She could hear it, feel it, and almost see it, but for whatever infuriating reason could not convey it to the others, no matter how much they asked and how much she wished she could. Kate's kindness almost made it worse, for Constance so wanted to be able to give answers and felt a distinct sense of guilt that she could not.
She sensed Mackenzie's presence from down the hallway, yet couldn't alert her friends. It was as though there was an incessant pounding in her head, blurring her vision and locking her mouth shut so that she could not utter a sound. Images of things she could barely recall appeared as quickly as they vanished.
Mackenzie was speaking, and though she heard the words, she could not make sense of them.
"...betrayal...pay for this...Father is on his way..."
Constance squeezed her eyes shut, silently begging for this surge of discomfort to subside, yet it only grew stronger. Suddenly, her vision was full of light, and the pain stopped for a split second. Before she could process this, however, she felt her head spin again and the images that had been slipping by at lightning speed gradually slowed down, as if they were a slideshow.
"...none of your business...you will pay...we're taking the boy...Reynie..."
Everything went dark. Vaguely, she heard Kate stomp her foot; she felt S.Q.'s willowy arms reach under her; but Constance Contraire was lost.
She squinted at the photographs hovering in front of her face and realized that, to her surprise, they were videos. Videos playing back memories she didn't know she had. Ten Men sneaking down a dark alleyway. Hiding in a trashcan. A hand clamped over her mouth, smothering her. Pain. Cries for help in a burning building. The heat of the flames. Frostbite. Dangling off a rusty monkey bar at an abandoned playground. Falling. The unbearable pain of a broken bone. Skinning her knees every summer, time and time again. The Institute. The Whisperer. And then...
It was wet that day. Moist. Humid. A heavy smog hung over everything, water droplets suspended in mid air. She was tired but fought hard to keep her eyes open. Don't succumb to sleep until you've figured out what's going on, what's happening to you. Vehemently, she held on. Her fingernails dug into her palms, miniscule but sharp, as she fiercely struggled against something she could not perceive.
There were hands around her now. Squeezing her middle. She squirmed against their grip. The pressure was relinquished and she found herself instead held close to something warm, and soft. This was a good thing, because the noise hurt her ears. She squinted upwards but everything was blurry. Was she underwater?
The person holding her spoke sharply. There was a back-and-forth argument, and shouts. The person began sprinting, cradling her in the nook of their arm, fighting against some unnamable force. From the thin muscles straining to hold her up, she gathered that this person was much younger than she had assumed. She thought she might fall, but never did.
They turned onto a dirt path. She knew this by the smell. It was thick and gamy, soil saturated with water. The person carrying her was slowed by the sticky mud. Despite this, they kept going, steadily making their way to… where? She lifted her head up, but it was like heaving a boulder off the ground by a pinky finger. Exhausting.
A swishing sound started up. The source was from around them. She could barely discern swaying green tips over the edge of her blanket. She gazed at them for a moment, wondering who they were. They had to be alive. The colors were so radiant, so bright.
She was so, so tired. Just as she was about to doze off, the person stopped abruptly. Someone else was speaking. Incoherent phrases. Razor-edged tones. She felt herself shifted into the crook of an elbow as the other arm raised up, gesticulating. She started to cry.
It was raining now. Whoever was quarrelling with her ostensible caregiver left. They held her to their chest now, more gently. A faint scent of lilies, a lock of auburn hair. She widened her eyes and a face came into focus. Mama?
But then something went through their body. A shudder that felt like an earthquake. They tossed their head back, making a large, gulping sound, and she saw, for an instant, the gray sky above. The diamonds waiting to fall. The dingy, stale-looking clouds. While she was perceiving this, something wet fell onto her cheek. Just one. Just once.
Her hand went up to it automatically. A teardrop. She rubbed it into her skin.
The person was leaning over her again. She felt comforting lips on her forehead, and then in a rush realized something terrible was about to happen.
They let go of her.
Alarmed, she started crying, beating against air with her tiny fists. Words she couldn't understand. Hard dirt under her back. A frog jumped onto her chest and she shrieked, beating it off. The green moving things were being tossed by the wind. One floated over to her and it was a motionless strip of fiber-like material.
In one superhuman move, she lifted her head up, straining every muscle in her neck. But the person just walked away. Just left her. Just like that.
Was she bad? She was bad. She was engulfed and surrounded by thick, thorny vines, genus unknown.
Thunder sounded. Lightning struck somewhere far away. Nobody was holding her. She wanted to be held. She needed to be loved.
But she wasn't loved or held.
Panic built up in her chest, panic that turned into a monstrous scream. And yet the person kept walking, turned into a small dot, and, every ounce of strength spent, her heavy head dropped back to the ground.
She lay there in the seeping dirt, eyes squeezed shut, and cried and cried but mama never came.
And so she did what any person would naturally do: she forgot about it. Tucked it into the back of her brain, into that small compartment that erases the memory of fear and loss, it had not bothered her... until today.
"Here he comes." "Quick!" "I have Constance." "Let go of her." "No!"
