming.

"Fair. Fair? My girl is dying because of what your God and your fucking mutant gene cancer. Explain to me, then. How it's in my best interest to understand. By 'understand' of course— of course: you mean to stop fighting," her head weaves an arrogant tilde in the air, chin lifted, "don't you?"

Words seem to be exchanged without true sound or rhyme or reason. It's hard to sort through them now. Relief is like a dash of cold water that maybe Joseph didn't say anything at all. Going out of his mind would be better than that. He's murmuring, beneath the current of her words, and desperately grips onto it. "…exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan…"

It seems, for a moment, to put everything back into alignment, even if he couldn't recall what book that came from, and Joseph takes a breath, steadying his split gaze on her wavering face. You mean to stop fighting, don't you? He can't be sure if she really said that.

But he shivers, and nods mutely, as double vision splits into a blurry quadruple.

Her fingers leave tracks across his vision as she tries to shut him up, swat his words out of the air with callused metacarpals, an exasperated flit of impossibly long fingers. "Stop— " Is she scolding him? Harlow seems to be scolding him. "Stop it. If you want me to listen, you'd sure as fuck better speak in terms that I care about. I don't want to listen to Satan. He's already taken enough. As much.

"Is this how you comforted your sister?" A rhetorical question, judging from the harsh irritation corded into her voice. Four of her, now. There are four sculpted profiles tipping back as if she's rolling her eyes except that she only has blurred gray pits instead of the crystalline regard with which she'd emancipated him from disinterest, distended light playing queasily around the black notch of her moving mouth. "If you think what you were given is a blessing from God, what will you call the cure? Dragon's bile, serpent's venom? Free will?"

Her dismissive wave and her following words all confirm that Joseph is in fact speaking aloud, which means he needs— needs to stop. Even in this state, with psychoactive running thick through his blood and making fog in his mind, he knows a rhetorical question when he hears it. It works, anyway; he stops for as long as it takes to give another brief and doggish shake of his head.

But that's about it. "My grace— is sufficient, for power is perfected in weakness," is misquoted, but perhaps like God's grace, sufficient. "There's no— no cure. Free will." Joseph looks relieved, for a second, as if perhaps the scathing emphasis those two words had been tilted in did not exist. He swallows around a dry throat, and casts a jerky glance towards the entrance of the cell, where bars make stripes of shadow along cement. It blurs, constricts—

He's looking back into her eyes as if he'd never turned away. "Free will," Joseph states again, taking a calming breath.

"Oh, but there will be." Her fingers are in his hair, suddenly. Scratching strokes. Her thin, nude nails drag parallel lines over the convex of his scalp in prickling abrasion, a few ounces too much pressure to make the sensation pleasant, but nor can it be termed pain, channelling the reverberation of coarse hair through the chamber of his skull and the soup of his chemically stained brain and psychoactively diluted thoughts and into his hearing. "There had better be. Don't think I haven't heard the rumors. All those scientists, entrepreneurs, mutant magicians trying to find a way to make more of you. Spread this, as if the gene markers — the venereal nature of this sickness isn't multiplying fast enough.

"Well, it's our turn now."

She meets his gaze. Pupils stand out in her irises like yolks suspended in the white fluid of an egg, drifting, tremors fidgeted by the strings of blue striations. His sweat comes away under her fingers in grease-gray scrolls, gathered up sticky. "Tell me.

"Yours is one of the most harmless, or so they say. You've touched criminals, children, housewives— maybe even your own, once. You've seen what your work does to people. That access, that awareness, prophesies self-fulfilling or damning. It's circular. A shackle." There's no way on Earth— she couldn't possibly know how well Joseph knows, after the past few months he's had. The stains he's had to sop from his church floor. "Why wouldn't you give it up?"

Whatever she dumped into his bloodstream doesn't dull pain. If anything, it varies in its oversensitivity, and so tension ribbons around his spine as she combs hard fingers through his hair, shoulders curling in a cringe inwards, arms automatically rattling against the oppression of chains. "I can't.

