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Ashes of Eden: After the Fall (asterin)

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Offline Reigning King

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He was in the forest.  It was always the forest.  Hiding within the remains of what might have once been a hunting cabin, he crouched low holding a swaddled bundle tight to his chest.  She was a quiet baby.  Quiet and easy.  If he started running with her though, she would fuss and eventually cry.  In this forest, each tiny snap of a twig bounced off her trees and many sisters, echoing for miles.  They were close, but he couldn’t risk it.  So instead, he hid.  It wasn’t too hard for him, since he’d been hiding his entire life.  From himself, that is.  In all his long years spent on God’s creation, there had only ever been one person who had seen that part of him, the one he hid from.  This little life to which he held so tightly however, was the only one for whom he had ever permitted that part of himself to step out from the shadows. 

They were getting closer, their voices getting louder.  The dim orb of a flashlight would touch on the spaces around them periodically, never finding them but getting too close for comfort.  The precious cargo within his arms wiggled, but only to find enough room to curl herself further into her father’s broad chest.  Looking down at her, he rocked back and forth slightly as the panic began to rise, words coming to him from within the forest like alarm bells. 

“You two, check those ruins over there and circle back…” came the command. 

“Oh, Hell…” came the whispered curse, muttered as the feet beneath him began to move, rising from his crouched position on cautious steps.  “We gotta’ run, baby.” He whispered to the life he had stolen, the one he had made, the only life that meant anything to him anymore. 

“I’m sorry, we gotta’ run…”



When Solomon opened his eyes, blinking into the pale glow of the morning sun, he had to take a minute and remind himself of where he was. For the past five and half years, it was always the same.  He dragged a hand across his face, pulling the sweat from his brow into his shaggy brown beard.  Laying flat on his back, he stared at the broken ceiling above him as the heavy rise and fall of his chest began to slow and he could catch his breath.   At least on this particular morning, he hadn’t woken up screaming.   Usually, that was a sign that this day would be one of his better days since he had first been thrust out into the in-between.  With a final stretch and sigh, he sat up and swung his legs to the edge of his humble cot. 

“Morning.” Said the woman who sat across from him.  Judging by how settled she looked lounging in a splintering wooden chair, she had been watching him for some time. 

“Good morning.” He said in return, pulling aside the scratchy sheets and rising from the side of his humble bed.  She did this every morning when they happened upon each other. For the past few days, she had been gone.  Business in Taddai, apparently.  Of course, the first chance she got upon her return, she had made every effort to restore their little ritual. 

“You know, you talk in your sleep.” She told him. 

“So you’ve told me, Cam.” Sol replied in a grumpy voice as he reached for the clothes lying in wait nearby.  Looking over his shoulder at her, he added, “could I have some privacy?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” She quipped in return, standing from where she was perched and striding towards him.  One of many tin cans they had recycled into mugs in hand, she offered him a playful grin that wasn’t matched by her stern, dark eyes. Cambria looked good for her age, but she had the sort of smooth olive complexion that remained timeless even as the years wove strands of grey into her black locks and etched lines in the corners of her eyes.

She offered Sol the tin, warm rich-smells rising from the steam, and he reached for it in turn.  As he did so, she took the opportunity to snatch his tatty shirt from his hand and toss it onto the floor as she turned from him.  “Wear something nicer.” Cam instructed firmly over her shoulder.  “She’s coming today.” With those words she left Sol alone in his barren, crumbling room. 

When he once again set the tin down upon another surface, it was one cluttered with papers.  Fully clothed, in some of his best from his limited collection, he sat beneath the warm rays of sunlight from the broken roof overhead in the shop.  At least, that’s what they had started calling it.  Workroom, perhaps, may have been a more fitting title.  Really, it was just the only room in the place that wasn’t on the verge of caving in.  To be fair though, they hadn’t been hiding out in this particular corner of their small world for very long.  Though certainly, this one had been here much longer than any of that new, strange world.

He arranged the documents before him, pushing some aside and bringing others closer as he prepared himself for his work.  The latest supply of ink that they’d procured didn’t stick for too long.  With all the handling these pages endured, moving from one location to the next, candlelight wouldn’t do.  Sol did his work during the day with the sunlight which left him to do his chores in the night.  Needless to say, Sol didn’t sleep much.  Thus it was with one lazy hand that he rubbed at his tired eyes while the other reached for the tin of warm liquid, an acquired taste but one that had grown on him.  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and resisted the urge to then wipe that hand upon his nicest shirt.  Which is to say, the shirt with the least stains and fewest holes.  He had barely gotten started when, right on schedule, his unwelcome student came rushing into the room, pulling up a chair. 

“What cha’ doin’?” He asked. 

“Go away, Egan.” Sol answered grumpily. 

“How many more of these are you gonna’ draw up?” The blond-haired annoyance inquired further anyways. 

“As many as I need to.” He replied with a sigh. 

“You need me to let the boys know you want more ink?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, same guy?”

“No, different guy.  This stuff is watered down.”

“Why would they water it down?”

“So they can sell more of it.”

“Well, that’s not fair.”

“You’re right, so why don’t you go tell them that?”

“I will, just as soon as you tell me what you’re doing.”

Taking a deep breath, Sol leaned back in his chair and turned his gaze at last to the boy sitting beside him.  He looked up at him with wide eyes, his ever present grin stretched across his face.  The foolish thing liked to think of himself as a man, but he was still just a boy.  Pressing his lips into a hard line, Sol fought against the frustration brewing within him.  Egan had been particularly attached to Sol from the first.  Whether he saw him as an older brother or a mentor, he had never cared to ask. 

“Okay, I’m going to tell you and then you’re going away.  Deal?” Sol proposed. 

“Deal.” Egan agreed. 

“I’m reviewing the plans to account for variables.”

“What variables?” The next question came, though not from Egan.  Cambria stood in the broken doorway of the room, leaning with one shoulder against the wall and her arms crossed over her chest.  At her mere presence, Egan’s smile softened into something less cheerful.  Unlike Sol, he was meant to be doing chores at this hour.  “This is the part where you leave, kid.” She informed the young man, who nodded at once and left the older man at whose side he had been sitting.  Egan scurried from the room and she watched him go in silence before turning her dark gaze back to Sol, walking towards him. 


“May I sit?” Cambria asked, though she didn’t bother to wait for an answer before taking the seat that Egan had been occupying.  It was all part of their little game, the joke they had been telling one another for years. 

Good morning.

Good evening.

May I sit?

Excuse me.

They were habits that Solomon had yet to grow out of.  Simple, commonplace phrases all used by the people where he had grown up.  For Cambria however, they were hilarious curiosities.  After so many years of this back and forth, she had started uttering them with just a little less irony.  Polite pleasantries aside, she wasted no time propping her elbow on the table and focusing her intense gaze on Solomon. 

“What variables?” She asked again.

“We used to update the Centers every few weeks.  There may be changes that I haven’t considered.”  He explained. 

“You’re going to drive yourself crazy trying to make everything perfect.” She told him.  “Nothing ever really goes according to plan, you know that.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sol replied glumly, looking back to the maps and notes before him. 

“Finish up what you’re doing and run a comb through your hair.” She told him as she rose from her seat, as quickly and effortlessly as when she had first sat down.  “The shipment is arriving a few hours ahead of schedule.”

“Ahead?” He repeated, suddenly feeling compelled to rise from his own seat as well.

“She’s the best for a reason, Sol.” Cambria pointed out as she began to leave the room the same way she entered.  “Don’t be too long.”

He found her again near the main hall, talking with Dru and Niles.  When they saw him approaching, they hushed and cast glances towards one another filled with unspoken sentiments.  It was enough for Sol to know they had been talking about him.  Not everyone in the Second Sons approved of Solomon’s involvement in this particular mission, or any mission at all for that matter.  Dru seemed to like him enough and Cambria had certainly taken up for him on more than one occasion. Niles and Max however, the latter of whom was decidedly absent, didn’t seem to care much for Solomon Zakh.  Not that it bothered him much.  He could understand why they would be reluctant to trust a traitor wanted for treason. 

“You straight?” Dru asked, nodding at Sol as he stopped among them. 

“Yeah,” he answered quietly. 

“I know you got a history with this chick but, I gotta’ tell ya’, I’ve done business with her before and she’s a real head case.” Dru informed him, putting a hand on Sol’s shoulder as the group walked towards the loading bay.  They had been hiding out in what had once been an impressive cargo ship.  Left abandoned in a port, it had withered and crumbled over time along with the docks that surrounded it.  Though it would never again be able to roar to life and pull out from the shore, it offered a defensible point and a quick escape route if necessary. 

“You made a pass and she sent you back with a black eye,” Cambria reminded Dru, ever that perfect blend of playful and cruel.  “That doesn’t make her crazy, it makes you ugly.”

“I’m fine,” Sol said quietly, shrugging off Dru’s hand.   

“Just keep your mouth shut and let us do the talking.” Niles grunted the order as he brushed his way past Sol, making sure that of the four, he would be the first to enter and Solomon the last.

“Honestly, how many of you does it take to count a simple drop?” Came the familiar voice from the loading bay. 

“Oh, we have no doubt it’s all there.” Cambria chorused back.  “How ya’ been?” She asked in that mocking tone she took, the one where you could hear the cat-like grin in her voice.  “Long time no see.” She added, stopping before the smuggler and the crates at her feet, crossing her arms over her chest. 

“Look we got another job for you,” Niles interjected, coming to stand before the independent operative they had almost once called a comrade.  “Lotta’ units.  I’m talking enough to take a few years off instead of months.”

Dru and Solomon were the last to come stand among the others.  He stood near Cambria, keeping himself out of the way and removed for the time being.  At least, that was how Niles had planned it anyways.  Shifting his weight from one leg to the other, Sol scratched at his beard nervously.  In another life, he had made a habit out of scratching at his jaw.  He had never kept a beard in those days. 

“You interested?” Niles asked, but the smuggler wasn’t listening. 

Sol lifted his green eyes from the floor to find wide brown ones looking back at him.  The smuggler was watching him intently, her lips parted, a stumbled step carrying her a single pace in his direction.  Something angry seemed to flash across her face for a moment before the spell seemed to break.  Once more she was the picture of a stoic, hardened smuggler. 

“Hey, Sparrow.” Solomon said to his old friend. 

“Hey, Sol.” She said back.  “Looks like you lasted longer than a day, huh?” And he had no words that he could possibly conjure to fill the heavy silence that followed. 

“Let’s go talk business.” Cambria suggested, interrupting the moment to step up and swing an arm casually around Sol’s shoulders.  “What do you say?”

King Kade - Reigning from the North


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Offline asterin

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“Did you ever look back? Y’know, as you were leaving?” Liv had asked one night, after they had downed an entire bottle of Glow on their own. The two young women had been laying sprawled against the half-crumbled concrete roof, gazing up aimlessly at the round moon hung in the sky, the very namesake of the substance they’d indulged in. Liv had never seen the inside of Eden, a firstborn of the wastes, and she liked to ask about the city at the heart of their known world whenever she could weasel an answer out of her.

“Just once,” she’d answered, and though her response was hardly descriptive, if she had been sober, she would have never admitted to doing so.

“And? What’d you think?”

“I don’t remember,” she had returned.

At once, Liv had let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Yeah, right. As if you could forget something as big as your own escape from Eden.”

Slouching against the wall alone, she clutched the dented flask as she took a final swig of the same clear spirit. It burned in her throat, sliding down to nestle in her gut, so hot it felt cold--the typical taste of Moonglow she’d become accustomed to over the years. She tucked the empty silver flask away, kicking off her unlaced boots as she ignored the ruckus going on in the floor below. The sun was just setting outside the grainy window, but no inn in Yehudah bothered to wait until nightfall to begin the drunken revelry, gambling, and fights. Unlike the rest of the population, however, she intended on getting as much sleep as she could before midnight, when she would be heading out to collect. The best and worst ideas always came at nighttime; that was just how it’d always been for her.

It hadn’t been any different the night she’d made up her mind, wide awake in the dark, frozen stiff as she listened to her jailer breathe beside her. Not a single ounce of hesitation had been in her heart in that moment. If anything, such a decision had been a long time coming. From the very instant she’d stepped foot into Eden, the only thing she’d ever thought about was fleeing it and somehow making it back home. Every night in that terribly white ward, hidden deep under white, white sheets, she’d promised herself she’d find a way. Survive and get out--that’d been her singular goal. For that, she’d learned to lie well enough when they ran her through those tired questionnaires, and when that day had come at the end of their time in that wretched place, she had been the first to march up, arm bared and unafraid, because she’d known there was no other way. When it came to her freedom, she’d told herself that she’d never falter, that she’d leave the wretched place behind gladly, without a single regret.

Liv had been right, of course. There wasn’t a moment of her escape she didn’t remember in clear detail, but nothing had stuck as clearly in her mind as that moment. Dawn had broken as she had been ushered away by the pair of men the Second Sons had sent for her, the morning fog slowly beginning to dissipate from the air. Every limb of hers was close to buckling, having crept and run throughout the night to reach the rendezvous point, while her mind had buzzed restlessly even as it grew numb. One had stooped to boost her up onto the great metal truck, more monstrosity than vehicle. Hurry, they’d urged her. We need to leave, now.

Her freedom was here, just a step away, and yet that was when something in her had stopped short, and she had turned to look behind her, a traitorous part of her longing for one last glimpse of what she was leaving--of who she was leaving--and in that very instant she had never hated herself more. It’d been a stupid thing to do, of course; all she had seen was the looming shape of the walls through the thick white fog. She couldn’t have expected to see the steeple between their houses, the rooftop they’d called their own, nor would he have materialized on top of the walls with his remorseful green eyes--and yet, perhaps a part of her had hoped. Perhaps a treacherous corner of her heart had--for a brief time--thought of this false paradise as home. Perhaps he had been home.

Did you ever look back?

Just once, she’d said, but that too might’ve been a lie. She had only turned to look back once in that moment, but in the many years afterward, she found herself turning, again and again--on sleepless nights, at the sound of a laugh like twanged like his, at a pair of eyes as green as his had been, even in the oddest moments. Even now, as she sat alone on the ragged mattress, staring out into the emptiness of the dingy room, the thick white fog was already starting to roll in, transporting her to a dead moment a decade prior.

Once more, she turned.




*************

It was still morning when she pulled into the quiet little strip of water next to the wreckage of a giant cargo ship--two and a half hours ahead of schedule, which was something even she could be pleased with. She let out a quiet grunt as she leapt from her motorboat to dry land, rope in hand. As she tied it off to the rusting metal pole with nimble fingers, the two young men who were posted to the loading bay came out, shielding their eyes against the morning rays. She gave them a curt nod in greeting, wasting no time in leading the effort of unloading the wooden crates that were carefully stacked and tied down underneath a layer of tarp and lugging them to the loading bay floor.

The three of them had just managed to unload everything when she heard the sound of footsteps approaching--not just one or two people, as it typical was, but more. Four? Five? “Honestly, how many of you does it take to count a simple drop?” she called as she turned to greet the group, taking out a folded piece of paper from her jacket and offering it to Cambria.

“Oh, we have no doubt it’s all there,” she immediately answered, waving the note away. Her trust wasn’t all that surprising. This was hardly her first time working with them, and out of the many smugglers operating throughout the cities and the wilds between, she was one who took pride in making sure every detail was correct. Still, the smuggler then turned to Niles, handing him the list of goods she had procured. She didn’t like to leave margins for suspicion, after all. “How ya’ been? Long time no see,” the woman continued, as if she was greeting an old friend.

