There's a wasteland of empty mugs spread out between them, teabags congealing to the bottom like the abandoned parachutes of long-gone soldiers. The only clear space on the table is the perfect outline of their elbows, created by their restless movement as the dust circulated in the air above them.
“So...” John takes a sip of cold tea. He doesn't like the going-to-the-gallows expression on Sherlock's face. (John is the only person alive who can read Sherlock's expressions accurately. Mycroft would kill for this ability.) He takes it upon himself to be a distraction. “Is your condition the reason why you don't have sex?” He hides his grin at the resulting look on Sherlock's face behind the rim of his mug.
“Your fascination with this-”
“It's a perfectly reasonable question! I don't want to wake up one morning hearing you sniping to yourself at an unseemly hour, only to find out that's not actually what it is, but instead you managed to find a way to asexually reproduce.” (John thinks this would be the most terrifying thing to experience. It may drive a man to spontaneous combustion.) His eyes widen, and he's swept away in the excitement of crackpot theories. “Wait. Is that what Mycroft is? Did someone manage to cut your arm off and Mycroft slowly sprouted off of it, like a … secret service starfish? Or did Mycroft come first?”
“Mycroft,” Sherlock intones carefully, “is not my brother at all, though you will not find any documentation that says otherwise.”
He doesn't like this place at all. It's boring. Predictable carbon-based sapiens moving in their narrow orbits, oblivious to the most basic facts that hovered right in front of their noses.
And it's green.
He's not keen on green. They didn't have green on Gallifrey.
He forces his way through the green (chloroplast, his helpful brain supplies. Photosynthesis, light receptors-) His helpful brain doesn't stop him from being scratched across the arms from the pointed needles that he dislodges as he soldiers on. He can feel the comforting press of the TARDIS at the back of his mind, gently propelling him in the way of help. It gives him something to anchor himself to.
He's not very fond of the spin on this planet either. Gallifrey's spin was much more graceful, composed. This one had a definite tilt. It's almost unseemly, the degree of tilt it has. It throws him off balance, has him careening through the forest on pin wheeling tip-toes in an attempt to maintain his balance.
There's light beyond the crush of green, and he reaches for it with one tiny hand. He can feel the full spectrum buzz against his fingers, greet him with a rasping nudge. It pulls him in the right direction, away from the mud and far off noises of unknown animals and the green.
There's a castle, with pointed spires piercing the sky. He doesn't like it either. The stone and the walls tell him of military techniques, the likelihood of invaders making it to the keep without losing most of their forces. It fills his mind with the four-beat clang of death.
A boy sits under a large umbrella. He can feel the itch that runs up his arms once he's been spotted.
The green makes a solid wall at his back, and his TARDIS wants him to go forward. He's not so sure if he should. Can't they just go back to Gallifrey?
The boy leans forward. A shadow dances over him, covers everything except the delicate cup he holds. (He can see the structure of it, the calming predictable pattern that slightly eases the tense line of his shoulders.) “One of the lads from the village then. You've come quite a far way with no shoes.”
He comes closer. There's a table under the umbrella, with white metal chairs and a full tray of food. He moves slowly, keeping his eyes directly on the boys. His teachers told him there were signs you should look for in the eyes, cues that told you when to run or when to stay and fight.
The boy smiles. “Help yourself.” He tilts his head minutely at the selection.
He doesn't move.
The boy raises his voice slightly, just enough to ensure that it carries across the lawn. It's not Gallifreyan, and it's not the language the boy was speaking in before, but the TARDIS translates it nonetheless. “There's a homeless boy wandering the grounds. I suggest you call the authorities.”
“I'm not homeless.” he replies, perfectly pronounced in the same language the boy used. The boys eyes narrow. He steals a biscuit from the boy for his insolence.
The biscuits are alright.
They could be better.
He grabs two fistfuls, trailing crumbs across the table's pristine glass surface.
“Really.” It's another language, but the TARDIS translates it just as faithfully. “And where do you come from, then?”
