Interlude 15 (Bonus #2)

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He pummeled the bag, one hit after another.  There wasn’t any real rhyme or reason to his strikes.  Only his training persisted, hardwired into his brain: the joints of his hands were stacked, his weight shifted back and forth over the balls of his feet, and the room was filled with the muffled thumps of fist against vinyl.

His dad would be yelling at him right about now, shouting at him about how he was risking injury.  Didn’t matter.

Just needed to hit something.

Needed to release.  To feel some relief, push himself to a point where he was too tired to think.

Except all he felt was a mounting frustration.

It spooked him, just a little.  He couldn’t help but wonder if this was his new default state.  If this was how he’d be for the rest of his life.

He twisted his body to strike the bag with a roundhouse kick.  The bag swung from the chain.

He turned away.  Sweat streamed down his body, his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t control his breathing.

“Jesus, bro.  You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

He snapped his head around to see Aisha in the doorway.  Cognitively, he’d known who she was the second he’d heard her voice, and he recognized her at a glance.  Still, that initial alarm that came with being surprised sang through his nerves, not a momentary sensation, but a thrum of tension that wouldn’t go away.

She didn’t seem to notice.  It was like they were two different people in two very different scenes.  She had her mask in one hand, her black scarf loosely piled around her neck.

For a half second, he could see Bonesaw standing there instead, about the same height, dress, bloodstained apron glittering with tools and wide eyes darting about, taking in everything in her surroundings as if there was inspiration or tools to be found anywhere.

He blinked, hard, and that fleeting image slipped away.  It wasn’t the same.  Aisha’s investigation of the area was casual, comfortable and idle, surveying his room.  At the top floor of the headquarters he shared with her, his room had a punching bag, weight bench and sink in one corner, a bed and a stand for his costume in the opposite corner, and a television placed where he could watch it anywhere in the room.  Not that there was much available in the way of channels.

“You’re back,” he grunted.  “Didn’t tell me you were going.”

“You mean I didn’t ask permission.  No.  I totally wanted to hang around here with you wound as tight as a new clock.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he said, still panting for breath.  His chest hurt.  He stepped over to the sink and splashed water on his face.

“Sue me.  Not like I’ve ever seen a wind-up clock.  Not like you’ve ever seen one either.  Don’t pretend you’re so much more civilized.”

“Grandpa had one.”


He only nodded, still trying to get his breathing under control.  This isn’t just the exercise.  Something else.  Can’t let her see it.

“Still good to see…” he had to pause to catch a breath, “You’re okay.”

“Of course I’m okay, dumbass.  Nobody knows I’m there.”

“Not good enough.”  He began peeling off his gloves.

“I’ve got the costume Skitter made me.  I had no idea she was wearing something like this,” Aisha pulled at the fabric between her fingers, stretching it.  “It’s so smooth and so light, I thought she was bullshitting about the fact that you couldn’t cut it.  But I tried and she was right.  It’s crazy.  But yeah, I’m as safe as any of you.  Safer.”

That’s not saying that much.  He examined his hands, where the skin was torn.  Blood had welled out from the open wound and been pressed into the creases and pores. He turned on the tap again and put his hands under, washing where his skin was raw and bleeding at the knuckles.

“Jesus fuck,” she gasped, looking past him to his hands.  “Any time I’ve spent in the gyms, it’s ’cause Dad dragged me there, so I wasn’t paying attention so much as I was looking for the nearest exit.  But I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be bleeding like that.”

What was he supposed to say to that?

“Why did you do that to yourself?”

“Just trying to tire myself out.”

“You’re already tired, you dumbass!  This isn’t going to improve the situation.  How long were you fucking hitting that thing?  The entire time I was gone?”

I’ve handled worse, he thought.  He’d meant it as a joke, a moment of personal humor, but the amusement didn’t come.

“Incision here… saw through the breast bone, there we go.  You’re cooperating so nicely!  Not that you have much of a choice.  Oh, here.  This part is always cool.  See, the ribs are flexible, and with the sternum separated, a little bit of help from Spider thirty-three here, they unfold like a bird slowly spreaaaaading its wings.”