“Been keeping myself busy,” she answered nonchalantly. “I expect you all have been well, too.” It’d been three months since she’d last made a drop for the Second Sons, which was fairly average for the kind of work they asked of her--typically weapons, medical supplies, and some other handful of oddities.

“Look, we got another job for you,” Niles steered the conversation, taking a meaningful step in her direction. She could always count on him to cut through social niceties--something she didn’t dislike. “Lotta units. I’m talking enough to take a few years off instead of months.”

She said nothing, only lifting a brow in response. A lot of units naturally meant a lot of danger. Not that it was something she balked at, danger--after all, that was where she made her trade. She didn’t bother working day in and day out, competing with all the smugglers scrounging about. No, she had carved out a niche and reputation for herself by doing things others wouldn’t think of, and charging accordingly. However, just from the way she was being approached, she could already tell this was going to be bigger than anything else they’d asked of her. Never before had they come to her as a posse. All the leaders of the Second Sons were gathered here, except Max. Instead, there was someone she didn’t know, partly hidden behind Dru. A new member, perhaps? Just as her gaze began to rove back towards Niles, a little gesture stopped her cold.

It was such a meaningless thing. Scratching his beard, that’s all he’d done. But that stance, that nervous shift from foot to foot as he touched his chin--well, it was familiar. No, that wasn’t the only thing familiar about him. Something lurched within her, her heart dropping like a stone into the bottom of her gut. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be…

Niles’ voice came again, the words blurred and far away, but at that, the ghost lifted his head, meeting her gaze with those green eyes. A dream? A hallucination? No. His face wasn’t as she’d remembered it. Along with the beard, a certain rugged weariness that hadn’t ever existed in his features before had settled in. He was here, outside his precious Eden...ten years too late.

Five years ago, she would have angrily demanded what the fuck he was doing here. Eight years ago, she would have shoved him, maybe even punched him. But now, a decade since they’d last seen each other, she did neither. It was surprising what time did.

“Hey, Sparrow,” he offered, as if they’d just run into each other in the classroom.

“Hey, Sol,” she retorted, and even she was surprised at how calm she sounded, despite the tightness in her jaw. She could’ve left it there, but she couldn't help but continue, something bitterly amused buried in her tone. “Looks like you lasted longer than a day, huh?”

I wouldn’t last a day out there, he’d said, turning his gaze away from her angry tears.

He said nothing. Neither did she, though she refused to look away. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife when Cam jumped in, trying to salvage the conversation and lead it back to its rightful track.

“Let’s go talk business. What do you say?” she cajoled, offering her a smile. There was a beat, and the young woman tore her gaze from her old friend’s, surveying the room instead.

“Alright then.”

She was silent as the group escorted her off to what she assumed was Max’s office--she hadn’t had a reason to be taken to his office after they’d moved bases. Once inside, the man offered her a curt greeting, one she returned with a simple nod of the head. Max was something of an asshole, but after she’d left the Second Sons to make her own way, it was a quality she no longer saw as only bad. After all, if he didn’t bother to be nice, it meant she didn’t have to, either.




“The job?” she prompted, to which he leant forward in his seat, steepling his fingers together.

“We need you to help us infiltrate a city to retrieve some cargo,” he explained, and she rolled her eyes. What, was he trying to explain to her what her job description was? Cagey as ever, it seemed.

“Which city, what cargo?” she tossed back.

“Eden,” he intoned, meeting her gaze intently. “The children in the Tithe Center.”

Immediately, she let out a scoffing laugh. “You must be joking,” she shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest as she shifted her weight to one side. “It’s bad enough that you presumably want me to smuggle in a whole squad of your men, but you want me to make it so you can take at least dozens of children back out with you?”

“We’ve got a plan of attack,” he continued, seeming unshaken by her dismissive attitude. “We have maps. Points of security. The works. We just need to borrow your expertise for the final step.”

“And how do you know that this information is viable?” she demanded. There was no way she was heading into such a risky operation just trusting that they had everything worked out.

“Oh, it’s viable,” Cambria chimed in with a knowing look, a hand at Sol’s shoulder, and at once she understood. So that’s what it was.

“Let me see them, then.”

“You know we can’t do that before you agree,” Max snorted. “In or out?”

“How much?” she asked.

“Two hundred thousand units.” Came the answer.

“Four,” she countered without missing a beat.

This time, it was Max and Niles who burst into laughter, long and scornful. “Do you think we’re going to make an exception for you?” Max leant back in the tattered chair, clearly believing that he had the upper hand here. “Just because you used to be one of us doesn’t mean--”

“No, I’m the one making exceptions here,” she cut him off, her expression impassive as her voice. “You know my rules. No people. No kids.”

“You know that’s not what we’re doing here.”

“Isn’t it?” she challenged, a ghost of a mocking smile hovering above her lips. Max knew better than to get roped into that old argument again, however.

“Two hundred fifty,” he offered, his expression hard. “Take it or leave it, Ava, I’m not interested in games.”

“Mm,” she hummed airly, giving them a small shrug. “Well, you’ll have to find another smuggler to get you into Eden, then.” Leaving an unspoken ‘good luck with that,’ she turned on her heel to walk off, only to have Cambria block her way.

“Now, now,” the older woman began, her hands spread coaxingly. She was smart enough not to try and grab her by the arm--a mistake Dru had once made while trying to proposition her. “Let’s not be hasty. You must be tired, traveling all the way from Yehudah overnight. Why don’t you get some food and shuteye? The room from last time is available.”

For a moment she was silent, but at least she released a weary sigh, nodding in agreement. They wouldn’t let her go like this, she knew. Max said he didn’t like playing games, but this, this was part of the game.

“Let me show you,” Dru piped up, blind to the way both women rolled their eyes.

“I remember the way,” the smuggler said, brushing past them without sparing them another glance--especially him.

“I’ll have some grub brought to you in a bit!” Cambria’s chipper voice followed her as she walked off, soon accompanied by Niles’ hissed words of I told you it was a bad idea to have him here.

Yes, she thought. It was.

It didn’t take her long to find the spare room she had rested in once before--she’d always had a keen sense of direction, and over the years it had become one of her most useful assets. It was a simple room, of course, bare except for a thin mattress on the floor and an age-spotted mirror in the corner. She regarded her reflection in the glass, wondering if she too had changed in appearance as much as he had. It was hard to tell when it was yourself, after all. Even though she could only guess at the physical changes Sol might have noticed, she knew that on the inside, anyway, she had changed.


She had changed, so why did everything inside her still burn at the thought of him? Letting herself fall onto the mattress, she stared up at the cracks in the ceiling. Sol. Here. A defector. How long? But most importantly--why? Why now?

...Why now, and not then?

She uttered a sound, half laugh, half scoff.

God, she sounded insipid.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there, thinking of nothing and everything. Cam had mentioned sleep, but sleep was the last thing she could think of at the moment when everything in her head was swirling and churning. Still, she immediately picked up on the presence of a person hesitating at the door. “Just come in,” she intoned matter-of-factly. “I know you’re there.”
« Last Edit: August 19, 2020, 10:36:12 PM by asterin »
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Offline Reigning King

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“Just come in,” her voice came from the other side of the door.  “I know you’re there.”

Looking down at the humble meal he held in his hands, Solomon squeezed his knuckles white against the tray, finding the courage to push open that door.  He was afraid to see her.  He was afraid to see that angry, bitter look in her sharp eyes.  There had been a time once, when he would have given anything to have her look his way.  Now, he feared that stare and the guilt that would pierce him through at the sight of it.  The years had changed him and he wasn’t that same scared little boy anymore.  Then again, he didn’t really know who he was at all anymore.  In spite of himself, he pushed away the thought as he pushed open the door and stepped inside the simple room.  She had been lounging on the mattress in the middle of the floor, but when her gaze fell from the ceiling to the man who had disturbed her peace, she found her feet. 

“Something to eat,” he explained quietly, holding out the tray he had brought her.  When she made no move to take it, he pulled a nervous face and stepped forward to place it on the floor before her.  Giving the simple spread a little kick in her direction he righted himself and backed away, putting more space between them in the heavy tension that swallowed the room. 

“You’re a tough sell.” Solomon said to her as he stepped around the humble space that had been provided for her.  “I guess, I shouldn’t be surprised.” He noted as he moved to the window, his fingertips coming to its broken ledge.  “You’re the best for a reason, right?” Hands found their way into the pockets of his utilitarian trousers as he leaned up against the creaking fixture, his long legs stretched out in front of him.  He had kept his green eyes on the ends of his boots, afraid to meet the gaze that had once been his favourite sight.  When he did finally look up, he wasn’t surprised to see her looking straight at him.  She was always the braver of the two. 

“Do you want to know?” Sol asked her in a quiet voice.  “How I got here, what happened... do you want to know?”

The Sparrow didn’t answer him.  Instead the smuggler squared her shoulders to him and crossed her arms over her chest in a way that reminded Solomon of Cambria.  It was as much as an invitation as he was ever likely to get.  Again, he found himself shying away from her penetrating stare, looking to the floor beneath his feet.  In a voice that sounded a little more steady he began, “I got assigned to the Tithe Center.”

“They wanted me to oversee the design and construction of a new wing,” he went on.  “It was a promotion but…” Sol paused for a moment, eyes going everywhere but to the woman in front of him as one hand slipped out of its pocket and reached absently for the collar of his shirt. 

“I had to design the testing labs for the Gifts and the disposal shoots for the Lambs… five feet long, just enough to fit their little bodies…” His fingers had found the chain around his neck, pulling out the crucifix hanging from it.  The gaze that had been looking out the window to a distant point on the horizon curled down to the cross, twilight glinting off its surface. 

“It’s nothing like they tell us it is in Sunday service.  It’s not beautiful.  It’s not poetic.” Finally, he found the strength to once more meet her hard stare.  “But you already knew that.”

“They gave me a pretty high security clearance for the project and I had access to a lot of files.  I asked too many of the wrong people the right questions and they charged me with blasphemy and banished me.” The words came out rushed now, eager to reach their conclusion.  He had let the crucifix fall against his chest as his hands pushed him off the window’s ledge, feet taking slow steps to close the space between himself and the woman he had once loved. 

“Look, I’m not going to tell you that I’m sorry, because I know it wouldn’t mean a damn thing.” Solomon stopped before her, his Sparrow, letting the green and brown of their respective eyes collide violently.  “But for what it’s worth, you were right.” He told her.  “About everything.”

Whatever it was that she wanted to hear, that wasn’t it.  The smuggler started towards the door and Sol didn’t move to follow her but instead watched her for a time before calling out to her, his words making her stop suddenly in place.  “I know where your parents are, Sparrow.” At first, she didn’t move.  It didn’t even look like she was breathing.   

“Those files I mentioned, I found yours.” Solomon said.  In that moment, she turned to him at last but found herself once more rooted in place by the next thing that fell from her old friend’s lips. 

“You take this job and help the Second Sons see it through and I’ll take you to them myself.” Though it took all his strength, he held her stare with his own.  Here was not the man she once knew.  He had lost his family, his life, his God.  All the things that made up Solomon Zakh, son of Benjamin, were stolen from him. In their place, stood only a shadow of the person he had been.  He had a new cause now and just like it had been nearly ten years ago, he would choose that cause over her; his Sparrow. 

“Think it over.” Solomon suggested, slipping his hands back into his pockets and pulling his eyes from hers.  He walked towards her and then past her as he left the room.  The note of finality was enough for the infamous smuggler to know that this would be their final offer. 


Solomon sat in the main hall at one of many tables, a tray of food just like the one he had brought to Ava before him.  He picked at it but found that he didn’t have much of an appetite tonight.  All he really wanted was a little peace and quiet.  It was not to be however, as before long Max entered the hall and sat down across from him.  Niles joined him, carrying both their trays, taking the place at his side.  They didn’t say anything at first, which was to be expected.  Max and Niles didn’t talk much with Sol.  When they did, it was usually something insulting.  This time was no different. 

“I thought I told you not to wear that fucking thing around me.” Max grumbled, pointing an accusatory finger at the crucifix hanging from around Solomon’s neck. 

“You weren’t around.” Sol answered simply, refusing to give in to childish taunts from the two childish men across the table from him. 

“Well, I am now.” Max countered.

Solomon turned to meet Max’s angry expression. His black brows were knitted together.  His mouth, surrounded by scruff that was interrupted by a long scar that stretched from his jaw to his neck, fixed in a scowl.  With all the calm elegance that Max hated so much, Sol reached for the pendant around his neck and tucked it back into the collar of his shirt where it belonged.  Tilting his head to the side slightly he asked, “better?”

Max huffed and went back to his dinner, though not before adding, “that shit offends me.”

“Maybe you should pray about it.” Sol suggested, tongue in cheek.

“The fuck did you just say to me?” Max said hotly, breathing hard out of his nose as he pressed his hands flat to the table.  Before he got the opportunity to rise from his seat, Cambria appeared at his side with a hand upon his shoulder.

“C’mon now boys, you gotta’ learn to get along when mommy’s not around.” She jested lightheartedly as she took the open seat beside Max, on the opposite side to Niles. 

“Fuck you, Cam.” Max spat as he shook off her unwelcome touch.  He got up and left with Niles fast on his heels. 

“What did you say to him this time?” Cambria asked, watching Max stalk off into another corner of the hall. 

“I told him he should pray.” Solomon answered numbly. 

“Well, if you cut it out with the Holier-Than-Thou act they might warm up to you a little quicker.” She offered in advice, ripping at the cooked bird on her plate  with her fingers before popping the tender meat into her mouth.   

“I don’t care if they like me.” Sol said back, his eyes on the food he pushed around but couldn’t find the stomach to eat.  Unlike most of the others, Sol still favoured the civilized nature of cutlery over his hands. That is, when he had the luxury to have a preference at all. 

“So, how’d it go?” She asked after a time, steering the conversation in the direction she had intended for it to go from the moment she had sat down.  “Did she take the deal?”

“No, but she will.” He said. 

“How can you be so sure?” She pressed.

“Because I know her better than you do.” He pointed out.  Not an insult, just a simple fact. 

“You’re probably right about that.” Cambria conceded, watching Solomon while he watched his plate.  “So, are you up for a few rounds of darts tonight?” She carried on, ever willfully ignorant to Sol’s cloudy moods. “Your girl brought in some real quality smoke and I know Max is dying to get his hands on some extra rations.  What do you say, up for a little hustle?” Usually, Cambria’s quirky energy was the right medicine to pull Sol out from his gloom, but not tonight. 

“She’s not my girl.” He said coldly, rising from his seat. 

“Hey, I didn’t mean…” Cambria started but Sol wasn’t giving her the chance to finish.

“I have to relieve Basil for patrol.  I’ll see you in the morning.” He said passively as he began walking away. 



Later, out on the tower, he found the peace and quiet he had been looking for.  Having finished his patrol route early, he’d started a small fire to heat up the dried meats he brought with him on every outing.  Good thing he did too, because he was beginning to regret having not eaten his dinner.  He peaked down over the edge of the lookout, checking on his horse before making himself comfortable and snacking on the chewy, salted sinews he had held over the flames.  It was a typical patrol.  He ran into a few Fallen ones but it was nothing he couldn’t handle.  That part of the chore he didn’t particularly care for but he liked being on watch.  When he was a boy he had been scared of everything.  Except heights that is.  He had always loved heights. 

