Disclaimer: "And King Tyronius said unto Lord Acapulco, 'Thou shalt give credit where credit is due, not hoard it all for thineself, and must give all due worship and praise to Pixar. Also, thou shalt not put pineapple on pizza.' " Book of Leviticus, chaper 4, verse 7.

Notes: Yes, before anybody flames me, I'm well aware that this story is over-angsty.

Thanks: You know who's wonderful? You know who put up with me and this story during its fits and starts, stops and hiatuses, about ten million re-writes of the eighth chapter plus, and my sporadic communication? Know who gave me some wonderful advice and encouragement even before the story had taken its final form, even before the first draft was finished, and who gave me a chapter-by-chapter replay of the good, the bad and the ugly? Crzysheelf, that's who. Go now and worship her. I mean it.

And also: Thanks to Guille van Cartier, as her pictures of Syndrome (particularly 'Synlet: Kidnap,' 'Syndrome: Camera room' and 'Synletsketches: NLtV spoliers') were the inspiration for Marrow's Syndrome. Big time. So thanks there!

The most terrible, intractable, legacy of torture is the killing of desire - that is, of curiosity, of the impulse for connection and meaning-making, of the capacity for mutuality, of the tolerance for ambiguity and ambivalence. For these patients, to know another mind is unbearable. To connect with another is irrelevant. They are entrapped in what was born(e) during their trauma, as they perpetuate the erasure of meaning, re-enact the dynamics of annihilation through sadomasochistic, narcissistic, paranoid, or self-deadening modes of relating, and mobilize their agency toward warding off mutuality, goodness, hope and connection. In brief, they live to prove death.
- Nguyen L., 'The question of survival: the death of desire and the weight of life.'


The lengths that I will go to, the distance in your eyes...
I thought that I heard you laughing; I thought that I heard you sing.
I think I thought I saw you try.
- Losing My Religion: R.E.M.

"So hello, Violet. Or Invisigirl. Which would you prefer?"

Violet smiled across the desk at Agent Rick Dicker, who despite having a perfectly good chair seemed content to stand next to his desk. She had been pleasantly surprised at receiving the personal summons from the man, which had read more like a request anyway. A quick message to her parents had let them know she was heading to the NSA office on "official matters". She'd liked the sound of that. It had made her feel like a professional super, even though she was still seventeen and one year away from official independence in the eyes of the agency.

"Hey, Mr. Dicker. Um, either's good really, I mean, it doesn't really matter. But thanks for asking." Violet shyly tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, flattered at how Dicker was treating her as an adult.

"Well, kid, the reason I called you in today is that I've got a case for you, if you want it."

Official independence, in the priorities of the NSA, took second place to a super's abilities in a situation that required them. She was needed for a case that required her unique talents. Violet's face took on an intelligent frown, while inside she whooped with glee. She'd been solo-ing for a while now – hell, she'd even got her own costume, a purple and black affair – but this was the first time she'd actively been assigned a case to deal with. She was young, at seventeen, but her mom had started dealing with cases when she was the same age. Violet spared a brief moment of though for her mother, who had seemed very emotional about the fact that Violet was beginning to hold her own as a super; her powers, whilst defensive in nature, still were strong enough to handle most foes. Imagination, that was the key. An impenetrable, airtight bubble around any enemy was enough to bring them down and knock them out. Invisibility, also, was an underrated power – stealth was a school of thought that few supers subscribed to, and yet had some of the best results. Violet made a face for a moment, thinking that it was such a shame that being the best also meant you had an incurable sense of drama.

She took the file from Dicker and flicked immediately to the first page. There was her NSA profile page; a photo of herself in her new super outfit, replete with her trademark long black hair and wide trusting eyes. The words 'invisibility' and 'stealth' in her bio details were highlighted. Flicking to the next page, she found the summary sheet of the case in question. It was topped by a photo of a man stood proudly in front of a boiling beaker of a green liquid. She took in all the immediate signs: lab coat, laboratory equipment, slightly glazed expression with just a hint of satisfaction. The caption read Dr. G. Harker.

