Episode 1 : Son of a Man
By Sulia Serafine
This is an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE fic. This is the sequel series to It Could Be Worse, which will end with season 4. NOTE You can read it if you have not read ICBW. It's possible. You won't get the foreshadowing and the cameos, but you will, eventually. I'd explain them. Credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me. Any other copyrighted things that don't belong to me in here in fact belong to other very businesslike people. Could you believe that? I guess that's why I'm broke.
I've decided to run this series parallel to ICBW even though it's supposed to be its sequel. For those who choose to read ICBW and The Gift, then you'll get little hints for future episodes of ICBW and lots of pleasant cameos. Because of this, for every 3 episodes of ICBW, there will be one episode of The Gift. Hey—there are 45 ICBW episodes left after this. I can't belt out that many The Gift episodes. Guess I'll just have to write ICBW faster, huh?
So, feel free to e-mail me. Put your email title as The Gift. Email: SilverwLng@aol.com. Thanks!
Rated PG-13 for language and brief vulgarity
The first thing you should always remember about people is that they like to assume the worst. Why? I don't know. I'm not a philosopher. Leave that for the university professors and the meditating wise men. In my experience, people do this because they want to be prepared, emotionally or physically, for a really crappy—pardon me—situation. They're pessimistic. Why should things turn out great? When you hope for great things, you're presented with worse. If you aim your sights lower and something wonderful happens, hey! Then it feels ten times better than being disappointed.
But of course, this observation is a huge guess. I don't have near enough experience to write a book on life. Hell, I'm a seventeen year-old boy who doesn't even stay in one place long enough to have a life. But I suppose it could be worse.
All right. I bet my last dirty copper that you're confused. Let me start at the beginning.
My name is Coram Vincent Winston. I'm seventeen, as you already know, and I have short, wavy, white-blond hair. I have bright blue eyes. If I didn't dress as poor as I really am, people might assume I'd had the money to buy colored contacts. My height is fairly tall, about six feet or a little under. I'm lanky, I guess. Not too skinny. I could stand to gain a few more pounds, but that isn't my choice, is it? Though I'm a little vain about my appearance at times, I make do with what I have. It's not like I have the money to spend on a suit or something.
On a more personal note, I go by Vincent, or Vinny. I've always been a little freaked out by my first name. There's no reason at all for me to dislike it. 'Coram' sounds very nice. I just think Vinny sounds cooler for a street name. And that's what I've used since I was twelve. Maybe one day I'll call myself Coram. Obviously, someone wanted to call me Coram if it was made my first name and Vincent, my middle name.
That brings me to another detail. My parents are a mystery. I've never met them. I don't know their names, or if they're even together. The term 'orphan' should thereby apply to me, assuming they're dead (as you can see, I'm assuming the worst just like the majority of humanity). But there's this feeling in me that says they're alive. Maybe not together, and maybe without any clue of whatever happened to me, but I know they're alive.
So it sounds cliché. 'Orphan boy seeks long-lost parents.' I assure you that it's not. I don't want their love or their apologies or even their explanation for my loneliness. I could have been a mistake—the result from a one-night stand. That doesn't matter. Who I am is insignificant.
It's finding out what I am that motivates this search.
I'm not like other people. Once again, sounding cliché, but just listen for a second. For as long as I could remember, I have possessed this heightened sense of instinct and sometimes, this weird gift of prediction, too. Split seconds before something happens, my body has already reacted to the situation. A car almost hit me once. A knife almost stabbed me. Punches have been thrown at my face, too, and I saw each and every one of them coming.
The gift reminds me of a science fiction novel. I wish my life were like that. From the majority of books I've ever been privileged to read in my short lifetime, I've observed that things usually turn out okay in the end. Picture this: clairvoyant boy uses skills to gamble on hoverbike races and gains enough money to buy a train ticket home to his parents, who are overjoyed to see him after losing him in that mob outside the mall.
