I know better now than to think I can win head on. I duck to the side, striking out even as I dodge hard away. I don't actually hit him, but I am also unscathed. I consider that a minor victory and fling myself into another assault. This time my fist connects, and I relish the crunching sound his ribs make. I may be an obsolete model, but I can still damage him.
I think I've got him reeling, but his recovery is faster than I thought possible. Before I can get myself out of his reach, he's got one of those vise-like hands wrapped around my wrist. I try to lean as far away as I can, but my balance is off. Even with cracked ribs, he's pulling me in with one arm, and readying my death with the other.
Then Damien is there. Augmented by haze, he is easily the equal of me in strength and speed. He leaps onto the 5th's back and pins back the arm raised to strike. For a moment we're all deadlocked. I can't pull away, the 5th can't drop his arm to smash my skull, and Damien is the thread holding us all in place for that one tense moment. Then the 5th and I move at the same instant. I rip my wrist from his grasp. I think it's broken, but by now I am far beyond caring. I ignore the haze of pain it brings and just get ready to strike at any part of the 5th I can find.
The 5th seems almost startled that I was able to tear away, but he's quick to react. With a great heave, he breaks Damien's hold, and again tosses him aside. I spare once glance for my companion. his right elbow is bent at an unnatural angle, but he's climbing to his feet grimly.
I roll out from under the 5th's first punch, and come up swinging. I clip him on the jaw. He nails me in the side. As I fall I catch sight of a black boot aiming for the 5th's head. The loss of an arm isn't stopping Damien. The 5th drops to a knee and the kick sails harmlessly over his head. I scramble up and get him in a chokehold of my own. I heave back on his neck, then I'm falling again. I can't feel anything until my back hits the floor, then the pain hits and my vision starts to scramble. I try dumbly to feel where he hit me, but my broken wrist is making my hand less than useless. Finally I just lift my head and look, my neck still works it seems.
I'm bleeding all over the floor. There's a gaping hole where his bare hand tore through the flesh of my side. The 5th looks down at me for a bare second, then turns away. Clearly he thinks I'm down. I think he's wrong.
I lever myself to my knees and good hand in time to see Damien take a hit that probably broke ribs. The 5th moves in for the kill, and that's when I discover I can still move. A tackle is about all I'm good for now, but this is no longer about winning.
I slam into the 5th and drag him down with my dead weight alone. Of course he throws me off, but keeping him down wasn't the point. I'm sprawled on the floor again, and this time I really can't move.
I lean my head back weakly and look into the 5th's eyes as he stares down at me. There's real annoyance there. Irritation at having to put down a beast he already thought was done for. I can't help but smile through blood and blurred vision. I hope I was one hell of a pain in the ass. I don't even care that the 5th is going to crush my skull before I have a chance to bleed out. He's looking at me. He's seeing me. He's focusing on me and not on either of my charges. I'm a protector dammit, it's what I do.
Just as I expected, the 5th raises his foot for the killing blow. I'm to be stomped out like vermin. Then, without warning, a hazy purple light engulfs his head and he staggers backwards. I let my head fall to the side and see Damien slumped against the wall, with his one good hand emanating the purple Haze.
You goddamned idiot. I think to my companion. Just who is protecting who here? But it's hopeless either way. The purple fades even as I think that, and the 5th quickly shakes off it's effects. Then, just as the last of the Haze disappears, the hallway fills with blue light.
I close my eyes and think of Jin. Then, ever so slightly I feel his presence in that blue space that has no time. There's a light chuckle that I can only hear with my heart. I'm wrong. It isn't Jin at all. It's my kid. He's alive and well, and turning into what he was always meant to be.
When I open my eyes again, after who knows how long, the blue has faded somewhat, and Raous is standing before me. It takes me a moment to realize that all my injuries are healed. I heft myself to my knees to look my kid in the eyes. He's all liquid mercury blue just like Jin, but he kept his kid shape. On an impulse, I pull him into a tight hug.