"Mad scientist?" she mused aloud, glancing up at the agent stood contemplatively in front of the large plate glass windows that opened up his office to a view of the world outside. Dicker nodded.

"We think so. Got a lot of funding for a project through dubious means, we're not sure how. But we are pretty sure that this project should never be undertaken. Our informant couldn't tell us any more, apart from that it was incredibly unpleasant, completely illegal and totally insane."

Violet nodded thoughtfully, glancing through the rest of the file. Life history of the man, pretty standard, born, raised, school, college, degree in human anatomy, PhD in advanced biochemistry and (by the looks of the experiment list) an honorary doctorate in Psycopathy. His story ended a few years ago, possibly the point where he'd retired from the noble betterment of mankind to something slightly more sinister. It didn't seem too bad. Compared to Syndrome, who had been thoroughly crazed, this scientist seemed merely slightly vexed.

"So where do I come into this?" she asked Dicker, lifting her eyes from the file to see him sitting down heavily into the chair opposite her. She spared a moment of thought for him, too. He'd always looked tired and worn-down, but age was hard and the secrecy that surrounded his job was evidently beginning to take its toll. Violet wondered how long it would be before the man retired.

"You have good stealth abilities, which will be needed in this case. Yeah, the man's evidently got a screw loose, but he's still a genius. He's going to be able to handle anything that's thrown at him, and what's more, I'll bet he can twist it to his advantage. So we need you to do what so few of our other supers can." He paused here for a moment, taking the file back from Violet before flicking through it and handing it back open to the schematic of a building. "We need you to infiltrate the place without being detected and destroy any means of conducting illicit research that you find. If you can bring him in, this would be a bonus, but if it means risking your own neck don't bother. We can always go after him again later. Instead of throwing a frontal assault his way, we're asking you to do a little reconnaissance and... shall we say... tinkering."

Violet grinned for a moment, liking the delicate stress on 'tinkering'.

"Main objective, Agent Dicker?"

"Destruction of illegal project. An infiltration entry. Grab his notes if you can. Oh, and don't get caught."

Simple, easy-to-follow, yet challenging. Violet liked this case already. She stood up, still holding the file, and tossed a quick grin at Dicker. "I'm on it, sir."


One week later

It was blindingly well-lit in the corridor, but that didn't matter to Violet. It was hard to be noticed when the light passes right through you, and Violet could simply walk down the corridor, provided she hugged the walls when guards passed and didn't make much noise.

For an underground base it was pretty well-maintained, Violet mused as she pressed against the wall to let another guard pair pass. She slipped around the corner and continued down another hallway. The walls were clean and damp-free despite being made of stone, and the floor was unmarked and in good repair. She consulted her internal map again – she'd need to take another left soon – and continued with her train of thought. It was pretty good base, all in all. The guard patrols were irregular and there were often differing numbers of guards on each shift. They looked well-rested and alert, but no-one was really alert enough to catch an invisible, almost soundless intruder who knew where she was going and had one eye on them at all times.

Violet turned left to find her path blocked by a pair of extremely solid-looking steel doors. She paused for a moment, and then pressed herself against the wall. A guard, clothed in the nondescript charcoal-coloured uniform of the guards here (who nevertheless had clear visors on their helmets, to avoid the ol' nick-some-unifoms-and-invade tactic) walked mindlessly past her before inserting his keycard into the door. It whooshed open with a gentle sound, and Violet closely trailed the man through the already-closing doors.

She stopped as soon as she was inside and pressed herself up against the wall once more, taking the moment to look at her surroundings.

Laboratory glassware covered the entirety of the wall opposite her. It was large (easily fifteen feet tall and thirty feet wide, even when supported by a metal table that had vials of liquids underneath it) and it was complex, filled with a variety of fluids all colours of the rainbow. A few men in lab coats were bustling about the base of this enormous structure, while a middle-height, slim man in a spotlessly-white lab coat stood some distance away with his hands clasped behind his back, a faint smile and a proprietorial air.

