Sixth in the dystopian!verse series.
He explains in metaphors, and she breaks in remnants of a forgotten dream. The scarred line on her body, she thinks, is probably the clearest one of all.
When: Pre-Ground Zero
There is a gun pressed to the back of her head, cold and hard and unforgiving, and she wonders if this is what everyone she has ever killed feels before they die.
She doesn’t think so. It is rather ironic, she muses, considering that the gun held to her head is hers. Her trusty Beretta 3032 Tomcat. She wonders if the laughter that bubbles at the back of her throat is normal. She doubts it. The bitter taste of the hallucinogenic sedative they had force-fed her keeps her grounded to reality. Or what is left of her reality, anyway.
She is pretty certain that her brain is going to be splattered in undignified globs on the floor and walls soon. There is no way to get out of this alive, and she thinks back fondly (or what she thinks is fondly – she’s drugged, remember?) to her Watcher Academy days, where Instructor Whitehall-Pritchard (that pompous prick) had drilled them for hours on Captive Survival 101.
A steel-toed boot connects with her stomach, and she slumps over in pain (again, really, this is getting old). She wonders why her brain is still in her skull, and what they want to do with her now. When she coughs, there is blood on the floor. She thinks it looks rather pretty (quite Picasso-esque, if she does say so herself). She is quite sure that she is going mad.
“She won’t talk.” Her captors are not the most loquacious bunch, and they mostly grunt, gesture, and speak in monosyllables in way of communication. She would be more amused if she weren’t suffering from three fractured ribs, a dislocated shoulder, one black eye and six broken fingers. The pain is excruciating, and it reminds her than she is alive. It reminds her that there are things in life far, far worse than death.
“Oh, give it time. She will.” This is another voice, slimy and insidious. She recognizes it as the man who dragged her in, a rogue Operative from the Welsh branch of the Agency. She lies crumpled on the floor in a bloody heap, but summons enough strength to spit at his feet. Traitors like him, she thinks, are worse than scum. Her hate for him stems not from the collapse of her mission, but from the hundreds of lives she is sure he must have taken as a double-crosser.
Her father died at the hands of a man like him, and the intensity of her glare does not lessen even after she is forcefully backhanded. “Bitch,” he shouts to her at her, and spittle sprays her face as he drags her up to his eye level by her hair. She does not give him the satisfaction of crying out in pain. He pulls out a hunting knife, long and gleaming in the harsh light of the room. He smiles, a cold and hollow rictus that has her swallowing once despite herself.
“I think I’m going to enjoy this,” he murmurs into her ear, licking flecks of her blood from her cheek. She recoils and attempts to unbalance him and lunge for the knife, but the sedatives have made her sluggish and slow, and he easily sidesteps her. “Oh, yes,” he continues. “I’m going to enjoy this very much.”
“Do you know what I’m going to do?” He asks, and it is a mockery of a query. She would have answered, if not for the hand around her throat choking her. She would spit on his grave. “I’m going to cut you up slowly, inch by inch. I’m going to cut you into two. You’re going to die screaming.” They strap her to a medical table spread-eagled, and she is too far gone for fear. “By the time I’m through with you, you’re going to beg for death, and I will gladly give it to you.”
Her answering expletives earn her another broken finger.
“So, Rose,” he begins, and she wonders how they know her real name, and who betrayed her? How had they found her out? What had gone wrong? “I’d suggest you cooperate with us. Tell me where he is.”
Who, she wants to yell. Who? They keep asking her about him, and she doesn’t know who he is, or what they want from her, but she will not cave either way, because he must be someone crucial, critical to the Agency, and the Watchers watch but do not tell.
Her silence earns her the slice of the knife, and the pain is blinding when he slides the blade in a mockery of a lover’s caress over her torso. It is a light incision, but the meaning is clear. She has no doubt that the cuts will get deeper until she tells them what they want to know, or until she dies from blood loss. It will sooner be the latter, she swears.
“It’s such a shame, really,” he sighs, his vile breath ghosting over the bloody expanse of her exposed belly. “You’re such a pretty one. I’d hate to slice you up like that, but you know what? I think he’d hate it even more.” He leans in, close to her ear, and the heat from his breath has bile rising to her throat. “Maybe he won’t want to fuck you anymore, once I ugly you up a bit.”
He chuckles, and the sound is vicious. “That is, if you even survive. Which, I assure you, you won’t.”