It almost seems worthy of a King's Award for Fiction. Yeah. I wish.
My earliest memory is from when I was seven years old. As far as I know, I'd been a patient at Styx Hospital since birth. The doctors had found something strange in my blood—an antibody that no one had ever seen before. These antibodies accelerated the process with which my body healed itself. At the time, I was still an ignorant child. I couldn't understand why everyone was so surprised. At first, I thought I was just like everyone else.
A few of the other kids could understand what I was going through, because they were dealing with the same thing. They treated me no differently. You see, there were kids like me at Styx, too. They didn't have my regenerative abilities, but they were also born with abnormal features. They had been committed to the hospital at birth, as I had, and we learned our lessons, played our games, and lived our lives together. We secretly called ourselves a freak show. And we were proud of it.
There was a dark-skinned boy who coughed all the time. He slept in the bunk bed above mine and did math in his bed with the flashlight under the covers. He had this mind that was super-rational. He solved equations at an accelerated rate because math rarely had any exceptions to its rules and laws and conjectures. Boys his age should have been learning their multiplication table. He was doing analytical geometry and calculus. And the freaky part was that most of it was in his head.
Others had physical deformities as well as strange mental capabilities. But no one could heal himself like I could. And they couldn't predict things like I could. My heightened instincts put my reaction times off the chart and my clairvoyance made IQ testing a walk in the park. I just knew those things.
During that time, arrogance wasn't uncommon. We freaks were all a little haughty and proud of our abilities. We showed off to the doctors and the Gray Men (men who kept us in line for the doctors) and competed for rank. We were ruthless beasts, searching for a meaning in our lives by beating at each other like territorial monsters.
No one seemed to notice that we were never getting anywhere. We were children. Just children. Fifty miles away, normal pre-teens would be skateboarding on the sidewalk. In Styx, we were jumping hurtles and getting medical treatments for ailments that didn't exist.
When I was twelve, I grew restless of the hospital confines… sick of all the repetitive experiments and sick of getting the same answers from the Gray Men over and over. I didn't have parents. I was special, and I was in Styx. That was all they ever told me. There's only so much a person can stand.
When I was twelve, I escaped. I've been running ever since.
So I said people are likely to assume the worst, right? Case in point: the day I met Yvenne Noble. I won't lie to you. There's nothing noble about her. And yet she managed to charm her way into my life and sink her teeth in on that fateful day. I assumed the worst about her, and I got much more than I expected.
I learned how to hustle people with that Three Card Royale trick from watching others do it. It was a cheap, easy way to make money. You had to have a sharp tongue, to provoke those passing by to play. You insulted them. You praised them. You did whatever it took to get them over to your overturned trashcan and try their luck when luck wasn't needed at all since they always lost to me anyway. I mean, sometimes, you had to let the sucker win… then urge him to bet his winnings again and gain even more. But that was the best part. Hustling was good.
And that day in November, that was exactly what I was doing. Unstable sources of money always forced me to the hoverbike stadium. And I hated that. Sometimes, I was poor enough to gamble my last nobles on a strange racer by the name of "The Black Emperor". Though I knew the win was going to happen, I still felt uneasy about throwing my last portion of money out there like that. That's why I wanted a steady job every now and then.
Saving money was a problem. I had no place to save up my money. No bank account. That would be dangerous. Someone could figure out who I was and turn me in. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to Styx. Sure, I never went hungry there. But I never had any choices there either. If being independent meant starving a little, I was all for it. My childhood arrogance was as strong as ever.
So I had a bag of wadded bills that I stuffed into the side of my boxers. No pickpocket could get their hands in there (unless they were really desperate and I happened to be unconscious, just ripe for the pickin') and I was too fast for muggers to catch.
