"It isn't much," I tell them as we climb the stairs to the top floor of the office building. There used to be elevators, but electricity out here is questionable at best, and being trapped in a small metal cage until we get power again is not on my to-do list. No thank you. Sometimes Gabe flies up the elevator shafts if he's in a hurry. I think he just likes to show off. "But it's home."
Home is a beautiful and terrifying word for people like us. Because home means you're attached, you've put down roots there, and if you're a freak you never know if home's gonna be the same place from one day to the next.
Mari wanders across the messy office to the gaping hole in the wall that was once a window, but has now become Gabriel's doggy-door. The view is pretty great from up here. You can see the humans coming from, like, six blocks away. "How long have you lived here?" She asks, leaning casually back against the wall and crossing her arms.
I point to the far wall where, scraped up in chalk is a running tally of the days we've squatted here. The mornings where we wake up and we're still alive, still together. "Almost two years," I tell her.
"Jeez," she looks amazed. "We can barely keep in one place for two months."
I'm not sure what to say to that, so I don't say anything.
Ezra has this funny look in his eye, watching my brother while pretending not to watch him. He tugs at the end of his snow-pale braid. I realize he's wearing gloves. Not the heavy, winter keep-you-warm kind, more like a magician's gloves. Thin and patched. They look like they used to be white. "You didn't have to help us," he says to Gabriel. The words drop like stones in the silence.
Gabe nods. He doesn't look at Ezra, just stands there with his arms crossed, staring out the gigantic hole in the wall. "You're right," he says. His voice is low, controlled. "I didn't."
"So why did you?"
I feel like I should warn Ezra not to keep pestering my brother. Gabe isn't exactly the most patient of people, and he really doesn't like it when you try to pry into his business.
Except for the warmth in his eyes, Gabe's face is completely emotionless. "Because I know what it's like."
Icarus cocks his head, puzzled, he's not moved more than three feet from Ezra's side since their reunion. "What what's like?" He asks.
I swear to you he looks like a kid. Like, younger than me, but I know that's not true.
"Having a family," Gabe says quietly through clenched teeth.
Mari smiles sadly. Ic just looks like he might cry.
I swear, how does someone like him survive in a place like this? And then I look at Mari and remember her pointing a gun at us, and the cool possessiveness in Ezra's eyes.
Icarus looks me up and down, he's found himself a comfy seat on an old desk, with eyes that absolutely creep me out. It's not the bi-coloring that's freaky, it's what's in them. Ocean eyes, deep and filled with secrets and impossible mysteries and ideas. Innocence, extreme innocence, but wisdom too. A kind of oldness in his eyes, understanding.
He's someone who's seen a lot of bad things, we all have, but some of us scar more easily than others.
"You're different," he says, kind of tilting his head.
I stare at him. "What?"
"You weren't born wrong, like the rest of us," Icarus says, making a feeble sort of gesture. "You were normal…" His eyes are wistful.
"I was six," I find myself telling him, picking at a stain on my jeans.
Mari tilts her head, watching me with pumpkin orange eyes. "Isn't it human law that if you're turned they kill you?" She asks.
I nod. "My dad… he couldn't do it. So he sent me away." There's a lump in my throat and I almost say killing me might've been better. Would've been a mercy. But then I wouldn't have Gabe. And God knows where the birdbrain would be without me.
"Good," Mari says shortly, and I wonder if she's crazy or just insensitive. I mean, who says that it's 'good' that you're father banished you to die in a dump? But her eyes are soft, and she sneaks a look at Gabe. "The world needs more people like you, Jamie. You're a good kid."
I could argue that I'm most definitely not a kid, but that's not the important thing. People like me. What kind of people am I? What does she mean? Because the world sure doesn't need anymore half-breed monster freaks.
Gabe is just kind of scowling at nothing. He squirms, rustling his feathers. I sit cross-legged on the floor among a pile of water-stained papers, leaning up against one of the ransacked desks. For a minute, heavy, awkward silence reigns, and then Mari blows out a sigh that sends her halo of red hair fluttering everywhere and flops down beside me on the floor.
"Humans suck," she announces simply, crossing her arms. I think she's starting to grow on me.
Gabriel looks at her, startled, but he nods in agreement. My big brother. So bitter. All humans are monsters in his eyes, no exceptions. I'm not exactly human anymore, so I really don't count, I guess.
Leaning across from us, Ezra looks down his long nose, disdainful. It seems to be his default expression. "The Fey aren't exactly peachy either," he grunts. Icarus bobs his head firmly in agreement.
"Least they don't massacre us for fun," Mari says, re-tying the laces of her boots.
"No, they just sit back and watch without doing a thing about it," Ezra says in a sarcastic, mocking tone. Icarus's head follows the conversation back and forth like a scruffy ping-pong ball.
Gabe is watching them with the 'ominous face'. Raised eyebrows, thundercloud overhead, pursed lips. "I don't recall inviting you into my home to discuss politics and civil rights," he says in a way that suggests he wants the conversation to end and end now.
"What civil rights?!" Mari exclaims, her eyes dancing with fire. And is it just me or is there smoke curling from her fingertips? "I didn't realize they gave rights to garbage now."
Oh jeez. I try and cut in. "Mari-"
Ezra raises his eyebrows at her, pale eyes stern. "Mari," he says, low and calm. "Enough." Her mouth snaps shut.
Gabriel flutters his wings, a few loose feathers molting to the floor. His eyes are cold, stern gold, his lips pursed into a thin line. He looks impassive, but I can see the bad stuff seething below the surface. "What's your story?" he asks, looking down at Mari who breathes out in a huff.
She stretches her face into a scary parody of a smile. "Daddy went out looking for a prostitute, found my Mama instead." She shrugs a tumble of flaming curls over her shoulder. "Got himself incinerated for his trouble."
Gabe blinks at her. He looks a little sick. I think we're both shocked and a little bit horrified. We've never really talked to other freaks before, we never knew how stuff like this happened. Gabe had a happy family until the humans intervened. I ended up here by pure chance. Neither one of us stopped to really consider the ugly side of things. I dunno, I guess 'ignorance is bliss'?
"I'm sorry," I say, and it's kind of more of a question than an actual condolence.
She shrugs. "What can you do? It happened, I'm here," leaning down, she fiddles with the laces of her boots and I can't help thinking that her skin's not as thick as she thinks it is. "Doesn't do any good to dwell on it," she says, but now she doesn't want to look me in the eye.
We watch quietly as Mari gets to her feet, jaw clenched, a muscle twitching under the skin. She wanders over to the so-called window, leaning against the wall to stare at the wreckage of our world.
"My parents were killed when I was eleven," Gabe says, the moldy papers on the floor suddenly become extremely interesting. "My father was a peri, my mother a human. They lived on the edge of the peri's flock. Not rejected, per se, but nobody really liked it either. If the peri didn't like it, the humans must've hated it. They killed my parents right in front of me." He shakes his head. "I'll never forget it," he whispers. "No one did a thing about it."
I've only heard this story once. And I know I'm the only one Gabe ever told. This is a big freaking deal. My brother doesn't trust easily, and the fact that he's telling them this… He's so lonely. All he's got is me. Secretly we both want nothing more than a family, people we can turn to, we can trust. It's so dangerous out here to have something like that, to know that they can be ripped from you any moment. But we need each other. We need a family. It's the only way to survive.