There’s some family that you’re born with—your mother, your father, maybe a few brothers and sisters. There’s some family that you adopt—friends, colleagues, those you can trust. And there there’s some family that adopts you. Corbin, most definitely, was in that latter category.
Alexa folded her arms across her chest as she watched the man in front of her, noting how his blue eyes stared defiantly back at her in the darkness. Faintly, she could make out the tattoos that crisscrossed his arms, patterning them with his life’s story—marking him as one like her.
They stood just outside Chance’s bar, and the sounds of chatter floated toward them on the faint, damp breeze that drifted up from the lake. There was the clink of glasses, a burst of laughter—noises that were muffled by closed doors and walls, overshadowed by rustling leaves and the constant hum of insects.
Alexa had wanted to talk to him—asked to talk to him. Why is it you can’t stand seeing someone looking so tragic? Blaming himself? You’re probably the worst choice to help sort out his issues. But she could at least try.
“You do realize it’s not your fault, right?”
Corbin’s mouth hardened into a thin line as he continued looking at her—as if he didn’t want to say anything. His chin jutted out stubbornly as his nostrils flared. Expecting a fight, apparently. What did you expect from someone so hard-headed?
Alexa continued, keeping her face as passive as she could manage, “It isn’t. You didn’t ask her to come, you know. In fact, you actually did more than just about anyone in the settlement as far as the altercation went. You volunteered to take that bomb.”
She waited. Corbin watched her for a moment before finally he barked out a series of words, as if each one was painful, “She wouldn’t have been there in the first place if it weren’t for me.”
Really? Angry at himself, then. Alexa rolled her eyes, shifting her weight from one leg to another, “Don’t be stupid. Use logic, Corbin. It was Whalestoe—it was all Whalestoe. Sure, she might have taken advantage of the situation, but it wasn’t her idea. She was working for them. Besides, Whalestoe has been here in the past. It’s likely that they sought her out—or that she volunteered for this particular task. They would have done the same thing without her. There’s absolutely no reason for you to blame yourself.”
Corbin gritted his teeth. That’s right. Get mad at me instead of yourself. Stop wallowing in self-pity. Take charge, Corbin. He glared at her, blue eyes turning hard, “She’ll still be back. She’ll attack, and she’ll target those close to me.”
Alexa watched him, meeting his gaze with her own. He was being unreasonable, really. But it wasn’t unexpected. He cares too much for his own good at times. She closed her eyes briefly, wondering how best to get through to him—to make her point. And then she spoke, “You have family, Corbin. And by ‘family,’ I don’t mean the people you’re actually related to. I mean the people that you’ve grown close to over the years. You have Scraps. You have Stew. You have Makita and even Candace. You have Commander Dantes and Sydney and Antigone. You have D.O.C. You have all of these people around you. And we all have your back.”
Corbin’s mouth worked for a moment, as if he wanted to say something. Then he slowly uncrossed his arms, lowering his eyes silently. Alexa counted the seconds as they remained in silence.
Well that’s enough of that. She reached forward and punched him in the arm.
Corbin’s head jerked upward, surprise briefly flitting across his face, “Hey, what was that for?”
“You deserved it. You know, you’re like the little brother I never wanted, Corbin. But we’ll make sure you’re okay.”
He smirked at her, “I know.”
They sat across from one another on the floor, a metal bed frame between them serving as both divider and table as they spoke. Dim light filtered down from the wires and cracked bulbs strung across the rafters of the room as flickering shadows danced in corners, outlining a discarded suit of armor, rows of more beds, a heap of blankets, a bag packed with food. From their position, they could hear the faint sound of screams from down the road outside—the cries of people who were foolish enough to venture abroad after dark in Ripton Falls.
Alexa watched the man carefully, keeping her face neutral as her green eyes flickered over his features. Sparrow’s skin parted slightly on one side, revealing red flesh underneath that seeped blood in coagulated droplets. Dark hair fell into his eyes, rimmed by dark circles. She’d always wondered whether Retrogrades felt pain as their skin peeled and rotted—but she’d always been too polite to ask.
