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this is my deliverance (hands held high as you deliver it)

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Percy isn’t really sure why Pike is in the support group. 

He doesn’t understand Pike at all, to be honest—the way she’s just…there. All the time. Helpful, considerate, brimming with good intentions, do no harm but take no shit. He wishes she were less down-to-earth, less of a person. Sometimes he and his friends feel like such messes that it’s easy to think of them as almost inhuman in their flaws, but Pike…doesn’t feel like that. She feels like an average, funny, slightly dorky, babysitter-type girl. 

Which, what the actual fuck.

He knows Keyleth grew up in the isolated Ashari Commune ten miles south, because she’d told him on that first day that they’d moved in together. With that ridiculous headdress of antlers crooked on her fiery hair, she’d blurted out half her ridiculous life story as a ridiculous introduction. 

He knows about Vax and Vex and their tenuous, almost non-existent relationship with their asshole father, because most of September had been consumed by Mr. Matthews’s attempts to get them to open up. Slowly, painfully, with many glares and moody pauses, the truth had been eked out of them.

He knows Scanlan lives by himself, because who doesn’t know the orphaned senior guy who has his own apartment.

He knows Grog’s former family left him for dead, because they’d talked that over too—it had been tangled up in his anger issues, the gaps in his education, and his poorly managed ADHD and dyslexia. 

But for fuck’s sake, he’d only learned that Pike lives with her preacher grandfather because he’d made them cookies. That’s some teen drama, girl-next-door kind of normal.

In Percy’s opinion, he knows a thing or two about fucked up childhoods. While he trusts the existence of God about as far as he can prove it with the scientific method—which is to say, not at all—Pike’s grandfather’s chapel doesn’t exactly strike him as a burgeoning ground for traumatizing evangelicalism. They seem…ordinary. Which means Pike, by all counts, should be perfectly alright without a support group. 

Not that Percy’s ungrateful for her, of course not, she’s a pleasure to have around. But he has the mind of a mechanical engineer. He needs to examine the inner mechanisms that make things, and people, work.

She’s just…she’s frustrating.

 

  

Percy’s head feels so heavy, his shoulders so achy. In his chest, his heart is pounding—he can feel each beat to the tips of his fingers, to the sides of his thighs. The room around him is so bright, the noises so loud, and the tag of his shirt is digging into the back of his neck. His glasses pinch into his nose. He feels so weighed down that he can barely do anything but sit, stunned. 

Cassandra is at his house. His baby sister. Who should be—no, who never should have been but was—dead. At his house. Sleeping on the trundle bed that pulls out from Keyleth’s, her lips parted in exhaustion, her eleven-year-old eyes so old. She’s in his life, his life that nothing from before was supposed to touch, and now things are colliding and—

He’s maybe not coping that well.

“Percy?” Grog asks. His voice sounds very far away. “You alright? You don’ look so good.”

The rest of the class has left. So has the teacher. Percy’s hands are stuck to his book, which he needs to pack up—he feels trapped behind his desk, needs to get out get out, the scattered pencil and papers are stressing him but he can’t move. Something is buzzing in his upper chest and there’s a lingering edge to his breathing. 

Somehow, he manages to nod, stretching his lips thinly. He swipes his stuff into his bag and stands. He hopes he’s not about to have a panic attack, because he only finished having one during his last period. Now he’s left with the terrible leftovers, the exhaustion and the aching desire to curl back into a ball. 

“I’m fine,” he says stiffly. He pulls on his thick knee-length coat.

Grog eyes him with suspicion, but shrugs. “’Kay. I’m gonna go to practice. S’our last day.”

“You do that, Grog,” Percy patronizes. He can’t much bring himself to care about kindness when his head is about to split in half.

Following the big guy to the door, Percy’s grateful there’s no one there to watch his face crumple momentarily before he bursts into the January wind. Outside, other kids are streaming over the blacktop, horsing around or sprinting to the parking lot in an attempt to beat the rush. The chaos is enough to make his hands shake again. His feet crunch over salted blacktop as he parts ways with Grog, though it hasn’t yet snowed this winter and likely won’t for another couple of weeks.

Fishing his phone out, he opens Messages with numb, trembling fingers.

Arrogant Prick Friend

Hey, are you still at school? 