He points at the overwhelming green with the hand that isn't pouring himself tea. The boy looks at the green, then in the opposite direction at the perfectly manicured grounds with the artfully arranged hedges. The boy bites his lip. He notices that his small movement has been noticed and stops. The teacup is carefully set down, the delicate clink of porcelain. “Show me.”
The green is less bothersome when the force of it is divided between two people. Him and the boy don't talk the entire time they walk. The boy is too busy trying to figure out how he got on the manor grounds and he's just too busy being brilliant. The disconnected look on his face changes when he sees what form the TARDIS has taken.
There's a maple in the center of the artificial forest (mother specifically asked for evergreens) with leaves the brightest shade of red Mycroft has ever seen. He blinks, looks away to ground himself in the idea that it is summer, not fall.
He leaves the boy where he stands, and bounds up to the tree in several over-large steps. “Are you coming?” He puts a hand on the bark of his illogical tree (feeling ridiculously proud of his ship for being so clever, to hide her special form behind something equally special and not green.) The door slides open, an exact black rectangle where the trunk used to be. He hovers, partly in and partly out, waiting for the boy.
Mycroft feels like something's just been ripped out of the world. Nature is twisting and bending to the will of a child with dirty feet. The leaves hang over the top of the doorway, pointing forever towards the sun. A crown of fire. He slowly edges his way closer, drawn by natural curiosity and the solemn look on the child's face. The leaves rustle in a light breeze he can't feel, like the rasping of paper.
“It's okay.” The child says, he holds a hand out, sticky with processed sugar. “You don't have to be afraid.”
Mycroft takes the child's hand, and he's lead inside the TARDIS.
“Then what happened?” John hasn't gotten up to make any more tea. He's not even sure if he's breathed at all in the last twenty minutes.
“I took Mycroft to see my ship. He had a minor breakdown. I propped him against the centre console with a few pillows until he remembered to blink at regular intervals.” He arranges the mugs as he talks, five of them in a circle, handles facing inwards. There are multiple circles like this, up and down the table. “Then he took me back to the manor. I still don't know what he intended to say to Mummy. I found this strange boy in the forest, may I please keep him?” Sherlock's idea of a child's voice sounds like a cat being strangled. “It didn't matter though. She took one look at the state of me and said to Mycroft: 'Look at the state of your brother! Have you been watching him at all like I told you to?' Apparently there were pictures of myself on the wall with the family, going back to my birth. I couldn't see these pictures, and neither could Mycroft.” John is frowning, but it's the light sort of frown that reflects guilt more than any other emotion. “You have a question.”
“How did you know Mycroft was just taking you to see his, your, family. He could've called the police, or the army... or whatever it is we have that deals with aliens.” He laughs, “...Homeland Security!” (John gets excited very easily.)
“I knew he wouldn't turn me in the same way that I know you won't, John.” He echoes John's smile, not the one they use while running exhilarated with the thrill of it all, but the one they use on rainy sunday mornings when no one else is around. The simple happiness that comes from brewing too many cups of tea and making fun of reality shows by the blue-tinted light of a computer screen. “There's a look in your eyes.”
John picks up one of the circles of coffee cups in a quiet domestic movement. (John is a domestic ninja. He could kill a man in a hundred different ways with a soup ladle.) He stays at the sink, wiping the stain of congealed tea from the bottom of every mug with the ball of his thumb and water. He speaks only loud enough to be heard over the rattle of the sink.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I died.” A mug is cleaned with a few expert turns of his wrist and goes onto the rack to dry. He picks up another and sets to work. “I got one shot to the shoulder, and as I was falling, another sniper hit me in the leg. It nicked my superficial femoral artery and I bled out.”
Sherlock is perfectly still. He can't remember how to blink.
“I remember screaming my squad to get under cover before they got their stupid selves shot.” (John is a hero. Sherlock knows this, not just because he's seen the medals that John hides where he thinks they won't be found.)
“There was no way they could've saved you?”
