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Chapter 1

 

November 1889

 

Hank’s eyes lingered an unnecessary moment longer on the gorgeous blonde’s smile.

"Here is your table, Mr. Anderson." She pulled a chair away from the table to offer him a seat. Hank Anderson blushed. The moment he and his team had crossed the threshold into the old mansion, a tingle had crept up his spine, warning him he'd walked into another world. A world where the lady of the house would hold doors open for men instead of the other way around and seat him. And what a lady she was. Half his age at best but carried herself with the grace of a queen who had ruled her realm for decades. Not that her face spoke of many decades. The smooth, pale skin was devoid of any treacherous lines and the blue of her eyes was as clear and fresh as the water of a lake in winter. And as cold and distant when she didn't smile.

"Thank you, Misses Kamski." He stroked his gray, ungroomed beard in a manner of gentleman-like importance. Get a grip, Lieutenant! Remember your manners! Like always when he scolded himself, the voice in his mind sounded suspiciously like his boss. Hank sat down and accepted the beer a young lad brought him with a grateful smile. Just what he needed to drown the nagging motherfucker in his head.

“Oh, please, Mr. Anderson, call me Chloe.” The corner of her mouth become crooked, giving her placid expression a wicked nuance. “Everybody does. If you don’t, I can’t shake the feeling you’re here to investigate us for tax evasion.” A giggle bright as the day accompanied her little joke.

“Oh, well, uh, Chloe, Misses.” He put his beer down before he made a complete fool of himself and spilled the good stuff over his shirt. He cleared his throat. “I promise you I can’t imagine anything more boring than taxes.”

“Me neither.” She giggled again and Hank swore he caught a slight flirty undertone. On the other hand, it might just have been too long since he had brought somebody home and into his bed. Pretty thing that she was, he didn’t go after married women, especially if they were suspected of murder, assault, and maiming. And he was a professional, goddammit.

“Anyway, Chloe, I’m afraid I can’t return the favor. I appreciate your kindness, but this is still an investigation.” Finally, under all these weird hunches and distractions, it was still there, his firm on-the-job voice.

“I fully understand, Mr. Anderson, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to help you. I promise, once the show is over, I’ll show you behind our modest stage and you can talk to our performers as much as you wish. Oh, oh, foolish me! I apologize! It’s Lieutenant Anderson, I’m sorry!” A pink blush rushed over her face, making her look even younger.

"Never mind that." Hank dismissed her concern with the wave of his hand, glad that his colleagues hadn't witnessed the exchange. After all the countless time he had lectured them how important it was to remain a figure of authority and how crucial their ranks were in that matter, he'd have given those rookies a poor example. He just couldn't help it. Chloe Kamski was such a sweet thing, he felt he should have bought her tickets for the next funfair instead of accusing her being an accomplice in his new case.

"Lucky you." Detective Gavin Reed appeared out of nowhere and dropped himself on a chair next to Hank, slamming his feet on the table. Hank saved his beer just in time before Gavin's boots knocked it over. "Why do you get to talk to the hottest babe in this fucking dump and I have to put up with Mr. Greasy Sleazeball? What on earth sees such a nice piece of ass in a weirdo like that?" He took his beer from the young waiter with a grunt and pointed at the figure at the far end of the room. Room was an understatement, however.

Before the house was vacant for the best of a decade, this used to be the saloon. The new owners, the Kamskis and their weird family of freaks and wonders , as they described them, hadn’t wasted any time and tore down the wall between the saloon and the smoker’s lounge, turning an already large room into a fucking hall.

“Watch it, Gavin.” He shot his colleague a sharp glance. Despite the early stage of Gavin's attempt to grow a Winfield Hancock beard, he was generous with oiling it, so he wasn't quite in the position to judge other men as 'greasy'. But silently, Hank partly agreed with the sleazeball. He had had the better end of the deal. Chloe didn’t offer much helpful information, nor did he notice any suspicious behavior that’d reveal her as a liar, but he had enjoyed talking to her. The greeting had been enough for him to know that her husband wasn’t good for his temper. If Miss Chloe made him think of queens and graces, Elijah Kamski struck him as a, well, sleazy ruler on a power trip, dripping with arrogance.

Yet, Hank couldn't deny the man had gumption. In just one week, the Kamski clan had transformed two shabby rooms into something rivaling the theaters in the larger cities. The walls had been fixed with dark wood that gave off a warm, dark red sheen in the flickering lights of the gas lamps. A large chandelier loomed over them, hundreds of small crystals breaking the light into sparks, disguising the place with the splendor of the last century. Despite the lamps and candles, the hall was dim but a rich red carpet and cushions of the same color created a cozy atmosphere. And the smells, oh, the smells.

Hank took a sip on his beer hoping the bitter liquid would clear his senses. The air was heavy with vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and those where only the scents he could identify. It was warm and sweet and engulfing and if he let his head swim for a few seconds, there were fiery spices and something that reminded him of an evening, many years ago. When he was just a little boy, holding fir needles in the flame of a candle on the Christmas tree until his grandma’s gentle hand stopped him and offered him a plate of freshly baked cookies instead.

“You want one, Hank?”

Hank jerked back, the world around memory lane crumbling as he faced Chris Miller’s grin. He was another member of Hank’s team and Hank hadn’t seen him since he ordered him to keep himself in the background, as inconspicuous as possible, and see if he caught something of interest while looking around.

Hank had been so caught up in his daydream, he hadn’t heard Chris coming to the table and sitting down until Chris spoke to him. He looked down at a plate in front of him. Cookies, partly with chocolate, partly with sprinkles. A sense of unease filled him and his hand clenched around his beer.

“Nah, thanks. I’ll stick to this tonight.” He ignored the raised eyebrows of the detectives. One beer, goddammit, it wasn’t like he planned to get drunk on the job. Again. And he wasn’t int he mood to pick a fight with his colleagues. Again. “Found anything of interest, Chris?” He changed the topic to something safe and more constructive. The young man shook his head.

“Peaked into some rooms but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Kitchen and bathrooms look fine enough. Rooms not renovated are used for storage. Too many people about to sneak upstairs, though. And there’s that one closed room with a hand-painted sign, ‘Shop of A’. I fear we need a warrant to do the real snooping, Lieutenant.”

“Noted. Good work so far.” Not very productive work, though, but Chris was a stickler for the rules and with this self-imposed restriction, he did what he could. Hank would tour through the building on his own later. There was no need to bring more attention than necessary to this place. Odd as these people were - and he and this Kamski guy wouldn’t become friends in this life - the whole “they’re new, they’re weird, they did it!” attitude didn’t sit right with him.

Music played. A dramatic tune worthy of an army of sinister creatures rolled over their heads, the urgent beat of drums and double bass unnerving. Hank cast a suspicious glance to the shadows dancing on the walls, half expecting them to break free and stream into the room. Bright bells, cheerful and innocent as daylight, gave him cold chills.

Half the town seemed to have followed the Kamskis’ invitation to watch the first of their planned weekly shows tonight and every head turned to the stage. Hank and his colleagues had a table close to one of the walls. It wasn’t front row, but without having to crane their necks to look over hats and hairdos, they had a plain view to the one single figure standing in the middle of the stage.

Elijah Kamski.

He was dressed in a wrinkled, ill-fitted suit with a too large jacket. The tie was hanging loosely around his neck, looking uncomfortably like a noose in this strange light. But fuck, this guy had charisma. Hell, Hank wasn’t one to complain about his self-confidence but he was well aware that he looked like a slob in his unironed shirt; his coat should have been replaced years ago and if he took a page from Chris' and Gavin's books and gave his full beard a trim and good care, it’d have a good chance at looking silver instead of gray. 

Without a warning, two large torches blazed up to Kamski’s left and right, their light painting the stage in a flickering orange. Kamski still didn’t move. He stood there in his expensive suit - no doubt it cost more than Hank made in a month, oozing the confidence and indifference of a man who has no desire to care or to impress, who was well aware he’d draw all the gazes to him like the flame the moth as soon as he decided he that’s what he wanted. He lifted his head to face his audience, captivating it for good, and Hank disliked him a little bit more. Men like this were dangerous. They knew too much - and if it was only the gift to convince everyone around them they did so - and rarely hesitated to use this power to their advantage. Hank prided himself to be one of the sharper tools in the shed that was his police department but being aware of such power and still being pulled into its ban made it worse.

Well, if he had to choose, he’d pick his own gruff charm over this slick eel anytime.

"Ladies and Gentlemen." The hall was silent as an empty church when Kamski spoke, barely raising his voice. The look of mild amusement and superiority driving Hank up the walls. Yet, these three words alone demanded everyone's attention, Hank included, and this wasn't the time to let his pride rebel. After all, he was here to listen to this guy and to decide whether he qualified as a real suspect.

Kamski gave the little speech Hank had heard a few times before, from visiting a circus or the rare times is ex managed to drag him into the theater next town. It was the usual drivel, flattering this town as the most beautiful place his little family of humble performers had ever the joy to visit. How grateful he was to welcome them to his modest show and how much he wished to whisk them away for an hour of wonders and illusions.

What followed after the great ringmaster stepped away from the stage was the usual array of jugglers and jesters, a pair of dancers in sparkling dresses, their movements woven in such harmony it was impossible to tell who was the man, who the woman, or if either applied. Pretty, Hank admitted that much, his fingers tapping on the table. His glass long empty, he wished for more. He had seen similar shows from traveling carnivals and while he enjoyed a nice show, he had more important things to do. Questions to ask. One of them how many people actually lived in this damn mansion.

He cleared his throat. Whatever incense they were burning was becoming too much for him. A woman with the same features of who he would have sworn was the male dancer stepped from behind the curtain, five most adorable dogs following her.

“Where are you going?” Chris asked when Hank stood up. Until then, he had been mesmerized by the spectacle in front of them. As was Gavin, especially whenever Chloe joined the performers and helped to set up the next act.

"Smoke break." Hank held up his pack of cigarettes and shoved one between his lips. "Better do it outside, don't want to set the old wood on fire." An obvious lie, if the place was in danger to go up in flames, the torches and candles would have taken care of it by now. But fuck, he needed a break from the smells, the flurry of colors, and the ever-present, ever mournful piano and bells. It all created a fascinating atmosphere, Hank gave the Kamskis that much, but he didn't like how it muddled his senses.

He left the room and shuddered. He wasn’t just leaving a room, it was like he was stepping outside , after not being aware he had been inside something. The air in the corridor was fresh and the sudden silence and absent of colors hurt his ears and eyes. It was like he left his house to walk right into a fucking snowstorm in the middle of the night, only without the snowstorm. He nodded appreciatively. Yes, the Kamskis understood their craft, more than had given them credit for. Even if the show acts were nothing out of the ordinary, it took skill to mess with the audience’s senses to create this effect, especially without the victim noticing.

Victim. Oh, they were damn good. He had almost forgotten why he was here. Something work-related, that was in the back of his head but the urgency and importance that came with three corpses and more than twice as much cases of abduction and mutilation - whoosh! Forgotten!

Well, he was here now, cold and grumpier than before and there was no reason why he couldn’t continue the snooping where Chris had stopped. The cigarette went back into its package with a wistful sigh but he didn’t want to throw off the balance of whatever scent this family was pumping into the air. A trace of tobacco would lead directly to him and put a halt on his, well, investigative activity.

A few hasted peaks around corners and behind doors confirmed what Chris had reported. Hank debated whether he should slip into one of the makeshift storages or if he should use these precious moments without Chris, Gavin, or one of the carnival family in his neck to get upstairs. The interesting things were always upstairs. Or in basements but the door was locked. His fingers played with his trusty paper clip in his pocket. Picking the lock wouldn’t be a piece of refined art but he wasn’t willing to flush all cooperation from the Kamskis’ side down the drain yet. Without a warrant, they had no reason to show them around and let them talk to their crew. A cliché wasn’t enough reason to jeopardize their good will.

The stairway to the upper floors was close to the area lying behind the stage, where the performers most likely stored their costumes and props. No point in going there. Circus and carnival folks often had an aversion to overly curious policemen and interrupting their show routine wouldn’t earn him any points and less information. There was one slim door under the stairs he hadn’t checked yet. He heard the bustling from not too far away but wherever that door led didn’t seem to be of interest for the performers. Despite his sloppy appearance and unprofessional drinking habits, Hank was a thorough man when it came to his job and skipping that one last accessible door now would give him nightmares for the rest of the week.

He pressed against the door as though the shadow cast by the stairs concealed his tall figure from anyone who might walk into the corridor. Hand on the doorknob, he turned it gently, clicking his tongue in triumph when it proved unlocked. It was dark on the other side. Feeling bolt, he fumbled for the matches in his pocket.

“Fuck!” The first he stroke across the matchbook broke off. Growling, he tried another. He should have learned by now that he was saving on the wrong end with those cheap matches. The second flickered and went out again before Hank’s eyes had a chance to make out any shapes around him.

“Excuse me.”

Hank stiffened, the matches rained to the floor. The voice coming from the darkness was so feeble, he wondered if his ears were playing a trick on him and he had just caught some chatter from outside.

The wooden floor creaked.

No, he hadn’t been mistaken. The sound of footsteps came from this room. Somebody was here, somebody who knew his way around this room while Hank didn’t even have a fucking clue how large it was, let alone what else was in it beside him and this other presence.

A chill ran down his spine. Presence. He had heard the voice and the steps but even now, he didn’t sense the presence of another human being. Either his primal survival instinct was messed up, or-

The feet stood still. A scratchy noise was followed by a faint smell of sulfur.

Hank felt for the door behind him, ready to bolt. Heck, he might be able to throw a wicked punch that could easily know out some of his young, agile colleagues but he knew his limits. Fighting presence-less apparitions in the dark was one of them.

A light flickered and Hank stopped. The tiny flame of a burning match illuminated a very human looking face, that of a young man, but before he could have a closer look at his features, the light moved away.

Seconds later, a candle in a lantern revealed the room’s mysteries.

It was another storage room and had probably never been something else. It was small, Hank could cross it with less than three strides and his head was barely an inch away from the ceiling.

“Holy shit.” The room’s most striking content, the young man with the lantern, returned to his seat, an ordinary wooden crate. He couldn’t be older than thirty. His round face still showed the soft lines of only recently left boyhood. A slight crook of the back of his nose gave his face character and a handful of freckles scattered across his cheeks were delightful. Hank’s gaze wandered up and down the man’s frame. Not the body of a child but a man, yet lean, with slim hips.

Damn, was this part of Kamski’s illusions or had he more than one beer without noticing it? Or what other reason was there that explained how his snooping was rewarded with running into a guy who was his type from head to toe?

“Am I needed?” the shy voice asked. No, not shy. Quiet, maybe a little confused as if he was unsure of what to make of this stranger staring at him.

“Well…” Holy fuck, just shut up! That’s it, I’ll go to Jimmy’s and hook up with the first willing guy I see before this night is over! “No,” Hank said aloud. “What are you doing here, alone in the darkness?”

“Sitting.” That indeed he was. His legs stood in a perfect angle to the floor, hands on his upper legs, his back straight as if he was a student waiting for a lecture from his teacher. Or like a doll somebody put away in the storage room until needed.

“Obviously.” Hank couldn’t ban the snark from his voice. He had gotten similar answers from Gavin when the jerk tried to smartass him but there was something about the way this kid spoke that Hank began to believe he was serious. He decided to prod a little further. “Just sitting? Sounds rather boring.”

The guy stared into the distance, his eyes widening as if he was hit by a sudden revelation.

“And thinking,” he finally said. He was still quiet and calm but there was a note of astonishment in his words. Fuck, this guy was cute. A bit on the weird site. Hank liked his playmates smart and witty, even with a hint of brat, and this guy was nothing like that. But he sensed this wasn’t due to a lack of intelligence and among the strange things he had seen today, this was the most endearing. That, or he really just needed to get laid.

“Uh, and about what?” Hank stepped closer, expecting the guy to shrink away from him but he didn’t he said still, his pretty brown eyes on Hank. Not fearing, just observing.

"It's quiet in here," the guy said after a while, tilting his head. "I like that. The different sounds, colors, and smells make it hard to think. Or maybe I do think." Another pause followed. "But it's too many things when it's not quiet so I can't tell if I do."

“I see.” Hank raised an eyebrow, more and more suspicious if this guy was planted here for him to meet. He’d have used other words but he described perfectly how Hank felt about all the commotion. “But you belong to the Kamskis, don’t you?”

“Yes.” Again, quiet and calm, no hint of disdain or loyalty. His way of speaking and the unmoved expression tickled something in Hank. How much would it take to get this guy cry out what he felt? How would this face look if passion took control of it? Good question that all needed to remain unanswered. Hank frowned, more at his own thoughts than at this stoic guy, yet he blinked at him in slight confusion.

“You like it? Working here? You do work here, right?”

"Yes, work it and… it's what I do." Now it was this guy's turn to frown, such a drastic expression of emotion, it changed his whole face and all of Hanks doubts if he really was a human and not only a cleverly animated doll vanished. "I never thought about liking it. I wasn't aware that it matters. Does it matter?" The words streamed over his lips like a ramble which felt as out of place for this strange kid as the nature of the question.

“Of course it does! Why would you work here if you didn’t like it?” Hank bit his tongue. Now he was talking like a naive child. Even he, who loved his job, didn’t always like it, and that put him in a lucky position. There were enough people out there who did what they had to do whether they liked it or not. Some hated it so much, they’d break one day. And hurt themselves or worse, others. “Well,” he began to set his reply straight. “What I mean is, it matters if you like your work. Might want you to change things or to make the best of it if you don’t.”

This was getting too philosophical for this late hour and the fact that he initially just wanted to go for a cigarette and some snooping. Fits that this guy belonged to Kamski’s crew. Simple acts in a strange surrounding, combined to entrance the beholder. But the kid didn’t seem less fascinated by what he had just heard. His eyes so wide that Hank feared they’d pop out of his head, lips parted, Hank could see the gears of his brain working.

“I understand. But I don’t. I have to think about that.”

“Do that. Say, do you have a name?” Time to bring the conversation back to less complicated topics.

“Yes,” this infuriating yet intriguing little shit answered. Maybe there was a bit of a brat inside of him after all, waiting to be released. Hank! Shut. Up! Hank warned himself.

“Do you?” the guy asked back to Hank’s surprise, fascinated how any human able to talk would ask this question with genuine interest, void from any coyness.

“Sure, it’s Lieutenant Hank Anderson. You can call me Hank.” That steamrolled out of him before he had a chance to stop himself. Way to maintain a professional officer-citizen relationship.

“Oh.” The guy’s posture became even more rigid as he came to a sudden understanding of the meaning of Hank’s reply. “I’m Connor. Just Connor.” He stood up abruptly and stretched out his hand. A little amused, Hank took it and shook it firmly.

“Nice to meet you, Connor.” Nice indeed. Connor was about a head shorter than him, a perfect size for his slim frame and his boyish-yet-grown-up face. He was wearing a suit as expensive as Elijah Kamski’s, but it was tailored to fit like it was grown on him, flattering his slim hips. He looked so prim and proper in it, he looked like a kid hiding on prom from his date, or like a young groom who had sneaked away into hiding after realizing he was too young for whatever mistakes lied ahead. Also, his hand was pleasantly warm, Hank had almost expected it to be cold.

“I have to go.” Connor withdrew his hand and walked to the door. “It’s my turn in five minutes. Will you watch it?”

“Uh, sure.” Damn, that meant returning to his table but having an excuse to stare at this perfect creature might have been worth it.

“Good. Enjoy the show.” For the first time, Connor’s face showed the hint of a smile, for the first time, his reaction didn’t feel honest, and the smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I have to think about if I do.”

The door closed behind him before Hank could answer. Now, that was an encounter of the odd kind and as it turned out. “Five minutes, eh?” Hank sat down on the deserted crate and finally lit a cigarette. A ghost that wasn’t a ghost. Hank blew the smoke through his nose. A doll that wasn’t a doll. Just the cutest carnival performer he had ever laid eyes on and who slipped away like a fucking Cinderella when the clock stroke midnight.

Chapter Text

“Look who’s gracing us with his presence. Took you some sweet time.” Gavin barely turned his eyes away from the stage when Hank returned to their table and sat down. “Keep up smoking like this and it’ll kill you.”

“We aren’t royalty, Gavin. The death of a superior doesn’t mean it’s time for the next in line. Or for the one who thinks he is.” Hank shook his head when the waiter came with another beer for him and asked for water instead. He needed a clear head. Gavin sneered and focused on the juggler instead. Another pretty young thing in a flattering, tight dress.

"You found something, did you?" Chris leaned closer to keep his whispering between him and Hank. Cursed be this blessed child. If Hank could will his position to someone in case of an untimely death, he'd give it to Chris. A smart, sharp kid who still had to learn to tell his keen observations from hunches, but he'd get there. Did Hank find something? Oh, yes. Was it relevant to the case? He couldn't see why which made his strange encounter not worth telling. What was he supposed to tell anyway? That he forgot how to operate as an officer because of a pair of pretty brown eyes? Thanks, but no thanks. Hank preferred to ruin his reputation with activities outside of work.

“Not really,” he whispered back. “Will have to ask them to let us go upstairs later after all.” Hank’s water arrived and Elijah Kamski was back on the stage, demanding Chris’ curiosity for himself. Hank leaned forward. If he didn’t misjudge the timing, it was the pretty guy’s turn now. He couldn’t imagine how he fitted into this wild show, among glitter and sparks and colorful whirlwinds rivaling a rainbow.

“I’m pleased to see my little show kept you all well entertained,” Kamski’s voice pushed back the silence. Of course he was pleased. Hank gave a sneer that’d put Gavin’s to shame. God beware he was grateful or happy. No, pleased it was, good little audience, behaving the way it was expected.

“I took it upon myself to hand-pick the finest artists to do my vision justice and the sparkles in your eyes and your smiles of wonders are my reward. As are your coins. Well, usually.” He chuckled and winked at them and like one man, the audience chuckled with him at his obvious joke. Even Hank couldn’t stop the corner of his mouths from twitching for a second. It was a good show, yeah, yeah, fine, the performers put lots of work into it and deserved every penny they earned. He had never asked what the usual entry fee was but he’d find out soon enough. The posters and flyers had made it clear enough that only tonight was free. A thank you to the community for accepting the extraordinary strangers in their midst.

“But now,” Kamski continued, his breast swelling with pride, “I introduce to you my best creation! My genius and the help of my beautiful wife made it possible to honor the gods! Or did we mock them? That’s not for us to decide!” He stretched out his arms and threw back his head, finally getting a full smirk from Hank. This guy had guts. This village had a close-knit community that was as eager with its faith as it was with gossip but mostly, the people were reasonable about it. Astonished murmurs and a disapproving headshake here and there was all Kamski had to fear from this audience. Hank knew places where this speech would have earned them pitchforks.

Ah, finally!  Hank inched his chair closer to the stage. From the shadow of the curtain, a slim figure emerged. He stood quietly next to Kamski, face calm, hands behind his back as he politely nodded at the people in front of him. Dressed and combed as neatly a he was, he was the perfect juxtaposition to Kamski’s aloof air of disorder. But Hank still couldn’t tell what kind of act this guy could contribute to this flamboyant circus. He looked like he was ready to give a graduation speech, the kind where he’d finish with thanking his mom.

“This is Connor.” Kamski waved his arm, pointing at Connor. “Connor, please greet our lovely guests.”

“Of course.” Connor took a step forward and bowed. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us today.”

The audience relaxed at the display of such fine manners. This Connor lacked the drama and glamour of Kamski’s way of speaking, there were no frills or nonsense about him. Yet, the way he spoke didn’t make him ordinary. Hank frowned. He prided himself in figuring people out quickly, it was part of his job and he was good at it, dammit. It’s was saved him from getting his drunk ass fired more than once. And now there was this man, normal and unexciting as they made them, far from extraordinary but he was… off. Something was off and didn’t it drive Hank crazy that he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was almost like he was too ordinary. Conspicuously inconspicuous. Simple but not a simpleton.

“Well done, Connor.” Kamski clapped his hand, nodding at the audience to follow his example, and they did. Hank shook his head. You’d think his kid just recited a poem at a school festival. The torches gave enough light to allow a good view of their faces but the dancing flames distorted their features too much to make out every line. Hank squinted, trying to guess the ages of the two men. No, that wasn’t it, Kamski looked a little older but not old enough to be Connor’s father, that wasn’t the explanation for the fatherly pride. Unless he was wearing stage makeup.

“Connor is a very special young man.” Kamski moved behind Connor, putting his hands on his shoulder and shoving him a step closer to the edge of the stage. Connor stared into the distance. What do your eyes see? Hank wondered. Was he nervous and pretended the hall was empty? Did he imagine them in their underwear? Hank pulled in his belly at the thought. Could a human being really be this calm and indifferent to the situation? He took a sip of water and focused on the events in front of him.

“Not tall, not small. Not wide, not skinny.” Kamski’s hands glided up and down Connor’s sides. “Not an idiot, not a genius. He has a cute face.” Kamski stroke over Connor’s cheek. And Connor? Didn’t even twitch. Hank was flinching in his place. Odd, how Kamski was paraphrasing what Hank had thought yet it sounded wrong, coming from him. “But that’s all he has going for him. Otherwise, just a young man, perfect in his simplicity. Wouldn’t you agree, Connor?”

“Yes, father. You’re right.” Connor nodded, there was neither pride nor shame in his voice.

Father? But how? That didn’t make sense. Hank had come to term with the fact that the alluring strangeness of Connor’s way of speaking had all been an act, that he had been lured in by a performer practicing his acting when he found him in the storage. He was a bit disappointed but who did they want to fool? Even for adoption, the age difference between Connor and Kamski wasn’t big enough.

"But fear not my dear guests, I didn't entice you with my extraordinary show to set you up for the unremarkable as the most remarkable!" Kamski reached into his jacket. A shiny blade reflected the light from the torches. The confused murmur of the audience turned into shrieks. In a move so swift it was nothing but a blur, Kamski twisted around and the blade sunk into Connor's abdomen.

Hank jumped from his seat, as did Chris and Gavin. A chair toppled over. Gasps and horrified whispers filled the room, somewhere in the darkness, a child cried.

Connor’s shirt turned red around the hilt. Blood dripped to the floor.

“Wait.” Hank put an arm in front of Chris, holding him back from storming the stage. “He’s still standing,” he explained when his colleague gave him a puzzled expression. The other guests began to catch on. The horror calmed down but the whispering continued.

"Don't worry, my friends." Kamski raised his hands, a smug smile on his face if ever Hank saw one. Kamski grabbed the knife, pulled it out, and tossed it away. It slid across the floor and disappeared behind the curtain. Hank gestured Chris and Gavin to sit down but instead of doing the same, he walked closer to the stage. He remained among the guests but was now in the front row, and the way he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, it would be impossible to remove him from there without violent force.

For a moment he had assumed Kamski had used a trick knife but from his new spot, he could see the hole in Connor's shirt and blood was still oozing out from underneath. Damn, he was dying to know how that trick worked. Christmas was in a few weeks and he had nieces to impress.

“Connor.” Kamski patted Connor’s shoulder. Chloe walked onto the stage, carrying a candle. Kamski took it without acknowledging her and she left. “How are you feeling?” He took Connor’s hand and held it above the candle, slowly lowering it. “Connor, my dear son, how do you feel?”

The last whispers died. In a silence so tense it could strangle a man, everyone anticipated the answer. Hank took half a step forward. Was he imagining things or did Kamski’s eyebrow twitch? Finally, Connor turned his head. His fingers were touching the flame. Smoke raised and Hank smelled burnt skin. Connor still didn’t flinch when he opened his mouth.

“I don’t know, father. How am I supposed to feel?”

There it was again! Hank bit his tongue. Uh-oh. It was only a fleeting twitch of two or three muscles, but they didn't belong to the face of a man who reveled in control. Whatever the script was, this Connor didn't follow it.

“Well, Connor,” Kamski recovered his countenance so quickly, any man less confident in his observation skills than Hank would doubt his own eyes, “humans usually are in pain when somebody cuts them with a knife. Or burns their fingers.” He held up Connor’s blistered hand. “They’d be so much in pain, they’d twitch. Squirm. Scream. Go to their knees, even faint. Do tell, Connor, do you feel pain?”

“I don’t, father. I don’t know what pain is.” Connor shook his head and Kamski looked satisfied like a cat in front of a bowl of cream.

“Of course you don’t. Hold this, please.” He offered Connor the candle who took it between his hands. “Good, good, hold it higher. Yes, like this.” He pushed Connor’s elbows up until the candle was in front of his mouth. The tiny flame barely flickered.

Kamski pulled another knife from his jacket, an old thing with a rusty blade that didn’t look like it belonged to someone like him. Hank went through the injuries of the murder and assault victims. No, those had been cut with precision tools, not with ordinary kitchen knives or a blunt looking thing like Kamski was using to remove the buttons from Connor’s shirt.

The audience inhaled sharply when Kamski dragged the tip of the knife across Connor’s smooth chest. The skin more tore than it was cut, blood pearling down to the wound in his abdomen, a fine red line connecting it with his collarbone. Kamski stayed by Connor’s side, forcing his arms to bend in almost unnatural angles as he used the knife to carve a capital E and K into the white skin, allowing the onlookers to follow his movements, and, more importantly, to see Connor’s face.

Connor didn’t squirm. His eyes were as calm as ever, almost dreamy, looking at nothing in particular. The candle was burning peacefully, no sudden gasps or sharp inhales disturbed the little flame.

“That’s right, my friends! He doesn’t feel pain! In fact, he doesn’t feel anything!” For the second time, Kamski hurled a knife away in triumph, beckoning the question if he ever stabbed an innocent bystander by accident. He dug his fingers into his fresh, bleeding initials. His smooth laughter broke into uncomfortable cackles. “And I’ll tell you why! Oh, it’s a wonder, a miracle! Or, in prose, the hard work of science!” He grabbed Connor’s shoulders with his blood-covered hands and turned him around to face him. “You think you see me looking at a beautiful, beautiful boy when in fact, he is my grandest illusion! A non-human! A living puppet! Or as I call my greatest invention - the Menschmaschine!” he shouted the last word in accent-free German, pushing Connor back to look at the audience.

“Mensch. Maschine. Human. Machine. Here he stands, you can see him, you can touch him. Well, you could, if you were close enough. As only I am, I’ll do the touching for you.” As before, he gently caressed Connor’s cheek. The audience broke into an uneasy laughter.

