"...it's the cues, the subtle changes in breathing when the subject becomes conscious again. Nobody can help it. Least of all you, worm."
He's sitting with his back to him, at the table, there's the sound of clockwork winding.
"Do you know what I did before the war?"
Don't answer him, don't answer him. Consciousness hits Jack like a brick wall, nailing him back to his body. He's got blood dripping out of his mouth and onto his shirt already.
"I was a watchmaker."
And now he hears his breath. Faster and faster, he can't help himself, a pathetic rasping sound.
"Even as a child, I was captivated by them. I loved to dismantle them. To take them apart. To examine each and every component. The wheels… the springs… the screws… it's fascinating, isn't it? You can take out one part and the mechanism, the whole apparatus falls apart. Completely. Irrevocably. Apart."
Jack can't even raise his head. He hears the scrape of the chair, each step as the Reaper walks over to him. He just stares at the Reaper's boots. Until the Reaper lifts his head, forces Jack to look at him.
"Let us resume."
When I wake up, it's the first thing I see. Right in my face, as usual. That damn flag. Pinned on the wall, several arrows shot through it.
"Does it have to be here?"
"The Reaper flag. Do we have to put it. Right. Here."
Luco yawns. "Jack says he doesn't wannit in the red car…"
He rolls over.
"He said it gives him headaches."
He's set up a chain-reaction machine to dump a glass of water on my head when I sit up. I reroute it so it dumps a stack of books on him instead. One of the arrows is stuck in the center of the crossed scythe. I pull it out and carry it with me as I exit the car. On the other side of the curtain, May mumbles something. I stop by her; but she's fast asleep.
In the red car, Jack's already awake. Sitting at the card table, staring at a cup of coffee, he looks like he's been awake for quite a while.
"You having trouble sleeping, kid?" he asks me.
"Nah. I just don't feel like sleeping anymore."
He doesn't seem particularly keen on talking. I pull a comic out of the pile on the floor and leaf through it. Shiro the White Fox. On this page, he's standing on a skyscraper bleeding and fighting to the death with the Dragon. And he tends to do. And the Dragon roars, You've picked the wrong place to stand. The sky is mine, Fox! And the White Fox says—
"You guys be careful out there, okay?"
I look at him. But at that exact moment he gets up, shuffles out the door.
Noon finds us on the roof of an apartment tower, staring down into the streets. Luco's got the binoculars, so I'm just staring. With my arms hanging off the edge. Everyone from this height looks the same. It's only by how they walk, you can tell the soldiers from the normal people. Luco jots something in his notebook. Sounds of crashing and shuffling come from the alley down below.
"May! What the hell are you doing?"
"I just saw a kitty run into those boxes over there," May yells at us. She steps out from behind a pile of trash. "You should've seen him, he was so cute! He had yellow eyes and—"
Luco lowers his binoculars. "Yeah?"
"Don't you think it would be cool if we had a team mascot?"
"Stop getting distracted! Get the hell up here and help us!"
"Nobody asked you," he snaps at me.
"They just come out at random times and go walk around in random places," I groan, "like the morons they are."
"Yeah, yeah there is a pattern," Luco says. "Of course there's a pattern. Sometimes you just have to do this thing called thinking for a while."
I roll over onto my back.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking a break."
The bright sky hurts my eyes even more, though.
"I think it's a lot harder to crack this month." May climbs up the fire escape; her head pops over the edge of the roof. "They've probably got somebody new planning 'em."
"Yeah, it's hopeless. Let's just call it quits."
"No, we can't give up!"
Luco stands. He puts his hand over his heart.
"All of the groups in this District are depending on us for patrol map…"
May rolls her eyes. You got him started, she mouths at me. I start humming a patriotic tune.
"…it allows us to move around freely, at will, with impunity. Why, if we didn't know where and when and how to avoid a patrol we'd all be dead in a manner of months…"
"Should just go steal the sched from HQ, then," says May. "I'm sure they've got a copy lying around somewhere."
"Yeah, let's do it."
"No! Jack told me not to let you two go anywhere near that place!"
Luco snatches up his bow and points it at us; it's already got an arrow notched on.
May ducks. "Don't point it at me!"
"You couldn't even hit the Wall with that thing," I taunt.
And the White Fox said: "You don't know my true power. So don't underestimate me."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. All right, Luco."
May pulls herself back up onto the roof.
"Just put it down, Luco."
"Jack's just worried about you guys," Luco says.
"Yeah, I know." She stares at her feet. "You're so right, Luco."
He lowers his bow.
"Come on, Sunshine!"
She grabs me by my hood, pulls me running after her. We jump down the fire escape, and an arrow thuds by my foot, clatters down the stairs. We reach the ground, and I look up.
He swears at us as we run away.
