Chapter 7: The Connection
"Who are you?"
The quietness of the voice belied the deadly threat stirring under its surface. Gideon jerked into consciousness immediately from his semi-dreamlike state.
A rush of images detailing why he could be killed in the next few seconds tumbled through his mind. Grey Healer's coat. Arms around defenseless eight-year-old.
He wasn't getting it out fast enough. Abruptly he found himself pinned on the ground, arms twisted behind him, face buried in the dust. His attacker had his knees in his back.
He recognized Mara's voice. The pressure in his back eased slightly and he could lift his face far enough out the dirt to spit "Gideon. Gideon," with frantic intensity.
The knees moved off his back, and the grip on his arms was loosened. He scrambled into an upright position.
The face he gazed into was deep brown and liberally freckled. Sandy blonde hair—overgrown and tied back with string—almost covered his with sharp brown eyes glimmering out of it. The figure was surprisingly small—he could have been about Mara's age, maybe a year or two older—but his entire body was a network of wiry muscle.
"You're Gideon." He paused briefly, then turned to Mara. "Does Zekai know about this?"
Mara nodded quietly, subtly inching back to Gideon's side as Naphtali looked back toward the cabin for a moment.
"Well. That's good, I guess. You've been gone a long time." His voice held a mixture of attempted friendliness and residual distrust.
Gideon sighed. "So I've heard."
Mara didn't follow them back to the cabin. Gideon, seeing her expression, wanted to stay with her. But the firmness with which Naphtali had suggested that they return and talk to Zekai hinted that it wasn't really a suggestion.
Gideon found himself again wondering who had helped Mara while he'd been gone. Had anyone been there for her? The thought of her spending her days and nights alone in that graveyard made him feel sick.
He was trying to push this to the back of his mind as he trailed through the door behind Naphtali. Zekai looked up, startled, from the tiny hummingbird in his hand.
Caoimhe jumped up, sending the bird perched on her shoulder buzzing away indignantly.
"Tali!" She rushed up and threw her arms around Naphtali, and he smiled despite himself. Gideon thought he vaguely remembered seeing this before, and that Caoimhe had always been his favorite.
"Gideon! You gotta see what—"
"We need to talk to Zekai, Keevie." Naphtali cut in. "Hold on."
Zekai stood up carefully to avoid jostling the hummingbird. After placing it on Caoimhe's shoulder, he folded his arms, waiting.
"So this is really Gideon?" Naphtali spoke hesitantly, glancing at Gideon again as though to make sure he was still there.
"Yes." He grinned. "Don't you remember how he looks?"
"I was what? Three?"
"No need to get so defensive."
"I'm not defensive."
"Really? Sounded pretty defensive to me."
"Look, you—" Naphtali clenched his fists, then unclenched them. "You're so blinkin happy all the time. I'm trying to… figure something out, here."
"What's there to figure out?"
"I dunno." He shrugged. "Nothin. I'm gonna go outside."
Zekai opened his arms in mock surprise. "But you just got home! Don't you want to—"
The door slammed shut. Zekai shrugged. "Well, I guess it was a little sudden—he's gone for two weeks, comes back and suddenly you're here—"
Caoimhe suddenly burst out, "Gideon, you gotta see what I taught the hummingbirds to do!"
Zekai nodded. "Oh, yeah. It's pretty amazing. Come on, we don't have to stand next to the door like this."
When they were all comfortably seated on the floor or, in Zekai's case, a chair, Caoimhe clapped, summoning the two hummingbirds like tiny green bullets.
"I named them, too," she said proudly. "I named them after the tricks they can do. This is Smudge." She indicated one of the hummingbirds. "And when I say 'GO'—"
Suddenly it shot across the room in a blur of green. Gideon blinked, and it had disappeared out the window.
"He's really fast. He looks like a green smudge when he's going like that." She then pointed to the other, which was hovering obediently around her. "And this is Coil. All I have to do is trace out a pattern—" She twirled her finger in circles down to the floor, "And say 'MIMIC'—"
The second bird suddenly dove to the floor in a strange spiral, almost as quickly as the first. When it flew up to perch on Caoimhe's shoulder, the other shot back through the window and landed on her other shoulder.
"She can fly around everywhere and make it look like there's a million of her, too. But I like the twisting trick the best."
Gideon nodded, trying not to let his amazement write itself all over his face. "I—didn't know hummingbirds could be trained to do that. Or trained at all, actually."
"Well, they can." Caoimhe drew herself up proudly.
He grinned. "Apparently."
Zekai commented later that night that he thought hummingbirds hadn't always been that intelligent. But many animals had adapted in various ways to the changed environment after the Echo Plague. In some cases, he thought that maybe the plague itself had caused some adaptations.
As he was trying to fall asleep, Gideon found himself examining his hands in the silvery moonlight streaming in through the window above his mat. As he turned them over and let the light hit them at different angles, he could see the Maverick marks scattered over them. His iron ring shone dully against his skin, which was washed pale by the moon.
He shrugged and shoved them under the blanket, trying not to dwell on it. But he couldn't help remembering that further up his arm, in the crease of his elbow, was a small, round bruise from the larantha vaccination he'd gotten a few weeks ago—
--a vaccination he was due for again in another month.