Hank watched the revelation with raised eyebrows and nodded in approval. Well done, Kamski, excellent, really. Got me there for a moment. Hank wasn’t a man of science. That didn’t mean he was ignorant. He followed the new development of their world in a handful of journals whenever he had the time and he was among those who strongly voted for bringing one of these new electricity networks to their small village. If one man, an entertainer and showman of all people, was able to build a perfect copy of a human being, make it walk and talk like a human, smarter men and women could easily achieve this by a dozen and he would have read about it years ago.

This was another trick, another illusion. An illusion of an illusion and while Kamski was the loud voice of the act, Hank stared at Connor in admiration. The blood, the cuts, it was all a trick. Even the candle and the burnt skin. But still, in the presence of a knife so close to him, Kamski dancing around him, the audience staring, Connor remained absolutely calm. Who knew, maybe at least the superficial wounds were even real. Hank had heard of monks from far away lands who could sleep on beds made of needles. But then, there should be scars on Connor's chest, from a previous show. Then again, they moved here a few weeks ago and spent day and night on renovating the mansion, and who knew when their last show had been when they were still on the road. That'd offer a simple cut enough time to heal.

He threw a look over his shoulder to his table. Gavin stared at the stage in mild disgust but his legs were unsteady. He was ready to bounce as soon as he got the signal. Good for the hot head, maybe there was hope for him. Chris’ usually dark skin had changed to a grayish hue and he looked more horrified than disgusted. Poor kid. Hank nodded encouragingly in his direction. If Gavin gave him shit later, he’d remind him - and the whole office - how Gavin had puked before he fainted over his first corpse. The coroner hadn’t been amused.

Hank turned his attention back to the stage. Connor’s shirt was soaked with blood and Kamski, still blabbering about his own genius, was turning yet another knife blade in the flame of the candle. Hank’s fingers tapped on his arm. This was beginning to turn into a fetish show and while he had some of his own, knife play and burnt skin weren’t among them. He let his glance wander over the heads of the audience.

Whether they believed the menschmaschine nonsense or not, they were enthralled. More squeamish individuals shielded their eyes with their hands but Hank could see how several of them peeked between their fingers. He smiled weakly. It’d be easy to condemn them but blessed be their ignorance and their less bloody career choices. Even the butcher’s family usually didn’t have to look at dead and mutilated corpses. Well, except their predecessor but that was a story for another day. What mattered was that that case alone had given his mind enough yarn to weave endless nightmares for years. He didn’t need to watch a self-absorbed jester poking holes into another man.

“You guys keep an eye on things here. I’ll see if I can catch Mr. Freak’s wife,” he whispered at his colleagues when he walked past their table. He paused for a moment to put a hand on Chris’ shoulder and give him a sympathetic grin. “You okay, son?” Chris nodded, holding up his thumb. “Never been better!”

“Don’t overdo it. The fresh air outside is for free.” He patted his back and left.

*

The area behind the curtain was busier than expected. Hank had been convinced the show was coming to an end with Connor as Kamski’s greatest invention but people - Hank counted eight aside from Chloe - were still buzzing around, diving into large trunks and drowning in costumes, an elderly woman with feverish cheeks was running from one performer to the other with brushes, combs, and lipsticks. A small dog with a collar sparkling more than the crown jewels whined from a corner and a young girl was hurrying to comfort him.

Hank stayed in the door frame. Maybe he should return to the table and wait until the show’s end was actually announced and then a few minutes more. Hell, all these dresses and skirts scattered across the floor, not two fitting shoes together, props everywhere, fortunately, he wasn’t part of the cleaning commando.

In his dark pants, blue shirt, and gray jacket, he stuck out like a sore thumb among all the reds and golds and greens but either nobody had noticed him or they ignored him. Chloe was standing by the door at the other side of the room, staring ahead of her, gnawing on her lip. He suspected that was the way to the stage. She pressed a clipboard close to her chest, Hank assumed making the show run like clockwork was her responsibility. Also, no trick came without risk, he wondered if anyone ever worried what would happen if Connor and Kamski made a mistake.

“What can we do for you, Lieutenant?” a sonorous voice behind him pushed Hank around. He took a step back. He hadn’t seen this woman before. She was more than a head smaller than him but an impressive hairdo of braided and coiled black with white streaks hair made up half of it. A deep red dress complimented her black skin, the cut didn’t expose her figure but also didn’t hide it. The lines in her face made her the oldest member of this strange family he had met so far and her dark eyes showed that dangerous sparkle he knew well from his superior - wisdom gathered by years of experience combined with youthful vigor. She frowned and the corners of her mouth pulled her lips down in well-exercised disapproval, an expression that didn’t change when she began to speak.

“Well, Lieutenant? Misses Kamski promised you the time of our family once the show is over. Did her husband’s antics bore you or why did you decide to disregard her promise?”

“I’m sorry, M’am, I just…” Hank scratched his beard, well aware of her eyes on his hand. Damn, he wished he had trimmed before going out tonight. This woman had a way to look at him that made him regret every decision in his life, the big ones and the small ones. Suddenly, he smiled. He knew this feeling. From family gatherings. His mother had a similar way to look at him, always judging him, and he loathed it. Until there were no more gatherings with her.

Surely, he didn't see his mother in this woman. He guessed her around his own age, late forties.

"I witnessed Mr. Kamski's greatest illusion, M'am, and assumed this indicated the end of the show, and I wanted to leave before the commotion of everybody leaving started. I'm sorry, it was an honest mistake." He nodded his head in place of a bow and put on his talking-with-civilians smile. She snorted.

“Impatient man. I choose to believe your motives weren’t of ill intent. But as you see, the show is still running. Connor might be Kamski’s greatest illusion,” her face softened a little as she mentioned Connor, “but if he’s the greatest part of the show is debatable.”

“I assume you’re his rival for that honor, Miss-?”

“Stern. Amanda Stern.” She offered him his hand for a short but firm shake. “I know most of the children aren’t friends of formalities and titles, Lieutenant Anderson. I hope you appreciate it if we pose as good role models and keep a respectful distance.”

“Of course, Miss Stern,” he said with a sweetly-polite grin. A respectful distance sounded like a good idea.

“Good. With that out of our way, you were wrong, Lieutenant.” She straightened her back, gaining another inch. “Elijah and I aren’t rivals. There is no doubt who is the true genius. Of course, that would be me,” she added as if to make sure a mere fool like Hank could follow her.

“Of course. And what is your schtick, Miss Stern? Bringing back the dead?”

“Ha.” She snorted, her mouth twitching upwards for a second. She honored her name with her strict, almost regal demeanor, but Hank was sure a smile would be enough to reveal a warmer, softer side of this woman. He hadn’t, however, figured out yet if her cool, almost mocking disapproval of this conversation was an act of if she really was so displeased to see him here.

“If I revived the dead, you wouldn’t be here tonight, Lieutenant, would you? If I’m not mistaken, it’s quite the opposite that brought you to our doorstep and to this very conversation.”

“Well.” His fingers fumbled again with his beard as he untangled her words. “I doubt that, even if you were behind the murders, my charm would get a full confession out of you.” He ignored her snort. “I assume you’re talking about the chaos theory. One event leads to another and the majority of consequences, big and minor, is unpredictable. I’m here to investigate and thus every step I took led me to this conversation. Whether it matters to the initial action or not.” He held back a grin when she raised her eyebrows.

"Good, Lieutenant." Her genuine astonishment was more insulting than sarcasm would have been. "Don't misunderstand me. The police are, well, smart. In their own way. That's acceptable, not everyone has to be a doctor. People need you for what you do. Philosophy isn't usually necessary in your profession."

"I can read, Miss Stern. Reading offers many interesting things if you look at more than the daily horoscope." His voice became so sweet, he almost whistled the words. Hell, this was fun. He enjoyed this conversation certainly more than talking to Kamski. He had to be careful to not slip on his words but a verbal dance with this lady was a welcome exercise. And her lips had transformed to a straight line which was only a hair away from a smile. Apparently, she wasn't completely displeased with the situation either.

“Amanda!” Chloe jogged across the room, dodging the chaos to her left and right. “Silvia and Montserrat go in two minutes while Jackson and Amir get your set ready. You’re up in seven minutes!”

“Of course, dearest.” Amanda walked past Hank as if he had never been present and gave Chloe a light pat on her cheek. “You’re doing a wonderful job.” The two women exchanged a smile of mutual understanding. Well, Hank had been right. There was a gentle side to that woman and although he and his investigation didn’t benefit from it, he was grateful on Chloe’s behalf. The poor girl looked stressed beyond belief.

“Mr. Anderson!” Chloe gasped as if she only now noticed him. “You’re early! I’m sorry, you weren’t supposed to see… this!” She sighed and pointed at the commotion behind her with a tired smile. “We work hard to present you a flawless show and we’re proud of it. But letting you see the work destroys the illusion. I’m sorry, the reason I wanted to lead you to the crew is I wanted to preserve the fairy tale for you.”

“More like a grim tale than a Grimm tale,” he grinned but she only gave him a puzzled look. He cleared his throat.

“Oh! Of course!” She finally giggled and Hank exhaled relief.

“Don’t worry,” he hurried to direct the conversation away from his silly joke, “I enjoyed the show. You have an amazing knack for atmosphere. Seeing how much effort you put into it makes it all the more impressive.” Her smile solidified his ensuring words.

“Thank you, Mr. Anderson.” She glanced back at Amanda who, while talking to the kid with the dog, looked back over her shoulder just at the same time. They exchanged a subtle nod and Hank wasn’t sure if it really happened or if he just saw it because he expected to see it.

“Your Connor is something else,” he cut her short when she turned back to him to say something. “I hope you don’t mind if I stay here until the show is over. I’d like to exchange a few words with him. In your presence, if you want.” He offered her a smile to which she replied with a half-hearted smirk. “I’ll stay here in the back, out of the way of everything, you’ll forget I’m here.”

“Well.” She clicked the corner of her clipboard against her teeth. “I’ll be honest with you, we don’t like having onlookers behind the stage before we’re done for the night. Everything is meticulously planned and the smallest distraction could cause unrepairable chaos.” Hank cast a suspicious glance at two jugglers yelling at each other over a lost prop, a ball that the dog had stolen and buried under one of the many piles of clothes. She followed his gaze and finally, she sighed and shrugged.

“Trust me if I say this isn’t anything out of the ordinary. I’m sorry, I have to go back to work. Stay but please, well…”

“But stay out of the way, got it.” He gave an informal salute and pressed tightly against the wall next to the door frame.

“Yes, thank you.” She sighed again, this time with relief but her pleasant voice took an unexpected firmness as she spoke on, “And please, Lieutenant Anderson, give Connor space. These acts are very taxing and require his fullest concentration. He’s exhausted and difficult to talk to right after leaving the stage. I won’t stop you from what you think you have to do but I’m sure you’d get more out of him if you talked to him later.”

“I’ll keep that in mind and go easy on him. Thanks, Ma’m.”

She smirked at him as if she assumed his best intentions but doubted his words and focused on the arguing teenagers. Hank, left to his own devices, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket, fumbling with the lighter. A cigarette would be nice, the sharp smell and flavor were what he needed to save his nose from the massage avalanche of flowery and sweet perfumes and a scent that reminded him of the countless mothballs his grandmother kept in the trunk with old but outgrown favorites. He stiffened when he noticed Amanda glaring at him across the room. Damn, that woman. Was that a general warning or was mind reading her thing? He let go of the lighter and kept an eye on the door leading to the stage.

He heard the sing-song of Kamski's voice but over the commotion, it was impossible to make out his words. The act went on and on and Hank didn't want to imagine what other ideas that man had in mind to proof that Connor didn't feel pain. Although, he wouldn't be surprised if Kamski was so excited over his own genius that he'd forgotten that Connor was actually standing next to him, slowly bleeding to death. If this wasn't a trick. Of course, it was a trick. Hank growled at himself for letting this strange world cloud his mind so much that only for one second, he assumed Kamski had really stabbed a man in front of a room full of witnesses.

Just then a storm erupted from the other side of the walls. People were shouting and clapping in a frenzy. At the same time, Chloe waved a young woman with the dog in her arms over and ushered her towards the stage. The moment she disappeared from Hank’s few, Kamski entered the room, the widest smile on his satisfied face. His cheeks were glowing in the dim light and sweat had soaked his hairline. Whether being so close to the torches for a good while was the reason or if the heat of his own excitement were the source was a riddle not meant to be solved. His body blocked Hank’s view so he couldn’t have a good look at Connor, who was walking next to Kamski. Kamski had his hand on Connor’s neck as if he was steering him from the stage.

 

Chapter Text

Hank heard the sing-song of Kamski's voice but over the commotion, it was impossible to make out his words. The act went on and on and Hank didn't want to imagine what other ideas that man had in mind to proof that Connor didn't feel pain. Although, he wouldn't be surprised if Kamski was so excited over his own genius that he'd forgotten that Connor was actually standing next to him, slowly bleeding to death. If this wasn't a trick. Of course, it was a trick. Hank growled at himself for letting this strange world cloud his mind so much that only for one second, he assumed Kamski had really stabbed a man in front of a room full of witnesses.

Just then a storm erupted from the other side of the walls. People were shouting and clapping in a frenzy. At the same time, Chloe waved a young woman with the dog in her arms over and ushered her towards the stage. The moment she disappeared from Hank’s few, Kamski entered the room, the widest smile on his satisfied face. His cheeks were glowing in the dim light and sweat had soaked his hairline. Whether being so close to the torches for a good while was the reason or if the heat of his own excitement were the source was a riddle not meant to be solved. His body blocked Hank’s view so he couldn’t have a good look at Connor, who was walking next to Kamski. Kamski had his hand on Connor’s neck as if he was steering him from the stage.

Hank pushed himself off the wall to make his way to the odd pair, worried something had happened and Connor needed Kamski's support to walk. Before he knew it, Amanda and Chloe stood between Hank and the two men. Chloe was chirping cheerfully but Hank saw Amanda more muttering than he could hear it. He quickened his step. This might look like two women congratulating their friends but a tingly on the upper end of his spine urged his instincts to distrust what his eyes perceived.

“Lieutenant Anderson.” Kamski broke through the barrier his friends had formed, once more reminding Hank of a cat. A cat awaiting his reaction without apprehension, after all, the canary was already dead and neither anger nor disappointment could be done to undo the fact. “You missed the last moments of the evening’s highlight. If you wish for my autograph, I’d gladly obliged later, as we agreed, if I may remind you.” His smile was as smooth as it was slippery and unlike Chloe, he didn’t hide how displeased he was with Hank’s presence.

“Forgive a fan his impatience.” Hank grimaced a smirk that was closer to baring his teeth. Never a master of the art of slippery and slickness, his growling voice expressed his annoyance with Kamski in its own manner. He saw no benefit in pretending to like the other man, aware this was probably the only sentiment he and Kamski agreed on. “You’re quite the showman, Kamski,” he said, emphasizing show in a tone that might as well have said con. “But the real star is someone else, isn’t he?”

Hank pushed himself between Kamski and Chloe, standing face to face with a confused looking Connor. Hank offered his hand. “As much as I hate to admit it, Kamski was right. You are a very special young man, Connor. I’ve never seen something like that. Way to keep a straight face. Remind me to never play poker against you.” The scowl eased into a smile when Connor, after a second of hesitation, raised his hand to take Hank’s, squeezing it lightly.

“Thank you.” Connor looked up at him, blinking a few times. Suddenly, something happened in his eyes. It wasn’t the way they widened a little or how they reflected the light of the lantern standing on a nearby shelf. There was recognition but also something else. “It’s you,” Connor breathed, as if he grasped Hank’s presence for the first time, although they’d talked before in the small storage. The grip around Hank’s hand tightened.

Hank felt Kamski’s glare burning holes into his neck. Chloe stared at him and to his left, Amanda inhaled sharply.

“Oh, you’ve met before?” Chloe regained her composure immediately and if Hank hadn’t seen her reaction from the corner of his eyes, he’d have believed this to be an innocent question. Interesting.

“By chance, yes. It was a pleasant encounter, at least for me. I can’t talk for Connor, of course.” He grinned at the young man who was still holding his hand and gazing at him with a puzzled frown as if he tried to figure out how someone like Hank fit into this world of his.

“It was different,” Connor said with his clear, concise voice.

“Thank you.” Different, huh? Since his ex used to call Hank's attempts at cooking different whenever he didn't want to be mean but not to lie either, Hank didn't think it was possible to hear these words said as something positive. But there was a hint of a smile on Connor's face and, yeah, when born into the bright, bustling, miraculous world of a carnival, a gray old grumpy guy probably was different.

“Well, that’s nice, but Connor really has to-” Kamski shoved his shoulder against Hank but Hank was taller, broader, and he wouldn’t have survived three decades in this job if he had been a pushover, in the metaphorical and literal meaning.

“I hope you’re doing well. That show of yours looked taxing, to say at least. I’m dying to know how it worked. Is it a mental trick or are you wearing a second skin? What knives are you using? And how does the thing with the burnt hand work?”

Connor, pushed back into silence by this sudden stream of questions, glanced at Chloe and Amanda. Hank’s mouth twitched. Interesting. Looks for guidance before answering, but not from Kamski. The latter wasn't a surprise, even if they worked closely together and were related in some way, Kamski wasn't the type to turn to for emotional support. But Conner was in his twenties, maybe even late twenties, he should be able to speak about his profession without having to look at a momma-figure for advice. Well, if he didn't receive a straight answer, maybe he should go back to investigate. Still holding Connor's hand, he moved their hands out of the way, gaining a clear view at Connor's torso. His jacket covered most of the shirt but what peaked through wasn't white anymore. The bright red he could see from his spot among the audience was turning brown, like real blood exposed to air.

Hank reached out to push the jacket and shirt out of the way to have a look at the skin. Suddenly, Connor was pulled away from his touch. Connor’s hand slipped out of his.

Chloe dragged Connor across the room by his arm. Amanda had grabbed the closest blanket she could find and threw it over Conner’s shoulders.

“Elijah, get moving and help him to get out of his props!” Chloe snapped at her husband. Kamski sneered at Hank and patted his shoulder.

“Sorry, my dear Lieutenant. Connor is our best attraction and no professional illusionist would ever share his secrets. That’d ruin my business. I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course. What I don’t understand, why didn’t he tell me so himself?” Hank turned to Kamski, staring into his eyes. That man better didn’t believe he could treat Hank like a fool. Something was off here and none of Kamski’s sticky words could convince him otherwise.

Kamski shrugged. "He's young. A little shy. His mind still channeling his role as a machine. He probably remembered you're here to convict us of a crime we haven't done and wasn't sure if revealing our tricks were part of your investigation. He would have given you an answer if you had given him time to calm down from playing an emotionless stabbing victim."

"Doesn't that make conveniently much sense." Hank wasn't buying Kamski's reproachful tone but he had to admit, at this point, he wasn't sure if this was still his hunch speaking or his dislike for that man. He also couldn't deny a developing interest in Connor. Well, it had been him who made speeches earlier today about being fair and just and not condemning people only because they were new, he better put his money where his mouth was.

“I’ll talk to him later, tomorrow would be fine as well. I leave that to him.”

“A wise decision, Lieutenant. You prove the rumors wrong.”

“ELIJAH! Get over here already!” Chloe shouted from behind a room divider.

“If you will excuse me, Lieutenant, my wife demands my services. I’m sure you’re familiar with moments like this. Oh wait, you’re not. My mistake.” Kamski put on the smile of a saint, bowed, and trotted behind the divider. Hank scowled after him. Fuck this asshole! If Kamski insists on making himself look unnecessarily suspicious by admitting he gathered information on Hank, so be it. That he like men with the same passion as women wasn’t a secret and his captain was an old friend. As long as Hank didn’t indulge in public indecency, his workplace didn’t care. So, if Kamski thought he could threaten Hank over his bisexuality, he’d soon be disappointed. If he thought he could hurt Hank because he had been a bachelor for the last few years after his last breakup, Hank would be disappointed. He expected more finesse from an insult coming from a man who prided himself to be such a genius.

“Five minutes of my life and, five minutes to witness three fools.”

Hank turned around. He had forgotten about Amanda. She lifted a hand and shook her head.

“I don’t have time to elaborate. The stage awaits me.” She lifted her chin, huffed, and turned around, walking away with the air of a monarch. Before she left through the slim door, she glanced back at him.

“Not his real skin, not his real blood. Glue might be involved and things becoming painful to remove if they dry. Nothing magical. Only science.” She gave him a quick, pitiful smile that confused Hank more than her words.

“Okay. But-”

"Another time. And if you want to witness the real art of a free mind among these dark walls, you'll return to your table now."

"Fine," Hank growled but whether he liked it or not, he wouldn't get any more answers. The Kamski's made their point that they weren't willing to be helpful until later and he wouldn't get anything useful out of Connor while the pair guarded him like hawks. Amanda would speak on her own terms and "now" wasn't one of them.

Well, interesting as glancing behind the curtain had been, he hadn’t learned anything he wouldn’t have learned later. Remaining here was a waste of time. He took Amanda’s advice and left.

*

 

The dull silence in the dark corridors hit Hank like a wall and his senses needed a few seconds to recover from the sudden end of the restless blur of colors and noises. He debated with himself if he wanted to go back to Chris and Gavin - he sure was curious about Amanda’s performance - or if he rather wanted to get some fresh air at last. Outside, where he could hear himself think before he had to interrogate the whole crew at once. He walked towards the room under the stairways. What was it that Connor had said? He came there to think? Oh yeah, he got that. The chaos was already too much for Hank in his role as a bystander, preparing for a mentally draining performance was impossible. Although he should be used to it, after traveling with the carnival. Then again, Hank had no idea how long Connor was a part of it. Everyone seemed to have this “my son, my daughter, my father” thing going on between them but that didn’t have to mean anything, living together, traveling together, sharing limited space, adopting a “We’re all one happy family” was probably a life-saving mindset.

He walked past the storage room, while it was quiet in there, having another smoke between the narrow walls while thinking of the mystery named Connor contradicted his plan to clear his damn mind. He stomped around the corner and almost dropped his pack of cigarettes.

“What the fuck are you doing here?!”

"Pssst!" Chris raised his hands to implore Hank to be quiet. His dark face suddenly looked grayish as he looked from Hank to Gavin and back to Hank. Gavin, who knelt in front of one of the locked doors on the right from the entrance hall, opposite the door leading the show. Where they were supposed to be waiting, for fuck's sake!

“What the hell are you doing here?!” Hank repeated, lowering his voice to a still very audible whisper as he hurried to join them.

“What does it look like to you, old man?” Gavin hissed through his teeth, eyes focused on the lock he was busily maltreating with a piece of wire.

“Is that a fucking paperclip?!”

Gavin sighed and looked up at Hank, rolling his eyes, "No, a rhubarb cake. Of course it's a paperclip, what did you expect? As far as I know, they don't hand out lockpicks to us. Which is a damn shame if you asked me." He turned back to his work, pushing the unbent clip deeper into the look, jiggling it.

“This bullshit is the reason why I don’t ask you for your damn opinions. Chris, maybe you can tell me what kind of devil got into you! We don’t have a warrant, this is breaking and entering!” He sharply turned around to Chris, who looked at his own feet, rubbing the back of his head.

“Technically, it’s attempted breaking and if you don’t stop distracting me, it’ll be dawn before we get to the entering,” Gavin muttered but Hank ignored him.

“Well, I couldn’t let him go alone, could I?” Chris tugged at the sleeves of his jacket and if Gavin looked only half as guilty as him, Hank would be only half as pissed. His foot tapped impatiently on the floor. From afar, he heard excited murmurs. Amanda seemed to deliver quite the show. At least this would lower the risk of someone going outside and catching them in the act.

“Of course not.” He wasn’t done with Chris yet. “But, and you have my permission to snitch, did he want to go in the first place?” Hank grunted when Chris still hesitated.

“Snitch already, Detective, that’s an order!”

“Okay, okay! Gavin got restless when the kid with the dog was on the stage, you know he’s afraid of dogs.”

“Bullshit, I’m just a cat person, that’s all! Afraid of a dumb mutt, me, that’ll be the day!” Gavin snapped without interrupting his work.

“Anyway,” Chris continued, “He said as you did squeeze in some illegal snooping - his words, not mine!” he added when Hank raised his eyebrows. “He thought he might as well look around on his own, said he had a hunch we’d find something of interest in the shop.”

“Is that so.” Hank looked at the door. Right, there was the sign, he had been so surprised to see Chris and Gavin and what they were doing, he hadn’t paid attention to the where.‘Shop of A’. Hand-painted on a wooden sign.

“A… wonder if that stands for Amanda.”

"Who's Amanda?" both men asked and Hank realized he had spoken out his thoughts aloud. Well, he didn't care, she wasn't the discovery he wanted to keep them away from as long as possible.

“She works for the carnival. Or leads it. She sure acts like it. An impressive lady as you’d know if at least one of you stayed at our table! She’s the final act and on stage right now.”

“Perfect! If it’s her shop it means she won’t disturb us. Let’s hurry while she’s busy.” Gavin pulled out the wire, bent the end into a tiny hook with another angle than before, and set back to work. Hank sighed and gave up. At this point, it was more about how much he hated to let Gavin have his way than the act itself. He, too, wanted to know what was behind this door.

“Fine. But hurry. And don’t break the damn thing, we need to close it once we get out or they’ll know what we were up to.”

“Finally spoken like a real boss. Ouch!” Gavin chuckled even when Hank slapped the back of his head. The chuckled grew into a triumphant laugh when the lock finally clicked. Gavin stood up, brushed off his knees, and turned the handle. The door swung open.

“Quick now. And no mess!” Hank grabbed Chris by his arm and pulled him with him as he followed Gavin. The room didn’t have any windows and the light from the corridor wasn’t bright enough to illuminate more than the door itself. “Fuck this.” At this rate, his lighter was running out of gas but now that they were in here, he wouldn’t get out before he had a good look at whatever was in here. The smells were already less appealing than the ones in the hall or behind the stage. No delicious spices, no alluring perfumes. Herbs, those were fine, but there was more to it. Less intense than in the other rooms, but sharp. Like a type of alcohol he didn’t want to drink. And a faint, sweet note that didn’t want to belong and reminded Hank more of rotting fruits than desserts and confections.

He flipped on the lighter and the first thing he noticed was the light switch next to the door. He raised his hand to let his light source follow the cable leading to the ceiling. He wasn’t sure why he did this. All rooms he has seen so far hadn’t been upgraded to electricity but this one smelled and felt differently so maybe…

“Fuck, yes!” He flipped the switch. A light bulb, hanging from the ceiling, began to flicker.

“Fuuuck.” Gavin stared at the bulb, head in his neck, scratching his hair. Hank snorted. That a single light bulb fascinated them so much spoke for an extraordinary evening.

“Well.” Hank put the lighter back into his pocket. As the bulb flickered and finally stabilized, they were standing in a firework of light, red, green, yellow, purple, and several more, as the light reflected from countless glass bottles and containers. They stood on racks nailed to the walls, all around the room, in on specific order Hank could recognize in this short moment. Only some wore labels and some of the transparent ones contained liquids. And in some of those, parts of animals were floating peacefully in the eternity of death, waiting until they were consumed for whatever purpose.

“Ugh! Freaks!” Gavin coughed, taking a step back. Hank followed his gaze. An eye was swimming in a yellowish liquid. He had seen something like this before, down to the color, in their coroner’s realm. That explained the biting smell. Formaldehyde. He went closer to the bottle, tapping against the glass with the tip of his finger. He almost expected the eye to wink but nothing happened.

"Guess we finally have a good ground to make some arrests." Gavin pulled a pair of handcuffs from his jacket. Hank suppressed a groan. Of course would this hothead carry cuffs around even when they came in their civil attire and with the suggestion to look around and have some small talk. Officially, they weren’t on duty but talking to a wall was more productive than talking sense into Gavin when he wanted to be the hero of tomorrow’s headlines.

“Don’t know, they don’t look human. There’s no law against selling dead animals.” Chris took a green bottle with a rabbit’s foot, his finger stroking over the label. “Liquid Luck, thirteen Dollar.” he read, turned to Gavin, and held up the bottle. “And it’s a shop after all. The flyer said it’d be open after the show, I doubt they’d do that if they sold human parts.”

“Thirteen for luck?” Gavin snorted, putting the cuffs away and crossing his arms. “Who do they want to impress, kids?”

Hank shook his head and said nothing. Leaving Gavin to his ranting, he walked along one of the racks. There were more silly jokes but only on the bottles with additional horrifying content. It all felt too gimmicky. The other bottles wore less exciting labels. Stuff that was supposed to help against insomnia, stomach aches, bad skin. Extraordinarily boring and down-to-earth remedies against unexciting every-day maladies he wouldn’t bother to visit a doctor for if he suffered from them. Or when. If they happened to visit the shop while it was open, he considered asking her if she had something against his Sunday hangovers.

“Might be all fake,” he said while standing in front of a bottle with a floating cat ear. ‘Vertigo’.

“Fancy-talk for dizziness,” Gavin commented, standing behind him.

“Could be.” Chris was bending over a box filled with charms, stones, and other knick-knacks that reminded Hank of the last time he was invited to dinner at the home of Chris’ mother. He was probably already picking out one or two items that would earn him the title of her favorite son until the battle reopened on Christmas. Chris looked closer at a large, ornamented key. Its surface sparkled golden in the artificial light. Chris scratched it with his fingernail. “Pretty, but painted. They should open the shop during the day, early afternoon. The kids would be all over this stuff. They’d eat up these illusions Mr. Kamski talked about.”

"Yeah, talked a bit too much, too loudly about it." Gavin snarled, throwing up a jar he picked from a lower shelf and catching it again. "I tell you now and I hope you remember it once the truth comes out: I will not be surprised if everything turns out real. The key belongs to some fancy treasure chest, those parts are real, and yeah, even if Kamski really cut some robot guy open."

"Noted. Gavin, put that thing back where it belongs and come over here for a minute." Hank had learned to tune out Gavin's paranoid theories. When somebody told him the sun was shining, that idiot would look for his umbrella even if he just came back from outside with a sunburn. Leaving Gavin rambling more or less to himself, Hank had walked behind the counter. The top wasn't suspicious. Jewelry was displayed under the wooden surface. Rings, bracelets, and earrings, made of wood, silver, brassed polished until it looked like gold. With pearls, red, green or yellow stones. Pretty stuff but he agreed with Chris. The young folks would be all over these trinkets.