Violet slipped around the wall so she was a little nearer and took a moment to study him properly. His face was currently entertaining an expression of amused benevolence, and the smile playing about his lips looked no more insane than her own. Yes, he was definitely the man from the photo – the rich brown hair (albeit now thinly streaked with grey) and rimless spectacles were the immediate clues, but now she was closer she could see that the lines of his face matched that of the photo. A positive identification. She marked it off her mental checklist.

It was odd, she mused, as she watched him stroll about beneath the towering glass structure like a proud father, that he seemed so balanced. Then she chided herself. The qualifications for the terminally deranged did not necessarily include a maniacal laugh, foaming at the mouth, a name prefixed with a synonym of 'insane' and a frequent cry of "MAD! They thought I was MAD! BUT I'LL SHOW THEM ALL! AHAHAHAHAHA!"

But it would have been nice, the traditionalist in her retaliated. Still, he did look more like the next door neighbour's dad than the perpetrator of an immense evil. That benign little smile said trust me, you know you want to.

She moved around him ever so carefully, aware that at this distance even the slightest noise could tip him off, wary that even the noise of brushing of cloth would alert him.

But no. She made it, unmolested by shouty guards and gibbering scientists, to the very corner of that monstrous glass edifice. And then, feeling like this was the easiest mission in the world, she brought up a thin shield behind the structure and pushed just the tiniest bit.

It was rather marvellous actually, and Violet glanced back just as she reached the door to see the large, fragile construction arc delicately towards the floor like a swan dive. The noise it made when it smashed was both wonderful and terrible. Smiling to herself, her invisibility held strong amongst the confused babbling, she slipped through the door as more guards ran in. She tapped her wrist once, twice, three times. Mission Completed. Ground control, I'm coming home. She slipped along the corridors, ghostly and silent, and left the shouting behind her as she headed up and away.


Four years later

Agent Rick Dicker opened the door to the office, and took a moment to observe the slight figure typing away at a laptop on the desk. She wore a long-sleeve black t-shirt and that, combined with the black hair that reached halfway down her neck, accentuated her pale skin. She was a chiaroscuro of a girl, all black-and-white and angles-and-lines, made of the slightly harsher profile that came from being slim to the point where the muscle on the frame formed the contours of the body. She contrasted sharply with the office, a pleasant space made of pastel walls and healthy plants, books aplenty on a hardwood bookcase and plate-glass windows. Violet and the office were an odd juxtaposition of styles, especially in a place where she used to fit so well. Dicker was once again forcibly reminded of how much the girl in front of him had changed.

"I've got a case for you, if you want it."

Dicker could have kicked himself. Those were the exact same words he'd said to her last time, and –

His train of thought was rudely derailed when Violet looked up. Her purple eyes were flat and her face was expressionless, and yet completely focused on him. There was no indication that her mind was still on her laptop. Dicker, long-time veteran of underground government work, felt a tingle of unease; he never, ever got used to this look, this face that Violet wore every day now. It was so unlike her old self, the frail young butterfly with shy eyes and a hopeful smile.

But he was a professional. Always a professional. He proffered the inch-think manilla-coloured file with his usual grave despondency, and Violet carefully pushed her laptop to one side and regarded Dicker without emotion. Despite her apparent lack of curiosity, Dicker knew that she was interested. His suspicion was confirmed when he placed the file on the desk before her, open to the second page, and she pulled it closer. Ignoring her laptop completely she picked up the file and studied the summary page intently before flicking through the following ones. Her face bore an expression of focused thoughtfulness, the merciless intentness of which scared Dicker, seasoned manager of the slightly unhinged, to the bone.

"Why this case?"