A lot had changed about Solomon since he had left the sheltered walls of Eden, while others stayed the same.  He still double knotted his laces and slept with the windows open.  He still preferred salty foods to sweet and said a prayer before closing his eyes at night.  Then again, maybe those things were never really part of Solomon, but rather mere habits he’d developed from a lifetime of being terrified in spite of having no reason to ever be.  These days, he wasn’t so sure anyone was listening to his quiet whispers in the loneliness of his nights.  These days, he wasn’t so sure who he was even talking to when he did. 

Someone, anyway.  That’s all Solomon had ever wanted from his charmed life.  That’s all that mattered to him anymore now that life was behind him. To be something.  To be something to someone.  In the end, that might be who he really was.  It was certainly who he wanted to be. 

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Offline asterin

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“Do you want to know?” Sol asked. “How I got here, what happened...do you want to know?”

It was a simple question, one he likely knew the answer to already. It also would’ve been such a little thing for her to open her mouth and utter a single word--yes--but she was not in a generous mood. She hadn’t been in a generous mood in a long time. It’d been the case even back in Eden. Her attention and affection were things she’d kept guarded under lock and key, things she’d been utterly stingy with, even with the man and woman who were supposed to be her parents. They had been kind enough and taken care of her, and for that, she’d shown them the respect they were due. That hadn’t changed the fact that they had never been her parents, and that they never would be. There had been only one person in that whole wretched prison she’d ever loved, for whom she’d even thought to clip her wings for. He’d been everything to her--but he hadn’t felt the same way.

And therein laid the real reason why the word wouldn’t leave her mouth. She wanted to know, but she didn’t. She would’ve never admitted it out loud, but she was afraid. He’d chosen something else over her once before, and it had already killed her then. To hear what had managed to drag him out of his precious Eden when she--the woman he’d claimed to love--had failed to do so, would simply be another blow, acid on an old wound. It would just be one more thing he’d given a damn about over her. A reminder of how little she’d actually mattered to him when it came down to it.

Still, she stared at him as she waited for the blow. Sol had always called her brave for looking danger and fear in the eye, but that wasn’t really it. That had just been the only way she could keep going. To know when the pain would come, exactly when, so that she could brace herself for the impact. Really, she was just a control freak. She needed to look the threat in the eye so she could feel as if she was daring it to hurt her, so she could scream that she had a hand in what was hurting her. I’m not scared! You don’t get to destroy me--only I get to destroy me!

She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. Perhaps she hadn’t been expecting anything. Perhaps it really didn’t matter what his reason was, just that it had mattered more than her. She watched silently as his confession fell forth from his lips, halting as a prayer repenting sin. His fingers anxiously toyed with the crucifix hanging from a simple chain--he still wore it, the same one he’d been wearing even when they’d first met. Out of all the things that hadn’t changed… She could’ve laughed.

“It’s nothing like they tell us it is in Sunday service. It’s not beautiful. It’s not poetic,” he said, having finally seen the truth with his own two eyes. What those Tithe Centers were really. Not just the facts, but what it really meant--children, used and discarded. Children, raised to the slaughter. He met her eyes, and she could see that the truth haunted him still--the truth she had tried to explain to him once. “But you already knew that.”

Wordlessly, she gave him a weary nod. He, a first born of Eden, had never stepped foot into a Tithe Center. She, on the other hand, had spent more than six years in that void. It was six years less than most other Tithes, but it had been more than enough, especially when she had known that this was not how things were supposed to be. The other Tithes did not know a world outside those white walls, just as Sol had never known the world outside those towering walls of Eden.

Once, not long after she had been released into the bigger cage of Eden, she’d tried to set the songbirds hanging in the gardens of the cathedral free. After she’d pried each cage open, the birds had only flapped about haplessly, unwilling to leave their cages. The birdkeeper had only laughed when he’d caught her. “They won’t leave,” he’d told her, hooking the doors closed once more. “Their wings are clipped.”

“How can they sing like that?” she’d asked, something angry and accusatory in her voice. “How can they be happy, when they can see the sky above them?”

That had seemed to amuse the birdkeeper even more, who took his sweet time guffawing until he gave her the horrifying answer. “We blind ‘em. They don’t know where they are, and they just sing and sing and sing.”

She remembered thinking she ought to put those birds out of their misery. But that was the thing, wasn’t it? They didn’t know they were in misery. They rejoiced in their pitch-black world, never knowing they were meant to be flying free. And so she’d left them there in their little wire cages. She still thought about them, even now.

“Look, I’m not going to tell you that I’m sorry, because I know it wouldn’t mean a damn thing.” He told her, closing the wide distance between them step by step. “But for what it’s worth, you were right. About everything.”

There’d been a time when those words would have been all she wanted to hear. For her to know that he finally saw Eden the way she did, that he was on her side. But it was too late. Ten years too late. He was right--apologies were meaningless to her--but so was anything else he might have said. There was nothing in the world that could be said that would change the past. That was the truth. There was no avoiding that.

She moved past him, leaving him no reassurance. He was wrong if he thought he could sway her with a sob story. It would have worked, back then. Not anymore. He was wrong if he thought she cared. There wasn’t anything or anyone she cared about like that anymore.

“I know where your parents are, Sparrow.”

And with that, the whole world went still.



************


It was late when she walked into what seemed to have been turned into a common area. The source of the rowdiness appeared to be a game of darts that had been ongoing, but even that had begun to settle down. “Ava,” Cambria called, always the first to notice someone come in. “Come join us!”

“Want to play?” Dru offered, holding out a dart to her as she came to stop before them.

“No, that’s fine,” she shook her head slightly. “I’m here for business.”

“It’s better you don’t let her play. She’s always had horrifically good aim,” Cam remarked to Dru, her voice lilting in a way that made it difficult to tell if she was mocking her or not. Still, her dark eyes never left hers. “So?”

“I’ll take the job,” she answered bluntly. “Tell Max I want two fifty. Half up front.”

The older woman nodded, as if she was weighing her terms in her mind. “I’m sure he can swallow that much for you,” she affirmed, but not without comment: “Though, I never knew you to be a coin chaser.”

“I’m not,” she acknowledged in turn, her expression still stony as a mask. “I couldn’t care less about the money, but I can’t have people thinking I’m a charity.”

“Says the woman who tried to haggle for double,” Dru muttered under his breath, only to flinch away when her dark eyes turned his way. Well, he was right, of course. The bargaining chips had simply changed, that was all.

“I’m sure Ava has her reasons,” Cam chimed sweetly before turning to her with a certain smile. “I guess Sol can be charming when he wants to, seeing that he got you to change your mind so quickly.”

The smuggler stared her down, seemingly unaffected by the little jab. “You know, don’t you?” she finally remarked. It wasn’t a question.

“Now, you can’t fault an old lady for enjoying a little gossip from time to time,” Cambria returned, ever playful as she leaned towards her as if readying herself to be let in on a grand secret. “So? What happened between the two of you?”

“There’s nothing to tell,” she answered flatly. Cam had always been like this--not exactly prying, but interested in scrounging out the little details, details she wasn’t about to provide. “Where is he? I want to speak to him.”

“He’s on patrol. But ah...I suppose we could relieve him a little early,” she suggested lightly, turning to look across the room towards a boy busy at the dartboard. “Egan?” When he looked up at her voice, she beckoned him over before gesturing at the smuggler. “Why don’t you show Miss Ava to the lookout tower and relieve Solomon? I think he deserves a break today.”

The blonde young man didn’t need to be told twice, and soon Ava was following him through the gloom on horseback. Both were armed in case they ran into any Fallen, though Egan assured her that Sol would have likely cleared them on his patrol. Of course, letting one’s guard down was a surefire way to end up dead. While Ava herself didn’t need to worry about becoming infected, there were plenty of other horrors out there in the world. Still, she liked how quiet nighttime was.

That blessed silence was soon broken when the young man leading her slowed his steed to a trot, bringing them side by side. She’d noticed him sneaking looks her way, but she had hoped he would keep his mouth shut. “So...Miss Ava. You’re the smuggler? The Sparrow?” he began, obviously trying to sound as casual as possible.

“Yes,” she answered, looking straight ahead.

“I heard you were one of us, before,” he continued obliviously.

There was a stretch of silence before she finally answered, somewhat begrudgingly. “That was a long time ago.”

“What made you leave?”

“I didn’t like being told what to do,” Ava told him, then looked over with a pointed gaze. “Or having people sticking their noses into my business.”

“Riiight,” he nodded, then turned to face the path before them. For a moment it seemed as if he was going to give her the silence she so craved, but then he went on as if he hadn’t just been told to mind his own business. “So, you knew Sol from before?”

As much as she would’ve liked to ignore that question, she knew that her silence would’ve said more. “Did he tell you that?” she asked instead, her voice carefully void of any real emotion.

“No. He doesn’t tell me anything,” he retorted, a boyish grin overtaking his features, and she couldn’t help but shake her head, letting out an amused huff of her own. He was a funny kid.

Egan continued to pelt her with questions during the entire way, questions that she either ignored or deflected with a curt word. When he finally brought their horses to a stop at the base of an old tower, she could’ve sworn her ears were ringing. Another horse was already tied off to a rusted grate, which was presumably Sol’s. “Sol! I’m here to relieve you early!” the boy tipped his head back to call. It didn’t take long for Solomon to show his face, looking none-too-pleased.

“You’re too young to patrol alone,” he responded, his words gruff--and while the youth might've only heard dismissal in his tone, Ava heard something else there. Worry. “Get back to bed.”

“Aww, come on. Cam said I could. And I even brought a guest,” Egan insisted, wasting no time in climbing the stairs, gesturing for her to follow suit. When they reached the top it seemed that he had set up a little fire for himself to ward off the night chill. “See? It’s Miss Ava,” the boy went on hopefully. To the young woman, however, it was clear that Sol was just going to repeat his earlier sentiments.

“Don’t worry,” she spoke first, before he could insist. “I just wanted to talk to you for a minute.” The words weren’t uttered tenderly or in anger, just syllables spat out in monotone. What were they? Nothing, now. Strangers who once knew each other, embarking on a business deal--that was all. That was easy...or at least she needed it to be. She threw Egan another pointed look, at which he stepped back a few paces, giving them the illusion of privacy.

She circled the fire, watching the glow of warm oranges and yellows lick up against the dark before she came to a stop before him, within arm’s length. “I’m taking the job,” she began plainly, her eyes boring into his face. “Not for you, of course.” There were a few more beats of quiet between them before she spoke up once more. “But I just wanted to make one thing clear...” she began, leaning in close as she had done a thousand times before--not to steal a kiss or whisper sweet nothings, but to leave a word of warning. “If it turns out you were lying about my parents, you really won’t last a day this time around.” Her words were soft, but what lay laced within them was the farthest thing from gentility; when she pulled away, the gaze she pinned him with was as cold as a knife. “I’ll make sure of that,” she promised quietly. His other betrayals, she could at least pretend to hold her peace about, but if he dared to dig up the memory of her parents for the sake of some fucking job--she would put a bullet in his heart without a second thought. As the silence settled back in she only gave him a nod, moving back towards the staircase and descending.

“Oh uh, wait--” Egan called for her, but she was already at the bottom of the stairs.

“I can find my way back,” the smuggler responded immediately, not about to suffer another interrogation on the returning journey. She’d had enough of everything for one day--no, a week, even. Untying the borrowed horse, she eased herself onto the saddle before urging it forward into the darkness. The only company she wanted now was the night.
« Last Edit: August 20, 2020, 10:58:45 PM by asterin »
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“You worry too much,” Solomon had told her once.  They had been in their secret place, laying upon the smooth slats of the rooftops, the stars their only company save for one another. 

“How can you not worry?” She had insisted in return, the urgency in her tone enough to lift her from where she lay.  With a hand balancing her weight behind her, she had curled her knees into him, facing him with that intense stare.  In those days, he had been ever willing to be scorched beneath the heat of her gaze.  In fact, he had yearned for her warmth, happy to stare directly into the sun if only it meant she were looking back at him.  Even if it blinded him. 

“It happens all the time,” he assured her in that calm voice he used when she got worked up about something.  “It happened with my parents, with David’s parents…” He could have gone on but she looked unconvinced.  Those eyes fell away from him and he too sat up and turned to her. 

“I’m going to get my assignment and when I open it, your name will be printed there.” As he spoke, he reached out to place his hand upon her face, pulling those eyes he so adored back his way.  “And yours will have my name on it.” Cradling her face in his palms, he leaned in towards her.  “And everything, for the rest of our lives, will be just fine.” Laying a quick peck upon her lips he pulled away to offer her a smile.  For a moment, it looked like maybe, she almost believed him. 

“How do you know?” The question came quietly, whispered from her lips and brushing against his which stayed so temptingly close.

“Because I have faith.” He whispered back.

“This again,” she groaned, pulling away from him to flop against the roof onto her back.  He laughed as he fell on top of her, his arms propping him up on either side of her narrow shoulders. 

“You might not believe in God, but I do.” He reminded her, his lips still smiling, his eyes still searching for hers. 

“I know.” She said in that way she did when she wasn’t really annoyed, but rather pretending to be. 

“And I believe in you.” He told her, making her laughing lips fall still and her eyes finally find his again.  “And I believe in us.” The words came softly, landing like leaves on the quiet roof.  “Do you?” He had asked her. 

“Yeah,” she told him, lifting her arms to curl them around his neck.  “I believe in that.”

They had both been wrong. 

Standing across from her now, it wasn’t like it was back then.  In those days, Solomon had known no greater love.  He had loved her more than his parents, more than his friends.  He had even loved her more than he did his God.  Sometimes, he found himself wondering if maybe that hadn’t been his mistake all along.  Where he had once sought out her stare, now it hurt to hold it.  Looking down to his feet, he took a measured step back as she leaned away from him. 

“You’ve made your point.” Solomon told her, though he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes with his own. 

She gave him a nod and turned to leave.  Egan stumbled after her a moment but was quickly dismissed.  When the young man turned to look at his comrade, he found him watching after the smuggler as she mounted her horse and vanished into the trees.  Slowly sitting back down, Solomon sighed deeply.  So lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t even noticed Egan pull up a seat at his side. 

“Was she your wife?” Egan asked.  When Sol turned to him with angry eyes, he rushed to explain himself, saying, “don’t get mad at me, you’re the one who talks in his sleep.”

“She wasn’t my wife,” Sol replied quietly, looking back out in the direction his Sparrow had flown.  “She was my… friend.” When a moment of silence had turned into two, into three, Solomon turned to look at the usually talkative boy at his side.  Egan studied him with a quirked brow and pursed lips, watching him ponderously. 


“Uh-huh,” he said as a smirk turned up the corners of his mouth.  “Friend…” he repeated. 

“Go to bed, Egan.” Sol muttered in a grumpy voice, turning his green eyes to the low burning coals of his small fire. 

“Can’t.”  He answered, stretching his legs out and folding his hands behind his head casually.  “I’m on patrol.”

“Go on,” Sol insisted.  “You’ll probably run into Gaius on the way, his shift is starting any minute now.”

“Gaius got very drunk after losing all of his smoke rations to Max in a game of darts,” he explained.  “Who is probably losing them right now to Cam.” Egan flashed Solomon a grin as he watched the older man breath hard out of his nose. 

“Alright, kid.” He finally surrendered, stretching out his legs and folding his hands over his stomach as he leaned back as casually as Egan did.  “Looks like it’s just you and me, tonight.”

