Nightlight leads Katherine down a hall to one of the rooms, and hovers anxiously by the door, waving her in as he looks cautiously up and down the hall after her. For the first time since she'd met him, a faint tinge of worry colours her thoughts. How does she know that he isn't going to lead her astray? He's already led her into one battleground.
Then again, she reflects, someone she thought she should be able to trust had just tried to hurt, maybe kill, both herself and a little girl. Everything is topsy-turvy today, and perhaps if she can't trust the people she thought she could, then walking into what looks like a trap may be the safest thing she could do.
So Katherine bites her lower lip, adjusts her grip on the knife in her hand so that it sits a little more comfortably, and tiptoes cautiously forward into the dark.
At first, she sees nothing at all. Then her eyes adjust somewhat to the shadows (which are darker here than in any of the cells they passed on the way here, she notices uneasily, and which seem to shift even without a light source to affect them) and she notices something darker, lying heaped on the bed against the corner. As she watches, it shivers, shakes, throws itself up and over and –
Eyes blink open, staring right at her, gold as stars against the dark.
Katherine nearly drops the knife (and she's almost certain she has dropped it, she certainly isn't holding it tightly enough for it to stay in her grip, but there it is in her shaking hand, pointing steady and sure at whatever's looking at her). She has just enough presence of mind to think that if it has eyes, it must be alive, before the eyes wink shut. The patch of deeper dark rises, narrows, looms shapelessly over her for a moment before resolving into the figure of a man. His eyes blink open again, and Katherine notices with a little thrill that the reason the gold seems so bright is because what should be the whites of his eyes are pure jet black. They stand out like two black holes from a pale and pointed face, and when he speaks his teeth look unusually jagged and sharp.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
Katherine opens her mouth, but all that comes out is a squeak. She swallows, and tries again.
"Um. Nightlight brought me here," she answers, risking a glance back towards the door where the glowing boy stands watch. "Is he – a friend of yours?" she adds, hoping against hope that the answer will be 'yes'.
The figure – the man – turns and glances dismissively towards the door, a frown darkening his face for an instant, and Katherine realizes that she's never seen anyone look quite so serious, quite so scared. She lowers the knife to her side, with a little difficulty; it doesn't seem to want to stand down.
"It's all right," she says, and tries not to flinch when those eerie eyes fix on her again. "I'm Katherine. Who are you?"
For a moment, the stranger doesn't speak, doesn't move, still and silent as a shadow. Then his face splits into a grin, which, for all that it's full of sharp teeth, seems more sad than frightening.
"What a question to ask," he mutters, and Katherine is certain somehow that he's not speaking to her. "Pleased to meet you, Katherine. I'm -" He stops, biting off the words. "My name is Kozmotis."
"The general?" The moment the words cross her lips Katherine knows it was the wrong thing to say.
"How do you know -"
"My uncle's a big fan of yours," she blurts, trying to defuse the sudden tension that fills the air. She could swear the shadows all along the wall are shifting, just slightly, out of the corner of her eye. "He's always saying that a golden age of warfare ended when you resigned."
"How flattering." The frown returns, a deep v creasing Kozmotis' forehead as he scans the room, pausing just long enough to glare at the doorway and the spillover of light when Nightlight peeks around the door frame. He grins reassuringly, and then ducks back behind the door.
Katherine bites her bottom lip, debating with herself for a moment, but her curiousity, as usual, gets the better of her. Before she can think too much about it, she's already asking, "What happened to you? How did you end up here?" The words like this die on her tongue when Kozmotis turns that glare on her, but she doesn't back down.
"You don't know?" He leans a little closer to her, peering intently at her, and Katherine manages with extreme force of will not to take a step backwards. "They didn't kidnap you? Haven't tried to turn you into a weapon?"
"Um," Katherine answers, intelligently. The screams outside have mostly gone silent, but for a moment she could swear they're still ringing in her head. "I thought it was just about military tech and computer programming. Until today I didn't even know that there were people being used as – experiments." She swallows, hard, and has to look away. Her uncle can't have known about this. He wouldn't have let this happen. Not to the General Pitchiner he's talked about so reverently. Not to children. He can't have known. He can't.
Still, she can't meet Kozmotis' eyes.
He huffs out a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. "If only my daughter had been so lucky."
"Your -" Any fear of the man before her is suddenly overcome by a wave of pity. Katherine thinks again of the small girl who'd been attacked, and asks, "Is she – was she out there?"
"No. No, she wasn't." Katherine can't quite tell if the expression that flashes across his features is one of regret or relief. "I thought she must be, but – I don't know where she is." It sounds like an admission, his voice rough and wounded as though the words have been wrenched out of him against his will. "I don't know where else to look."
Katherine shakes her head, and glances back towards the door, an idea of why she has been brought here dawning on her as she meets Nightlight's eyes in a stolen glance. "You might not," she says, slowly, as the puzzle pieces fall together, "but I think I do."
There's a sharp intake of breath from Kozmotis, and the shadows around the room jump. "What do you mean?"
She manages to meet his eyes without flinching, and smiles. "My uncle's computer has records of every – every experiment." And he'd told her it was just a lot of data that would be meaningless to her, records and statistics and results that would help him build better nanobots the next time. With everything else that's turned out to be false, she wouldn't be surprised if the answers to every question she has now are somewhere in the system. "And I've got the pass codes."
The smile that splits Kozmotis' face is not entirely innocent. "Now I see why the glowworm brought you here. Would you -"
"You don't even have to ask." She sounds braver than she feels, but Katherine squeezes the handle of her knife a little tighter and smiles a little brighter. "Just follow me."
