Ticking Clock


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title Ticking Clock
Synopsis Ticking clocks never bode well for birds.
Date July 5, 2021

“Mom, look what I made!”

Gabriel Gray steps proudly up onto her rooftop garden backpack still slung over his shoulder from school, brightly smiling. In his hands is a sunflower made from strips of copper, plastic tubing, color-coded wires, and other small scrap parts. His mother twists to look over her shoulder at him, then sets aside her gardening gloves and slowly rises and walks over to him.

“A sculpture?” Natalie asks with a hesitant smile. Gabriel shakes his head, closing the distance to her and pointing out an octagonal black plate in the middle of the sunflower that has a faint glassy sheen to it. He toggles a switch at the base of the sculpture, and with a whirring sound it very slowly starts turning in the direction of the sun. Little gears spinning, metal petals fanning out.

“Isn’t it neat? It’s got a photo-voltaic sensor here,” Gabriel says, pointing to the black panel, “and these motors let it turn in the direction that the sun is facing!” Natalie’s smile slowly drains from her face, brows knitting together. Gabriel’s voice becomes a muffled torrent of sounds like someone speaking while she’s underwater.

He asks her a question and Natalie doesn’t even notice. All she feels is her heart pounding in her chest, all she hears is her ears ringing from a gunshot fired over a decade ago. She interrupts him to confirm: “You made this?”

“Yeah!” Gabriel exclaims, but as he steps closer to proudly show it off Natalie knocks the sunflower out of Gabriel’s hand and smashes it on the rooftop. He screams in confusion and she kicks it apart with one sneakered foot.

Mom! No! Stop!” Gabriel howls, and Natalie grabs him by the wrist and stares at him with wide, fearful eyes.

I don’t want you b—” Natalie cuts herself off. “I don’t want you wasting your time with this stuff.” She’s trembling, both in rage at herself and horror at the possibility she’s seeing. “I don’t—I don’t like this school. We’re going to move.”

Natalie can’t even hear the words of protest Gabriel is making. The fact that he’s crying kills her. But the fear is what drives her, pushes her forward. The one fear that always clung at the back of her mind:

That he was just like his father.

Thirty-One Years Later

Broadway Street
Ruins of Toledo

July 5th
6:59 pm

Natalie Gray is woozy, slouched up against the side of the communications van Katie. Birds have come to roost on the roof of the van and Benjamin Ryans’ blood is on her hands. While the rest of it is back in his body where it belongs. Grimacing, Natalie holds out a warding hand toward her company, Silas, and shakes her head.

I’m fine,” Natalie insists. “I just need a moment.” She swallows dryly, looking up at a sparrow perched on the corner of the van, then to the woman approaching from the side of the road where others had been snaking their way around the collapsed overpass on foot. Monica Dawson isn’t just coming down to see what’s happening on the other side of the overpass, she’s coming to find Natalie.

"Take what time you need," Silas says mildly, settling in against the side of the van. He has a definite suspicion that she has not, in fact, been doing that so far. "You know… the kids seem to have taken quite a liking to you. Aces too, for that matter; she's not normally quite so reserved when she's concerned," he says, giving Natalie a wry grin.

Monica wanders in, not at all looking like a woman on a mission, although she certainly is that. She keeps her expression soft and her gait casual as she makes her way over. She has in hand a canteen of water and a small bag of jerky, the sort of emergency snack that is quite rare these days. If only she could have conjured up some trail mix they would really be living.

"Hey hey, team," she says, greeting them both with a smile. "I come bearing gifts." They're both held out toward Natalie— she imagines Silas will forgive her for the slight— and given a little shake of insistence.

Asi comes in her wake, looking relieved for Monica's approach to the situation. Telling Natalie outright to stop had resulted in being warned off, and she's been struggling to find an angle in on that to get the woman to reconsider. She looks quickly between Silas and then back to the woman they've come to check on, a messenger bag slung over her shoulder. Her concern for the situation they find her in is palpable in her expression still– her brush with death and something akin to it having popped the lid on her usual reservedness.

Natalie looks at the jerky, offering a wan smile. But after a second of silence in staring at the offer, she accepts a handful of it and then holds her hand, palm out, to her side where a particularly large crow lands. The bird affords Monica and Asi with a side-long look, then begins to pick and peck through the offered snack.

“We need to keep moving,” Natalie says in a hushed and visibly weary voice to Silas, not ever really making eye contact with Monica or Asi. Both of the new arrivals notice where the elderly woman’s other hand is, gripping just above her hip. The long, gray shirt she wears covers much of her injury, save for the fact that she has bled through where her hand grasps and the remainder runs down the side of her jeans all the way to where blood has pooled and darkened in the cuff.