"Won't." There's a shimmer of irrational panic, as if maybe this coltish woman could steal his gift from him. Joseph's body jerks back from her as if repelled, the chair shifting uneasily but no where near the force to tip. Every defense in its name, however, seems to fall apart before he can begin to say it.

Instead, he asks— "Would you cripple yourself for the sake've others?" Black eyes manage to focus on her face, fix there without wandering. "Do you want to see?"

She refuses to answer that question because it is an ea-sy trap. It's almost rude, really. Her smile curdles up around the corners of her nose, remonstrance that he'd stoop to that level. Not that, you know. She'd kicked him in the crotch earlier, or anything. She'd make a terrible-looking cripple, anyway. Muscle is all that keeps her from looking all but skin and bone. "No. I didn't want to see." The talons clench on his head, hawk with a mouse, dragon over lamb. She shoves his head away.

Light spots circle, spiral Christmas tree lights through his eyes. Something smells burnt, and the thin, pungent cry of the small girl the next cell over racks the air, briefly, before that too falls silent.

"She's beautiful. Red hair— she dyes it." She looks at him sidelong. It is not easy to tell if she is lying now, even if she had been lying earlier. Or lying about having lied. She lays her head on her arm. Why she's sitting on his other side, now, is difficult to say. "Doesn't want to be blond like her old mom, I guess. She's not a lot like me, anyway. A little— " her fingers pinch empty air, lips pursed white around the word for an awkward moment. "Fat. Shy. I think she's one of girls who eat their feelings. She has a lot of feelings.

"She doesn't deserve what her ability is doing to her." That remark is accompanied by a grotesque flicker of fingers up the gaunt cliff of Harlow's brow: even with her own flesh and blood, her own flesh and blood, it galls her a little to say that one doesn't deserve something. But she is Harlow's own flesh and blood. Red hair, because she doesn't want to be like her mom. A little fat.

Feelings. "My boys would kill her. I hate her a little for that: no mother should have to bury her child."

Something buzzing. Bottlefly lured by Ivanov's fetid stink, or asphyxiation; her grip loosens around his throat,
flooding pink back into her knuckles.

Joseph coughs. It's a sound very appropriate to this setting, bounces off the walls at a rough, scraping kind of echo, as he draws air back in and manages not to retch, whether due to his own churning stomach or the death-scent still drifting on through from the hallway. The pinched paleness of his skin indicates that maybe he'd like to, but he swallows instead, feeling newer bruises.

"Should— " Did his voice sound that twisted before? Knotted with tension, dragging out of his throat as if tiny claws were trying to remain within. Dehydrated. "Should hate your boys. If you were any kind've mother, deservin'. They'd make an example've her too. Treat her like— this. Did you lie to them? Make a deal? Ask real nice? What's stoppin' you from doing it yourself?"

As if exhausted, Joseph ends it there, draws in wheedled, shallow breaths, eyes shutting as if his eyelids were suddenly heavy. A line of tension draws through his brow. Despite the easy nature of Harlow's lies, Joseph can't bring himself to question this one either. It doesn't matter, anymore - that small suspicious part of him has been dismantled more than usual. If he's tricked again, then he's tricked again.

And it still won't be fair. He could maybe live with the death of a girl if it meant Harlow leaving. Joseph doesn't mean that but nothing really seems real outside of the cell right now, let alone inside of it.

Suppose Harlow isn't lying, but Joseph was the only creature in the dungeon naive enough to believe the truth.

That would be funny. Nothing you'd laugh aloud at, but it is: it's why she's smiling, her eyes suddenly cast down, bitter as a lemon rind stirred into the wrong recipe. Her thumb is between her teeth. There's a line in her brow, weary in that willing sort of way, that only a woman's little girl can put there, and only that little girl can take away. She isn't going anywhere. "They don't know. My boys don't know." She releases her thumb from her teeth, folds her arm over the other tanned shoulder. "I'll fix her before they find out. Like I said: it's our turn, now.

