notes: This chapter contains some graphic violence. It also contains spoilers for Havoc's arc, and episodes 14, 16, and 22.
This Is Not a Story About Redemption
In South America, you heard all the rumors.
Passing by a group huddled around a campfire, Havoc overheard the one about the former opera singer who ate and vomited cigarettes as her renumeration. Yes, that sounded about right. She remembered reading the tabloids at the time, just before the world went mad.
Passing the time before a target approached, she listened to the one about the boy who'd been born soon after the heavens were usurped by the false stars. His parents, who had remained human, did not know about such things as Contractors, and the boy killed them accidentally when he was still a baby. The Syndicate was raising him. His renumeration was drinking a wee cup of hot milk. A round of muted hard laughter rippled through the trees. If that boy lives to manhood, someone said in mock outrage, just think what a monster he'll be! And the laughter went around again. The new generation, born Contractors, monsters even more monstrous than monsters: now there was a joke to savor.
Now, sitting in the parlor watching the television with Laura, Carmine listens to the documentary narrator as he solemnly wonders about the fate of the great, tragic opera singer who disappeared without a trace years ago. Laura, shelling peas beside her, shakes her head with a 'tsk'. Such a talented singer, she laments. How we used to stay up nights to listen to her on the radio! Did you listen to her too? she asks, taking care to slow her speech for Carmine's clumsy ears.
She nods once, twice, jerkily. Yes, she listened to the opera singer. She knows what became of her, too. She heard it from someone in South America. But she doesn't tell Laura this. She gets up to put her bowl of shelled peas in the kitchen. It's a red, bloody sunset outside the window. Carmine turns quickly away.
At first, she tried to leave the children alive. Her renumeration was measured in mouthfuls of blood, not the vitality of her victims. But it was such a lot of work, such a fraying of already unraveling nerves. To lure a child out; render it unconscious; take it away without anyone noticing; open a wound; quiet the screams of pain and terror; take the child back; pray it had not seen her face or, even better, blocked out memory of the trauma altogether. All for a mouthful of blood.
She argued with herself, this is better than killing them. But in the end it was easier to kill them, even without using her powers. Children's necks snapped so very easily. And once she had killed one, it was simply a matter of deadening her eyes and her heart against the next; and once she had killed two the sin of killing two against two hundred became largely irrelevant.
Of course she did not kill a child for every man or woman. There was enough blood in one body for Havoc to perform her renumeration several times, if she was careful. One flask at her hip for water, another for blood. But sooner or later, always, she would have to prowl around the edges of town like a too-thin desperate wolf with blood around her muzzle and soaking into her pelt.
In South America, you heard all the rumors.
The one about renumerations snaked around the camps like a virus, causing those with hard renumerations to cast murderous looks at those who did not. Penance, eh? they muttered. Redemption, huh? Maybe for some of us – and someone would heft a knife suggestively, and a concurring growl would rise from the campfire circle. But where's the redemption in drinking a wee cup of hot milk? And someone else said, the atmosphere having turned sibilant and full of fangs waiting to strike, Or in sleeping? And one by one heads turned to look at the Contractor Bai and her human brother. Must be nice to get some beauty rest after all that killing. Must be nice to pay off her Contract with a little nap. And the boy; must be nice not to have to pay back any damn thing at all. 'Course, some of us have to work for our salvations.
The muttering stopped abruptly as Havoc walked into the circle, fresh from the kill. She did not look at the others as she unscrewed the cap of one flask and raised it to her lips. Gazes slid to the ground, voices fell silent. The circle of Contractors went back to being what they'd been told they were: rational, emotionless loners, each looking out for himself. Oh, yes, they could mutter and moan all they wanted, but not around her. There was no harder renumeration than hers.
Once she tried to pay it off. That was the carrot at the end of the long, long stick, wasn't it? That you could pay it off and be rid of this damned existence for good? Over the course of a night and a day she killed many, many people, Contractors and otherwise, and when it was over she slaughtered a village worth of children and drank. She drank until the blood burned in her throat. She drank until she vomited great globules of red, and then continued to drink. She drank until her belly was bloated in a perfect mimicry of pregnancy, brimming with lifeblood.
She was not granted redemption. The Gate would not disappear for another week. When she finally woke in the little village in Eastern Europe, her Contract either fulfilled or stripped away, she could remember nothing of the Gate but everything leading up to it, and she thought that there must be a God indeed, for Nature left to its own devices could not be that cruel.
Today the children want something special for supper but Laura doesn't have the ingredients at home. Carmine, will you go? she asks, and Carmine inclines her head slightly.