He was about to turn around to inspect a large wall hanging with a map on it when his toe knocked against something on the ground. He shoved a wooden chair aside and knelt down. A flat, metallic box was under the counter. While it didn't look like a cash box, it probably contained some other merchandise for the shop, something too valuable to be displayed openly. But if that was the truth it would be negligent to put it carelessly under the counter instead of locking it away. It wasn't even heavy or large, he could easily pick it up. If that wasn't strange enough, the fact that it wasn't put neatly away would have raised his suspicion. Everything on the shelves was perfectly aligned, the jewelry was neatly arranged, and the boxes with charms and other items stood next to each other like soldiers during morning assembly.

This box had been pushed out of the way in haste to hide it from the wrong eyes which meant there was something to hide. He showed Gavin the tiny lock.

“Can you open this without damaging it?”

Gavin snorted and pushed Hank aside, fingers already playing with his out-of-shape paperclip.

Hank let the rudeness slide and left Gavin to his work. If it made him shut up for a few minutes, the better.

The silence didn’t last long. Less than three minutes passed and the lid sprang open.

"A child could do this." Gavin held up the wire and grinned as if he had just shot a most wanted cattle thief. Hank bit on his tongue to hold back a sharp remark. They could quarrel later. He took the box from the counter and moved closer to the light. The inside looked familiar, he had seen this kind of lining and segmentation in the doctor's office, in that case, she had beside his standard kit, the one where she kept the more expensive and potentially harmful drugs. The coroner also had a similar one, for tests. And indeed, five small bottles looking vastly different from the merchandise on the shelves were lying inside. Dark glass, the seals broken, but no labels. Hank picked one, holding it up. There were remains of a label but it had been scratched off.

“Told you something fishy’s going on here!”

“We don’t know that yet.” Hank grimaced and handed the box to Chris. Enthusiasm was all nice and dandy but he hated Gavin’s priorities. Yes, solving a crime and getting the culprit behind bars was satisfying but this wasn’t a game or a sport. Gavin was a bit too young to have hardened against the tragedies that were the foundations of their success, and it worried Hank sometimes.

“Someone’s coming!” Chris, standing closest to the door, stared at the box in his hands. Fuck, he was right, Hank heard footsteps outside coming closer.

Chapter Text

“Gimme that!” Gavin hissed and snatched the box from Chris’ hands to shove it back under the counter. The small bottle suddenly felt like a burning lump of coal between Hank’s fingers. He looked back at Gavin but the box was already snapped shut and out of sight.

The door creaked. Quickly, Hank shoved the bottle into his jacket. Not a second too late, as the door opened and Amanda walked inside.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” She closed the door behind her and her sharp eyes glared at the three men, finally resting on Hank. “I’m disappointed, Lieutenant. I really thought you’d be interested in my part of the evening.” The corner of her mouth pulled up into an amused smirk. “Well, at least I can’t accuse you of a lack of curiosity.”

“Well, Miss Stern, we just thought, it was-” He side-glanced at Gavin and stopped speaking. He was an adult, for fuck’s sake, and Gavin and Chris’ superior. And even if he wasn’t taking full responsibility, that’d be the day that he snitched on a colleague! It also didn’t need Gavin’s frown to remind him that he didn’t do much to stop him from breaking into the shop.

Amanda chuckled and dismissed his stammering with a wave of her hand. “Flimsy excuses don’t suit you, Lieutenant. You’ve come into this house with a purpose. When I didn’t see you among the audience I knew you remembered that.”

“You knew we’d break into your shop?” Chris asked and Hank grinned at the hint of wonder in the young man’s voice. No doubt he was already drawing conclusions about her role in the carnival. She smiled leniently at him.

“I’m not a mind reader and I don’t see the future, Mr. Miller, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She walked past the men and behind the counter, putting her hands flat on the top. “Although I pretend I do once I’m on the stage. But magic doesn’t exist. It’s all just the balance between science and psychology. I play with what I see and wrap it nicely so nobody notices it’s nothing more than that. Or so people can choose to pretend it’s more than it is.”

Hank saw from his colleagues’ expressions that they didn’t follow. He wasn’t sure if he did so himself but a rough idea began to form in his head.

“Like putting gruesome props into exotic looking liquids to create the illusion of magic potions to distract from the fact you sell herbal teas against coughs and tummy aches.” It was a shot into the dark but her nod shed the necessary light.

“Exactly. Oh, and don’t you think I didn’t catch the sarcasm.” She lifted her chin, the mask of amusement falling for cold dignity. “I don’t peddle snake oil, Lieutenant. The remedies I sell work but I can’t weave miracles. These things,” she swiftly grabbed the bottle with the rabbit’s foot from the shelf, “Are mostly for entertainment value. People who come in here after witnessing our illusions expect a little more than chamomile tea and licorice schnapps. Most things the labels promise can be achieved with a good dose of optimism.”

Hank looked back at the shelves. Yes, he had suspected something like that. Where a well-meant “Just believe in yourself” failed a mysterious drink might help. Sometimes, the schnapps was mightier than the word.

“Convenient,” Gavin growled. His face had hardened while she spoke and he had crossed his arms. Hank sighed. He had a hunch what was going to come next.

"Giving us all the answers before we could ask any questions. Obviously, everything is harmless and innocent. Thanks for your cooperation, Ma'am and all that, but you're still a suspect and I have no reason to believe you're telling us the truth."

“Detective Reed!” Hank barked but Amanda only smiled. She walked around the counter, carrying the bottle in her hands like a holy relic.

“Let’s not get lost in semantics about how I can still be a suspect if all I do tonight is hosting an entertainment program to which, among many, three off-duty policemen were invited. The important question is, Mr. Reed- No, we’ll do this differently.” She turned to Hank. “You, as the most experienced, already disagreed with Mr. Reed’s accusation.” She turned to Chris. “Mr. Miller. Whose position do you take?”

Chris stood to attention, back straight, chin up.

"Well, we have a series of murders to investigate and anyone we can't rule out is a potential suspect. That includes you, Ma'am, and everybody else. It doesn't really matter if this is an official investigation or not. You have no reason to lie to us about the stuff you sell and it has nothing to do with the killings. If you had something to hide you wouldn't risk being caught lying about something like herbal teas." His answer streamed out of him without a pause and he took a deep breath once he was done. He looked at Hank who nodded. Yeah, Chris put his thoughts well in words. Gavin grunted next to him, kicking an invisible stone across the floor.

Amanda’s eyes wandered from Chris to Hank. “Just as I thought. And you’re correct, Mr. Miller.” She moved to face Gavin. “Better luck next time, Mr. Reed, it’s on the house.” She held up the bottle. Gavin took a step backward, wrinkling his nose as if she had offered him the rotting corpse of a rabbit. Hank rolled up his eyes and sent a silent prayer to the gods of patients to the ceiling to help him against the mischief of stupid and stubborn.

“If you allow, Miss Stern.” He reached for the bottle and she let him have it. He removed the cork, sniffed, and moved the bottle to his lips under Chris’ surprised and Gavin’s aghast eyes. The first drop hit his tongue. He had expected a more herbal flavor but the liquid tasted like berries with vanilla and too much sugar. Not his thing but okay. Children would like it, especially before an important math test. He caught the end of the rabbit’s foot with his teeth and quickly grabbed it once he pulled it out of the bottle. He chomped it in half, chewing slowly. Gavin was slightly green around his nose.

“It’s gummy, you dumbass!” Hank laughed and offered Gavin the second half.

“I’ll kill you if it’s not.” Gavin snatched the sticky thing and shoved it into his mouth. Judging from his angry face, one might think Hank had fooled him. But Hank knew this face, it only meant Gavin had been wrong and he’d rather bite off his tongue than admit it.

“With that cleared up, gentlemen, I suggest we continue this conversation after Elijah wrapped up the evening.” Amanda opened the door and gestured towards the corridor. “I’ll join you later, after closing the shop and seeing the last guests out.”

"We'll see you there," Hank said firmly before Gavin could get another word in. Amanda wasn't willing to talk to them anymore and technically, they had broken the law by getting in here, they were lucky she took it with amusement instead of kicking them out and reporting them. He put a hand on Gavin's back and shoved him towards the door.

"I'd like to buy something if you don't mind." Chris held up the fake golden key from before. Amanda nodded and told him to follow her to the counter.

“Oh, right, wait.” Hank pulled his own wallet. “Thirteen dollars, right?” She scowled at him.

"Consider my on-the-house offer extended to you, Lieutenant. You look like you'll need it. And now get out!"

*

Chris joined them in the corridor several minutes later. He was carrying a bag that was too large and looked too heavy to only contain a simple key.

“What? Now I’m almost done with Christmas shopping!” he defended himself against the looks of the others.

“Yeah, way to go, financially enabling a murderer.” Gavin sneered and put a cigarette between his lips.

“Until you have more evidence against her than being a stranger I’ll consider her a nice, interesting woman.” Chris’ voice was unusually sharp and for once, Gavin held back his tongue. Hank smiled. That was a nice surprise, coming from Chris, who was sometimes too friendly and forgiving towards his older colleagues, especially if keeping his head down meant to appease Gavin.

Gavin shrugged and lit his cigarette. Hank let him. He had smoked inside himself earlier and they had enough arguing ahead once they had their talks with the crew. That, for once, was set in stone.

“You put the box back where we found it, didn’t you?” he asked Gavin instead, who nodded. “Good.” Hands in his pockets, his fingers closed around the small bottle. He had forgotten about it during their conversation with Amanda but once he remembered its existence in his jacket, it seemed to add a ton of weight to his lighter and cigarettes. He could only hope that she wasn’t going to open that box while they were still inside the house. For now, he had to decide what he was going to do with it. He ruled out going back to her and confessing. Dropping it somewhere in the chaos of the backstage area was an option. Or he could take it with him and have its content analyzed, like the good cop he was.

“One of you should check what’s going on back there.” Hank pointed at the door to the auditorium. “Make sure we don’t miss when it’s over by lurking around here like three school kids in front of the liquor store. I’ll have a smoke outside.” He grabbed his cigs and walked toward the heavy entrance door. The other two were old enough to figure out among themselves who should go back.

“And why aren’t you going to check on the show?” Gavin sneered and Hank looked back over his shoulders.

“Boss privileges. See you in a few minutes.” He shook his pack of cigarettes and went outside.

Hank closed the door behind him and breathed in the fresh air. He expected a chill but it had been unusually warm all day for November and the temperatures didn’t go down much at night. He searched the sky for any signs of an approaching thunderstorm but sparkling stars stared back from the dark firmament and the slim slice of the moon glowed yellow, undisturbed by any clouds. Only the rustle of the wind shaking bushes and giant fir trees foreboded a less peaceful end to the night.

He walked a few steps away from the house and looked at it. It was bleak and threatening against the darkness of the night, the glow behind the windows barely adding any friendliness to the sight. He never liked this place much, too aloof and defiant for his taste and he failed to imagine it had ever been the inviting home that some of the older folks claimed it to once have been. No, thanks. He preferred his small house which offered enough space for him, his dog, and two or three occasional visitors. People who knew how to have a good time and not depending on him to entertain them like an audience. His sister’s kids were the only exception.

He pulled on his cigarette, its end giving of its cozy orange glow. Well, each to their own, and as much as the mansion wasn’t made for him, somebody like Kamski and his family and crew would probably suffocate in his home. Funny, in its own way, the grim aura of the old mansion added to the magic of the happenings inside.

“Lieutenant Anderson?”

“Officer Chen?” Hank turned around. Officer Tina Chen was on duty tonight and wearing her uniform. It was too dark to be sure but the arms and legs looked like they were spoiled with dirt. Tina, who usually greeted everyone with an at least polite smile, looked grave and tired. Hank predicted what he was going to hear when she opened her mouth.

“There’s another corpse, found in the woods about half an hour ago.”

“Fuck.” He flipped the cigarette stump to the ground and drilled it into the dirt with his foot. “Who?”

“We don’t know yet. He doesn’t seem to be from around here.” She sighed with relief but tensed right away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to imply-”

“It’s okay, Officer. We’re humans after all.” The truth was, he felt the same sense of relief. Every untimely death was tragic and unfair but also easier to stomach if it wasn’t a familiar face. Doing this job since his twenties hadn’t changed anything about that. “Does he want all three of us or just me?”

“All three. Captain Fowler said this was a good experience for Detective Miller, and, well, as you’re not officially here to investigate the Kamski clan.” She made an undefined gesture with her hand and Hank nodded, grinning tiredly. Gavin alone against a whole group of people was only a good idea if they weren’t interested in their cooperation.

“I’ll get Miller and Reed.” Thunder rolled in the distance. He looked at the horizon. Great, that was just what they needed, a storm when out in the woods. Now all he was missing was the ominous cawing of a crow to complete his bad-omen bingo card.

*

 

Connor’s head jerked up. He put his book down, slid off his bed and walked over the window. He more guessed the shapes of the houses in the distance from their illuminated windows than seeing them. He fixated at the horizon, waiting for another growl from the sky. But the night was still clear with its twinkling stars and the crescent moon. He released his breath. A thunderstorm was coming, the signs were there and one of the twin dancers had told him. If not tonight, then tomorrow.

His eyes caught two silhouettes moving and he lowered his gaze, putting a hand on the cold glass panel. Two humans were talking in front of the entrance. He hadn’t seen the smaller one before but something in him recognized the taller figure before he did. The gray, shaggy hair, the broad shoulders, the way he hunched over to talk to the shorter one.

The man who had disturbed his quiet half of an hour. Lieutenant Hank Anderson. Hank. The man Elijah didn’t like but he didn’t know Chloe’s or Amanda’s opinion. They treated him friendly but that hadn’t always helped Connor in the past to understand what they were really thinking of an outsider.

The window reflected his pale face and his eyes fell on his hand. It was the one Elijah burnt tonight. The blistered had burst open and since it was beginning to dry, the skin was beginning to fall off. Nobody had had time tonight to fix it. He removed the hand from the window and closed it. Opened it. Closed it again.

It’s what I do.”

It matters if you like your work.”

His mind didn’t stop repeating the words over and over since Connor heard them. He turned his hand, bent the wrist in different, humanly impossible angles. It didn’t hurt. At least he thought it didn’t. He didn’t know what pain actually was, how could he be sure he wasn’t hurting?

What was Elijah always saying? “Humans squirm, cry, shout, even faint when they’re in pain.” Connor didn’t do either and he didn’t see a reason why he should. He had observed the reaction of people watching him getting stabbed, cut, and burnt since the first time it happened. They seemed to have reasons to gasp, shout, sometimes cry although it wasn’t even them. With a suddenly determined frown on his face, he slammed his hand against the window sill. Skin cracked, and a bone. He held the hand up. The ring finger was bent in a wrong way and he failed to move it back into its natural position. Yes, he saw it was wrong but he didn’t feel different than before.

But do you like it?”

“I… don’t know. I have to think about it.” The same words he had told Hank but the voice in his head wasn’t satisfied. It didn’t say anything but he sensed it. It wasn’t the first time it had spoken to him. About two months ago, when they had been still on the road, he had left the carnival grounds. He hadn’t thought much of it although he had never done it before. He had asked himself what he might see if he walked down the road into town, also something he had never done before. Later, he realized it was the first time that voice was talking to him. The first time he noticed it was when Elijah ran after him, put his arm around Connor’s shoulder, and steered him back to his carriage, giving him a lecture about always staying in sight, that he had no business wandering off. That was when he heard the voice so loud and clear he stopped in his track.

Why? That was what it had said. Why? Over and over again.

He didn’t have an answer he could give. He thought of passing the question on to Elijah or Chloe, maybe even Amanda, but they had all been busy that day. Later, it didn’t seem important anymore.

He returned to his bed in the corner of the room and his book. There wasn’t anything else to do for him until he was called into the basement. He sat down and stretched his legs. He opened the book but the letters on the pages were dancing and spinning. He put the book on his lap and leaned against the wall behind him, his eyes closed. For another moment, the letters were spinning in his head and when they faded, they left a painless, dull throbbing in his skull. Connor opened his eyes again and blinked a few times before turning to his right. A plate was on his nightstand, with half an apple, sliced in small pieces. A glass with a yellowish liquid was standing next to it.

He picked one of the apple pieces, put it in his mouth and began carefully to chew. He didn’t taste anything, didn’t even feel a change of temperature on his tongue. He took another piece and chewed it, and finally washed it down with the liquid. He wondered what it was today. It didn’t matter what kind of food they gave him as long as it contained the nutrition he needed to keep his body intact but Amanda liked to explain to him what it was, what the flavors were, and how it would feel on a human tongue. He liked the sweet berry tea with lemon and maple syrup. He might not be able to taste it but the words sounded nice. Like something he’d read in one of his books.

He waited another minute before he tried to read again. This time, the letters stayed where they belonged and began to tell him about the adventures of a young woman who had dressed up like a man to find work on a pirate ship. He knew the ocean from pictures and the atlas Amanda had once given him but it was difficult to imagine. From what he’d seen and read, it was an endless, sometimes blue, sometimes black rectangle. Its depth was an interesting concept. He sometimes saw lakes and ponds on their travels and wondered how he’d experience depth if he was allowed to walk into them.

You would like to do it, wouldn’t you? that strange voice asked. He tilted his head. “I think I do. I want to do it and see what happens. That is liking to do something, isn’t it?” There was an answer waiting for him but he failed to listen as, by the time he saw it, an avalanche of new questions broke over him. Did he like the book? Did he like what happened? Did he like how he wasn’t able to taste food? Did he like talking to Hank? Did he like waiting here for Chloe and Amanda without knowing when they’d come?

Did he like what he was doing here? He looked down and shoved the torn shirt up. A piece of gauze Chloe had stuck on the hole in his stomach had stopped the bleeding, after it was soaked with blood. His hand didn’t move exactly how he expected it to with the burnt flesh and skin and the broken finger.

“I don’t know. I still don’t know. Stop asking me!” He pulled the shirt back down and grabbed his book when someone suddenly knocked on his door.

“Yes,” he answered and hurried to look back into his book.

“Connor, sweetie, are you okay?” Chloe came in with a pile of clean clothes in her hand. “You’re alone? I thought I heard you talking to someone.” She put the clothes on his desk and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“I’m alone. It was just-” He looked up and met the gaze of her blue eyes. He hadn’t told anyone about the voice before and by now, he didn’t want to. But he also couldn’t make up a lie. He understood the concept but failed at applying it. Chloe took his damaged hand.

“He’d really overdone it this time,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Connor, you were going to say something. What is it? There’s been something on your mind since you’ve met the lieutenant, isn’t that so?”

He stared past her, furrowing his brows.

“Yes… and no,” he answered slowly.

“Don’t you want to tell me?” She squeezed his hand to gently urge him on. Connor shook his head.

“That’s not it. Usually, I think something and put it in words. But lately, it doesn’t work like this.”

She gazed at him for a long moment, still holding his hand. Her face changed but not to anger. Eyelids partly down, no smile, and she became paler than before. The last time she had looked like this she was holding her old cat after it died in its sleep. Sadness but calmer this time.

“Have I said something wrong?” He couldn’t think of anything that might have caused this expression.

“No, baby.” Her hand stroke over his cheek. “Not at all. I waited for this day. You finally start thinking. That’s a good thing.”

“Is it?” His frown deepened. He had been able to think before, since the day he woke up but he understood what she meant. It was a different kind of thinking. A rehearsal of what he heard and saw. “I’m not sure, Chloe. Before, I always had answers. No, I don’t, no matter how hard I think.”

“That’s normal, dear. It can be very difficult and sometimes even scary. But trust me, it’s so, so rewarding. And it makes you more human than ever.” She leaned forward and hugged him, and suddenly, she began to sob. “I’m sorry, Connor, so so sorry we made you like this. If you were human, you’d have learned all this naturally. You’d have grown into it, slowly, and step by step. I’m sorry that we didn’t know how to do better.”

Hearing her cry against his shoulder created an uncomfortable knot in his stomach, which didn’t make sense as even if he had a human stomach, it would lake the ability to form a knot. It was unpleasant and made the room with its many books, white walls, and the warm light from the gas lamp dark and cold. He gently pushed her away.

“You don’t have to be sorry. It’s all I’ve known. You didn’t take anything away from me.” That made her laugh a little.

“You’re right. Oh, Connor, you’ve always been smart and now, with developing a mind of your own…I don’t even dare to imagine how much you’ll grow now!”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“That’s okay. You will. Give it time.” Her smile pushed back the sadness but it didn’t fully disappear.

“Time,” he repeated and stared at his hands. “How much time? And what am I supposed to do?”

“Listen,” she replied promptly. “Listen to everything but especially to that voice in your head.”

He stiffened, his head jerking up, his throat suddenly dry. “The voice in my head? How do you know? I haven’t told anyone about it? And who is it?” She laughed again.

“Connor, we all have it. Everyone has. And who it is? You, of course!” She giggled as she put her hands on his shoulders. “Connor, it’s called having a conscience. It’s our own brain giving us feedback. What we see, what we hear, what we hope or fear to happen.” She nodded at the books scattered across the floor. “I’m sure you have read about it before.”

“Oh!” Yes, yes, he had! The characters in the stories he had read always had these talks with themselves. Not real conversations but moments where everything stopped and they only listened to their thoughts and asked themselves questions when they didn’t know how to proceed. He longingly looked at the book lying next to him. The sudden realization that he had missed so much by just accepting the parts that weren’t description as meaningless made him want to pick up every book he had ever read and read it again from the beginning.

“So that’s what they mean if they say children grow up so fast. Well, kind of.” Her laugh sad, but in a different way than before.

“Chloe, what makes you sad about it? I’m not gone like the cat. And I’m not your child.”

“There are many different ways to be sad, Connor.”

“I know that,” he interrupted her. Suddenly, this wasn’t going fast enough. There had to be a faster way to explain all these strange things to him, without telling him what he already knew.

“In theory, you do. When pets or people we like die, we mourn that we won’t see them again. The good times we had will never be repeated.” She thought for a moment. This was taking too long but before Connor could urge her to continue, she spoke again, “First off, you’ve never been a human child so yes, you’re right. Nevertheless, you’re my child, because I made you, even it was in a different way than human children are made. Secondly, no human child could replace you but just the same, you could never replace a human child. I can be the best mother you, Connor, can have, but I never had the chance to be the best mother a human child can have. No matter how much I want it. I just wish I could have both but that’s not going to happen. So, what makes me sad, what I mourn are the good times that never have been.”

He closed his eyes. More to think about. More questions when not one of those he had were answered. “I’ll understand this if I give it time, right?”

“Yes. Don’t rush it, baby, I know it’s a lot. Now,” she snatched an apple piece, now significantly browner than before, and popped it into her mouth. “Why don’t you tell me what Lieutenant Anderson had said to you that you can’t stop thinking about?”

“He asked if I like my work.” Finally, an easy question.

“And? Do you?”

He blinked at her a few times. He hadn’t had expected a specific answer but he definitely hadn’t anticipated this question from her. He had lived with her and the rest of the carnival since he woke up and she had never asked him if he liked his part of the show. If he was okay, yes, but not if he liked it.

“I can’t find the answer. It’s strange, I liked that he asked. I liked that I impressed him. And how he talked to me and how he looked at me when I returned from the staged. I know that but I don’t know if I like what I do. Which doesn’t make sense as I’ve been doing this for two years but only have seen him twice, for a few minutes. Chloe?” He interrupted his rambling when she gave a strange sigh. She was looking at him with an unusual smile, it was neither happy nor sad. It looked like there was something she could tell him instead of being silent.

“You like him. That’s a surprise. But it explains a lot. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to understand. And unfortunately, I fear I can’t explain this with a few words. I have to talk with Amanda.” Again, she reached for his hand. “But don’t mention this to Elijah. You know he loves you, but there are just some things he’s not prepared to handle when it comes to you.”

“O-okay.” Now he was more confused than before. Amanda, Chloe, and Elijah, of course, they loved him, they’d told him and after a while, he had begun to vaguely grasp the meaning of the words. He preferred some of the performers over others, the three of them even more, and he’d rather go to Chloe and Amanda if he had questions than to Elijah. He had figured out this had to something with the concepts of love and liking somebody. But what did this have to do with Hank?

He didn’t have the chance to ask. The door opened and Amanda stormed inside. Amanda never stormed anywhere unless something was wrong. She also never stormed into a room without knocking and the flat, rectangular box she was carrying rarely left the vault until she needed it and after that, she locked it away immediately.

“We have a problem.” She didn’t waste any words and slammed the box on Connor’s bed, next to his legs, and opened it. She pointed at the empty space between two of the small bottles inside the box. “The police officers took it.” Chloe jumped to her feet.

“Why… how? And how do you know? How could they even find it? I thought you kept everything in the basement?”

Chapter Text

“Well, that means the carnival folks are in the clear.” Hank was waiting for Jamison, their coroner, to come and lead them to the corpse. Ben Collins, a detective close to Hank’s age, was in charge of this late-night investigation and had already confirmed what Tina Chen had said. The dead guy was nobody they knew. Old man Sergei, from the post office, had been taken a stroll through the woods with his dog when the mutt suddenly ran off, barking like he was facing the devil himself.

Less than half an hour later, he was at the police station, out of breath from running, to tell his tale. It was a challenge to find the exact spot in the darkness but his dog’s nose was merciless and dragged them away from the downtrodden path between old trees and shrubberies deeper into the woods.

“I saw myself how busy everyone was back at the mansion,” Hank continued his thought, “There was no time for anyone to slip out, do this, and get back inside without being noticed or messing up their schedule.”

“Maybe not,” a strained voice huffed from behind the shrubs. Leaves rustled and tall, lanky Jamison emerged from the shadows.

“Evening Jamie. Uh, I think I’m good without a handshake.” Hank suspiciously looked at the outstretched hand. Even in the shine of the lantern, Jamison was holding he saw the stains on his gloves.

“Yes, right, sorry.” Not one to bear grudges, Jamison laughed, an up-and-down, bright noise that didn’t go well with the dark trees and the shadows the lantern was throwing on them. “Anyway, the guy’s been lying over there at least for twelve hours. Doesn’t mean the freaks did it but it also doesn’t mean they did not do… did do not… I didn’t find anything that hints at any one.”

“One more dead person, same numbers of clues. Care to lead us there, to have a look?” Crawling through bushes that were only waiting to rip tears into his clothes wasn’t how he wanted to finish this night - any night - but he wanted to see the crime scene himself before the body was carried away.

“Gladly! You won’t see much until I have this guy on my slab but four eyes see more than two. Or eight more than two.” He waved the lantern at Chris and Gavin.

“I’ll wait here for Tina, when she comes back with the guys for the heavy lifting,” Ben quickly said before Jamison extended his offer to him. “Doubt I’ll see more than I did half an hour ago.”

What he thought would be an inconvenient walk turned into a war against nature, or rather, nature declared war on him.

“Fuck!” A thorn left a long scratch across his hand. He shoved it into his jacket and promptly stumbled over something that seemed hard at first but gave in under the weight. He lost his balance and it was Chris’ back that saved him from falling on his face.

“You okay, Hank?” Chris turned around and Jamison stopped and walked back to them, shedding light over Hank’s grim face. He had freed his hands from his pockets and rubbed his hurting chin, hoping his dumb face didn’t leave a bruise on poor Chris’ spine.

“Never felt better. Jamie, light over here, please.” He waved Jamison over and pointed where his foot got stuck.

“If this old walrus breaks his ankle I’ll not carry him,” Gavin tossed in his two cents from behind as he caught up with them. Hank was too relieved to bother with him. What had felt like the porous chest of a rotting corpse was just an old, hollow tree. He pulled his foot free and checked his socks and ankle for splinters.

“Fuck nature. All good, let’s keep going!” he yelled and did his best to keep up with Jamison’s pace to stay as close to the light source as possible but damn, that guy was nimble like a weasel and had the eyes of a cat. Hank only dodged a low-hanging branch in time because the man in front of him ducked first. All in all, Hank was already fed up with this trip.

He had seen his fair share of corpses over the years and he couldn’t think of anything he’d be able to see in the light of an oil lantern that would be worth the hassle. He was just glad Sergei’s dog, a thin-legged, skinny thing with short fur, had found it. He didn’t want to imagine the fun of having to drag his own dog, a stately Saint Bernard who was just growing his winter fur lately, out of this thorny mess.

“Here we are. Sight’s pretty gruesome. Mr. Miller, if you want to have a good look, better stay close to me!”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Fawkes,” Chris replied dryly and took a step back. Hank patted Jamison’s back. The man was one of the good guys.

“Well, where’s our sleeping beauty?” Gavin pushed past Chris and rubbed his hands. Jamison swung the lamp around and a white, long bump emerged from the darkness. He bent down to pull the sheet away. Hank flinched, Gavin muttered a less enthusiastic, “Oh, fuck.”

Hank knelt down, the forest ground cold, an odd contrast to the warm air. He gestured Jamison to move closer.

“Now, that’s new.” Most victims had shown signs of mutilation but most of them were killed by strangulation or blunt force to the head. This poor sap missed several patches of skin on his torso, the largest was cut from his abdomen. The blood had dried and it looked like somebody had painted a large rectangle with brown color on him. He had seen these injuries before and had even talked to victims who survived the removal of small patches. All they remembered was suddenly feeling dizzy before they woke up lying on the mossy forest ground, their arms or chest or back burning like hell.

This guy didn’t have the tiniest chance. Whoever did it planned to kill him. In death, his face was peaceful and relaxed, despite the dried blood around his mouth, which made the two large, round holes, where the eyes used to be, were even more horrifying. And it wasn’t the worst. The killer had sawed off the top of the bald head. An image of his daily breakfast egg popped up in Hank’s mind. His stomach convulsed at the morbid thought; he could do without scrambled eggs in the future.

“The brain is missing. Removed with the precision of a surgeon. You’ll see it better back in my lab,” Jamison held the lantern next to the victim’s head, “But I’m sure he even kept the wound sterile. This isn’t the work of an insane freak. This guy has a purpose, whatever it might be.”

“Fuck, another Frankenstein impersonator, just what this place needs.” Hank stood up, brushing moss and small twigs from his pants.

“You think so, too?” Jamison sounded too excited for Hank’s taste. Or maybe it was just the late hour and this damn ominous wind.

“He’s still a person, Jamie, let’s not forget that.”

“Hank, please.” Jamison huffed, stretching to his full size. “I get to know these guys better than you. You can’t dig around in a person’s guts and not form a polite, respectful connection. But let me put it this way. It’s a shame good people get murdered. But if they do, it better be spectacular. Think about it. Others get shot for a few bucks. If people have to die, does it have to be for something so meaningless?”