Anyway, at the beginning of November, I was hustling in the corrupted metropolis of Carthak, which is located in the country of Mithros if you're not that good with geography. There are a lot of chumps in Carthak. The money came easily, but if you took too much, the person got pissed and shoved a gun in your face. You had to take your winnings in moderation, then flee. At least my young legs were strong enough to do that.
I saw a woman (maybe my age, maybe a little older… you can never tell with women. Their make-up makes physical maturity so ambiguous) exit a sports bar flanked by three yelling men. They had round bellies and thick limbs. One still carried his beer bottle and drank between curses.
The three stooges seemed to be complaining about something. It was about money. Of course it was about money. This was Sin City, and money reigned supreme. My good sense of hearing —nothing to do with my gift—managed to pick up that the young woman was a bookie and all three men had their money because of a bet concerning a soccer game. She probably had more than enough money if the men were very angry.
The woman was unperturbed by their threats and shouts. She was slim and short with light brown hair pulled into a knot at the back of her head. A backpack was slung over one shoulder and in one swift movement, she placed a baseball cap on her head backwards.
"Get off my back. It's not my fault you lost your damn money," she told the men and continued walking ahead, which happened to be in my direction. She seemed so fearless to me. Even if I was abrasive towards my enemies at times, I was never that obviously fearless. It made me smile to look at her.
The men were still complaining. Seeing as I had no customers or possible-customers around at this time of day, I put away my cards, nudged the trashcan away, and waited for the group to reach me. The back of my head tingled, like it always does when I'm sensing that something exciting is about to happen. My smile broadened.
You never found this sort of entertainment at Styx.
When they were three paces away from me, one of the men grabbed the woman by the arm. She immediately turned around and kicked him in the groin. The poor sap was down for the count. The others' shouts grew louder. They were on guard now, and though just a bit drunk, their hulks of bodies would be enough to overcome her.
I really don't care for rescuing damsels in distress. It's none of my business what goes on in other people's lives. But I was genuinely bored, and the woman was attractive to a certain degree because of her fearlessness.
"Hey, leave her alone, you fat ass," I yelled with just the right amount of authority. I bridged the gap between us and stood behind the woman who was regarding me with suspicion. Strangers never did anything heroic. They ignored fights that were right across the street and tried to remain inconspicuous.
Both men were enraged at the 'fat ass' comment and charged without a single thought. I grinned and let my instincts do the work.
I ducked under the first punch and spun around, a roundhouse kick that knocked the ogre right in the chin. I twisted around the sloppy blows that were meant for me from the other man and kicked my heel under his kneecap in a way I knew had to hurt a great deal. His legs buckled beneath him and he was soon writhing and moaning on the ground like a big baby. The first slob was still dazed. Ignoring the second one, I readied myself for the next bull charge.
I was tempted to take off my vest and use the red inner lining as a bull-fighting cape. Instead, my stance formed that of a boxer's, and I wondered if the woman was looking. I meant it when I said I was conceited.
Before any of the three men recovered, the woman grabbed my hand. I noticed vaguely how soft it was. She must use a nice expensive lotion. Maybe it was one with an advertised tropical scent. That would be nice.
"Come on, you idiot! Run!" she commanded me.
Running was the coward's way out, but she had already started in front of me, pulling me along. I wanted to stay and humiliate the men even more, just for the fun of it, but the woman wasn't going to have any of that. Maybe she feared that someone would report her and her 'business' would be ruined.
I didn't have that fear, because I didn't have a business or any hope of having a business—even one as problematic as being a bookie. But if she had that fear (and thus destroying my image of fearlessness for her) then I'd respect it and follow her. The things I did for a pretty face... I suppose in the end I'm a sucker just like the rest of my gender. It doesn't matter how superior my body is in all ways. I'm still a guy, a son of a man.
When we were two blocks away, the woman was breathing hard. She yanked me into an alley. I watched her try to regain her breath, her hands on her knees as she bent over and sucked in oxygen. For the necessity of looking normal, I faked a lack of breath as well, though I refused to bend like I was on the verge of keeling over.