Constance blinked. Her head was clear, clearer than it had ever been since this whole McCracken business began. A slight ache was building up in her entire body, as if she'd just been dropped from a building a million stories high. But it was... gone. For now, at least.
"Constance!" Kate came to her side, patting her down roughly and shaking her back and forth. "You're okay?"
Constance nodded. "I think I am."
Kate gave a pinched smile that only meant one thing. Constance gathered that something bad, really bad, had transpired while she was in that state, or whatever one might call what she had just experienced. She looked up at Kate again, who was saying urgently, "Mackenzie's gone to get McCracken. We have to get out of here."
"She's going to take Reynie," Sticky added, perspiring and clenching a fist at his side. "She said she'd take Reynie," he repeated, and his voice unexpectedly held a strong tinge of anger.
"That's not going to happen," Kate said, but her voice trembled at the thought of losing him. Surprised, Constance, connected by Kate's hand on her shoulder, discerned a flickering image of the two of them, his arm around her shoulder, her head pressed against his chest, back at Mr. Benedict's house. It wasn't a memory; it was a wish.
"You guys go," said Cleo softly. She was twisting her hands, face pale and drawn.
Kate's eyes flew wide open. "What? No way! You're coming with us."
Cleo shook her head. "No, I have to stay. I got us into this mess."
"Now isn't the time to take one for the team," said Kate gruffly.
"I can't," quavered Cleo.
Kate's face darkened into an obstinate scowl, mimicking Constance's trademark expression. "Well, you are. Come on." From this, Constance deduced that Kate was now under the impression that Cleo was simply chickening out, and she wouldn't stand for that. Choosing wisely not to comment on this, Constance asked instead,
"Where exactly are we going?"
Now, this was a good question. Their hearts were all racing, adrenaline pumping... and they were trapped.
To be honest, it is a bit difficult to explain how they were feeling, but the best comparison that one can make is to that superhuman moment before you score a goal in a soccer, a goal that may make or break your chance at a trophy or some other highly valuable reward - the moment when you are standing in the middle of one of those fake grass fields and the people on the bleachers are cheering but you don't hear them because this is your one and only goal.
Yes, that's exactly what it was like. Except that, you know, their goal was mere survival.
"We don't know," said S.Q., licking his lips anxiously.
Kate shook her head gravely and repeated, "We have to get out of here. We don't have enough time –"
A stampede of footsteps charged down the hallway. "There they are!" shouted Mackenzie, pointing an accusatory and jubilant finger at the children. She was, of course, followed by a whole host of Ten Men.
Constance felt the pain slide back into her head as they got closer and, groaning, brought her hands up to her temples. This time, it came at a much more constant rate, with no relief between waves. She made eye contact with McCracken, whose head angled downwards to watch as she doubled up, whimpering. A smile spread across his face. "Oh, ducky," he murmured, clucking at her. "What have you gotten yourself into?"
"Run!" shouted Kate, turning and hurtling down a hallway. At the wave of a Ten Man's hand, a metal panel slid from the ceiling and cut her off.
"Not so fast," said McCracken coolly.
"What do you want?" asked Cleo.
Livid, his face suddenly contorted into a terrible, terrible expression Constance hoped never to see again. Strangely, though, as he focused his attention on the other girl, Constance's own pain lessened considerably. She shook her head. It was clear again.
Cleo was backed up against the door to his office as McCracken advanced on her. "You," he said in a low, angry voice. "You! You betrayed us! Do you know how I manage traitors? You –"
Mackenzie put a soothing hand on his arm. "Later, Father," she reminded him. He looked at his daughter, something softening in his gaze, and nodded.
Then he suddenly straightened, as if pulled tautly up by a string. His spine was rigid. "I'll deal with you later," he said. "I have another bone to pick with the rest of them."
Cleo, who had been visibly trembling, relaxed at these words, and she shuffled over to stand by Sticky and S.Q. Instinctively, Sticky moved closer to her, poised to do whatever was necessary to keep her safe.
"I believe," McCracken said, "that you owe us one of these handsome young men." The Ten Men behind him started whispering loudly to each other, excitement growing on their faces. "Let's see… who was it?" The twitch at the corner of his mouth indicated that he knew exactly who it was, and was choosing purely to torment them into stating the name of the person they were about to relinquish.
"You're not taking him," Kate said, standing in front of Reynie. She transformed into a lioness, eyes a piercing, crystalline azure, and her posture was just as rigid as McCracken, who looked on in amusement – but, as she continued to hold his gaze, something in his façade faltered. It was not discernable on the surface, but Constance felt it, and a tiny fragment of hope grew in the pit of her stomach.
McCracken, brushing off whatever misgiving he had, gave a mock-apologetic look. "Oh dear, I'm afraid that we've made these plans ages ago, and whether you like it or not, my schedule is anything but flexible."
Kate said firmly, "You can't."
"We can," said Mackenzie, stepping forward. The look on her face was filthy and contemptible.