The blade digs into her torso again, and she bites down hard on her bottom lip to keep from screaming. The last thing she recalls is the taste of blood in her mouth and the vague sound of a door slamming open as she slides into the welcoming arms of unconsciousness.
The long puckered line on her torso mocks her, the daily reminder of her failure and ineptitude.
Neither of them had talked about it when he saw the angry scar the first time they had sex after her assignment. They both know the hazards of their lives, and the pains that come with it. She says nothing about his restlessness, and he says nothing about her nightmares. It is an arrangement that works well for them.
The long puckered line on her torso mocks her, and she traces it lightly, watching her fingers trail across the pink scar in the mirror. His words echo in her mind, like phantoms and specters that won’t leave her alone. I was the one who brought you in. There are too many questions that weigh heavily on her tired mind.
She should find him, she supposes. To apologise. To talk things out. To draw and redraw the careful lines and boundaries of their not-quite-relationship. A shower turns off in an apartment above, and the bathroom is plunged into silence. It is too loud.
The long puckered line on her torso mocks her.
Her memories of her torture and captivity are distant, half-remembered and submerged under layers of other horrors and all the running that she does. Her mission report on her captivity and capture had been vague, brief and glossed-over in her inability to recall. It frightens her, that she can forget something like that. Something as horrible as that. As much as she needs to forget, she doesn’t want to. It makes her wonder what else she can forget.
She knows where he lives. She could go there and find him, she muses, but rejects the idea as soon as it is formed. He has never brought her to his place, and that is another line she has carefully toed. She will not ask for anything he does not freely give.
They have only one neutral ground, and that is the Agency. It is a quarter to thirteen, and she thinks she might just catch him there. She leaves the bathroom and dresses in the quiet, and sighs a little when her shirt drops to cover the vicious scar on her torso.
Her Beretta is a comforting weight on her hip.
Before she sets out to find him, she retreats to the Repository for knowledge. It does not take her long to locate her contract file, and she rifles through it for clues. She doesn’t know how he managed to be there, or why he even was there. He shouldn’t even have known where she was. There is, she is certain, something that she is missing.
The sheaf of paper in the file is the same as it was when she had compiled it. The mission details, her field notes, her surveillance photographs are all exactly as they were. It is not until she nears the end that she finds it, a starched white sheet in official font, bearing the cryptic note of Earmarked for Little Red.
The note is brief, and the four words are all that she can visibly detect on the single sheet. Mentally cataloguing it for future reference, she flips a few pages on and stumbles across an Operative report in familiar handwriting. She tries to convince herself that it is not surprise that has her hand crumpling the paper slightly beneath her fingers.
The Doctor, it reads in the box where the Operative title is required. There is an internal war waging in her as her eyes read and reread his title over and over again. She doesn’t know if she wins or loses, but her eyes drift down the page as she reads on.
His style is clipped and succinct, nothing like his usual verbal barrage of nonsense and hidden half-truths. Found Watcher, critically injured. Brought Watcher to safehouse for emergency medical aid. Visible signs of torture, injuries include four fractured ribs, seven broken fingers, multiple bruises, a dislocated shoulder, head trauma, and deep lacerations on the right torso. No signs of sexual assault. Severe blood loss resulted in loss of consciousness.
She shuts the report. Her fingers are pale against the dark green of the file, and she studies them intensely until she can breathe properly again. Seven broken fingers. The memory of snapping bones and searing pain is faint, but it lingers persistently.
She stands, and tells herself that it is the sudden rush of blood to her legs that makes her unsteady on her feet. Sliding the file back onto the shelf, she steps onto the transporter and departs the chasm that is the Repository. She has left the file behind, but the pressure around her heart tells her that she carries the ghosts of it with her.
He is in the Operative department, staring at the painting on the wall behind his desk when she finds him. His office is barely used, and the painting on the wall is the only personal artifact he has in the room. It is of the night sky, with the entirety of constellations and universes mapped out under a careful loving hand. She knows he is the painter, though he has never told her so.
A single ballpoint pen lies on the desk surface, next to a blank pad. A chipped mug lies off to one side. A blank pad and a chipped mug, she thinks, and wonders what that says about him, or if it says anything at all. She reads him like a book with whole chapters missing, well and not-well at all. He is a quiet enigma, hidden behind words and frenetic dashes. He senses her entrance, and she observes the coiling tension around his shoulders as his back remains kept to her.