"That's the deal. I pretend I hate your people, and they don't stop to question where that hate comes from. I get funded. I kill a little more than I'd like to," and this seems like an accident; saying this seems like an accident. She stops. Restarts, disconcertment pleating itself into her voice unexpectedly, like brushing apart powdered plaster to find flawed brick holding it up behind. She brushes it back. "I have the training. I've worked: I've done a lot of jobs. I am well-respected among my boys. Only, it used to be the means, not the ends."

And in this path up the garden, Joseph doesn't recognise any of the trees either. He blinks blearily at her, listening just as he had before. Hard edges and neutral golden shapes. Her voice grates against the veneer of his consciousness, as oppressive as her fingers through his hair had been. Despite himself, his attention catches— it has to. Hope like a spark from flint in the darkness.

That maybe they're not all insane— no, they are all insane, every last one of them, but not all bad. "You shouldn't damn yourself. Other ways than this." Other ways to damn yourself? That isn't what he means, but the words string themselves together like fate, or dominoes, and there's not much to do about it after the fact. "You— didn't come here for my pity."

"Why not? Because it's 'pointless?'" Sandy blonde brows escalate up Harlow's forehead.

She rolls her shoulders back, testing the resistance of her own muscle pulling muscle, but there is something half-hearted about it, this time, fatigue having thinned the strings down that there's a weaving, flaccidity to the way that she holds herself and moves within the parameters of her posture. "You said the others come in here to make you understand. It's not like you're going to agree, do you?

"You get to be invincible. God's chosen. You find validation in human misery. It's exasperating. If I had been raped, I would've kicked you harder." Annoyance flares up, scorches one seizure of movement through her frame, lifting her shoulders briefly off her chair. She turns her head. The ponytail is sticking trails to the back of her neck, now. It might not just be him: it might be hot in here.

Or maybe he's made her sweat, a sheen to her face as she forces it still. "She's dying.

"Her ability is making her sick. What— ?" She closes her eyes. Reopens them. "What other way is there?"

Joseph starts to shake his head in denial, about the validation. Stops. No, he can accept that barb, a renewed warmth beneath his skin bringing colour to it this time, his mouth making a line, back teeth clenched together as if fighting back nausea rather than words. Fair's fair, she kicked him pre-tty hard, enough to continue to ache inasmuch as he doesn't at least have the will to concentrate on anything, even that.

"Her ability's killing her. You don't think my people— " He stops, starts again. "The Ferry." They know, anyway. Danko had made him say it once. "You don't think they could help? That abilities could help, either healing, or teaching— "

Another pause, Joseph trying to cut through the fog and the wavering and see if she's understanding any of this, if he's saying the right words. It's never been this hard before. His heart is still going and going ahead of itself. "You could…" A smile manages to drag at his mouth, a heavy chuckle rattling up from his throat. Saline liquid gathered at the corners of his eyes don't spill, warm. "You could let me go."

Initially, she laughs, hyenas one sharp bark into the still air of the cell. Second, though a few seconds coming, her face goes still, her features quizzical, genuine surprise, a glance slid askance toward him like a hand cards pressed facedown across a table, secretive, lest their value be betrayed to those watching. Not that there's anyone here, no cameras nor hulking figures behind the bars. You'd be careful, though. The walls meet corners, and while God has already taught Joseph Sumter more humility than any sane man needs to learn, the good pastor knows. by now, better than to think an empty room is one overlooked.

She looks away, it seems, from his tears. Bends her mouth around a frown. "We have an eight-year-old girl locked up in the cell beside you. Bill marked her up pretty bad.

"You're telling me," incredulity courts her voice, if only because she's courting the option, mangled desire limping wary circles around its quarry, "if I let you go, you'd find my child a healer or a teacher— that's the first thing you'd do? You love your enemy better than your friends or your kind?" She chuffs sharply through her teeth, air raked out. This time it is not laughter.

Good question. Joseph's gaze dips away, studies the wall as if he could see that marked up eight-year-old through it, or Ivanov. Maybe more. "I'm a dead man down here." The words hang between them, unaccompanied with explanation and no effort made to provide one. He'd hissed across the hallway at Felix with rebuke for saying similar things, and Joseph can't tell if he's really there yet. He'll figure it out later. Right now, she's asked him a difficult question.

