Adam doesn't know what drowning is like, not really.
He imagines it might be something like being trapped in space (which he was once, almost) with no air, nothing to grab onto, no sign of the surface.
Submerged in water, he can breathe just fine. It's not exactly like a fish, he doesn't think, but he'd have to ask Chase how fish breathe. And he's no mermaid (although that would be awesome.) It's just something he can do, something he's always done. He doesn't know how to explain it.
Dr. Monroe and the other men, the men with clipboards and cold latex gloves on their hands, they didn't like that. They wanted him to explain it, his ability to breathe underwater. But he couldn't, just kept saying, "I don't know, I don't know, I just do it. It just happens."
So they filled up the tank and dropped him in.
It's been… he doesn't know. More than a day. He can breathe fine, yes, but that doesn't make it easy.
The silence, that's the worst part. He's held seashells to his ears before, listened to the ocean swirl and swirl. This isn't alive like ocean water, it's black and lifeless, pressing against him at every point.
Adam feels his fingers and toes shriveling up, getting pruny. He imagines that he'll come out looking like a swamp creature.
If they ever let him out.
Adam's not smart, no, but his memory's sticky. It always has been. He just never remembers boring things, math and science, addresses, complicated instructions. He remembers important things: Leo's bad poetry, all the lyrics to the musical "Cats," how to make Chase's favorite oatmeal raisin cookies. And he remembers every second of every cartoon he's ever watched.
Adam entertains himself while locked in the tank by playing his shows in his head, squinting his eyes shut and trying to ignore the water surrounding him as he lets his mind float away into the world of Spongebob and Steven Universe, the Smurfs and the Simpsons.
This is the one where Bart's leg is broken and he thinks Flanders killed his wife. This is the one where they go to Itchy and Scratchy Land. This is the one in the future. This is the one where Lisa's angry about the Barbie doll. This is the one where Lisa wants to go to Australia… or no, that was Bree, wasn't it? That was real.
Adam gives up struggling in the lightless tank after the first few hours. He lies at the bottom now- his density keeps him from floating, or something. Leo explained it to him once when they were in the pool, splashing, playing Marco Polo.
He could call out "Marco!" now and no one would answer him.
He goes back to his cartoons, all catalogued in his head. This is the one where Steven and Garnet go to the motel. This is the one where Spongebob and Patrick go to Rock Bottom. This is the one where Phineas and Ferb go to the lake. This is the one where Adam and Bree and Chase go to the scary government facility.
When the lid of the tank opens up and the hands with the cold latex gloves come to grab him, Adam goes against his instincts and shrinks back, forces himself further into the tank of water. In the water he's alone, achingly, desperately alone, but it's better than the things they do to him, poking and prodding and pinching, playing him like he's Lisa Simpson's saxophone.
The hands withdraw, and for a second he thinks they're really going to let him stay there. But then the tank tips and he comes spilling out onto the floor like limp seaweed.
"Rise and shine, sonny," says Dr. Monroe. He's shorter than Adam, with a pink face and a bristly brown mustache like a sea lion. "Enjoy your bath?"
Adam looks Monroe in the eyes, because he gets in trouble when he doesn't. "How long?"
"Three days." He gestures for another man to throw Adam a towel. "Do you know why we had to keep you in there that long?"
They talk to him sometimes like he's a criminal and sometimes like he's a child, and he doesn't know what's worse. "To study me."
"A-plus, sonny," Monroe says, cuffing him on the shoulder. Adam flinches. "And lucky for you, we got plenty of information. Some very ingenious lungs you have there. You're a real piece of work." Monroe gestures to another man, this one holding a familiar syringe.
Adam scrambles up from the floor and tries to run, but there's nothing but corners and dead-ends and the room's too small. "No, no," he mumbles, drawing the towel up around him like he can protect himself. "No, don't stick me with that thing again."
"Oh, come on," Dr. Monroe says, sounding like he's trying to convince a child to eat his vegetables. "You know the rules. And you've missed your last few doses while you were in the box. Stay still, sonny."
Adam screams and screams for them to stop, but they don't care. He doesn't raise his fists, though. The last time he actually fought back physically, they strapped him in front of a screen and made him watch while they hurt Bree. Hurt her, and hurt her, and hurt her, because he fought back.
He doesn't fight back now when they stick the needle in his chest and pump in the adrenaline. He just screams at them, asks them not to.
Because once it's in, once it's coursing through his veins and dipping into his muscles and his nervous system and settling in his bones, he's different. He's faster and stronger and angrier and… and scareder. It's like they're injecting him with fear.