His voice sounded rough, scratchy. It graveled and grated as he spoke, “You know you’re one of the few people I have trouble getting a read on. I think I told you that before—when we had that conversation by the lake a while back.”
Alexa shifted her weight slightly, moving into a more comfortable position on the hard, wooden floor, “Yeah, I remember.”
“You always have that mask firmly in place.” Sparrow paused briefly, his eyes shifting downward before fixing her with his gaze once more, “Has anything changed since then? Do you know what you want?”
Alexa turned over his words in her head. She’d been running all day—fighting—and fatigue weighed down on her like a mantle, pressing down and cloaking her. Her thoughts churned more slowly than normal as she watched Sparrow. Truth or lies? And if truth, how much of it?
“I’m still trying to find myself, I suppose. I…” She hesitated and then continued, “I’m still not sure.”
He nodded, switching subjects, “I admit that I’m slightly jealous of you sometimes. I couldn’t do what you do.”
Alexa arched a brow. He’s good at what he does—finding out information. She glanced away for a brief moment. A slight compliment to prompt the flow of words—a change of topic when things become uncomfortable. I wish I were nearly that good. “What do you mean?”
“Sacrifice. You sacrifice a lot…everything to people. You rarely live for yourself. I’m too selfish to do what you do.”
Alexa felt a wry smile cross her face. He thinks I’m selfless instead of selfish? He obviously hasn’t seen Stew in action, if that’s the case. Alexa shook her head briefly, “I’m selfish.”
“When are you ever selfish?”
“You’d be surprised.”
Sparrow’s eyes narrowed slightly, “Sometimes when you wear a mask long enough, it becomes the real thing.”
Sometimes it becomes the real thing. Her mind briefly flashed back to that place—the one that she kept safely locked in the corner of her mind. You always knew you were a monster, Rook. She carefully shut that door again. Instead, she responded flippantly, “Don’t I know it.” She paused for a moment, gauging his reaction, then continued, “I…do what I do because it’s easier. People trust me because of it. I don’t have to work as hard.”
He continued watching her, not breaking her gaze, “That’s not selfish. That’s survival.”
She shot back quickly, “Survival can be selfish.”
They lapsed into silence for a brief moment, and Sparrow shifted slightly on the floor. Alexa turned to look at the windows of the building—at the darkness outside. The screams had subsided and instead there was only the faint sigh of the wind—the whisper of leaves in the cool, humid night air. She closed her eyes for a brief moment. How much of a mask is real? And if you wear enough of them, do you remember what lies beneath?
“I don’t know if you remember but a while back, that firstborn illness was going around—the one that would essentially turn your bones into mush.”
Alexa glanced back at the man, arching a brow briefly, “I remember.”
“I was halfway joking around in the Double Tap—asking everyone who was sick what would make them happy before they died.” Sparrow paused for a moment, his eyes lowering, “You said something that’s haunted me for a while now. You said that you’ve never really been happy. You said it in a joking manner, but there was something there…Is that still true?”
Alexa smiled wryly at him, “I’m a work in progress.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
The response took her by surprise, momentarily jerking her out of her train of thought. The woman sat across from her, eyes incredulous, mouth turned down slightly in a faint scowl. Her red hair was chopped short, framing a face that was marred by scars and rot. Alexa’s eyes automatically were drawn to the zipper on the side of the woman’s cheek, attached by faint threads that were sewn through flesh—a practical attempt to keep her face from splitting when talking, she imagined. Must be difficult being a Retrograde.
She shook her head briefly, responding to the woman’s outburst, “No, I’m not ‘fucking’ with you. That’s what happened to me.”
They had been speaking for some time now in the dim light of the room. The door was open, allowing a fresh, afternoon breeze to waft through the space, cooling beads of sweat that collected on heated brows. They lounged on the furniture crammed into the tiny quarters, backs propped against wooden walls and feet pulled up onto metal bedframes. The hum of insects provided a low chorus to their conversation.
The Retrograde watched Alexa, distrust plain on her face. You shouldn’t be so surprised by that. After all, you did trick her into this situation. But that’s what I was asked to do. And you always do your job—don’t you? Alexa maintained eye contact with the woman—Slink—and waited for her response.