“Careful with that.” Hank’s smile was tired. He had had enough pseudo-philosophical talk for a day back at the mansion. “I get where you’re coming from but people might think you believe it’s okay to kill if the cause justified it. Killing another human being can never be justified.”

“Are you sure?” Jamison was standing uncomfortably close. He lifted the lantern, the only thing fitting between them. His face looked long and bony in the flickering light. “What if one man’s death could save the life of a hundred other men? Women? Children?”

“Well.” Hank scratched the chin under his beard. “That’d be an extreme case that needed careful consideration.”

“So, one hundred isn’t a clear ‘no’. What about ten, Hank? Would ten be enough to give one death a meaning?”

“I don’t think…”

“That’s not a clear no. What’s with one, say, a child? Or someone you know. Someone you like? What if it’s your dog? Sumo’s life in exchange for the death of a stranger. Or a killer?”

“Listen!” Hank raised his hands. “This is went from absurd to grotesque too fast for me at this hour. Just promise me you’ll stay on our side and not find creative ways to murder people for what you think is a meaningful cause!”

“I’m sorry. I guess this time and place is getting to me, too.” Jamison’s laugh carried a hint of embarrassment. “But don’t worry. I love my job because I love to find answers. Not to solve problems.”

“You know, this is one of those days I wish everyone would just talk about the weather.”

“Hate to interrupt you lovebirds,” Gavin raised his voice after clearing his throat, “But is it just me or is this fucker missing a hand?”

“Oh, he sure does. Very observant, Mr. Reed. Look.” Jamison lowered the lantern almost to the ground. “Again, a clean cut. Removed about two inches behind the wrist.”

A shudder crept up and down Hank’s spine, making the hair on his neck stand. It was the left hand, the last piece to create a pattern he had refused to see.


*

“Of course I keep everything locked up,” Amanda snapped. “It’s just… this time, I took too long. I didn’t have enough time to bring it downstairs before I had to get ready and welcome the first wave of guests.”

“Which one is it? Can’t we come up with a good excuse why we need it for the show?” Chloe’s fingers were gliding over the smooth surfaces of the remaining bottles.

“We wouldn’t have a problem if it was this easy.” She gestured Chloe to stand up and collapsed on the chair as soon as it was free. Rubbing her temples, she sighed. “If it only was the sanitizer. Or the formaldehyde. I could explain those away with my drinks. But no, they had to take one of the narcotics. The one I’ve used lately is exclusively meant to drug animals. Big animals. Think of bulls or tigers. How should we explain that when the only animal on our show is a dog you can fit in a purse?”

Chloe was pacing through the room, her face thoughtful. Connor had swung his legs over the edge of his bed. This was bad, very bad. They had moved in only a few weeks ago. He liked it here. He had his own trailer but this was his first time having a real room, with real walls and a real window. Now that he suspected they’d leave again - and that very soon, losing all this comfort turned the world around him darker. It was as if he just now realized that being up here had felt brighter than it was. He liked it here. He had wanted to spend the whole winter here and whenever he was downstairs, he had been thinking of what he’d do once he could return. Just like he had been thinking of what would happen when the police officers came back, or when they met them in town. What Hank would say next and if he, Connor, could give him an answer to his question.

He still didn’t know if he liked his work but he liked living here. There had to be a way to fix this!

“Are you sure they took it?”

Amanda and Chloe jerked around and stared at him when he spoke.

“Maybe you lost it. Or someone else took it. To play a prank. You know the twins like to play pranks.” Didn’t he know that, after all, he had been the victim to their ingenious tricks more than once. “Or maybe Elijah needed it for something and forgot to tell you.”

“No, Connor, no.” Amanda shook her head, her eyes wide and mouth half open even when she paused. Finally, she swallowed and her firm voice returned. “They were snooping around the shop. All three of them. I caught them. I should have known right away. They weren’t just flustered for breaking in. The youngest, Miller, had guilt written all over his face, and this Reed was a hint too triumphant.”

“But…” Connor fell silent. Amanda’s expression was hard as stone, the eyes cold, her mouth a hard thin line, her features unyielding. She had said her piece and with that, any further attempt at debating was a waste of time. It also meant she was right. Amanda knew people better than him, she read them better than he his books and she had never been wrong since he had known her. He accepted what she said as a fact. Still, he wasn’t ready to let it go yet.

“But isn’t there anything else we can do? I don’t want to move again!” He raised his voice with a vehemence that surprised him and Amanda and Chloe exchanged a glance.

“Baby, nobody is talking about moving out yet.” Chloe leaned against the window and stared outside. “But it might happen. It’s a shame, it’s nice here. And the people aren’t bad either, for a small town like this.”

Amanda snorted, waving her hand impatiently.

“If moving was my first choice of action we’d already be on the road and I’d explain later. I have another idea but I need to talk with you about it first. I need everyone to agree to at least not stand in the way.”

Chloe sighed and pushed herself away from the window. “I’ll get Elijah. Don’t worry, Connor, we’ll let you know what’s going to happen as soon as we’ve come to a decision.”

“No.” Amanda raised from her chair. She shut the box and dropped it onto Connor’s lap. “This time, we have to do it differently. Elijah is the one we’ll inform once we’ve come to a decision. Connor is the key to this operation and unless he agrees or not, we’ll leave Elijah out of it. Come, I need you two in the lab. We can talk there while we take care of the boy’s injuries.”

“Damages,” Connor corrected her, more as a reflex than with intention. For the first time since Amanda had barged in, she smiled and in her eyes showed a sadness similar to Chloe’s before.

“The sooner you think and talk of yourself as a human, the better.”

*

Amanda locked the basement door behind them. The foyer was filled with people chatting, Elijah buzzing from one group to the other, basking in their excited words of praise and the many curious questions. He was too busy to notice Amanda and the two women come downstairs and heading for the basement door.

The lab was Amanda’s territory. During their travels, their largest trailer was filled from the floor to the roof with bottles, small and large containers, bags, cooking utensils next to polished surgical tools. Everything she needed for her potions and to keep Connor alive and functioning after his performances.

The largest room of the basement was almost three times the size of her trailer. Shelves bent under the weight of her equipment and every cupboard, desk, and table the previous owners had left were covered with bottles, filters, funnels, and what not. The familiar smell, a mix of herbs, sanitizers, and chemicals covered the smell of mold and moisture and it was impossible to imagine how she’d ever again be satisfied to return to working in her trailer.

The only thing free from her organized clutter was an operation table standing in the center of the room, under a brightly shining lamp.
Connor sat down on it and removed his shirt.

“We’ll get to that in a moment. Chloe, please move the small table over there next to the slab.” Amanda opened the only cupboard she had brought from her trailer, the one she used for keeping components for her mixtures and experiments below a certain temperature. Although he stretched his neck the best he could, Connor couldn’t see what was inside from where he was sitting. Amanda removed one large bottle from the cupboard and closed it.

“I’ll explain in a minute what this is. First, my plan. Connor, I need you to listen very carefully and to answer my questions as truthfully as you can. Do you understand?” The question was more like an order and Connor nodded.

“Good.” She put the bottle on the table Chloe had moved across the room. It contained a viscid liquid of a blue color that reminded Connor of the lake he had discovered last summer.

“Let’s get straight to the point. Lieutenant Anderson took a fancy to you and you like him. I want you to go into town and get him on our side.”

“Amanda!” Chloe cried out in disbelief, Connor blinked a few times, struggling to process the meanings of her words.

“I’m not blind, Chloe, and I’m sure you noticed the changes in Connor’s behavior over the last months as well. And it peaked today, on stage, when for the first time, he showed a hint of defiance towards Elijah. I assure you I was as surprised as your husband.” She smirked as she addressed Connor who still could only stare. He had asked one question about feelings, in an honest moment of confusion, he didn’t grasp why it was so important. Amanda continued to speak to him, “But when I saw you and the lieutenant in the same room, the first glance you exchanged, I knew what happened between you.”

“Are you saying Connor fell in love on first sight?” Chloe crossed her arms and shook her head. “I know he’ll one day be able to feel that but isn’t this a bit too sudden? He’s just starting to develop a conscience!”

“Spoken like a true mother who begins to realize her baby is growing into a man.” Amanda’s voice softened and she walked over to Chloe to take her hands in his. “And no, I don’t say it was love on first sight, for either of them. A mutual fancy and fascination. A seed with the potential to grow into a lustrous, beautiful tree or into a meager sprout to stomp on, depending on how carefully you water it.”

“In other words, you want to encourage Connor to get close to one of the cops after us and see what will happen. But what for, Amanda?” Chloe brushed Amanda’s hands away and placed herself between Amanda and Connor, her arms outstretched as if to shield him from harm. “How is that supposed to help us? He’s never talked to anyone outside our family on his own. He hasn’t experienced any of the large, passionate feelings. Love, anger, hate, disappointment. Hope. That’s all new to him! And the possible benefits for us seem too small and uncertain for such a dangerous game.”

“I understand your worries but you’re wrong. This isn’t a game.” She still smiled calmly at Chloe, speaking gently when Connor expected her sharp tongue to overrule any of Chloe’s concern. At the same time, Connor’s confusion was growing. He had read about all those emotions and about the joys and destruction they were able to cause. He failed to bring the stories in line with his encounter with Hank and what he was thinking about him.

“What is it, then? What if not a game?” Chloe bit back.

“Time.” Amanda put her hands on Chloe’s waist and gently pushed her aside. “It’s about time for him. Chloe, we have to let him grow and you know what this means.” She took Connor’s face between her hands and stared into his eyes, her own dark and intense and suddenly, whatever was going to happen to him, Connor understood that Amanda knew what she was doing and that it wasn’t his or Chloe’s place to object.

“It means you might get hurt, Connor. Do you hear me? And I don’t mean like the way Elijah injures you.” Her voice was deep and crisp, nothing like the velvet one she used on stage to hypnotize a curious volunteer. “There are other ways to hurt people and it can be worse than being stabbed with a knife. It might make you feel desperate, helpless, fearful, angry. Even if you have no idea what I’m talking about now you must keep that in mind. If you ever think you don’t want to live anymore, come to us. We’ll help you.”

“Okay.” What else was there to say? He hadn’t felt any of the emotions she mentioned, he had to see for himself what they were if they happened. When they happened. The way Amanda and Chloe talked about them, he was steering towards something new, had always supposed to do so, and it was inevitable. He was aware of the concept of death, another thing that couldn’t be avoided forever but wishing for the end of his own existence? Why would he do that? If this was a likely result of developing emotions, he was not so sure he wanted to experience them. The mild curiosity that had invaded his thoughts over the last year left him. There was nothing wrong the way things were, was change really necessary?

“Amanda,” Chloe’s voice dropped to a hollow whisper, sounding tired and defeated, “Now that you speak about feelings, how do you plan to make him feel? Physically? He can’t get a human man off our track if he doesn’t… react to physical, well, contact. Not only touches. He could bump into something, or cut himself on a piece of paper, or be hit by a ball. Anderson isn’t an idiot. We’d be even more suspicious to him and we wouldn’t be there to protect him.” She gave Connor an unhappy look. She, too, wouldn’t object Amanda, but she still wasn’t convinced by a plan which she seemed to understand so much better than Connor himself.

“We can’t always protect him unless you want him to be a helpless child forever.” Chloe squirmed under Amanda’s sharp tone. “But that aside, you’re right. If we want him to move among humans as one of them, he needs to feel. That’s where this comes in.” She picked the bottle from the table, shaking it. Lazy, small waves rippled over the blue surface.

“Now, let me finish talking. I’ve been working on this for the almost two years now, shortly after Connor opened his eyes for the first time.” A proud smile brightened her face, the back-and-forth discussion with Chloe forgotten. “I’ll show you my notes later to explain how it works, for now, all you need to know is that after we’ve exchanged his blood for this, he’ll be able to feel.”

She paused, looking from Connor to Chloe. Chloe’s mouth dropped open, her arms fell by her sides. She closed her jaws a few times without any words come out. Amanda watched with satisfaction as Chloe took a sharp, deep breath before she attempted to speak again.

“You mean, you’ve found a way… this will make it possible to experience sensations? Pain? Itches? Touches? Warm, comforting, tickling, thrilling touches?” All her previous reservations forgotten, the corners of her mouth twitched into an excited smile.

“Exactly. Just like any human. He’ll be able to feel cold, to feel warm. He’d know on his own to not get too close to a fire or to stay inside when it’s freezing outside. There are a few downsides, however.” She sighed and put the bottle in Connor’s hands.

He held it closer to his face, looking at the distorted reflection of his features. Warm and cold, he understood the importance of that. In his first winter, he almost caught fire more than once from standing too close to an open fire without noticing. Another time, he had wandered around the carnival grounds when it snowed for hours before anyone noticed. It had cost him several toes and his foot had to be replaced. He remembered Elijah’s curses because it took him almost a week to find someone with the correct size. Being able to sense temperatures and avoid damaging sources sounded useful.

“I’ve almost perfected it but not quite,” Amanda began to explain, “I still have to tweak the formula to give it the color of human blood but we don’t have time for that. I also barely have enough for Connor, that’s why I haven’t told you about it until now. I’d rather have shown this to you when it’s complete but I don’t see any other choice. If we change the blood tonight, his body should adapt to it in two days max, if he rests. That should also give him enough time to regenerate the missing rest amount.”

“I can’t believe it.” Chloe’s fingertips touched the bottle in awe. “Can it really make him feel? Can you really turn him human?”

Amanda laughed and shook her head. “You know that’s not possible. But yes, it’ll make him feel. The whole spectrum. We haven’t given him this nice body in vain after all. With this, he can fully enjoy it, and if this means winning a police lieutenant for our cause, it’d be a nice bonus.”

“I wonder what Elijah will say about all this.” Chloe stepped away from Connor and the bottle as if she feared her close presence alone could shatter it.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll hate it. Remember, the blood will be blue. That means no more cutting games in front of strangers. And that’s why I wanted to talk to you first, Connor. Could you follow what I’ve said?”

“I think so,” he replied slowly. It was a lot to take in. This blue liquid carried significant changes and he wasn’t able to estimate the impact they’d have on his life. Some of the things Chloe and Amanda had said didn’t sound desirable to him, yet, the way they acted, even the negative sides seemed to be an important part of life. Of really being alive. And although he didn’t know how, if he agreed to it, there was a chance that they didn’t have to move overnight. He could stay and explore their new home, was even supposed to explore the world outside their tight-knit family.

“What do you need me to do?”

“I appreciate your enthusiasm but it’s important you think things through as much as possible given the circumstances.” Amanda took the bottle from him and put it back on the table. “This will change your whole life. You’ve just begun to develop emotions and being able to feel will accelerate the process and the odds are good this will affect negative emotions first. Pain means shock, panic, fear. These are great teachers but it won’t be easy at first.
And when the time to experience the good things comes, you’ll develop desires, maybe even greed. It’s easy to become addicted. Pain teaches but pleasure seduces. Everything has its place in this world but you’ll have to learn to handle them with responsibility or you’ll create a disaster.” She sighed and gave him a long, worried look.

“I’m talking and talking when I know very well this all won’t mean anything to you until it happens. Fine, let’s continue with something you can understand. You’ll lose your role. Not only because of the blue blood but also because what Elijah does to you will hurt you and it’ll scare you. Your days of the Menschmaschine will be over, your peaceful life will be over, and you still have to be careful when you’re among strangers. The tiniest injury, a thorn pricking your finger, a splintered table, a shard of glass, it wouldn’t take more to reveal your true nature.” She paused again. Chloe opened her mouth but Amanda gestured her to remain silent.

Connor stared back at her. She was right, this whole talk about feelings and emotions was meaningless to him. But he got the other part. The days of him on the stage, next to Elijah, would be over. He looked down, at his bloody shirt and his damaged hand. These wounds wouldn’t look red and rusty anymore. Instead of bleeding in front of an excited crowd he’d have to avoid the tiniest drop of blood to keep his secret safe.

And that was Amanda’s true question: Was he willing to give all he had known up for the great unknown? For results that might be devastating or rewarding in ways he didn’t understand and by the time he’d be able to understand the full magnitude of the decision, there wouldn’t be a way back.

Was he willing to agree to her newest experiment, was he willing to exchange the life he knew for a few days more in this town, for experiences that might ruin him, for a chance to interact with humans, see how they lived and talked?

For a chance to talk to this nice man with the gray beard, Hank, again?

Do you like what you do?

Connor still owed him an answer.

He raised his head and met her gaze.

“I’ll do it.”

*

There was dripping. He had only felt slight pressure when a hollow needle opened a vein in his arm. The thin white tube soon became red as his blood slowly left his body.

Drip.

Drip.

Drop by drop, it filled the bottle under the slab.

Once Amanda gave the sign, Chloe applied a similar set up to his other arm, only now, the tube was leading up to the up-side-down bottle with his new, blue, blood.

Chloe was sitting on a chair next to him, talking about today’s show and reliving the memories of this year’s travels. Amanda had turned her back to them, preparing fresh layers of skin for Connor’s wounds. The process took a while this time, the shade of the skin was close to his but off enough to look wrong and she had to be careful with the bleach. One misstep and the color would be too bright or the skin damaged. She took part in the conversation mainly with hums and grunts and occasional snorts.

“This should do. Chloe, help me with these, please.”

Chloe stood up and arrange different surgical instruments, like scalpels and needles, on the smaller table standing next to the slab. She opened one of the hanging cupboards and picked half a dozen unlabeled bottles and put them next to the tools. She left enough space for the tray Amanda brought over. There, patches of skin, cut into the shapes of his wounds, only a bit larger, were waiting to be implanted.

“How do you feel, Connor?” Amanda pulled up a chair and brushed Connor’s hair out of his face before she sat down.

He shrugged. The dripping had made him so sleepy, he couldn’t enjoy listening to the women’s chatter. But he wasn’t sleepy enough to close his eyes and doze off.

“I don’t feel anything. It’s not unpleasant but I wish I could sleep. Or go back to my room and read.” He couldn’t wait to get back to his books. With all the things he had learned in the last two or three hours, every story he had read so far had to be a new adventure. Suddenly, he was aware of so many things he hadn’t considered important or of interest before.

“Sounds like you’re bored, baby.” Chloe laughed. As soon as she sat down, she began to prepare Connor’s damaged hand by removing the destroyed skin. “Some of the underlying tissue got burnt as well.”

“I’ll get you a refill.” Amanda went back to fetch a metallic, flat box from her supplies.

“Bored?” He had been through this process of tissue and skin replacement so often, he didn’t pay any attention to it.

“Bored,” Chloe repeated. “That’s when you don’t care about what you’re doing right now and would rather do something else, although you aren’t in any discomfort. Just, well, bored.”

“I see.” He stared at the ceiling. Even as he focused on her words, he couldn’t escape the dripping. The world in his peripheral vision was getting blurred. He closed and opened his eyes a few times but it wouldn’t go away. On the contrary, small dancing sparks made it worse.

“Can I have something to drink? Or eat? I’m dizzy.”

“You had something before we went down, hadn’t you?” Amanda asked, busy cleaning the hole in his abdomen before she cut off the frayed skin around it.

“Half an apple in pieces and some of the liquid you had prepared for me.”

“That should be enough for another hour or two. Don’t worry, Connor. It’s just the blood loss.”

Reassured, he closed his eyes. Amanda and Chloe worked in silence. He felt pulling and tugging, the pressure of blades and his skin and flesh giving in. Tools cluttered on the tray and chair legs screeched over the floor. Amanda began to hum after a while and Chloe joined the upbeat melody. He let his thoughts wander.

His morning had been like always. He got up, he washed himself, and returned to his bed to continue the book he had started the evening before. He could have downstairs to the kitchen and see if anybody was there having an early breakfast but being alone was enough.

Chloe came to see after him and to bring him something to eat. A slice of bread, smaller than usual, but with rich yellow butter spread on top. It didn’t make a difference to his tongue but she insisted he needed the energy and he should not forget to have more later, when tonight’s event came closer. He assured her he wouldn’t.

He spent some time watching the other crew members. Their busy running and shouting created a whirl of noise and colors that was nice to look at for a while, then he needed to go away. Fortunately, he didn’t need much preparation for his part of the show. He put on his suit and withdrew to the room under the stairs, the one they only used to store cans and props they wouldn’t need any time soon.

Among the others, the flowing motions and waves of noises kept the thoughts inside his head. Once alone in the darkness, it was like now they were flowing and the one voice in his head was enough to fill the room. That was, that was supposed to be his own. Huh.

Then the stranger entered his secluded world. Hank. And spoke with him and looked at him with this strange shine in his blue eyes. Neither Chloe nor Amanda or Elijah had looked at him like that before. It made him want to talk. Usually, if he was confronted with people from the crowd, he kept his replies short and simple and left the talking to Elijah. Officially, it added to the mystery he was meant to embody once his show started but in fact, if he had to choose, he’d have left the talking part to Elijah anyway.

So it was him who answered often even simple questions in Connor’s place but after looking into Hank’s eyes, he wanted to be the one to give him an answer. And this one time, he couldn’t. Yet, the question was still burning in him and if he had only one thing to finish before they left this town, it was finding Hank and trying to tell him something. Be it the answer or not. He had to try to tell him what he was thinking and maybe, the man could help him to make sense of it.

That he had never thought of it, that he had never minded what he was doing - or had done to him, but if he had to choose between going on to do it and staying only a little while longer, he didn’t hesitate to give up everything he had known and thought to be his purpose.

He inhaled sharply. Yes, that was what he wanted to tell him. Until then, the question had to keep burning.

His fingers twitched.

“Connor? Everything okay?” Chloe asked and for a relieving moment, the pressure on his hand lessened.

“Yes.”

The pressure returned. His mind tried to fall back into the almost sleep-like state of thinking but something pulled it back, making it impossible to blend out the world around him. The noises. The pressure on his hand and stomach. The sharp stench that was piercing his nose when Amanda poured one of the many liquids on his stomach.

An abdominal muscle twitched. Another in his face.

He pressed his eyes shut until white flashes of light disrupted the darkness. Opened them again.

The questions, it was always about the questions. They’d eaten him from the inside for months and now, they ate him from the outside.

Metal between his fingers, pressed against his skin.

Cold.

Then, he screamed.

*

“Connor! Connor, calm down! Amanda! Do something!” Only one more tendon. One more and the muscle from Connor’s left ring finger would have been back in its place. Reconstructing a hand to full function was difficult but once the muscled were fixed, covering the fingers with new skin would have been the quick, easy part. Only five more minutes, and everything would have been fine!

“Connor…” Her eyes threatened to overflow with tears. She fought them back and did her best to keep her voice calm and reassuring. She was used to heavy lifting, but holding a full-grown young man out of control down by his shoulders was hard.

He screamed and screamed, yelling at them to stop, and she doubted he could hear her. His hands were twitching and his back arched, his shoulders would barely touch the slab, if it weren’t for Chloe and her strong hands and will. Amanda had grabbed him by his hips, preventing him from jumping off the slab.

“There’s nothing we can do until he calms down on his own!” Amanda yelled. She was calm, as if she still held control over the situation, as if it didn’t bother her had all that the man she had helped creating was screaming his lungs out while his blood was splashing to the floor where the tube had been torn off the cannula by accident during his sudden struggle.

“But we have to! Something went wrong!” She shot a glare at the blue blood in the half-empty bottle. It was the second, and one more was supposed to follow. Hell knew what Amanda had mixed together! She was an idiot for not inspecting it closer before she agreed to this procedure.

“Nonsense, nothing is wrong,” Amanda sneered, shifting her weight over the table until she was almost lying on top of Connor to keep him down. “It works better than expected! I didn’t think the blood would connect with the tissue and his brain. I feared we wouldn’t see an effect before tomorrow.”

“But-!”

“Chloe, darling, the first pain this kid ever felt in his life is you cutting into the nerves of his hands and the chemical burn from me smoldering that damn hole on his stomach shut! Cut him some slack!”

Chloe kept her mouth shut. Amanda rarely cursed, if she did, it was wise to take her words seriously. She looked at Connor’s face. His handsome-yet-boyish features contorted in agony. His skin was pale except for the feverishly red spots on cheeks. The screams became quieter but not because he calmed down; his voice was giving out.

“I’m so, so sorry, baby.” She allowed herself a sob. Everything Amanda had said before was right. If this liquid gave him the chance to feel, to become more complete as a human, it would be wrong to deny them to him. For someone who didn’t blink when he was stabbed and burnt, a pinch had to be an excruciating experience. And they were operating on him, with knives and needles and acid concoctions working on his flesh. If she could only hug him.

“It’s not fair,” she whispered, gently pushing his back on the slab. “This shouldn’t be his first experience.”

“Better he got that out of the way. A step on his toe won’t come as much of a surprise after this.” Amanda dismissed her concern with a wave of her hand but then she sighed. The hard expression on her face crumbled. “It hurts me as much as you to see him like this. And it’s not over. He’ll feel the wounds until they’re healed. But we have no choice, he has to go through this!”

“Is your idea even worth it? Sending him into town? Like this? Amanda, he can’t get used to this within a day or two. That’s impossible!” Chloe’s voice grew shrill and echoed in her own ears, drowning Connor’s scream for one short moment. This was enough for a new thought to form in her head. “Amanda.” A sudden calmness fell over her as blind scorn and tired understanding raged in her. “Is this even about keeping us safe? Is this about using him to make the police side with us?” Now that she spoke these words, with Connor wincing under her grip, she wondered how she could ever agree to this being a good plan. It was absurd. Amanda’s aloof smile sent hot, angry flushes to Chloe’s face.

“No. If he can do it, the better. It’s about doing the right thing. How Elijah treated him is wrong. And you enabled it.”

If she didn’t have to keep Connor under control, Chloe would jump at Amanda’s throat and strangle the smugness out of her.

“Don’t you dare to talk shit about my husband. It’s not like you did anything about it in these two years,” she hissed and was again surprised by Amanda’s reaction. The woman’s smile softened and she nodded.

“Yes, that’s true. I let this happen far too long. Making him your- our toy, Chloe, that wasn’t right. We have to let him unfold his full potential. We owe it to him since we brought him to life.”

Chloe’s chin dropped on her chest. She looked at the flushed face, Connor’s trembling lips. His eyes were half closed. He was exhausted after almost screaming himself to sleep. Like the baby she was never meant to hold. She pressed her lips together and nodded.

“I know you’re right. It was meant to be only temporary and then… then we got used to it. I was surprised that you found a formula for this.” She lifted her gaze to the now almost empty bottle of blue blood. “When I should have come to you a year ago to suggest us working together on something like that. If I did, maybe it’d be red now.”

“Maybe.” Amanda’s smile was warm and tender now and if they didn’t have their hands full, Chloe knew the older woman would give her one of her rare hugs.

“Chloe, CHLOE!”

Fists hammered against the locked basement door.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON DOWN THERE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO HIM?”

Chloe’s head jolted from the door to Amanda. “Elijah,” her lips formed, her voice suddenly gone.

Amanda nodded. “PATIENCE, ELIJAH!” she shouted. “Use all your strength to keep him down for a moment. I’ll get him something to relax and then it’s time we let your husband in.”

“In the basement or in the plan?” Chloe laughed coarsely, her whole weight on Connor’s chest, forcing a pained groan out of his lungs. Amanda hurried to one of the cupboards and pulled out the drawer. She grabbed a syringe and one of the bottles from the flat box.

Seconds later, tranquilizer spread through Connor’s veins and the tension left his spine. He lay flat on the slab, arms limb next to him. His legs twitched but he wasn’t kicking anymore. The features of his face eased a little.

“He’ll be angry,” Chloe said on her way to unlock the basement door. Amanda shrugged.

“He’ll get over it.”

Chapter Text

Lightning parted the sky and at the thunder tearing the air apart, Connor woke up on his bed.

He winced, his mouth making a weak, high-pitched noise that felt foreign in his own ears. Slowly, he opened his eyes but when he sat up, the low whine grew into a pained cry. His body! His stomach, his hand! Something was wrong! He felt every inch, every pore. He was aware of the muscles moving under his skin- he was aware of his skins! And the bones in his hand! And they all were screaming at him!

“It’s okay, Connor. Keep down,” a familiar voice growled. Something touched his forehead. His good hand remained quiet when he moved it. His fingertips touched- was that wet? And cold?

“You have a fever. No wonder, after what those harpies did to you.” Scorn subdued the concern of the man’s voice. Connor turned his head and tried to open his eyes again, this time, with more success.

“Elijah…” The scratchy noise coming from his throat didn’t sound like him at all and making it hurt. He flinched.

“Don’t speak.” Elijah’s hand was cool against his cheek. Connor sighed. Slowly, his brain began to work again and he remembered what had happened in the basement. The procedure, nothing unusual with it at first, Amanda’s promises. And warnings.

“I’m sorry, Elijah. The show-”

“It’s not your fault,” Elijah interrupted him and jumped up so abruptly, he almost knocked over his chair. “They talked you into it. Beasts! How dare they do this to you, without talking to me first! Forcing you through this and-”

Connor watched him as he stomped through the room, face dark with anger, his steps firm and loud. His shoulder-long black hair, usually tied back or in a bun, stood around his head like a dark cloud. Connor had never seen him like this before. He wished Elijah wouldn’t be this angry but he got everything wrong!

“Didn’t force me,” he hissed through his teeth while he tried again to sit up. “I wanted it.”

Elijah stopped and glared at him. “What did you just say?”

Connor let him wait for his response until he finally managed to sit. Panting, he leaned against the wall behind his bed.

“I said, I wanted it. Elijah.” After a deep breath, he met Elijah’s gaze. “Amanda told me what it would mean. She let me choose. And I wanted this.”

“But why? Why on earth would you agree to this insanity?” With one wide step, Elijah was back to his chair. He sat down and took Connor’s good hand in his. “Without consulting me? I was always there for you, Connor. You’re my son. We had so much fun on the stage. You’re the star of the whole carnival! No, this can’t be true. They tricked you!” He squeezed Connor’s hand until Connor flinched. “No way you would have thrown away what we have built together! Look at you, you’re a mess! No way you really wanted to be… this!

Connor closed his eyes. Too many words whirled in his head and his head hurt. Like his left hand, and now his right, thanks to Elijah’s tight grip. His stomach hurt, his throat, and now his jars from pressing them together.

What he wanted? What he really wanted?