"Why the hell did you do that?" the young woman demanded. She straightened up and shot me a murderous look with her chocolate colored eyes. It's strange how the feistiest people are always wrapped in the smallest packages. She was indeed the feistiest little sprite I had ever met.
"They were hassling you," was my answer. A very simple answer like that ought not to get too terrible a response. Maybe she'd be grateful.
Or not. I frowned at her choice of words, and before running off on a tangent of why I despised being compared to a donkey, managed to convey a few of my own feelings.
"I could have handled it! I had mace," she retorted and wiggled a tiny spray bottle in front of my eyes as if she were going to spray it. She wouldn't. And if she did, I could always dodge the spray. That's what I was good for, wasn't it?
She lowered her hand after a few moments and placed the mace back in the inside pocket of her coat. The young woman then dropped her backpack onto the concrete and placed both hands on her hips. Oh. That was bad. That was the stance. In my limited experience, women used this stance when they were about to be disagreeable and I did not want to deal with that.
"Are you expecting a reward or something, pal? Money for your valor? A good hard blowjob or something? Because if you are, I swear I'll kick you in the balls."
Ooh. She knew the word valor. And she was vulgar. This could be fun.
"No, I'm not expecting anything. I just did it. That's all."
The stance disappeared when her arms were back at her sides. I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn't going to have to endure a possibly feminist lecture and wondered if it wasn't too late to just walk away and go back to hustling. Little Miss Feisty decided otherwise.
"Come get a cup of coffee with me then, Blondie." As an afterthought, she added, "Just remember that if you try anything, I still have my mace."
"Don't call me Blondie," I snapped. I hated that. I had the right mind to dye my hair black one day. But that might look horrible.
We walked as we conversed, out of the alley and onto the chilly damp streets of Carthak. I heard gunshots in the distance accompanied by sirens. Ah yes, good ol' Carthak. Life didn't get any more exciting than this place. If I was lucky, I could run into three other hustlers before the day was through and sabotage them before they could get a chance to sabotage me. Money was key because I was a sinner in Sin City and money could get me out.
"So what's your name then, Blondie?"
"Vinny," I replied, the corner of my lip curling in a sneer at her flagrant use of the offending nickname.
"Cool. Well, Vince, my name is Yvenne. There's the coffee shop over on Dobbs Street. They sell nice iced mochaccinos there, even considerin' the lack of fast service."
"I said my name was Vinny, not Vince."
"I like Vince."
"Well, I don't. So stop it."
She laughed at my irritability. "Aw, come on, Vince. Lighten up. Get the brick out of your ass and have a mochaccino with me. I'll pay—and you'd better take me up on that offer, because I never pay for somebody else."
Neither do I. And even though she was annoying me with her mouth going a mile a minute, the fact that she annoyed me so much attracted me even more. Hook, line, and sinker. In mere moments of our meeting, I loved to hate her.
"So is that what you do for a living? Trick people with that stupid card game? 'Try your luck, buddy! Find the griffin!' Huh?" Yvenne asked with as much tact as a porcupine somersaulting in a room full of inflated balloons. We ordered our iced mochaccinos and sat down across from each other in a booth.
"No. I'm just doing it now because it's the easiest option at the moment. I'm saving enough money to get out of here. I'll probably take the ferry to Tortall."
She grinned with pearly white teeth. Her tongue darted out and wet her lips. "You have a problem with Carthak then?"
"And you don't?"
"Good point." Yvenne scratched at her hairline under the baseball cap. Now that she wasn't being pissy about my motives, she allowed herself to relax.
"Do you enjoy your work?" I asked, seeking to fill up the silence.
She shook her head. "Not really. I could do better at other things. But this is my life. And I have no other ideas, so yeah. This is it."