He leaned over the sink, gripping the edges.  That pressure in his chest was getting worse.

Her tone changed.  “Hey, seriously, are you okay?  You’ve been breathing really hard for a bit now, and now you’ve gone really quiet for, like, a minute.  I didn’t use my power, either, so I know it’s not you ignoring me because of that.”

He bit back the harsh retort, telling her to shut up, to stop being annoying and go away, that he wanted to be alone.  If he did, she would; she’d run away from home six times in four years, had gone from their mother’s house to their father’s, back to their mother’s and then to foster care.  Every time, there was a reason, some argument or incident that had pushed her.  Any excuse would do, even a criticism at the wrong moment.  The child services workers would put her somewhere else, praying for some stability that she would never have.  She was flighty, like a wild animal that would bolt at a loud noise.  That might forever be the case.

If he lashed out like he had with Taylor, he doubted Aisha would forgive him so readily.

“I’m okay,” he lied.  “Tired.”

He couldn’t scare her away like that, but he was afraid he would, anyways.  Couldn’t trust himself like this, feeling like he was on the verge of snapping.

The fact that he was spooked over the idea only contributed to the problem, compounded that restless anxiety that seemed to have nestled deep in the core of his body, which gave him more reason to worry.  An endless cycle.

If he were more rested, he knew, more rational, he could break the cycle, deliberately focus on something else.  He’d hoped the exercise would help there.  It hadn’t.

He flinched as a hand settled on his arm.

“Hey,” Aisha said.  “Zoning out again.”


“I was going to go out on a patrol near the school.  Tattletale said there’s some leftover members of the Merchants hanging around over here, thought I’d scare them off.  Maybe see if I can drive them into Ballistic’s territory, if I can’t push them out of the city.”

“Don’t antagonize him,” Brian said.

“Just saying, he’s better suited for a straight-up fight, and these guys are low-level mooks. We want them to panic, to see there’s no place to go.”

No place to go.

“I’ll come,” he decided.

“No!” She said, with a little too much emphasis.  “No you won’t.  I’m perfectly capable of handling this.  I’d stay to keep an eye on you, if I didn’t think it would do more harm than good.”

“Alright,” he conceded.  “Alright.  Some quiet sounds good.”

“I don’t want you doing this again, okay?” she gestured toward the bag, then his hands.  “Really, it’s more than a little creepy.  I know I don’t have a nurturing nature, like, at all, but I’m gonna feel pretty terrible if I come back and you’re a bloody mess.”

“Oh,” Taylor’s voice, a croak.  “Oh, Brian.”

He winced.

“Poor choice of words,” Aisha said.  Quieter, she added, “Sorry.”

“We shouldn’t be going anywhere alone,” he said.  He was only now feeling like his breathing was getting under control.

“Tattletale did.  Skitter did.  Regent sort of did.”

“Tattletale and Skitter can see trouble coming.  Regent’s got Shatterbird so he’s not alone.”

Aisha shook her head.  “Which doesn’t do him any good if he gets shot.  Shatterbird would get free, and then everyone loses.”

Don’t want to argue.  Don’t want to get too deep into this.  There’s already too many things to keep track of, too many variables to consider.  “Hopefully everyone has more common sense than that.  He really should be keeping her in containment unless she’s needed.”

“We were taking on the Chosen, and some of Purity’s people.  It’s all good.  We picked up Victor, and Tattletale’s hoping you’ll try your power on him, see if you can’t pick something up.”

Brian nodded, “After.”

“So I’m gonna go now-”

He grimaced.  “I don’t want you going alone.”

“I’m going with Regent.  Relax.”

Not sure that makes me feel better.  “Not sure that’s the company I want you to keep.”

He was well familiar with the annoyed look that flashed over her face before she forced it away.  She said, “It’s fine.  He’s your buddy, and our powers actually work well together.  You and me, we can’t… what’s the word?”


“We can’t synergize.  I do my thing, you do yours, but we get in each other’s way.  You blind me, I wipe myself from your memory.  With Regent and me, I can set people up for him to mess with, give him a chance to use his power.  Or we mix it up a little, so I spook people, then he uses his power to make them feel like they’re being pushed around while I deal with others, to freak them out.  Or I go in first and then give him word on what’s going on.”