Dicker thought about her question. What he wanted to say was: look, kid, we think it would be good for you to take this case. Not because it's easy, or unremarkable. Exactly the opposite. It's been confusing some of the fastest minds in the department for a good while, and ever since you came back from that disappearing episode you've been thinking in a different way – sort of twisty, but really, really efficiently. We don't know what happened in those eight months that you completely vanished off the radar, or where that scar on your face came from, or why you returned to us pale, tight-lipped, practically emaciated and refusing to speak a word about what occurred. All we do know for sure is that we gave you a typical mad-scientist case, you sent the Mission Complete signal to say you were out, home and dry, and then you never came back. Now you don't sleep much any more, you spent the months after your return becoming the best hand-to-hand fighter in the NSA, hah, a jack of all blades, and your sense of humour appears to have been surgically removed. Whatever occurred, whatever happened to you wherever you went, it changed you from the shy, amiable, pleasant girl you used to be at the tender age of seventeen to this cold, closed-off fighting machine. You turned eighteen during the time you disappeared, and it's like you became a completely different person. Anyway, that's why we think you'd suit this case; you seem capable of thinking in different sets of dimensions to us, and it'll give you something to do beside your basic super work. Which, by the way, you've become much better at. And faster. And more lethal. Yes, the morgue noticed there's been a sharp increase in supervillain bodies making their way down there. We would like to put some of them on trial alive, you know. What the hell happened to you to make change so much, to make you forgo everything you used to hold so dear? And incidentally, kid, could you stop looking at me like that? It's freaking me and the department out.

Instead, he said: "It needs a new approach. You've been good at that of late."

She regarded him once more, and Dicker's mind registered the scar again although his eyes never flickered to it. It was thin and silver, starting high on her right cheekbone. It traced the contour of the bone for a couple of inches before heading sharply downwards, curving very smoothly across her throat to intersect with both of the tendons in her throat at the point where her collarbones met. It did a rather good job of detracting a viewer's gaze from her eyes which, these days, were cold, flat and hard. Dicker shied away from the description 'dead', even though the word kept presenting itself for inspection in the treacherous recesses of his mind. It was a word belied by the fact she seemed to be in good health; her hair was dark and glossy, and complimented her pale yet healthy complexion. Still, the worrying concept that he was simply talking to a corpse that still had all the mechanisms running kept occurring to him. It was playing hell with his composure.

Her eyes dipped back to the file, and Dicker was mildly grateful for that. She unclipped the photo from the first page and held it up to the bright winter light shining in from the spacious, pleasant window behind her. Dicker knew what it was: a satellite photo taken recently of a half-mile-square plot of land in Siberia. A flat, barren expanse of snow dotted with several coniferous trees.

"The taiga," she said, unimpassioned, studying the photograph from several angles, and finally turning it upside down. "The edge of the taiga. Taken in the last few weeks."

Dicker nodded. "Siberia," he said, his eyes never leaving hers as she studied the photo intently. She turned it right way up again, tilted it to the left, a little more so, and then held it upside down again. Her face bore a look of intense concentration that Dicker, who had observed her behaving this way before, knew meant that she was studying the picture from several angles, not all of them physical.

"Artificial construction underground... new. Built in the last five years."

Dicker wasn't surprised. Violet, in her uncanny way of spotting what other people missed (often by looking at it in a completely alien direction), had noticed what it had taken one of the surveillance team members three years to work out. They'd noticed the first signs only by accident, when a random sweep of the three-hundred or so miles around the Russian city Noril'sk (by an overly-enthusiastic environmentalist agent looking for more signs of air pollution) had shown a temperature increase by 2 degrees centigrade, about one hundred and ninety miles southeast of the city. The agent in charge of the sweep had noted it down and handed it on to his superior, along with a triumphant smirk of "I told you global warming was affecting the taiga." The superior had taken a closer look and thought it odd how global warming was raising the temperature of an isolated bit of land, and that none of the land surrounding it was affected by it. He'd never heard of localised global warming before.

And so the thermal image had been shifted to architectural experts, who had confirmed it was the right kind of heat signature for a building that was intended to be concealed from most kinds of detection. And then someone even further up decided this needed proper investigation, and from there...

Well, it all came down to him now, and that should be enough to tell anyone something was suspected.

"How can you tell there's a construction there?" Dicker asked, curious nonetheless. She traced something on the photograph with one finger.

"The lines on the ground are too straight. Erosion should have worn them down to create a smooth floor, but the construction disturbed the ground and threw up new contours, especially where they dug down. The snow hasn't settled on them right. You can see the shadows are wrong. They're too regular."