“Remember what we were talking about this morning in the shop?” Egan asked, unable to maintain the tranquillity of the silence for even a full minute.  He was a noisy boy, reckless and stupid, but he was also brave and good of heart.  Solomon found that tonight he didn’t mind his company. 

“Yeah?” Sol replied.

“What’s a variable?” He asked.  “Like, what does that word mean?” For the first time in days, Solomon laughed. 



After a long night and a brief sleep, Solomon had decided he was too tired for his maps and schematics.  Leaving the table in the center of the room for an hour in the day more fitting, he had instead turned to the workbench in the far corner of the shop.   On the table was a small, pixelated monitor.  It was nothing like the sleek technology he had once used back in Eden, but it would suffice for his purposes.  It was attached to a small device by a series of woven wires.  It was this device with which he tinkered. It was a simple enough tool, but the coding was a challenge.  Solomon had been an architect, not a coder, and while he knew a great deal by way of technology in some areas he was just as ignorant as anybody else who had been reared in the harshness of the wastes.

“What’s this?” Cambria asked as she came up behind him, pressing her hands down on his broad shoulders. 

“Oh, nothing.” He stuttered awkwardly.  “This is just something I’m working on.”

“Well, wrap it up and look alive.” She told him, slapping one of her hands against the strong muscle beneath her.  “We’re talkin’ shop.” At her words, Solomon looked over his shoulder to see all the usual suspects meandering into the shop, the smuggler among them.  Pinching the bridge of his nose, between his eyes, he took a deep breath as he started to rise from the chair in which he had been sat all morning. 

“Alright,” he muttered as he stood, making Cambria take her hands from his shoulders and cross them over her chest as she walked to the central table around which everyone gathered.  He came up behind her, keeping himself out of the way just as everyone liked.  Eventually it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to keep quiet for long.  With everyone turning to him, impatient and expectant, he sighed and got them started. 

“If we can get to this sewer grate, we can get in.” He said, reaching across the table to touch upon a point on the map of the city.  “It’s an industrial area, Seraphs don’t patrol there often,” he explained as he pulled his hand from one area of the map to the next.  “The lines run under the Tithe Center.  We’ll come up under B-Wing.  That’s where they’ll be keeping the kids.” Hands came away from the map, one slipping into his pocket while the other scratched at his beard nervously.  His lips had stilled but his eyes still roamed the charts, as though there were further pieces of the plan he was unwilling to divulge. Solomon had always been a bad liar, and though his lips remained stayed his eyes always told the truth.

“The Celebration of Sacrifice is two weeks from now.  The Tithes will be tested and the immunes will be held for five days while the Apostles assign them to their new families.” Max explained to the group, leaning his weight on the palms of his hands, flat on the table.  “That’s our window.” Solomon visibly stiffened at the words, burying his hands deep into his pockets and pressing his lips into a hard line.  It was a gesture that did not go unnoticed.

“Got something to say?” Max asked.

“Nothing I haven’t said before.” Sol replied coolly. 

“Sol here, thinks we should be going in before the Celebration of Sacrifice, get ‘em all out.” Cambria explained helpfully, speaking to the smuggler who looked between the leaders of the Second Sons with a watchful eye. 

“But that’s not our directive.” Dru pointed out stupidly. 

“I know.” Sol said back, his green eyes on the ends of his boots. 

The next question that came from the smuggler was an obvious one.  Having spent much of her young life within the walls of the Tithe Center, Ava was well aware of the security that guarded each and every section of the building.  Thumb scanners and identification cards were required at every turn.  At her stern inquiry, eyes turned to Solomon again.  This time, it was Niles who spoke up on behalf of the quiet man.  Mirroring Max’s dominant posture he spoke up saying, “Sol’s got us covered there.”

“He had better.” Max added, the bitterness on the tip of his tongue palpable. 

“I’ll get us in.” Solomon said, lifting his gaze to meet Max’s, a silent standoff.  “Getting us out, that’s on you.” He told him. 

“It’ll be tight.” Cambria interjected, a sigh upon her breath.  “No two ways about it.”

“None of this matters,” Solomon said next.  Finally, his eyes found those of the smuggler from across the room.  “Unless you can get us through those walls,” once more he reached across the table to touch upon that specific point upon the map. “This is the only way into the Center.” There was a certain gravity to his words, putting weight behind his conviction without offering explanation for its origin. 

“Can you do it?” He asked her, The Sparrow. 

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Offline asterin

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Staring up at the ceiling, she tried to put herself to sleep. Naturally, sleep wouldn’t come when it was most desired. A sigh escaped her lips before she had realized it, and she curled up onto her side, squeezing her eyes shut. Not five seconds later, her eyes slid back open, her dark eyes roving restlessly over the walls of the bare room. She knew this feeling in her stomach--unease. She’d taken the job; she hadn’t had another choice, not once she’d heard what was potentially waiting for her on the other side. Her parents--truly, the only people she cared about anymore. The people she’d thought she’d lost for good. If she could find them, she would do anything--she’d already done too much to give up now. Still, this whole thing was such a fucking mess, and the thought of spending the immediate future playing at thieves and robbers with Sol made her stomach turn.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation to the young woman. She remembered spending the better part of her nights leading up to their assignments suspended in anxiety. She had done her best to conceal her dread from Sol, who’d been so steadfast in his belief that they would be assigned to each other. He’d reassured her more than once, reminding her of all the pairings they knew who had been sweethearts as they were. He’d appealed to the romance of fate, that he believed in them. And oh, maybe she had believed, or had just wanted so badly to believe. She still remembered the feeling of standing at the dinner table, holding the envelope with the official seal of the Apostles upon it, Abigail and Nathaniel’s expectant gazes on her.

“Go on, Ruth,” the older woman had encouraged.

She’d never really bothered praying before. The God they taught her about in Sunday School and in the little white rooms before then--he had never made sense to her the way he did to Sol, not when she knew how much the teachers failed to mention or glossed over with nonsense that simply sounded nice. As she’d opened the envelope and unfolded the letter within, however, she’d prayed, begging the God Sol so believed in to not rip away the one person in Eden she loved.

Perhaps his God had seen it fitting that she should be punished for her insolence. Perhaps it had just been a twist of fate. Or perhaps Eden simply wished to take away everything from her, as she’d always feared.

“What is it?” Nathaniel prompted eagerly at her silence. “Read it.”

Sparrow tried, but her voice failed her. Choking on bile, she dropped the letter, backing away from it on trembling legs as if it’d suddenly morphed into a serpent. Her knees buckled from underneath her and she sat, too stunned to say or do anything more. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. He’d said this wouldn’t happen… Sol had said… Sol...

Abigail stooped to pick up the treacherous message, clearing her throat before going through the introductory paragraph out loud--the paragraph she herself had immediately skipped. Then came the job assignment, and the living assignments--none of it mattered. None of that mattered one iota to her. The only thing that had mattered were the words that came next.

“Assigned Partner: Gabriel Abner.”

Who was that? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter who he was. He wasn’t Sol.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie, I know you were hoping,” Abigail said immediately, crouching down in front of her to touch her cheek with sympathetic eyes. Sympathetic, but not surprised. “But this is an honor, Ruth. I know Gabriel--dear, you’ve seen him before too, haven’t you?” the older woman turned towards her husband, to which he nodded in agreement.

“Ah yes. He was assigned as a captain of the Seraphs a year ago. He’s a fine young man--”


“Captain of the Seraphs…?” she repeated numbly.

“This is loving direction, Ruth. I’m sure Gabriel is just what He knew you needed,” Abigail continued.

“Loving direction?” she echoed again, and this time, the hollowness in her voice twisted into bitter mockery before turning into a keening laugh, the sound tumbling up out of her jagged and hysterical. Once it died away in her throat, painful and raw, the words came next, searing hot. “Fuck that!” Sparrow spat viciously, rising to her feet in a sharp motion, and Abigail lurched back away from her.

“Ruth!” she uttered, sounding utterly horrified as she clutched Nathaniel's arm. They both looked stunned and aghast, taken back by her behavior. Of course. They didn’t know her, not really. They thought they did, but they never had from the start--they only knew Ruth, a quiet girl who kept her mouth shut most of the time and did her chores. They didn’t know Ava, and they sure as hell didn’t know Sparrow, or what she would do without Sol.

“Don’t you see what they’re trying to do?! They’re trying to break me!” Angry tears sprang to her eyes as she glowered at the two people who had play-acted at being her parents when they never could be. Never, never, never in a million years. Pointing an accusatory finger, trembling with heartbreak, rage, and frustration, she shouted. “All of you, that’s all you’ve ever wanted to do!”

“Now look here, young lady, I will not have you speaking that way--” Nathaniel began sternly, but it was too late to stop her.

“Well then it’s a good thing we’re through, isn’t it,” she hissed back, gesturing with palpable disgust as the piece of paper that had ruined her future. Sparrow stormed out of the house before either of them could get another word in, before they could stop her. It was still early afternoon as she ran through the familiar alleys, pressing herself to go as fast as she could, as if she could outrun everything that had just happened. All around her, she could hear families celebrating their last official time together with their children, ignorantly rejoicing in the life sentence that had been given to them. There was only the briefest flicker of guilt within her. She’d meant to pretend to be a decent child for Nathaniel and Abigail, only to ruin it on the last day. But how could she have kept silent this time?

She clambered up onto their rooftop in frenzied movements, and unable to contain what was howling within, she paced back and forth, looking from the sky to the street below again and again. Sol...how was he taking his assignment? Who had he been assigned to? The thought of him belonging to another was almost unthinkable, but now it was reality. What were they going to do? She looked to the street once more. Surely, he was going to come. It wasn’t anywhere near nighttime, but surely, he would feel the same and come fleeing to their sanctuary--he would know she was here. Any moment now, she would see his familiar form dashing down the alley.

She’d been so sure of it. But even when minutes had turned into hours, he hadn’t come. Even as the sky turned to purple dusk and the moon began to rise, he didn’t come. When he finally did arrive, nearly a half-hour late, something he’d never, ever done in all their years together, he had refused to meet her eyes. She’d known at once that he was afraid--afraid of letting her see the truth within them--and the nightmare had begun.


************


She woke as she always did--slowly, then all at once. The first thing Ava picked up on after the rush of her own breathing was the presence of another, and at once her body came alive with alarm as she rolled away, a hand finding the pistol she had wedged between the mattress and the wall and levelling at the intruder. Said intruder--Cambria--did not flinch or yell, even though her brows remained quirked as she slowly raised both hands into the air in a flippant way that made it clear she did not feel threatened. “That’s a new habit,” she commented nonchalantly. “Morning.”

Ava exhaled, putting the weapon back down and setting the safety back into place. “If by new you mean years old, sure,” she grumbled, instead of a greeting, glaring at the older woman. “Is this a new habit of yours?”

“Just a little tic I picked up several years ago,” Cam replied. It was hard to tell if she was joking or not, and Ava didn’t bother thinking too hard about it. “I thought you might need some help waking up. You never liked early mornings,” she continued, holding out a tin with steam rising from the contents. When Ava only regarded it warily, she stepped closer to press it into her hand. “It’s not going to kill you.”

It probably wasn’t going to kill her, true. She sniffed the earthy aroma before taking a tentative sip, watching the older woman. Cam was right--if she hadn’t walked in, she would’ve slept in. She was used to starting her operations late into the night, after all. Finally giving into the warmth of the beverage, she drained the tin as Cambria looked expectantly, meeting her gaze steadily. Still, it bothered her; the way Cambria spoke about her morning habits felt like it was more than just an offhand observation, and Ava couldn’t help but wonder just how much Cam knew about her. How much had Sol told her about their childhood? She wondered, but she did not ask. Knowing her, the unreadable older woman would only ask more questions.

Once she had finished the drink, Cam turned towards the door, beckoning her along. “Come on then, it’s time to go discuss business.”

So it was. Ava took in a slow breath, something in her expression settling grimly as she rose from the mattress and followed. While she had expected that she would have to see Sol, she hadn’t quite expected that she would be taken to what appeared to be his little workshop. From the doorway, she could see him hunched over at a crowded desk, tinkering away at a piece of primitive technology. How had Sol felt when he felt seen the technology outside Eden, she wondered briefly. He’d always had a knack for things like that, and indeed, Eden, with all of her cutting edge technology, had been a haven for people with his skill set. Out in the wilds...well, it was a different story. Did he miss it? Did he miss Eden?

Why did she care?

As Cambria got his attention, he glanced up from his work and turned--only to see her there, along with the others. Immediately his weary expression grew even wearier, and he pinched the bridge of his nose as if to stave off a wave of stress. The feeling is mutual, she thought to herself, her expression stony as they gathered around a large table with a map spread upon it. Tentative marks had been made in graphite, notes scrawled on the margins. She took it in studiously as Sol was finally pressed to speak, outlining the beginning of their plans with a finger on the map.

“The Celebration of Sacrifice is two weeks from now.  The Tithes will be tested and the immunes will be held for five days while the Apostles assign them to their new families,” Max added. It was an occasion Ava herself remembered well.

Things hadn’t been as well designed back then, nor had she ever been the type to heed rules. While her fever had broken overnight, she still remembered the cries of the children who hadn’t been fortunate, growing more and more pained and guttural, until they sounded more beast than human. Of course, the sounds had stopped at the end of the next day, and she and the other newly branded Gifts had been lavished with attention, finally granted a name and a family. The others had been so excited, she remembered. This was all they’d ever wanted--but for her, who’d had a name and a family from the start, her excitement had been for different reasons. She had cleared one gauntlet and she’d survived, one step closer to seeing the bars she had to break through to fly free.

“That’s our window,” Max announced decisively. Two weeks from now… Even as she mused to herself, Ava was quick to note the way Sol reacted to those words. After all, she’d spent her youth utterly attentive to even the most subtle of his expressions or movements--apparently that sort of awareness wasn’t something that merely rusted away with time. However, Ava hadn’t been the only one to catch on to his discomfort. “Got something to say?” Max demanded pointedly, and Sol’s response didn’t serve to relieve the tension. Though she herself would’ve been fine with leaving things there and moving on, Cambria was the one to fill her in, explaining that Solomon had wanted to hit the Center earlier, so that they might retrieve all the children, Immune or not. Upon hearing this, the smuggler let out scoff--though contrary to what he might have assumed, her derision was not for Sol’s idea.

After all, she agreed--she couldn’t have agreed more with that notion. It’d always been a sticking point of hers. But by now, having spent the year within the ranks of the Second Sons wrestling over the issue, she knew well that the Second Sons wouldn’t bite. Their tired excuse was one Dru readily parroted back--it wasn’t their directive. While Sol quietly accepted it, it was in these moments she least liked to cede. “Will it ever be your directive?” she remarked, a sardonic edge in her words.

“Don’t start,” Max muttered.

“Start what?” she returned dismissively, turning her dark gaze back down to the map before them. “How are we going to get around the security in the Tithe Center?” she asked instead. “Every section is locked down--fingerprint scanners, ID cards, the works.” She’d tried breaking out once not long after she’d been taken there. It hadn’t ended well, landing her in a week’s worth of solitary and daily sessions with a specialist. She doubted that the security had grown lax over the years.

The answer was simple enough--trust that Sol would manage. He had designed parts of it, no doubt he was aware of some sort of weakness to exploit. It was becoming clearer who had which part to play--Sol would get them into the Center, Max would get them out, and she, well--

“None of this matters unless you can get us through those walls,” Sol pointed out, finally addressing her. “This is the only way into the Center,” he insisted firmly, pointing out the spot on the map that had been marked with confidence, unlike the rest of the scribbles on the paper. “Can you do it?” he asked, those green eyes meeting hers.