After they throw him back in his normal room, Adam dries off and gets dressed, still buzzing with energy. He has to clench his fist over and over again to keep from hitting the wall (and there's already a sizeable dent in the space above his cot).
He tries to think about something else.
This is the one where Apu gets fired from the Kwik-E-Mart. This is the one where Timmy tells his fairy godparents he wishes his parents didn't care so much. This is the one where Zim and Gir celebrate Christmas. This is the one where the other Smurfs meet Smurfette. This is the one where Plankton mind-controls Spongebob to make him steal a Krabby Patty and then forces him to attack Chase with his laser vision… no, no, he's getting it all mixed up again.
Dr. Monroe comes back and takes Adam to a large white room covered in little metal panels. "This should seem familiar," Monroe says, leading Adam to the center of the room. "We based it off your father's simulation technology." He hands Adam a pair of virtual reality goggles. "Have fun." He leaves.
Adam takes a deep breath, and then he slides on the goggles. It's a nondescript landscape, somewhere with buildings in the skyline, a few trees dotting the ridge in front of him. This should be easy, he tries to tell himself.
And it is, at first.
Hordes of men in official-looking uniforms come barreling at him, and Adam starts fending them off, using his eyes, using his hands. The biggest difference between Dr. Monroe's simulation and Davenport's is that these men attacking him have faces, and they glare at him with dark eyes and twisted mouths yelling something in a language he doesn't know.
Davenport always had them fight faceless ninjas or expressionless robots, things that didn't feel real, or human. But in this fight, Adam can see the blood dotting his knuckles, feel the crunch of bones when he kicks an assailant away from him. He mows them down, one by one, until he's standing in a wasteland of fallen bodies.
Adam leans with his hands on his knees, panting. Nothing happens. His scenery doesn't change. "Make them go away," he says softly. "Make them go away or make them get up. Mr. Davenport always makes them go away." Dead eyes stare at him accusingly as red welts bloom up on the bodies he struck with his laser vision. "No, no, no…" He tries to tear off the goggles but they're fastened too tightly and his fingers are shaking, no, no, no.
And then finally everything powers down and he feels Dr. Monroe's hands crawl up the back of his head to remove the goggles. "Bravo, sonny," Monroe tells him. "You really brutalized them, Subject A. Wonderful job."
Adam kneels on the floor of the big white room, shoulders heaving. He feels like he's going to throw up and he feels like he's going to cry and he feels like he's going to scream, but nothing happens. He just breathes. "I want to see my dad," he says finally, his voice rasping.
"Why?" Monroe says calmly. "Do you think he'd be proud of you? Really? For this?"
Adam's throat closes up and he just shakes his head, eyes boring into the floor. Mr. Davenport would be scared of you if he saw you now, he thinks as Dr. Monroe injects him with adrenaline again. Leo would be scared of you.
The next day, Dr. Monroe comes and gets Adam and takes him to the white room again. He makes Adam put on the goggles and then he powers up a new simulation.
This time, he's standing in some kind of courtyard as enemies pour in from every side. Adam tries to defend himself, to evade rather than fight, but there's too many of them. He goes right back to fists and fire-eyes, and he tries to remember that however real they look, they're just computer programs. These men coming after him are just lines of code, and killing them isn't really hurting anyone.
It's down to just two soldiers, weaving their way toward him. Adam strikes one with his laser vision and it falls like a stone. The other one is faster, sneakier. It gets right up next to him, so Adam pummels that one until it doesn't get up anymore.
And then, as he watches, the unfamiliar faces of the computer-generated bodies warp and shift, and suddenly he sees them: Chase, pale, with singe-marks climbing up his neck; and Bree, bloodied and bruised, dead because of him.
"You need to be prepared for this sort of thing," Dr. Monroe explains later, after having removed the goggles and disabled the simulation. "Your counterparts are weak, and they will die at some point. One day, you're going to be the last man standing, sonny." Adam shakes his head, tears rolling down his cheeks as Dr. Monroe guides him back to his cell. "Oh, stop crying," Monroe says. "For God's sake, you're not a child, you're a man."
"You don't treat me like a man." Adam's actually surprised at himself for saying it.
Monroe just glares at him before slamming his door shut and leaving Adam alone in the quiet.
The table is laid out with every delicious food Adam can think of: roast beef, chicken, brown sugar carrots, mashed potatoes, banana pudding with Nilla wafers, buttery rolls, fresh strawberries, a pitcher of cold lemonade, peanut butter balls dunked in chocolate.