I can't heal him. It's his voice, inside my head. But he'll live. I can see the Haze inside him. There's enough to repair the worst.
He wriggles out of my embrace, just as he always has done. I'm startled, but not surprised when I feel tears streak down my face. Raous is already turned and walking in a strange liquid way towards the shuttle airlock. I know he can't stay, but right now I wish more than anything to keep him by my side even just a little longer. Still, through the catch in my throat I whisper out the same promise I made to Jin;
"If you ever have a kid...just send him to me, alright?"
Raous looks back with a twinkle in his mercury blue eyes just as the airlock doors swish shut behind him.
It's over. The mods are dead and my kid is gone, again. I gotta wonder how many times I can survive doing this. How many times can I watch a kid I've helped to raise leave for space? Then I think of what I whispered to Raous over the whoosh of the airlock doors. I'll do this as many times as I damn well have to.
I turn from watching the closed airlock and see Damien still sprawled where the 5th dropped him. Hell, I guess I do still have a kid around after all. I check him over carefully. He's out cold, and it's hard to tell how bad he's hurt. He's not bleeding too bad, though his elbow is a complete wreck. He's almost certainly got broken ribs, and who knows what kinds of internal damage from that brawl. The kid said he'd live, that there was enough of the haze or whatever still in him to keep him alive.
I turn to leave, my old running instincts are kicking in again. Even with the kid gone, I'm sure the government would love to get their hands on me. I stop though, and look again. The guy did probably save my life with that last shot after all. Though my instincts are screaming at me to run while I still can, I just stand there for a moment. Then, my mind made up, I stride over to the nearest emergency alarm button. This is a public place after all.
As soon as I toggle the alarm, the sirens start up and I know a call has gone out to the local emergency responders. Damien will have all the help he needs in a few moments. My job done now, I finally give in to my gut and lope off to the nearest quick exit. He saved my life, and now I've returned the favor. We're square. Anything else between us is done and gone.
That's what I think all the way up to the next day as I'm crouched on the second story ledge of Aldern's main hospital. I peer in through the curtains and wait for the nurse checking Damien's vitals to leave. I'm on the back side of the building, somewhat blocked by a protruding wing of the pediatric ward, yet I still feel exposed as hell up here. I still can't figure out why I came, why I simply had to confirm with my own eyes that Damien had pulled through. Whatever the reason, it's got me clinging to a window sill and watching the guy sleep on as the nurse finally departs. The window is cracked open a hair to let in some of the cool summer breeze. I listen to the final notes of the nurse murmuring to herself, then dare to stick my head around further.
"What are you doing here?"
It's a good thing the words are low. I'm startled bad enough to almost lose my grip as it is. Apparently, Damien isn't as fast asleep as I thought. I get over my surprise enough to lean into full view and shrug in what I hope is a nonchalant just sighs and motions me in. I hesitate for a moment, then decide it's about time I started trusting this guy. The window slides open easily enough, and the opening is more than enough for my bulk to slip through. I stand there awkwardly for a bit, unsure what to say. I hadn't really planned on his seeing me here.
"Why did you bring me here?"
For a guy who had at least a couple broken ribs and a shattered elbow, beside who knew how many internal injuries, he sounds exceedingly with it. And angry. He keeps his voice low, but incredibly, intensely angry.
"I didn't actually." By now I am so far beyond reacting to anger directed at me. It almost seems funny somehow. I kind of want to push this guy's buttons. "I just told them where to find you. How are you even conscious, by the way? You were in pretty sad shape only a few hours ago."
Damien sighs and drops one hand over the bedside lazily. "The haze, remember? I said I was good at internalizing it."
"Speaking of which, thanks for that last shot. Didn't think you could do that."
Damien nods, and says a trifle smugly, "I said it's difficult, not impossible."