Our drinks arrived. I was glad I didn't have to pay for my own drink. Reaching into my pants and down my boxers for money wasn't all that proper looking. Some days, I had a few bills in my wallet, so I could reach my money when I needed it—but not today.
I placed the straw in my drink and took a small sip. I rarely indulged myself with these pricey little things, but this was certainly the day for indulging: sitting next to a strange and temperamental girl was something I never did.
Yvenne tapped her straw on the tip. She was studying me, still measuring the truth of my words. "How old are you?"
"You first," I replied, immediately on guard. I didn't like the direction that this conversation was taking. It wasn't supposed to become personal. It was just a little bit of fun to brighten my otherwise bleak life.
She chuckled. "I'm nineteen. Started the bookie business as soon as I got out of high school and got kicked out by the old man."
The old man? What a nice term. Yeah, right.
"Bullshit," she automatically said.
"Eh?" I asked, confused. No one ever called my bluff. Ever.
The short young woman started laughing again. She reached across the table and patted my arm. "It's okay. You can tell me. I know you're not that old. I mean, I could have been fooled with the stubble on your chin, but tell me. Come on."
I honestly had not thought it possible for someone to know when I was lying. The idea upset me and made me sink further into my seat like a frustrated child whose excuse for missing class had been found invalid. I prided myself on being an excellent liar. Maybe it was Carthak. People lied here so much that know-it-alls like Miss Feisty here knew all about lying.
Her eyebrows arched in surprise. "Really? Damn, I would have guessed eighteen."
"Yeah, well I'm full of surprises."
"Bullshit on that, too," she snickered.
Oh, if she only knew. I sucked the last of my cold mochaccino through the straw and tossed the cup at the trashcan. It went in without even hitting the side. We both got up, but Yvenne hadn't finished hers. She made slurping sounds with the straw that were amusing to me. I walked ahead one step…
…and immediately turned around and grabbed her arm. She had just started to slip in a puddle on the floor and would have otherwise landed on her ass. Yvenne straightened herself up and shot me another suspicious sideways glance.
"How'd you do that so quickly?"
I'm a freak with special powers.
"Just lucky," I said.
We exited the establishment and stood uneasily outside the doors. I suppose I should have returned to my Three Card Royale, because time was money and I had very little money to waste.
"It's almost dinner time. Shouldn't have drunk that. Now I can't eat," she remarked.
I never had plans for dinner. Sometimes there wasn't even dinner at all. But my stomach wasn't full and maybe whatever dinner she would refuse could be donated to me. Unfortunately, that would mean spending a little more time with her and risking more personal questions. She was attractive, sure, but not worth the trouble.
"What did you have planned for tonight?"
"I don't know. Turning more tricks, I guess. Why?"
She looped her arm with mine. "I must be absolutely insane, but come back with me to my place. I like you for some odd, probably unhealthy psychological reason." Yvenne paused. "Do you even have a place to go when it gets dark, Vince?"
"Stop with that Vince crap. And yeah, I go to the youth centers sometimes. They throw mats on the floor for us on the condition that we don't drink or do drugs there."
And the great part about the youth center was that there were a million ways of sneaking out of without being caught. Why would I have to sneak out? Well, they lock the doors so that 'ruffians' can't come in and hurt us. I suppose the ruffians were too dense to come in through the ways I did. You couldn't be sure of establishments like the youth center. The Gray Men might show up and take me away and no one would believe me when I screamed out that they were bad people because no one ever heard of Styx Hospital.
My newfound companion pulled her pea coat tighter around her. "Okay, Vinny. Then crash at my place tonight. I trust you enough. You're just a seventeen year-old boy."
"Still old enough to be a homicidal maniac," I said dryly, offended at the comment on my age. She'd said it in a way that resembled: "You're just a little puppy." Do you know how much that gets on my nerves?
"Are those all the clothes you have?" she asked while eyeing me again.
I patted my arms. "I'm wearing a few layers. Lost the bag I usually keep them in."