“That’s…” Slink’s mouth worked for a moment and then she glanced downward, breaking eye contact. “That’s exactly what happened to me when I went into the Gravemind.”
It really is all about that, isn’t it? Alexa pushed a few pale strands of hair back from her face with a faint frown. Strange that we’d have the same experience, though. She may have been charged with getting Slink help, but the two of them had little in common—on the surface, anyway. Sure, they could both throw down in a fight and they both worked for the same person, but that didn’t mean they had much else in common. Except for dying, apparently.
Another voice echoed in the mostly-empty room, and Alexa turned her attention to the curly haired man in the corner. She was lucky that Augustus had agreed to help—lucky that she’d been able to track down both him and Slink and then ensure they were in the same room for more than five minutes. She wasn’t going to take it for granted.
“Tell me a little bit more about your experience. How did it make you feel?” Augustus leaned forward slightly on his perch. A large pipe rested next to him, flecked with rust and molded by a few dents. His wide hardhat he kept on his lap as he spoke.
Slink’s wary eyes flickered toward him and she shrugged, leaning back slightly, “There’s not much to tell, really.”
“Tell me, anyway.”
Alexa listened as they spoke, keeping her silence. After all, she wasn’t experienced in these kinds of things. You have a great habit of putting your foot in your mouth when it comes to something important—or someone important, for that matter. She half closed her eyes, letting the murmur of conversation rise and fall around her.
We all have our talents. Yours just happens to be something else.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think the man was someone of faith. He was a wash of colors and textures; scarves and scraps of cloth and patterns wrapped around his thin frame, creating a look that was both exotic and flashy. At first glance, he looked more like a performer or a layabout than a man of the court—someone who you might find drunk and high in a bar, slurring his words as he tried to convince the bar tender to pour him another drink.
But his faith wasn’t something you could see; it was something you could feel. It was the way he spoke about music and the stars. It was the way his eyes lit up when he learned someone could sing or play an instrument. It was the way he altered his entire persona when he understood that someone was in need. Aladdin Hell: A man of music.
He stood next to Alexa, his brown eyes dancing as he spoke. His hands gestured as his voice rose and fell, explaining his beliefs. Alexa listened, brushing some of her pale hair away from her eyes as she scanned the field in front of them, noting the men and women that mingled with one another as they went about their daily lives.
“Just imagine it—they’re all up there. Waiting. They’ve been up there for years and years and years. And finally they’re coming down—shooting down to Earth because now is the time that they plan to take us away with them to the stars.”
Alexa glanced toward Aladdin. He was looking upward, eyes lit up with something that she couldn’t quite name. Fanaticism? No—more like passion. She watched him for a moment longer, mulling over his words in her mind. He does have a point, Alexa. The stars have been falling all over—tumbling to Earth like rain upon parched ground.
She turned to look at the people walking across the field once more before speaking, “I don’t mean any offense by this, Aladdin. But what if they aren’t coming back here to take us away with them? What if they’re coming here to take what’s theirs and kill us all off?”
“I suppose that’s possible.”
His answer surprised her, causing her to turn toward him quickly as he continued, “But I like to believe that they’ll take us away. That we’ll travel among the stars and the planets—forever wandering as we explore the universe above us.” A faint smile flashed across his face and then he looked downward. “Can you imagine it?”
Alexa remained silent, thoughts churning. He has faith—faith that he will one day escape into the stars and leave this world behind. A wry smile crossed her face. In some ways, you’re not so different. You’re both looking for a way to run.
It’s a pity we’re both trapped.
The lake stretched out before them, clouds swirling overhead and blocking out starlight and moonlight. The water remained motionless and calm—a flat expanse of nothingness that gurgled and whispered in the dark.
She drank. He didn’t.
She wondered if he noticed that she noticed. She decided he didn’t.
It was something he kept to himself—and she respected privacy.
“I found out why it bothers me so much that you do what you do—why it bothers me that people take advantage of you,” she said.
“Why’s that?” he asked
“Because I let people do the same to me sometimes,” she replied.