John ignores his question. “I know I died, because I couldn't feel the heat anymore. There wasn't any noise either, like someone turned the dial down on the world. But I could still see. There was a woman in the crossfire. She wasn't there before. She stood perfectly still, and the bullets went through her like they were nothing. She was... bright, like looking into the sun, trailing fire. She didn't have eyes, only spotlights. She looked at me with them, and I felt so young. I thought war made you old, but she had this expression on her face like she'd seen so much worse and a medic surrounded by bloody sand wasn't of any consequence to her. John Watson, she said to me. She was from London. What do you think you're doing? You're not allowed to die yet. And she breathed life into me. I woke up in the infirmary, with just a shoulder wound.”
“And a psychosomatic limp.”
“There wasn't any sign that I had been shot in the leg at all, but I still knew what happened to me.” John shrugs. “And that's it. You're story was much more interesting.”
Sherlock looks at John very seriously, and stretches his hands across the table. He wants to get up, get closer to John, but there's a danger in proximity. “I'm very glad you're not dead, John.”
John smiles back, not the tiny one that he uses when Donovan and Anderson are around, the minute twist of the lips. It's not the one he uses when his sister hangs up on him, where it looks like his mouth is trying to decide which direction it wants to turn in. It's one John only uses on Sherlock. (And Sherlock likes it that way.) “Thank you, Sherlock. I'm very glad you're not dead too.”
They sit in companionable silence, enjoying the closeness of the kitchen. Sherlock catalogs John's jumper collection mentally (an overall prevalence of the flying V, while a honeycomb is avoided completely) in an attempt to stop himself from blurting out completely inane things. (If Moriarty killed you, I would go back in time and rearrange your life so you would never experience any hardship. I would make sure your sister never developed alcoholism, and saved your mother from the car crash that took her life. I would make sure you were happy, because it's what you deserve. And you would live longer because you wouldn't know me.)
“I think it's clever how your space ship disguised itself as your bedroom door, by the way. I saw it earlier, but I just thought it was meant to cut down on the level of damage if a bomb went off in your room.”
Sherlock throws himself across the table, flipping his chair over in the process. John gets the vague sensation that accompanies six feet of a lanky man performing acrobatic feats and the knocking several beakers to the floor, but he doesn't get to say anything because he's being dragged into the other room. “You're brilliant, you're brilliant. Nothing works on you.” Sherlock trods on blankets and case files and Very Important Papers without a care. Sherlock throws open the first door (the laundry is still there, and John picks it up with a sigh) and brushes his fingers against the silver plate. He's still speaking, a constant stream of observations and deductions and blessings.
The door opens, and John meets the TARDIS.
She likes him. (Understatement. Of. The. Century.)
Whenever John opens a cupboard, jumpers fall out. All of the books in the library aren't Sherlock's favorites anymore, those books have been moved into the second library (which can only be reached through the wardrobe on the third floor, on Tuesdays, between the hours of noon and five) and the shelves are filled with John's instead. The drawers in the fridge are labelled VEGETABLES, MEAT, BODY PARTS (DIGITS), BODY PARTS (WHOLE), INNARDS. It's so perfect that John wants to cry.
Sherlock distracts himself with the features on the console and tells himself that his space ship is not flirting with his flatmate. (That doesn't stop him from twisting the knobs harder than necessary. She croons at him. Aren't you two cute.)
She has become Mrs. Hudson in his absence. He makes a mental note to disconnect the TARDIS' cable. (The TARDIS is rather fond of Maury, and Top Gear, but only the “challenge” bits.)
“You have a spaceship, and you just let it sit in your room all day?”
“I have no fuel, and no real desire to go anywhere.”
John throws his hands in the air. The TARDIS fills the adjoining room with argyle socks. “But you could go anywhere.”
“Where I am now is adequate.” He dodges the pillow thrown at him and hides his resulting grin from John. He's happy.
Sherlock only needs four hours of sleep. (John will testify for this, being the main perpetrator of an incident that involved a Consulting Detective and a stopwatch, that will never be mentioned. Ever. Unless you are Mycroft, and you will gladly be given a black eye for your efforts.)