Heat rose inside of him. It took hold of his brain and engulfed the chaos of words, drowning them. Then, he suddenly saw clearly.

“If I really not wanted to be this, what was I then?” The pain speaking caused didn’t matter. At this moment, Connor wanted to hurl all the pain he was feeling at Elijah, for being wrong, for making him feel bad about his own decision.

“What makes you think I wanted to be what I was before? Did you ever ask me? Amanda and Chloe asked me. And Hank!” His face felt warm. He touched it. His fingers didn’t get burned. And now, with his mind focused on Elijah instead of wanting to run away from the pain, it suddenly didn’t feel this threatening anymore. Unpleasant, yes, but he could handle it.

“Hank? Who… you mean Hank Anderson? Lieutenant Hank Anderson? FUCK!” Elijah was back on his feet, grabbed the chair and tossed it across the room. It crashed into Connor’s wardrobe, knocking down the books on top. “Fuck this guy! I knew he was bad news! The way he was leering at you! I’m gonna slit his damn throat!”

“No, you won’t!” Connor yelled back before thinking, taken aback from the force in his voice as much as Elijah.

“Elijah!” The door swung open and Chloe rushed into the room. She was carrying a tray with a small bowl and the unavoidable glass of juice or tea. She quickly put it on the nightstand and stomped in front of her husband, stretching until she was almost on eye level with him.

“I told you, you can only stay alone with him if you don’t snap!” she hissed but he wasn’t impressed.

“And I told you, I never wanted to see any of you monsters in the same room as him before!”

She snorted, “You know that’s nonsense. And I’m not going to discuss it with you. We did the right thing and you know it!”

“Oh, yeah, do I?” he yelled back. “Maybe we wouldn’t discuss this if I had known earlier! If any of you told me before just going ahead and ruin him!”

Chloe’s flat hand smacked across his face. Connor flinched but so did Elijah. He carefully touched the red mark, staring back at his wife in disbelief.

“He is not ruined,” she said with that calm, dangerous voice of her. “Don’t you dare to speak of him as ruined! He was always meant to be his own person, as close to human as possible. To someday make his own decision and live his own life. Because that’s what we always wanted when we made him, do you remember, Elijah?” A sob broke through her voice, almost muting her. “Do you remember what I said when you wanted to create him as a child? A toddler, or a child not older than six or seven?”

Elijah’s arms dropped, hanging uselessly by his sides. As the anger vanished, he looked years older. His eyes were sad and dull and his sigh without any of his vivacious energy. Seeing him like this was, for Connor, worse than the scornful Elijah from a moment ago.

“You said, it wouldn’t be fair. Damning a living being to be dependent on you forever. You didn’t want a toy. You wanted to raise a human and if it meant only having him for a short time before he went on his own way, so be it.” A smile appeared on his face and he reached for her hands. “I remember. I also remembered I doubted you were able to let go.”

“And I said, you’ll be the one who won’t be able to let go. I was right, was I?”

Elijah straightened and the familiar pride and stubbornness returned to his features.

“It’s not only about what I want, Chloe. I’m also an entertainer, host, and businessman. Your hasty decision has consequences for the whole carnival. I only wish you consulted me first. It might not have been wrong but it was too soon.”

A knock at the door frame stopped Chloe from answering.

“The whole family together, how lovely.” Amanda came in, her hard stare fixated on Elijah. “Some things in this world don’t have a right time, Elijah. But they have to be done just the same, or humanity would have gone extinct centuries ago. The good side is, however, if it’s never the right time, it’s never too soon. But I’m not here to lecture you.” Without waiting for his reaction, she turned her attention to Connor.

“I see you can sit. That’s good. It’s natural you’re in pain but you need to learn that not every pain means the end of the world. But you’ll figure that out. Here, I got something for you.” She looked around for the chair and after one disapproving glare at the couple, Chloe picked up the chair from the floor and put it back next to the bed.

“Thanks. Here.” Amanda put the pile of books she was holding on the chair. “Your injuries should be fine in a day or two and they don’t turn you into an invalid. But we agreed you should rest today. These,” she pointed at the books, “Should give you something to do with your time. I recommend you read them instead of your other books for a while.”

“What are they?” Elijah asked, moving closer to the chair.

“Nothing.” Chloe blushed and grabbed her husband by his arm and dragged him away.

Of Passions and Legends,” he deciphered, craning his neck, then he gave an astonished laugh. “Isn’t that from your romance book collection? Chloe?” The laughing stopped and he scowled. “Mind telling me why you two think it’s so important for him to read frivolous trash?”

“Because we don’t trust you to explain him certain things.” Amanda’s tongue tsked, then she patted Connor’s hair. “Read them. And don’t forget to eat. We leave you alone now.”

“Oh, do we now?” The words dripped with sarcasm, even Connor didn’t miss it.

“Elijah, it’s enough!” Chloe growled at her husband. Amanda put her hands on their backs, pushed them around, and steered them towards the door.

“We leave now because the boy needs some time for himself and because a visitor is waiting for the masters of the house in the lobby.”

“A visitor?” Chloe frowned. “Who’d visit at this time?” Elijah finished her question.

“Indeed, who’d visit us in the middle of the day, with a storm around the corner.” Amanda shrugged. “A shaggy, overzealous, slightly smitten cop, that’s who. And I’m less worried about him sniffing around than the beast of a dog he brought with him.”

“A dog?!” Elijah and Chloe exchanged a quick glance and hurried out of the room and downstairs. Amanda chose a more dignified pace that allowed her to close the door behind her.

*

So he was alone again. Connor took one of the new books. It was lighter than other books he’d read, with fewer pages and thin paper. On the cover, a woman was lying in a man’s arms, their faces flushed.

He was curious what Amanda meant when she said, there are some things she didn’t want Elijah to explain to him but when he opened the book, holding it with one hand, he couldn’t focus on the first line.

A shaggy cop, that sounded like Hank. Wasn’t the idea of the whole uprooting of his life that he should get closer to Hank? Aside from making his own choices?

And now Hank was here and he was told to stay in bed and read. He was told to do this, to not to that. What exactly was the big chance in his life going through all this pain was supposed to be worth it?

Why going through it, suffering and screaming until he felt like his throat was torn apart when everything was just the same?

He put the book down. It was his skin that was burning, his hand that hurt so much he barely dared to use it. It was time he did learn to do his own thing? Well, then they better stopped telling him what to do, when they weren’t to busy to talk about him like he wasn’t even in the same room!

*

Hank checked his watch. Less than ten minutes have passed but it felt like three times as long. Standing in the lobby without anything to do or look at tend to distort time like this. He looked at Sumo jealously. The large Saint Bernard had had enough of standing around without being allowed to sniff at anything and trotted to a small fireplace with a burning fire in it. He laid down with a grunt before Amanda had disappeared on top of the stairs.

“Lieutenant Anderson! What a joy to welcome you again in our home. And so soon.” Elijah Kamski came down the stairs. He stopped a few steps away from Hank but didn’t offer him his hand.

“Who could forgo such interesting company for too long.” Hank kept his hands in the pockets of his coat. “I hope you don’t mind the dog. He isn’t a big friend of the leash.”

“I admit I’m more of a cat person,” Kamski replied and Hank would bet half of a month’s pay that if Hank had brought a cat, Kamski would have declared his love for dogs. “But as long as he behaves…”

Hank noted the skepticism in the look Kamski shot at Sumo, who acknowledged the house owner’s presence with lifting one eyelid. Half. For three seconds. He was tempted to read more into it. Who was worried about a dog in their home? Someone who had something to hide from that dog’s keen sense of smell. And everybody else who wasn’t too much into canines, especially if they hadn’t seen the intruding one before. It was one of the rare moments he wished Sumo was one of the more agile breeds that had the talent to stick their noses into things others didn’t want them to find. Sumo, may the Lord bless him and his gentle soul, had more a talent of bumping into things between him and his next napping spot.

“Mr. Anderson!” Chloe appeared next to her husband, reaching out her hand. Hank took it for a heartfelt shake. He liked this woman. Better manner’s than her husband, that was for sure, and while he was certain that there was more to her than being a lovely, pretty host, he didn’t doubt that part of her kindness was genuine. “We didn’t expect you back so soon. Is everything all right?”

“Oh, everything’s just splendid. The corpse we found kept us up most of the night but I got the most of the day off to make up for it.” He did his best to stop his smile from turning into an inappropriate smirk. Kamski’s wild hair and ruffled clothes made him look like he had a wild start into the day. Chloe wore bags under her eyes but her blue dress was free of any creases and her long, blond hair was tied to a neat ponytail. Both had excited flushes on their faces. Who knew what his unannounced visit interrupted?

“Well, and as I wasn’t at home last evening and most of the night, the poor boy felt somewhat neglected. Sumo!” After two short whistled, Sumo lifted his heavy body with the slowness of a martyr whose sleep of the just got disturbed. Without as much as a side glance, he sat down by the feet of his owner, leaning his big head against Hank’s leg for a good scratching.

“Took him for a good walk through the woods and when we came close to your home, we thought why not stop by and say hi. Right, Sumo?” He knelt down to give Sumo the deserve scratches behind his ears. It also gave him a good excuse to focus on the dog instead of looking at Amanda, who had just joined the other two. Her sharp eyes were guaranteed to uncover his little white lie. Kamski and Chloe could probably guess as much but their default suspicion didn’t bother him that much. He was a cop after all but that didn’t mean he liked to be read by a mentalist. He also wondered what she had told the Kamskis about their break-in into her shop.

“And we wouldn’t want to deny a dog a visit, would we?” Kamski’s didn’t bother to camouflage his annoyance. “If there’s something we can do for you, Lieutenant, it’s best you tell us directly. I’m afraid I’m not a good host today. We’re all still exhausted from yesterday. I’d invite you to eat lunch with us but as most of the crew are still asleep, we haven’t prepared anything yet.” His tone translated his already ungracious words to a direct “Get out already, we don’t want to deal with you.”

“Well…” Hank wasn’t surprised by Kamski’s unwillingness to put up with him today and he’d understand it even if the carnival wasn’t under suspicion to be involved with the killings. However, his decision to come here had been impulsive and he hadn’t come up with a good reason other than “Oh, I happened to be in the area.”

“For one, I want to apologize for yesterday. After pestering you all evening about rounding up your people to have a chat, abruptly taking our leave wasn’t the politest things to do.”

“But dearest Lieutenant, you couldn’t help the circumstances!”

Ugh, could Kamski add more honey to his reply? And did it have to be the cheap, sticky, sugary stuff?

“Indeed. But we owe you an apology just the same. And I’m back to work later this evening. If you have a wish for rescheduling the meeting, I could deliver Captain Fowler your preferred day and time.” There, that should help him to save his face as a dedicated police officer instead of a bumbling idiot who tried to sneak his way inside a dressing room for women like a clumsy six grader. Yes, yes, if he was honest, he also had hoped to sneak a glimpse, less of the undeniable pretty women involved with the carnival, but of a certain young man. No force of good or evil could make him admit that to Kamski or Amanda.

“Hello, Hank.”

Hank raised his head. Behind Chloe, Kamski, and Amanda, Connor was coming down the stairs, a slight smile on his face.

“Oh! I mean, hello, Connor!” Well, obviously, he didn’t have to tell anyone about his ulterior motive. The grin that had popped up on his face should be enough to give everything away. However, Hank didn’t waste precious time to scold himself. He wanted to see Connor again and there he was. Mission accomplished.

But the case was far from solved.

Hank would recognize the cute face and the pretty brown eyes everywhere but something about Connor was different. Not a slight change from his stage self to his private self or that he was wearing a simple dark-red shirt and loose pants instead of the blood-soaked suit from the night before. No, it was something more profoundly. He just couldn’t put his finger on it.

Maybe he just wasn’t well. He certainly looked like he had spent the last night wading through a hell of nightmares. His cheeks were a little too pink, his eyes sparkled a little too much and while he wasn’t limping, his body was bent in a way as to avoid pain. There was also something wrong with the way he held his left hand away from his body. However, his steps were firm and he shoved Kamski and Chloe aside to make his way to Hank.

“Good to see you again, Connor. Everything okay?” Hank offered his hand and Connor quickly accepted, his slim hand feeling warm.

“Not everything. But I can handle it.” He looked over his shoulder, back at the trio standing behind him. Hank raised his eyebrows, surprised at the scowl that flashed across Connor’s face for a second. After yesterday he hadn’t thought him capable of such an expression. Clearly, something happened, and Hank’s theory of him just being unwell was on its way out of the window.

“Did anything happen?” He might as well take advantage of Connor’s open attitude. He should have expected one of the others answering for him.

“An accident, an unfortunate accident. And it was not my fault!” Now Kamski was the one with the scowl, directed at Amanda and Chloe. Interesting.

“Nobody said it was, darling.” Chloe sighed, taking her husband’s arm and looking at him with wide, innocent eyes. Okay, something was definitely up. “We should have told you that Connor wasn’t well and that he shouldn’t have practiced new tricks this morning.”

“I should have told you,” Connor cut in, with a sharp voice that didn’t want to fit his soft features. “As it concerned me.”

Oh dear, trouble in family paradise. Hank held back a chuckle. So the guy wasn’t so meek and harmless as it had seemed last night. Well, Hank didn’t complain. A bit of an attitude gave pretty faces spice. It also had to be a rather recent development in his character, as both Kamski and Chloe stared at him as they couldn’t think of anything to say.

Well, Miss Stern, you’re not the only ‘mind’ reader in this room. He glanced at her. She stood a few steps behind the couple, arms crossed and her posture as regal as ever but there was a hint of an amused smile on her face. Okay, harmless as everything was, the combination and coming from these people, could only mean he was missing something. He wondered if it had something to do with Connor changing the script yesterday. What did he say again? Right, how am I supposed to feel. Again something harmless, and Hank doubted anyone of the crowd noticed it, but he had been lucky to catch the change of Kamski’s expression for the split second it happened.

Odd that such a simple question would put this guy off. Now, how could he press these people for more slip-ups?

Sumo had followed the exchange with placid indifference but he decided he had enough of sitting around with nothing to sniff and nobody petting him. He stood up, took a heavy step forward, and pushed his head against Connor’s leg, letting out a low whine.

“Who… who are you?” Connor looked down with the same puzzled expression Hank had seen him with yesterday.

“S-” He bit his tongue. Calling his dog back was a reflex, some people felt intimidated when this massive mountain of fur came close to them without a warning. But although he couldn’t say why, he had the feeling he was witnessing something important and the way Kamski and Chloe inhaled told him they noticed it, too. Fuck, if Hank only knew what it was. He was certain they knew it but they wouldn’t tell him if he asked.

Connor had forgotten the world around him. He stared at Sumo, and the dog stared back at him, patiently waiting full of trust this human would do the right thing any moment, namely, petting him.

Connor extended his hand, hesitating before he touched it. Sumo bumped his wet nose against it, urging him on. He stretched his head until the hand finally touched his massive head. It was a light touch at best but it changed something in Connor’s face. The tension was melting from his forehead and a soft, boyish smile made him look years younger, almost childlike. He dug his fingers deeper into Sumo’s fur, who applauded him by swishing his tail across the floor.

“What’s his name?” he whispered.

“I call him Sumo.” Hank smiled. He had seen many excited reactions to his dog but this innocent awe was, well, in lack of a better word, almost bewitching.

“Hello, Sumo. Nice to meet you.” Connor knelt on the floor, his hands running through the shaggy, soft fur while smiling if this was the most beautiful thing Connor had touched in his whole life. Sumo approved of the worship and put his head on Connor’s shoulder, giving a pleased grunt when Connor scratched his favorite spot under the collar.

“You like dogs, eh?” Hank almost laughed. Connor’s head jolted up as if he had forgotten he wasn’t alone over his delight. For a moment, Connor looked up at him with a blank face.

“Yes.” Suddenly, he broke into a wide, joyful smile that went right through Hank’s heart, and didn’t stop there. Fuck, this guy was adorable. “Yes, I like dogs!” And for the moment, these words held the one important truth of the world.

“Want to walk with us for a bit?” Hank offered before he could stop himself. “He still needs to work more for his food. You should see him running after a stick. Or a squirrel. It’s the funniest shit.” Now he was rambling. What was he thinking, to invite a strange pretty boy to walk through the woods with him? Well, exactly that, that he was a pretty boy and just the right degree of strange for him to want to get to know him better.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Kamski had finally rediscovered his ability to speak. “After all, he’s still sick. He needs to rest.”

“I fear I have to agree,” Chloe said. “After the… accident and with his fever, he should stay inside. Connor, dear, you really should lie down for a bit longer.”

Connor stood up, his expression cold, his hands clenched to fists.

“I haven’t said anything and already you’re making the decisions for me as if I was wrong.”

Hank knew he should have been suspicious of the sudden mood change - Connor wasn’t an irritated teenager after all - but Kamski’s face was just too good. He felt a little sorry for Chloe, who appeared mostly worried and guilty but Kamski? God, one more word from this defiant mouth and the Mr. Big Showman would faint!

“I think fresh air is just what he needs.” Amanda stepped forward, speaking with a determination that announced the law. She walked up to Connor and put a hand on his forehead. “Slightly elevated, at best. It’s not like you’re burning from inside and the injuries from the accident are superficial. Going outside for half an hour won’t kill you. I don’t recommend running a marathon but you’ll know when it’s too much, of that I’m certain. There, now you have a second opinion. Do with it what you want.” She stepped back, ignoring Kamski’s and Chloe’s half-hearted attempts at protesting.

Without wasting another glance at them, Connor spun around, smiling at him like an excited child.

“I’d like to go and see him run. If that’s okay for you.”

“Wouldn’t have offered if not.” Hank shoved all doubts aside. After the sad climax of the night, he’d treat a few minutes with this guy as a well-deserved treat.

“Wonderful. Now that that’s settled, let’s see where you put your winter clothes.” Amanda put a hand on Connor’s shoulder and he let her steer him around and towards the stairs.

They all looked after them until they disappeared. They heard a door falling shut and as if that had been their prompt, Kamski and Chloe snapped around and buried him under rules and warnings.

“You’ve seen he’s unwell. He’s always been delicate. Don’t overexercise him!” Chloe spoke from a place of honest concern.

“Don’t think I haven’t seen how you looked at him. I warn you, Anderson. If I hear you’d done anything to him, you’ll take his place in the next show!”

“I trust Amanda’s judgment but please, don’t overdo it. Half an hour at most. Come back if it rains, okay? Elijah, please, shut up. You can’t threaten a police officer!”

Hank shook his head and laughed, but not only about these two weirdos. Hell, what had he gotten himself this time? He promised them the world and a half, if only to get Kamski out of his hair and to give Chloe some peace of mind. Geez, he was just about to hang out with his dog and his guy for short while, he hadn’t asked to take a lord’s maiden daughter to his maison de plaisance over the weekend.

Amanda and Connor soon reappeared and she ushered them so quickly out of the house, he had hardly time to admire how handsome Connor looked in his long dark leather coat with white fur lining.

“Well then.” Hank squinted at the sky once the large front door closed. “Ready to get some of that valuable fresh air before the rain starts?”

“Yes.” Connor’s cheeks were of a much healthier pink and his shy smile made Hank wish the storm would wait another night.

Chapter Text

Don’t let them take away your wonder of your first day of your new life.

Amanda’s parting words before they returned downstairs were ringing in Connor’s head.

They came unexpectedly after a quick list of warnings and instructions and his body reacted with an odd tingle to it. Before he went down to see Hank, this new life hadn’t offered many wonders, as far as he was concerned. Only pain and strong emotions. He hadn’t been free of them before. He had always been interested in some things more than in others. He preferred the presence of some people over others. There had been things he wanted to do sooner than others. But he was all right when it didn’t always go the way he preferred.

This had changed. He wasn’t all right with staying in his room, spoken about as if he wasn’t there. He wasn’t all right with hiding in his bed when he heard Hank was there, not after all he had gone through which had been, in fact, to prepare him to get closer to him.

And he wasn’t all right with being told to stay inside after Hank offered him to join him and his dog for a walk, because he was so sick after Amanda had just told him moments before that he was fine and just needed rest.

Don’t let them take away your wonder.

No. He couldn’t let that happen. Not after experiencing the first wonders since the horrible night in the basement. The warmth of Hank’s hand and the amazingly soft and warm fur of Hank’s dog. The pain in his hand was nothing against how wonderful touching the dog was, feeling the structure of fur for the first time, the warmth from the skin beneath, the cold, wet nose, the life pulsating in every fiber of the animal.

He slowly began to believe that the pain was worth it when there were also dogs to touch. Hands to shake.

Then they walked outside and for the first time, he felt the wind on his face. It wasn’t warm but it wasn’t cold yet, and it warned him this could change any moment. As his face cooled down, he became aware of the clothes he was wearing. How the fabric of his shirt and pants glided over his skin. The weight of the coat, the soft warmth from the fur collar.

It was wonderful.

“You forgot something?”

It took Connor a few seconds to ground his thoughts and direct his attention to Hank who was watching him with this amused smile of his. It felt good, too, inside his stomach, although it didn’t make sense. After all, it wasn’t a touch, but he wouldn’t question it.

“No, I didn’t, I’m just-”

I know you don’t want us to tell you what to do all the time anymore, but Connor, remember, he must not know who you really are. Not yet. He’s not ready to understand.

What do I tell him if he asks something I can’t answer?

Make it up. Nothing complicated. For every ‘I’ve never done this’ just say ‘I haven’t done this in a while’

“I haven’t been outside like this in a while.” He had never lied before, he had either dodged questions or let someone else lie for him. It was easier than he thought. But there was a new, uncomfortable thought: Would Hank have asked him to come with him if he knew the truth? When would he be able to understand? What did Connor have to do to make him understand?

“Explains why I haven’t seen you outside before. I think everyone else came into town at one point of the other since you guys moved in. Been busy?”

“Yes. My show act is tricky,” Connor repeated another quick, easy lie Amanda had prompted while she helped him into his coat.

“I’m still dying to figure out how the whole thing works. The stabbing and the burnt hand looked damn real. I guess you can’t share the secret with me?” Hank laughed when Connor shook his head and smiled. He had given this answer to the same question many times before and Hank accepted it as well. And it wasn’t even a lie.

They didn’t talk much as they walked down the path connecting the mansion with the forest. The leaf trees had turned into sad skeletons during the windy days of November, the evergreens in between were as dark and green as in any other season. At night, they were pitch black. If the rare sun was shining, the green of the firs promised the woods weren’t dying. Today, under a gray sky without a hint of sun and the mist of the morning still persisting, the forest didn’t seem to belong to this world. It was distant although it was so close, as if it was only taking a peek through a window leading to another reality.

The noise of cracking leaves and dry twigs under their steps was almost too real. Connor treated carefully, fearing a too firm step would disturb the peace. He could tell the real world from imagination, yet, he felt like he was intruding in a world he didn’t belong, or hadn’t belonged to in the past, when he was unable to understand its beauty to the fullest.

He breathed in the air, realizing another slow change of his body. He could smell. It came from the ground, from the trees, from the dog who trotted between them, then ran off, and finally returned, demanding to be petted. The first time Connor knelt down to pet the excited dog, he didn’t want to stand up again. He couldn’t tell what the scent was, only that it came from the forest and the earth and having it fill his nose was like he filled his lungs with life.

“He really likes you.” Hank grinned when Sumo brought the branch he had thrown back - but to Connor. “Not that I’m jealous, but if he doesn’t want to go home with me because he loves you so much, I’m gonna be jealous.”

Connor looked up at him, puzzled. He had taken the branch from Sumo, who stood in front of him, impatiently stepping on the spot and giving an occasional whine for Connor to throw it again. But Connor’s hand was wrapped around it and he was too amazed by the rough wooden texture and how a dead piece of a tree could feel cold.

“Why would he like me more? I’d rather go with you than with me.” He blinked a few times. Hank’s cheeks were red from the exercise and fresh air but now they were of a deep crimson. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Not wrong, not at all. Just odd. But that’s not a bad thing,” Hank quickly added.

“Why was it odd?” He had forgotten about the stick in his hand, something Sumo took advantage off. He snatched it from Connor’s loose grip and dashed off into the woods.

“Sumo! Stay close, will ya!” Hank shouted after his dog before he replied, “Well, for starters, you don’t really seem to get what you’ve just said. Uh, Connor, how old are you anyway?”

“29,” Connor shot back. This was another answer he had given before and he considered it a half-lie. He resembled a man of that age, after all. “What do I not get?”

“Oh boy.” Hank laughed, his hand running through his chin-long, gray hair, pulling it out of his face. “You do live a sheltered life, don’t you?”

“That doesn’t answer my question.” He frowned. Living with Amanda, Elijah, and Chloe, he had experience with people avoiding to give him straight answers. About other humans, about what he read in the paper or in his books. They didn’t even deny it when he once asked them about it, assuring him there are many things in this world he’d be better off not knowing. Why spoil his good life with sad, tragic truths he would most likely never encounter anyway? So, whether he liked it or not, Hank wasn’t wrong.

“But yes, I do.” He sighed. There were so many things in the world he wasn’t aware of and didn’t understand. How did they expect them to talk with humans outside the carnival if he didn’t understand half of what Hank was saying? He clenched his hands and flinched.

“Ouch.” He opened his good hand again. Tiny splinters were sticking in his palm.

“Let me see.” Suddenly, Hank stood only inches away from him, taking Connor’s hand in his, inspecting it with calm, blue eyes. Connor opened his mouth but failed to say anything. A new wave of scents rolled over him. Fresh, clear, but also wooden like the forest. Warm and alive. A scent he could only describe as green came from Hank’s hair. The sudden impulse to move closer and bury his face in Hank’s hair startled him.

“I mean, I hope that’s okay. You can’t really pull them with your bad hand, I thought.” Hank now looked straight into Connor’s eyes. This was the moment Connor discovered another new thing inside of him. Willpower. Without that, and without being reminded of the dull pain in his left hand, he’d have reached out to touch Hank’s face. And his hair. Incapable of giving an answer, he nodded.

Hank tilted Connor’s hand to have a better look at it. Swiftly, with short, groomed fingernails, he pinched for five splinters and removed them in quick succession. Connor flinched with each splinter. Although he saw how small the pieces were, and that they weren’t deep enough to draw blood, they felt much bigger when they moved under his skin.

They didn’t draw blood.

Connor abruptly closed his hand. He had to hide his blood from Hank. There was no theatric explanation why he’d bleed blue now after bleeding red on stage.

“Ah, sorry. Guess that was bold of me.” Hank pulled his hand away and again fiddled with his hair. Connor’s hand suddenly felt much colder than before.

“No, it wasn’t.” He smiled, gazing at his hand. He wished he knew if it was wrong to ask Hank to hold it again.

“I swear, you’re just…” Hank didn’t speak further. There was a new, raspy tone in his voice that warmed Connor in a way, he feared his fever returned. He lifted his head and met Hank’s gaze. What was he supposed to do now? This was all strange and new and he again began to feel this sense of wonder Amanda had promised him. After he had woken up, he had wanted to do so many things. He wanted to stop hurting. He wanted to shout at Amanda and Chloe. He wanted to shout at Elijah for not listening to him and for shouting at Chloe. He hadn’t thought of touching them and as he now imagined it, he didn’t care about it. But he wanted to touch this man. He needed to know how the creases in his face felt to his fingers, if the hair was as soft as it looked and how the beard felt differently. Was Hank’s face as warm as his hand?

But what if Hank didn’t want this? Connor opened his mouth to ask but suddenly, it was like a red, warning light went off in his mind. What if he asked and Hank said no? He closed his mouth and took a step backward. The thought alone caused an unpleasant pain in his chest, something that the thought of not knowing didn’t.

“Hey, Sumo, there you are again.” Hank sounded disappointed at first, then he broke out laughing, and with that, he broke the spell over Connor. The wind was back, as were the noises of the forest, and indeed, there was Sumo, standing in front of them, wagging his tail. In his mouth, he carried a branch of the size of a grown man’s leg. And his fur, it was a mess! His paws and belly were dripping with mud, and his back and neck were covered in leaves and burs.

“Where have you been again, you hellhound of a dog?” Hank still chuckled and plucked a bur from Sumo’s ear.

“You need a bath,” Connor said, picking a leave from the dog’s fur.

“That he does. Boy, I’m just glad he didn’t go for a swim this time. It’s a pain in the ass to get him dry. Don’t know where he gets the speed from, but the wetter and dirtier he is, the faster he jumps on my couch before I get a chance to grab a towel.”

Connor smiled. They never had more than three small dogs at the carnival and if they were supposed to stay away from something, there was always someone to just grab them and carry them out of the way. What would Elijah say if a mud-covered Sumo went through his wardrobe? Or jumped on his bed? No, he didn’t want to think of Elijah. Connor knew the man well enough to know that the last word hadn’t been spoken and after his reactions today, Connor didn’t look forward to what else he had to say. He forced his thoughts in another direction which proved easy after focusing on the dog, who clearly enjoyed the attention.

“How could he get so dirty?” The mud on Sumo’s legs was still wet and while the ground they were walking on was moist, it wasn’t muddy. “Is there water close by?”

“Yeah.” Hank pointed into the woods to their left. “A river goes through the forest, ends in a pond, and goes further down, around town, from there. That’s where we found the corpse yesterday. A hiker, as far as we know, on his way to town.”

“A pond? Is it far from here?” Connor barely heard the rest of Hank’s reply. He didn’t care about corpses but knowing of a river and pond in reach fueled his fascination for bodies of water. He had to go to one as soon as possible and see what it did to his new abilities.

“The river’s a few minutes into the woods. Sumo never wanders far off. We’d have to follow it for maybe fifteen minutes to get to the pond.” Hank hesitated before he spoke on, giving Connor a long, thoughtful look before he finally shook his head, dismissing whatever thought he had. “It’d be prettier in spring but if you really want to go there… but you sure you’re up to it today? You still don’t look all well and I’m not too eager to have the tutelary trio setting my ass on fire because you overdo it. Maybe we should be on our way back already and come back another day.”

“Please, Hank, show me!” Connor had no mind for Hank’s concern or that of anyone else. He grabbed Hank’s arm and, clinging to it, pulled him off the path. “I didn’t know there was a pond here! Nobody told me! I want to see it!”

“Holy shit, kiddo, calm down.” Hank dug in his heels, scratching his head. Sumo had already shot off, back into the shrubs. “Well, guess I got overruled.” He grinned but still was hesitant. He put his hand over Connor’s eyes and turned his head away. “Stop looking at me like that, I can’t think with these puppy eyes on me!”

