I'm not a conceited person.
And yet, after a week of confinement, I considered myself something of an expert on being locked up alone with Alley West. It gave me the skill to read him, whether he was planning something, restless, injured, or even nostalgic. I was the first to know these things, and it... changed me. Made me act in strange ways.
For instance, I would rarely speak to anybody but Alley, unless I was spoken to; and even then, replying was only optional. Initiating a conversation was another scarce occurrence, but when I did choose to, it was with Alley. Yes, I trusted him. That much I knew.
...Did that make us friends?
Sunrise was clear and cold.
I hadn't been prepared for the chill air that rose off cobblestones at night, and I shivered in the hay for hours. It itched at my back and stomach, irritating me, and even in my fitful sleep, I swear I tossed and scratched. Alley sat alone, motionless by contrast - back curved against the wall, a familiar air of defeat bracing his limbs. His eyes were downcast in perfect meditation; I don't know if he slept at all.
When the sun broke, I awoke too easily, still weary in my bones - I found myself lying in Alley's silhouette. He was perched on the narrow bench, watching the morning break over the strange, ugly buildings. The light was bleak, casting the street outside into a seeming readiness for something awful to happen.
Something like an execution.
"Last sunrise, huh?" Alley asked quietly, rhetorically, thinking I was still asleep. I closed my eyes quickly, feeling like a spy. This might be Alley's last moment alone – the least I could do was make it last.
Even as the thought occurred to me, I felt sick to my stomach with guilt. I could stop this, right here, right now. But what was I? A cursed coward. I would be racked with indecision until the moment when the decision was taken from me. I was a traitor to my only ally in the entire world.
My parents were long gone. The girl next door to my tree was long gone. My forest was scores of miles away, long gone. The men of this city were cold and foreign and treated me like an object to be sold, to be rid of as quickly as possible. And Alley –
He had offered me the hand of friendship, when he could have ignored me. He took punishment for me when I pushed him away, literally. His escape plan had only extended to include one other person; and, when he could have kept running and gained his freedom, he had turned back to help me.
The stone floor was hard and cool against my cheek, an uncomfortable physical rebuke; I dared not move, lest my betrayal expose itself. The scars across my mouth tingled against the shale. Unbidden, images flashed before my closed eyelids, a garish nightmare stitched together from my past.
Prison. Darkness. Isolation. Lonely. Lonelier. Voices. Scientists. Criminal. Judge. Lips. Needle.
I had no choice. I had to let Alley die.
The guards came when the sun was almost completely in the sky – I guessed it was about eight. Alley hadn't said a word when I awoke, just a tiny nod. I couldn't look into his eyes for long... and I had even felt glad for a moment, when he finally turned away from me. I was a monster. I couldn't bear the guilt. The more I could pretend to myself that he wasn't there, the less I felt like screaming out with all my power. The jangle of keys in the lock nearly broke my silence. No. I would not crack.
I had made myself a promise. A terrible, traitorous, promise.
"Ro," Alley's voice broke into my reverie. It was hoarse, cracked – almost painful to hear. I looked up.
"Before I go…" Before you die, I cringed inwardly. "I wanna know one thing."
"Anything," I managed to say, looking him in the eye. I could hardly bear to do it, as innocent as I seemed. The guard at the door waited impatiently, his arms crossed against the chill. Anything.
"The scars," he said quietly, extending one arm. His knuckles brushed my lips, surprisingly gentle. His eyes never left mine. "What are the scars from?"
Taken aback, I touched them too, reflexively. In the corner of my eye, the guards stared as well, forbidding me to grant the dying man's wish.
"It was a… childhood accident."
The lie burnt my lips as it left them, and Alley's eyebrows creased the tiniest bit, almost invisibly. His gaze turned hard, and I saw it written clearly there; finally, the accusation had come. Traitor. He seemed to want to ask me how I could try to deceive him. How, on this day?
Thanks to me, he didn't know the half of it.
The moment ended. A guard grabbed him by the arm, and another on his left. There were three more waiting at the end of the corridor, hard-faced, as if Alley were a killer. A dangerous man. He looked back at me, suddenly desperate, as they pulled him out of the cell.
"Don't let me go, Ronan," he said, his voice getting loud with fear. "Don't let them take me!"
I'm sorry, Alley. I can't –
"Ronan, they're going to kill me!"
I won't –
"You dumb fuck! Stop standing there and help me!"
Before I could stop myself, the song ripped itself from my lips. The sound was harsh against my tongue, my native language grating on my vocal chords after so many years of disuse. I saw the effects as if in a dream, so unfamiliar and strange they were.
Gravity seemed to be absent as the two holding Alley pulled themselves away from him, as if burned by the touch of his skin – they threw themselves suddenly onto the ground, as if hit by a great force. Without hands to stop themselves from falling, the pair hit the ground like felled stones, knocking themselves out cold.
