Let's play a game
He is still on full alert when he steps out onto the street.
It's something he can't shake off, however often he tries to get himself to relax. The forced ease never lasts.
He can feel his shoulders tense as he instinctively leans forward, curling his body into itself as he moves. Ready to throw himself down at a moments notice.
His hands are itching to feel the security of a weapon under his touch. He needs to be in control. Able to defend himself.
He had never anticipated that there would be a point in his life where a trip to the bus stop could be this difficult. He doubts he would be able to work again. Do something normal. Stop being paranoid. Going from fighting for survival in simulations to being dumped back in real life should have been simple. A relief.
To him, it's torture.
His fists clench in the pockets of his trench coat as a tall bearded man throws a strange look his way. His nerve ends are immediately on fire. Who is the man? Is he a threat? Should he be exterminated?
His brain, full of the fake, man-made cells, can only think of survival. Previously received orders overlapping more orders. He is working like a machine. The goddamn killing machine that Castle constructed without him even being aware.
He is not a man. He is Kable. A character in a game. A puppet to control. Nothing more.
He takes deep breaths under his hood, shooting glances from side to side, digging his nails into his palms to keep living reality. He tries to stop thinking about the past but the human part of his mind does not abandon memories easily. It's only a street away now. He can make it.
Footsteps thud on the ground as he increases his pace, never stopping, never looking back. He's almost at the checkpoint. Checkpoint…no…bus stop…reality…no danger…The cars honk at him as he crosses the narrow road without bothering to check if there is a gap. No time to waste.
His feet touch the pavement and he leans against the nearest wall, breathing deliberately slow. He remains there for a minute, soothing his trembling hands with the conviction of his safety. That is until a hand lands on his shoulder.
He jerks in surprise, whirling around to bash the soldier to the ground with a swift movement of his arm. And freezes when he realizes the soldier is a woman with a child on her arm.
She looks just about as shocked at his reaction as he is with her appearance. Her lips tremble for a moment before she summons the courage to speak. "I'm sorry Sir. I was just going to ask if you're a'right. You're shakin' pretty bad"
She has a sweet voice. Sounds young, can't be in her thirties yet, and her expression is very much surprised at his violent reaction but strangely caring in its southern accent nonetheless. The toddler on her arm gives him a smile that shows his tiny growing teeth.
He feels sick all of a sudden. Not the retching type of sick but rather a numb sort of pain that stuns him as he comprehends reality. He has aimed a killing blow at an innocent person. He almost murdered a child. He swallows hard, willing the paranoia back into the corner he has created for it.
"I'm fine" His breath quivers as he speaks and the response emerges gruffly but the woman doesn't seem to mind. She nods comfortingly at him before strolling along to the bus that is pulling up.
He follows them with his eyes, noticing the child keeps its large eyes fixed on him, thumb in mouth, as he is carried away. The bright innocence in those eyes makes his chest constrict and his mind wanders back to his own child – how she suffered without even comprehending what was being inflicted upon her.
He sucks in a last deep breath before he too, mounts the bus, fumbling for change to hand the driver. It hits him again just how much a normal act, such a daily reality has become foreign to him. It makes a new sensation settle in the pit of his stomach that he has almost forgotten, silly and irrational as it is - embarrassment.
His gaze instantly seeks out an empty corner seat in the section that he senses is reserved only for the city thugs. Naturally, from the looks the people are shooting him as he passes, he feels like he belongs in that secluded area anyway. The irony of that. Him converting from the warrior fighting to return to his reality into a shunned individual who had no more place in society but as a beast who should be caged.
His body stays wired but he allows himself the freedom of sneaking looks out the window at the grey streets that have been reaped of their colour. If it was still possible for him to feel sorrow for his surroundings, he perhaps would. Any emotion that he has not been robbed of is bound inside him for only those he wants to protect at whatever cost, and of course for his own selfish need; to keep himself human rather than weapon.
The smooth metal against his left thigh is an old friend whose presence against his skin he draws comfort from. While doing nothing to make him integrate back into his previous life, it lets him feel reassured that he has a shred of defense with to hold on to, a familiarity to grasp in his hand, should they return for him. It's a cool breath against his heated skin and under the rough jeans he feels secure with it.
His gaze flicks back and forth between the bus, its passengers and the murky streets outside. At one point he meets the gaze of the toddler who seems to find him more fascinating than any other person in the world and has stared at him for until now without any reserve. He wonders briefly, at how children can carry such open honesty and emotion on their faces and how much they cripple those bright expressions in the process of growing up. There is rarely an adult seen in the cities with wide eyes and an angelic innocent face that can hold somebody's gaze without embarrassment or fear.