Sherlock's mind doesn't believe in eating, and his stomach believes in eating strange things. (Not strange on their own, like Thai and children's cereal, but together. He makes a casserole in John's best mixing bowl out of curry and Frosties and chocolate custard and eats it at the table while John and Sarah are trying to have a nice dinner together. Sarah ended up with custard in her hair for staring. She hasn't been over to the flat since. Or answered his calls.)
Sherlock moves in strange and mysterious ways. (You may consider yourself lucky if you have a faint idea of understanding these ways. You are among the privileged few.)
Sherlock does not believe his ways are strange. (If you feel like pointing this out to him, you will be forced to turn your back to him every time he's in the same room as you. For the record: John doesn't think Sherlock's ways are strange, and thinks Anderson is a git anyway.)
John opens Sherlock's door and frowns.
“I would really prefer it if my mental breakdown were a little more obvious, please.” He only says it out loud to the flat because Sherlock isn't here to mock him for it. (Not that it would stop him from doing it anyways, but sometimes you want to be able to open your mouth without an eyebrow being raised and a sarcastic twist of the lips pointed in your direction.)
Closes the door.
Opens it again.
Nothing has changed.
Or it only looks as if nothing has changed. There's a second door set inside of the first, almost perfectly flush with the jamb of the door he already opened. (If John felt like examining further, something that Sherlock will teach him to do in time, he would see the barest gap between the second door and the wall, narrow enough to fit a letter.) The second door is completely identical to the original. He runs his fingers along it, reading in braille the experiments that Sherlock inflicted upon its surface before he arrived. It's discolored and warped and pitted to such an extent that John was surprised that Mrs. Hudson continued to let Sherlock stay here. (This had been before the gun incident. Now he has a bag always packed at the foot of his bed, for the moment she wises up and kicks them both out.)
There is no knob, only a tarnished silver plate where one should be. No key hole.
He closes the door again, feeling the wood rasp against his fingers, and lets it click shut. He sets Sherlock's pile of laundry against the door, a mound of black with the odd punctuation of color, feeling more like mum than colleague. He makes himself tea and instead of watching telly, spends five minutes praising the gods of flat share that it's only another door instead of another severed head.
Then Sherlock comes home, carrying a duffel bag that is leaking green suspiciously across the entry way and up the stairs. The resulting row they have is so spectacular that John completely forgets about asking him what he's on about with all the doors.
(In the space between the doors, lights crackle gold and blue, a borealis in the heart of London.)
Sherlock yells, the floor rumbles like a jet taking off and John flattens himself to the floor in the span of time it takes to blink.
Sherlock runs out of the kitchen, trailing smoke from his shirtsleeves. John spares a moment as he pushes himself up to wish that he had the foresight to put fire extinguishers in all of the rooms instead of just the kitchen. (Not that Sherlock would use them, because he would never use them, but so John could. And hopefully avoiding getting deeper into debt with Mrs. Hudson.) “Are you alright?”
He checks the kitchen first, and declares it a loss as he retreats back into the living room, eyes streaming. He throws all the windows he can reach wide open, fanning a hand in front of his face as the smoke stole its way across the room to the windows. “Sherlock! Are you alright?”
“Where are the plasters?” The muffled clink of plastic pill bottles falling in the sink, a curse as something much heavier falls as well. “And don't give me the ones with the kittens again. I only wore them once to humor you.”
“Is this a plaster problem or a stitches problem?” He pulls the collar of his jumper up to cover his mouth and re-enters the kitchen, breathing wool. There used to be a First-Aid kit under the sink in the bathroom, but Sherlock converted it to suit some other purpose within a week of him putting it there. The First-Aid kit under the kitchen sink is still intact, despite what appeared to be the cure for the common cold scrawled across the front in permanent marker. (Sherlock's sense of humor is very odd.)