"Even sinners love those that love them." He draws in a breath, through his nose, wet sounding. "That's the easy part. And sinners lend to sinners to receive somethin' in return. I don't care— whatever way you want to spin it."

Spin it. The Bible, he means. Bitterness laces through his voice, too easily settled and clinging to his words. "I can't do anythin' for my friends and kind down here. What does it matter, what I'd do first? What do you care," his voice breaks over the word, "if that's what you want?"

Grim geometry stretches her mouth out, tightens her jaw into a triangled point. "If I let you go, they'll know. I'm the one in here. There's no way," she shakes her head, a fractioned buzz, almost a reverberation of movement tendriling through the curly tow of her hair, "there's no way you overcame me. You're right, 'f course." It is almost a sigh, restrained at the last moment between the compression of lips, a long swallow. The light through the bars wavers as if it had to penetrate an intervening yard of monochrome water. If they were undersea, that would make a truly great escape, wouldn't it?

He might even emerge clean. "I love her.

"It's hard enough hiding her from Humanis First! when they don't have a reason to suspect anything beside a fat girl's weakness." Her fingers clench on her wrist. Matching symmetry to the angle of his shoulder, the chair burrows unwontedly cold against the plateau of his shoulderblade, clammying the hang of his shirt. "I don't want that. You already know: the hunter isn't captured in the game in this hunt."

His head is already swimming from the drug, and now something else. A spark in the darkness catching alight. Hope is eternal, everyone knows that. Restraints creak as Joseph leans against them, as if imagining them coming apart like rotted vine, splintering off and leaving him sprawling and free on the cold ground. If you wish hard enough—

"Harlow." He says her name, without waver, that familiar earnestness. If he could touch her arm, he would. "You could come with me." The simple logic rings clear, putting a voice to hope. "I'd— I'd need help findin' my way back, I dunno where we are— " And vaguely he recalls the reverberation of the van and bruising fingers around his arms, then the easing of air through scratching burlap for the first time as he lay on his side, knowing the sound and rise and fall of water through the tranquilisers dulling him to everything else

The present comes back with the sharpness of an open handed blow. Static shock white grey cement and barred gateways and Harlow's eyes. Joseph hisses a breath through his teeth. Wishes he was sober. "Please. I can help you. Help your daughter. I promise."

I promise. The oath hangs suspended in the air like a mobile, a constellation of charming block-limbed animals in pastel colors, whimsy for the fat starfish hands of a child who can't reach. Only—

She could, couldn't she? That's his point. He can't touch her arm, but she could put out her hand. Pierce through this devious cloth of idiot malaise, claw apart the fatalistic resignation that's kept her here, sword drawn and knee bent, to a deified cause that would kill her if it could what she is, under the visor and behind the rampant shield.

Harlow squares her hand into a fist, swallows the next breath she takes with an ugly porcine squelch of sound: her mouth's gone dry. The woman leans forward off her chair, the screws and legs creaking below her. Throws her shadow over him, threatening his eyes with hair-raising focus on the austerity of her raw-boned face, language through extraneous and exaggerated movement, searching his face (like Lucia had done once or twice before she left home the second time and was truly gone from them for the first). Her hair clots stringmop yellow above her head, furrowed by talon-spaced digits (he doesn't remember seeing her welt over her scalp). Light alloys wetly in the rims of her eyes.

"Okay," she says, thumbing beaded sweat off her nose. She leaps off her chair. "Okay."

Separation is always painful, but when Joseph's legs straighten into the upright for the first time in — as many days as he's lost count of since the fucking fifth, it's the most retched thing, like someone had unscrewed some crucial bolt from his knees and injected hot wax into the hinges of ligament and tendon. Muscles grate, shriek. The undone cuff swings cold from his wrist, the cell lurches and moves with him, and he can't hear her through the throaty liquid drone of slow-motion arrhythm until she snatches his arm like a Doberman's bite and repeats for the third time: "Come on, we have to go. RUN."