She shuts the door, and exhales slowly. He turns a little at that sound, head cocked to one side, as if his curiosity has been vaguely piqued.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and tries to will him to hear the overwhelming weight of sincerity in her words. He nods once, but doesn’t say more. She stands awkwardly behind him, trying to find the right words to continue. When none come, she makes to leave.
“You’re alright?” He asks, and his voice is soft but subtly intense. She pauses, one hand on the door handle. Somewhere behind her, he moves, and she hears the faint rustle of cloth and man. His hands slide around her waist and he presses against her back, resting his chin on her shoulder. His warmth is comforting and solid. It is something she can almost believe she can hold on to.
“I am now,” she sighs, and places her hand over his on her torso.
“I’m sorry,” she repeats. He presses a kiss to her ear, and his fingers trace the outline of her scar.
“No,” he whispers. “I am.”
They lie curled into each other on cooling sheets in her apartment sometime later, slick and heady with spent passion.
They are languorous in the abating heat, drowsy and satiated and content in each other’s arms. The scent of him is everywhere, musky and special and him, and it is around her and on her. There is silence, but it is the comfortable sort, not the oppressive quiet or choking lack of sound that they are all too familiar with.
The evening sky outside is splattered with virulent reds and angry oranges, and when she holds her hands up in front of her, she fancies they are burning, bathed in the fiery colours of the setting sun. She blinks, and when she looks at her hands again, they are awash with blood. Seven broken fingers. She bolts up in bed, startling him from where he had been drawing lazy patterns on her back with a languid finger. When she checks again, her hands are pale and clean.
“Rose?” His voice is heavy with concern and something else she cannot put a name to, but it is not a main concern of hers, not now. A line drifts into her memory with startling clarity, and she doubles over as it resonates and slithers in her mind like sonorous, vicious snakes.
Maybe he won’t want to fuck you anymore, once I ugly you up a bit.
It repeats, over and over, like a broken record, or a fragment from a half-remembered dream. His hands are firm on her shoulders as he shakes her, but the ridged line that extends around her front and to her back is the only thing she can feel. It is not painful – more of a peculiar mixture of ebbing numbness and dawning realization.
“You –” She manages, before having to pause for breath. “It’s you.”
He frowns down at her, clearly confused. She wants to laugh and cry, but he will think she has gone mad, even if she has, maybe a little. “What?” He tilts her face up to study her, and she does not look away, not even when his eyes are piercing and searching on hers. “What, Rose? Tell me.”
She struggles for coherence. “They – you’re him. When they had me, they kept asking me where he was. I didn’t – I didn’t know what they meant, but I get it now. I get it. You’re him.”
He breaks the gaze, and settles back down on the pillows. She knows this routine of his, knows the way he slides on this façade of nonchalance and unaffectedness like layers of protection and distance. She balls her hands into fists in her lap, and tells herself to keep breathing.
“I know,” he says, and caresses the scar on her lower back. It is the closest she will get to an apology, because words like I’m sorry and I love you and forgive me are not words he gives voice to. She leans into his touch despite her frustrations and anger and hurt, and wonders why she keeps doing this to herself.
“Why?” She questions at length, because even if he will not answer, it doesn’t mean she cannot ask. “I don’t understand.”
His fingers trail up her spine, going over the curves and bumps of her back and across the sharp jut of her shoulder blades.
“You know the story?” He says, and it is abrupt, like the words tumbled out before he could stop them. “It’s from one of those banned books. The Talmud? Qur’an? No, that’s not it. The other one,” he pauses, and waits for her Watcher knowledge to fill the gaps.
“The Bible,” she sighs, and wonders where this is going, or if he is leading her off on another merry chase. She relaxes her hands, and tries to smooth the wrinkled sheets beneath her. The wrinkles remain, no matter how much she presses down. Life, she thinks, is mostly like that.
“Yes, right, the Bible,” he agrees. She turns her head slightly, just enough to watch him out of the corner of her eye. “It’s like that story in the Bible,” he continues, before pausing, as if in thought. When he reaches for her, she thinks he has come to some conclusion.
He sits up, and tugs her close to him. His fingers dance across her breasts and the planes of her stomach and lower, and she bites back a moan of pleasure. “Jericho.” He sucks her neck, hard enough to leave a mark. “Yes, Jericho.”
His hand cups the nape of her neck, and pulls her in for a bruising kiss. When he releases her, his eyes are dark and unfathomable.