“Of course I can,” Ava answered dryly, her tone more matter-of-fact than prideful or offended. “Are you doubting me?” Unfurling the arms that had been crossed over her chest, she tapped at the easternmost edge of the walled city, where the crumbling ghetto remains of a larger Eden had once been. It still thrived, just...in another way. “Easiest entry point,” she explained, glancing around the gathered members. “There're quite a few ways in, too, depending on the number of people and equipment we need to bring along.” The smuggler paused for a moment. “And well, how comfortable everyone is with heights.” Leaning back and crossing her arms once more, she regarded the map as she weighed the variables in her mind. “Either way, it would be smart for me to make a little visit there before the real deal,” she went on. “Set the groundwork. Grease a few palms, maybe do a dry run…” she glanced to Max and Cambria, an unspoken challenge glinting within her eyes. “Of course, only with your permission.” 
« Last Edit: August 24, 2020, 04:43:25 PM by asterin »
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“It would be smart for me to take a little visit there before the real deal.” The smuggler pointed out and Solomon was glad for the words as they came from her mouth.  After all, the trips down memory lane were beginning to become distracting.  He would be glad to have some time away from her. 

“Of course, only with your permission.” She added as an afterthought, the words dripping in challenging sarcasm.  The leaders of the Second Sons looked between one another while Sol looked down at his boots, hands in his pockets. 

“Well, you shouldn’t go alone.” Dru stated bluntly, breaking the silence.  “Someone should go with her.” He went on, talking to his comrades. 

“Someone familiar with the city…” Max mused out loud, his eyes finding those of Cambria and Niles meaningfully. 

“Someone familiar with the plan…” Niles continued knowingly. 

“Someone we trust.” Cambria finished as they reached the conclusion of the negotiation slipped so subtly between the lines of their thoughtful phrasing. 

Sol didn’t catch on until he lifted his gaze to see everyone staring at him, at once replying, “no.”

“C’mon Sol, be a team player.” Cambria said with a grin as she stepped towards him and slapped a hand against his back jovially. 

“Look, I can’t just pack up and leave.” Sol tried.  “I have work to do.  Important work.” While that much was true, it was also true that the thought of spending weeks with no other company beyond the one woman whose company he would have liked to avoid filled him with dread. 

“You’re going.” Max said sternly, a note of finality in his tone.  “Finish up what you can,” he told Sol before turning his gaze to the smuggler.  “And load up with whatever you need.” Lifting his hands from the table and crossing them high on his chest he leaned back on his heels as he straightened, saying, “the two of you can ship out the day after tomorrow.”

Were Sol the sort of man to curse, now would have been the opportune time.  Instead, he huffed, breathing hard out of his nose as he turned away from the table.  “You hearin’ me, Sol?” Max asked loudly.   

“I hear you.” He parroted back as he padded his way back to his workbench, where he sat himself heavily in the seat which he had been occupying earlier. 

“Good.” Max spat back.  “Then we’ll leave you to it.” As he spoke, he turned to leave.

“Make a list of anything else you need ready and we’ll do it from our end.” Niles said to Sol’s back as he followed Max out of the room.

“If you have any more questions, just ask Solomon.” Cambria offered unhelpfully as she passed the smuggler, following the rest out from the shop.  “He knows the plan inside and out.” She explained.  “Or he should anyway, since he was the one who came up with it.” For a moment there was silence and with his back turned to the rest of the room, Sol had foolishly hoped that they had left him to his own devices.  When he heard Dru’s voice echo from behind him however, he found that he couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. 

“So, fancy a drink?” Dru propositioned, slow steps carrying him towards the smuggler.  “That Glow you brought in for us is some real quality stuff.  I know a good spot, we could have a few and see where things go…”

“Can you not do this here?” Sol barked.  Turning on the stool upon which he sat he fixed Dru with a scowl.  “Please?” He added in a clipped voice, unable to help the civilized niceties that his past life had carved into his bones. 

“Never pegged you as the jealous type.” Dru observed in that obtuse way in which he so often spoke. 

“Dru, I’m working…” Sol started in a grumpy voice, but when the man in question lifted his hands in a mock surrender, he let his words trail off. 

“Alright, alright, say no more.  I’ll get out of your hair.” He started towards the doors as he spoke though not before sliding one more flirtatious wink to the smuggler from over his shoulder.  “Offer still stands, Ava.”

Solomon watched his comrade leave the room before turning his gaze to the smuggler who lingered in the shop.  She was watching him and though he hated every instant of it, he met her hard eyes with his own soft, green ones.  “What?” He asked The Sparrow. 


“So, I’ve been thinking about it all day…” The sun had climbed high into the sky and begun its slow descent towards the horizon, all without Solomon leaving the crooked, creaking stool of his workbench.  Cambria had brought him something to eat, which had gone cold and stale on the tray as he tinkered away into the evening.  While his work was a strategy for avoidance it was also a chore he carried out in mildly frantic fashion. He only had a few days, less even, and he needed this particular piece of equipment to work perfectly.  He needed…

“About the variables we were talkin’ about last night, and I think I’ve got some good ideas.  What I was thinkin’...”

He needed some of that peace and quiet he was so rarely awarded by fate. 

Turning sharply to the boy at his side, he fixed him with the most angry stare he could manage through his fatigue.  In a louder voice than usual he snapped, “Egan!” This much served to get the blond’s attention, though he didn’t appear too defeated in his quest to annoy Solomon.  “I don’t have time for this.” He explained in a voice that he had hoped would come across as stern.  “I’m working.”

“Well, take a break from your work with some more work.” Egan suggested, his smile still fixed upon his face. 

“Egan…” He started again, even as the boy’s eyes grew wide and his mouth busy.  He wasn’t going to be leaving Sol alone any time soon.

“Come on, don’t be like that, Sol.  Just let me tell you, okay?” Egan whined.  “I’m not being funny, I swear it’s a really good idea.”

“Fine!” Solomon barked, rising suddenly and making his stool screech behind him.  “Fine.” He said again, this time more softly.  Taking a breath he turned to the source of his vexation.  “What is it?” He asked patiently. 

“Yes!” Egan whispered to himself in hushed victory as he scurried from the workbench to the table in the middle of the room.  Wasting no time, he leaned over the surface, reaching past maps and notes to pull the diagram of the Tithe Center in front of him.  “Okay, so these wings right here,” he began as he pointed to the schematics excitedly.  “We’re guessing that they’re med-wings because of the designs but you don’t really know right?”

Solomon meandered lazily over to the table, coming to stand beside Egan who had hunched himself so far over the pages before him he was practically laying on top of them.  Nodding as he rubbed at his eyes before his hands found their way into his pockets he muttered, “yeah.”

“Well, remember how you were telling me about how the Tithes get routine med-visits, where they take samples and stuff…” he would have gone on but Sol was shooting him another angry look.  This one, he understood.  “Remember how you were telling Cam about the Tithes and I was hiding in the other room listening…” he corrected himself. 

“Get to the point, Egan.” Sol told him in a grumpy voice. 

“Well, I was thinkin’, what if the med-wings are actually labs, like the kind Doc’s got set up.” Egan suggested. 

“No, those labs are over here on the fourth and fifth floors.” Sol answered easily, pointing to the area of the maps labeled as D-Wing. 

“Yeah, but those are just for the Gifts, right?” He volleyed back, the enthusiasm in his voice making his smile stretch a little wider.  “They don’t care about a cure, since they think the plague was sent by God or whatever,” he waved his hand in the air casually as he spoke, dismissing Sol’s disapproval at his choice in phrasing before any such disgruntled words could fall from the older man’s mouth.  “But they do want to be able to tell the munies apart from the others right?” He asked, using the name by which they had dubbed the immune children of Eden out in the wastes. 

When Sol only glared at him, he went on saying, “I know, I know.  I have to stop listening in on your conversations, but look,” oblivious to Sol’s moody glowering he went on, fingers touching upon the worn schematics before them.  “Both wings are about the same size, and if they really wanted to figure out what makes them different they’d have to check ‘em all out and then compare notes after the Day of Celebration.”

Sol looked away from Egan to the pages at which he was pointing.  Ponderously, he stepped closer to the table and leaned in as he considered these theories out loud.  “It’s been talked about,” he said thoughtfully.  “But the volume they would need for the samples to show them anything of significance…” he considered, shaking his head.  “They’d have to pull the kids from their routines for weeks at a time, every few months, over the course of all twelve years.” Leaning back again, he slipped his hands back into his pockets.  This was a path down which his mind hadn’t yet travelled, only because he was there to witness the proposal be dismissed.  “It would stunt their development.  Makes them harder to indoctrinate them if they turn out to be Gifts instead of Lambs.”

“No offense, Sol, but I’m not so convinced that Eden gives a fuck about anybody.” Egan said in a voice that almost seemed serious.  “Not even their Gifts.” When Sol only looked on at the schematics in his gloomy contemplation, Egan couldn’t help but rush to fill the silence.  “Hey, I’m sorry I cursed.  I just think that…”


Sol brought a finger to his mouth, silencing Egan as he waved away the boy’s worry.  Something that might have almost been a smile touched upon his face as he turned from Egan to the table and the area in which he had mapped out his theory.  With a little nod and the corners of his mouth turned down in subtle approval he said, “not bad.”

“You think?” Egan asked, hopeful and grinning from ear to ear. 

“Yeah,” Sol said, nodding again.  “You’re getting smarter, you know.”

“That’s because I’m hanging out with you.” Egan explained easily.  “I mean, you're definitely the smartest person I know.”

The smile finally stepped forth from the shadows across Solomon’s face.  Turning to the blond boy at his side he put a hand against his shoulder, giving the skinny joint a paternal squeeze as he leaned back in over the table.  “You got any other theories for me?” He asked. 

“Oh, yeah!” Egan said in that young, excited voice.  “I’ve got tons…”

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Her brief moment of victory immediately crumbled to ash as the leaders of the Second Sons began to discuss who should be sent along with her. “I don’t need a babysitter,” she objected in her firmest voice, but they weren’t listening. The whole point of her suggestion this recon mission was so she could get away from having to socialize, not so she could get stuck with one of them. Not only that, if they were going to pick him--

The worst case scenario came to life right before her eyes as all gazes landed on Sol, their unanimous choice. “No.” he muttered at once, and she agreed wholeheartedly. After all, the person she least wanted to socialize with right now was Sol. Things were awkward enough as they were, but to have to go on a roadtrip with him? “Look, I can’t just pack up and leave.” Sol protested, even as Cambria tried to cajole him into submission. “I have work to do. Important work.”

“Yes, you need him here, of course,” she followed up quickly, her gaze flicking between Max and Cam. “I can do this on my own.” She wasn’t exaggerating. This kind of work was something she could handle by herself, and easily so. Being a smuggler required her to have connections and to be willing to strike deals when extra hands were needed, but fundamentally, she worked alone. In the beginning, a partnership had appealed to her, but well, that wasn’t the case anymore.

Unfortunately, both of their protests fell on deaf ears.“You’re going. Finish up what you can,” Max ended the argument brusquely before levelling that hard look her way. “And load up with whatever you need. The two of you can ship out the day after tomorrow.” That was it. All decided, just like that.

“Fucker,” she breathed darkly. Luckily, said fucker seemed too busy getting on Sol’s case to hear her. She was rapidly starting to remember why she’d never gotten along with Max when she’d been one of their rank and file--Ava didn’t like being told what to do and how to do it, and Max wasn’t the type to pretend like he was the lenient type for optics. Just because she was working with them for this didn’t mean that she was working under him, but it seemed that he had trouble differentiating the two when it came down to it. And now look at the mess she was in…

Well, it wasn’t the time to make a fuss. Not now, anyways. Instead, she held her tongue, glowering at Max as he turned and left the room. Nile was quick to follow him as usual, but Cam turned to her as she began to leave. “If you have any more questions, just ask Solomon. He knows the plan inside and out.” Cambria told her cheerily, clearly ignoring the none-too-happy expression on her face. “Or he should anyway, since he was the one who came up with it.” At that, the lips which had been pressed into a thin, taut line loosened into confusion. He had come up with the plan? Sol had?

That didn’t sound like Sol. He hadn’t even left Eden of his own accord--he’d only been asking too many questions. Sol, who had only ever had nothing but respect for the so-called paradise he had been born into...becoming the architect of this daring heist? People changed, yes, but that kind of plan called for a strong reason. Did he have such an attachment to the cause? Did he hate Eden the way she did? He was still a believer, if she went by that crucifix about his neck.

Something didn’t make sense here.

“So, fancy a drink?” Dru spoke, interrupting her thoughts. She glanced up to see him approaching her with a slight swagger in his step and a punchable look on his face. “That Glow you brought in for us is some real quality stuff.  I know a good spot, we could have a few and see where things go…”

Rolling her eyes exasperatedly, she looked away from him. Not only did he not know when to quit, he seemed exceedingly bad at recognizing the foul turn in her mood. However, before she could spit a cutting remark, it was unexpectedly Sol who was the first to snap at the incorrigible man. “Can you not do this here?” he demanded, and she almost would have been surprised if it hadn’t been soon chased by his next remark. “Please?” There it was. It seemed that even the wilds couldn’t completely separate him from his well-mannered upbringing.

“Never pegged you as the jealous type,” Dru shot back, but he was quick to step down once Solomon began another weary plea. “Alright, alright, say no more.  I’ll get out of your hair,” he gave in, finally moving towards. “Offer still stands, Ava,” he still added with a wink.

“Don’t hold your breath,” she remarked, managing to sound more bored than hostile. A stiff drink sounded great about now, thanks to the sudden developments, but she was never the kind to leave her flask empty. She much preferred to drink alone and in silence, without having to worry if someone was going to make her have to give them another black eye.

“What?” he tossed the word out, meeting her eyes as if it hurt him to do it.

“You came up with the plan,” she started. Even though she had heard it straight from Cam’s mouth, there was a note of disbelief in her tone. Her narrowed dark eyes bored into his, but the light that glinted within veered towards curiosity rather than suspicion. “Why would you go so far?”

“Well, that’s not really any of your business, is it?” he deflected curtly.




There was a moment of stillness. “No, I suppose not,” she said lightly, her brows quirking high to imply indifference. There’d been a time when there hadn’t been a single secret between them. If anything, their entire friendship had started with her letting slip a secret in juvenile anger and him keeping it, treasuring it as his own. Now she had her secrets, and he, his. Even though she had been quick to deem themselves as little more than strangers, perhaps somewhere within her, it was just...odd, to see him the way he was now. He was Sol, yes, but not her Sol. A strange warped version that was at once painfully familiar and alien. Was that the way he saw her too?

That too, was no longer any of her business, she supposed.

Offering him a small nod, she turned and left him on his own. After all, she understood better than most what someone who craved solitude looked like.



***************


Sitting cross-legged on the sun-dappled floor, the smuggler systematically went through her supplies, separating them neatly into groups in front of her. Her hands moved with practised ease as she tended to her weapons and tools, quickly counting ammo and making sure everything was well-oiled and cleaned before tucking them into her backpack. A battered lighter was next, carefully topped off with fluid. She had just begun to restock her first-aid kit with some supplies Nile had offered her when a knock sounded at the door. She turned, and before she had the time to reply, Cambria stepped inside.