Swallow. Breathe. Relax. It's his mantra now, the one he chants in his head over and over again to avoid his mind collapsing in on itself and losing sanity. He looks away from the translucent plastic sheet of a window to the overhead monitor from which a monotone female voice announces the next station. He does not yet know whether to find it positive or negative that the ride is over. Twenty minutes of hushed voices and constant motor-hum end with the deafening shuffling of feet and groans of exhausted people who begin to move to the doors. He follows in silence, keeping behind the crowd and avoiding body contact as far as possible.
Then he finally stands before it, his goal, his destination, his reward for the torture he endured. The grocery store's green sign with the straight-edged white letters stares back at him, the automatic doors beckoning him into the second hell he needs to test himself against today. Another deep breath, another thought to his family which he gains strength from, and he moves forward into the brightly lit shop.
It is not as terrible as he braced himself for, and for the hundredth time this hour, he feels the ridiculous laugh build up inside of him at how absurd this situation is. A full grown adult man of his physical strength and experience, unable to handle a trip to the supermarket? His permanent scowl turns into a strange grimace as he juggles that thought, letting it slip through the different niches of his mind and feeling anger, humor, annoyance and worry all at once.
He has considered a psychologist before, naturally, as there will always be that irrational want of spilling his story to someone who is not involved with any of it, but he does not trust nor does he want the tale to spread. Those over-paid bastards can't possibly empathize with what he has been through. No. What he has been through is better left with those who were involved and go to their graves with them.
Though theoretically, there is nothing left to fight. Nothing left to be afraid of. No months living on the brink of death.
The world is rid of Castle and, while his immense million-making business of game platoon will live on through the investments of hundreds and shared enterprise, his maleficent plans have vanished into thin air. If the story spilled into the public now, of what kind of a massacring form of entertainment SLAYERS really was, it would surely bring down the entire company and everything the man worked for would fall to pieces. What good would it do him? Bring satisfaction? He doubts it.
He is sure, pen-tapping psychologists and plots for revenge will not help him remove the turmoil in his head. He stares at a shelf of tinned carrots and peas, knowing that this is something he needs to heal by himself. His fingers brush over the cans, picking out what he thinks is needed, all the while keeping focused on his surrounding. His intense studying of the canned tomatoes could fool any passer-by but he is never slacking.
The dairy section proves more of a challenge because there are people milling around the cheese packets and milk bottles. He moves into the isle slowly, well aware that he is receiving wary glances from the people who note his muscled bulk moving past them. Nobody wants to mess with a man that looks as though he could kill with a twitch of his arm. He smirks bitterly as he realizes that he is exactly that – a perfect killer. His other side. Kable.
The milk lands in his basket with a thumping noise that is louder than it should have been and he almost snorts as some people in the same lane shuffle away from his occupied space silently. They're definitely not a threat to him and as he grabs all necessary products from the shelves he marvels at how his paranoia gets the better of him when really, most of the humans around here are shit scared when he enters a room. Well, apart from some children apparently. It should distress him that people can see the murderous side of him immediately, when all he wants is to be normal as he was before, but right now it works wonders for his nerves. He's treading the familiar waters of the past few months here and these people are making it easy – they back off instead of firing at him.
By the time he reaches the cashier, he is almost at ease in his surroundings and the supermarket seems by far less hostile than half an hour ago. He is sure there is no danger hidden behind any row. The lady behind the counter, who seems to have been bored out of her mind for the past five hours of her shift, flicks her fake red lashes up and down his body as he stuffs his goods into a bag. She can barely be in her twenties and yet as she passes him the change, her manicured claws just happened to slide over the back of his hand in a motion he knows how to interpret. The contact does just what he strained to avoid, his killer defenses snap into place with a speed that the poor girl could not have foreseen.
Her hand is crushed in his fist before she can bat an eyelash and her flirty smile forms an opening of shock as the intense pain shoots up from her wrist bones being ground against another. He has lost control and for a moment, he is back in his memories, gripping a soldier's wrist in the same vice grip as he attempts to right his weapon for the deadly shot. However, that man did not release such a high-pitched scream of agony as the busty cashier woman does upon feeling the pressure on her hand and the soldier struggled far more violently than her feeble slapping on his arm. Not that there is much impact on his wiry, battle-hardened muscles anyway.
Luckily for her, a voice decides to split the commotion that has built up around the cashier section of the supermarket, at the sight of a bulky man torturing the paling young woman. The voice of somebody that Kable has not heard for longer than he first expected.