Three grey dots appear from Vex, so he copy-pastes the message into his chat with Keyleth. By the time he’s hit send, Vex has replied.  

Vex’ahlia

sorry, second soccer practice today. u good?

His heart sinks. 

Arrogant Prick Friend

Yes, I was just wondering. Good luck.   

 

Vex’ahlia

percy, you’re not doing that thing where u pretend to be fine, are u   

 

Arrogant Prick Friend

No, I promise.  

 

Vex’ahlia

good. ttyl, yeah? gtg, ms. self-important coach’s daughter is yelling  

Percy grits his teeth, coming to a halt. He’d been half-counting on Vex to be available, for her to invite him over so they could sit in silence like they do when one of them is having a bad day and needs a little de-stressing. He can’t go to his house right now. Not with Cassandra there. He can’t.

He’s supposed to head to Mr. Matthews’s office in this kind of situation. He can’t bring himself to do that, either.

After a brief moment of staring aimlessly into space, his phone buzzes again.

Keyleth

Srry!!! Im at the shop, Ive gto a shift til 6. Do yuo need me?

Fuck. Percy’s knuckles go whiter than they already are. 

persicaria amplexicaulis

It’s alright. Just some stuff with Cassandra.

  

Keyleth

Oh. I think shes gonna b ok !!!

But if u ned me I can switch shifts

*need

  

persicaria amplexicaulis

No, I think I’m fine. Thank you, though. See you tonight?  

  

Keyleth

Ya!!! Sendin good energies (sparkle emoji) (rainbow emoji) (plant emoji)  

Well, fuck. 

Percy feels something ugly wrench at his chest—he doesn’t want his friends to have to drop things for him, but he wants them. He wishes there were a way that he could say, please skip soccer or please leave your shift without actually causing them to miss something they enjoy. No, he wishes they would just do it for him, without him needing to ask or feel guilty.

It’s a selfish, irrational desire. Percy’s teeth dig into his cheek.

Slipping his phone into his pocket, he lifts his gaze to the still-lively schoolyard around him. He can’t drive, so normally at this time he’d be starting on his daily trudge. Unlike his friends, he doesn’t have any afternoon activities. Mr. Matthews wasn’t as successful at convincing him to ‘find a place where he could relate to peers outside the group’ as he was with Vex. 

There’s only so much of the robotics team that anyone can take.

Suddenly, small hands tap Percy’s back, near where his scars are. He reels, lurching around to face his assailant. No one is allowed to touch him like that, not ever again. His jaw is set tight enough to make a clicking sound when he opens it back up. 

“Percy, hi! Oh,” he hears. He has to look down to see the source of the words. It’s Pike, her face round in concern. “Are you okay?”

“Oh,” he says, his heart thumping. He shoves his hand through his hair, trying to hide the fact that it refuses to still. “Yes, yes, of course.” 

Pike squints at that. “You heading home?”

Home is where Cassandra is; all he can remember are her eyes when she’d seen him, like she hadn’t recognized him, like she’d almost hated him and herself at the same time. He wouldn’t blame her. Now that he’s thinking about it again, his mind is echoing with the crack of the gun and the quiet thud as her tiny body had crumpled to the ground. And he’d left her there.

Shaking himself back to reality, Percy forces his breathing to even. “No,” he dismisses. “I wasn’t.” 

Pike cocks her head. “I have a math test tomorrow,” she says. It sounds like the subtlest kind of offer she can make. “Would you want to help me? I think Wilhand made some cookies.”

Percy pauses.

Honestly, being at someone else’s home is the last thing he wants to do. He doesn’t want to stare at derivatives, or coax someone through an epsilon-delta proof, or whatever the hell else they do in single variable calculus. He doesn’t want to eat cookies that he knows will taste like gooey tar in his sour mouth. He doesn’t want to have to be nice, because sometimes Pike’s niceness makes him feel stifled and claustrophobic. 

But really, where else is he going to go?

Cold air floods into his lungs, burning like mint. He nods.

The two of them walk over to the student parking lot in silence. Pike’s car is a wreck of an old thing, a silver-blue minivan that’s outlived its warranty four times over. The inside smells faintly of sweat and mothballs. It has seats enough for seven. Grog says its name is The Beast. Pike calls it Why Won’t You Fucking Start, and loves the car to absolute pieces.

