Chapter 2: Symptoms of Withdrawal
It was just after the start of the new school year, just after the best summer of my life. Spike had taken us on a three-month tour of Europe, what he called the best blood-and-bones cities in the world. Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Rome, we saw them all. We shot up and partied and killed demons. I never thought it was strange that a vampire would teach two humans to kill his own kind because it was Spike, and Spike did whatever he wanted.
The one time Jesse asked him about it, he just laughed and said it reminded him of the old days.
He said he'd probably turn us one day, but I never thought too much about it. We were young, and he liked having two kids who adored him. Or maybe he just liked corrupting us. I don't know. We could go out during the day, run errands for him when he asked, and he treated us better than anyone else ever did.
But I never told either of them about my gifts.
And, man, did that fuck me over.
Jesse and I were waiting in the cemetery when it happened. The sun had gone down and Spike was late. It wasn't unusual, because, really, how do you get a master vampire to dance to any beat but his own? So we waited and talked and poisoned ourselves with heroin and nicotine and a bottle of Bacardi.
I'd just finished the last of it when I heard them.
The bottom always comes too soon, y'know?
They were quiet, but I'd been trained to pick up on creatures of the night, and the living have a heartbeat. You tune your ears for it, and it's like a symphony of drums. There's blood pounding through veins like quicksilver, and the tiniest hitch of breath, and maybe I was drunk and making it all up, but I heard them.
"All the kings horses and all the kings men," I whispered into the night, and I pointed to where each heartbeat chorused. "Seven little maids, all in a row."
I think I surprised them. Spike always said I was creepy when I was drunk and drugged. Said I reminded him of a wicked plum, whatever that was. And maybe I was creepy, but hey, I was on a roll.
I could just barely make them out, and my empathy was going haywire, even with the drugs. Pointing to the youngest one, I named him, "Pride," and I could see him flinch back in surprise. Moving on to the only woman in a group, I continued, "Anger." The laid-back blonde was "Sloth," the handsome brunette was "Lust," the mousy, average one was "Envy," the slightly bulky one was "Gluttony."
And a smile touched the corners of my mouth as I stared at their leader and laughed, "Greed."
Jesse struggled to a sitting position and eyed the newcomers, and the newcomers, for their part, looked as though they were torn between confusion and anger. Shocked into not moving, but wanting nothing more than to tear my throat out.
What can I say? I have that effect on people.
A nasty sort of smile crossed Greed's face. I could tell by his stance and the way the others deferred to him that he was probably a high-ranking military man, and the impressive arsenal each of them toted strengthened that opinion. His voice carried a heavy-handed authority as he asked, "Alexander Lavelle Harris?"
"S'my name," I slurred. "What can I do for you ladies?" Spike was a bad influence, but it was worth it to see the heated blush come to the men's faces.
Anger started forward, her face twisting with her namesake. "Show some respect."
I gave her an appraising look, not _quite_ a leer, and snarked, "What? You look lady enough to me."
"Not me, you little shit-" she started, but Lust put a hand on her shoulder and she bit off the rest of her words. I think that was more because his hand fell off her shoulder and did a bit of naughty wandering, but I can't be sure. And Envy just looked on in... well... envy.
Greed gestured for Pride to step forward, and the young man pulled out a document from one of his pockets and cited, "We, Anthony and Jessica Harris relinquish custody of our son, Alexander Lavelle Harris, to the Federal Psychic Investigation. We hereby acknowledge that, unattended, he is a hazard to the community and we agree that he will remain under the care of the FPI until his eighteenth birthday, at which time he will be assessed." Pride paused for a moment, and something very similar to satisfaction entered his voice as he continued, "If he is found fit to re-enter society, he will do so. If not, he will continue to remain under the FPI's care until he is no longer a threat. Signed and dated, Anthony and Jessica Harris."
Now, I always knew that my parents would have no qualms selling me out if the opportunity presented itself, but that doesn't mean I was going to rejoice in being shifted over to some government organization with a smile on my face or anything. I can't exactly explain all the thoughts that went through my head, but it basically boiled down to, "Find Spike."
Spike would know what to do. Spike could take us away. Spike could keep us safe.
Then Sloth drew his gun and shot Jesse.
I don't remember what happened after that.
Later the doctors would tell me that I went into some kind of psychic overload. They'd say that experiencing someone else's pain like that broke whatever mental barrier I'd subconsciously built in my head.
Me? I say I went insane.
Apparently I tackled Sloth and snapped his neck before his stunned teammates pulled me off. I broke three of Anger's ribs, one of which punctured her lung. I fractured Pride's wrist. I gave Gluttony a concussion. I shattered both of Envy's kneecaps. And let's just say, Lust won't be having children.
Greed got me in the end though.
The only thing I regret is that I don't remember giving him a bloody nose before he did it.
What I _do_ remember is waking up strapped to a bed in a small, white room. And then they started me on the long road of rehabilitation.