He holds the First-Aid kit in front of him like a shield as he slowly edges into the bathroom. (Experience has taught him that Sherlock is more prone to throwing things when injured.) Sherlock has his cuffs unbuttoned and the sleeve pulled all the way up to his elbow, where the empty portion of it flaps like a broken sail. There's orange trailing down his arm, a single solitary line, all the way to his hand where it divides into minor tributaries.
“What happened?” There's a minor fight against the plastic strip that's wound all the way around the box, preserving the seal. Sherlock makes no attempt to clean the mess he created while he waits. (Sherlock does not believe in tidying.) While he peals it off, he eyeballs Sherlock's arm askance.
“A beaker. I wasn't paying proper attention to the temperature of the burner I set it on. There was a,” he hisses as John tears open an antibacterial wipe and presses it to one of the largest wounds, two inches across and shaped like an I. The orange stuff is in the cut itself, and he spares a thought for how harmful it must be to the human body. “-reaction that I wasn't quite expecting.”
“So what's this stuff then?” Some part Sherlock's sleeve that he can't see must be soaked with the orange whatever-it-is, because it keeps trailing down his arm no matter how much of it he wipes away.
Sherlock doesn't look at him directly, but rather narrows his eyes at John's reflection in the mirror. “Hmm?” John feels like he's being pinned down, analyzed. But by then his medical mind is already whirring-
“How long have you been anemic?” Sherlock continues staring at him in the mirror, inscrutable. “Before I met you, correct?” He turns Sherlocks wrists over, taking notice of the dark, protruding veins. Water was necessary. “If you have hemolytic anemia, your blood can be discolored, but it shouldn't be this bad.” Sherlock can read worry in the crease of his brow and the steadiness of his hand. “Have you seen a doctor for this? No, wait of course you haven't. Why would you, your blood is just orange, there's nothing serious about that.”
Sherlock spins him, fingers plucking at the careful weave of his sweater. “What did you say?” His hands are still on John's shoulders. (Sherlock will touch you only if he wants something from you.) John feels like he's trapped in a giant tiled lung, the way the bathroom has just constricted around them. “John.” Is it normal to not be able to breathe when your flatmate touches you?
“Your. Blood. Is. Orange.”
And he's left alone in the expanding bathroom, just like that.
“How do you know? A faulty... something? The perception filter. A perception. A different perception? How do you know? How do you know?” Sherlock stalks back and forth across their living room, gesticulating wildly. “Like Mycroft? But Mycroft couldn't tell the difference in the blood at first, I had to tell him.”
John glances out the open door, framing Sherlock perfectly in it's angles. He's currently in the mental implosion stance, hands fisted in his hair, back arched against an unseen blow. He weighs the pros and cons of following Sherlock right now, or cleaning up the bathroom then bullying him into going to the hospital. Sherlock starts ripping books off of the shelves, flinging the ones he doesn't need to the floor.
He stays in the bathroom and alphabetizes the medicine cabinet. It seems the safest route.
Sherlock slides out of thin air just as John decides it's safe enough to make a run for the kitchen. He's holding a piece of modern art in his hands, a copper tree with literal arms (as in human arms. Scary tiny miniature arms of death) that each hold a different coloured lens. He holds each lens to his eye for less than a second, the frown on his face getting deeper with each failure. “Name everything out of the ordinary that has ever happened to you.”
“I met a man named Sherlock Holmes.”
Sherlock does not look amused. (Sherlock's emotions do not operate on the same scale as everyone else.)
John forces his way past him, wool rasping against silk. “I'm going to make a cup of tea, and then we're going to go the hospital and get you looked at by a doctor.” He can hear Sherlock make a noise, somewhere between a hiss and a growl. John, in a display of genius, does not turn around. Sherlock spins him around anyway leaving his hands on John's shoulders. (Who's beginning to twitch at all this touching. Nearly four months of wanting to apologize when he sneezes in the vicinity of Sherlock's personal bubble, and now the man is all over him.)
“I'm going to show you something.” That's his only warning. And then Sherlock nearly crushes his head against his chest. (This is the closest thing John has ever gotten to a hug from him. He's certain that neither of the Holmes' do hugs.)