“The 125, plus what you were owed for the usual drop,” she said, tossing the weighted medallion her way. The smuggler caught it with one hand, inspecting it briefly to ensure it was her own--well, one of her own. Like every other it was engraved with the twelve-pointed star, representing the twelve cities that surrounded Eden, the circle in the middle. While the symbol itself liked to suggest that each of those points were equidistant from the center, in reality, the cities were placed in radiating rings. The cities were not equal in any way, whether in distance, wealth, or power. It was funny how even the smallest symbol could be so full of lies. Of course, that symbol was not the indicator she was looking for. It was the dent on the other side, barely missing the chip. Satisfied, she tucked it away into a hidden pocket.

When she realized Cam was still standing there, she looked up inquisitively. “Thanks,” she said, more of a dismissal than anything else, but the older women did not budge.

“What are you up to?” she asked, a little too casually to actually be innocuous. After, it was rather obvious what she was doing.

“Packing,” the smuggler answered shortly, going back to the task at hand. “But you didn’t need me to tell you that.”

“Mm,” Cambria hummed, crossing her arms over her chest as if she was in thought. ”Don’t you need some of those for tonight and tomorrow?”

Ava continued packing as if she hadn’t heard her, pointedly rolling up her spare shirt and placing it into her pack. “I can leave tomorrow at first light. Tonight, even. I don’t see why he needs to come with me,” she reasoned bluntly. “What, you guys scared I’ll just bail with half of the units?”

“Of course not,” Cambria brushed the notion off quickly. “But...so what if he tags along? What are you so scared of?” she continued, a hint of mockery in her eyes.

“I’m not scared,” she volleyed back, even as she kept working, hands pressing and fitting all the items neatly into place.

“Good.” With a nod, Cam glanced around the otherwise bare room, letting her gaze wander. A foot tapped out a steady little rhythm--waiting for the opportune moment. After a stretch of silence, one which Ava had not bothered to fill, she spoke up again. “Listen, are these...feelings going to be an issue between you two?” Cambria inquired, sounding every bit the responsible authority figure.

Now that--that got her attention. Ava’s hands came to an abrupt stop mid-air, then fell back into her lap, clenched into fists. “No,” she snapped, her tone a little too defensive as she glared up at the older woman. “There’s no problem.”

Unfortunately for her, the other woman continued as if the smuggler’s denial hadn’t been clear. “Because you know--this isn’t an easy job. If you two can’t work right under pressure, it’ll cause trouble during the raid...”

Ava knew she was trying to get under her skin, provoke her. It was a game she was familiar with, after all. She knew, but she still couldn’t help herself as she pulled herself onto her feet. “I can do my damn job, Cam,” she intoned frostily, her chin held high. “Regardless of who’s around.”

“Then prove it,” the older woman returned, a smirk lingering at the corner of her mouth. This, of course, had been her objective the whole time. As for Ava, she knew there was really only one thing she could spit back.

“Fine.”

She could play nice. She could play at being part of a team. It was only for two weeks--that was all. She’d done worse in the name of a job, in the name of finding her parents. This? This was nothing. Still, these were all things she had to remind herself of once again as she sat slouched in the passenger’s side of the vehicle, her boots propped up onto something that might have been called a dashboard if this had been a conventional car. Of course, it was not. It was the farthest thing from the sleek vehicles within Eden, or even the utilitarian design of the cargo train. It was a chimera, a beast put together from the parts of countless other machines, designed to withstand whatever the wilds might throw their way--and the wilds were indeed home to endless dangers. In one hand she held a knife, cutting, slices out of a small apple to eat as she waited for Sol to join her. He was the one who had a lot of lists to write and things to finish before heading out, not her. Of course, this could’ve easily been remedied if they’d just let her go by herself, but there was no point harping on about that by now.

“Took you long enough,” she remarked blandly as Sol came into view, looking equally unenthusiastic as she did. There’d been a time when she’d chide him playfully whenever she would arrive at their rooftop before him, but nothing in her voice or expression implied affectionate teasing. “Let’s get going.” The sooner they left, the sooner all this would be over. Once they were in the ghetto, hopefully she wouldn’t need to be stuck with him constantly. Ava was sure they’d both manage to find some excuse to go their separate ways for the final steps, claiming efficiency, or something plausible. Or perhaps they wouldn’t even need to kid themselves by providing excuses. After all, they both knew perfectly well why they didn’t want to be around each other.
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Offline Reigning King

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“Took you long enough.” She remarked as Solomon appeared in the loading bay, a pack on his back and arms full.  He kept his eyes from hers as he loaded his supplies into the rig along with the others. 

“Let’s get going.” She urged as he rounded the side and slid himself in front of the wheel.

“Not all of us have perfected the art of packing up and disappearing at a moment’s notice, like you have.” Solomon grumbled in return as the rig roared to life.  With little more than a glance in her direction the vehicle lurched forward, carrying them away from the safety of the Second Sons hideout. 

They drove in silence across the roadways that carried them in sweeping circles around the mountains.  The further they ventured from the coastline, the world around them became more barren and desolate.   Back in the time of the Old World, when God first sent down his plague, mankind fought tooth and nail against the inevitability of their own demise.  They rained fire down from the sky on entire cities, in which the rate of infection had skyrocketed past the point of salvation.  In their efforts to kill-off the plague, they killed their own world instead.  The earth had become infertile, poisoned.  Had there ever been any green within the vast plains of the Wastes, it had dried up a long time ago.  Now, the only thing for miles in any direction was sand and the wretched who lived among the dunes.  Scavengers, hunters… call them what you may, they were little more than buzzards, picking clean the bones of any life brave enough to cross the Waste Lands.

The dust and dirt kicked up behind their rig as they navigated the desert Wastes.  They maintained their stoney silence with one another as they weaved their way around the dunes, keeping their humble chariot on the high ground.  Though no words passed between them, they were on the same page.  Solomon kept his eyes ahead whilst Ava watched the rig that moved in the distance behind them.  They were scavengers, no one else would be out in the Wastes except such vagrants and thieves.  As the minutes turned into hours, the rig that pursued them had started encroaching, becoming closer and closer.  They were too far from the canyon to make a quick escape and it was more likely than not that the scavengers would gain on them before they reached it. 

To the East, over the ridge, a storm was brewing.  The winds whipped around them more violently, picking up the sands and sending them into swirling vortexes which dotted the Eastern horizon like a minefield.  It was towards this sandstorm that Solomon steered their rig.  Typically, one would try to avoid such a storm at all costs.  Instead, Solomon and Ava barreled straight towards it.  She caught onto the plan quick enough, eyes flicking to the man at her side before sweeping back to the vehicle that encroached relentlessly.  In a voice that was loud enough to be heard over the humming engine, but not so loud as for the words to be uttered in protest she said, “the storm…”

“I think I can lose them,” he said back, bringing the scarf around his neck up and over his nose.  “We’re going through.” Solomon told her, pulling his goggles down over his eyes.

They stopped after they had gotten past the worst of the storm.  Solomon banged against the rig and it’s ventilators, clearing away the sand.  Several leagues behind them, the storm raged on, moving through the Wastes.  With any luck, the scavengers that had been pursuing them were buried now beneath that sand.  Though he had been wearing a scarf around his face and goggles over his eyes, his skin was left worn and dry.  His mouth however, was even more so.  Leaning away from where he had been knocking the dirt from the rig, he spat on the ground and shook some of the sand from his beard.  Ava, who had been rinsing the dirt from her face with water, handed the tankard to him wordlessly. 

“Thanks,” he muttered, taking it from her and bringing the water to his lips.  He took a sip as his eyes scanned the horizon.  In an instant, he had forgotten about his thirst. 

“Get in,” he said in a distant voice to Ava as he moved back towards the rig.  “Get in, Sparrow!” He said again, louder this time as he slipped into the seat, Ava sliding in on the other side.  “We didn’t lose them.” Solomon said gravely as he pressed his foot down on the gas. 


They sped across the Wastes but the scavengers followed, gaining on them with each passing moment.  Whatever they drove, it was made of better stuff, a powerful engine spurring them forward.   The canyon was within sight, but they would try to cut off their targets before the pass.  Even sand-eating scum like them knew to stay clear of the rocky slopes beyond.  It was always the same with such creatures.  There would be no bartering, no reasoning.   They wanted the rig, along with anything and everything it carried that might allow them to stretch out their cursed existences by a few more days out in the harshness of the sands.  Solomon they would kill at once, likely in some barbaric fashion that spared them their bullets.  Ava however, they would take.  She was beautiful, healthy and young.  They wouldn’t honour her for those qualities.  What they would do to her… the thought alone made Solomon, change gears, pushing their rig forward a little faster.  The engine screamed in protest but the scavengers encroached on them all the same. 

“Take the wheel,” he told Ava.  As she scooted closer to him, replacing his hands on the steering wheel as he pulled his off, he began to turn in his seat.  Her leg slid in close to his, hammering down on the gas when his own foot lifted from the pedal. Reaching behind her, he pulled out a rifle from where it was tucked behind Ava’s seat.  Sliding open the hatch above them, the rifle emerged first, followed only by the very top curls of his brown haired head.  The bullets came, ricocheting off the steel frame they rode towards the canyon, but Solomon blocked them out as he trained his gun on the rig behind them.  He watched his target through the scope, exhaling slowly as he squeezed the trigger once, twice and by the third, the pursuing scavengers veered off suddenly. 

Turning back around, Solomon slipped back into his seat, taking over the wheel and handing the rifle off to the smuggler beside him.  The scavengers’ rig behind them corrected their course and pursued them again before backing off.  They were too close to the canyon now.  Whoever Solomon had shot, they hadn’t been able to get them out of the way in time to overtake the clunky Second Sons rig.  That of course, did not mean that they were safe yet.  In fact, as their chariot slowed, navigating the narrow passage of the canyon, Solomon reached for the handgun in the holster on his waist.  Pulling back the hammer against the wheel he steered with only one hand while the other stayed at his side, at the ready. 

“Eyes up,” Solomon told his passenger.  Her head tilted back as her gaze lifted to the upper rocks of the canyon, where shadowed figures had begun emerging, too many to count.  “Don’t start shooting yet.” He warned as she readied the rifle in her hands. 

The humble, four-wheeled vessel came to a stop when a line of armed men blocked their path.  They donned loose, lightweight linens to guard their skin from the harsh rays of the sun.  Their faces were obscured by helmets and goggles, defending them against both the slipping sand and the rocks that sometimes tumbled down from the top of the canyon upon them.  All of them were heavily armed and walked towards the rig in which Solomon and Ava sat, tensed and armed themselves. 

“You know the price for passage?” One man said, coming up on Sol’s side while the other positioned himself on Ava’s.

“We’re here to see The Librarian,” Solomon said back. 

“He sees no one.” The masked stranger returned. 

“He’ll see me.” Solomon answered back knowingly. 

“Look, pay the toll or fuck off back the way you came.”

“We’re not going anywhere.” They reached for their guns but before they could even get their hands around them, Ava and Sol had both lifted their own barrels, each pointed right between the eyes of the men that flanked them. 


“What do you think you’re gonna’ do?” The man asked.  “Shoot your way in?  We got more than twenty pairs of eyes on you right now.  We’ll blow you away in a second.” It was a menacing threat and in a different life Solomon might have retreated with his tail between his legs.  Not anymore, though.  That Solomon died years ago. 

“Then you’re coming with us.” He said back in a calm voice that was oddly matched against their dire circumstance.  “Look at my finger,” Solomon told him, though he couldn’t see the man’s eyes through his goggles, he knew he was looking where instructed to.  “This bullet is going to pass straight through your skull before the first one reaches me.” They were all frozen in a silent standoff for a time before a voice echoed along the narrow corridor of the canyon.  It came from a ways off, where upon a rocky ledge an old man stood before a scope, propped up on a three-legged stand. 

“Enough, Balthas!” The old man called.  “Let them pass.”

Solomon pulled his gun away from the man named as Balthas.  Letting it fall into his lap as the rig lurched forward, the others stepped aside to let Second Sons operatives through.  Solomon travelled up a ways before turning the rig into a familiar hollow at the base of the canyon.  The wheels came to a stop beside others of a similar size, though these were attached to motorbikes.  It was the preferred method of travel for men like Balthas and his fellow goons.  Solomon hopped out and Ava after him, each grabbing their packs and keeping their guns close at hand.  Most people didn’t travel through the canyon to get to the Wild Lands beyond.  The toll was one that most couldn’t pay, but the Librarian knew that Solomon was always good for it.  While it wasn’t Sol’s first time visiting with the enigmatic old man, it appeared to be a rare first for The Sparrow herself. 

“Come on,” Solomon urged her.  “You’re going to love this guy.  I spent some time here with him, before I found the Second Sons.”

The canyon had been hollowed out, creating a labyrinth within that seemed to stretch on forever.  It was hard to say which came first, the canyon or the Librarian.  Some believed that he had carved the stone himself, from boyhood into the winters of his life.  While the practicality of Solomon’s quick mind dismissed such nonsense, he had to admit it was a good story, one which suited the withering white-haired man they found.  It had been some time since he had seen the old man last, but he was glad to find he remembered the way well enough.  The Librarian stood with his back to his guests, looking out over the ledge that revealed the gaping mouth of the canyon.  It was Solomon who stepped forward first, but before he could even get a single word out, the aging man was filling the silence himself. 

“You have my payment, I trust?” He inquired politely.  He turned only when he could hear the rustling of Solomon reaching into his pack.  From amidst the various supplies he produced the coveted treasure. Two books, hard cover, good condition.  With furry white brows raised inquisitively, the Librarian held out his wrinkled hands.  Solomon closed the space between them and passed over the currency of paper and ink which this man valued above all else. 

“And how long are you staying?” He asked as he stroked at the spines lovingly.  The price was always the same.  One book to pass, two to stay. 

“Just the night. We need rest and fuel for the rig.” Solomon said in an even, transactional tone. 

“The payment is fair.” The Librarian told him with a nod.  “Who is this?” He asked, his eyes drifting to the woman who stood within his hallowed halls.  Ava didn’t need Solomon to speak on her behalf, and so he didn’t. 

“What a lovely name.” The Librarian observed as the smuggler introduced herself.  “Your feathers are different,” he noted ponderously, looking her up and down.  “You’re not of his flock.” He said, gesturing offhandedly to Sol.  It wasn’t a question.   Turning back to Solomon he started again saying, “you lot seem to be doing a great deal of outsourcing these days.” As he spoke, he stepped past Solomon down another narrow, stone hallway.  With a nod to Ava, both followed after him.  The Librarian led the pair into another chamber, one which climbed several dozen feet high, in each and every nook and cranny, a book.  Ava’s head tilted back as she beheld the vast collection, and with her eyes elsewhere, Solomon watched her. 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The Librarian said as he scurried to the nearest table, laying out his new treasures upon its surface to inspect them more thoroughly.  “They’re all from the Old World.” He explained as he sat himself before an array of tools and supplies.  “Eden has written a new story for mankind but someday, the old story will mean something. These words will mean something.” Looking back up to the guests who had joined him in his Library he offered them a wizened smile.  “After all, if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we must first know them.  Wouldn’t you say?” The question hadn’t been posed to Solomon, but rather Ava. 