She passed him the photograph, her eyes catching his for a moment in that too-intense stare he hated so much. He held it upside-down as she had and looked at it again. She was right. The shadows cast by the trees didn't quite match up to some of the shadows on the ground, and one of the trees' shadows was a little disjointed, as if the level of the ground next to it was different. He could just made out that this anomaly extended to a square-ish plot of land. Flipping the photograph the right way around, the signs were invisible.

"Sometimes discrepancies are easier to spot when the problem itself is inverted," said Violet. Dicker filed that away for future reference, not liking the cold-calm voice in which she had said it. He didn't like anything about this new cold-calm Violet, in fact. No-one did, least of all her family, whom she now had little contact with. She'd separated herself from the structure of her family, the bones of her very existence that had mattered to her so long ago; she'd removed herself from the marrow of warmth and love that had been the centre of that unit. She seemed cold and unaffected, an impression that scared most people – including those who worked around her, even fellow supers. And she certainly didn't look like her fellow supers; she stood out a mile from them, especially the women. They were broad-breasted beauties, for the most part, all nineteen-fifties' glamour that came from having muscle and curves at the same time, hairstyles that had to cope with high-speed winds and unexpected sub-arctic temperatures. But Violet was more macilent than them, toned harsher, a creature of contradictions: her black hair and too-pale skin were one immediate example, her apparent health and empty demeanour another. There was something that didn't quite fit anymore: perhaps because the others were creatures of curves and rounded edges, flowing hiplines and smooth silhouettes, she was made of edgéd lines. She was starker and totally in control of herself, to a degree that was frightening. Everything about her was measured – her stance, her movements, even her breathing. She might have seemed dead to Dicker, but it was not a mindless death. It was pure control, a bizarre zombification, a mastery over herself that wasn't right. It was almost as if she knew what made her human, and she was holding it away from herself. Whatever softness in her had been baked solid – she'd placed every emotion she owned in a box separate to the main, and this ruthless automaton was what was left.

He handed the photo back to Violet. She clipped it into the file carefully, and briefly read the summary page.

"Basic reconnaissance," she stated, and Dicker nodded again.

"Find out what's going on. This doesn't seem right to anyone in the agency." Like you, he added mentally. "Send back an immediate report. Get involved if you have to, but only if you have to. If there's time to call for backup, do so. We've contacted the Russian government, we've confirmed it's not one of their bases and they're going to allow one U.S. representative in to investigate this. Especially since we told them you have... special skills."

Violet flicked to the back of the file, where a train ticket was stapled to a map of central Russia. Trans-Siberian Railway, the ticket read. Its due date of departure was the next week. Dicker reached over and turned the map so Violet was looking at it correctly.

"While the Russian government were all right with letting you poke around in their jurisdiction, they weren't so happy with allowing Americans to fly over it," he noted dryly, watching her for any sign of amusement. None was forthcoming. "So we've got you a private flight to Moscow, and from there you'll make your way to Novosibirsk via the trans-Siberian railway. The Novosibirsk Tolmachevo Airport has a Russian government helicopter waiting to take you to Noril'sk. From there, you'll be picked up by a much smaller helicopter that'll travel out to the central Siberian plateau, and drop you off three miles from this location." Dicker tapped the map with one finger. "Make the three miles as... slyly as you can, and check out the place. When you're done, make the three miles back and the helicopter will be on standby to get you out."

Violet traced her route on the map with one finger, and then tapped the charts that were clipped to it.

"Winter in the taiga. The temperature will be below fifteen Celsius."

"Yep. We're gonna get Edna to kit you out –" If you don't scare her to death, of course, "– and you'll have an emergency pack to take with you. A thermal tent, dehydrated food, lightsticks, chemical heat sources, an emergency radio. Some other stuff. If you get stuck, you won't be warm, but you can probably stave off hypothermia for a few days. Real comforting thought, I know, but it beats death by a long shot."

She made no reply, still intently studying the map, but her mouth twisted up in a smile that never made it to her eyes. The scar on her cheek bunched the skin in unusual ways. Still a little unnerved, Dicker turned to leave.