Silas makes a pouty face at Monica from where (he thinks) Natalie can't see him… but it's replaced by a small smile almost immediately. He's glad to see Natalie take the jerky… but his eyes widen as he sees what she does with it.

"Huh. I… didn't know they liked jerky," he manages. Useful for bribing more than just dogs. Good to know, Silas thinks to himself. Natalie's friend doesn't seem quite as friendly as Adam's guard-corgi had been, but who knows?

"Yes we do," Monica says, apparently less worried about what Natalie does with the snack. She doesn't know how closely tied she is with her birds, maybe that's how they work. She's not one to judge. "But not so quickly that we can't have a water break. And I've been overseeing the triaging and I realized that no one gave you a number." And she needs one, is the implication. "I brought some supplies." She kneels down, dropping a bag next to her and the older woman. "Not to sound mercenary about it, but we can't afford to lose you. And on a personal level, you were on my bus–" yes, hers, "– and I consider it a failure of mine that you got wounded at all. So do you want me to see to that? Silas can if you're more comfortable with him."

Someone will, however. Is the implication.

"You need the attention just as much as any of us," Asi points out in an attempt to fend off protest. "Deserve it just as much…" She steps forward by Monica's side, brow creased in concern. She tries to smile, but she's not good at it.

"You've done a lot already. Saved– more lives than just mine, I know." Her eyes dart to the blood standing Natalie's hands, knowing it can't all be her own. "It won't mean anyone's death to get your own wounds looked at now."

Natalie glances at Monica, then Asi. She exhales a sharp breath through her nose, assessing the two women. They’re determined, want to help, and won’t take no for an answer. Looking at Silas, Natalie offers him a brief look of apology and takes a step closer to Monica and Asi.

Without saying anything, Natalie bunches up the bloodied fabric on the side of her long, gray linen shirt and lifts it up so that both Monica and Asi can see what she knows in vivid detail. There is a seemingly innocuous puncture wound on Natalie’s side, three inches above her right hip. It should be bleeding more than it is, but even when Natalie pulls the packing of her shirt away from it, there is no pulse of blood.

“It’s here.” Natalie says, pointing down at her opposite hip. The bullet. “Traveled… straight through me. There’s a big artery,” she says, tracing two fingers up and down her abdomen, “here. Runs along the spine. I’m bleeding into my guts.” She turns pallid eyes over both the women again, hands trembling as she lowers her shirt.

“I don’t know how long I have,” Natalie says through her pink teeth, “but I would much prefer to tend as many wounds as I can in the minutes I have left, rather than…” she shakes her head. “Rather than die on my back.”

There is a challenge in Natalie’s eyes, steel in the way she sets her jaw. “Now, are you going to help me walk over to that girl with the head injury,” she says with a gesture toward where Castle is laying, “or take more time away from the others?”

Silas's lips draw thin into a tight line, his eyes dulling; his own stomach twinges in memory of his own experience with being gutshot. He'd needed surgery to recover, and it had taken him a helluva long time before he could much more than shuffle across the room without help. Recovery would probably be even harder on Natalie, especially around these parts, even if she could get someone to perform the surgery necessary to save her. Shit.

"Nothin' you could do about this, was there?" Silas asks Monica quietly. "You're good, but you're not a seer. Not even a captain can foresee everything; the best we can do is try and hope, and then make the most of what we've got when we fall short. This caught us all by surprise."

"Monica, Aces. Thank you. But it seems…" Silas pauses, his face tightening a bit more in pain as he recognizes the loss to come, "… it seems we're up against a timer here." He steps forward to stand beside Natalie, offering his shoulder.

"Shit." Monica's voice is quiet, but emphatic. Her take on Natalie's situation summed up in that singular syllable. In a way that is quite mercenary, she mentally reruns some numbers— their supplies, their rations, how many fewer risks they can now afford to take. And what all that will end up costing them in time.

But in a moment, she refocuses on Natalie again. "We'll get you there," she says, taking up the woman's other side and grabbing her bag again. She's not going to argue with how this woman wants to spend her last moments. It certainly is more useful than wailing on a cot– and they have need of her. But Monica isn't cold about the personal cost, either. Not to Natalie nor to Silas. "Is there anything we can do for you? Make it a little easier? I have some whiskey." Numbing the pain might be the only thing she has to offer, except her physical support to get her to the more seriously wounded.