The first set of beats John completely misses. He's too busy forcing his brain to restart than listen to what's under his ear. His body is ramrod tense, and his hand stops shaking. When nothing happens, when Sherlock doesn't immediately push him away and make some grand deduction based on the dilation of John's pupils, he relaxes and the thud of his blood in his ears lowers enough to listen.
The human heart contains two sets of valves. (If you're curious as to what these valves look like, open the Watson-Holmes refrigerator and search the HARMLESS but mentally scarring drawer at your own discretion. Sherlock claims no responsibility for what may happen to you if you do open this drawer.)The rhythmic sounds these valves create as they snap shut to prevent the back-flow of blood is what creates the thump-thump...thump-thump sound that John has become very familiar with. John listens, already thinking about heart murmurs and punctured valves and other things that normal (boring) people would get checked out by a doctor-
“Stethoscope.” He wanders into his room to find it, listing slightly to one side, as if he's been punched. Sherlock watches him, something tight in the lines of his face. John doesn't leave his room right away once he's found it, instead he stares at the cracks in his ceiling for a while, mind full of static. He still comes back though and that should be commended, even though five minutes has gone by, and there's no stethoscope to be seen.
He presses two careful fingers to the inside of his wrist instead, and feels the precise beat against his fingertips. Sherlock lets him hold on for far longer than he would anyone else, staring, categorizing, deducing. The room is perfectly still, only the dust motes continue to move in their silent circulation. (John will leave. Not immediately, but when Sherlock goes out for a case, or to Tesco's to buy milk as an apology for his innate lack of normality. He'll come back, fingers red from the awkward grip, and the guest room will be empty. There might even be a note on the kitchen table.)
“This... is okay?”
“I was born this way, yes.” (Sherlock has two hearts.)
“And the blood is a side effect? Not anemia?”
“Yes.” (Sherlock has orange blood.)
“Well,” He plays with the ends of his sleeves, to stave off the need to force Sherlock around and see if there's an instruction manual printed on his back.
Sherlock wants to take John and lock him somewhere deep inside, somewhere quiet and dark and timeless where he'll be the only man that can get to him. Keep him from answering because answering means that leaving is the next logical step and he wants the Age of When Sherlock Actually Had A Friend to last as long as possible.
“That's good. That's... good.” He smiles, skin crinkling at the corner of his eyes, willing to chalk this and so many other things to just being Sherlock. “Do you want some of that tea I was going to make?”
(Sherlock is an alien. Of sorts.)
(And John thinks that's fine.)
Summary: Daniel looks at her finally, light injected into his cornea as he turns his head, turning his normal brown into a color she can't name. "You see him too?" A ghost story.
Daniel stares in shock, one foot barely over the threshold, so full of panic and shock that the feeling was tossed backwards in time, trying to find the someone that had felt like this once. “…is that you?” The blue light coalescing at the corner of his vision wasn’t a sign of an approaching swoon, but rather the remnants of a memory that didn’t belong to him.
His mental illness looks back at him and stares for a long moment, like it’s trying to reacquaint itself with something long forgotten. The clock (an owl, painted in varying shades of white and grey. Wide amber eyes.) ticks on. When it reaches forty-two the illness points.
Daniel can feel the warmth slide down his face instantly. He reaches up, suddenly slo-motion man [why can’t he move faster?] when a drop lands in his palm. Perfectly spherical. A dot. A Period. The end. He changes the angle of his head slowly, gravity obediently doing its work. The period grows a tail, curves, becomes a comma.
[He died, and then-]
How long does it take for a nosebleed to reach your chin?
Too long, he thinks. Too long for him not to notice. Get a grip.
The illness repeats it a second later. Get a grip. Get a grip.
Laurie comes home hours later, voice raised as she walks through the door. Complaining about traffic, life in a city redecorated in purple tones, and why did everyone decide to dye their hair blonde all of a sudden?
She’s not looking up when she enters the living room; too busy looking for something in her purse-
She looks up-
Drops the purse.