Adam sits in the fancy chair and wonders what the hell he's doing here. Is it a simulation? Is it a dream? Did all the borderline torture finally catch up to him and drive him nuts?
His train of thoughts gets interrupted when a balding man in a nice suit steps into the dining room and smiles at him. "You must be Mr. Adam," he says jovially. "Pleasure to meet you. I'm General Nolan." He nears Adam's chair and sticks his hand out to shake. Adam just stares at it. "Yes, yes, they told me you were a bit slow," he laughs good-naturedly, sitting down in the seat opposite Adam. "But who needs smarts, am I right? These days everything's got spell-check. No, what we need is muscle. And determination. And you've got those in spades, young man."
Adam stares at the general and then back down at the food. "Why am I here?"
General Nolan laughs again. "To have a nice meal, of course," he says, putting some roast beef and carrots onto his own plate. "Now, I know Monroe's been feeding you those little protein bars, but this is so much better. A real cooked meal, prepared by chefs and not machines! Nothing like a real human touch, am I right?"
Adam just stares at him.
"Well," Nolan sighs, picking up his fork. He glances at Adam's plate, still empty. "Please, have some food."
"This is a trick." This is like when Plankton tricks Mr. Krabs. This is like when Perry the Platypus tricks Doofenshmirtz. Adam knows when he's being lied to. "Why am I here?" He even bangs his fist on the table, sending all the dishes rattling.
General Nolan sighs and sets his fork down. "I can see we're getting straight to business, then," he says. "Mr. Adam, you have certain abilities that make you a unique asset to your country. I propose that rather than staying locked up where you're doing no good for anybody, you come with me to the frontlines. You could really do some damage."
Adam looks down at his hands and then back up at the general. "You mean… like in a war?"
"Exactly," Nolan says, grinning too widely. "Why bother with snipers and grenades when we can send you into battle? You could take out an entire village of soldiers while the enemy side's still doing recon."
Adam tries to think. "Soldiers don't live in villages," he says. "Families and kids live in villages."
General Nolan laughs. "Oh, you know what I mean. Fighting for your country. Standing up for the American Way. You'd save a lot of lives."
"You mean I'd take a lot of lives," Adam says, and without even having a bite to eat he's already done with this dinner. "And for the record, it was the American government that kidnapped me and my brother and sister and locked us up. So I'm gonna have to pass." He stands and pushes himself away from the table. He wants to appear strong and in-control, but the whole time he's thinking Please don't hurt Bree and Chase for this, please don't take this out on Bree and Chase. His own misbehavior always ends up getting his family hurt, but he just wants this. He wants to be able to say no.
Someone new comes and finds him in his cell later. She says her name is Dr. McKenna. She says General Nolan asked her to come speak with him. "That was very rude, you know," she says, sounding like a demented kindergarten teacher. "Turning down that wonderful dinner. Storming out on General Nolan."
"I don't care," he says. "I'm a man, not a machine. I'm not just gonna let you guys pull my pin and throw me down in the middle of a warzone. I don't work like that."
Her smile makes him shiver. "But you'd be free," she says. "Isn't that what you want?"
"Being controlled by the military isn't free."
"I thought you might say that," she says. "So here's the thing. We will grant you your freedom in exchange for your service in conflicts overseas. And we will also let your sister go."
Adam's heart skips a beat, but maybe that's just all the adrenaline they keep pumping into him. Bree could go. He could do something right for once. He could help his family instead of hurting them.
No, he'll never be free. The military will take him, probably give him their own version of the Triton App so he can't go rogue, use him to fight any battle they want. He'd get to see the sun again, but it would be shrouded by gunsmoke. He'd get to save people again, but only if he bought into the propaganda Nolan was trying to shove down his throat.
But Bree… Bree would be out of this place. She could be with Tasha and Leo, and she could smile and run, and maybe he would never see her again but she'd be free.
"Have you told her?" he asks, his throat dry. This is the one where Gene Belcher helps out his sister Louise. This is the one where Dipper Pines helps Mabel. This is the one where Bart helps Lisa. "Have you told her about the deal?"
"I did," Dr. McKenna says. "And she wanted me to give you this note." She pulls out a piece of notebook paper and hands it to him. They must've given Bree a spiral notebook or something, because he can see the little perforated part trailing down the edge where the page was ripped out.
I don't care what you have to do, please just get me out of here. I'm going to die in here. Save me. Do what you need to do.
The paper shakes in Adam's grip as he traces his fingertip over the words. He can do this. He can save her.