The bars clash open, and the scent of Felix is stronger now.

He could collapse against her— never mind physical weakness, but the world seems to be tilted a few degrees that way and spinning slowly as if he stood in the center of the world's most morbid carousal, turning his head and his stomach— but that would be the opposite of RUN, supposedly. He falls forward, and his foot catches himself just in time, and he repeats the process. It's a lot like running. He bruises his shoulder against the cement frame of the door.

A palm slaps hard against the opposite wall from his cell over, Joseph drawing in ragged breaths that catch both air and the smell of pestilence coming some doors down. Regaining balance, sturdy legs reacting as if reduced to the teetering rusty limbs of something robotic and unfeeling.


The hallway isn't unfamiliar. He knows where Ivanov is, could make an educated guess on where Billy Jean is. The bathroom is that way. The direction from which new footsteps emerge is—

Joseph leaves them behind. Later, he'll assure himself it's logical, the only thing he could have done - that he can't drag a crippled man and a terrified girl and Harlow with him, that he is most helpful to them if he can get through this and make contact, but it won't make the blind, uncaring panic any more justifiable. It only almost crosses his mind. Regardless of Harlow's commanding grip on his arm, he runs.

And Harlow follows. Concrete unravels below them like a diorama scrolling past the set for a cheap old Western, a diorama of repeating frames of pocked stone gray, rust-riddled bars, stone gray, bars again, cells, an— whatever the fuck that it, an observation room? and then a ceiling vent gasps a sweet slice of fresh air down on his dark-haired head as he wink-flashes by. Sweat clots fungal at the base of his spine. His shirt straightens in the process of running, corrected by the torque and pull of anatomy finally put to its proper use.

"Right!" she calls out, and they turn. She has a hand on his shoulderblade, pushing, urging him onward.

A weapon dark in her hand: reassurance, but no shots fired, not yet, so as not to waste ammunition. There are stairs, and they go up the stairs, the walls mapped out in a pestilence of stains and cracks and scratches that look like desperate hands might have made them despite that, intellectually, he knows better than to think any of Danko's quarry had made it this far conscious, and maybe that should be heartening, too. Footfalls drub. A masculine cough of shouting voices sidewinding its echo off the walls from behind.

She finds a key for the next door. Sliding door. It has a small, fist-sized window with gridding on it, and its made of stuff stern enough to hurt even their hands combined, hauling and pushing it aside, their knuckles in white symmetry totem-poled down the edge, and then it is open, and they are through, pattering past a cafeteria, sprinting across a paved yard as awful as it is brief. Sunshine on the ground, pastry-cuttered through the diamond lattice of the gait, the chewed-up buttons of his shirt, hammering down smarting hard on his eyelids. He gets to the gate, adrenaline holding him up off the ground by the choked throat.

He is almost out. Highway substitutes for expanded horizon, then a smell of ash for exhaust.

The thumping of polished shoes against the ground reverberates up his body almost as painful as getting kicked between the legs, although maybe that still has something to do with it. Room, hallway, corner, bright startling sobering sunlight. Joseph hasn't felt— seen— experienced this much since however long it's been, a sensory overload that grates nails over his nerves. Wakes him up.

Squinting and trying to see through tangled eyelashes and the high noon sun, Joseph throws himself in the direction of where there's a break in the fencing, an interruption of gate. Fresh air is almost as much of an assault on reeling senses as this much daylight and movement, soothing and promising. There's wind, too - a brisk fall breeze that ruffles at his hair and clothes, negating the familiar clammy cling of both. A hand grips a bar, and it bites into his palm as he jerks at the gate, the hinges squeaking and moaning as if being roused from slumber.

Only half a second is spent on seeing the completely unfamiliar territory stretched out from the yard. The highway back and forth, the land, the abandonment. There's no sound of car or plane or people. Joseph's other hand gropes at the lock on the gate, jerks at it again as if it might give because he asked nicely. He isn't thinking. There'll be time to think when he's out.

"Harlow— "

She looks so terribly serious over his shoulder that, for a moment, he might begin to wonder if something is wrong.