The children cheer and rush to grab hats and coats. They push a basket into her hands and push her out the door, tumbling down the steps after her. Market! Market! Hooray! they shout, and she quickens her steps to keep up with them to the village square.
Making the market rounds reminds Carmine of life before it all went mad. She knows the young men – and the not so young men – follow her with admiring eyes, just as they used to, back then. Back when she was Carmine of the delicate collarbones and the too-big eyes; pretty, red-haired Carmine, quiet and reserved but always ready to help out someone in need. Carmine who was doing so well at university, who could charm boys with a husky-voiced joke.
She does not smile much at the boys who rush to open shop doors for her, or at the grocers who pile foodstuffs in her basket. It already takes so much concentration to make appropriate conversation, to say, yes, that one please, half a kilo of this, thank you so much. It is a constant effort to remind herself that it is all right to be around people and their children. The day will not end in blood.
The grocer's son is a persistent young man, though, and places a single flower on top of her purchases with a friendly grin. Ooh, the children breathe, well within earshot, he likes you! The grocer's son's grin grows wider even as his cheeks turn pink, and Carmine can't help it: she lowers her eyes and graces him with a look from beneath thick, fiery lashes before exiting the shop.
Do you like him, Carmine? the children pester. Are you going to get married?
It is a question full of implications of a normal life, terrifyingly so. Carmine gives the children a confused look and pretends not to understand.
One day the little girl does not come home from school at the usual time. When questioned, her brother shrugs. He saw her in the schoolyard but lost track of her while talking with some friends. Laura sighs and goes back to her mending. Nobody seems very concerned, and they cannot understand why Carmine is so upset, repeatedly going from the kitchen, where she is making supper, to the parlor window to watch the street. She'll turn up sooner or later, the scamp, Laura says, but Carmine just casts a doubtful eye and turns her gaze back to the window.
It is not at all certain the little girl will return, just as it is not entirely impossible there is a man or woman lying dead on the outskirts of the village somewhere.
This is wrong. Her hands shaking so badly that she has to put down the vegetable knife, Carmine tries to convince herself that this is wrong. She no longer has a Contract. It's been fulfilled, or taken away. She has not felt the power since that time. She doesn't feel it now. She has not been out of the house today, and so cannot have killed anybody, cannot have killed Laura's little daughter. She doesn't drink anything thicker than water.
Still, she jumps at every snatch of conversation heard through the walls of the house, thinking they are discussing a mysterious murder. She cringes at every approaching footstep, thinking a small, pitiful body has been found in an alley.
Finally, just as dusk is gathering and Carmine is putting what supper she has managed to cook on the table, the door bangs open and the little girl comes running into the house. Sorry! she shouts. Ann invited me to play and I forgot to call! Laura makes an exasperated cluck at the back of her throat and cuffs her daughter around the head affectionately. Scamp, she says.
Everyone is surprised when Carmine comes trembling into the parlor and stretches out a hand; she touches the girl's hair, as if she cannot quite believe she is really there, and then flees upstairs to her room, to wrack the bed with sobs.
Perhaps this is the price. Perhaps redemption is what you make of it. Why else would the former opera singer choose to eat cigarettes when any foodstuff would do? Why else would Carmine struggle on like this? Perhaps the carrot dangles always in the distance, because even as you move forward to reach it you realize that you yourself are holding the stick. Still, she does not know why it should be that some can find redemption in a cup of hot milk while she has to pay for her sins twice over.
But it is a rare day when she is especially happy or scared. Most days fall somewhere in between. She wakes; helps Laura with the chores; answers the children's questions as best she can; listens solemnly to Grandmama's advice; looks out the window at the passing village life; and when the weight of freedom becomes too exhausting she bids the family good-night and goes upstairs to bed, finding relief from the day's terrors and joys in sleep.
It is while she is sleeping that he finds her.
- - - - -
The hand on her arm jerks her back roughly, suddenly, and because Misaki knows who is behind her, her first thought is, She's going to kill me. She cannot hope to stay alive in this case, but she turns around anyway to give at least a semblance of defiance.
But the Contractor is not going to kill her. Misaki can't read the expression on April's face. On a human she would have called it fear; on a human she would have called it sympathy.
On a human she would have called it the face of a friend saving another from a terrible mistake.
And then the flare-bomb bursts up ahead, and there is no time to think about any of that.
- - - - -
notes: For some reason, Havoc's arc was really powerful, and suggested the depth of emotional and psychological trauma that a Contractor might go through. I don't know if I managed to capture it as I'd wanted to here, though ;; Also, the scene between Misaki and April is very odd, in some ways – if you look how cautiously Misaki is moving in it, and how forcefully and suddenly April grabs her… it's very odd. Anyway, please CC?