"Look at you, Kable. Here I was thinking you only put on the scary face when you play"
That voice. His fist automatically seems to loosen and then release the woman altogether even though it is different from before. This time it is the surprise of seeing the one who had spoken stand in real flesh in front of him in the middle of a grocery store, acting as though such a scene was normality. No Nanites or computerized control involved.
Simon Silverton stands in the mass of people that has shortly before been a cue of customers waiting to be served, clad casually in dark blue jeans and a black Hoodie that sports the AC/DC logo in bold red letters across his chest. Your average downtown kid. With the difference that this one has about five credit cards and never seen under a hundred bucks residing in his wallet. Currently, he is slipping out such a note, while talking as though there was a conversation going on between him and the dumbfounded adult.
"Haven't seen you around town in while," he comments, placing the notes on the till and smiling politely at the stunned woman while packing his toast bread and pistachio butter into a bag. "But then again that's not a surprise. I figure you'd drift off for a bit until the hype dies down. But you… going grocery shopping?" He pauses, obviously not eliciting a laugh from his attempted joke. His easy going manner towards the man seems to aggravate the cashier-whore further because she starts screaming for the both of them to leave before she calls the police on their necks.
The ex-convict fixes his stormy eyes on her with full intention of telling her just exactly what the police could do but the kid cuts in again, apologizing wholeheartedly for the tumult, before sauntering past his former icon with his obtained goods. Kable watches the kid for another moment, confused as to how he had not picked him up before, then flicking his gaze back to the people scattered in front of him.
Each one of them is looking at him either with horrified recognition or confusion but all sporting the same look of barely suppressed fear. The sales woman has her eyes downcast, avoiding his and the shocked gazes from her colleagues and nursing her bruising hand. He decides it is time for him to leave.
The plastic bags barely even cut into his calloused hands as he steps back out onto the street, hood in place and eyes roaming the street for the blue-eyed teen that just left the store seconds ago. How the hell did that rich boy find him in this district? More importantly though, why the fuck had he not seen him before?
He has forgotten, in those few stunned seconds of seeing his gamer in reality before him; that the boy had played him for several weeks straight. He possibly knows his instincts and habits better than he thought at first. An observer that kid is, a learner and simultaneously an instructor when he had been controlling his body, guiding him through each level and studying him as he passed checkpoint for checkpoint.
And now, that nosy teen bastard has disappeared.
He curses under his breath and does not even comprehend why he feels the frustration course through his body. The game has been played. There is absolutely no need whatsoever for this urge to see the kid, to exchange some words, to find out who exactly this boy is. He blames it on the nanites that have forged a peculiar connection between them for the duration of the battles. It's just a lingering sensation; he insists to himself, you can't be caring about some spoilt kid who helped you stay alive because he had the bucks in his wallet to bribe Castle into letting him control the main guy. The big attraction.
He twists back as he walks though, eyeing the alleyways he passes in the strange hope that the kid actually sought him out to talk and that it was no coincidence that they clashed in that supermarket. He is truly surprised at just how much the thought is bothering him. He knows he should be grateful that Rich Boy exposed Castle to the world and pushed his hand to where it needed to spill blood. In reality, it was the seventeen-year-old who saved the world, not just the body who executed the move.
It is not long before he stands back at the bus stop but after mere moments of hovering amongst the other waiters, he catches sight of what he knew could not have vanished altogether. Light on his feet maybe, but not completely invisible. While the kid does know how to blend in well, dark colors and all, he doesn't have his icon's attentiveness. He is also unable to see the shadow that suddenly looms over him as he unlocks his sleek black BMW.
This is followed by multiple shopping bags falling in a heap on the tarmac next to the tires and Simon Silverton finds himself pressed up against the side of his car. Not to forget, with a very irritated, full grown adult who easily committed hundreds of murders in his time as a reality game character, staring down at him. He does not need to be pinned by his arms to know that there is no wriggling out of this one.
There is a beat of silence between the two where they just drink another in. Having player and character standing across from another as real, true people is an experience both have not yet felt. Blue and gray eyes fix on the opposite and simply let the effect settle. For Simon this is not the first time seeing his hero, but Kable is astounded by the boy's appearance, even though he knew from the first moment that it was him. There simply was no doubt that the voice was his. But the pale skin, the baby blue eyes and the clearly purposely messy dark hair is not what he had imagined. Not that he's had a clear picture in his mind but he's thought of a geeky, mousy sort of kid that had no other ambition in life than to become a computer whiz. Then again, this one here has kept him alive for beyond twenty sessions.