“You’ve been out with him before,” he realized.

“Couple times.  Just doing what you asked, not going out alone.  You weren’t exactly up to it.”

He looked down at his hands and picked off a peel of skin.

“Um.  So yeah.  You stay right here, try to take it easy?”  She sounded a little tense.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Maybe we could go for a walk later?  Check on one of the ‘rents?”

It sounded so unlike her.  He could count on one hand the number of times she’d been this conciliatory and gentle.  He couldn’t remember a single case where she’d acted like that when she hadn’t wanted something.

Brian forced a smile.  “Maybe.  You go.  Be safe.”

He was both relieved and terrified when the door shut behind Aisha.

So many things were like that, now.  Bad with the good, or just plain bad.

Didn’t realize she’d been out with Regent.  Need to catch up on things.

He flexed his hands, feeling the pain where he’d damaged himself, and made his way into what he liked to call the war room.

The war room sat opposite Aisha’s room, on the same floor as his.  It wasn’t large, but it didn’t really have to be.  Satellite images of various locations around the city had been printed out onto four-by-five foot sheets of laminated paper, rolls shelved on the wall with labels in marker.  They varied in size, with some extending over the whole city, while others covered the various territories.

He picked the roll for his own territory and unfurled it.

His territory was marked out in black marker.  Southwest end of the Docks.  Lots of residential areas, lots of schools, small businesses, restaurants.  Lots of hiding places for troublemakers.  People he was expected to deal with in short order.  More problematic, he was expected to keep anyone else from coming in and setting up shop.  Wasn’t right that Tattletale shouldered the full load, when she had her own territory to look after.

Coil had provided the map, and Tattletale had provided the details.  Various symbols and gang symbols marked out spots where enemies were lurking.  Stars for the nobodies, the M with the two ‘dollar sign’ vertical lines struck through it for the stragglers from the defeated Merchants, and a wolf’s head for Fenrir’s Chosen.  His own were marked out in clear, blocky letters, noting priority, naming locations for what they were and briefly covering the nature of the operations these crooks and gangs were conducting in his territory.  Low level drug dealers and looters here, some Chosen dragging families from their home and selling them off as slave labor over there.

But the map had been altered.

Red ‘x’ symbols crossed out a solid two-thirds of the symbols.  Barely-legible handwriting in the same red marker was squeezed into any space that wasn’t too dark to obscure it – filling the white border at the edge of the map.  ‘Gone’.  ‘Left city’.  ‘Hospitalized’.  There was a circle around one of the Merchants’ symbols at the school. The next target.

He knew he should feel relieved.  Knew that he should appreciate that Aisha had tried to do something to help him even if she wasn’t the best at expressing concern or affection.

He only felt guilty.

He’d been wallowing, stumbling around their headquarters in a fugue, and Aisha had apparently been going all out, taking out their enemies and clearing their territory of threats.  It had been a big task for the two of them, and she was doing it on her own.

Why am I here?  He wondered.  He wasn’t a leader anymore, he wasn’t doing his job with his territory, wasn’t protecting the people he was important to, wasn’t working towards anything…

He shook his head, as if to shake off the thoughts that were plaguing him.

It had been four or five days since the Nine had left the city, and he’d been, what?  Spinning in place?  Sinking deeper and deeper into this well of negative emotion?

Hated this.  Hated that his body, which he’d always seen as something under his absolute control, a tool to be honed, was betraying him with this anxiety, panic and weakness.  His power, too, was a tool that now carried so many negative connotations.

He hated that everything seemed so ugly now.  The city was soiled, ruined, and festering.  His friends and family were tainted with negative associations.

Seizing territory felt both hollow and it reminded him that this business with Coil might collapse soon, or the city would be condemned, and he would have nowhere to go and nothing to do after that.  Except dwell on memories he didn’t want to dwell on.  It was hard to convince himself to care, especially with the alleged end of the world.