He lets his head fall back, but keeps his eyes alert. When I entered the room I thought he looked fantastic considering the shape he had been, but now I'm reconsidering. He might be miraculously healed compared to yesterday, but he's still flat on his back in a hospital bed, moving only his head and one hand. The elbow that got shattered by the 5th is held in a cast. I can imagine that moving that arm at all is probably not a good idea. His face looks pale against his dark eyes and hair, but nowhere near the deathly pallor of yesterday.
"I'll be up tomorrow." He says it like he's been reading my mind. I wryly hope that isn't an effect of the haze too. "You should come back then, watch me strike the nurse speechless with my miraculous recovery."
His voice is somewhat lilting in it's softness, and I can't really tell if he's joking or not. I'm about to scoff, then I realize I'm probably going to show up tomorrow. It's not like I really have anywhere else to go. I'm as lost now as I was after Jin left.
"And use the door."
"Hell no." That directive I know I won't obey. "There is no way I'm walking in to a flurry of questions that will lead the government right to me."
"You mean the questions I had to answer when I woke up here?"
The words are downright caustic, and almost make me feel a little bad about it. Almost. "What? You needed help and I sure couldn't give it to you. Besides I never heard of your planet before and I'm a lot better traveled than anyone else in this backwards little system."
"So you'd rather explain why you're hanging on the window when I point you out to the nurse?"
Ok, there I think he might have me. Damned if I'll tell him that though. "Right, like I can't outrun some hospital staff."
"You don't have to run anymore, Anson."For once his words aren't angry. They're soft and earnest, and enough to strike me speechless.
"The 5ths are dead and your alien kid is gone, right?"
Numbly I nod. I'm still waiting to hear why that makes my running over. I'm still a fugitive, aren't I?
"He used his alien whatever to heal you up, and now he's gone. And with him all hope for more Mods right? Who exactly do you think is going to come after us now? The only beings that could stand against us are dead. Yeah keep a low profile, it'll make life convenient, but you don't need to run. There's nothing left to pose a real threat to either of us anymore."
Three seconds later I feel my face split into a grin. Damn if he isn't right.
The next day I sweat through the questions, try to act natural, and walk in to Damien's room through the door. What I find there is a far cry from the day before. Damien is up, shrugging into his battered coat that still rattles with his ridiculous collection, and smirking at the fuming nurse at his elbow. She doesn't stop him, though, when he shoulders past her towards where I'm still leaning in the doorway.
"I still don't think this is a good idea." The nurse's parting shot follows us down the hallway.
Damien waves his good hand lazily over his shoulder. "The doc said there's no reason I can't go. Nothing more to be done for me here."
His right elbow is still in a cast, and he's moving slow. I bet his ribs are still tender, but he's likely right. There isn't much more a normal human hospital can do for guys augmented as we are.
"So where you headed now?" I ask as soon as we're out in the free air of Aldern again.
"I've got someone I need to visit." He looks steadily ahead as he says it, with his right hand shoved in his coat pocket to keep his elbow from moving around. Then the corner of his mouth quirks and he glances sidelong at me. "After that, I don't know."
"Hell, I don't know either." We should probably leave Aldern soon, before the government decides to try something. But, like Damien said, who are they going to send? I suppose if they sent a whole planetary army after us, they might catch us, but Damien and I could probably take out at least half their men before we were taken. I'm pretty sure the government big wigs know that too. For once in my life I'm not worried about who's chasing me. I can go wherever I want. Strange how I've wanted this freedom for the last nine years, and now that I have it I'm not sure what to do.
I end up following Damien on his visit, heaven only knows why. I guess we're sort of becoming friends. Brothers in arms of a sort. He's also the only person in this galaxy I know who is still alive. That's reason enough for me. I don't realize until we arrive on the frontier planet of Gaelen that Damien's 'someone' is his brother's grave.
The planet is pretty, if empty. There isn't much but a small farming colony and the sprawling fields of genetically enhanced crops. Occasionally there are pockets where the natural vegetation was allowed to grow. One of these, on the outskirts of the colony, has a large alien tree looking over a plot of alien grass, and a grave marked only with a stone. The stone has a strange symbol etched in it, and I wonder for a moment if Damien made it, perhaps with the haze. I guess he said it's been a year since their battle with the 5ths. The grass has started growing over the mound, but the stone is still clear.