Tooth, it turns out, has exaggerated the severity of Bunny's injuries ever so slightly. By the time she, Jack, and North return, he's already on his feet, although the livid gash from his left shoulder down to his right hip still seems to be paining him. As soon as she steps through the door, Tooth is on him, throwing him back onto the metal-framed bed with a fury that Jack had thought she only showed to her enemies.
"What are you doing? You know you're not supposed to be up and walking around, you'll open it up again or – or jostle your organs out of place and do you even know how much can go wrong if you have your organs in the wrong place, it can cause permanent damage -"
"Tooth! Calm down, Sheila, I'm fine," Bunny protests, and Tooth bites off a sentence mid-word, shaking her head.
"Just what was so important that you had to risk your own recovery – risk your own life – to get up and wander around?"
"Y'can't expect me to lie here like a damn potato while the lot of you're out hunting Pitch!" He casts a pleading look in North's direction, and when he doesn't find the sympathy he seeks, tries a different tactic. "Besides, I had ta keep an eye on Sandy."
Tooth looks like there's more she wants to say, but North cuts her tirade short. "Sandy? What is problem with -"
"He's only gotten worse," Bunny interrupts, ominously, with a wave of his head towards the corner of the room. Tooth frowns, and presses his head back against the flat pillow with a gentleness that seems at odds with her earlier fury.
"Lie still and let it heal, or so help me, I will tie you to the bed."
"I'd like ta see ya try."
Jack tunes out their banter, crossing the room with a skip and a jump to where the fourth Guardian is sitting against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest. If Jack didn't know better, he'd say that Sandy looks somehow…smaller, diminished, and when Sandy looks up and meets Jack's eyes there is no hint of gold in his gaze.
"Hey," Jack says, crouching down to put himself closer to eye level with the small man. He's got no idea what Pitch has done, but it's got to be something bad. "How're you doing?"
Sandy scrutinizes Jack for a moment, and then nods once, decisively, bringing up two small hands in a flurry of signs that Jack only faintly recognizes as a language. He tilts his head to the side, watching the intricate passes and gestures, and then glances back up to Sandy, whose face falls when Jack shakes his head. "Sorry, little man, I can't understand you."
Sandy scowls, looks around briefly, and then meets Jack's eyes again. There's a flash of gold, butter-bright, and scaredaloneloststrangeshoutsthoughts?runningscream inghelphelpalone
For just a second, Sandy looks downright terrified.
Once he gets his breath back, Jack manages to dredge up a smile. "That was a little fast for me," he offers, straightening up. It felt nothing like the first time Sandy'd done – whatever it is that Sandy does. Getting into people's heads. The first time had been reasonably easy. This – this feels almost like Sandy's lost control of his power. Or like he never really knew how to control it in the first place.
"He doesn't remember anything," Bunny's saying, when Jack rejoins the Guardians across the room. "Not us, not the facility, not his training, not the first time Pitch threw a fit…nothing. It's like he's a completely different person."
A mental image, an echo of a borrowed memory, flickers across Jack's thoughts, merging with a little girl's shout, and before he knows it he's asking, "What if he is?"
The silence that follows is heavy, three pairs of eyes fixing on Jack, and he swallows nervously. "If he doesn't remember anything, if Pitch has somehow blanked him out or whatever, wouldn't that mean he'd go back to whoever he was before he was a Guardian?"
"Frost," Tooth says, and her face is full of pity as she reaches out to him, "none of us were anyone before we were Guardians."
That can't be right. Jack shakes his head, pulling away, back out of the small circle they've formed. "No, that's – that's not possible, we all had to have been someone -" His throat feels strangely dry, and he cuts the sentence off abruptly.
"We are Guardians," North says, and his voice is flat, final. "It is all that we have, all that we are, and all that we ever will be."
"But not all that we ever were," Jack argues. "I'm not – I mean, we're all grown people here, there had to have been something before the arena, right?" In his mind's eye, the face of the little girl, so familiar, so damn familiar, grows farther and farther away the longer the silence stretches.
Bunny shakes his head. "Wishful thinking, Frost."
"No." Jack isn't sure he's even speaking until the words are out, and he hears them almost as though they're coming from someone else's mouth. "No, you're wrong. She knew my name."
"Everyone will -" Tooth starts, and Jack pulls back, stepping lightly out of the circle towards the door.
"My real name. Not Frost." Something clenches painfully around his heart. "She said I was her brother."
Tooth freezes, one hand still outstretched, something like fear on her face. "That's – that can't be," she says, at last. "We don't have – families, we don't -"
"How do you know?" Jack asks.
Bunny rises, and this time, Tooth doesn't try to stop him. Her eyes look vaguely unfocused, and she lowers her arm slowly, as though afraid she'll shatter if she moves too quickly.
"You know, mate, this is starting to sound awfully familiar," Bunny growls, and it is a growl, low and rumbling from his chest. Jack takes another step backwards defensively, and Bunny half-turns towards North, not taking his eyes from Jack's face. "Doesn't it sound just like that nonsense Pitch was trying to convince us of last time he tried this?"
Jack wants to say something, to defend himself, but his throat seems to have closed.
"Sandy -" North says, sounding uncertain, and Bunny interrupts him with another menacing growl.
"Sandy's been wrong before." There's a faint noise, like tearing silk, and Jack glances down to see that Bunny's fingers are once again claw-tipped and deadly. "And where was Frost when Pitch disappeared? Was he helping us? No. He was nowhere."
"Hey!" Jack protests, but the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach warns that it's already too late. Even North is shaking his head, the look on his face turning from disbelief to disappointment with every word. Jack bites his lip, and clenches both of his hands into fists. "Fine. Whatever. If you can't trust me, then I guess there's no reason for me to stick around."
He turns, half-hoping that one of them will call after him, but he hears nothing but the faintest sighs of the wind as he walks through the doorway and away down the hall. And much as he wants to, he doesn't look back.