Daniel doesn’t like the bag. The color’s too deep, too real. He told her that the designer must be a mass murderer when she got it, in order to get a color so accurate. Reminded, he looks at the tissue he pressed to his nose. It’s sodden all of the way through, staining his fingers red.
Laurie wants to tell him that he’s the one who looks more like a ghost right now. Slumped in a threadbare easy chair, New York sunset slipping through a gap in the curtains, turning him into something pale but making sure that the tissue in his hand glows red in the light.
Daniel looks at her finally, light injected into his cornea as he turns his head, turning his normal brown into a color she can’t name. “You see him too?”
Rorschach crouches on the mismatched arm of the couch, solid in the darkness,
Laurie wonders, detachedly with the part of her mind that isn’t screaming, what would happen if he stepped into the light. Would the light lance through him or would he swallow it whole? “Holy…fuck.”
No one cares when he quits his job at the garment factory. There are false smiles, lingering pats on the back when there were never any there before, even falser oaths: We’ll miss you. He’s happy to leave. Always been an oddity to them, chose the darkest corner to work in, arranged racks full of clothing around his station like colorful fortress walls. Kept his head down, never let them draw him in when they talked about their drugs and their whores, ignoring the way his brow creases and bunches against his will.
He leaves, carrying a piece of Kitty Genovese with him.
He watches the man put his clothes in the dryer. Jeans with fraying hem, plain t-shirts with holes where moths bit through. The man is studied, pieces disassembled and returned in perfect working order. Short hair cut, longer stubble; grey-black tint that clings to his fingers like fog on a window pane, darker at the nail. Mechanic. A collection of mismatched socks.
Bachelor, he thinks. A band of skin, lighter than the rest. Or divorcee.
Walter lowers his eyes just before the divorced mechanic turns around, the short hair on the back of his neck sensing eyes. He rearranges the desk, shuffling pens and scraps of paper back and forth. You had to maintain the right balance at a Laundromat. If you sat with a book, content to let fabric softener-scented life pass you by, you were likely to get robbed. People like to take advantage of the careless. If you were alert, ruled the washer-dryer combo kingdom with an iron fist, no one would visit. People don’t like to be watched while they’re washing their unmentionables. Walter treads the fine line of Laundromat Diplomacy, stealing pens as he goes.
Another walks in, followed closely by a pack of teenagers covered in mud kicking a ball back and forth. He’s forced to choose which to focus the brunt of his attention on; the quiet man with the large glasses and NYU scarf [student] or the howling demons undressing themselves in broad daylight.
Their shadows; punctuated by mud, is all that’s left of them once Walter throws them out. The stained soccer ball is left behind, bouncing around in the washer on Super-Fast, forgotten in lieu of bigger and better illegal things. He doesn’t take it out right away. He likes the effect, swirling black and white, full of constant motion and kinetic fury. It reminds him of the cloth he stole from the garment factory and its gradual rebirth into something new.
Walter pulls his eyes away. It’s the college student, adjusting his glasses and shifting from side-to-side. Self-conscious, it must mean. Or impatient. He doesn’t speak, just waits in a growing awkward silence until the student in forced to cave. The man doesn’t realize he’s being measured.
The smile, which was once real and honest [and makes Walter think that this man must leave the city as soon as possible because there is no way he can last] falters. Half of it dies, the muscles succumbing to the scrutiny. The man points over his shoulder to the row of washers he had been using while Walter had a minor war with his band of unruly teenagers. “The washer door is stuck.”
Walter is considering taking the lid off altogether. It’s not like the washer is his. He has no personal investment in the machine. He frowns, mistaken by the student for frustration, thinking about destruction of private property and whether that should be on his No-No List of Vigilante Justice. It would fit right up there with drug trafficking and child molesters. He pries the forked end of the hammer under the lip of the metal door. There’s a squeal as he leans away from the washer, pulling the hammer toward him. There’ll be marks left behind.