Of course, he couldn’t not deal with Coil.  Taylor wouldn’t stick around if they didn’t, for one thing, and he knew that the little girl deserved to be rescued.

I spent three hours in that refrigerator.  Dinah’s spent nearly that many months with Coil.

And though it was nebulous, he feared the future.  He’d spent so many years of his life so sure in what he was doing, how A led to B led to C, that he wasn’t sure what to do now that the possibilities were so open-ended.

Even the simplest things were screwed up, now.  Sleep in particular was hard to come by, and was riddled with terror dreams that left him more exhausted than when he’d put his head down to the pillow.

He clenched his fist, feeling the sting where his hand was still bleeding.

He’d go after Aisha, lend some assistance, maybe, or make sure that everything was going okay.

He couldn’t even explain his own line of thinking to himself.  He didn’t always like her, but he was barely able to think straight when he thought about Aisha suffering anything close to what he’d been through.

Aisha would be annoyed, even upset.  She was already feeling pressured, but he had his own pressures, his own concerns.  It would reach a critical point one way or the other, but for now he needed to check on her.

He paused when he’d re-entered his own room and found himself facing his costume as it hung on the stand.  The eyes were surrounded by ridges of horns, the teeth curled and curved into one another.  A demon, a creature of nightmare.

“…I could give you a skull face like that helmet of yours, only real… and crank your power up to the max, always on, give you some biological imperative to encourage cannibalism, see how long it takes for them to eliminate you if they can’t see or hear you…”

“You’re gone,” Brian growled to the empty room, seizing the mask in both hands and pulling it free of the stand.  “We won.  Shut up.”

Her giggling was so vivid in his memory that it sounded like she was right next to him.

He stared at the mask, glad it wasn’t the skull mask that Bonesaw had referenced.  Hard to explain why.

He was reaching to pull his mask on when he felt something brush against his bare arm.

A moth?

“I sure hope that’s you,” he said.  “Because I’m talking to myself too much already.”

The moth flew in a lazy circle in front of him.

“Right.  Meet you at the door,” he said.

He hesitated, then put the mask back on the stand.

A few minutes passed as he waited.  He found himself debating whether he’d misunderstood the moth’s movements as something they weren’t.

I remember when I didn’t have these doubts about what I was doing.

She wasn’t in costume.  It was odd, seeing her approach from a distance, observing her uninterrupted over a longer span of time.  She conveyed an eerie kind of confidence that he knew she didn’t have at her core.  Some of that was how she unflinchingly looked forward.  She didn’t react as the wind blew her hair across her face, didn’t turn to look around the street as she crossed an intersection.

He might have to say something about that.  If that was her using her power to assess her surroundings and keep an eye out for trouble, she should avoid doing it when she was in civilian wear.

She stopped a short distance away, holding grocery bags in one hand and tucking her hair back into place with the other.  She wore a black tank top, jeans and rubber boots, with a sweatshirt tied around her waist.  That last article of clothing would be to conceal weapons, he guessed.  Her glasses caught the light from the sun to the west, turning almost opaque in the glare as she looked his way.

“Decided to check in on me?”

“Imp asked me to,” she said.  Her stare was uncomfortable, analyzing him.

He nodded.  Imp’s earlier behavior made some more sense in light of that fact.  She’d wanted to keep him here so he wouldn’t miss Taylor’s arrival.  He felt self-conscious of the wounds on his hands.  She’d seen them, but she hadn’t commented.

“But I wanted to anyways,” she added.

Again, he nodded.  What could he say to that?  He changed the focus, asking, “The bag?”

“I thought I’d make dinner for the two of us, if you wanted.  You can say no.”

“Okay.  Sure.”

He moved out of the way to let her inside, then shut and locked the door.

Not that a lock would do anything against the kinds of people who haunted his nightmares.  It was the uglier side of dealing with capes, knowing that there was no measure of security that would ever stand up to all of the bad guys.  There would always be people like the Nine, like Leviathan and Behemoth.  Forces as inevitable and unstoppable as a natural disaster.  The best analogy he could come up with was the Cold War, the sense that bombs could start dropping at a moment’s notice, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.