Though it may not be until the second, third peal of sharp, cut glass laughter that he's sure something is.

Electrodes nip his neck, then, seated on neatly bifurcated prongs like fangs: a taser, wrapped in the long, dexterous clutch of her fingers. She hits the switch, a resonant plastic


and then hearing shorts out altogether, a whooping scratch and keening whine of agonizedly disrupted frequency, a rush of blood to the brain, the ground lunging up to meet him like the front of a freight train. Rams into his shoulder, even as his hands and his feet bunch and uncurl in involuntary spasms and scratches of skin on asphalt. The sun tips over, rolls like a marble along the bottom of the world. She tases him again, once, for good measure, but he's still awake enough to see her boys come to help her after that. Their ungentle hands close on his elbows, haul them up and pin him like a bird to the page. His heels drag after him, the fence and the forsaken highway receding from the dusty cake-cuffed toes of his shoes. They're taking him back. They're taking him back inside.

Harlow falls behind, following, her stride stroking a sly cadence across the concrete. She flips the taser up in her hand. Catches it again. Either she can't quite meet his eye, or his are lying to him. This time, he might know which. Or maybe—

— perhaps —

Or perhaps she had never uncuffed him at all. This cell is familiar. These cuffs. He's cultivating bruises on his wrists, fur on his teeth, and the companionship of a skinny white woman seated beside him. "Lucia only hates you because you are useless," she says, as if this should be comforting. There's a solid black block of weight in the clasp of her fingers. "That isn't really your fault. Not really."

He could, of course, be imagining pain. Cramped muscles, bugbite burns, the residual ache of seized joints, and new bruises from the ground having jumped up to meet him. The only certain part is the laughter. There's an edge to it that's as quick to forget as a razor cut.

The other details are all negotiable, including the fact that he's still here. Any moment now he'll be walking down the road in New Jersey, dog tired and sore and chatting tensely with the leggy blonde who leads him off the trail again, so that her boys don't spot them driving back to base in a rattling black van. Over dust and gravel, headed for civilisation, and he reels off names and places he knows, suggestions, and maybe they should stop for food first, he hasn't had a decent meal in—

Joseph takes a long breath of the stale, sickly air of the jail cell. He rattles the handcuffs, as if they were new to him, a start of panic twitching through his body, and she meets wide eyes, black as if they'd never seen the sunlight - not before the fifth, and certainly not just several minutes ago, and never mind the play of illumination through the window behind him. Fear, shock, shame. "Nnn…" A protest, a refusal of some kind, doesn't quite make it out, that line of tension drawing once more between eyebrows. She's not wrong.

This is wrong, but Harlow isn't. And even if she was, he can't talk, can barely breathe. He isn't looking at her anymore either.

At least he's dry, now. No more sweat. The temperature and climate outside, running against the grain of the wind— and maybe the deadening shock of too much electric voltage shoved through his body had short-circuited the normal nervous reactions like perspiration and temperature. His fingers are cold and his face is warm. She shifts in his peripheral vision, pulls her feet closer to the base of her chair, before she lifts herself off of it entirely, lengthening her shadow out to full upright.

Yanks it up off the floor, folding panel and legs together, neatly. The screws and the tubed legs don't make any sound, wheeling back together, collapsing neatly into carrying configuration. She hikes it up under her armpit, sandwiches it in the hollow of her torso. There are thugs on the other side of the doors, now, and she looks like she is going to move to join them. "I'm sure this goes without saying," she notes, without punctuating her remark with a look backward or comedy to her tone, "but it seems like I owe you the courtesy of making it clear, as long as you're in here:

"I was lying."

Joseph watches her shadow leave, jaw becoming steely angles at her affirmation, of something he should have counted on and never did. Heart beating in a way that feels more like a puppet being jerked around in the cavern of his chest, Joseph shuts his eyes before he has to see the gate swing closed. Alone, he gives no one credit. Still and silent, subjected to however many more hours before the next one comes by. There's a lot to think about. There's a lot to remember.

She was lying. But God knows there are worse sins.

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