(Percy’s fairly sure it’s the only vehicle their family owns.)

The Beast burps when Pike presses on her key fob. Percy opens the passenger side door without a word. He slides himself in, only to reach under the seat for the lever that jerks him forward—while his legs may gangle, he certainly doesn’t need the leg room that Grog does. Straightening, he blinks back the nausea of the abrupt movement. He looks at Pike beside him.

It takes her a couple of tries to get her keys into the ignition, but eventually the engine coughs to life. She lets it thrum for a few seconds. An AC/DC cassette crackles out of the speakers—yeah, this car has a cassette deck—until Pike thumbs it off. Percy wishes she’d kept it on. He wants to have this conversation less than he wants peace and quiet. 

“You alright?” she asks. Wisps of her hair are loose around her face, framing her round cheeks pleasantly. She looks mature, here. He remembers dimly that she’s almost a year older than him.

“Yeah.” His voice cracks. “Yeah.” 

She puts a hand on his, which is still trembling on the armrest. “Okay,” she murmurs. 

Percy bites his lip, angry at himself for encouraging her sympathy. He doesn’t need pity. The idea makes him sick. 

Pulling her hand away before Percy can retract his, Pike settles back into her seat. She yanks the gear shift into reverse. With one arm pressed to the back of Percy’s seat so she can see behind her, she gets them out of the parking spot and starts them on the road.

Percy digs his nails into his palms as he stares out at the peaked roofs, willing them to become more interesting. The scenery of suburban Massachusetts doesn’t hold many wonders for a boy used to Berkshires ranges and cliff-side roads. The lump at the back of his throat is still painful when he swallows.

It takes about five minutes of awkward silence before he thinks to ask, “Why aren’t you at practice?” The blue varsity jacket that Pike’s wearing has finally registered, as has the soccer ball patch sewn across her left breast. “I thought you were a part of the team with Vex. Center defender. Or–” He stutters. “Or something.” 

“Good memory.” Pike smiles. “Yeah, I play stopper. But yesterday I pulled an old injury again, so our coach decided to sit me out for a bit. Need to be able to blast through-balls when games start, you know?

“Ah.”

Percy very much does not know, and it must show on his face—she laughs softly. “I guess the point is that I’m not doing anything right now.” 

He nods. He’s beginning to recognize the buildings around them from the couple other times he’s been to Pike’s house—that’s the bodega where Scanlan got them all those sugar-shell-pastries, that’s the driveway with the obnoxiously orange Ford Fiesta, and that’s the curb that Pike and Keyleth tripped on simultaneously. He’s reminded that, as glowing as Pike is, she doesn’t come from an exactly glowing part of town. Most of the houses are beige multi-family complexes, growing rusting bikes and baseball bats in their barren front yards. Few have paint that isn’t peeling. 

Pike’s house is third on the block, small and loved with its windowsill portrait of a mother sheltering her children from a storm. Grog’s massive old boots litter the steps, and the door has a come in sign hanging from the handle. Warm light from inside calls to Percy, who still feels cold and shaky—he puts his hand on the seatbelt buckle in anticipation.

He’s unprepared for Pike to drive past it.

“Wasn’t—?” He twists his head back.

She nods. “Is it okay if we stop by the chapel for a second? It’s supposed to hail tonight, and I promised Wilhand I’d grab something.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.”

She frowns at him, worry creasing the corners of her eyes. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

They clamber out of the car at the opposite end of the block, gravel crunching beneath their shoes. The roof of the small church juts into the grey light of the four o’clock sky. It crests only slightly higher than the peaks of the houses around it. Above the door hangs a simple cross, lashed together with some oiled cord, and a banner along the width of the wall proclaims All Are Welcome.

The whole thing makes Percy’s heart quicken. He hasn’t been this close to a church since…well. Since Before.

Pike tugs open one of the double doors with a creak. He gets a glimpse of whitewashed walls and pale wooden pews before he drops his gaze to the floor, unable to stomach another second. He can feel Pike waiting for him to enter, but his fingers are buzzing and Cassandra is at his house and she was dead. His head is echoing with the fucking hymns that they used to sing at their Catholic Sunday mass and Percy can’t make himself step through the doorway, he can’t. His breaths are feeling shallow again.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our—

“Percy?” Pike’s voice drags him back to the present. “Are you okay?”