"You got me," the kid laughs, the cocky attitude still in place but there is nervousness in his words, "Not the most original first meeting huh? Middle of a parking lot. Wow."
"You're here. Why?" Kable cuts him off, not budging from his spot. He can see the boy is getting more edgy with every word and almost smirks at that. Funny how he manages to intimidate people without even trying. The kid isn't as tough as he pretended to be behind the safety of his screen.
The kid's about to open his mouth, then pauses, shrugs and points towards the discarded bags at their feet. "Food ran out. Can't starve myself now can I? What? Did you think I was hunting you down?"
The man scoffs and moves further back to give his ex-player some breathing space. Simon catches him looking around the road like an animal in hunting mode, even while he talks to him. Always assessing his environment. "Kids like you don't grocery shop in this district"
"Well, there's always a first," he responds, picking up his purchases and carefully inspecting the contents of the bag for casualties. However, when he receives the silent stare again he squirms under the intensity and it finally slips out, "Fine. I was hoping to run into you. Come on," the car's headlights blink as he presses his car key, "I was stuck in your head for almost two months. I just wanted to see what you're like off screen. See that you'd made it back to the real world and all"
Kable can't fathom what could be so fascinating about his life out of SLAYERS but he can somehow see the boy's point. Being stuck inside his head, controlling every single of his moves must probably have a lasting effect on the player. Being connected through the mind. He studies the boy again and notes the fragility of the white body, compared to his own. This kid looks nothing like a soldier and yet he has lived through battlefields that no adult wishes to face. Not any old video game but an alternate reality. The kid's got some guts.
"Well, here I am"
Simon snaps to attention as Kable's gruff voice sounds through the awkward silence that had begun to settle. He cracks a smile. "Yeah, here you are. With a bunch of groceries and bullying hot cashiers. Is that what you do?"
Kable frowns, "Never said I was a good person, kid. I was in there on a death row."
"Sure you didn't say it, but you weren't the one going psycho and bashing people's faces in those levels liked the other bastards. Didn't look to me like you enjoyed it."
Words of wisdom from a barely 18-year-old. He honestly doesn't know what to reply. Thankfully, the kid is a talker and takes that burden from him.
"Anyway, why are you here? It's not like I'm that famous and you didn't even ask for an autograph yet, so…" He averts himself for a moment to dump his bag of groceries on the back seat of his spotless car, "Why are you talking to the rich uptown kid?"
He really is so much more observant that he got credit for. Kable runs a hand over his two-day stubble and lets out a bemused sigh. "The rich uptown kid saved my ass a hell lot of times. You saved my family. Don't you say thanks for those kinds of things?"
The teen is surprised for a second but then a grin splits his handsome face again. "Anytime"
The following silence feels awkward because they are both considering ending the talk conversation and continue on their ways. Yet, each feels his curiosity about the other rising with every ticking second. It is the kid once again who takes the first step.
"Hey look, do you want a ride? I mean, I've got time and if you're in need of a lift…"
He's got his lip pulled in between his teeth, looking nervous as he proposes this but his eyes hold the larger man's steadily. Kable is once again baffled by the boy's trusting nature, or rather, by his faith in him. He seriously wants to get into his million-dollar car with a man who can bash his skull in with a single strike if he feels like it? A man whom he doesn't know as well as he believes he does.
"It's fine" he declines, "I'll take the bus"
He doesn't give an explanation but Simon seems to interpret the reluctance right anyway. The boy nods down the road to the large vehicle that is just pulling away from the station. "You mean that one?"
"Listen, I know you probably aren't too eager to go drive with some guy you don't actually know since we never actually met…officially, but…"
"It's for your safety not mine," Kable interrupts, giving the kid a hard stare.
Simon only rolls his eyes dramatically, "Please, with what I've seen, you think you scare me? Even if you were pissed at me, why would you bother hurting me now?"
"You never seemed like the smart one who recognized danger right in his face" Kable agrees, not surprised at the boy's stubbornness.
"Yup, hasn't changed. Now get in, I'll get you home. Trust the boy who has yet to DWI or damage his car. I've had my license for two years, you should be safe," he grins, disappearing inside the interior of the car.
It's sleek, leathery and spotless inside the BMW. A typical rich-guy car through and through. Simon looks absolutely at ease as he flings himself into the driver's seat and slips the key into the ignition. Kable leans back into the comfortable leather and tries not to be as tense as knows he appears. He trusts the kid's skills but he checks the front for tracers, timers or anything out of place anyway. It's reflex.