Further up his arm was a tattooed cross that was usually hidden, signifying that he was a Healer even without his grey coat. And under his left collarbone was an ID number, and the word "HEALER" was printed across his heart, in case someone had to identify his body. Under those letters a fireproof id plate had been implanted under his skin—and it would be all that remained if he was cleansed.
He turned over onto his stomach, forcing his eyes closed. He was marked Grey over his entire body.
But his hands told a different story.
Gideon focused on this thought until sleep unfocused everything.
The sun was so bright as their house burned to ground.
But the clouds that had been gathering that afternoon had moved to cover the sun. The world was sheathed in silver, and the coats of the Grey were perfect camouflage.
Gideon, carrying two-year-old Mara, stole out of the cabin in relative darkness and headed for the graveyard. He was briefly afraid, not knowing where Naphtali, Shaine, Zekai, or Althaea were or whether they had escaped. But he clenched his teeth and continued, knowing that his mother would have advised the same—go where you agreed to be. They will be there, or they won't be.
The rain didn't hesitate—it immediately began tumbling down in sheets of cold, drenching him as he tried to cover Mara as best he could. She was fortunately quiet.
When he arrived at the graveyard, he immediately handed Mara to Althaea, who was so pale that he whispered automatically,
Her eyes were empty and unfocused, as though she'd just attempted a healing. She closed them and murmured,
"What? What happened to Zekai?"
Instead of answering, she grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the other side of the graveyard.
Zekai was propped against a stone angel marking a grave of a child. His skin was without color, and covered in chillbumps. Only the unsteady, jerky rise and fall of his chest indicated that he was still alive.
"They brought Healers. They knew there were children," Althaea whispered. "One of them found Zekai—oh, Gideon, this is worst thing that could have possibly happened—"
"How did he escape?"
"The Healer left to speak to one of the officers—he thought Zekai couldn't possibly escape in the state he was in. But Naphtali saw him and brought him here. We're not going to be safe long, though—they're going to come looking here and—Gideon, I don't know if he's ever going to wake up. He's got no joy, no hope, no will to live…"
Gideon thought quickly. They'd seen one child—one child that was roughly Gideon's size, in similar clothes. Zekai wouldn't survive this—whatever the Healer had done had been bad enough to take away every piece of his almost supernatural happiness. There was only one way to fix it.
It needed to happen to Gideon, instead.
He glanced down at Mara, who was gazing steadily at him with her large, dark eyes. Then he quietly handed her over to Althaea. She didn't protest or cling, but tears silently fell down her pale cheeks.
As he began taking his sandals off, Althaea knelt down beside him, sliding Mara down to the ground for a moment.
"What are you doing?" she whispered.
"Don't put her down," he said without looking up as he loosed the last strap and slid it off his foot. "She needs to be held."
He quickly began loosening the laces of Zekai's tennis shoes.
"What are you doing?" she repeated, gathering Mara into her arms again. Her grey eyes sparked with anger at his evasiveness. "You can't—you won't—"
He remained silent, and slid Zekai's shoes onto his own feet. Their pants were the same, but he had to switch his deep brown tunic for Zekai's beige one. Finally he slid Zekai's iron ring onto his own finger, and gave Zekai his brass one.
"Gideon?" She seemed afraid, now. He tried to block this out and focus.
The world grew blurrier and blurrier, until he couldn't see anything real anymore, and he knew that Althaea wouldn't be able to stop him now.
Gideon woke up oddly smoothly, as though it were a natural transition from the end of the dream. But he inhaled sharply, and his body was limp with shock.
A few feet away, Naphtali had not stirred from his own mat on the floor. He lay too still and his breathing lacked the depth and regularity that came with sleep. Gideon wondered why he was pretending not to be awake. Was he trying to avoid talking to him?
He was pretty sure that he'd woken him up. But he hadn't asked if he was okay, or spoken at all.
Trying to shrug away his hurt and loneliness, Gideon turned over onto his mat and tried to fall asleep again—though he knew he wouldn't.
"I made a Connection that night. Why can't I remember how to make it anymore?"
Zekai hadn't opened his mouth the entire time Gideon was speaking. He'd only watched, eyes vaguely glimmering.
"And why couldn't I remember anything for six years? I know the Ablution hasn't perfected memory-erasing technology yet—at least, not to that degree of specificity."
"I dunno what to tell you, Gideon."
"You've got to know something I don't."
He shrugged. "Not anymore. From the sound of it, you remember pretty much everything now."
Gideon ran his hands through his hair. He felt an odd mixture of excitement and frustration.
Leaning back in his chair and folding his arms, Zekai watched Gideon for a moment without speaking. Then he said, "We were all kind of jealous of you for a while. Until that night, anyway."
Gideon drew back a little with surprise. "Why?"
"Because none of us understood it completely." He shrugged. "When I woke up suddenly feeling normal again, Althaea told me that she thought you'd somehow gone back in time and taken my place. That's when I figured out what Connecting really was—and if you ask me, I think it's better that you forgot how to do it."
He shook his head. "But that's how—"
"Yeah. I know. If you hadn't Connected, I wouldn't be alive right now." He looked down at the ground. "But if you hadn't Connected, you wouldn't have been captured by the Grey, either."