He’s not. Goddammit, of course he’s not. His little sister is back from the grave and here he is, five-foot-eight of pure atheism, considering bursting into a holy place and demanding an explanation because what the fuck had Mary’s prayers ever done for him? For any of them? What good was all that pious guilt, that ‘we are all sinners’ rhetoric, in the end? 

(Different denomination, he remembers dully. Mary probably wouldn’t feel the full force of his prayers if he shouted at her here.

Mary’s not real, Percy. 

Fuck.)

“Percy,” Pike says again, slipping her hand into his sickly pale one. She moves so she’s staring up directly into his eyes. “Look at me.”

He refuses.

Look at me.”

He does, grey meeting blue. There’s a nick between her brows, her mouth pulled into a lopsided frown. Her tongue wets her lips nervously.

“Do you wanna come sit down?” 

He shakes his head. His feet are rooted to the floor. He can’t go in, he can’t think, he can’t—

“Okay,” she says. Her voice is soft. “I’m going to go grab our storm sign from the back. You don’t have to come in if you don’t want to. I’ll be right back.”

She disappears into the chapel, leaving the door ajar. Mechanically, his body moving without his permission, Percy follows her. He drops down on the backmost pew. Torn between jitteriness and the fall of coming down again, of my sister she’s home I’m not I can’t go back bullet bullet bullet, his fists stay clenched. The wood is cold against his back.

Only a few moments pass before Pike comes back, a poster-board as big as she is raised over her head. She looks surprised to see Percy inside. Her lips part in concern. She says nothing, though, and goes out to tack the poster to the outer wall. Then she returns to Percy’s side, settling across the aisle with her knees turned in to face him.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. It’s a quiet question—she’s steady as she says it, but unobtrusive.

“It’s fine, I—”

She fixes him with an almost maternal look that takes his breath away with its familiarity. He bristles at the presumption that she has any right to demand this of him.

(He bristles at the presumption that she has any right to look like his mother.)

“You won’t get it,” he snaps. He stares around at the simple, open-plan chapel—the white walls and the steepled roof and the modest stained glass at the front. It’s gorgeous, in a humble way. Fuck, even the bench he’s sitting on has a thin lining of cushions. His nostrils flare. “You can’t.”

She frowns, and if he weren’t so bubbling with anger he’d recognize the restrained tilt of her head. “Why can’t I?” 

Oh, so many reasons. So many, many reasons. Percy stares down at his hands as if they’re bloody, as if they’re stained red and won’t bleach clean, as if they’ll stop shaking if he imagines his first foster mother—Anna’s—belt lashing deep into his back. He thinks of himself and sees only a bloody, shivering mess of a thing, an angry boy furious at the wrong people and a cruel boy with nothing to latch his vindictiveness onto. He is bloodstained and vicious and orphaned and godless, and Pike is pristine and kind and motherly and pious. She couldn’t understand on any level. Not ever.

Except she’s waiting for an answer like she needs him to give her one. 

“You—” he starts. His voice is harsher than he intends. “How could you? Can’t you see what’s around you? You couldn’t possibly comprehend anything about me.” 

She glances at the worn benches, the aging but tended altar, the sky-blue carpet in the aisle that’s faded to a dull grey. 

There’s a tense pause.

Pike sits back. “Okay,” she murmurs. She nods once. “We don’t—we don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.”

He swallows down his anger and wishes it would taste less like bile. “I’m sorry.” 

“It’s alright. We can just sit.”

It’s his turn to nod. He’s more grateful than he most likely should be. 

The world of the chapel is unmoving; they could stay here forever, trapped in a single moment. A cross hangs from the wall. There’s no body of Jesus on it—Percy wonders what the theocratic justification is, exactly, for the Trickfoots’ sect of Christianity. He wonders how Pike manages to find peace in it. There’s not even a confessional in the room, and yet the consecrated atmosphere still finds him blasphemous, a sinner naked against the backdrop of his fury.

(He’d wanted to kill all the Briarwoods, once, to see their blood stain the snow red. He wanted it to be slow, painstaking, precise. Now…now he doesn’t know.