We were a block away from Yvenne's place when we saw smoke billowing out of the building's windows. There were flames bursting from one in particular. I stood there, awed by the magnitude of destruction. Even with the years I'd spent traveling around and the last year I'd spent in Carthak, I'd never seen a burning building.
The window in flames now burst into a large ball of fire. I turned away to guard my retinas.
"My apartment," she whispered beside me. Her eyes were glued to the sight. "Oh, no. No, not my apartment!"
"Holy shit, Yvenne, I'm sorry," I said. What should we do? They should teach what-to-do classes for situations likes this! "I think the fire department is on their way though. Do you want to see if you can find your landlord?"
Her next reaction was something quite unexpected.
"Do you want to come with me to Tortall? I mean it. Tonight, do you want to leave Carthak with me?" Her eyes were wide and she had this desperate tone in her voice. She definitely wanted out.
What the hell? I frowned and scratched the back of my neck. "Why do you want to leave? Shouldn't you at least collect on your insurance or something?"
"I can do that through mail! It's just… the only reason my apartment would be like that is if Donnelly figured out. Oh fuck! He figured out!" she cried, loosing her arm from mine and stomping on the ground. She paced around in circles, coming apart at the seams. "Oh fuck. This isn't good."
Never having been around that great a number of people, I wasn't sure if this was a typical reaction of those who had just lost their home. I attempted to calm her. "Okay, okay. Take it easy. Who's Donnelly? What happened?"
She looked around. We were alone on the street. Yvenne grabbed my hand and dragged me behind her. She talked as we went, explaining her situation.
"Wait, where are we headed?" I interrupted.
"I'll stop by a holoscreen bank terminal. I need to get all my credits and trade them in for real money later. We need to skip town right now."
"Why do we have to skip town? And why we? I'm not the one who pissed off Donnelly or whoever he is!"
Yvenne stopped and faced me. Remorse washed over her. She sighed and leaned against the side of a brick building. "I'm sorry, Vinny. I didn't mean to drag you into this just like that. I… I just don't want to be alone. Maybe to have someone watchin' my back, like you did today."
She put a hand on her forehead and groaned. "I can't believe I'm bonding with a complete stranger. Okay. He's this rich guy. Owns casinos. I recently took a large sum of money from him when he lost his bet on the soccer game at Maresgift Stadium."
It started to make sense. I connected the rest of the dots before she went on. "You fixed the match, didn't you?"
She shrugged helplessly. "I knew a few of the guys from high school. Promised to give them a small cut if they threw the game."
Hell, my lack of morals would have probably had me do the same thing. Of course, I didn't have those connections. I just had myself. Yvenne ran her hands over her face and groaned again. I leaned on the wall with her so we were shoulder to shoulder. She was warm.
"I'll go. If you're getting me to Tortall, sure, I'm in."
"You mean it?" She removed her hands from her face and smiled at me.
I shrugged. "I've got nothing to lose."
And I really didn't. All I had were literally the clothes on my back and the bag of money hidden discreetly in my boxers. And now I had a traveling companion. Maybe I would tell her my life story, and she could help me find my parents and find out what I am. Maybe not. Only time would tell, and I wasn't about to waste my chance.
I hope you enjoyed it!
For those new readers, I definitely suggest you go back and read ICBW. ICBW is not primarily a Joren/Kel fic. It just happens to be a huge adventure and okay, it does have some bonus scenes with K & J, but since these are NOT the original POTS characters, Joren isn't as despicable as he is in Miss Pierce's story.
And as for those of you who just want to read The Gift and screw ICBW, please do. Email me if you have questions. I'll be glad to answer. Just one warning: I like to recycle names and characters from POTS in different ways. As you just saw, I used the name Yvenne, who appeared in Squire, and I also used the name Maresgift from the same book. Names that appear in the book don't always have the same meaning in my story. So just sit back and relax! Don't forget to review and tell me what you think!