Unlike the major players in the Cold War, the monsters he was thinking about weren’t so rational that they’d stand down with Scion in the picture.

“Hey,” Taylor spoke up, “You okay?”


“You’re sort of staring off into space.  Come on, sit down and talk to me.”

Brian nodded and followed her into the kitchen.  He opted to stand instead of taking the stool.

“Chicken breasts okay?”


She reached into the grocery bag and retrieved a ziploc baggie with chicken in marinade.  “Was going to bring pork chops, but I just served this huge pork shoulder roast for everyone in my territory the other night, and then we had leftovers so I’ve had it for lunch a few times.  Kind of sick of it.”


“We’ve got lots of kids running around.  It’s kind of nice, but hard.  It’s like they’re totally unrestrained, so when they’re happy, they’re ecstatic, and when they’re unhappy they’re miserable, you know?”

“I haven’t spent a lot of time around kids.  Only Aisha, when I was younger, and I think she might have been a special case.”

“She’s really coming into her own, getting comfortable with her powers, figuring out where she needs to be and when.  Can’t be easy, when the rest of us don’t know where she is half the time.”

“Did she put herself in any danger?”

Taylor started frying up the chicken.  “Yes and no.  She took down Night, but Night wasn’t able to use her power, had no idea she was there.  She was safe.”

Took down Night.  Aisha?

That bothered him, and he couldn’t say why.

“We got Victor.  Not sure if I like how Lisa sprung that on me, but we got him.  We were thinking you could try borrowing his power, see if you don’t get any permanent boosts.”

“Sure.  Aisha mentioned that.  I don’t know if it’ll work.”


Brian tried to organize his answer about why in his head.  What had Bonesaw said?  Something about passengers.

He glanced over at Taylor, who was busy with the sides, something with sweet potato, some parsnips.  She looked over her shoulder at him, and he was struck with the image of her lying on the ground, Bonesaw straddling her, her forehead a bloody mess, a small electric saw grinding through the bone of her skull with an ear-splitting whine.

He looked away.

“What is it?”

“Trying to get my thoughts in order.  Tired.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shook his head.  “Victor’s power… If we supposedly have these ‘passengers’ in our heads, guiding our power use, giving us the brain structures we need to manage the powers, I don’t think I have that with any powers I borrow.  They’re weaker, but I don’t have that knowledge about what’s going on, or that extra measure of control.”

“Want to try on me?  I know I wasn’t ok with it before, but I think I can handle it if I know it’s coming.”

He considered for a moment.  “Okay.”

He reached out and let the darkness stream from his fingertips.  It wove in and out of itself, coiled at things that weren’t there, alternately creeping and lunging forward.  Heavy, it drifted to the ground to spill out there.  It didn’t obscure his sight, but he could tell where it was, almost as if he were seeing in strict black and white when he looked through the darkness, but the color was still there.  Bad analogy.  The difference was stark, but he couldn’t pinpoint what separated it from anything else.

The contact with Taylor was like having his eyes shut and then opening them as a firecracker burst spectacularly, seeing the sparks scattered over half a mile.  Only the sparks were alive, moving.

Unsure about how to use the ability, he pushed out.  There was no control, no sense of what he was controlling.  He was the gust of wind, and Taylor’s bugs were the leaves that blew in that wind.

She pushed back, and won with little effort.  He could feel her moving the individual bugs, the casual hand with which she picked out the ones she wanted.

“It’s sort of calming, when you think about it,” she said.  “You realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things.  We’re not really the rulers of this planet, we’re just tenants, and it’s the small stuff, the bacteria and insects and the plant matter that really runs it all.  Even the big stuff, the nasty, scary stuff, it’s all pretty small in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?”

Is that a good thing?