Thou shalt not murder, said the Lord, and Percy wishes he still had the energy to say fuck you.) 

Slumping back, he begins to feel very young and vulnerable. All he’s wanted for years has just come true, but nothing is as it should be. A childish desire that he’d thought he’d long repressed pops back into his mind, aching and phantom-warm, tempting and bitter. He wants his old life back. He wants his mother to kiss him on the top of his head and his father to stare sternly down the bridge of his nose. He wants his brothers to try to bully him into roughhousing. He wants to live in a luxurious mountain estate with property for acres, the cold seeping into the stone and the lights flickering as he works on a late-night project, the snow swirling down outside.

He wants to go home.

(But he never, ever can.) 

“They found my sister,” he admits after a while. He plays with the zip of his pocket.

“Cassandra?” 

“Yeah.” 

Silence stretches. 

“She’s very small.” 

“How old is she?”

“Eleven.”

“She’s young.”

Percy’s throat is clogged. He nods. 

“You must be glad to have her back, though?”

“I suppose I must be.” He presses his eyes shut for a brief second. “I…Upon our last meeting, I…. She….”

He can’t finish.

“In group,” Pike says cautiously, “you told us she was dead.”

“I left her on the ground.” The frosted stone is slapping beneath his feet and he’s sprinting as fast as he can and there are snowmobiles squealing as he ducks between a cluster of trees. “Those bullets went straight through her chest.” He pulls out his dead brother’s BB gun, hitting his pursuer in the left eye, and the man yelps, dropping to his knees. “I left her there.” Fear is shearing through his lungs, and all he can think is get away, get away, get away. “I was too cowardly to go back.”

“Percy,” says Pike. There’s an intensity in her voice that wasn’t there before. He turns to look her in the face for the first time. His breath is stolen by the fierceness of her eyes, the twist of her lips. She extends her hands across the aisle, palms up and says, “You were a kid. It’s not your fault.” 

He’s all elbows and thick coat as he slips his hands into hers. She squeezes tightly—he feels like she’s trying to knit him back together with pure force of will. 

“You were a kid,” she repeats. “A little boy. It’s not your fault.”

His breath hitches.

(They like to call her the mom friend, but this reminds him more of the days she comes back into group with Grog, fists bloody and eyes alight. Pike likes a good fight more than anyone. She’s fighting now, here, with him and with the universe and with his own self-hatred, trying to heal a godless boy in a rundown church in a crappy neighborhood in Massachusetts. It’s startling, too—he almost thinks she might win.)

“That doesn’t change the fact that I—I left her.”

“You left her,” Pike says. She squeezes his hands again and he can feel the ridge of callouses over her knuckles. “You know, people…. People leave for a lot of reasons. Not all of them are good, not all of them are bad.” She glances up for a moment. “You were in danger, Percy. You had a good reason to leave. Most importantly, you got her back.”

He tries to believe it. Really, he does. But Cassandra is staring at him in his mind’s eye with such vitriol that his insides squeeze tight.

If this were Vax, Percy would grit his teeth and spit something ironic and twisted. The other boy would laugh once, nodding, agreeing, slipping him a gulp of some burning alcohol. That would be that—the dark (because no doubt it would be dark, wherever they would be) would try to swallow them and they’d switch on the lights of their phones and blast tinny rock n’ roll as a giant universal fuck you. The liquor would calm Percy’s shaking hands. Nothing would heal, but nothing would be reopened.

But here, it’s Pike. Pike, her varsity jacket too long on her small, stocky frame. Pike, her jeans hand-patched on one knee with a spare round of denim. Pike, still pressing into his hand, lifting up her chin, the colored light of the stained glass finally encroaching on the side of her face. So Percy says nothing. He just hangs his head and remembers how to breathe. 

Minutes pass. Shadows lengthen on the carpet.

Pike clears her throat. “You ever wonder why I live with my grandfather?” she asks. Her voice is tentative.

He considers the question, mind grasping for a distraction. She doesn’t really talk about herself, so he doesn’t know that much about her. He’s wondered little things, like why is she so normal and she must be so naïve to believe in the things she does, but he’s never questioned the grandfather deal. Never even thought about it, really. 

Which, now that he thinks of it, kind of makes him an asshole. 

