Three climbed the back staircase with heavy steps. Weary. Far more so than he felt he should’ve been. He was used to being the one on the hunt, not the other way around. It was a slow burn, never being able to rest, never feeling safe; it was beginning to take its toll. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this fatigued. The guards at the gate… he shook his head. Losing his edge, when he needed it most. And he wasn’t sure when he’d get it back.
He hoped he’d get it back.
The stairwell was poorly lit, and its corridor was so narrow Three had to twist his torso to keep his shoulders from rubbing the walls on either side. An iron door stood guard at the top, painted over with some kind of pale green rubberized coating. There was no landing. The stairs just dead-ended at the base of the door. Three stood on the last step, gathered himself. Mol was in there. Always tough to see her.
Before he had a chance to buzz in, heavy mechanisms slid and chunked inside the door, and it swung away from him, and light flooded into the corridor, and she was there. She gave a little yelp, and in an instant her arms were around his neck.
“What are you doing here? Did you just get in? Does Twitch know you’re here?” Her perfume hit him: gentle, faint, but like a sledgehammer of memory. Like rain and moonlight on the ocean. And he was suddenly conscious of all the sweat and grime thick on his skin.
“Heya, Miss Mol.”
He dropped his hand on the middle of her back, gave her half a squeeze. Careful to avoid the jack and steel housing at the base of her spine. She pulled back, beaming.
“Don’t you ‘Miss Mol’ me! What are you doing here?”
“Passing through.” He tried to smile. It came out broken.
“Well, get in here. You bring anything with you?”
“Yeah, more than usual. Couple of guests this time.”
“Oh,” she said, obviously surprised. “OK. Well bring ’em on up. You need help with your gear?”
“No, I got it. You sure it’s alright?”
Her expression went flat, like he’d insulted her. She swatted his shoulder.
“Go get your gear and your friends. You see Twitch yet? I think he was heading out…”
“Yeah, on the way in.”
“Good. That means he won’t be gone all day. You sure I can’t help you with anything?”
“You’re helping me now,” he said, and winked at her involuntarily. “Be right back.”
She nodded and as he turned and headed back down the stairs, he could feel her watching him. When he was about halfway to the bottom, he heard the little whirs and clicks of her walking back into the upstairs apartment. The sound of the servos and micro-hydraulics that made her lifeless legs useful. The sound that broke his heart, every time.
He found Cass and Wren where he’d left them. Cass hadn’t touched her drink. Wren’s was empty.
“Hey,” Cass said when she saw him. Her expression shifted. “You OK?”
He nodded. “Mol’s waiting upstairs.”
“A sweetheart. jCharles’s wife.”
He grabbed his pack, swung it up on a shoulder. Reached down and took Cass’s in a hand. Paused. Nodded towards Wren. “He ever seen a nerve-rig before?”
Cass thought, shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“It gonna be a problem?”
“Half. Just the lower.”
Cass nodded, understanding. Something in her eyes said more than Three wanted them to. He had the disquieting sense that she was starting to get a read on him. She looked down at Wren, still sitting in her lap. Spoke quietly.
“Wren, the person we’re going to see upstairs has a special machine. To help her walk. It might look a little strange, but we don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, OK? So we’re not going to stare at her, or ask her about it, OK?”
“Is she sick?”
Cass looked up to Three. He shook his head.
“No. She got hurt. A long time ago.”
A long time ago. As clear as yesterday.
Three hoisted their packs, shook Cass off when she tried to help.
He led them back up the stairs, letting the burden of all the gear focus his mind on something other than Mol. The first few minutes were always the hardest.
She’d left the door cracked open, so Three nudged it with the top of his head and leaned in.
He heard her moving around in the back room.
“Just throw your stuff anywhere,” she called. “I’ll be there in a sec.”
Three pushed in, slung the packs in an out-of-the-way corner by the door. Glanced around the apartment. Pretty much the same. The door opened right into the main room; a large, comfortable space that somehow seemed wider inside than the building had looked on the outside. It was warmly decorated, with oversized furniture. Old, dark woods. A kitchen was off to one side, and the other side led to the back room where Mol was now, which Three knew had a storage area in addition to jCharles and Mol’s bedroom.
“What are those?” Wren asked, looking at the one oddity in the apartment, across the room. jCharles’s life’s work, obsession, and personal treasure all in one, stacked on shelves that ran nearly the entire height and length of one wall.
Collected, scavenged, rescued, and restored. Ancient works, last known copies in existence. Masterpieces standing alongside some of the worst specimens of the written word ever penned by man. All worth saving, as far as jCharles was concerned.
“What do they do?”
“They’re full of words, baby,” Cass answered. “Stories and things. From a long time ago.”
He moved closer, touched the spine of a cracked leather-bound volume.
“Let’s not touch them, sweetheart,” Cass said.
“Oh, it’s alright,” Mol answered, coming in from the back. “They’re meant to be touched.”