Damien goes right to the grave, while I stay at a discrete distance by the tree. I at least try to look like I'm not listening, but I am. I've got my enhanced hearing trained on the soft whispers coming out of my erstwhile companion. He got to witness my grief, I at least want to understand his a little. What I overhear, however, is not exactly what I was expecting.
"I'm alive..." Damien whispers almost as if he is having trouble believing it himself. "The Modified are dead and I am still alive. I even had a hand in destroying them. This?" He gestures with his bandaged elbow slightly. "This is nothing, you should have seen Anson. At least I healed on my own. He was busted up so bad his alien kid had to save him."
I bristle a little at that, then notice Damien duck his head like he was rebuked.
"I know it isn't infinite. As long as I stay away from Laminda it'll eventually run out. But eventually can be a long time, Darius." Damien takes in a deep breath, then continues in a brighter whisper. "I spent two days in a hospital. Yes, me. It actually wasn't much like the labs at all. Still, I'd rather not go through all that again."
At this point Damien reaches into his coat and draws out what looks like one of his keycard fobs. Even with my mod vision I can't see what it says without obviously turning my head. I'm still trying to keep up the pretense that I'm giving the guy some privacy.
"I found this while on my search. I knew it was from you as soon as I saw it. But I think...I think it belongs with you now." Damien lays the fob atop the marker stone, then gives a little self-deprecating laugh. "No, I...I don't need the reminder any more. When I first found it, yes, all I wanted to do was die fighting the mods. But...when I was lying there I could have. It would have been easy to just let the haze go, let myself go, but something in me said no. Something told me you would be sad if I did that. A real stubborn bastard I know refused to give in and die, so how could I do different?
"He's waiting for me now, and time passes longer for him than most people. I'll see you again...but probably not soon. You'll be ok right? ...Yeah, I know you will."
And with that Damien gives a final fond wave to the gravestone and turns to find me staring at him. He actually smiles a little. There's something sad about his eyes, but his expression is somehow serene. I find my own eyes aren't entirely dry now. Not because I just witnessed his acceptance of his grief, but because I haven't been able to fully accept my own.
Damien seems to sense I need a moment and starts slowly walking back towards the colony without me. I look back towards the grave and for a moment the sunlight falls onto the stone. The light shines on the key fob Damien left behind, and in that brief instant of illumination I can read the words there: Live your life or die trying.
I almost choke out a laugh, then remember that Kikio said something similar to me back when we first settled into a ruse. I miss Raous so much it hurts, but his departure I was somewhat ready for. The hole Kikio has left behind is threatening to devour my insides. I feel the tears rolling again and take a deep breath. As good as it felt to destroy the 5ths, neither that nor crying is going to bring her back.
With a sigh and a sharp shake of my head, I turn back and find Damien staring and waiting for me. Aw hell, I suppose it's really true. I still got a kid to look after. I shove off from the tree and follow him towards the sleepy little colony. I gotta wonder what he meant about 'it' running out. Was he talking about the haze? Does that mean he'll turn normal someday? It's kind of a shame.
"Where to now?"
I like how he just assumes I'm coming with him, or he's coming with me, I can't decide which.
Back to Aldern. Is what I want to say, but I know that's impossible. Even without the 5ths, that moon is surely awash with police by now after our debacle there. Even if I could get a hold of Kikio's body from whatever morgue they stashed her in, I'm not sure I'd want to. I've said goodbye in the only way I think of, and the only way I think she'd accept; I got Raous away safe, and I am still alive.
"I dunno." I answer finally. "One planet's as good as another. Let's just find a nice one to wait for Raous on."
Damien looks askance at that. I'm not sure he was conscious for my parting words to my kid. I just smile and pat the little pad of paper in my pocket. Damned if I'll ever be a natural, let alone normal father, but it seems I'll always have a kid.