“The rest of my family.... They’re not the best environment for a kid to grow up with. Criminals, liars, cheats.” She huffs out a laugh. “All that. My parents left when I was little—I’m not sure what happened to them. Growing up, it was just me, my cousins, and my great-uncle. We were grade A trailer trash. It was pretty miserable, I guess, though I didn’t mind it at the time. We never had enough of anything. Nothing to eat, nothing to wear.” 

A memory flashes into Percy’s mind, forgotten and ignored until that moment. It had been near the beginning of group, their dynamic still tense, the table still stone silent.

“So,” Scanlan had said, trying to break the quiet. He had been in his constantly beleaguering Pike phase. He’d kicked his legs up on the table and smiled at her. “You ever feel like picking on someone your own size?”

Pike had shaken her head. “Not really?”

Scanlan’s grin had fallen, slightly. “Ouch, Pikeypants.”

“Don’t call me Pikeypants.” 

“Pikeypoo.”

“You know, Scanlan, it’s not my fault you’ve got a lot to compensate for.” 

Vax and Vex had oohed, grinning. Pike had blushed.

“Why are you so short then, huh?” Scanlan had grumbled.

Pike’s guilt had seemed to dissipate as she frowned. “Childhood malnutrition,” she’d said, and promptly changed the subject. 

Ah, says Percy’s brain now. Forgetting that was idiotic.

No shit, says Percy’s other, smarter brain. He squeezes Pike’s fingers as she continues.

“My cousin, JB, was pretty much the only reason I was happy. She was—is—three months younger. We did everything together. We would set up for the day, or the night, and then our uncle and her big brother would ignore us as they’d start to work over whatever town or small business they were gonna prey on. While they did that, me and JB would tumble and laugh and tell jokes and stories. It wasn’t…. The other kids wouldn’t play with us. We were too dirty, or stinky, or weird. We didn’t know any of the TV shows or movies that they did.” Pike shrugs, bittersweet. “But I didn’t care when I was with JB. I loved her to pieces. She looked up to me.”

“What happened?” Percy asks. This is the more than the sum of what Pike’s ever said about herself to him. His throat is tight.

Pike shrugs. “J—I pulled some prank on my Uncle Ogden right before Wilhand was due to visit. Uncle flipped out—stuck me in the trailer, really mad. Then he kind of…kept me there. It was summer in Jersey, about ninety degrees out. Inside was worse, because our water tank was broken and there was no AC. Uncle and Johann, I think they’d gone to pick up some supplies from Salvos. They forgot to come back ‘til it was late. JB was outside, crying. God, she cried so much, had a meltdown, it…. It sucked. Wilhand came while Uncle was gone, found us there.”

“And he got you out?”

She nods, lips pursed. “Took me away from Ogden that night. I was scared out of my mind, heat struck and tired. I was…I was just a kid. But I just remember JB, she was a wreck—she was screaming again. And I was on Wilhand’s back, feverish, trying to let me go back and help her.”

“He couldn’t take JB too?”

“JB was Ogden’s daughter.” Pike shrugs. “I'd never fit in right anyway—I was the extra.”

“Heir and the spare,” Percy mumbles, and thinks about Julius and Vesper and the ache in his chest.

“If Wilhand had taken JB, Ogden would’ve fought him on it.” She’s solemn, her features sharp and still in the dimming light. “Trickfoots don’t do well in court.”

“That’s,” he doesn’t know how to say it, “that’s awful.”

She nods, a jerk of her head. “Yep. And you know what? I left JB with them. I was so…I was so guilty, for so many years, but…I haven’t contacted her. I don’t know where she is, if she’s alright. I left my cousin, my best friend.” Her words land heavy with the weight they carry. “I left her.”

Percy, about to protest on her behalf—it’s not your fault—stops himself. “Ah,” he says. “Well played, Ms. Trickfoot. Very well played.”

Her eyes soften, though they don’t lose their tired edge. “Get it?” 

“Yes, yes.” 

“Good. Because that’s all the fucking self-hatred I want out of you tonight, Mr. de Rolo.”

“Aye, sir.” 