"When does the flight leave?"

"Three days' time," he replied, without turning to look at her. He knew she'd be engrossed in the contents of the file.

"I'll be on it," she replied simply.

Dicker turned the doorknob and was about to leave when he threw one last glance at her. As predicted, she was reading the information contained within the folder. It was probably the way the light was striking her face, but for the first time, Dicker noticed how drawn she seemed. How thin. Of course, she'd been slim to start with, and since her return she'd lost any excess poundage that she'd possibly had left over. She didn't seem unhealthily thin to look at, she just gave the impression of someone who was efficient and let nothing go spare, even if it was her own body. She couldn't possibly have lost weight, as she'd replaced it with bitter lines of muscle on her training program.

But the sunlight was illuminating the pronunciation of her cheekbones and the clean razor line of her jaw. For a moment, Dicker applied the same twisty logic that Violet had used on the photograph – he turned her image upside down in his head, turned the picture around a few times until it fit differently. And from this differing perspective (when he looked past the wired muscle and the unhealthy self-control) he saw how her bones were close to the surface of her skin, despite the padding of her muscles.

It was so clear to see, especially to a man who'd known her so well before 'it' had happened, and especially in the new lethality of her actions. She was determined to self-destruct, she was driving herself towards it, fully, knowingly and completely. It wasn't too late for her. She could be turned back. But she was alone, so incredibly isolated, and he knew that unless someone bridged that chasm of space she perceived lay between herself and others she would drown in the darkness, drown in the blood, and drown willingly. And for the first time in four years, Dicker didn't wonder about what had happened to her, or how and why she had changed – he wondered why she was still affected by it.

He closed the door behind him as he left, filled with an inexplicable sense of sorrow, and moved on.


The train sped over the landscape with deceptive speed, and Violet noted the way its shadow moved with an eerie grace over the smooth, snow-covered ground. Her mind was busy, compiling and dissecting the file she'd memorised in preparation for the trip, thinking of different ways of approaching the target. She never let her mind rest. Not ever. If she kept busy, she wouldn't have to focus on... other things. She also had to concentrate on her self-control, the iron barrier that separated her conscious mind from her emotions. It hadn't been easy it first, but her circumstances had demanded it. She was still prone to slips, however, although she was careful to never let them show.

Macabre. That was the word she'd heard used to describe her. Only once, and only in passing, in a conversation she wasn't privy to and should never have heard.

In that moment, she'd slipped a little. She'd wanted to explode. She'd wanted to turn and, with her long hunter's strides eating up the floor, deliberately hurt that person until they truly understood what 'macabre' meant. She'd wanted to write the dictionary definition on the wall for them using their own blood.

But the tricks she'd learned in her time Away (as she referred to it in her head) meant she'd managed to shut her emotions down completely before she lost control, and for that she was mildly grateful. She still had dominance over herself, and while she had that, it didn't matter much what else people said. And after the sterile halcyon that followed her iron-strong calming process had subsided, she'd felt mild shock that she'd even thought such violent behaviour. Focus. Control. Keep it steady. She'd kept walking along the corridor, without even a mis-step to betray everything that had flashed through her mind on hearing that one, simple word.

That the 'macabre' had been said in jest helped her to regain control. It was simply a reference to her current outfit, which was totally black, barring a purple omega symbol on the back of each hand. She wasn't Invisigirl, anymore, either. She didn't really have a codename. People just referred to her as Violet, as if that said everything that needed to be known about her. She left it at that. Things like that weren't really important these days. Very little was.

This mission, for example. It really didn't warrant the attention of a super. Which meant one of two things: either that she was being shipped away for a little while (an enforced vacation, perhaps?), or there was more to this case than she'd been told. Perhaps both, murmured a cold, calculating voice in her mind. She acknowledged this as a possibility. This kind of reconnaissance required only a careful agent decked out in Edna's finest, not the super-stealth she was capable of.