“I’m feeling well. And I promise to be careful.” He had promised Amanda before and meant it, so it was easy to extend this promise to Hank. And he wasn’t lying, he really felt well. Maybe not perfectly well. He was still hurting where the fibers of new and old skin were growing together. He barely dared to move the fingers of his left hand. But it was bearable and being outside had already done wonders to the dull ache behind his forehead. He certainly was well enough to go deeper into the forest and too well to go home now.

“I mean, you’re a grown man. Not sure myself why I suddenly worry so much.” Hank laughed, more at ease this time. “Okay! Just promise you’ll be careful and if it’s too much, you better tell me! I don’t want to have to carry your ass all the way back to the mansion. Not that I couldn’t if necessary!” he added with a smirk Connor couldn’t read but that was okay as long as he could see the pond, which also meant spending more time with Hank.

On Hank’s insistence, they stayed on the path for the next few minutes. They’d barge through the scrub soon enough and it’d be reasonable to do it where the bushes weren’t covered in several inches long thorns.

“Sumo doesn’t mind them,” Connor protested. He liked this! It was almost like one of the adventures the characters in his book went on, only that he and Hank didn’t have to worry about tigers or dragons. Staying on a dirt path that was so downtrodden, it was hard as solid rocks under the layer of leaves didn’t do the experience he wanted to have justice.

“And he looks like a bush himself. I’ll sit an hour with him later until I got all that filth out of his fur. Besides, thanks to that fur, it’s like a massage to him. We’d end up with good scratches. Unless you show me that trick of yours. Maybe then we wouldn’t.” Hank chuckled when Connor abruptly shook his head.

He saw the reasoning behind Hank’s words. He didn’t want to ruin his clothes and hurting his face or hands was out of the question. He almost wished he still had a trick to show Hank but those days were over. Even if they weren’t, it wasn’t like it was something Connor could have taught him.

“Okay, here looks good. Stay behind me!” Hank finally went off the path. There was a gap in the row of bushes that allowed a look deeper into the forest. Sumo was still out of sight but his sudden, deep bark was close.

“Probably found a rabbit,” Hank explained, venturing into the woods. Connor hurried to follow, staying so close to him that he had to be careful not to bump into Hank’s back. “Smart boy, announce it to the whole forest. I acknowledge his ambitions, you know, but there’s a reason why Saint Bernards are shitty hunting dogs.” Hank grinned over his shoulder and pointed at Sumo, who was finally joining them again, his head hanging low in disappointment.

“Don’t worry about it, Sumo.” Connor patted Sumo’s head once the dog fell into a trot by his side. “I’ll make sure you’ll get something to eat later.” Hank laughed and muttered something but Connor missed it. Mentioning food reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday and as his body seemed to remember as soon as his brain did, he suddenly felt dizzy. This wasn’t good. He should have listened to Hank. It would have been better if they had walked back. He opened his mouth to tell Hank but was interrupted before he could speak.

“Look, there’s the river!” Hank pointed to their left and indeed, a river it was. Wide, filled with water to the banks. The water rushed without haste, creating a low, pleasant sound.

“Oh!” The need for nutrition was instantly forgotten. Connor walked past Hank to have a better look. In the shadows of the trees, on this sunless day, the water was dark, more green and earthen than blue. It carried the scent of the forest and washed it clean, giving it a cold, fresh note. It was beautiful and fascinating, who’d have known that smells could create impressions of temperature? What would happen if he touched it? No, he couldn’t theorize about it, he had to find out. He took another step and his foot sank into the soft, wet ground. Cold.

“Careful! The banks are muddy! Don’t slip!” A second later, Hank was right beside him, holding him back by his arm. “Boy, you really seem to like rivers. You’re as bad as Sumo! Now I’m almost scared to show you the pond, what if the two of you jump into it once you see it?” He laughed but it failed to mask his worry.

The worry was what made Connor snap out of the spell the river had cast over him.

“I- I’m sorry. Yes, I really like rivers. Ponds, lakes, everything, really. But I wouldn’t jump into one.” This was almost a lie as he wasn’t too sure about that. It would be a foolish idea and he couldn’t explain why, but the temptation was there.

“I take you by your word. Come, let’s go, shouldn’t be that far away now.” Hank pushed Connor away from the riverbanks. Connor dragged his foot out of the mud. It gave a loud, wet plop when it was finally freed. Sumo barked at the noise, which caught Connor’s attention. He twisted his torso to see what the dog wanted. Hank’s hand slipped off his arm.

“FUCK!”

Connor quickly turned back to Hank who stared with wide eyes at him, his arms flailing as he fought for his balance. He was leaning backward in a dangerous angle but when he tried to widen his step for a firm stand, his foot got stuck like Connor’s before.

“Hank! No!” Connor grabbed him by the collar of his coat but instead of pulling him back, he slipped on the wet ground.

“No yourself!” Hank shouted back. He took hold of Connor’s wrist, pulled himself up a bit while drawing Connor closer. They were both falling. Connor yelped, Sumo was barking behind them.

“Fuck this! Not today!” Hank muttered under his breath. He threw his arms around Connor’s middle, twisting them both around as they fell, away from the river behind him.

Connor closed his eyes, his face pressed against Hank’s coat. Hank’s arms were strong and for a moment, the river was far away and whatever would happen, he knew he’d be safe as long as Hank didn’t let go.

He fell but the landing was soft. And warm. He was clinging to Hank’s coat. If he could stay like this, feeling the pressure of the other body against his, smelling warmth and a hint of smoke, he’d be okay.

He lifted his head unwillingly when Hank grunted beneath him and saw what had happened. Somehow, Hank’s twist had saved them from landing in the water. Instead, they ended up falling into the mud seaming the riverbanks. Hank was on his back, Connor on top of him, Hank’s arms still around him.

“Are you okay?” Connor’s voice was lacking its strength. He wasn’t scared or intimidated, nor was he hurt, but he felt odd. Like his legs wouldn’t carry him if he stood up now.

“Yeah, yeah,” Hank wheezed. “Move that elbow more to the right, please. You’re squeezing my ribs.”

“Oh! I’m sorry!” Connor shifted his weight until Hank released a long sigh.

“Better. Damn, you’re such a twig of a man, yet you knocked the air right out of my lungs.” Hank’s laugh was hoarse but his eyes sparkled. Connor raised his upper body, supporting his weight with one hand in the mud beside Hank, not giving up more contact than necessary. He wanted to lie down on Hank’s chest and listen to the heartbeat he’d more sensed than heard for a second after the fall but he had to make sure Hank was really all right.

Hank was smiling at him and Connor felt himself smiling back. He didn’t remember ever being so close to someone else. Handshakes, hugs, pats, yes, he was familiar with that and he distantly remembered someone carrying him back to his room last night.

But his face had never been only inches away from another man’s face and never before he had felt another man’s breath brushing against his skin. He looked at the lines around Hank’s eyes, saw the thin white line running from his temple to his cheek. It had to be old as it was barely visible unless he was looking closely. Connor’s bandaged hand moved without his doing until his fingertips almost touched Hank’s beard.

Cold fingers touched Connor’s neck, brushing against his hair. The tingling sensation sent a shudder down his spine and an explosive wave of heat streamed from there into his body.

His eyelids fluttered. Hank’s face distorted in front of him and disappeared behind a blurring veil. A chill crept over his skin and his head sank on Hank’s chest where he closed his eyes, a foreign heartbeat hammering inside his ear like an ancient drum.

“Connor? Fuck, Connor! Are you okay? Hey!” Hank grabbed him by his shoulders and shoved him off his chest, shaking him as soon as they were both in a sitting position.

Connor blinked a few times and forced his eyes open.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed, again feeling weak but in a different way than before. “I need to eat. Haven’t eaten since last night.”

“Fuck. Wait a second.” Hank propped Connor up until he leaned against Hank without sliding back into the dirt once Hank let go of his shoulders.

“I’m sorry…” He had made a fatal mistake. He hadn’t been careful and now he had ruined everything. He wanted the hand back in his neck, wanted the moment back and to continue for hours but now Hank knew something was up with him. He didn’t know what he had just found but he had lost it already and he had let the carnival down. They’d have to run.

“Hey, don’t fall asleep.” Hank gently patted Connor’s cheek. Connor hadn’t realized he had closed his eyes again and that he was indeed drifting off. With the support of Hank’s arm, he managed to sit up.

“Here. It’s not much but hey, pure sugar.” In the palm of Hank’s other hand was a round piece of candy in a purple and golden wrapper. “Hard toffee. It’s my… I mean, kids are really into these but I think us adults can have one, too, now and then.”

“Thank you.” Connor took the candy and unwrapped it. Even in the twilight of a misty early afternoon, the wrapper sparkled like fireworks. He popped the candy into his mouth and sighed. Bite-sized pure sugar indeed wasn’t much, he needed full nutrition, soon, but this should keep him from fainting until he was back home.

“No problem. My sister’s diabetic. Got into the habit of having candies with me before I could speak. Can you stand up? Or should I carry you?”

“No, no, I can stand.” So he hoped and he was grateful for Hank pulling him off the ground. He hadn’t known there was a sickness that made human require sugary treats but it had become his blessing! As Hank assumed that was Connor’s issue, he’d have to ask Amanda later to explain the details.

Finally, he was back on his feet. Shaky, but standing.

“You can put your arm around me for balance if you want.” Hank looked at Sumo while he suggested this. Connor noticed the flush on his face but he was too grateful for the offer to think too much of it. Hank put his arm around Connor’s shoulder, grabbing his upper arm and helping him to stay steady as they walked. Connor leaned his head against Hank’s side. It was comfortable. He wished he wasn’t too dizzy to fully enjoy it.

Chapter Text

“Listen, the town and your home are equally far away. You probably need a real meal. I’ll treat you at the restaurant and then we get a carriage to drive you back. I think your folks appreciate it when I return you warm and fed and not fainting on their doorstep.” Hank chuckled but Connor heard the determination behind it. Oh, he wanted to go to the restaurant with Hank, he had never seen one from inside, only heard and read about them. But…

“No, no, it’s okay. No restaurant. I’m not hungry.”

“Not? I thought-”

“I need food but I’m not hungry,” Connor interrupted him, staying as close to the truth as he dared without giving too much away. “I never eat much. It makes me sick. I only eat snacks.” That was the truth, although sick wasn’t the right word for what too much food at once did to his body.

“Only snacks?” Connor could hear Hank’s eyebrows raise without looking at him. “No wonder there’s no meat on your bones. But suit yourself. I’d still say we go. We can get you something small or share a plate. Trust me, you’re missing out if you don’t try Lydia’s kitchen.”

“If you say so,” Connor replied weakly. He was too tired to protest and if he was honest, he wanted to take Hank’s offer. “Can I have something to drink?” Liquids were fine, his tissue could easily absorb a glass of most drinks.

“Of course. Whatever you want. My treat! Let me know when you need a rest or to be carried, understood?”

“Yes.”

They followed the river for a while before Hank led them back to the path. Walking on the even ground was much less exhausting than climbing over dead wood, pulling feet out of muddy pools, and ducking from low-hanging branches.

“Ouch. Fuck nature!” Hank spat when they had to get through a phalanx of bushes. Connor looked up and saw him wiping a fine line of blood from his face where a thorn had scratched his skin. Connor pressed closer to Hank, keeping his hands close to his body. A tiny scratch was enough to reveal his secret and it could happen so easily offside the secure path. He should have considered that when he had insisted to explore the woods while he should have been aware of his lack of nutrition.

He sighed with relief as soon as they were back on the path.

“It’s not that far anymore, don’t worry.” Hank squeezed his shoulder, apparently misinterpreting Connor’s sigh. “You want more candy.”

“No, I’m okay given the circumstances.” Sugar alone wouldn’t do harm now but also not much good. Also, as nice as Hank’s concern felt, Connor hated how weak he had to look to him. It was a blessing that the others didn’t see him like this, especially Elijah would see his doubts confirmed and Chloe would probably agree. If Amanda still believed he was strong enough they’d argue, loudly and for a long time. And now that he had a taste of the freedom of having wants and making decisions based on them, he hated the thought of going back to how things were. Others talking about him as if he wasn’t there, making decisions, and informing him of what he was supposed to do. Strange, how a life he lived contently for two years could change so much that he grew to hate it so quickly.

“Hank?” He needed to get his mind off his worries. He was wasting his time and there were things he had been meaning to ask but had forgotten about over the new, wonderful experiences.

“Yeah?”

“Did you really break into Amanda’s shop last night? As a part of your job? Is that a funny question?” He frowned when Hank chuckled.

“Nah. You know, there were moments I thought maybe that Amanda of yours let you go with me because she thinks you have an easier time questioning me. Maybe she did. But now that you ask, I have no doubt you’re really just curious.”

“Is that so.” Connor dropped his gaze to the ground, following the path with his eyes, seeing nothing else but Sumo occasionally moving into his field of vision and disappearing again. Yes, he asked because he was curious and yes, Amanda had spoken about him being the best choice to approach Hank Anderson. But he hadn’t connected the two facts. So, in the end, he was doing exactly what she wanted. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

“Yeah. But it doesn’t matter, I can tell you this much. We weren’t supposed to break in anywhere last night. Gavin, one of the other officers, had this splendid idea and Chris and I kinda got swept along. Not saying it was right but to be honest? Guess I was curious, too. And strange locked doors always make me curious. I’m a cop after all, probably comes with the territory.”

“This means, this Gavin broke in and you just followed inside?” The tension in his stomach loosened a bit. He liked this man’s presence, he didn’t want to think of him as an intruder or someone who worked against him and his family.

“It’s not quite that simple. See, I could have stopped Gavin. And should.” Hank shrugged. “But even if I hadn’t caught him fiddling with the lock, I wouldn’t be innocent in this. I’m their superior, which means if one of my guys fuck up while I’m in charge, I’m always responsible for their actions as well.”

“I understand.” Or at least so he thought and wondered what this meant for him. Elijah, Chloe, and Amanda owned and managed the carnival. So, did that mean they were responsible for his actions and decisions and there was nothing he could do about it? This wasn’t pleasant to think about. If this was the truth, what did really change for him and his place in the family?

“Anything bothering you?”

“Yes. Many things.”

“Care to talk about them?” Hank offered but Connor shook his head.

“I have the thoughts but I can’t put them into words. I need to think more.”

“Yeah, don’t I know that feeling,” Hank grunted but his tone remained soft. “And thinking with an empty stomach’s never been one of my fortes either. Don’t worry your pretty head too much. We’re as good as there anyway!”

Once the path led out of the wood, they were only a few minutes away from the southern end of the town, where a road connected the outskirts with the Kamski mansion. It was still warm for November and people were out and about, wearing jackets and shoes that belonged more to an early October. Connor shivered under his thick coat, another consequence of forgetting to eat.

“My favorite place is down the road then left before we reach the marketplace. Don’t worry, it’s not in the town center, we’re almost there.”

“I don’t think a few more minutes matter after hiking through the woods around town.” Connor smiled a little. He was grateful for any extra step he didn’t have to take but it really didn’t make a difference anymore. The last fifteen minutes he had listened to Hank talking about his work, prompting him with questions about his hours and his colleagues. He had no intentions of interrogating him, he only wanted to listen to his voice as they walked. It distracted him from his growing headache. Meanwhile, Hank had talked a lot without saying much. Harmless stories about early mornings and late nights and his irritating boss - who sounded not so bad to Connor - and his colleagues occasionally driving him mad. It wasn’t much different from the talk among the artists of the carnival, if they talked among themselves or to new acquaintances they made during their stays in different places.

A bright light illuminated the sky. Several heads looked up to the dark clouds. The roar of thunder followed, so loud and heavy that Hank cursed as he ducked from the sudden noise.

“Jesus fucking Christ, is it finally coming down! Hey, Connor, you alright?”

Connor was clinging to him, his face hidden against Hank’s jacket. His body, only slightly shivering before, was trembling.

“Hey, it’s just a storm. They can be bad but don’t turn ugly in this area.” His hand stroked over the back of Connor’s had, playfully ruffling through his hair. “Gotta say, after all these tricks and fireworks I saw yesterday, I’m surprised you’re afraid of thunder.” Surprised, and amused, judging from his voice.

“I’m not scared,” Connor replied calmly, slowly letting go of Hank. Rain began to fall. It was only a drizzle but the people around them picked up their pace to hurry to their intended destinations.

“Sure.” Hank’s grin stretched from one ear to the other. Connor put on a resigning smile.

“I’m not scared of storms. I don’t know why I react like that. It only happens at the first clap of thunder. After that, I’m okay.” He looked up to the sky and waited. Rain was falling on his pale face. It wasn’t as cold as he expected but it still sent a chill through his tired body. To his disappointment, nothing happened. “It might sound weird but I like storms. They’re beautiful and strong. It’s okay if you don’t understand. Nobody does.”

“Guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” Hank still sounded skeptical but he didn’t pursue the issue. “Well, looks like it was just a small taste of what to come. Fuck, it’s been like this for days now! Wish hell would finally break loose and be done with it.” He shrugged and put his arm back on Connor’s shoulder. “But we still better get you out of this drizzle and in front of a plate. Come, we’re standing in the way.”

Most people had disappeared to find shelter from the threatening storm and hadn’t returned yet. Hank and Connor stood in the middle of the main street but without anybody around, they were in nobody’s way. Curiously, Connor looked around. He had only seen the road once when their carriage traveled through the town. It was one of those places where cars hadn’t arrived yet and a hundred years of carriages had carved wheel ruts into the plaster. Most buildings were residences, a mix of all sizes in different degrees of stability and skewness. Many were old but there were several newer once here and there and in between. Further down the road, wooden signs with large letters announced the first shops and stores.

“It’s nice here,” Connor said as they walked down the road, closer to the side. “I’d like to look around more another time.”

“You should.” Hank was still holding him by his shoulders as if he feared Connor would slip to the ground if he let him go. “It’s its prettiest in early summer, just like the woods. If you like the river and the idea of the pond now, you’d love it then. And I wouldn’t mind if you took Sumo for a swim when it’s warmer.” But Connor couldn’t smile when Hank chuckled. He lowered his head and sighed.

“I won’t be there in summer. We’re only here over the winter,” he spoke quietly, the disappointment echoing in his own ears. He hadn’t thought this far ahead, had never had a reason to, but yes, seasons came and went. It had never bothered him as he had never made memories before. Had never felt warm from the presence of a human being. If he thought about it, he had talked to Hank more than to all the people from outside the carnival he had met in the two years of his existence together.

“Oh, right.” The enthusiasm was gone as Hank replied with a voice as flat as Connor’s but he quickly picked up his mood. “Well, winter is long here, and if we don’t have snow in December, it sure comes in January. It’s another kind of pretty I’m sure you’ll like.”

“You’re right. It’ll be interesting to see how things change. I’ve never stayed long enough in a place to see it change from one season to the other.” Last winter they had camped close to a village but snow was already falling when they arrived and Connor himself had never gone into that village. Only the others. “Most of the crew suffered from the flu last winter,” he said aloud, “It started with the twins. A dancer and one of the dog trainers died. That’s why Amanda, Chloe, and Kamski decided we’d rent a real house this year. It’d be easier to keep warm and if something happened again, doctors care for houses, not trailers, Amanda said.”

“That sounds horrible! And makes sense, I fear. Many don’t trust wandering people outside their opening hours. Don’t look at me like that, I don’t trust you guys anymore or less than anybody else.” Hank hurried to assure him but Connor squinted at him.

“Is that a good or a bad thing?”

“Who knows. Anyway, there we are, finally! Time to make up your mind what you want but if you want my advice, you can never go wrong with the special of the day.” Hank spoke too hastily to convince Connor of his cheerful tone. Who knows, what as that supposed to mean? He had been certain that Hank was good friends with everybody, well-liked, and helpful. Not much unlike Chloe, who got along with everyone, be it their own people or visitors before and after their shows. He wanted to know more but the way Hank acted, the moment to ask had passed.

“What is the special of the day today?” he asked instead, hoping it’d buy him enough time to think of an explanation why he couldn’t order normal-sized meals.

“Slice of beef, fried or mashed potatoes, whatever gravy’s closest to the plate. Big portion, filling, and the best: You can get it every lunch!” Hank happily steered them towards a whitewashed building with a dark green roof. A large, wooden sign was swaying in the wind, red letters spelled “Cora’s Den”.

“But if you can get it every day it defeats the purpose of a special.” A menu card was written on a sign next to the entrance. Connor leaned closer to decipher the withered writing. Humans favored rich meals with meat, he had learned that much from living among them and reading about them. He had meat before when all he could experience about food was the texture. He hoped Hank would order the dish so Connor had the chance to smell it but big portion didn’t make it suitable for himself. If they had soup, he could order the cheapest bowl and when he was lucky, it was of a size his body could digest.

“Hey, Hank!”

Somebody was running towards them. Hank let out a groan. Connor narrowed his eyes. The man was vaguely familiar. Shorter than him but of a slightly wider built. Short brown hair, scruffy face, wearing a leather jacket over his sweater, and a black cloth slacks.

“Gavin. What do you want?” Hank was far from thrilled and his tone was sharp. Sumo, who had walked next to them quietly since they left the forest, sat down in front of his master and growled. “Easy, Sumo. Be a good boy.” Hank growled in a way that suggested being a good boy might as well mean to attack the new arrival whenever Sumo saw fit.

“Fuck, was looking for you over an hour, you- wait.” Gavin’s annoyed expression turned into an appalled sneer. “Isn’t that the freaky doll from that circus?”

“My name is Connor.” Connor’s back tensed. He didn’t miss the hostile tone and in his weakened condition, the idea of a confrontation with one of the town’s people enforced his headache. But there was also something about the way Gavin glared at him that pushed back his usual indifference towards those who looked down on carnival and circus folks.

“Oh, is it. And who do you think cares, doll?” Gavin leaned towards Connor until their noses almost touched but Hank put a hand on Gavin’s chest and gave him a firm push. Gavin toppled a step backward.

“Watch it, Gavin. I don’t give a fuck when you try to insult me, but if you think it’s asshole o’ clock when you meet friends of mine, my fist and your nose might have a talk!”

“Whoa, calm down, old man!” Gavin held up his hands. “How should I know you’re into circus boys these days? Isn’t our corpse cutter freaky enough for you anymore?”

“What does that mean? Who is he talking about?” Connor hissed sharper than intended. He didn’t care about this Gavin’s insults, there was one of his kind in every town, but the mention of that other guy arose his curiosity. In a strange, negative way, as if he had to know but didn’t really want to hear the answer.

“Don’t worry about it. Gavin’s always had a problem with the concept of friends. Get out what you wanted to tell me and get lost, Gavin. We kinda have plans.” He pointed at the restaurant behind him.

“Connor!”

All three of them had been too busy with the argument, neither noticed the approaching carriage drawn by a short-legged, plump horse. The door sprang open and out jumped - Elijah Kamski.

Connor held his breath. This wasn’t who he wanted to see now. He shot a quick glare at Gavin. If he hadn’t shown up, he and Hank would have been inside the restaurant before Elijah could see them. Now his time with Hank would be over.

“And Lieutenant Anderson.” His face a motionless mask, Elijah stood in front of Hank, looking up at him with cold eyes. “I might have failed to express myself clearly, Lieutenant, but if my memory doesn’t fail me, we agreed to half an hour. Can you explain to me why he is here, with you, almost two hours after you left my property?”

“I told him I didn’t want to go back, and I wanted to come here with him to eat.” Connor shoved himself between Hank and Elijah, his voice trembling with irritation beneath its superficial calmness.

“To eat. I see.” Elijah eyed Connor with increasing suspicion. “You look horrible, Connor. Which is astonishing, given how everyone insisted the fresh air would be good for you. And what happened to your clothes?” Connor looked down his legs. His shoes were covered with drying mud, as were his pants half up to his knees.

“We went-”

“When did you eat the last time?” Elijah demanded to know without giving Connor a chance to explain.

“Listen, Kamski, he isn’t a kidnapped damsel. We just got here to do something about his blood sugar.” Hank’s patience was running thin, having to justify their time together after running and arguing with Gavin. Connor bit his tongue. He didn’t want Elijah and Hank to fight because of him. He had to think of something to ease the tension before it escalated.

“Elijah,” he almost whispered. “Do you want me to come with you now?” He didn’t dare to look at Hank. Although he didn’t know if his presence meant as much to Hank as Hank’s to him, he didn’t feel happy about his choice. Still, if he insisted on staying, Elijah and Hank would argue, and Gavin would mock him, Connor, which would intensify the tension between Hank and Gavin. Giving up his time with Hank caused him a pain in his chest he didn’t think possible without being hit, but it was the smarter decision.

“Get into the carriage. You can eat at home and we’ll talk while we’re on our way.” Elijah didn’t break off eye contact with Hank while he spoke.

“Thank you, for everything.” Connor squeezed Hank’s arm.

“Postponed. Not canceled. We can meet here again another day if you want.” Hank, as well, stared back at Elijah without blinking.

Connor nodded but added, “Yes, gladly,” when he realized Hank wasn’t looking at him. He knelt down and gave Sumo a hug. “See you soon, Sumo.” The dog gave a low whine when Connor stood up and climbed into the carriage.

“We’ll see about that.” Almost unwillingly, Elijah turned around to follow Connor.

*

“What is he, your toy? Do people have to ask you to see if you’re willing to share?” Hank raised his voice over the sound of the carriage’s door being shut. The carriage driver, a short, chubby woman who looked like the human version of the horse, gave Hank a pitiful look and shrugged. Then she clicked her tongue and the mare fell into a cozy trot.

“What a sleazy fucking asshole!” Hank ground his teeth. Something fishy was going on with this Kamski and the way he treated Connor. Yes, the guy seemed to be on the more delicate side and he was oddly naive, but Kamski’s protectiveness bordered on obsession.

“For once, I agree.”

“Oh, you’re still here.” Hank’s mood deflated. Gavin was the last person he needed after this display of bullshit. Talking about a ruined date that wasn’t really a date but kind of felt like one. “And for once you even kept your mouth shut. What is it, Gavin? Got Elijah Kamski under your skin? Afraid of the big master of the carnival?” Hank let out some of his frustration on Gavin and the only thing he regretted was how it sounded more like a frustrated rant about Kamski.

“And interrupt the show? A slimy and an old geezer fighting over a fucking bleeding doll? Nah, man. That was too good.”

“He is not a doll, Detective Reed!” Hank barked but Gavin’s grin only widened.

“Digging out the titles whenever it’s convenient, eh, Lieutenant? Anyway. I’m dying to know what you see in this skinny babyface from a freak show but I need you to come to the station. Now.”

“Now? Why?” God, like he gave a fuck. If another transgression within a week wouldn’t cost him his job, Hank would gladly punch that smirk off Gavin’s smug face.

“Somebody’s waiting for you. Somebody who said you weren’t at home and refused to go on a wild goose chase and waits at your desk instead. Better get moving before Fowler runs out of patience.”

“Fuck.” Hank had a hunch who this could be. There were only two people who’d show up for an unexpected surprise visit and try at first at his home. “Is it-”

“Her.”

“Fuck.” He admitted defeat. This day went from the most pleasant time he had had in a while to hell within a few minutes. Without watching Connor’s face to lit up with delight and curiosity, without listening to his questions that sounded so oddly naive in his mature voice, nothing distracted him from his wet, muddy clothes. He was chilly, hungry, and he didn’t get much sleep after returning from the crime scene. In fact, he was in the best mood to deal with Karen, the mother of the son she had stolen from him.

*

“That was very dangerous, Connor. You could have passed out and get seriously injured and we wouldn’t have known where to find you.”

Connor was leaning against the window and stared outside. There was the forest, it was as if he could touch it if he reached out. It was still drizzling and the clouds hung heavily from the sky. The storm wasn’t coming, not now, but it was still there, hidden behind the dark gray and the thin veil of rain.

“Connor, are you listening to me?”

“I am.” He wasn’t in the mood to talk or to argue. Should Elijah preach what he had to preach, Connor didn’t care. Yes, Elijah was not completely wrong, the risks had been there but everything was under control. Elijah, not satisfied with the curt answer, sighed.

“Amanda and Chloe were wrong. You aren’t ready for this. This whole plan, insanity! I still can’t believe they didn’t consult me.”

“What would have been if they did?” Connor asked flatly, watching his breath covering the window. “Would you’ve told them no? That they must not make me feel?”

“I’d have told them not now! It’s too early, you’re still a child, you don’t know enough of this world to understand the consequences.” Elijah sounded tired and his words rehearsed. Connor was certain he and the others had this debate while he was away with Hank.

“Maybe I’d know more of the world if you hadn’t made sure I’d ever see more than the carnival in the last two years.” He was growing impatient, and cold. He had to fight the impulse to open the door and jump out of the carriage, back to Hank, so Hank could put his arm around him and Connor could lean against this warm body.

“It’s your home, Connor! It’s where you’re safe! If anybody finds out what you are it’ll be your death! People will kill you! This can’t be what you want!”

Connor’s head snapped around. Heat boiled over in him and if he didn’t let it out, it’d consume him, burn him.

“How can you say it’s too early for me to feel when you also say I shouldn’t leave the carnival grounds for my own safety? That doesn’t make sense! The whole conversation doesn’t make sense. It’s too late, Elijah. Amanda told me this can’t be reversed. You have to accept it.”

“You sound like her, Connor. But is that really how you feel about it? Don’t you regret the changes at all? You’ll have to suffer pain. Fixing you when you’re injured won’t just be a few boring hours for you anymore. You know how you felt this morning. Is it really worth giving up everything we had?” Elijah put his hand on Connor’s leg, squeezing it. Connor felt the warmth but it was the wrong kind. He didn’t want Elijah’s warmth and especially not now. He brushed the hand away.

“Yes, it’s worth it.” His doubts had melted when Sumo’s wet, cold nose prompted him to touch his soft fur. They faded when he smelled the forest and felt the wind. They were gone when Hank touched him. He looked at his hand, the one Hank had freed from the wooden splinters. His tone softened when he spoke again, “I was blind to the world before. There’s so much to experience and it’s wonderful, Elijah. Feeling the wind on my face was so much more wonderful than all the hours I’ve been on the stage and been-” Connor stopped, slowly raising his head to face Elijah. His throat was tight and hurt as he forced the words out of it.

“That’s it, isn’t it? The show. I can’t bleed for you anymore now that it’s blue. Even if I forced myself to endure the pain, it wouldn’t be the same. I destroyed your illusion with my choice.”