He rereads the letter again, and as he does he fidgets absently with the side of the paper where the scraps from the spiral notebook cling stubbornly behind, the torn-up edges where the page was ripped out.
His sister isn't Tina or Louise, isn't Lisa or Maggie, isn't Smurfette, isn't Mabel Pines or Candace Flynn. His sister is just Bree, and Bree does Bree things, like wearing lip balm around her neck and playing "Heart and Soul" over and over and over again on the piano. And one of her Bree things is tearing off the paper scraps left behind when she rips a page out of a spiral notebook.
So. So the letter isn't really Bree. So Bree isn't really telling him to go. And it's all happening so fast and he's still holding the fake letter that Bree never wrote and he doesn't know what it means. It means she's already dead, maybe. Or it means they told her about the deal and she said no, no way, she won't trade his service for her freedom.
Whatever else it means, the fake letter in his hand means that he can't help Bree, not really. But he can still say no.
"Can…" he starts, glancing up at Dr. McKenna. "Can you get a message to General Nolan?"
"Mm-hmm," she says.
Adam smiles. It feels weird in his face, like his muscles forgot how. "Tell him to shove this letter up his four-star ass."
Adam gets tossed in a simulation with literal wolves the next day. They claw at him and tear at him, and even though the damage isn't real the pain is. It hurts and he screams, but Dr. Monroe keeps it up until Adam's too hoarse to even cry out.
General Nolan doesn't come back, and no one brings up the offer again, not Dr. Monroe and not Dr. McKenna. Adam dreams that Bree is shouting for help and he can't move.
When he jerks awake, Monroe is standing there with a clipboard, staring at him. "Oh, good, you're up," he says. "We're going to test your strength and endurance today, sonny."
He leads Adam down a dim hallway into a room a lot darker than the simulation room. There's a big mirror on one side. "Have you heard this story?" Dr. Monroe asks, walking further into the room. "A professor stands at the front of his class and holds up a glass of water. He asks them how heavy the glass is, and they all agree it's fairly light. But then he asks them how heavy it would feel if he held it up for an hour? Two? A day? The longer you hang onto something, the heavier it weighs on you." He chuckles. "I think it's supposed to be about letting go of your worries, or something. I'm taking a more literal interpretation." He hits a button on his watch and a chunk of the ceiling gives out. Adam lifts his hands above his head instinctively to protect himself and winds up holding what turns out not to be part of the ceiling, but a giant weight that had been concealed by a compartment above him. "Three hundred pounds," Dr. Monroe says, putting a hand on Adam's shoulder as he shifts to keep the weight upright. "How heavy does it feel to you?"
Adam keeps his mouth shut, not wanting to give Monroe any sign of complaint.
"There's another story I wonder if you've heard," Monroe muses. "Atlas held the whole world on his back. And if he fumbled, it was bad news for everyone on the planet." He hits another button on his watch and the mirror dissolves to reveal a window into another empty room, and huddled on the floor-
"Chase!" Adam doesn't drop the weight but he yells, tries to be loud enough to be heard through the glass. "Chase! Chasey, are you okay? Chase! Chase!"
"He can't hear you, sonny," Monroe says, sounding amused. "Oh, but he can hear this." Another button on his watch.
The rooms must be soundproof, because Adam can't hear a thing. He can't even hear Chase screaming, but he can see it happen. His baby brother's face screwed up in agony, hands clamped uselessly over his ears.
Monroe hits another button and Chase falls limp against the wall behind him, breathing hard, his hands still covering his ears.
"You can't do that," Adam says. "His ears… you can't."
"No, actually, it's all up to you," Monroe says. "You're going to hold up that weight for as long as we say so. And if you flinch, we'll play the tone again for Chasey, even louder. And if you slouch, we'll play the tone again even louder. And if you… well, you get the idea."
"Don't," Adam says lowly, but Monroe's already heading for the door, and the weight is staying balanced in his hands. For as long as it takes.
It should have been nice, seeing Chase again, but it just stings. Chase looks emaciated and even smaller than usual. His hair's too long and there are long scratches around his ears where it looks like he might have been clawing at his own skin. Which means…
This isn't the first time they've used the loud noises against him.
Adam's stomach roils but he stays upright, holding the weight, not moving, not flinching. The window must only be see-through from this side, because Chase doesn't see him. Chase does what must be his daily routine, eating protein bars and hugging his knees to his chest. There's no cot in the room. Adam watches Chase fall asleep curled up on the floor, and still he stands holding the weight.