On the other hand... Rick Dicker, solid as a rock, the most dependable agent the NSA had to offer, didn't feel right about it. She knew from the way he didn't quite sound like he believed himself when he'd said 'Find out what's going on' and 'Get involved only if you have to.' She'd also noticed the way he'd been looking at her when he thought she wasn't looking; a sort of dangerous puzzlement directed right at her.

Should anyone ever find out what happened to her during her time Away, Violet would place her money on Agent Rick Dicker as the person who would dig it up.

Violet had drawn away from everyone since she'd stumbled back into the NSA building with her mind in grim lines and trying (successfully) to hide the blood. She'd kept everything she'd felt at arm's length. She'd intended it to be a temporary measure to help her cope and deal with the immediate repercussions, but it had kept the pain away and worked so well she'd adopted it as permanent practise. Keeping her feelings at bay meant she could focus on the tasks in hand. The only downside was it required tremendous amounts of concentration to maintain, a sort of icy stiffness that numbed her emotional extremities. She'd made it habit, to protect herself as much as to protect other people.

She tuned her mind out from such morbid thought with an ease born of practise. Instead, she noted how the sun had long since set, and that she should probably eat something. Violet carefully tucked her documents in her pocket – Russian police were fond of spot checks – and locked her cabin door behind her.

The jolting and swaying of the train was something that Violet hadn't needed too long to get used to and she made her way along the corridor with an easy, open grace. Others, however, weren't as balanced as she, and as she opened the door to the dining carriage someone fell past her.

Instincts she always had on high alert had meant that she'd been able to grab the boy's arm as he fell forward, a lighting strike of surgical precision.

"Asta'rawz'hnee," she said mildly. Careful.

The boy took one look at her, removed his arm from her grasp with a frightened expression and almost theatrical care, and continued his way along the carriage at a faster pace. Violet looked after him for a moment, her face expressionless despite her faint puzzlement. What had he been so scared of?

Deciding it wasn't worth bothering about, she entered the elegant dining cart and made her way to a member of staff. Using some of the phrases she'd picked up from her English-Russian dictionary, she managed to communicate that she wanted a sandwich instead of a full meal. The young man nodded his understanding with an almost overcautious degree of politeness. He left the cart and then re-entered about two minutes later with a well-wrapped baguette sandwich.

"Spaseeba," Violet said calmly. Thanks. Responding to his training, the young man replied with a shaky "Spaseeba, preekhadeet'ye a'pyats." Thankyou, come again. Violet gave him a quick nod and headed back, aware that she'd garnered a few stares. She put it down to her accent, which was probably awful, and started to make her way back to her compartment.

She'd just shut and locked the door behind her, securing herself in her own two-berth first-class 'spalny wagon' (as it was known), when the pain hit her.

It was like a freight train to the forehead. Every nerve in her head lit up like a magnesium flare, drowning every other sense in the body by their sheer blinding brilliance. Her knees gave out without warning and she slumped to the floor, one hand grasping the edge of the windowsill in a deathgrip. Her face was steady, calm, and white as a sheet; her control over herself even in such a situation was superb. But she was as close to panic as she'd ever allow herself to be, as close to dread as she could get before she clamped down hard on the emotion. She knew what the migraines heralded, and she had to stop it before it got any further.

Without moving from her position on the floor, her other hand found her daypack and pulled it closer. She reached inside it and withdrew a bottle of pills. It took her a moment to prise her hand from the windowsill, but she coerced it into operation. With calm, sure movements, she unscrewed the top of the bottle, tipped two yellow pills into her hand, and dry-swallowed them.

She didn't move from that position for ten minutes, hair hanging in her face and swaying gently with the motion of the train. She had to work hard to fight the nausea down. The migraines had been coming for a while now: sudden, random and unpredictable as hell. But she had her trusty bottle to help with that; her lovely tube of faked normality helped her when, about once every month or so, the pain struck like a hammer blow. They always forewarned the really bad days, predicting the future with unnerving accuracy.

They weren't wrong this time, either. Long after the pills had taken full effect, a few hours before dawn, Violet woke on her swaying bunk. There was an icy sweat coating her body, an ache of tears that wouldn't come, and her fingers stuffed in her mouth to stop the screaming.

To be continued.