Kate stood her ground fiercely, and said adamantly, "Never." Constance felt a warmth spread into her heart as she felt the rush of inexplicable, ineffable, undisputable certainty that Kate emanated.
And then, startled, they all – Ten Men, Mackenzie, and McCracken included – watched as Kate slid her hand into Reynie's, interlacing their fingers: an act that, in itself, was nothing remarkable, yet the expression that filled both of their eyes was one that none of them could forget. Perhaps it wasn't love, but it was as close as it could be. Reynie turned to Kate as if she was the only thing that existed, and Kate tugged their intertwined hands up to her chest, right above her heart. For a moment, everything stood still.
But then Constance reluctantly – and thankfully – pointed out, in an undertone, "This is all romantic and great and such, but we're kind of in an inconveniently life-or-death situation, so I recommend that –"
She could not finish, for the pain began to slide back into her head, and she felt everything sway. It started throbbing; her chest grew unbearably heavy, and suddenly a fever washed over her, and the excruciating stab of a cut and of a bone splintering beneath one's skin, and being thrown onto a cement floor…
One Ten Man stepped up, cackling. The children watched in horror as Constance fell to the ground, writhing.
"What did you do to her?" shouted S.Q., surprisingly passionate. "Stop it! She doesn't like it!" He seized the arm of the man, who casually tossed the gawky teenager against the wall. Furious, he bounced back, though he opted not to confront any of them, considering the circumstances.
Kate's other hand was digging around in her bucket, but before any of them could act, the Ten Man who was now second-in-command reached into his briefcase.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," said he, and grinned an emotionless grin. "I do believe, however, that I have something you've all been, ah, pursuing – foolishly, I might add. Very foolish, yet somehow admirable." He paused to let his words sink in. Constance, on the floor, uttered a note of pain. "It is I – we – who owns the device that is causing this. We have developed it, in the room you all idiotically attempted to break into, for the past few years. Only now has our leader, McCracken, been released; only now can we test it out. And we couldn't have chosen a better subject." He looked down fondly at Constance, who had curled into a fetal position. "Do you wish to see the mechanism that can cause this amount of pain? Do you want to know the future of this world, the newest form of punishment? Because it's right here, within your grasp. It's sitting in the palm of my hand right…. this… instant."
Kate raised her chin, defiant, but her hand trembled. Reynie gripped it, a warm, comforting act that flooded her with renewed strength. "We're not scared," she said stoically. Reynie gave her an encouraging nod. Standing even taller, she said loudly, "Show it to us."
"Where's the magic word?" asked the Ten Man in a sing-songy, delighted tone. "Oh my, this is just delightful!"
Kate gritted her teeth, glaring at him with the utmost loathing. "Please," she spat, making it sound like an imprecation of the worst caliber.
"Only because you asked."
Slowly, he began to slip his hand out of that dreaded briefcase. He tilted his head, as if savoring the children's pale, determined faces, anticipating the moment of display, and then he dropped his briefcase, clutching the object in his hand and curling his fingers around it protectively.
"Do come have a nice look," he said, smiling and unfolding his fingers one by one.
It rested in the palm of his hand. Despite their consternation, they all leaned forward to see what it was, what could possibly be the cause of Constance's pain. And there it was.
It was a button. Just that. A button.
So. There you go. That chapter was a great deal longer than I intended it to be, and I considered splitting it up, but couldn't find a good place to cut it off and even if I could, I don't think I would want to because this was such a vital chapter in this story.
I hope that I paid homage to Trenton Lee Stewart's style of writing in this one, but I know that I did stray pretty far from the voice I was using before, such as when I went into detail of Constance's flashback/flashbacks. And before anybody attacks me for this, yes, I did use a very similar piece of writing in another one of my fics, On My Own (a Finchel – Glee – fic that is now completed). I initially wrote it about my own adoption, and felt that it could be incorporated into this chapter. I always modify it, though, to fit into the context.
This encompasses some of the darker themes that I was talking about before. If any of you have a problem with it (I don't think it was sufficiently creepy to warrant a T rating, but if you don't want to keep reading it's completely fine), let me know.
I have already started the next chapter and will post it as soon as possible. I'm afraid, however, that I can't work on consistency in updates or chapter length as much as I should, because with school and a busy schedule I don't want to keep people waiting too long, so please be patient with my frequency of updating.
Lastly, thank you for all of your support and reviews. There are a few faithful readers who review on a regular basis and it means the world to me. And even if you keep this open on your phone to check back, that literally (okay, figuratively) warms my heart. Yup. I love all of you guys and can't express my gratitude that you all exist because I love writing and it's been such a crazy wonderful experience to write for other people. But don't worry, this is nowhere near the end of the fic.
So thank you, thank you, thank you. Review if you wish. :)
Oh, and I did add a bit more Kaynie in the end. See, in the action scenes, it's not like there can be romantic interludes, but I promise that more is coming, and once all is resolved, there will be a totally reasonable amount of Kaynie fluff. I'm as excited as you are because I will go down with this ship.