“Go shake the sand from your boots and get some rest, my sons will bring you something to eat.” The Librarian told them.  They were all his sons, Balthas and all the other linen-clad warriors of the canyon pass.  Abandoned, lost, each of their stories differed were you to ask them how they came to find The Librarian. After that, they all shared a common tale.  He took them in, cared for them, taught them to read, gave them purpose.  To him, they really were his sons and he loved each of them as such.  To Solomon, they seemed naught but lost boys in search of a home.  They had all found one here, at The Library, with The Librarian.

Later, after the sun vanished behind the rocky terrain and the sky opened up into a masterpiece of sparkling light, Solomon found Ava atop of the canyon walls.  She lay on her back, gazing up at the stars in the night sky.  You couldn’t see such constellations back home, in Eden.  The glow of the city drowned out the distant balls of gas and fire that sparkled from so far away.  Out here, you could see it all.  Not wanting to disturb her peace, he inched closer on cautiously carried steps, sitting and then coming to lay on his back beside her.  For a while, they said nothing, only staring up at the worlds beyond them shining in the distance.  When one glowing light moved across the rest, Solomon lifted an arm to point it out. 


“Hey, look.” He said from Ava’s side.  “Do you remember when we used to think those were shooting stars?” He asked, a soft smile in his quiet voice. “And how angry we were when we realized we had been wishing on satellites?” Folding his hands over his stomach he watched the moving light as it disappeared into the endlessness of the horizon.  “Dead technology from the Old World, orbiting the atmosphere… it’s not quite as magical.”

Further silence followed his words, equal parts awkward and curiously serene.  She could have told him to leave, but she didn’t.   She could have got up and left herself, but she didn’t.  Ava did not speak in words, but in actions.  The fact that she stayed at his side, looking up at the night sky, meant that she was where she wanted to be. With renewed confidence, Solomon broke the silence of the night saying, “what you asked me, back at the base, why I’m doing this…”

“I told myself that I stopped being a believer the day I left Eden, but if I’m being honest, I stopped believing a long time ago.” If he didn’t know any better, he would have guessed that the day he stopped believing was the same day that she did as well.  The day they got their assignments.  The day destiny intervened and placed them upon separate paths. 

“I don’t know what I believe in anymore, or if I even believe in anything.” Solomon admitted.  “But I would like to believe in something again.” He told her.  “That’s why.”
« Last Edit: September 04, 2020, 04:32:45 PM by Reigning King »

King Kade - Reigning from the North


Character limits kill my vibe...


Offline asterin

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The breath left her in a huff as the rig started moving again, the rifle still cradled close to her body with her finger poised. By the way he had spoken, Sol knew who he was dealing with, but it would’ve been a lie to say that she’d felt at home being outnumbered by more than ten to one. Her gaze strayed to Sol briefly, as if to check for any signs of the boy she’d grown up with. The Sol she knew would have never--could have never. She knew that life outside the walls had a way of hardening people, but it was a drastic change that was hard to swallow.

Glancing warily around for the men that had once barred their way, Ava slid out the vehicle, gracing Sol’s commentary with only an unamused sound. She would’ve preferred to be told all this before they were facing down men bristling with guns, but she supposed that there hadn’t exactly been time to say anything when they were being chased down through a sandstorm by scavengers. Still--the Librarian. She’d heard of him and his brood--there weren’t a lot of things she hadn’t heard of, but this particular rumor had never been one she’d felt a need to chase after. No profit in it, really; at least, not the kind she sought. He had said he’d stayed here before joining the Second Sons...

The smuggler rolled the information around in her mind as she trailed after her companion, one hand brushing against the right side of the labyrinth. He seemed to know the way, but she wasn’t about to wither away in the middle of a puzzle if it turned out he didn’t. Fortunately for her, the path opened up and finally led up to an outcrop of rock where an old man stood with his back to them--the Librarian, presumably.

Her suspicions were proven correct as the white-haired man entered into talk of transactions with Solomon, eagerly taking the two volumes he was offered with extreme care. It seemed that Sol had planned for the chance that they would need the Librarian’s help. He seemed satisfied with his strange currency, but he wasn’t so taken with his new acquisitions that he was blind to the presence of a newcomer. “Who is this?” he queried, looking her way.

“My name is Ava,” she answered evenly, unafraid to meet his questioning gaze.

“What a lovely name,” he replied, as if they were participants at a party instead of dusty, bedraggled survivors of the wastelands. He eyed her thoughtfully before adding, “Your feathers are different. You’re not of his flock.”

A keen observation, she had to admit, even if it was cryptically worded. Her brows quirked briefly, the only sign of her amusement. “No, I’m not,” she acquiesced, giving him a small nod of acknowledgment. “It’s just for one job.”

“You seem to be doing a great deal of outsourcing these days,” the elderly man commented to Sol as he wandered past them, heading down a new corridor.

This time, they didn’t have to walk too far before he led them into a chamber--a chamber high enough to be several floors high on its own. With mute awe, she took in the sight of it all, for the walls appeared to be practically made of books. Spines of varying colors and thickness, height and size covered nearly every inch she could see, climbing up and up towards perhaps the sky itself. Her astonished thoughts were only reeled back towards the present as the Librarian spoke up, admiring his collection like a doting father. They were all from the Old World, he explained, before Eden had taken control of the narrative. He was preserving them for a future that had yet to come--for a time when they would not be deemed blasphemous by Eden, but something to learn from. He smiled at them, and he seemed as ancient as the books themselves, a relic from a time before everything had been caught up in the hellish renaissance. “After all, if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we must first know them,” he remarked, turning her way. “Wouldn’t you say?”

“You may be right,” she returned, caught off-guard by the sudden question. She took a breath, her brows creasing slightly as her gaze swept over the towering collection of tomes before meeting his eyes once more. “But...I’m not sure humans have ever been clever enough to fully avoid repeating their mistakes.”

The old man held her gaze thoughtfully, as if observing a strange new specimen under a microscope. He said nothing, only offering her a peculiar look before he dismissed them, telling them to get some rest--something she could easily oblige. She had no doubt that at least three pounds of sand would be shaken out of her clothes and boots...not to mention her hair.

The quarters she was directed to was a simple one, but far better furnished than some of the inns she’d visited. The same linen that the Librarian and his sons had been wearing made up the sheets and the mattress, while a rough wooden table and chair were placed in the corner. One she had peeled off her sandy clothes and dressed in her spares, she kicked them aside to dry before flopping down upon the bed. Food hadn’t yet arrived, and though she could feel the emptiness in her gut, she found the thought of sleep much sweeter. The tension and adrenaline had finally worn off, and for Ava, who often rose with the moon, it was time for some rest.


******************


All was still when she crawled up onto the highest point she could atop of their strange sanctuary. When night fell the temperatures tended to drop sharply, but she didn’t mind the cold. Sitting down upon the sandstone, she tipped her head back to look at the starry tapestry above. It was something she’d been doing for as long as she could remember--gazing up at the sky, whether it was night or day. She remembered the feeling of being held in her mother’s arms by the window sill as her mother pointed out winged creatures flitting by. Look Ava, birds. Just like you. Perhaps it was in that moment she’d believed the freedom to fly in the endless sky was her birthright, just like it was for her namesakes.

The Tithe Center had only one real window in her time--a portion in the high ceiling of the staircase outside of the dorms. She would sneak looks every chance she could get; sometimes it would be the inky night sky with only the brightest luminaries piercing the dark. Other times, she would see the tiny silhouettes of birds flying high above. Take me away with you, she remembered thinking. I can’t stay here.

Those desperate thoughts hadn’t changed when she’d left the Center and been enrolled in the Academy. In fact, she’d been watching sparrows frolicking from rooftop to rooftop when Solomon had first spoken to her, and her desperation hadn’t left her even when he’d taken her to his favorite vantage point in the city. If anything, it had crescendoed into something unbearable. For the first time since she’d arrived in Eden, it’d felt as if she could finally breathe. For the first time, she’d felt like if she stretched a little more, she’d finally touch her beloved sky. Stepping onto the raised edge of the roof, she’d stood on the tips of her toes, arms spread wide and her eyes fixed on the blue above, begging to be taken away or turned into a bird, anything, anything to escape--and just when she’d felt as if she might take flight, she’d felt a hand holding her back. When she’d turned, she had seen Sol there below her, refusing to let go.


Sol, who had never once looked frightened while they had climbed higher and higher, now looked afraid. She’d never had a reason to stay in Eden, and yet, in that moment, one had come forward. For what’d felt like years, they’d stood there hanging in delicate balance, still and silent, almost as if they were waiting to see who’d win. Then slowly, she’d stepped down from the ledge. I like it here, she’d said, offering him her first smile, and that had been that. Night after night they would meet under the star-studded sky, to point and make silly wishes. Most times she would be the first to arrive, always having less trouble sneaking out of the house than he did, and she would lie on her back to count what stars she could make out while she waited for him.

And just like she always had, she knew he was there before she heard his quiet footsteps approach. Her dark gaze flicked to him only once, when he was lowering himself onto the rock beside her, but her eyes found the stars soon after. Neither of them said anything in the all-consuming stillness of the night. It felt wrong to break it.

It wasn’t until she caught sight of a familiar fast-moving light in the sky that the silence was disturbed, Ava sucking in a breath before she’d quite realized it. In that same moment, Sol’s arm went up, a finger pointing out the very same twinkle she was tracking. “Hey look,” he began. “Do you remember when we used to think those were shooting stars? And how angry we were when we realized we had been wishing on satellites?” he recalled, his voice almost fond.

“Yeah, I do,” Ava answered shortly, only saying what felt utterly necessary. Of course she remembered, although--he had been angry, and she--well, she’d been something else. It was difficult to say exactly what she’d felt then, though she had voiced her displeasure alongside him--perhaps more disappointed than angry, a sinking feeling deep in her gut that had gone but of course. Perhaps it’d even been disappointment in herself, for believing that it could be a wish-fulfilling shooting star.

But to be honest, she’d been more upset to see how disappointed Sol had been.

As the veil of silence fell over them once more, she reached into the pocket of her jacket to pull her flask out. Even after Ava had left Eden behind, she could never quite stop looking up at the sky. She and Liv would sprawl out whenever they found a decent place, stargazing as she had done with Sol. Old habits died hard, even when partaking in them hurt like hell. Of course, a few gulps of Moonglow had always done the trick, keeping her comfortably numb. Bringing the flask to her lips, she let the alcohol run down her throat, a trail of fire that left ice in its wake. Savoring the sensation, she mulled upon the strange situation she had found herself in. If she’d been told that she would be looking up at the sky with Sol at her side again, she wouldn’t have believed it. At best, she would’ve thought it a bad joke--at worst, she would’ve taken it as a cruel insult, someone mocking what she had lost. She still wasn’t sure which it was. In some ways, it still didn’t feel real, like she would wake soon.

She didn’t turn as Solomon began speaking again, keeping her eyes fixed to the sky above. Still, she listened--and he continued speaking, as if he knew she would hear him out despite everything. Stopped believing a long time ago, huh. Well, she supposed he would have to be more than a little oblivious to keep believing everything he had after Eden had betrayed his trust. Still, that betrayal hadn’t been enough to convince him to run away with her. “I don’t know what I believe in anymore, or if I even believe in anything.” Sol confessed. “But I would like to believe in something again. That’s why.”

The smuggler let out a slow breath as she let the silence hang there for a little while, her fingers toying with the lid of the drinking flask.“I guess some things really don’t change,” she finally scoffed. “You still have a way of making everything sound so...pretty.” While the last word was meant to be mocking, she failed to give it the bite it needed, causing her to sound more wistful than anything else. Her dark eyes flicked towards him for a heartbeat.  “After seeing you in action today, I’d wondered.”

He’d always had a way with words that she hadn’t--it had perhaps been her favorite and least favorite thing about him, all at once. While many would have considered her sharp tongue more than enough in terms of skill with words, Sol’s talent slay elsewhere. Her words always cut to the bone, the marrow, dicing things up and reducing them to the ugly reality of truth, while Sol--he’d had a way of building up wonder, making everything more beautiful and wondrous than she knew they were, enough for her to fall for it. No, it wasn’t as if she’d been tricked. He’d just been so good at making everything so wonderful that she had wanted, more than anything, to see things the way he did. Everything seemed gentler in his world, more magical. She’d never been a believer in a deity, but she had wholeheartedly believed in him.

Ava had always considered those believers to be stupid and blind. She’d been no different. She took another swig before passing the metal flask over to Sol. “Drink,” she said shortly. “It’s only the best. Won’t give you as much as a headache in the morning.” When it seemed like he was hesitating, she shot him a look. “I have a rule now. No rooftop chats while sober.”

For a while the smuggler was quiet, going through the motions of swapping the flask back and forth. She wasn’t even really paying attention to whether he was actually drinking anymore--as long as she was drinking, it didn’t matter much, she supposed. It was a good thing he seemed reluctant to look at her, otherwise he might’ve been able to make out how red her face was, even in the gloom. While Ava wasn’t a lightweight and she wasn’t anywhere near drunk yet, it wouldn’t be long after she got a little alcohol in her system that her face would redden as if she’d been drinking for hours. Liv had always gotten a kick out of it. While it wasn’t necessarily a fun trait, it had some uses, as she’d found out over the years. It could be more than useful in bars, where some feigned incoherence and a flushed face would be enough to make people believe her to be harmless or underestimate her. Speaking of underestimating…

“You did good today,” Ava said, breaking the silence. “I’d almost forgotten how nice it was to have a partner in crime,” she then added quietly, more to herself than anyone else. While it was a sentiment she would’ve rather choked on than say while sober, even the considerable amount of Glow she had knocked back could not keep her from instantly regretting what she’d said. It was too honest, and it tasted like vulnerability. Taking one last angry, pointed gulp from her flask to wash it away, she twisted onto her side to face him as she’d done so often a lifetime ago.

“I’m not going to apologize for leaving without telling you,” she began brusquely, abruptly bringing the subject to the little comment he’d made in the morning. “Not because I don’t think it wouldn’t mean anything, but because I’m not sorry.” Her words were as callous as her stare, boring into his face as if she was daring him to get angry, to lash out in turn. “You didn’t have any room for me in your perfect little life anymore,” she continued bitingly, and it was difficult to keep the bitterness from her voice. “Just like I don’t have any room in mine for you anymore.”

After she felt that she’d spat out enough poison to set things back to their new status quo, she returned to her original position, glaring up at the sky. “Relax. I’m going to do my job. You’re a part of it,” she told him begrudgingly, though it almost sounded as if she was reminding herself of the facts at hand. “But don’t get me wrong. You better keep pulling your weight, because I’ve never risked my neck for someone I work with, and I won’t do it for you, either.”


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Offline Reigning King

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“... I’ve never risked my neck for someone I work with and I won’t do it for you, either.”

The words, though uttered in warning, brought a small smile to Solomon’s lips.  There had certainly been a time once when the famous smuggler, the Sparrow, would have done anything for the Eden-reared man at her side.  It would have almost been funny, if it weren’t so true.  After all, she was right.   They were different people, with different lives, and their broken pieces could no longer fit together.  Perhaps, they never did.  The real truth of it, was that there could never have been enough room in Sol’s life for someone like Ava.  She was a different kind of creature, one that needed her wings, her freedom.  Any life he could have given her, would have just been another cage she could not bring herself to suffer.  Solomon was not so vast and beautiful like the open, endless skies she craved.  He was only a man and he would have failed her eventually. 