She looks across to Silas, her head shaking. "I should have been looking out. There's a million things I could have done differently." No doubt she'll be doing them from now on.

The fact the wound isn't bleeding the way one would expect says enough on its own, and Asi's eyes flicker in horror over it. Her feet shift on the ground as she tries to find her center again. She looks down to the wound then back up to Natalie, wanting to find argument with this. The beginnings of a protest come to Asi's lips and die there. Her healing could do so much for others, and she couldn't help herself now? She stops short, though, of demanding to know why the old woman hadn't turned her ability on herself yet, why she wouldn't.

She knows well how limitations can work. Knows that the same ability can work different ways between two different people, even without knowing the mysterious nature of what drives her healing. Asi knows… that sometimes things just are the way they are.

That doesn't make any of this fair.

She has to lift a hand up over her mouth to guard her expression, but that speaks on its own, too. The glimmer of tears in her eyes turns to a slant of anger and grief, her expression steeling itself in the no-man's-land between all the emotions she struggles with now. Her hand lowers so she can tell Natalie sincerely, "Thank you. For all of this. I'll—"

Asi starts to shake her head, sliding a step back. "I'll get out of your way," she promises, and turns away to head off at speed. There's plenty to do, plenty else she can occupy herself in the aftermath of the attack. Like help dig a grave.

After all, it seemed they'd need another.

Natalie is silent as Asi departs, brows furrowed and her grip on Silas just a little more firm and desperate. Slowly, she turns her attention to Monica and regards the woman with a thoughtful stare. Stepping away from Silas, Natalie takes one of Monica’s hands, unbidden, and squeezes it gently.

“Bad things happen.” Natalie says firmly, with more strength than she should be able to muster in her current state. “Bad things happen, and it’s not because you did anything less. Sometimes the world is cruel, and no amount of good intentions can fix that.” She lets her hand fall away, but her gaze does not drop. “Don’t focus on failures, focus on kindness. Because when the world’s at its darkest… kindness is the one thing only we can make.”

Drawing in a sharp breath, Natalie looks back over at Silas and nods. She’s ready to continue.

Silas looks over to Natalie; he sees her eyes follow Aces as she departs, feels her grip tighten a bit… but when she goes to speak to Monica…

Despite everything, Silas finds himself with a smile on his face. It's a pained one, true, but it's genuine for all that; her words were good ones. He hesitates for a moment… but ultimately, there's nothing he can say that's going to top that, so he just dips his head to Monica in acknowledgement.

"I'll… talk to Aces later. Let her know what you said," Silas says quietly. "Those were good words." He hesitates for a moment. "There is… one thing I'd want to ask you, though. Been meanin' to ask you since the hospital in the Pelago, but there's always been more important things afoot, seemed like. Still are, come to that… but… if I'm gonna ask, better not to put it off any longer," he says, his voice quiet.

Monica blinks when Natalie takes her hand, then again at the reassurance she gives her. She'd like to argue, the points line up in her mind. About how things could have been handled differently. About how she herself could have had different priorities when the ambush hit. About how kindness is dangerous. But she swallows her arguments and replaces them with an apologetic smile. Given their entropy-enforced time limit, now's not the time.

She steps in, placing a kiss to Natalie's cheek. "I shouldn't be making you teach me," she says, her voice only gently teasing— herself as well as Natalie. "As much as I certainly need it, that's what my grandmother used to say."

When Silas speaks up, Monica falls silent. Her head tilts and she gestures back toward where Asi went. It's an offer for her to leave them if Silas would rather have privacy for his question.

Natalie reaches back for Silas’ hand, using it to steady herself. She places her other hand over her wound, looking at him with at once a permissive and impatient stare. Just the one, it says. They both know why.

Silas nods to Monica gratefully in answer — yes, privacy would be appreciated for this. He waits a moment — only a moment, because the clock is ticking and he wants to help, not to be a hindrance. Then, he looks back to Natalie and speaks. "What was it you healed me of?" he asks quietly. "Is it something… hereditary?"

Monica gives Silas a nod, squeezes Natalie's hand in a silent goodbye— and apology— and turns to follow after Asi. She is likely to circle back around and check on Silas… but not until he's said his own goodbyes. Not until after the worst has happened.

In the time being, there are plenty of other people to see to, plenty of work to busy herself with.

Natalie looks at Silas, then gently touches a hand to his chest. She leaves her hand there long enough that he can feel his own heart beating, steady and strong.

“Don’t pick up smoking again,” Natalie whispers, and that is all she has to say about that.

And that is enough.

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