“Oh, Connor, it’s so much more than that!” Elijah rolled up his eyes and tsked, shaking his head. “Yes, your foolish decision ruined a perfect illusion. These humans, they’re ridiculous. They’d burn us at the stake if they knew the truth. Oh, the irony was so delicious. I showed them what you are. They saw it with their own eyes. They applauded us. For pretending to be what’s the truth! Yes, Connor, you ruined that triumph for me and I’m not happy about it. But that’s not all. Chloe and I, we were first-”

“I don’t care,” Connor snapped and turned back to the window. The mansion was already in sight, he couldn’t wait for this dreadful right to be over. If he couldn’t run back to Hank, he at least wanted to run into his room and lock himself away to remember their time together while the memory was fresh.

“What?!”

Connor almost laughed. Elijah had always been in control of the whole show and every person who was involved. He sometimes argued, he sometimes disagreed with Amanda and Chloe or was angry when somebody wouldn’t listen to his orders.

Today, for the first time in his existence, Connor had seen the control slipping between Elijah’s fingers and oh, did Elijah hate it. First, he had lost control over Connor’s life decisions, and now over the conversation. No, that wasn’t quite right, the first time was last night, during their show, when Connor asked him a question Elijah hadn’t taught him. Aloud, in front of a hall full of people. Connor hadn’t been aware of it then but now that he thought about it, he was.

It was strange to see Elijah like this, painful in a way but not as painful as what he had said.

“I don’t care,” Connor repeated, “and it doesn’t make a difference for you. I didn’t care before because I couldn’t. Now I could, but I don’t. If it was possible for Amanda to change me back I wouldn’t want it. I like this more. Yes, even this! I’ll learn to handle it if it means I can feel how it is to touch a dog again, or a human hand!” His voice raised to shouting as he spoke on and in front of Elijah’s astonished eyes, he ripped the bandage off his left hand and dug the fingernails of his good hand into the still tender flesh, where the old and the new skin were growing together.

It wasn’t as horrible as it had been last night or in the morning but still, tears shot in his eyes and he had to press his jaws together to keep in a pained groan.

The flabbergasted expression on Elijah’s face lasted only a second until his features fell back into their place, forming that smug, amused smirk that represented Elijah Kamski.

“It’s fascinating, Connor.” He leaned back without taking his eyes from Connor. “Look at you, the new you, not even half a year old. You should have seen yourself when they finally let me into the basement. A whimpering, crying, screaming mess. And now you hurt yourself because you think it impresses me. Well done, Connor.” He slowly clapped. Connor gritted his teeth, his short nails digging deeper. The scar was still too fresh to withstand the pressure.

“I admit it, I am impressed. Or more like, surprised. You surprise me. No, even that’s not it.” Elijah chuckled, his elbow resting against the bottom of the window frame while his head was resting against his hand. Connor met his gaze with a glare, hissing as he sucked in the air between his teeth. He had seen this smile before but it had never been directed at him. His skin gave in. The tips of his fingers felt warm and wet as blood seeped out of the small wound.

“Don’t misunderstand, it’s not so much that little tantrum of yours. It’s the why. And for whom. I must say, that you’d have a preference for men was expected. But I hadn’t anticipated your taste in men. You, the perfect young man. A slender cute thing with pretty eyes. Falls for an old, hairy, chubby slob of a cop.” Elijah laughed. “My, that’s so cliché! Oh, and you can stop that now, you don’t want to ruin your coat.”

Connor’s jaws were aching. He looked down at his hands. His fingertips were smeared with blue blood. He gasped as he pulled back his hand. More blood trickled from the small holes in his skin. It wasn’t a deep wound between his thumb and forefinger, where Chloe had fused patches of skin together with one of Amanda’s chemicals that’d allow it to heal without stitches. But it hurt! More now that the pressure of his fingers was gone.

“Tell Amanda she should fix it. Oh, and make sure not to bleed everywhere or I’ll leave it to you to explain what happened if one of your precious humans asks.”

The carriage stopped in front of the mansion, saving Connor from replying. As soon as the wheels stopped moving, he pushed the door open and hurried to climb out and get inside the building.

“Don’t fall over your own feet, son, it might hurt!” he heard Elijah shouting after him.

Chapter Text

Hank inhaled deeply and released the air as a long, deep growl. Better to get it out now than barking at the wife of his ex. He straightened his jacket and considered visiting the restroom to check his hair but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He was just a man who had just returned from a hike in the woods and she was the intruder who bothered him during his free day. If Karen wanted to be welcomed like a respected guest she should have called and announced her visit. With someone else far, far away from him.

“Don’t you have work to do?” he snapped at Gavin who was following on his heels and almost fell over Sumo.

“Oh, I can take a break now.”

“Take it later. Sumo, you stay here and watch the door. This is a private conversation, tattletales not invited.” He the glare he cast at Gavin at least made him keep his mouth shut but it’d probably take a good right hook to make that grin disappear. Well, he’d worry about Gavin later. It was time to figure out the theme of today’s party. He opened the door to his office, slipped inside, and closed it firmly behind him.

Karen Berg, blonder than sundried wheat and pale like a sheet, and always dressed in the latest fashion, would have looked young for a woman in her fifties if she wasn’t thirty-nine. She resumed a proper pose in the visitor’s chair once she heard the door. The prim smile looked out of place after being summoned so abruptly after waiting for so long with a - as Hank assumed - bored and cold expression. Which was the one she usually reserved for him, unless…

He held his breath. No. There were a million things he wanted to say to her and that he had shouted at her before and what had it earned him? Nothing. Telling her at her face what a two-faced floozy she was and that a blind man could see at night how fake her blond curls were - in color and shape - always resulted in that delightfully ugly pursing of her lips - really, it looked like she tried to suck the air out of a room. But she’d get over it thanks to the satisfaction that he had once more, in her eyes, proved how unfit he was as a father and that his fucking ex and she were in the right.

No, not today. He greeted her with an indifferent nod and walked around his desk to sit down in his office chair as if he was wearing a suit and shiny black dress shoes instead of his whole back being covered in mud. He put his elbows on the desk and folded his fingers in front of his face.

For a moment, they just stared at each other. She looked older than he last saw her, two years ago, when she demanded that if he acted like he had any right to the boy, he better supported her family. Fuck, he hated that woman. He wished she’d just sent Jason. He hated him even more but at least thinking of the happy days between them made it easier to keep his temper under control But fuck it, he was a grown man and he was sober. This bitch didn’t have what it needed to provoke a tantrum, not anymore.

He opened a drawer for a cigarette. He put it between his lips and lightened it with a match. He made a big show of blowing the smoke not straight into her face, but it was still close enough for her to catch a generous whiff. She coughed three times, three little huffing noises that were more of protest than distress. Reminded him of that one time when Jamison’s parakeet had the sniffles.

Well, time to get to the point. Before she fully recovered from the horror of a little smoke in his own damn office.

“You couldn’t even bring him with you when you’re coming to me for money? What do you think I’d do, kidnap him?” Nonchalantly, he dropped the tip of ash into the ashtray. It was a hideous thing of pottery, uneven and of a dozen colors mashed together until they turned into a dirty green with reddish smudges. He loved it. It was a gift from the local elementary school, presented when the class visited the police station.

Karen huffed one last time.

“Today is a school day, Hank. Jason takes care of him until back.”

“A school day, eh?” Suddenly, he wanted to throw his paperwork over the ashtray. Fuck. Did his world collapse so long ago already? “Right, he’s six now. First day this summer.” He pulled again on his cigarette, not giving a damn if her head disappeared in a cloud of smoke. “Was there a photographer?”

“Of course. You know Jason, only the best for his boy.” Her pitch was above her natural speaking voice, probably to sound especially sweet. In the past, it’d have torn his heart into pieces but today, it was getting to him. No thank you, after meeting that Kamski guy yesterday and today, he was immune against honey-covered needles for the rest of the century.

“And I bet you didn’t think of bringing the photo either.”

“Hank, you and Cole, you aren’t related. I birthed him, and Jason is his father. You are not, and you also aren’t his grandfather or uncle or in whatever role you want to see him in his life. I will not force my son to meet a stranger who is delusional about his relationship with him.” She spoke firmly but without the hate-filled passion he was used to her from their last conversations.

“Gone are the days when you at least pretended you were sorry for what you two did to me, aren’t they?” He had finished his cigarette faster than intended and fished a new one. At this rate, he’d go through the whole pack within ten minutes but as long as he kept his fingers and lips busy, he wouldn’t shout at her.

“Oh, Hank, I’ve never been sorry for what happened. Jason simply fell in love with me, and I with him. It was unfortunate it happened after I agreed to carry a baby for you two. Unfortunate for you! I pitied you, I respected your pain long enough but you have to finally understand that what happened was the best for Jason, me, and Cole. Especially Cole.” She gasped for air after she finished, suddenly indifferent to the smoke she inhaled.

“Did you prepare the speech during the train ride or have you waited all the six years to make it?” he said after a pause. She got him, the damn bitch got him again. As far as he was concerned, Karen and Jason could have their happily ever after for the eternity they were going to burn in hell. For Cole, however, the son he was supposed to have and only held once the day after he was born, she and his ex were the only family he had ever known. If he wanted to be a good father, he had to make sure his boy was safe and happy. Disrupting his life and trying to get him back would only cause pain.

“Does it matter, Hank? It has always been the truth and deep down, you know it.” She sighed and suddenly, she spoke with a gentle, almost warm tone that hinted at the kind mother she was to Cole. “It’s been six years, Hank. I know you’ve been hurting. I didn’t plan to steal your man. You know that, too. Just like you know that we love the boy and that we’d do everything for him.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Oh, shut up, despicable woman! “In other words, you came to tell me to move on already, to let you live your life, and to move on, while you promise to be a great mother to my boy. Got it. That was very nice of you, to come here all the way just to tell me that. Give Cole a hug from me and tell Jason I send my regards. Now, if you excuse me.” He put out his cigarette, shoved his chair back and pushed himself up, hands on the desk. He bit back a grin. The hint of kindness had quickly disappeared from her face as she spoke and at first, a haughty smile had taken its place. And now, as expected, the mask began to crumble to confusion.

He swiftly walked towards her and offered her a hand to help her up.

She slapped it away.

“Fine, fine.” She rolled her eyes and pulled her red mouth into a pout. He almost expected her to stick out her tongue at him. Fascinating, now that she showed the spoiled, childish side of her personality, she actually looked younger than her age. “We want to buy a larger house but the old isn’t fully paid off. We found the most beautiful house in a wonderful area. Close to the coast. The air will be good for Cole and during summer, he can even play at the beach.”

“Is that so.” The coast? So far south? That distance couldn’t be covered with a three hours train ride! That was more than half a day away, even if they owned a car! “And you wanted to deliver the news in person. How decent of you.” He was done holding back his sarcasm.

“Money, Hank. We need money. The offer doesn’t last forever and we can’t gather the down payment quickly enough.”

“Are you out of your mind, Karen? You stole my man, you stole my son, and now you got the guts to come here, tell me you move further away than ever, and you want me to pay for it? Did all that bleach roast your brain?” To hell with staying composed! She was lucky he was only screaming. If he had the slightest chance to get away with it, he’d grab her by the throat like a turkey and give it a good twist!

“Fine!” she snapped back, grabbing her purse, and raising from her chair. “Then don’t help. There’s your last chance to do something for the boy you think of like your son but sure. Yell at the mother he loves dearly and punish him because you can’t get over a breakup. One day, your pride will eat you away, Hank Anderson. But don’t blame me if you can’t see it on the bottom of a bottle.”

Hank pressed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. He wanted to scream, to cry, to grab his desk and hurl it into her face. Something pushed against his leg. He glanced down. Sumo had crawled from his place under his desk and lied down next to him. His big head on Hank’s feet he looked up at him, making a low whine. Hank sighed, then smiled. Good old Sumo.

“I don’t earn enough to buy you a house but I’ll send you what I can spare. Not more, not less. And it’s the last time, Karen. Now get out of my office, I have plans for my free day, isn’t that right, Sumo?” The dog sprang up and pranced on the spot, his long tongue hanging out of his mouth, his excited tail swishing against Karen’s skirt. Hank didn’t bother to hold the door open for her when she pressed a tight “Thank you” through her teeth and finally was on her way.

He patted and scratched his dog for a few minutes, freeing the long winter fur from twigs and burs. Sumo thoroughly enjoyed his master’s affection and Hank could feel himself relax. He had thought he’d bury his face in Sumo’s fur any moment now and have an ugly, sniffling cry over the injustices of the world but he felt- freed. He had been wronged, he had no place in his son’s life. The happy family he, Jason, and Cole were meant to be had never happened. Instead, he had been hurt and betrayed and it still pained him. But it didn’t eat him away as it used to.
Maybe it was because he only had one beer the last two days, maybe it was the growing geographical distance between him and his tormentors.

“Come, Sumo. Let’s get us clean and find something to bite.” The dog barked and followed him out of the office. Hank would always miss the life that didn’t come to be, the wound wasn’t healed after today, he was certain of that. But he also didn’t feel guilty when he stepped outside and the wind reminded him of the wondrous smile of a certain young man he hoped to see again soon.

*

The tone in his new books was different from what Connor was used to. Or, he simply perceived the words differently after a few hours of painful and pleasant experiences. No, while he was sure that also played a part, these stories were different. They showed him less of the world and the adventures the characters had and more of the interactions between a small selection of characters. And clothes. So many lines and paragraphs about houses and clothes.

Yet, he couldn’t stop reading. The first pages weren’t interesting - too many words about skirts and bows and necklaces - but then there were a few pages where the heroine confided in her friend how much she missed the man she had just met recently. Connor nodded. He would express himself differently, but he understood how she felt.

“Come in!” he called when somebody knocked at the door. Amanda came in, carrying a bag under her arm. She sat down on the chair that was still standing next to his bed since this morning.

“You look good, Connor. Did you enjoy your walk with the lieutenant?” She put the bag on her lap and opened what looked like a sewing kit if it weren’t for bandages and a bottle of disinfectant.

“Elijah said I look horrible and that going out was a mistake.” He put his book aside and showed her his injured hand. The bleeding had stopped by the time he was back in his room but the skin didn’t grow back together. A dark blue crust covered the edges of the wound where the blood had dried.

“Just as I thought.” She turned his hand and held it close to her eyes. “We’d have to replace the complete skin if you want to have it heal smoothly. A few quick stitches are faster and less painful but it’ll take longer to heal and will leave a small scar. It’s up to you.”

“Obviously, you know my answer already,” he said coldly, squinting at the sewing utensils. He flinched when she removed the bloody crust. How could such a small thing cause pain?

“I know yours, I know what Chloe had said in your situation, or Elijah, or anyone else. It’s my job to know things like that, Connor.” She poured a generous dose of sanitizer on a soft scrap of cloths and cleaned his hand. He held back a hiss, reminding himself this was the less painful alternative. She pulled another bottle from the bag and dripped a few drops of its content on his skin. The smell was strange, partly, it reminded him of the forest, but there was also a sharp tinge he knew from her lab.

“This will numb your skin a little. It’s not enough to avoid the pain completely but it’ll make it easier for you. Now, don’t move it. It won’t take longer than five minutes.”

Five minutes proved to be very long when he could feel a needle being pressed through his skin and into the tissue underneath. It was a raw, sharp, burning pain and if he hadn’t seen that the needle was barely wider than a hair, he’d have thought it was of the size of a knitting needle.

“We’re not against you, Connor.” She pulled the two edges tightly together, speaking over Connor’s groan. “We all love you and want the best for you. Not all can agree what it is, that’s the problem. Not you.”

“Is Elijah still angry?” One moment, he didn’t want to see Elijah any time soon again, the next he wanted to look for him and scream in his face. But he didn’t want Elijah to be angry with him.

“Oh, he is. He hates being wrong and he’ll need time to accept it as well as the changes in your life. And what they mean for all of us. He was, however, right to worry about you not eating all day. You have to pay better attention next time, Connor.” The needle moved swiftly and his hand was beginning to feel more and number. He wasn’t sure if it was the effect from the liquid or if he was getting used to the pain.

“If you say next time, does that mean you let me out again?” He frowned when she laughed. Were the things he said really so ridiculous that they made people laugh all the time?

“You’re a grown man. We have no right to lock you up. If you want to leave, you leave. We can hope that you come to us for advice, well, to me and Chloe. I wouldn’t waste time on Elijah for a while. There, almost done!” She finished sealing the wound and snipped the fine thread off with a small pair of steel scissors. “And I would appreciate it if you let us know when you leave and when you plan to come back. Otherwise, we don’t know when or where to start looking if you are in trouble.”

“Why are you so sure I’ll get into trouble?”

“Everyone does. Move your fingers.”

He lifted his hand and carefully crooked his thumb. It was unpleasant and the skin felt tense but he could handle it without flinching. He crooked and stretched one finger after the other with the same result. He inspected her work. Six fine, tight stitches, the thread was barely visible. The wound would barely be visible if it wasn’t for the blueish, slightly swollen skin.

“Good. It should be fine as long as you keep your hand clean but I’ll put a bandage around it anyway. Better wear it while it still looks blue.” She swiftly dressed his hand and even though she said it wasn’t necessary, Connor felt better that he didn’t have to see it. And after he could reopen the wound so easily with his nails, he was grateful for any physical protection. Maybe it’d also help him from not doing something so stupid again.

“Do you like your new books?” she asked casually while putting her tools away.

“I’m not sure. But I understand the characters.”

“The heroine, right?” She smiled when he nodded. “That’s what I thought. And as I’m here, I’ll give you my words of advice. Stay here today, maybe even for tomorrow. You’re tired and your mind has a lot to process. And you need to adjust your eating habits. There is a possibility that the ability to experience tactile sensations drains your energy faster. Rest, eat, keep reading. We’ll stay for a while and your lieutenant isn’t moving anywhere.”

“Amanda?” he called after her when she was about to leave the room. “What does it mean when a human touches you and you feel warm although it’s cold? So warm, it’s almost…” His lips were moving but he couldn’t think of the right words.

“Scary? Like it burns you from inside with a strength that’s so much more than you?”

“Yes!” He exhaled the breath he was holding. She understood. He was wrong for distrusting her after his fight with Elijah.

“So quickly?” Her smile suddenly showed a hint of sadness he’d expected to see from Chloe but never from her! “Read your book. It explains it better than I could. You’ll have more questions once you’re done. Come and see Chloe or me about them. Do you need more food?”

“Not now. I’ll come and get more later.”

“Don’t forget about it.”

With that, she finally left. Connor sighed. He reached for his book but instead of taking it, he decided to give his meal another try. Chloe had brought him a plate after his return and thankfully walked away when he told her he wanted to be alone for a while. He didn’t feel like talking and he didn’t feel like eating with her observing every bite he took.

He was glad about his decision. Eating had turned out to be a difficult ordeal. She had brought him a small portion of what the humans were having today. A few tiny pieces of chicken, already cut. Vegetables, fried in butter. She got it fresh from the kitchen for him and as he bit into a piece of carrot, he burnt his lips and his tongue. Disappointed from the experience and distrusting the innocent looking food, he had contented himself with drinking. The yellow juice was like balm on his tortured tongue. Cold, soothing, delicious. Almost as sweet as the candy Hank had given him. He had taken his time, moving the liquid in his mouth to catch the tiniest hints and changes of its flavor.

Whatever kind of juice it was, it had stabilized him for a while and he had promised himself to give eating another chance after the food cooled down. He had forgotten about that over his book until Amanda came in.

Well. Eating wasn’t the right battle to pick. He saw the sense in Amanda’s suggestions. Whether he’d stay at home tomorrow he’d decide later but for today, he’d listen to her. Also, the sooner he recovered his strength, the sooner he could go back into town.

He swung his legs over the edge of his bed and moved closer to the nightstand. He grabbed the fork and stabbed some of the meat. Carefully, he moved it to his mouth, his tongue giving it a quick lick.

It was cold.

Relieved, he put it into his mouth and chew, his eyes widening. What he had thought to be texture before was only the different kinds of pressure he needed to chew. This, this was something else. Tender, smooth, soft, yet too fibrous to melt on his tongue. His teeth cut easily through it.

And the taste! He failed to find words for the taste. There was sweetness but it was not the same as the juice or candy. The dominant flavor was far away from that. He moved on to a bite-sized piece of potato. He barely needed his teeth at all to chew. There were flavors similar to the chicken but the main one was something completely different.

He chewed slowly, trying to describe what happened when textures and tastes mixed and became something new entirely.

This was amazing! But it was good that he was on his own. He was more curious about eating in a human restaurant than before now but he’d either have needed a good explanation for his reaction or he would have had to hide it.

Connor finished his meal and looked at the clock standing on a shelf next to the door. Three hours should give his body enough time to absorb the food. Another hour and he’d used up enough energy to justify going to the kitchen and ask for more things. Different things. As many as was safe for him.

He picked up his book. Yes, staying here for the rest of the day was a good decision. With whatever Amanda thought the books would teach him and his new knowledge of food, maybe Hank wouldn’t find him so weird anymore.

*

There was nothing a hot bath and a good cup of tea couldn’t make better, Hank’s grandmother used to say. He had had his hot bath, and a second one while he tried his best to wash Sumo. He was warm and cozy when he, dressed in comfortable clothes, flung himself on his sofa with today’s newspaper. Sumo pouted by the fireplace, ignoring Hank the best he could until it was time for his dinner.

After reading the same article for the third time, Hank put the paper down. His mind returned to the conversation with Karen and with that, came the memories of Cole, the tiny, wrinkled human being that wiggled in his arms and smiled at him. Her again, with her round belly, Jason’s hand on hit while he pictured the future of their family together. Jason, Cole, and Hank. Not Karen.

He tossed the newspaper to the floor. He should have known better. Two men, a family with a child born by another woman. What a ridiculous idea. And then Jason of all people falling in love with her! He, who had always claimed to only like men!

“Bunch of assholes.” He growled so loudly that Sumo raised his head but he quickly went back to pouting when it was just his master rambling to himself. “Fuck this. Sumo, I’m going out again, you wanna come, too?” The dog huffed and turned his large back to Hank.

“Lazy bloke. Suit yourself.” He kicked off his slippers and put on the shoes belonging to the uniform he hadn’t worn in five years, but they were the only clean ones. He grabbed his jacket and his keys but halted in the corridor, looking at the small table standing under the large oil painting the previous owner had left there. As one of the higher ranking police officers in town, his home was one of the few with this fancy invention called the telephone. It saved them valuable time if he was needed outside his shifts.

“To hell with it, what’s the point of privileges if you can’t abuse them once in a while.” He picked up the receiver and asked the switchboard operator to connect him with the police station.

“Gavin?” Of fucking course. The guy was sitting on the telephone like a broody hen since it had been installed four years ago. “Gimme Chris if he’s there. Yes, it’s important police business. Thank you, too gracious of you.” Should Gavin simmer in his curiosity. He’d listen anyway when Hank invited Chris and Jamison to drink with him, and yes, the asshole would probably show up uninvited, but at least Hank had the satisfaction of Gavin waiting for an invitation that wouldn’t come.

Maybe a hot bath and tea made everything better but as he didn’t have any tea, a drink and the company of friends would have to do the trick.

Chapter Text

Lunch hour was over and dinner time was still about two hours away, nevertheless, Cora’s Den was well-visited. Three or four tables were occupied by tourists or guests who had to skip lunch and didn’t want to wait until dinner. A few guests hadn’t left since they had had their meal. Others felt like a cup of coffee or tea outside their own four walls.

Hank and his friends conquered their regular spot as soon as a family of four paid their bill and got ready to leave. Chris and Gavin - who of course tagged along after he heard what was up - were still in their uniforms, which might have accelerated the family’s departure. Jamison, fortunately, didn’t show up in his lab coat this time. It was a free day for him, too, after working through the early morning hours on the latest body, he had only shown up at the police station to complete some overdue paperwork.

“So, what’s today’s directive, Lieutenant?” Jamison let himself drop on the bench, right next to Hank. “Something light to warm up the gossip, or do we get to drink, rant, and forget without further ado?”

“Ha! You know my drink and forget days are over!” Hank put a hand on his liver. Dr. Burns words hadn’t stung half as bad as that damn organ after the last time he had marinated his sorrows in whiskey until he spat blood. He had been willing to ignore the growing ulcer but if his organs started to gang up on him, he decided it was time to pick his battles. If he was going down, it had to be in a more dignified way than whining like a kicked puppy because someone poked him below the ribs.

“This means I need a new plan to get you on my slab.” Jamison chuckled and followed the example of the others by ordering a beer.

“You’re a sick, sick man, Jamie.” Hank joined his friend’s laughter and patted him on the shoulder. Jamison was happily married with the first child on its way which never had stopped him and Hank from exchanging inappropriate jokes. “I promise, when the day comes that I end up dead and naked on a slab, it will be yours.”

“God, your guys are are both sick.” Gavin shuddered demonstratively. “I don’t know why I even hang out with you.”

“Neither do we, as you weren’t invited,” Chris said dryly and Hank almost spat out his beer. He’d considered last night a fluke but it really seemed that Chris finally developed the guts to stand up to Gavin’s antics. But it was more likely that the guy was simply exhausted after the long night and having to be back at his desk around noon.

“If half the precinct goes out drinking the rest doesn’t need to be invited.” Gavin sneered and raised his glass at Hank. “Okay, do you want to tell the newest events of your Karen is a piece of shit drama or should I? After all, you guys got loud enough to share your drama with the whole building.”

“No wonder you got that impression after pressing your ear against the door,” Hank muttered but he didn’t leave Gavin any time to argue and went right to the tale himself. As he listed Karen’s recent insults and demands, he congratulated himself for just raising his voice. He could have expected mitigating circumstances if he had ripped off her head and tossed it into the forest river.

“Can’t believe the bitch’s timing. Had a good day until she showed up,” he finished and emptied his beer in one long gulp. It was warm after he clung to the glass while talking but after ranting and growling, even a warm beer was a good beer. Just not very satisfying. He waved the waitress over to order a new one for himself and a few snacks for the table.

“I agree her demands are outrageous and using guilt to make you give in is ghastly. But she sure didn’t know you were having a good time with that carnival boy today when she planned her visit.” Chris rubbed his chin to hide his smile behind his hand. Hank’s friend had snorted and shaken their heads at the right moments during his story and even Gavin whistled a “what a bitch” at some point, although it was impossible to tell if he was dumbfounded by her impertinence or impressed.

“Probably not,” Hank admitted and thanked the waitress for the beer. He enjoyed the bitter and cold taste flooding his mouth when a thought occurred him. “Say, Chris,” Hank put down his glass, “How the hell do you know about Connor? I hadn’t told anyone.”

I see. Old gossip. Hank frowned when Chris and Jamison suddenly looked guilty and suspiciously glanced at Gavin.

“What? Our lieutenant hangs out with one of our suspects on his free day.” Gavin crossed his arm and grinned without a hint of guilt. “I think we have a right to know if the competence of the leading officer is compromised because he couldn’t keep his hands off a pretty butt.”

“Gavin!” Chris groaned. Hank slammed his fist on the table, giving Jamison a start.

“Hold your tongue, Reed! And for the last time, we do not have proof yet that the carnival folks have anything to do with it! Or do we, Jamie? Anything new about the liquid?”

Jamison, who had pressed his back against the back of the bench while Hank and Gavin lashed out at each other, tensed even more at the mention of his name.

“N-not really. I assume it’s a kind of narcotics but I lack the means to determine which brand. Or if it’s even a brand. It could be something home-brewed but I don’t know if the woman you got it from is capable of that. Captain Fowler also denied my request to test it on different animals to figure out its strength. From all I know, it might be a mild narcotic used for minor surgeries on a dog or something that could kill an elephant with a few drops. And that still doesn’t tell us how it works on humans.”

“And now? Do we just dismiss it or what?” Gavin snapped as if it was Jamison’s fault that their found didn’t match with anything Jamison had in his lab.

“The captain and I agreed to contact the criminology labs of two or three larger cities and ask for their help. I’ll send the samples tomorrow but it might take well over two weeks until we hear back from them.”

“Which means, it’s worthless.” Hank sighed, chewing on a slice of buttered bread. “Can’t even use it to rule out the Kamski clan. Which does not mean they have anything to do with it!”

“And also not that they don’t,” Gavin shot back. “But don’t worry, I’ll be nice until we have the proof we need.” He turned his head towards the entrance and smiled. “Let me show you how nice I can be to those freaks!”

Hank looked into the same direction and groaned. Three new guests had arrived, two women and a man. He recognized two of them from last night when they were part of the chaos behind the stage. The second woman he had seen only a few hours ago, driving Kamski’s coach.

“Hey!” Gavin jumped up and waved to get the trio’s attention. “Get over here for a minute!”

They looked at each other, shrugged, and trotted over to Hank’s table. Their smiles were friendly but cautious. One of the women stepped forward. She was tall, of a strong build, and her black hair was braided and curled around her head in an impressive fashion. She was carrying a dog in her arms, a small, white creature with eyes as black as his mistress’, and it seemed to be the only one who was genuinely excited about this encounter.

Gavin flinched at the sight of the dog but he kept up his smile.

“You’re from the carnival, right? That was a damn impressive show yesterday. Can we thank you for it with a beer? Come on, Chris, make some room! You, too, Jamison.” He avoided looking at Hank who rolled his eyes.

“You heard the man. You’re welcome to join us for a round.” Having a chat with these people wasn’t the worst idea of the day but allowing Gavin to lead the conversation spelled disaster in all transcribed languages. “Jamie, can you help them pull up a few chairs?”

“Well, we’re not known to reject a kind offer,” the black-haired woman said after a quick, silent conversation with her friends. She spoke with a pleasant clear and smooth voice in a Spanish accent. “Thank you, good Officer.” She said down on the chair Jamison had pulled from the table next to them. “My name is Montserrat, and this is Silvia.” She proudly stroked the dog’s fur. “And this is Amir, handyman and juggler, and Bertha. She’s in charge of our horses and vehicles.”

“Ain’t no business with the fancy stuff of these blokes,” Bertha chortled, speaking in the kind of undefinable dialect that came from a life on the road since early childhood. “But gimme a whip and a wrench and I keep them old hacks going. Oh, and no bother with this fellow here.” She poked Amir's shoulder, who had watched the conversation with a smile. “Not much of a talker, even if he wanted to. Not my fault mind y’all, I told him that was too much petroleum for one man to swallow. Fortunately, he’s better at juggling them balls and hurling boxes than eating fire.”