She cracks a smile. Untangling her hands from his (he misses the contact almost immediately, surprising himself) she stands and takes a step across the aisle. He scoots over on the pew, unscrewing his stiff legs from the floor. She slides in next to him. Their shoulders brush. After an uncertain pause, she brings her hand up to his messy, unkempt hair. He inclines his head. She bites her lip and runs her hand through the white strands. She twirls some between her fingertips, tugging lightly. 

He flushes. It’s more relaxing than he thought it would be, but also awkwardly intimate.

“When did you do this?” she asks. 

“After I escaped, I realized I might need, ah, a change of pace.” He rolls his eyes. “Or, rather, I was exceptionally paranoid that I might be followed. I went into a pharmacy, acquired some bleach, got the white, and did it in a gas station sink.” 

“Mm, swanky.”

“What can I say? Elegance is sewn into my blue, blue blood.” 

She snorts.

Gently pulling her hand down, Percy looks her over. Azures and magentas still play over her golden-brown skin, but the colors are diffused, lightly shaded. The raised tissue that threads from her brow to her upper cheek is dyed an angry pink. Her freckles stand out small and dark around her nose. Haloed atop her head is her crown of white hair that matches his, though the yellow light from the depiction of the Heavenly Mother turns it banana-blonde.

She doesn’t look as pristine anymore. She looks a lot less like his mother. He tries to imagine her as a barefooted child, dirty-shirted and perched on the dusty step of an RV. 

Nervously, he holds his own hand up to her head.

She smiles. “Go on, Percy. You can touch it.”

He picks a thick white braid and runs his fingers down its length.

“When did you do this?” he echoes. He pulls his hand back.

“After I got this,” she says. She traces a finger along the jagged stretch of the scar that bisects her eye. “I needed a change.”

“Maybe you were followed, too. By, ah, by what happened.”

“Maybe.” She mulls it over. “Yeah, maybe.”

“What color was it? Before?” 

She smiles. “Black. With purple streaks, in middle school.” 

“Wow.” He adds coarse black hair to his mental image. 

“Yours?”

He thinks back to being eight, staring in the mirror the first time he’d had his glasses put on. His hair had been shaggy and unmistakably—

“Brown.”

“Brown!” She beams. “Aw.”

“Pike?” 

“Yeah?”

“What was the prank you pulled? On your uncle.”

She tries to play up her smile. “Uh, it was amazing. I promise, it was a good one.”

He holds her gaze and raises his eyebrows.

“Well, I just—” She sighs. “It was, like, shaving cream in his toothpaste or something.”

“You didn’t do it, did you?” 

Another pause. She sets her jaw and refuses to answer. 

Percy lets her be.

“Thank you,” he says instead. He feels much calmer now. He didn’t think that was possible. “For….”

She nods. “Any time.”

There’s a confidence to the way she says that, and he sees something clearly for the first time: Pike has built herself on the idea that she can fix whatever’s broken. It’s core to who she is. She thinks of herself, above all, as an instrument whose purpose is to heal, to mend, to make better. It’s one of the things that make them similar. Percy sees the world as broken. He drives himself to the brink trying to screw, solder, and reassemble it back to working order. Pike sees the world as bleeding, and believes she has big enough hands to staunch the wound herself. 

In this case, she hasn’t cured him all the way. His family is a trauma that won’t heal easily, or soon. But Percy will begrudge that she’s done well enough.

(He wonders though, what will happen when Pike inevitably fails. When she meets some evil she can’t face, some loved one she can’t nurse back to health or sanity.

He’s scared that she won’t keep herself well enough in her mind. That she’ll choose to be the savior over the survivor, that she’ll give pieces of herself away until she’s exhausted beyond repair. He hopes that her own kindness won’t wear through her bones. He hopes their group can protect her from that. That they can protect her from something for once, instead of the other way around.

He was a good Catholic boy, once. He knows what happens to martyrs.) 

“Come on,” Pike says. She stands slowly, minding her knee. “Let’s get in the car. I think you, sir, have a sister to re-meet.” 

Percy rises, too, following her out of the chapel. It’s just as frigidly cold outside as it was before, but the wind doesn’t strip his lungs anymore. He peels open the passenger side door of The Beast and ignores the jumbo pack of condoms he can now spot in the ajar glovebox. Settling in, he takes a breath. He pulls out his phone.

 

persicaria amplexicaulis

I’m on my way home.