“I know I sound a little crazy when I say that, but really, you get a glimpse of these bugs as they go about their lives, almost mechanical in how they follow their instincts, you see them breeding, eating, building nests, and dying, and you see how they just saturate every aspect of our existence, in the air, the dark corners, the insides of the walls, they eat our dead.  I can’t sense them, but there’re skin mites all over our bodies and in our eyelashes… I guess it takes me out of myself when I think about it, reminds me that we’re only one part of this vast system, we’re cogs in the universe, in our own way.  Seeing the little details makes me feel like the big problems aren’t so personal, they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Rambling aside, she looked more at ease than he’d ever seen someone in his darkness.  She was blind, deaf, and she leaned against the counter, staring off into space as she talked.  Even the talking, it caught him off guard.  Being blind, unable to see the reactions of the person you were talking to, not getting any feedback, most people would struggle more, much for the same reasons they found it awkward to speak to an answering machine.

“I don’t know if that makes sense, but I usually try reaching out to these guys when things get bad.  In retrospect, it kind of centers me.”

“I wish I could find the same comfort in my power,” Brian murmured.

“Did you say something?  I think I just felt some vibrations in the air, but it’s hard to tell with your power out there.”

He didn’t reply.

Instead, he looked at Taylor.  She wasn’t conventionally attractive, he had to admit.  Her mouth was wide for her face, her ears large enough that they stuck out of the mess of black curls that draped over her shoulders.  And her shoulders: narrow, bony, deceptively delicate in appearance.  She somehow managed to be self-conscious and yet unaware of the way she held herself.  The seeming fragility of her body was accented by the angles she seemed to settle into when she rested: her wrist bent at a right angle as she picked at one of her cuticles with her thumbnail, her leg raised so her right foot could rest flat against the cabinet, her shoulders tilted forward a fraction.  It was as if her skin didn’t fit and she couldn’t stretch both arms or both legs out to their full lengths at the same time.

It wasn’t so dramatic that he’d notice if he wasn’t already paying attention, but it was a quirk he could note as he studied her.  It made him think of a bird, or one of her insects, but… he didn’t feel he was being unflattering by thinking it.

In fact, as he looked, he could note how long her arms and legs were, the length of her neck and torso.  She was still growing, she had grown even in the months they’d known each other.  Somehow, he could see how the groundwork was being laid for the finished product, a body that wouldn’t be skinny, but slender, long-legged.  If she was still growing, and if her dad was any indication, she’d be tall.

Would she be a trophy wife, or turn heads?  Probably not.  But he could see how someone might come to look past the quirks, even come to like them, and they’d find nothing to complain about in her.  How someone might want to hold her in their arms-

She spoke, interrupting his train of thought, “Okay.  You probably have some reason for keeping the darkness up this long.  I won’t complain, since you’re probably working things out in your own way, like I was talking about with my bugs, but maybe keep an eye on the chicken?”  She offered a small laugh, “I could use my bugs to check on it, maybe, but I don’t think either of us want that.”

He glanced at the stove, prodding the chicken.  No problems.  He turned down the heat to be safe.

“Look, Brian, I don’t want to stir up any unhappy thoughts, but I don’t want to ignore the subject either.  I did some reading, and there’s a pretty scary number of people who have their second trigger events and then have a bad ending shortly after.  I think it has to do with the toll it takes on you, the event… I’m… I’m not good at this.  At the people stuff.  But I have been through some dark spots.  My mom died not too long ago, I can’t remember if we really talked about that.  And there was the bullying, I sometimes wonder how much that influences what I do and why.  I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but I guess I’m saying I’m here for whatever you need.”

He expected there to be a swell of that dark anxiety that had plagued him as she raised the subject of what had happened, but when his heart pounded, it wasn’t the same as it had been earlier.  Through the sliver of power he had borrowed from her, he could feel the bugs at work, performing a hundred subtly different tasks, sweeping over areas in formation, drawing lines of silk across doorways and roadways, marking the people elsewhere in the neighborhood, keeping an eye on their movements, gathering en masse when people weren’t in a room to check tabletops and cabinets.

And Taylor was just standing there, leaning agains the counter, calm.  She was blind, deaf, and the person at the other end of the conversation hadn’t responded for at least a minute.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have her own ugly thoughts plaguing her, a thousand responsibilities, a hundred reasons to feel angry or guilty, but she’d somehow found a way to let herself be at ease here.

Or was that the same deceptive confidence she’d displayed as she’d approached his headquarters?