The three officers looked at the young man with the mild face in horror but the carnival folks laughed as if it was just an ordinary story of a clumsily knocked over bucket.

“Fortunately indeed.” Hank waited until everyone had told the waitress their order. He looked after his empty glass disappearing behind the bar. He had been looking forward to a nice buzz but he’d go with water while this conversation lasted.

“Business seems to go well for you,” Gavin opened once everyone was settled with a drink of some kind or the other. “I saw Kamski riding a damn nice carriage today. The fancy kind you usually see with old money.”

“You saw what we can do last night.” Montserrat gave him a lenient smile as if everything was said with her answer.

“And we’re damn proud of it!” Bertha’s chest swelled until she really looked like a human version of the carriage horse, all square and comfortable and with a fluff of straw-colored hair on her head. “You all know your stuff. You know I like making me jokes, Sera,” She pinched Montserrat’s round cheek until it was pink, “But I watch every show! You should sing more, though. Told you so for years. And I think Mr. Kamski should allow Amir to try with swords. Shouldn’t cause any mayhem as long as he doesn’t swallow them. It could be just what the show needs, now that Connor had to step down.”

Hank at once listened more intensely at the mention of Connor’s name. “Had to step down? What happened? Has it anything to do with his accident this morning?” His eyebrows went a little higher when he caught Amir nudging Bertha with his elbow.

“Who said had to?” She didn’t miss a beat. “Did I say had to? Well, he insisted. Maybe I wanted to say he just had to throw the show like that. I don’t know no details, good Officer, but I’m sure he’ll tell you if you ask him. You seem to have a way with him. Never saw the boy that chatty.” She chuckled. Montserrat gave a disapproving shake of her head - how she could move it without straining her neck under all that heavy looking hair was a miracle to Hank - but grinned as well. Amir made a noise between a cough and a grunt.

“Shush, you man, Connor’s not a bad sort.” Bertha took her chance to nudge him back. “He’s just a little…”

“Freak,” it shot out of Gavin’s mouth. Chris and Hank kicked his leg but Gavin didn’t flinch.

“We do not appreciate that word, Officer.” Montserrat’s smile hardened for a moment.

“But we agree just the same,” Bertha finished for her, shooting a glare at Montserrat that shut her up. She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and shrugged.

“He doesn’t enjoy company as much as most of us do,” she finally said. “There’s not a bad bone in that one but he’s the last one you’d go to for a good old chat. Or to invite to a drink. And you can’t really fault him for that.”

“Aye, no wonder he’s got a few screws loose, the way the Kamskis and Miss Stern fuzz over him.” Bertha grimaced in disgust and it was not clear if that was directed at the Kamskis and Amanda or the way they treat Connor.

“Let’s not waste this nice evening in the company of our new friends on gossiping about Connor!” Montserrat firmly cut her off, little Silvia yipped in agreement.

“Oh, why not? I’m sure our Lieutenant Anderson likes to hear more about him.” This time, Gavin’s grin froze when Hank kicked him hard enough to leave a bruise.

“Anderson, your company’s a blessing for that boy! Today, I liked him for the first time! And that’s all I have to say!” Bertha closed her mouth and nodded. Hank bet she was dying to tell more if pressed and if it was just the two of them, he’d be tempted to tickle more out of her. But who knew what all this was good for, it was probably for the best if he tried to figure out more about Connor on his own, preferably by talking to the young man himself.

“Can you tell us more about your history? Of the carnival, I mean?” Chris took the lead of the conversation, giving everyone a chance to change the topic to something that’d provide actually useful information. Hank remembered the question as one of their list of things they wanted to ask the crew last night before they were called to another crime scene.

“Certainly.” Montserrat made herself comfortable with the second glass of whiskey while feeding her dog scraps of bread. “The Kamskis and Amanda could tell more, they founded it. Jackson has been with the carnival the longest since then. But after four years, I got quite some tales to tell myself, if I might say so.”

“Four years.” Bertha snorted. “Talk again when you’ve beaten my twelve years!”

The two women delighted in their competitive banter and found in a captivated audience in Chris and Jamison, who’d ask questions whenever they had the chance to get a word in. Every question prompted more stories, more opportunity for Montserrat and Bertha to best each other. It was all in good humor and as a show in itself and soon guests from the tables around them paused their conversations. Who could moved closer with their chair, which caused quite a stir and rumbling and shoving when Gavin climbed over several legs on his way to the restroom.

Hank was on the fence with this development. It was nicer than going over his encounter with Karen, a good distraction, but he still hadn’t reached the buzz he had hoped for. He didn’t feel like merrymaking this evening, he wanted to mope around in his own thoughts and self-pity. Nevertheless, he had ordered two more rounds for the table to keep them talking, hoping in vain they’d bring up Connor again. With every drink, the stories became wilder, the flames higher, the knives sharper. But despite a few gory tales of stunts gone wrong or scoundrels attempting to rob the carnival- no mention of Connor.

Hank turned his glass between his hands. He was wasting precious drinking time for this. He didn’t need to be sober for those stories that were so thrilling and engaging, they must have been told a dozen times before. And indeed, people were beginning to treat the trio and their dog like performers and not fellow guests. Somebody had sacrificed an old hat which was making its round to be filled with change and small bills.

Chris flipped in almost three dollars and Jamison fished a handful of spare from his jacket and put it in the hat without counting. Hank pulled out his wallet and looked across the table, curious what Gavin was willing to give for the show his invitation had initiated.

Gavin’s spot was still empty. He had been away for how long, at least thirty minutes? Too long for the quick toilet break he had announced when he left. The water suddenly tasted sour in Hank’s mouth. He couldn’t think of many suspicious things Gavin could be up to tonight but Hank had one of his bad feelings.

 

*

Thunder woke Connor up from his nap. He sat up, blinking a few times to get used to the dark before he lit the small oil lamp on his nightstand. He shivered and left his bed to make a fire in the fireplace across the room. It was still uncharacteristically warm for a November evening but not warm enough to be cozy without thicker closes or a fire. He paused and looked out of the window. Clouds still covered most of the sky but here and there, a twinkling star was embedded between the black, heavy masses.

Still no storm. He was walking back to his bed, remembered why he stood up, and walked to the fireplace, only to stop by the window again. He couldn’t think about the fire, nor did he want to go back to sleep or read anymore, not before he had talked to Chloe or Amanda. The last chapter he had finished had left him with so many confused questions. He knew about the mechanics of sex, sharing a small space with the same crowd of people made it hard to escape but he hadn’t inquired about anything past the physical aspects.

If there were any truths in these books, there was more to it than he had thought and more than he thought that mattered. It was nothing but two characters interacting with each other, he had read about that many times. Arguments, fights, grand planning, and schemes.

Yet, there was something different to reading about two characters lusting after each other, building up their desire to the point they thought it’d kill them, and the ecstasy when they finally gave in and ended up together. Something resonated in his body when he witnessed their bodies moving against each other for several pages. But while he could picture himself in a fight, handling knives or a sword, or running from a bloodthirsty killer, he failed to see himself in such a situation with any of the women he knew. His mind tried to push Hank into the picture but whenever Connor imagined Hank’s face with his blue, hooded eyes and the gentle smile behind the wild beard he didn’t dare to think further. As if it was forbidden, something he shouldn’t want to have.

He forgot about the fire and stormed out of the room. Earlier today, when he went to the kitchen for a second meal, heard Chloe and Elijah arguing behind closed doors and Amanda didn’t have time for him. One of the dancers had fallen during practice and she was busy mending a bleeding knee and a swollen ankle. But one of them should be free to talk to him by now!

Only, he didn’t have such luck. He met Carina, the not-injured dancer in the kitchen, who informed him that Amanda had gone out. Where she had no idea. Chloe and Elijah hadn’t shown their faces since Elijah had returned with Connor.

He picked a dried fig from a bowl standing on the table, chewing it slowly to enjoy the flavor and texture while he wondered what he should do next.

“World’s different now, isn’t it?” Carina smiled at him and he almost choked. Carina had never spoken to him unless it was work-related or somebody asked her to deliver a message to him. She certainly had never smiled at him. He looked at the slender, red-haired young woman. She was pretty, or at least he thought so. It was more interesting how much she and her twin sister looked alike although Caren was several inches taller than her and had more square, masculine features, something even stage makeup couldn’t fully conceal.

“Yes. Very,” he finally answered when he realized she was waiting for a reply. “I underestimated how many aspects of my life it would affect.”

“Yeah, I can imagine. More or less.” She nodded, her smile widening. “Heard how crazy you were about the cop’s dog. I envy you a little. We just take it for granted. Cuddling a dog is the best but experiencing it for the first time from the point of innocence… I almost want that, too!” She sighed, snatching an apple from the bowl and biting into it. “Or see,” she smacked with her mouth full, “I’m just eating that thing. Nothing special about it now, never been. You’re lucky you can do all this now, Connor. Enjoy it while it lasts. Sooner or later, it’ll all be old news to you, too!” She swallowed and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Suddenly, a strange grin appeared on her face and her green eyes were sparkling with mischief.

“You haven’t been with a woman yet, have you? Or with that lieutenant of yours?”

“I’m sorry?” He tilted his head, giving her a puzzled look.

“Slept with anyone, rolled in the hay, made feet for baby stockings, took a turn at bushy park!” She chuckled, clearly enjoying to confuse him more. “Sex, Connor baby.”

“Oh.” His face suddenly felt warm, least about the subject but he realized she was teasing him, being well aware he had no idea what she was talking about. “I’m familiar with the concept but haven’t done anything like that myself.”

“By the Goddess, you can blush? That’s adorable!” She giggled more, resting her chin on her hand as she gazed at him. “A bit too blueish but it might be the light. Well, baby, if you ever get curious to feel the only thing that’s even better than hugging a dog, come to us. Caren would be totally into it, too.”

“Thanks, I think, but I need to find Amanda. To talk, I need to talk to her.” He swallowed hard. It was nice at first that she suddenly talked to him as if he wasn’t just a prop to shove around but this had taken a turn he wanted to get away from as quickly as possible.

“It’s okay, baby, no feelings hurt.” She laughed and tossed the remains of the apple into the fire where it hissed and crackled as the flames devoured it. “We all know you only have eyes for the handsome lieutenant. I get you. Needs a trim and a comb but he has that rough charm. And he’s so tall. And big strong hands. Wonder what those could do to you…” Her dreamy voice trailed off.

“I have to go. Uh, thanks, Carina.” He backed away from the table, his face burning, his mind racing. On the one hand, hearing her talk about Hank like this was wrong! She had no place to do so, she didn’t even know him! On the other hand, her words painted a picture. A clear, bright picture of Hank smiling at him and his hands reaching out to touch his face, to move through his hair, and around his body.

Connor couldn’t breathe. He had to get away from here, away from anyone. He needed fresh air, fast!

“Hey, if you got nothing to do, you should go to the horses! Trust me, you’ll like it!” She shouted. “And if you change your mind about my offer, you know where to find me!”

Her laughter still reached him after he was back in the corridor. The horses, she said? Well, why not? He couldn’t talk to anyone now but he didn’t trust himself to be alone with his thoughts. Maybe the horses were just the company he needed.

Chapter Text

The wind howled around the corners, cooling his cheeks. Connor shuddered, rubbing his arms as he had seen the humans do it when they were cold, noting it indeed warmed him up, if only for a few seconds. He regretted running outside without his coat but the stables were only a few minutes away from the mansion. He hadn’t been there once since they moved here. The horses and carriages weren’t his business and he had no bounds with the animals, like many of the humans.

The wooden door opened with a creak. Tired, soft neighs greeted him from the dark. The smell hit him like a wall. It wasn’t unpleasant but different from what he had experienced so far.

“Hey. Horses…” he whispered back and slipped inside, closing the door behind him. “Bertha? Are you here?” He raised his voice but again, only the horses answered. He was relieved the caretaker of their animals wasn’t there, she liked to joke about him and had said a few times he didn’t belong into a carriage but in front of it, as he was closer to those modern cars than a living, breathing being. However, being alone meant he had to figure out how to light the stable on his own. He felt along the wall in the hope to come across a torch or a lamp. Fumbling with open fire in the dark didn’t sound like a good idea but he couldn’t make out any windows and without them, his eyes had no chance to get used to the dark.

Finally, his fingertips bumped into a wire. It led from the ground to the ceiling. He followed it and a few inches above where he had found it was a switch. He flipped it and the bulbs over his head began to flicker. He checked out the wiring, it appeared to be rather new. Typical. Elijah preferred old-fashioned lamps and candles but many of the crew members had bugged him for electrical light sources when they had started to make plans to find a house over the winter.

He didn’t have much time to marvel at his discovery. Interrupted in their sleep, a dozen horses whinnied in confusion and their hooves scratched nervously over the straw-covered ground.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to wake you up,” he said, guilty that he lied to them. He hadn’t planned to wake up and upset the horses but he should have expected this.

He had never paid much attention to them. Elijah had warned him to stay away; while they were gentle, docile creatures, they could cause good damage when they felt threatened or startled and nobody could predict how they’d react to the close presence of what he was.

He recognized the plump creature in the third box. The brown mare with the fluffy yellowish mane belonged to the small carriage they used for short trips around the towns they stayed in, the same one he had ridden back home with Elijah today.

“Hey… you!” He had no clue what the horse’s name was but the creature generously lifted its head and looked at him with its large, dark eyes. Connor’s mouth twitched. Suddenly, his courage left him. This wasn’t the tallest horse the carnival owned but standing so close to it, it was still a lot larger than a dog and much more massive. No doubt, if it wanted to, it could easily crush Connor against a wall or trample over him if he wasn’t careful.

“Easy. I’m your friend. I mean, not yet, but I want to get to know you better.” Slowly, he stretched his hand over the low door, flat open as he had seen Bertha do it when she approached it. It reached only to his chest and was of simple wood, he couldn’t believe these were really enough to hold back an animal that was strong enough to pull a carriage or a whole trailer.

The horse moved closer and moved its mouth over his palm. Connor giggled, startling himself with that noise. He marveled at how careful the animal was as it inspected his hand as if it knew how easily it could hurt him but he was as fascinated by how it felt. In lack of a better word, it felt funny, close to uncomfortable but not so bad that he’d pull back his hand.

Getting more courageous, he stroked the horse’s long nose. It was delightful! Soft, similar to touching Sumo, yet completely different. The horse came close enough for him to reach its ears. “Do all animals like to be scratched behind the ears? Is it because you can’t reach them by yourselves?”

He spent a good five minutes scratching and petting the horse, all his worries about the potential danger forgotten, as were his questions or his talk with Carina. The presence of the horses which felt intimidating before relaxed him. He wished he could stay here all night but he was getting cold. It didn’t bother the animals with their thick winter fur but Connor’s sweater wasn’t enough to keep him warm at night. He wondered if it was possible to sleep next to a horse and how it would feel to lie down in a bed made of straw but he wasn’t brave enough to try it out tonight.

“I better go back inside. I’m glad I came here. Sorry, I don’t know your name. I’ll find it out, I promise.” He’d ask Bertha tomorrow, hoping her passion for horses were enough for her to push her coldness towards him aside and to tell him more about them. She could teach him about horse care. Yes, maybe that was a good idea. Now that he wouldn’t perform with Elijah anymore he could himself make useful here. Everyone he had talked to today assumed he’d find something else to do on stage but he had no real desire to go back on stage. He simply didn’t care while the thought of being in the quiet company of warm, gentle animals made him smile.

The door creaked. The horse jerked its head away from his hand to join the choir of whinnies and nickers.

“Bertha?” Connor, still caught by the bliss of the new experience, hopefully, turned around. His smile froze.

“Look who we have here at night.” A man slipped inside, a wide, unpleasant grin on his face.

“Mr. Reed, isn’t it? What are you doing here?” Connor tensed. While he had only seen him from afar last night, the encounter this afternoon had been more than enough for Connor to not like this guy. And Reed had shown openly enough that the feeling was mutual. Connor backed away when Reed stepped closer. It was not only a feeling. The way how Reed had insulted him and spoken about him gave Connor the uneasy feeling that he was too close to figuring out his secret.

“Was in the area. Saw the light in here and thought hey, why don’t I say hello to our kind new neighbors.”

The horse snorted, pulling back its ears. Even without any knowledge about horses, Connor understood it as a horse’s way to express its dislike and to intimidate. Wish I could do that.

“Surprised to see you here.” Reed leaned on the gate but quickly reconsidered when the horse snatched at him. It was a funny sight but Reed didn’t lose his composure. “Thought you’d be put back in the storage until the next time somebody wants to slice you up. Like a piece of meat.”

Connor sensed the hostility in the overly friendly voice. He needed to defend himself but had no idea how. Elijah had always been the buffer between him and hecklers and as irritated as he had been with him today, Connor wished he was here now.

“Hey, doll!” Reed snapped his fingers inches away from his face. “Maybe nobody told you but if a cop asks you something, you answer!”

“You didn’t ask me anything, Detective. You assumed something about me.” Connor bit his tongue. He hadn’t intended to say this but he had been unable to hold the words back.

“I see, we got a smartass here!” Reed sneered, wrinkling his nose. Then, suddenly, he grabbed Connor by the collar of his sweater. Connor was a few inches taller so Reed was pulling him down.

“Don’t!” Connor shouted. Some of the horses trampled nervously in their boxes. He tried to push Reed’s arms away from him but the cop had a strong grip.

“Listen to me, dolly,” Reed hissed, their faces so close Connor could smell the alcohol in his breath, “I know you folks are up to something. Don’t think you can fool all of us with your tiny ass! I’ll find out all your dirty little secrets soon enough. Just one word of advice: Stay away from Anderson or I’ll rearrange your face until he stays away from you!”

“You can’t tell me what to do! I’ve done nothing wrong! Leave me alone!” Connor shouted louder than before, his anger overshadowing his fear.

As suddenly as Reed had grabbed him, he let go of Connor and took a step back. Connor surprised he was free to move again, straightened and stretched his neck to both sides. He had to do something but wasn’t sure was.

“Detective Reed, I-”

Reed’s fist punched him in the stomach, unknowingly hitting the still healing stab wound. The air knocked out of his lungs, Connor dropped to his knees, a cry dying in his throat.

“Play whore games, win whore prices.” Reed spat on the floor.

“What the hell is going on here?”

Reed spun around, Connor raised his head, holding his stomach and panting against the pain.

“Elijah!” he croaked.

Elijah was standing in the half-open door, his face pale and hard, eyes glaring more furious than Connor had seen him before.

“Reed! You-”

“Defended myself, Mr. Kamski.” He held up his hands, moving away from Connor, smiling at Elijah. “Your machine is malfunctioning, Kamski. I was just on a walk when I saw the light in here. I wanted to make sure there were no burglars but after saying hello, he attacked me. Muttered something about staying away from his Hank. His! I’m sure Lieutenant Anderson isn’t aware he’s the possession of a stranger now. Very concerning, Mr. Kamski, very concerning.”

Two long steps and Elijah was in his face, grabbing Reed the same way Reed had taken hold of Connor only a moment before.

“Connor would never do something like that!” Elijah growled.

“That’s what we always want to believe from those close to us. I’ve been there, Mr. Kamski.”

Connor was sick on his stomach. If it weren’t him kneeling on the floor, barely able to breathe from the pain, if it had been him walking in, he’d be tempted to believe Reed. Lying and pretending was part of the carnival’s business, it was the base illusions were build on, but listening to Reed sounding this genuine and convincing was ugly. It scared him. How could he ever tell after this if a human was saying the truth?

“It’s often the kind, quiet guys who can’t handle their emotions. Obsessive love can be so ugly, Mr. Kamski. You haven’t seen the worst of it! Attacking a coworker of the man he’s obsessed with is nothing against what his type is capable of if poked the wrong way.” Reed put his hands on Elijah’s wrists and pushed them down. Elijah let go of him. Connor couldn’t see him, Reed blocked his line of sight, but Elijah’s scorn thickened the air around them.

“Get out. Never set another foot on my property or you’ll never leave it again, nor will someone see you again!”

“Now, now, threatening a man of the law? You’re smarter than that, Kamski.” Reed laughed and looked at Connor. “You’re lucky, boy, that it was just a punch this time. I could arrest you for assaulting an officer, you know. Next time I won’t be so generous. Have a good night, Mr. Kamski. I hope we meet soon to finally have a chat with your crew!” As if Elijah had never threatened to kill him, Reed nodded at him and sauntered out of the stable. Connor could only stare after him, unable to process what just had happened and been said.

The door fell shut and broke the spell.

“My God, Connor! Are you okay?” All anger overshadowed by concern, Elijah hurried to Connor’s side. He sat down on the floor, put an arm around Connor, and pulled him into a hug. Connor didn’t protest. He was hurting but it wasn’t so much from the punch than from the detective’s words.

“I don’t understand, Elijah.” He was shaking. Elijah reached for Connor’s head and pressed it gently against his shoulder. “I haven’t done anything wrong! Why did he do that? Why did he lie?”

“I’m sorry, Connor, I wanted to protect you from this.” Elijah stroked his hair. Connor’s earlier anger towards him melted. It wasn’t so much that it was Elijah but that he wasn’t alone anymore against Reed. If Reed came back, Elijah would know how to handle him. “That’s why I wanted you to stay away from the humans. They’re dangerous, evil, violent. You have to stay here, with the carnival, where I can protect you and take care of you. You don’t need the humans, especially not that Anderson!” The sharp tone carrying the last few words pulled Connor out of his confused self-pity. He moved away from Elijah and sat up. It wasn’t so much the remaining dull echo of the pain that kept his hand of his stomach. There was something else, an undefinable, uncomfortable feeling planted and grown as Elijah’s speech went on.

“Why do you hate Hank so much? He hasn’t done anything to you.” Connor met Elijah’s gaze, wincing inwardly when his eyes darkened.

“He’s dangerous, Connor. He doesn’t look like it but he’s the smartest pig in the pen. That’s why Amanda’s whole scheme is insane! If you get close to him, it’ll be only a matter of time until he figures out the truth! And that will be our end. We’re killers, Connor!” Elijah grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, his face so close it was just a blur. “The corpse last night? Killed for you! And she might not have told you, but Amanda had harvest three times as many lately to brew that new blood of yours! Your Hank Anderson can’t ignore that! If he takes us down, you’re going down with us! Do you want that?”

“She said if he gets to know me he’ll change his mind! That I can get him to be on our side! She said he likes me!” Connor was almost shouting, leaning away from Elijah until the man in front of him took shape again. The pain in his stomach was getting stronger. First Reed, now Elijah, they all wanted him to stay from Hank but why? Elijah’s fears made sense but it wasn’t like him to dismiss Amanda’s assessment of the situation completely. And there was something in Elijah’s eyes, an urgency, that he had seen only a few minutes ago when Reed grabbed and threatened him.

“She said he likes me,” he repeated himself, trying to pull away from Elijah but he wouldn’t let go. He was still staring at Connor, his face unreadable. Connor shuddered and the previous anger returned, pushing his fears down. “And I like him. If there is a chance to make him accept me I’ll go for it. And he doesn’t, I don’t care. I have to try!” He was shouting again. Elijah’s face became even paler. He inhaled sharply, his eyes flashing.

He raised his hand and before Connor grasped what was going to happen, Elijah slapped him across his face.

“You fool!” Elijah rose to his feet, his voice thundering down on Connor, who was holding his cheek. It didn’t really hurt but the impact paralyzed every muscle in him. “And you say hasn’t done anything to me? Look at yourself! Kneeling in the dirt, stalked and punched by that idiot Reed! Running through the woods and not coming home! Defying me! What has he done to you is what he has done to me!”

“No.” Connor regained the control over his body and stood up, still rubbing his face as if that would clear his confusion. However, among all the crazy things happening to him, he saw one thing clear. “That has nothing to do with you. It can’t be my purpose to live my life only the way you approve of, even if I want something different.”

“Live your life?” Elijah laughed, a cold, calculating sound. “Connor, this isn’t your life.” His hands were back on Connor’s shoulders, his grip like a vice. “You don’t have a your life. You’re my creation! It was me who developed you. Who wrote the substructure of what’s your brain. Who designed you. Your face, your body. Do you really think you belong to yourself? That I made you so you can run off with an old man who’s shaggier than his damn dog?” He caressed Connor’s face with a tenderness that made Connor sick. He slapped Elijah’s hand away.

“That’s not true,” he muttered, searching in Elijah’s eyes for the man he used to know. “I know you didn’t make me alone. You alone couldn’t have done it. And that I wasn’t meant to belong to one of you. Why are you like this, Elijah? What happened to you? You’ve never talked like this before.”

Elijah sighed, taking Connor’s face between his hands.

“I know. Things were different but they were okay. We were a happy family, weren’t we? And then they went ahead and changed you. And when they did and they finally let me see you, bleeding and hoarse from screaming, you looked at me and said his name. That happened, you ungrateful child.” As soon as he finished, Elijah pressed his lips on Connor’s mouth.

Connor froze. That was a kiss, he recognized that from his books. Elijah was kissing him and it didn’t feel anything like it was written! Elijah put an arm around him and pulled him close, the other hand was on Connor’s head, grabbing his hair until it hurt. Everything was too warm, too close. There was nothing sweet about Elijah’s lips and when his tongue tried to force its way into Connor’s mouth it was so repulsive, he was feeling sick and dizzy. If he had the ability to throw up, he’d have done by now. A hand was moving under his sweater, cold fingers moving over his skin.

“No...” He moved away but Elijah followed, his hand gliding over Connor’s back. Connor’s eyes lost focus. He turned his head away from Elijah who’s mouth then went for his throat. Connor stared past him, the stable becoming a blur of dull colors and the noises coming from Elijah. Like in the books, Connor’s knees were shaky and his legs too weak to move on their own. But this was wrong! It hadn’t been described like that, it wasn’t supposed to feel cold and horrible and like he wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t here.

Elijah pushed him. Connor’s back hit against the box’ gate behind him.

“You don’t need the outside world, Connor,” Elijah breathed against his throat. “We offer you everything! The love of a mother from Chloe. A teacher in Amanda. And I can show you the answers to all the questions you must have after reading those silly books.”

“No!” Connor reached behind him, his fingers scratching over the wood of the gate. What had gotten into Elijah? He had been right, he had always protected Connor from harm and too curious outsiders. Were Chloe and Amanda agreeing with this? If they were, who would protect him from whatever Elijah had become tonight? Elijah’s hand moved up and down his spine a few times until it was shoved under the waistband of Connor’s pants.

“Yes, Connor. You were made to do this, don’t you understand? We knew that one day, you’d be able to feel and use this body of yours for this.” Elijah chuckled, pulling away from Connor’s throat and grabbing his chin. His lips almost touched Connor’s as he spoke. “Why else would I’ve given you everything you need to not only be with a woman but also a man? I made you perfect and it’s only right if I reap what I sowed!” He moved in for another kiss.

“I said, NO!” Connor tore his head away. He put his hands on Elijah’s chest and pushed him away as hard as he could. Caught off-guard by Connor’s physical resistance, Elijah tumbled backward, almost losing his balance.

“Connor, you don’t understand!”

“Don’t ever come near me again!” Connor shouted. The horse behind neighed, the loud, shrill noise breaking Connor out of his paralysis. He twisted on his heel and ran, tearing the door open with Elijah’s outstretched hand only inches away from his back. He slipped outside and ran, hiding in the embrace of the darkness.

 


 

“Fuck this bullshit!” Gavin’s home - checked, no Gavin. The police station - checked, no Gavin either. Sometimes Hank cursed his hunches, tonight, he’d have liked them to be wrong. He couldn’t think of any other harmless location Gavin might have gone to at this hour, at least none of them that would prompt him to sneak away from a merry drinking company. Especially if people Gavin was suspicious of getting drunk on his dime. Hank had two options- continuing his wild goose chase and walking from spot to the other, losing valuable time, or he listened to his instincts.

So cursed his life once more, pulled up his collar against the wind, and stomped down the road to the Kamski mansion, cursing some more to answer the rolling thunder. People rarely went this way for a walk at this hour. If there was important business, a horse or a carriage had been the first choice, so nobody had thought of installing street lamps. Clouds covered the moon and the stars and the darkest night became less poetic with every step Hank took on a path he more guessed than saw. He could turn back and go home first, getting a lamp and Sumo, maybe his gun would also be a good idea. But he was already halfway there and something in him urged him on. He had to hurry or something terrible would happen. Whatever it could be and how he’d deal with it, without a weapon and likely against more than one person, well, he’d figure it out when he got there.

“Oh, come on!” He looked towards the sky. No, he hadn’t been mistaken. Raindrops hit his face. One first, followed by a second. Three and four. “Now you can’t hold back anymore? What have I ever done to you?” But the only answer from above was more rain. Lightning parted the sky, thunder following in its wake.

“Pshaw! No more church taxes from me, asshole!” Now he was not only without his dog and a lamp but also soon soaked. He didn’t mind a good thunderstorm if he was dry and cozy in his home and not in the middle of a road hunting after his gut feeling.

His wet hair stuck to his neck and in his face, water dripped under the collar of his coat. Hank shuddered. The temperature dropped, finally announcing the overdue chill of the approaching winter. He thought again of turning around and going home. Gavin was a grown man and not drunk enough to excuse whatever bullshit he was getting himself into. If he messed with the wrong people and ended up as a prop in Kamski’s show, or worse, as a complaint on their captain’s desk, what was it to Hank? Definitely not his problem.

“Jesus!” The next thunderbolt cut into the forest, only a few minutes away from him, startling Hank. “Calm down, will ya?” Fortunately, several drizzles over the last days had kept the forest cold and moist, so hopefully, there wouldn’t be a fire. The trees looked threatening enough, massive and gigantic as their branches clawed towards the sky whenever lightening distorted their shapes and shadows. Hank was getting uncomfortable and sped up his pace. Gavin wasn’t his main concern, at the moment, he just wanted to get out of this weather before it got tired of aiming at trees.

Something echoed through the splashing of the rain. Hank stopped, silently warning the storm to not even think of going after him. He listened, trying to filter the sounds of rain and thunder and trees rustling in the wind for any noise that didn’t belong. There! He wasn’t imagining things after all. He definitely heard footsteps. Someone was running over the wet ground.

“Hey, Gavin? That’s you?” Hank shouted, immediately tilting his head into the direction he thought the steps were coming from. No answer but something moved in the darkness. Hank wiped the rain from his face and squinted. Yes, someone - oh, let it be someone and not something - was definitely out there and they were coming closer!