I stopped, breathless, taken aback by the sound itself. Speaking had been hard to get used to, but this... the surge of adrenaline in my veins, the sour taste of violence. I saw blood, I think, and gasped again.
Unfortunately, there was no time to revel in my horror – the three guards standing at the end of the corridor had seen my shame. They ran down the passage toward me, and I stepped forward, out of the cell. Again, the words seemed to force their way up to my lips as I watched the first one go flying as he tripped over his own feet, his body seeming to lose all command he had over it. The second two followed him onto the floor, one smacking his head on the wall as he went down.
The weight of the human body is far superior to the muscular resistance it offers to gravity. And when that resistance is entirely removed, suddenly, all that remains is gravity and fragile bones to contend with. You'd be surprised how much force simple velocity can exert on a falling body when every muscle is relaxed, and how unforgiving flagstones are when they collide with a fast-moving skull.
My eyes were fixed on the five unconscious guards strewn around the corridor, I saw the last one had fallen over the form of a comrade, and was still clinging to consciousness, if only barely. Gritting my teeth, I whispered a last melody. He raised his head a foot above the floor, before bringing it down like a hammer.
Bang! His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped forward, out cold. The skin was split on his forehead, bleeding onto his hand, making a tiny red patch on the white. Try as I might, I couldn't take my eyes off the scarlet trickle as it slid over the flagstones. I felt short of breath, but not from singing. Revulsion blinded me, turning my stomach into a hurricane. I felt true terror at what I had just done.
I had sung. And I had hurt them with my voice. Oh, gods... what if that last one was dead? I squinted at him; too afraid to move, yet desperate to see the rise and fall of his chest.
A single footstep tore my attention from the unmoving guard and the bright red patch of blood that was still steadily leaking onto the floor. In the center of the guards, the last man standing was Alley. He had taken a step toward me, showing me his palms in a subtle peacemaking gesture.
"Ronan," he said quietly, as if trying to calm me. "Ro, hey man, you okay?"
"Haven't you started running yet?" I asked dully, flicking my eyes over his diplomatic posture. He was faking it, I knew - he was fucking terrified. That was the result of the decision I had made. I had saved his life, marvelous, how heroic. Now I could safely resign myself to his eternal fear and hatred, without a thanks or an apology to memorize.
And that was…
I felt surprisingly calm about it, in a bittersweet way. Better to lose a living Alley West to anger and disgust, than to have a man's death and a filthy conscience to bear. I had done the right thing. Still, I looked away from him, casting my eyes to the wall. I had no desire to see him leave.
"You'd better get a head start on any more guards that are coming down here to check out what's happening," I said. "You don't want to get hemmed in."
There was a moment of silence for the death of our future friendship. And then it, too, was broken.
"And where do you think you're going?" Alley said. My gaze snapped back to him. "Oh, don't look so dumbfounded, jackass. Think I'm just going to leave you down here on your lonesome?"
"Alley –" I nearly couldn't continue, finding it hard to fully comprehend his reaction. He seemed, well, not terribly horrified or furious. In fact, it was a distinct flavour of mildly annoyed. Mildly. "Alley, I just almost killed five grown men within metres of you. I can clearly deal with this situation by myself. But aren't you… um… well. You should probably be…"
"Freaked out?" Alley finished, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, a little. But ya did it to help me out, so whatever. No problem."
Whatever. No problem. What the hell?
"Or did ya mean pissed off?" Alley continued, judging by my expression that he may have missed his mark. Not entirely true; not entirely false, either. "In that case, yes, I'm quite fuckin' pissed with you. Firstly, why the hell didn'tcha tell me ya could do that? That was damn cool! N' for secondly, why didn't ya do that five days ago? Would've saved me a shitload of trouble. And…"
I was shaking my head, unable to reconcile this with what I had expected. Cool? That was barbaric.
Alley tipped his head to one side, giving me a curious look. "Ro? What the hell's wrong with you?"
"Alley," I said, "Are you thinking about this, at all? I just controlled the minds of five people with my voice."
"Now that you mention it," Alley replied, putting a thoughtful hand to his chin, "That helps to explain the scars, a little. Yeah. Accident, my ass. Think you can pull the wool on me, Ro, you got some ways to go in that department. Where you goin'?"
I grabbed his arm as I strode past him. "We've got to go now. Questions later."
"By the way, I don't think I've ever seen you smile this much," Alley arched a brow, letting himself be tugged along in my wake. "What's up?"
My heart was beating with a new desire to keep it that way, joy thrilling through my veins and flushing the jaded guilt and sorrow from my bloodstream. I felt alive, awake, heroic, marvelous. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face when I repeated myself.
"Come on, questions later."
And so it began.