This is the one where Homer burns his tongue. This is the one where Lisa becomes a vegetarian. This is the one where Homer's an opera singer. This is the one where Bart finds Homer's magazine.
Adam can't help it; he has to sneeze. It's so stupid, it's so stupid stupid stupid. He sneezes and his whole body jerks and then Chase is screaming and Adam can't do a damn thing about it except keep holding up the stupid stupid stupid weight and it's not fair. Chase writhes on the floor as the men with the cold latex gloves on their hands torment him with loud noises and it's not fair.
Three days. Just like with the tank. There's a Biblical something or other, he thinks, about three days, but he doesn't remember. Mr. Davenport was never big on church.
Three days, and then Monroe comes in and gives him permission to return the three-hundred-pound weight to the compartment in the ceiling.
The window turns back into a mirror and Adam doesn't get to see what happens to Chase before Monroe leads him back down the hall to his cell.
Lying on his cot and staring at the ceiling, Adam tries to make sense of the past four months (has it been four months?) but all he can think about is cartoons. How many times has Wile E. Coyote been crushed by an anvil? He can't hold it up, though, but Adam can. Adam can stand with a three-hundred-pound weight held aloft for three days but why? Why does he have to?
In cartoons, if someone runs off a cliff it takes them a moment to realize it. In cartoons, everything's over in fifteen minutes and Candace never rats out the boys and Marge never leaves Homer and Steven and Pearl and Garnet always save the day and Dipper and Mabel always wind up okay.
If he was a cartoon character he could throw a big black spot on the wall and turn it into a hole and run far, far away. Bree could slip her hands out of the restraints and hop off the table and leave the men with the cold latex gloves on their hands with no one to electrocute. Chase could stick his fingers in his ears and he wouldn't be able to hear anything and he could be okay.
In cartoons, superheroes get celebrated. People with superpowers are heroes, not monsters. Nobody ever locked up Underdog. Nobody ever kidnapped and tortured Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. And Batman and Spiderman and Krypto, they were all okay, and Superman was okay even though he was super strong and had heat vision and nobody put him through everything Adam's been through and it's not fair.
He almost doesn't notice Dr. Monroe come in, but once he does he notices Monroe's sour expression right away. "What's wrong?"
"You're leaving," Monroe spits, grabbing him by the elbow. "Let's go."
He sees the sunlight first, and then Bree, and then Chase, and it's like he can't hold them soon enough (his siblings, not the sun). Bree tears away from the man herding her out and makes a beeline toward him, screaming his name as she smacks into him. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," he tells her, wanting to see her and wanting to hold her close. "Chase. Where's Chase?" He turns with Bree to find Chase, who's standing by Dr. McKenna. When he spots them, he runs to join them.
"Guys," he says, looking just as weak and skinny and scratched up but with a grin stretching across his face. "Are you okay? Are you-" Adam wraps him into their hug.
He could stay like that forever, assured that Bree and Chase are okay. This is the one where the gems get Steven back from outer space. This is the one where Phineas and Ferb sit in their backyard, happy and safe. This is the one where Adam gets his family back.
"Alright, we need you off the premises," the man who came out with Bree says. "And thank you for your service to your country."
For a second, Adam sees red. His heat vision flares to life. Thank you? Adam whirls at the man, but Bree grabs his arm. "Adam," she whispers. "Just let it go. Let's go home."
This is the one where the Simpsons return home to Springfield. This is the one where Mabel and Dipper get to go back to Gravity Falls. This is the one where Spongebob goes back to Bikini Bottom. This is the one where Steven and the gems go back to Beach City.
He turns and can see Tasha and Leo standing in the parking lot. "Let's go home."
Adam doesn't sleep alone in his capsule that night; he has Bree and Chase and Leo bunched in with him. Leo, who spoke out for them, who stood up for them, who used Tasha's connections to get on TV and get an audience and talk about the government taking away three innocent teenagers. Apparently, the facility holding them needed to preserve their reputation, and Leo made it impossible for them to do that without letting go of Adam, Bree and Chase.
"Hey," Adam whispers when he realizes Leo's awake. Crushed against him, Bree and Chase sleep peacefully. "Leo?"
"Yeah?" Leo mumbles, tucked into Chase's side.
"Thank you." He'll say it again tomorrow, he maybe won't ever stop saying it. And also?
He's going to spend tomorrow on the couch with Leo, watching cartoons.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Reviews are always appreciated. This is a companion piece to "Rat in a Cage" and I'm probably going to do Leo's side of the story next, and then eventually Chase to finish it off.