He idly wondered if that veneer would crack if he surprised her here.  But he didn’t want to be mean as he did it, that felt wrong.

Something else.  Almost on instinct, Brian stepped forward, reaching for her, then stopped, letting his hands drop to his sides.  If he reached out to hold her, that would be a breach of trust, wouldn’t it? He-

“Hey,” Taylor said, her voice so quiet he could barely hear it.  Slightly louder, she said, “Go ahead.”

She knew?  But-  He felt out with her power, saw the ‘spark’ of the bugs she’d placed on the cuffs of his pants, on the edge of his sleeve.

How did she keep track of all that?

And how was he supposed to respond, now?  He barely had any friends, outside of ‘work’, his contact with girls had been limited to flirting, more ‘work’ and fighting with his sister.

Swallowing, he reached out and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, gently pulling her close.  He couldn’t shake the idea that she’d break if he squeezed too hard, so his touch was light.

She hugged his lower body, pressing her head against his collarbone, both actions surprising him with their strength and ferocity.

He willed the darkness away, banished the sparks that, as Taylor had suggested, painted them as very small people in a big world.  As the light returned, it was just them.

“This is what you wanted?” she murmured.

“You’re so still,” he replied, not even sure what he meant.

“That’s good,” she answered him, her non-sequitur almost matching his own.

They stayed like that for some time, his chin resting on top of her head.  He could feel her breathing, her heartbeat, and the warmth of her breath against his chest.  He felt tears in his eyes, blinked them away, unsure why they’d even come in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be.”

He couldn’t be quite sure what he was sorry for.  This awkwardness, the length of time this had gone on?  For putting her in a position like this, when she knew he was vulnerable and would have a hard time of saying no?  He didn’t get the sense that she minded.  If she had, he suspected, there would be some sign, some movement, some attempt to pull away.

Maybe he’d said it because it had taken him this long?

He dismissed the doubts and hesitation.

“Can we?” he pulled away slightly, and looked in the direction of the couch.

“Um,” her eyes widened a fraction.

“Not… not that.  Just-” he paused, trying to find a way to say what he wanted to say without putting her in a position where she couldn’t say no.

“Okay.”  She seemed to get his meaning.  She led him by one hand into the living room.  He laid down first, arranging the cushions into a makeshift pillow.  She took that time to remove the knife, the gun and the various contents of her pockets, placing them on the nearby coffee table.

Once he was arranged, he was the one to pull on her hand.  Moving gingerly, as if she expected him to react badly with every motion she made, she found a way to lie across him without lying on top of him, her head on his shoulder, both legs draping across his pelvis, her upper body pressed against his side.  If he hadn’t noted that quirk of hers, how she bent herself at odd angles, he might have thought she’d be uncomfortable.  As it was, he somehow didn’t feel the need to worry.  He pulled her closer with one arm.

For days, he’d been seeking some way to get centered, to stop that downward spiral where anxiety and fear gave him cause to be more anxious, more afraid.  He’d hurt himself doing it, and he’d very nearly hurt his relationship with Aisha.

He’d been trying to do it alone.  He’d needed a rock, an anchor.  If he’d been asked months ago, weeks ago, even days ago, he wasn’t sure he would have believed that was true, or that it would be Taylor, of all people.

“The stove,” he said, starting to sit up.

“Handled,” Taylor replied, pushing him back down.

He looked over and saw the dials had been set to ‘off’.

“Thank you,” he said.  It took him a second to raise the courage, but he kissed the top of her head.

She nodded, her head rubbing against him.

“Really,” he said, reaching over to tilt her head so she was looking up at him.  He kissed her on the lips this time. “Thank you.”

She didn’t reply, only smiling and nestling in close again.

Taylor fell asleep before he did.  He laid there for some time, trying to match his breathing to hers, as if he could copy her and fall asleep the same way.  It was almost as if he’d forgotten how.

He wasn’t all better.  Wasn’t sure he would ever be.  He just had to think about it, and he could almost see Bonesaw in the kitchen, waiting, watching.  Whatever barriers he’d erected between reality and the uglier possibilities, they’d taken a beating.

But he could breathe, now.

His eyes closed.

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