He can see the student in the convex door of the machine. Calmly waiting, hands in his pocket. He stretches and Walter can see a definition of muscle that he didn’t notice before. He stops pulling on the hammer and settles into a normal stance. The student is instantly on alert. “Can you pull on the handle while I do this?” The handle is shifted up a few inches to make way for a pair of hands.
Hands that are raw at the knuckle, layers of callus just beginning to form. Boxing? Knuckles whiten as they begin to pull. The squealing gets louder. He can see a line of discoloration on the skin, punctuated with neat stitches, even deeper discoloration beneath. The beginning stitches are terrible, paced unevenly and placed at inward angles. They get better as they go downwards, becoming more regimented. Just like that, he knows.
The door flies open under the torture, expelling a pair of jeans and several socks.
Walter takes a glance inside while the student picks up his clothes. He picks out an odd shape; cylindrical but thin, meant to be worn on the arm. Matte metal triangles like shark fins sewn on poorly. Gauntlet. He looks away. The student has located his errant sock, underneath a long Formica bench. He slaps it on his thigh to get off the worst of the dust bunnies and extends a hand.
“Thanks for the help. Name’s Dan.”
Walter shakes it, feeling the smaller cuts on the inside on Dan’s palm, the ones he couldn’t see earlier. Self-defense marks. Hands raised to stop a rain of blows, the passage of a knife. Willing to sacrifice your hands for the safety of the rest of your body. He wants to tell him to stop, that his eyes are too kind, too open. He’s not the type meant to scuttle down an alley at four in the morning, hand clenched to your ribs, near screaming at the pain and unable to make a sound because if you do they’ll find you all over again. But he doesn’t say any of this. He doesn’t even say his name.
It’d be nice to have someone else around. Someone at his back so his hands could be used for more useful things instead of stemming the blood flow.
Angelo is hiding under her bed and he won’t come out.
Rinoa is kneeling on the floor next to him, holding an arm under the bed and cooing, but the dog doesn’t move. There’s lots of dust under the bed, Rinoa isn’t that up to date on such things as they tend to be pushed aside and forgotten for better things, and it’s starting to irritate her arm.
Rinoa pulls her arm out from under the bed, unearthing a legion of dust bunnies in the process. She watches them skitter across the floor in the slight breeze the overhead fan makes and sits up.
(Need to leave soon.)
“I know. But I’m not leaving Angelo here alone.”
(You’ll miss your flight.)
“Don’t worry about it mom!” Rinoa teased, tapping out a beat on her knees. The tapping grew longer as her smile shrunk. “…do you think they’ll like me?”
(They liked you before. They’ll like you now.)
“But things here aren’t the same as they were in the other worlds. We’re different people here. This is the farthest we’ve been from the main plotline in ages!”
(All of the Guardian Forces stay the same. We’ll make sure that they remember.) There was a constant background of whistles and trills as she spoke, the slow rise and descent of the harp, and the comforting lap of the sea.
Rinoa nodded. “I guess.” She worried her lip between her teeth and fidgeted, every loose thread clinging to her pants was found and pulled. Every stray piece of lint squashed.
“…Do you think they’ll like me?”
A sigh like the morning wind grasping the waves. (They’ve followed you through every parallel reality, they’ve lived and died by your side. They’ve avenged you when you fell and killed you when you became too powerful to control yourself.)
(…They’ll like you.)
Rinoa nodded. “Right. What was I thinking?” She laughed suddenly, and anxiety extracted its claws from her stomach. “That’s how it always worked before, why should this time be any different?”
She pushed herself off of the floor and nodded at the floor-length mirror screwed into the wall next to her door. The girl who smiled back at her was blonde and fey, the two wings that protruded from the side of her head were held regally, fanned out in an invisible air current. Pale arms hovered mere centimeters above her own, as insubstantial as smoke.
She spun on her heel and stared at Angelo, who just decided that it was safe enough to emerge from under the bed. “Angelo, it’s time to get in the crate.”
Arms akimbo with that ferocious smile on her face that made her look more coy than plotting, Angelo knew she meant business.