I found myself wishing that they'd shot me along with Jesse. If you've never gone through withdrawal, you can't even _begin_ to guess what the pain is like. It started sort of slow on Day One. My body could handle it, or so I thought, but then, I'd never tried to live without it before.
At first it was just a few tremors, and my skin felt cold and clammy. That followed true 'til Day Three. It crept up on me until every cell in my body was telling me that I _needed_ a fix, and I needed it _bad_. My eyes watered to the point where I couldn't see. My breath stuck in my chest and every inhalation was short. I don't know if that was because I didn't have the willpower, or if my lungs couldn't handle it. My only respite was my fitful sleep.
By Day Six, even that eluded me. I couldn't stop shaking. I could barely _move_, but my body wouldn't stop shaking. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. Every time one of the military goons fed me, I just puked it back up.
In retrospect, the fact that I got to sully their uniforms makes me happy. They called it "symptoms of withdrawal."
I called it community service.
Each day their impersonal doctors would check up on me, documenting me on their little clipboards. I kept trying to tell them that I'd be fine if they'd just give me a fix. I told them a lot of things, most of which I'm not particularly proud of. I told them I hated them and that I needed them in the same breath. I told them I'd help them if they'd just help me. I said I'd do anything, if I could just have a little heroin to clear my head.
They kept me clean for four weeks straight out of hell. I survived it, but just barely.
The day I stopped begging them was the day they deemed fit to introduce me to the other members of their little operation. I might have been going insane, but I wasn't stupid. I heard the guards gossiping about the newest project: an army of elite psychics to serve the government's every little whim.
It made sense in a way. What better way to tell if an ambassador is lying then to stick a telepath in the room as the President's Aide? Who better to negotiate with other countries than an empath who can push ideas on a purely emotional level? And who's going to connect an assassination to that poor schmuck who just happens to spontaneously combust?
The FPI hadn't managed to sell the idea just yet, but that's what the project was all about: a trial run with five psychics to _prove_ that it could work. A study group to show the Congress that psychics were a valuable, yet completely untapped resource.
They called us the Core.
In between the shivers and the vomiting, I learned all about my new playmates: a Japanese kid named Yoshi who could do something called Astral Projection, an Indian American girl, Anne, who could talk to animals, Justin, the all-star football player who could heal wounds with a single touch, and a Latino chick named Maria who could teleport.
All of them had joined the project willingly.
Apparently, the government only wanted people who were actually _interested_ in helping, but they'd made an exception for yours truly. Something about the magnitude of my abilities.
Of course, it didn't hurt that I was under eighteen and that legally all they needed was the signature of the two fucks that raised me.
I was still weak when they moved me. Two brutes just stepped into my cell one day, grabbed my arms, and half-dragged, half-carried me to my new quarters. Thankfully someone had told them about my Psychometry because they were careful to only touch the bits of me that were clothed. The hallway was brighter than my cell had been, and it hurt so much I had to keep my eyes closed, but I heard the surprised gasp of a girl, and some quiet whispering when they dumped me onto a bed.
"New kid," one of them said tersely. "Doctors said he'll be out of it for a while. Don't touch his skin."
And then they left me there, wondering why I'd even been born.
Without the drugs, my gifts had spiked. Had anyone touched me in that skin-on-skin contact sort of way, I'd have probably lost it. As it was, my empathy fed me the dirt on my new comrades. Two of them were disgusted with me; apparently they were familiar with the symptoms of withdrawal. One of them was completely disinterested, and the last... the last took me by surprise. I sensed kindness, compassion, and concern for my wellbeing.
I hadn't felt anything like that since the last time I'd seen Spike.
My eyes were still closed, but I made out some of their whispers.
"He looks pretty bad...shouldn't the doctors still be looking after him?"
"Not much they can do for him, Anne-sempai."
"What do you mean, Yoshi?"
"He means the hijo de la pueta's a fuckin' junkie, niña."
I didn't want to hear it, so I blocked them all out and tried to fall asleep. It didn't work, but at least it distracted me. And when the Sandman finally decided I'd suffered enough, right before the darkness overtook me, I remember thinking, "Please, God, don't let me wake up."
That was my first and only prayer. The sanctimonious bastard didn't even have the decency to answer me.
I hate roosters. But I hate government officials more, especially when they're dumping a bucket of water on my head and singsonging, "Rise and shine, you little shit."
Aren't you proud, mom and dad? This is the fruit of your taxes.
I opened my eyes, automatically scanning the room for potential enemies, asshole officials, and anything I could use as a weapon. Spike's training was that far ingrained in my thick head.
Other than my sadistic wakeup call, the room was empty. I figured they didn't want their precious ESPers knowing how easy it was to brutalize a fellow teammate. The dude got in a few good hits before I managed to break one of his fingers. I wanted to do more damage, but a couple of backup goons and a doctor busted into the room.
As long as I live, I'll never forget the stunned expressions on their faces. Then again, I guess it's not everyday you see a junkie pinning a military man facedown on the ground screaming, "Who's the rooster now, bitch?"
And so began my special training.