We stop in the hotel square, resting against the edge of the fountain to catch our breaths. The water's been turned off for the winter months. Now the dragons look frozen, spreading their wings above us.
"You—you weren't really serious about going back, were you?"
She brushes a little snow off the smaller dragon's neck.
"So whaddya want to do, then?"
I look around. It's the usual afternoon swarm, intent on their destinations and not even looking around. A group of black coats walks through the square, and the people surge away from them.
"Can we go somewhere less crowded?"
"The hell's that supposed to mean?"
She shoves me, so I nearly topple backward into the empty fountain. "No, I didn't mean—" I catch my balance on the rim. Her face is so close it's nearly touching mine.
"Listen, man, I just mean—what if someone saw us hanging out here?"
"Someone like who?"
I look away; she follows my eyes.
"The Reapers? Are you delusional, man? You think they're still lookin' for you?"
Maybe one of them.
"Jack? Geez, he's not omnipresent, Sunshine."
She leans back and crosses her arms. She glances over the crowd. The black coats are gone.
"Holy shit, speak of the devil."
"Haha, don't scare me like that, May—"
She tackles me, and we both go toppling into the fountain.
"What the fuck, get off me!"
"Shut the fuck up!"
She's kneeling on my chest, looking over the rim of the fountain. I shove her aside, and look over the rim of the fountain. She rises up beside me—but then we both duck down.
It's Jack and Lin. They come from the direction of the hotel, walk right by the fountain. But their heads are down, and they're intent on their conversation.
"What're they doing here?" I hiss.
"Wanna find out?"
We wait until we can barely make out Jack's coat in the crowd, then merge into the people behind them. Even so, it's a miracle they don't notice us. May keeps stopping suddenly, and I keep running into her, then she keeps shoving me back. Then the people keep thinning out, and we get way too close to them. They must really be lost in their own world right now. The soldiers at the checkpoint are jabbering over their cards, they don't even look at us.
The crowd disperses as soon as we step into the side street. If Jack and Lin looked back, they'd see us for sure now. Their words float to us faintly.
"…why you woke up last night…"
"It was—a dream."
They stop. I pull May into the nearest alley. But they don't look back at all. Lin stands in front of him, hands on his shoulders, speaking to him intently. Jack just stares at the ground. They stand like that for a while, but he still won't look at her. Finally, she takes his hand and they go.
May and I trade glances.
"What was that about?"
But whatever it was, I feel like we shouldn't have seen it.
We stay out all day. By the time we head back, the sun's setting. Two streets from the hotel square, we stop by a guy sitting on the curb. A teen, about our age, he's wearing a Corps uniform that too big for him and looking into space like he doesn't even see us there.
"Want some ice cream?"
He raises his head. Our arms are full of the boxes.
"It's choco-crazy flavor," May says.
She hands him a cone. He stares at it.
"I had a really bad day today," he says.
He looks at it from all angles, then he takes a bite. I watch him. I've never seen anyone eat ice cream like that. He chews it. The sun's stretching out our shadows, far, far down the street.
"Oh, you'd better get out of here, my boss is so pissed he's about to strangle a cat." His eyes hover on me. "It's crazy, he looks kind of like you."
We stay out until the sun's nearly set. When we come down the stairs of the station, Luco's already there. He's sitting on the edge of the platform, fixing his arrow.
"Want some ice cream?"
I hold out the package to him. He stares at us.
"What the hell is wrong with you."
"What're talking about," says May, "it's the best time for ice cream! It tastes better, and when it's cold it never melts, and the vendor gave us his leftover stock for free—"
"—I'm not talking about the ice cream!"
He stands up so suddenly it knocks box out of her hand. The cones spill out over the ground.
"Well, there's no need to waste it…"
My words trail off at the look on his face.
"People are dying out there," he finally says. "And you two are fucking around, eating ice cream."
"I know it can seem like a copout at times," says May, "but you've gotta learn to turn it off sometimes, Luco. Take a break."
"What about the people in the Reaper's hands? Can they take a break?"
"I'm just as pissed about Ryu as you are, Luco. But it's just like Jack says—"
She falls silent as steps sound down the stairs.
"What's just like Jack says?"
Lin comes down first. She stays on the last step, studying us. She shakes her head slightly. Next moment, Jack clatters down beside her.
"Uh, it's nothing," says May.
"Nothing at all."
Jack grins; but he looks tired.
"So how's that schedule coming along, guys?"
"Good, good." Jack nods.
"Want some ice cream?"
"Maybe later, kids."
He jumps down into the tunnel, holds his hand out for Lin, and they walk in the direction of the train. Luco looks at us. Then he follows them.
Leaving just me and May and the ice cream.
"I'll put these in snow or something," says May, "maybe they'll last a while before turning into smoothies."
"What's just like Jack always says?"
She thinks a moment.
"The human mind is like a watch. Break the right part, and it all falls apart."