“Fair enough,” he told her as he sat up, high upon their rocky perch.  The Sparrow looked to the sky above her, eyes lost among the stars.  As she did, Solomon looked at her.  The pale glow of the moon illuminated her red cheeks.  The years and whatever suffering they may have brought along with them had traced lines into her face and cast twisting shadows across once familiar features. If the girl he knew was somewhere in there, she didn’t believe in him anymore. 

“For the record,” he began as he pulled his long legs beneath him and rose to his feet.  Brushing the dirt from his pants he found her eyes in the stillness of the night as he said, “I’m glad you’re not sorry.”

Because I’m not either, he thought to himself as he turned from her, leaving her once more in the peace of her solitude. 

The next morning Solomon found himself at the rig, parked among the bikes of the canyon boys.  They moved around him, their white linens making them float like ghosts, bare feet upon the sand.  Though they whispered to each other and cast wary glances in his direction, none approached him.  That much suited Solomon just fine.  He was busy adjusting the rig and moving around their supplies as counterweights.  The Wilds were a navigation of even trickier terrain than the Wastes.  Solomon had been a good driver in Eden, but learning to drive out beyond the walls was a whole other monster he had to conquer, and conquer it he did.  The Second Sons always stationed him at the wheel, unless a more precarious position was called for, usually swinging off the back of a big-rig, making repairs as they fled from the hungry advance of scavengers or worse. 

“Hey,” one of the canyon boys said as he approached Solomon timidly.  Without a mask obscuring his face and heavy artillery obscuring the thin frame within his white linens, he looked to be just that; naught but a boy.  “I’m sorry about yesterday, we have rules y’know? I didn’t realize you were a friend of the Librarian.”

Friend is a strong word.” Solomon said back as he looked the skinny boy up and down.  “You’re Balthas?” He guessed.  When the linen-clad canyon boy nodded, Solomon extended a hand to shake, which was accepted eagerly.  “I’m Sol.” He said in a polite introduction, after a lifetime in Eden, he knew no other way.  “I’m sorry about shoving a gun in your face.” He offered in return.  “I didn’t recognize your voice.  You’re new, huh?”

“Yeah, couple months.” Balthas answered.  Solomon nodded at his words and turned back around, expecting that to be the end of their awkward little exchange.  When the canyon boy lingered, writhing his hands together nervously, Sol looked at him over his shoulder. 

“You need something?” He prompted.

“You’re with the Second Sons, aren’t you?” Balthas asked.

“I am.” Sol answered cautiously. 

“Take me with you.” An overly eager step forward carried him closer to Solomon.  In another life, the desperation and thinly veiled enthusiasm in the canyon boys eyes would have been enough to make the soft man bend.  Not anymore, though. 

“Ask the Librarian.  He’ll point you in the right direction.” The Second Sons operative replied easily. 

“I’ve asked every day since I got here,” Balthas returned, a little more of that desperation falling from his eyes and landing on his tongue.  “He won’t tell me.”

“Well, then that means you aren’t ready.” Solomon told him knowingly.  After all, he had been in this boy’s exact position five years ago. 

“But…” Balthas started, but Sol was talking over him. 

“Read the books he tells you to, do the jobs he sends you on.  When you’re ready, he’ll send you our way.”

“I came looking for a fight, not a teacher or a father figure or whatever he thinks he is to me.” Balthas volleyed back, a petulant whine in his tone that reminded Solomon too much of Egan. 

“When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Solomon said back with a lazy, dismissive wave of his hand. 

“The Librarian always says that.” The boy muttered. 

“I know.” Sol said, his back turned to the canyon boy as he continued his interrupted labour.

“What did he make you read?” Balthas asked, his voice quiet.

“The Three Musketeers was the first.” Solomon answered. 

“That’s on my list too.” The boy was looking down at his feet, kicking at the sands, and in spite of himself Solomon couldn’t help but feel bad for the kid.

“Look, I’m not in the business of picking up strays, but I’ll give you some advice.” Solomon said as he turned around to face the canyon boy directly.   “Just read the books, and be honest when he asks you about them because he’ll know if you’re lying.” Balthas watched him with wide dark eyes, looking up at him as if he were the picture of everything he had ever wanted to be.  It made Solomon feel sick.  “This is the first test, whether or not you’re willing to do the work.  If you aren’t, then you have no place with us.”

Balthas pursed his lips, considering Solomon’s words before showing him a toothy smile.  “Thanks, Sol.” He said pleasantly, some of the desperation but none of the enthusiasm leaving his voice. 

“Yeah, no problem.” He said, turning back around. 

“I’ll be seeing you soon.” Balthas spoke to Solomon’s back as he hurried away, sand slipping beneath his bare feet. 

The man who had read his way to the Second Sons didn’t turn around, but muttered in a quiet voice to himself, “hopefully not too soon, kid.” The last thing he needed was another lost puppy following him around.  Egan was already too much of a handful. 

Ava announced her presence by dropping her pack into the rig noisily and sliding herself into the seat.  She knew what lay beyond the canyon and as Solomon walked up to the side of the rig and put himself behind the wheel, he noticed her loading clips and counting bullets.  When the engine stayed silent and the wheels unmoving, she turned to the man beside her with asking eyes.  He held her gaze for a moment before finally uttering, “we’re going to Quiet Town.”

It was at once clear by the way her features twisted that she was in objection to this particular plan.  The town itself was one of the last safe places without walls between Eden and the canyons that separated the Wastes from the Wilds.  It was named for the eerie silence of the place.  Passing through it, you would never see the signs of those who lived amongst the crumbling ruins of what had once been a charming rural township, until of course their bullets came raining down upon you.   That is, if you didn’t get caught in the many traps laid for wandering Fallen.  The place had earned a certain notoriety, the reputation enough for travelers of the in-between to steer clear from its overgrown streets.   Ava likely had a mind to point out as much but Solomon was talking over her, saying, “they’re with us.”

“The leader, Reverend Joe, he’s one of ours.” He explained after a beat.  After a minute, the smuggler seemed to concede.  Giving a nod, Sol faced the road ahead, easing his foot onto the gas as their humble rig lurched into motion, carrying them off and into the Wilds.

« Last Edit: September 04, 2020, 04:31:17 PM by Reigning King »

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Offline asterin

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Once again left alone, the smuggler known as the Sparrow looked silently upon the moon and stars that glittered above her. For the record, I’m glad you’re not sorry. The words still hung in the nighttime still, whisper-quiet and yet insistent. Her expression soured, caught between bitterness, loneliness, and some other emotion before it finally settled on something much easier: anger. Screwing open the flask, she knocked back an extra-long draft of the spirit for good measure, glowering at the empty space he had inhabited minutes earlier. She understood the sentiment that had gone unsaid just as well as what he had said, and she also understood that he meant it. The question, of course, was if she had.

It wasn’t something she wanted to dwell on. It would only make her waste more Glow, and while she always kept a bottle on hand to keep her flask filled, she knew that it was best for her to stop drinking. After all, it was getting late, and they would depart early in the morning--or at least, that’s what she hoped. Tucking the metal flask away, she rose from the stone and returned to her quarters, lest the fog came rolling in for her.

Despite being a light sleeper, Ava didn’t have any issues sleeping in strange places. After all, her occupation called for her to travel around the twelve cities and beyond. She could sleep as well in a ditch if it came down to it. Fortunately, the simple mattress laid out in her room, while slightly lumpy, was far more comfortable than a ditch, and sleepy came mercifully quick.

Morning seemed to come even more quickly, and she rolled out of bed with an air of purpose tinged with reluctance. She packed her things and double-checked them, making sure none of the residents of the canyon had any sticky fingers. Satisfied, she stepped out into the hallway--only to be surprised by the white-haired man outside the door, seemingly waiting for her. She offered him a slight nod in greeting, shouldering her pack a little more securely. What did he want?

“Good morning,” the older man began pleasantly. “I thought you might need assistance finding your way back to the rig.”

“I’ll be fine on my own,” she answered, though her tone was cordial. “Thank you,” she then added for good measure, a bit belately. Just like Sol, pleasantries and manners had been drilled into her during her time in Eden, and while she’d managed to perform well enough when it’d been called for, such things had never seeped into her bones. They’d been abandoned along with anything else she could shed that had come from Eden--well, everything but the memories. Those couldn’t be excised even if she wanted.

Her clumsy manners didn’t seem to offend the Librarian, who only nodded primly. “Ah, I see,” he remarked. When she began to move past him with another nod, however, he cleared his throat, indicating that he had not yet finished his business with her. As she turned with an inquisitive brow raised, he extended a package towards her. “Take this with you,” he clarified when she did not take it right away.

Carefully taking the item from his wrinkled hands, the smuggler turned the parcel over in her own grasp with an appraising eye. It was wrapped in a short bolt of cloth and tied into place with a length of string, but despite the wrapping, she could tell from the shape and weight what lay within. “Should you be handing these out like this?” she asked casually, looking up at the wizened old man with hidden curiosity in her gaze. “Your collection won’t be much of one if you do.”

“On the contrary. It’s what the libraries of the Old World did, after all,” the Librarian told her, smiling mysteriously. “I am merely lending it, mind you,” he continued, a stern edge returning to his voice. “I expect it to be returned in pristine condition.”

“When?” she tossed back lightly.

“When you have finished reading it, of course,” he answered matter-of-factly, and to that she nodded, opening her bag to squeeze the new bundle in. When she met the elderly man’s gaze again, she found him watching her in that measured way once more. “You’re not from outside the walls, are you? It’d be rare for you to be literate if you were,” he observed. When she narrowed her eyes suspiciously, he went on to explain. “Most would object straight away if they were illiterate. Not only that, you didn’t even bother to unwrap it to check that it wasn’t too difficult or in a language you couldn’t read.”

“Perhaps I don’t care whether or not I can read it,” she countered. “Maybe I simply can’t say no. Or maybe I’m just interested in seeing whether I can sell it.”

“Perhaps. But you don’t strike me as such,” the Librarian replied, unfazed. “I’ve come across many different souls in my years. There’s something about you, I feel.” He paused thoughtfully. “From Eden?” he posed the question contemplatively.

“Yes,” she answered, finding no reason to lie when he had already reached the correct conclusion. “But I’m originally from Shimon City.”

At that, his thick white eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You remember?” At her wordless nod, he once again regarded her thoughtfully. “What a curious creature you are. It’s a pity you never came my way when you first made your flight.”

“You take in girls too?” Ava asked, a hint of amusement in the curl of her mouth. While she hadn’t looked closely at the Librarian’s brood, she didn’t recall seeing any girls.

“Of course,” the elderly man stated. “Though here with me, they are all my sons.” He tilted his head meaningfully. “I imagine you would understand the reason for that.”

That, she did indeed. As a smuggler, she was familiar with the seedy underbelly of every city, and kept a finger on the pulse of trade. Though the Sparrow was known for being a skilled smuggler like none other, a professional who balked at nothing, she had a strict rule when it came to goods that were distinctly human--and it was not for lack of work. It was good that this caretaker took extra precautions to make sure that the girls who came under his care were not targeted--although, she imagined it was a disguise that wouldn’t last forever. Regardless, what happened afterwards wasn’t really her concern now, was it? She had places to be. “Well, I believe Sol is waiting,” the young woman gestured down the hall as a way to end the conversation.

“Of course. Safe travels,” the Librarian told her amiably, waving her off, but not before nodding at the backpack which housed his precious gift. “Don’t forget to bring it back when you’ve finished reading it,” he reminded her, meeting her dark eyes with something of a smile. “And maybe when you do, you’ll let me hear your story.”

She paused, returning his gaze. “Maybe,” she echoed with a nod. Then she turned and strode off down the corridor--but she could feel his steady eyes following her the entire way.



**************


 It was fairly easy to see the transition from the Wastes to the Wilds--the dry, barren landscape began to soften into something less dusty, slowly growing greener. First, some patches of brownish-green shrubs or dried up trees would dot the plains, taking up more and more of the road before them until finally, vibrant life was in full display: wildflowers and ferns swaying in the breeze and trees thick with foliage sprouting tall and proud. The further they travelled towards Eden, the greener it would get--the ‘holy’ city serving as the epicenter of all water.

Their travels in the rig had been just as silent as the one that had come the day before, though she would be lying to herself if she didn’t acknowledge that there had been exactly two times she had taken a breath to say something, only to think better of it. There was no point in trying to fraternize. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t anything to be said--rather, it was that there was too much to be said, there wasn’t a place to start. In the end, the effect was the same: silence. Had the drive been a less bumpy one, she might’ve taken out the Librarian’s little gift and perused through it. After all, she hadn’t even touched the packaging, and she didn’t know what sort of book the enigmatic man had thought so perfect for her as to part with it, even temporarily. Then again, she felt reluctant to pull it out in Sol’s presence, as it would likely spark conversation.

At least where they were headed, conversation wasn’t a thing.

Her lips pulled back into a brief grimace as the dilapidated township appeared on the horizon. Quiet Town--a place notorious among the network of smugglers she had entered years ago. She herself had never been stupid enough to travel through Quiet Town. Unlike many others, the creatures that stalked the Wilds were not a threat to her, at least not in the way they were for those who hadn’t been proven immune. It didn’t mean she could traipse into a horde and think they wouldn’t tear her to shreds, but it gave her the freedom to move more quickly than others could afford to. Although, Ava doubted that she would have gone near it even if she hadn’t been Immune. Rumors spread swiftly in the underground. What she had heard of this place--of the man running it, a religion obsessed fanatic who spoke only in scripture--was more than enough to keep her away. Eden had fed her enough scriptures for more than a lifetime.

She questioned why the Second Sons would ally themselves with a loon. Then again, she knew that the Second Sons weren’t in the habit of looking gift horses in the mouth when it came to rallying against Eden. They had likely seen the position of Quiet Town and its unique defenses and deemed it a strategic move to put aside what they did not agree with and focus on the things they did. She supposed she could do the same for now.

Still, she couldn’t help but feel reluctant as she hauled herself out of the rig after Sol, who was trekking up to the shambled remains of the town entrance. She caught up to him as he stood on the threshold, glancing between him and the seemingly abandoned ruins that she knew to be bristling with hostiles. Instead of calling out to them, however, he bared his arm, brandishing the mark of the Second Sons and raising it up into the air. When she didn’t follow suit, he looked down at her, jerking his chin to the arm he held aloft. “I know you have one,” he muttered.

“I don’t,” she grumbled back. To his disbelieving gaze, she let out a huff, yanking up the sleeve covering her right arm. “I don’t have one anymore,” she repeated, revealing the new mark that covered what had once been the symbol of the Second Sons. The toppled cross with the distinctive slashes through it were gone, replaced by another tattoo that had been inked over it: a sparrow in flight, wings spread wide. “It’s been nearly nine years since I left. D’you really think I’d leave it there?” she continued to explain. “It’s a stupid risk.”




Unfortunately, even if it’d been a smart decision for her job as a smuggler, it wasn’t likely that her logic was going to be understood by those lying in wait for them. After all, their suspicion of outsiders had kept them alive, just like anybody out in the Wilds or the Wastes. Well, in that case, there weren’t many other options for Ava. She exhaled again, this time more of a sigh than a huff. Pulling down her right sleeve, she drew up the left instead, showing her forearm, wrapped up in linen bandages. She removed the clip with her teeth and unwound the strip of cloth, revealing skin marked from the bandages--but also another mark, distinctive in shape. A bite mark, clean and very much human--undeniable proof that she was an Immune from Eden, a runaway defector. It was this arm she raised to display, hopefully enough to grant them the refuge that they sought.
.。*゚+.*.。bury me in the stars +..。*゚☾+