They led me into a classroom where I got my first look at my new playmates. I pegged the dark-haired oriental kid as Yoshi. His face scrunched up in a sneer when I walked into room before fading back to a slightly bored expression.
The longhaired, dark-skinned chick glared at me, and I would have muttered a "You know you want me," but one of the goons behind me pushed me forward.
My last two teammates looked like they could have been brother and sister. Fair-skinned, blonde hair, and identically brilliant smiles. Well, the over-muscled jock _was_ smiling, until he saw me, but the petite girl's smile didn't fade at all. In fact, it looked like she even turned the shine up a notch.
They were all seated at a long, metal table. Contrary to the static cell that had been my world for the past few weeks, the room was painted a pleasant shade of light blue, and the floor was carpeted.
"Ah, Alexander," the official at the front of the table smiled warmly, "so glad to see you could join us. Please, have a seat."
The goon gave me another push, so I slipped into one of the cushioned chairs. If anyone noticed my wet hair or the shiner on my left eye, no one commented. "Sorry," I said, "I must have missed the memo."
I'm pretty proud that there was only a hint of sarcasm in my voice.
"Yes, well, you did have a rather rough night. I can see how that might have happened."
Oh, I thought, FPI agents are comedians now. What _is_ the world coming to?
The blonde jock, who I figured was probably Justin, snickered, so I turned my nastiest smile on him. Without taking my eyes away from the kid, I said, "So, I guess introductions are in order?"
"How remiss of me," the man said. He gestured to the Japanese boy and began, "This is-"
"I already know who they are," I interrupted swiftly.
"Really?" The man's eyebrow quirked a bit, and I resisted the impulse to telekinetically nudge the steaming cup of coffee on the table into his lap.
Rather than answering him directly, I pointed to the Latino girl and said, "Maria Lopez. Teleportation." I nodded at the Japanese kid, "Yoshi Takamura. Astral Projection." I jerked my thumb in the direction of the two blondes, "Anne Vasquez and Justin Hart, who respectively talk to animals and heal injuries with a single touch."
They all stared at me, eyes wide, except for the government official who seemed pleased. I continued blandly, "I wasn't asking who they are. I was asking who _you_ are."
"General Anthony Walsh." The bastard even had the audacity to tip me an imaginary hat. Then he smiled, "I wasn't aware that anyone had introduced you to our little project."
"If you're referring to the Core," I responded, "then no one has. But I do have ears, and even doctors talk a lot when they think their patient is unconscious."
Yoshi shot out of his chair and hissed, "Show some respect."
I glanced at him, then back to General Welsh. "Terribly sorry," I said unconvincingly, "Gimme a fix and I promise I'll be a good boy."
"As amusing as it might be," he replied, nonplused, "I didn't send you through a month of rehab just so you could fall back on old habits."
"Yeah, well I didn't ask my parents to sell me to you, and I didn't ask you to shoot my best friend, and I sure as hell don't remember enrolling in rehab either, but hey? What do I care? It's only my fuckin' life," I said bitterly.
"Fuckin' delusional junkie," I heard Maria mutter.
"Maria!" Anne exclaimed, then looked at me with pity.
Goddamn Scarlet O'Hara wannabe.
"Regardless of what you believe, Alexander," General Walsh said mildly, "Your parents only wanted the best for you. And while you are in this program, I would ask that you refrain from swearing. It's unbecoming of a child."
Before I could open my mouth to protest being called a child, he continued, "Until you turn eighteen, you are under my direct supervision. Which means, for the next three years, you will be working in this program. These young men and women," he gestured around the table, "will be your teammates. Other than your teachers, they will be your only human contact. I suggest you try to make friends.
"You are here because you are one of the strongest ESPers we've ever encountered, but you are still growing, and you need to learn how to control your powers. We only want to help you, Alexander."
Now, it was probably a dumb thing to do, but I snickered. I mean, watching him spout of his portentous bullshit and seeing the way the other kids just lapped it up was just… sickening. General Walsh didn't give a shit about me; he wanted his project to succeed. He wanted me because I had power, and everything else was secondary.
Without a word, the two goons who were still standing on either side of my chair reached for my arms. As they hauled me up, Walsh said, "I am sorry you see it that way. As much as it pains me, I think that you need a few more weeks before you can join our little family."
The bastard actually managed to sound sincerely sorry.
As I was "escorted," (read: manhandled) from the room, I heard Anne murmur, "Is that really necessary, sir?"
Justin piped up, "Do we even _need_ him?"
Before I could hear Walsh's reply, the door shut behind me and the big uglies with a click. I knew the "few weeks" that would follow would probably be pretty bad.
I just didn't realize _how_ bad until the goons led me to a tiny room with no windows, no light, and an solid, iron door.
Jesus, it fuckin' figured.
-sempai: the Japanese use suffixes to convey respect and standing. Someone they respect who is roughly the same age as they are would be classified as "-sempai."
hijo de le pueta: "son of a bitch"
niña: "young girl," affectionate.