She walked over to Cass with her hand extended. “I’m Mol.”
“Cass. This is my son, Wren.”
Wren turned away from the books, moved closer to his mother.
“Hi, Cass. Hello, Wren.” She knelt with some difficulty down to Wren’s level. “My goodness if you aren’t the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Any chance you’re an angel?”
“No, ma’am,” he said quietly.
“Ma’am? Now I’m sure you’re an angel. Your mama must be quite a woman to be raising an angel. That is no easy task.” She glanced up at Cass. “You might want to keep him away from that one, though.” She nodded at Three, with a smile. “No telling what he’ll teach him when you’re not looking.”
“I don’t like what he’s been teaching him when I am looking,” Cass replied with a shrug, smiling back. “But he’s been taking care of us so far.”
“Yeah, he’ll do that too.”
Both women were looking at him now, and Three was suddenly uncomfortable. It was strange seeing them there, in the same place, right next to each other. Three’s carefully separated worlds colliding. He glanced away, surveying the apartment again for no real reason. Changed the subject.
“Twitch stayin’ out of trouble?”
“Have you met him?” Mol answered, lightly sarcastic. She struggled back up to her feet, and Three reflexively reached out to take her hand. She accepted the help, her hand warm and strong in his. Her blue eyes sparkled up at him. Even at her full height, she was nearly a foot shorter. Her voice dropped, tone warm and reassuring. “He’s fine, Three. We’re fine.”
Mol’s eyes held his steady gaze for a moment. Strong. But concerned. She looked away, to Cass and Wren.
“You make yourselves right at home. Bedroom and bathroom are back there. If you want to take a shower or anything, you let me know. Sleep, whatever you want. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”
Three realized he was still holding her hand. He let go, busied himself taking off his coat and harness.
“Thank you,” Cass said. “This is really kind of you.”
“Selfish, really. Place like Greenstone, we don’t get a lot of chances to host company. Have to milk it when we can.”
Three noticed Cass was standing with the fingertips of one hand pressed in on the arm of a chair. Subtly keeping her balance.
“It’s alright if you wanna lie down, Cass,” he said. “Been hard goin’.”
Her eyes flicked to his. He knew she’d never admit it, but she needed it. He nodded.
“Go lie down,” he said, firmly. No longer an option.
“Isn’t there something I can do? I feel bad just coming in and taking over…”
“Sweetheart, go on back there and rest up,” Mol said. “Bed’s all ready. If you’ve been keeping up with this brute all day, I’m surprised you can even stand. Not to mention your little one.”
“Yeah, it’s been a long road,” Cass replied. “We came all the way from the Vault.”
Three winced, at least internally. He’d meant to tell Cass not to mention it. Forgotten. His expression must’ve caught her attention, because she looked over at him, and her face changed suddenly.
“The Vault?” Mol turned and looked back at Three, excited. “How’s Gev? Big goon hasn’t pimmed in like a month.”
Three stilled himself. Kept his eyes on Cass. She understood now. Pressed her lips tightly together, in a silent apology.
“Wren, baby, why don’t you come lie down with me for a little while?”
“I’m not sleepy, Mama.”
The boy didn’t know what was going on, but he understood his mama wasn’t requesting. He slipped his hand into hers and let her lead him back towards the bedroom. Mol’s gaze hopped from Three to Cass, and back again. Excitement beginning to drain.
“Three. Did you see Gev?”
In the back, Cass quietly closed the door. Mol didn’t turn, just looked intently at Three. Her eyes different now. Wider, unsteady. Searching his.
He could feel himself telling her before he even opened his mouth. Tears had already started to well in her deep blue eyes.
“He’s gone, Mol.”
He heard the servos whine and click, and reached out to grab her elbows, supporting her before she sank to the floor. Pulled her close. She buried her face in his chest, clung to him fiercely. After a moment, shock gave way and her body began to shake with quiet sobs, her tears soaking his shirt. He held her for a long while, silently sharing the grief, tormented by her closeness.
Night had fallen, and outside the high and guarded walls of Greenstone the unearthly cries of the Weir echoed amongst the urban labyrinth, answers to their own calls. Together, jCharles and Three stood atop the roof of the Samurai McGann, looking down on the throngs flowing in the street below, snaking through each other like streams intertwined. The women and the boy had remained in the apartment beneath, leaving the men undisturbed to attend to their business.
“I don’t know how many times I tried to talk him into coming here,” jCharles said, more to himself than to Three. He took a pull on his stimstick, held it. He’d handled the news better than Mol, but Three knew it’d take him longer to actually come to terms with Gev’s death. jCharles exhaled with the sudden puff of a humorless laugh. “Said he couldn’t handle all the noise.”
Mol would grieve hard and fast. Twitch, well… he had a history of holding on to things.
“Sure, much better to live playing doorman to a bunch of trash-hunters,” he continued, “and die as one.”