"So," Simon elongates the word to make him comfortable, "What you been up to after the fiasco with Castle? Lying low apparently because nobody has reported seeing you. Man, you're a celebrity! The media are going crazy over you. Everyone wants an interview with the mighty Slayer. I feel totally outshined. They knocked on my door five times last week, not even interested about me but for another talk about you"
"I'm not talking to the media," Kable states the obvious, "I'm not made to be famous. Not for this"
"Yeah, it gets monotone," Simon grimaces, "Always the same questions. The magazines should just buy them off another. You know they even asked me to do a photoshoot for a front page? Of course you'd be first choice but since you're not available. I think I'm gunna rival Brad Pitt some day if this goes on. Maybe I should go public more. It's pretty incredible huh?"
"What do you tell them?" his passenger asks, ignoring his excited chatter, always watchful.
"Oh this and that. Depending on the questions. Most of them are about how I got into gaming and blah blah blah. Then the ones about you are like, 'What does it feel like playing another person?' 'Have you ever met him in person?' 'Can you describe being Kable's gamer?' and 'What do you think is similar between you and Kable?' Always the same stuff"
"Now you have met me," he notes, "Satisifed?"
"Well you look exactly the same as on the posters," the kid grins, pulling up at a red light, "And you sound just like you did when you were bossing me around in your head. But you haven't started talking a lot yet, so I can't say I know anything about you. Not satisfying."
"There's nothing to know"
Simon raises an eyebrow skeptically but is distracted as the light flashes to green and he takes a right on Kable's instruction.
"Well, I can stalk you as soon as I know where you live" he laughs.
Kable sighs. "What's left of my life isn't worth knowing"
"Now that's a harsh way to talk about family," Simon scolds, pressing on the brakes as they near a junction, "Or wasn't that your daughter that I saw on the basketball field?"
"That's her. Delia's one of the only good things left"
The smile that graces the rugged man's face at that thought is quite a sight. Simon flashes one of his own as he jokes, "Well it's too bad she ain't older"
"You wouldn't get within a meter of her. I don't trust you that much," Kable assured him, giving him a look that speaks out a greater message than the warning itself.
"Yeah well, from what I saw she's a cute little kid. How's your girlfriend?" he changes the subject good-naturedly, passing into the residential district.
"Wife," comes the gruff correction from the adjacent seat.
"That's what I said," Simon waves him off.
"She's coping. It's not easy and I'm not counting the media out there. I think she's scared sometimes even if she knows it's over. She thinks they'll take her baby away again."
"Or scared of you?"
He doesn't mean for it to slip out, it's meant to be a joke but somehow he feels Kable tenses beside him and from the corner of his eye he sees the hands on his thighs clench into fists. He thinks he's hit the wrong button now and holds his breath silently.
"Sometimes" Kable confesses and it escapes in a forlorn murmur, "That's exactly what I think"
It gets quiet for a bit, with only Kable's hand-motions serving as entertainment as he directs Simon through the busy streets. He's glad for the tinted windows that at least shield him from the people outside. Finally he makes the him pull up in front of an apartment block.
They remain in their seats for a few minutes, both looking straight out the windshield, lost in their respective thoughts. After an eternity of minutes, Kable clears his throat and removes his seatbelt, turning to the driver.
"Good to see you kid"
Simon returns the look and adds a smile to it, "Yeah, great to meet you, in person, Kable"
His icon shakes his head slowly, glancing past his shoulder out onto the road where people are walking past the vehicle, gawking at the splendor of it. Two of those people he knows very well. She is holding Delia on her arm even though the girl has almost outgrown that age and the little one is laughing. They look beautiful to him. They are his life.
"No," he declares, "It's John. John Tillman. Kable is someone I don't want to have to be anymore"
He is sharing information with Simon that he hopes the kid will know to keep to himself. He is very sure that the teen understands what he trusts him with. It's a truce of sorts that settles the last tension remaining between them. The older man has come to appreciate the boy as a trustworthy equal and for the wealthy boy an understanding of Kable's new reality has broken through. He is a different person in a different life and Simon knows there won't be any more meetings like this. He just knows.
"Bye John. Don't let me catch you grocery shopping like that again" he smirks, turning back to his steering wheel.
The man who was Kable gives his gamer a healthy clap on the shoulder before getting out of the car. "See ya kid"
The blond woman with her child hanging onto her neck hurries across the street towards him as the car pulls away from the sidewalk and disappears from view. He greets her with a kiss on the forehead before pulling his daughter onto his shoulders, making her squeal with joy. He has never been happier to be home.
As they head towards the building where they are staying, probably for good, Angie gives her husband a tender look before realizing something is amiss.
"John, where did you leave the groceries?"