Three just stood silently, letting the distractions below draw his attention. Twitch wasn’t talking to him so much as he was thinking aloud. Processing. No need to interrupt.
“The noise.” jCharles took another drag on the stimstick, held it, let out a breath like an extended sigh. Flipped some internal switch, packaged up whatever he was feeling about Gev. He’d deal with it later. “So you settling down, or what?”
“Wouldn’t blame you if you were. Cass… she’s sharp. And a real looker, you know.” Three shrugged. jCharles smiled. “Yeah, you know. Kid’s cute, too. You don’t watch it, Mol might squirrel him away somewhere, keep him for herself.”
jCharles hadn’t meant it that way, but Three felt the cut anyway. Mol had wanted her own for as long as he could remember. And she’d had one, for the briefest, cruelest time.
jCharles turned to face him, serious.
“What’re you doing, man?”
“Standin’ here listenin’ to you, Twitch.”
“I mean it, Three. This isn’t like you. Traveling heavy. People in tow. I know it’s not for the money, ’cause you’d never take a job like this. And you look tired, brother. Real tired. So what’re you doing?”
It was the question Three still couldn’t answer. Or maybe wouldn’t. A woman in a yellow coat floated through the crowd below, with the flow but not of it. A bright leaf atop the current.
“The right thing, I hope,” he said. “We’ll see.”
“Is it the good guys or bad guys chasing them?”
jCharles leaned over the edge of the roof and spat, watched as it tumbled towards the street below. Another pull on the stimstick.
“Listen, man. You wanna do you the penance thing, that’s your gig. But Mol and me, we never put that on you. You know that. We never put that on you. Don’t pick it up on our account.”
“It’s not like that,” Three answered, hoping it was true.
“I hope not. ’Cause no matter how it ends, Jakey’s not coming back.”
They stood in silence for a time, and Three wondered what outcome he was hoping for out of all this. He’d been too busy fighting for that next minute to stop and think what it’d be like when it was all over. Cass and Wren would be with Wren’s father, whoever he was. At some point, Cass would die. And what? He would go back to living the life he’d led before they stumbled into it? No matter what else happened from here, he already knew that was impossible.
“Well, here’s the deal,” jCharles said. “Bonefolder’s people are going to meet us tomorrow.”
“Meet me tomorrow.”
“Us. Tomorrow afternoon. You convince them you can make it worth their while, they’ll kick it up the chain, and with some luck you’ll be on your way out.”
“I appreciate the introduction, Twitch. But stay out of the way.”
“They won’t talk to you without me,” he replied, stern. “And if it goes bad, you’re gonna need the help.”
“That’s why I don’t want you anywhere nearby. It goes bad, I disappear, easy. They know where you live.”
“Then don’t let it go bad.”
Three knew he couldn’t argue it. It was Twitch’s turf, he’d go where he wanted. “Fine. And the quint?”
“Stack I got her today was a street job. Bigger quantities, I’ll have to go Downtown.”
“We’re going to need more than the stack.”
jCharles eyed him. “What’s she burning?”
“Told me fifty a day.” jCharles let out a low whistle in surprise. Three hadn’t even hit him with the real numbers yet. “But she was lying. Hard to tell, since I don’t know when she boosts. I’m guessing one-fifty, maybe as much as two hundred.”
“No. No way,” Twitch shook his head. His tone was patient but dismissive, as if Three, not well-versed in the world of chems, couldn’t be expected to know just how far off his estimate had to be. “Girl that size, that much would wreck her.”
“Already has. But I dosed her with Trivex myself before we got here.”
“Trivex is different—”
“A full jector, five doses. At once.”
jCharles stopped arguing. “Guess we’re going Downtown, then.”
“Yeah. It’ll be interesting,” said Twitch, deactivating the stimstick and sliding it into a thin pocket on the sleeve of his coat. “Like old times.”
jCharles chuckled and turned towards the hatch leading back down to the apartment. He called back as he walked away. “Get some sleep, brother. World’ll look lighter and brighter tomorrow.”
Three held his ground. “You sure you can’t find us another place to crash? Doesn’t have to be fancy. Cellhouse would be fine.”
jCharles stopped, threw a look over his shoulder. “Don’t do that. It’s insulting.” Three felt the admonishment, the hard tone. A tense moment lingered, jCharles letting Three know he was serious. Then, he opened the hatch and headed back inside, softening the blow as he went. “Besides, Mol would kill me.”
Three knew it wasn’t fair, coming into their lives and at the same time, trying to maintain distance. But the trouble on his trail now was like none he’d known before. And he’d sworn he wouldn’t bring that to their doorstep. Not again. Never again.
He stayed on the roof late into the night, not wanting to face Mol again. Not wanting Wren to see him. Not wanting Cass to look in his eyes again. His mask was cracking, he knew. And he couldn’t afford for any of them to see that for the first time in long years, Three was standing on the edge of tomorrow, and was desperately afraid.