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Firestarter

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             Don't you want to know how we keep starting fires?

                        - "Danger! High Voltage" by Electric Six

 

The particular kind of unhappiness the boy known as Project Six feels right now is very familiar.

It should be. The feeling is damn near constant for him, like some kind of phantom limb he can't remove. It is a lingering sensation that manifests in various forms and hits him at different times and with different levels of intensity.

It is so pervasive that he thinks sometimes it might be the main thing that defines him as a person... I feel this, therefore I AM.

Yes, this kind of unhappiness is very familiar indeed.

Six sits alone in his room. It is a small, impersonal space almost completely empty of all but the most basic human comforts. The only signs of individuality are a small toy tucked safely in a corner and a handmade drawing on the wall.

Six did not make the drawing. He is not very good at drawing in general, although his visual-spatial skills are more than adequate. He has other talents, other things he's good at, and they take up most of his attention. He likes this drawing, though, and he likes the person who drew it, so he keeps it on the wall.

He doesn't look at it now.

He sits on the bed and watches the door.

He has been doing this for some time now, ever since he got back from his mission.

The only breaks in this sweeping stretch of time have been his debriefing session with Brenner and his check-up with Nelson and the odd snatches of sleep he gets when the lights go off.

It has been at least 24 hours since they got back to the Lab, judging by the lights and the meal deliveries. It’s probably closer to 36. Six can't tell for sure. There is no clock in here and he isn't allowed to wear a watch unless he is on a mission.

He doesn’t want to sleep (can’t sleep, won’t sleep, refuses, refuses…) even though he knows it displeases Brenner when he acts like this. He is Papa’s good boy, his crowning achievement, and it irks the older man when he… pines.

That’s what Papa calls it, his voice a low baritone of disapproval. Pining. Childish.

A distant part of him insists that this whole situation is terribly unfair. He did nothing wrong. He completed his mission. Why should he be punished for completing his mission, for bringing his target home like he was supposed to?

If security was tighter in this hellhole he wouldn't have needed to go out in the first place.

He can’t say any of this to Brenner.

First off, Brenner would tell Six that he isn’t being punished.

And he isn’t, not really, not in the traditional sense.

The person who did wrong is being punished, but the unfortunate consequence of this is that Six, who is a good soldier for Papa and who has learned over the years to obey without question, suffers as well.

Six isn't being punished. That is the truth but it is also a lie, like so many of the things that Papa says. It is a loop in the logic, a gray area.

Not having his reward, not having the thing he wants in here with him, is not the same as being punished.

But it sure feels like it sometimes.  

As for tightening security… it’s not Six’s place to say that to Brenner. It’s not his job to know about things like that.

He is not here to make judgment calls.

Six lets out a soft sigh and shifts in place on the bed. He crosses his legs and leans back against the wall.

At this moment, he looks for all the world like a normal teenage boy, broad and tall and relaxed. He wears his blonde curls on the long side – he’d had to work very hard to convince Brenner that he could blend in on missions better if he followed certain fashion trends, like the kinds he saw sometimes in reconnaissance photos – and in his quieter moments he has been contemplating facial hair.

He thinks maybe for the next mission he’ll try to convince his handlers to let him keep a little stubble on his upper lip, just for kicks.

The small indicator light on the thin metal band on his ankle blinks steadily up at him, a never-ending rhythm, an electric heartbeat.

Six doesn’t mind the band, not really (except for those moments, those terrible moments when he sees it and feels it, feels like it is gradually becoming inescapably embedded in his skin, and thinks that he might die might scream might die might rip his foot off might do anything… might do anything… might lose his mind if it doesn’t come off right now and…), and he understands that it makes the technicians in the Lab more comfortable to see him wearing it.

He wears it. Even if he could say with complete certainty that he would never use his powers to harm the people in this building, he would still have to wear the metal band.

(Of course he's heard the whispers... the off-hand remarks from the Techs and the secret, sacred lore quietly circulated by the other Numbers. They wear the band because a Number escaped once. Someone got out, got free, and even managed to take a few of the Techs out on the way, and now all the Numbers must wear the band on their ankles so that nothing like that ever happens again.

So yes, the band means that they are prisoners here... but it also means something else. You only need to wear chains if you are capable of walking away from your prison on your own without them. They wear the band because there is a possibility that if they didn’t they could, maybe, just walk away. A possibility, so distant now... and it may very well just be a dream. But still the thought lingers, teases, provokes. It may be impossible now, but it wasn't always so, and if it wasn't always so, if there was a time before the reality of now, then maybe, maybe, maybe...)

He has no illusions anymore. He’s not going to torture himself with the idea of escape. He knows that freedom, real freedom, is an impossible dream.

He’s a realist.

He’s not like…

Six settles back on the bed and waits for them to bring him Seven.

Each moment that ticks past without Seven here in this room he shares with Six is another drop added to a deep, dark pool in Six’s soul... a growing, seething pit of furious, animal rage.

It is a part of himself that he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge. If he wants to survive in this place, he cannot examine why the darkness is there, and he absolutely cannot let that darkness out.

Seven helps with that.

Seven makes the pain go away, makes his thoughts go quiet, makes something warm and strange and welcome bubble up inside of him, filling all those empty spaces.

Seven is beautiful and sweet and gentle, a soft light in this dark place.

He is the only thing Six really wants.

And Six cannot have him right now, because Seven is somewhere else being punished.

This is not the first time Seven has acted out... not by a long shot. He seems to feel that it is his moral duty to do so, especially recently.

He’s gotten some weird ideas in his head from somewhere, has come to some conclusions about their situation and hasn’t felt the need to explain all the details to Six…

No… that’s not fair. Six knows how all this started. He knows what this is about. Seven didn't spontaneously malfunction, and it is unfair to think that the boy's anxieties and fears and anger just appeared one day for no reason.

This all started with that one experiment, with that damned cat. Six remembers that unpleasant incident. It was upsetting, sure… it would have upset anybody, but Seven took the whole thing to heart and…

Six understands. He does. But...

Ever since then Seven has been desperate to…

The first time Seven tried to escape he barely made it down the hallway. He was going into the Glass Room and suddenly he turned and ran, broke free from the guards and raced like a madman down the corridor.

Six, who was sitting in Testing Room Two at the time, watched him as he ran past, saw the look of wild, almost animal fear on his face as he fled.

Seven told him afterwards that he didn’t know what came over him. He just wanted to run away, and he did. He didn’t think it out or plan it at all.

He was still punished for it. Solitary confinement.

The second time Seven tried to escape he actually made it out of the building and onto the road. He told Six afterwards that Brenner’s Clean-up Crew shot the truck driver who offered him a ride.

Seven told him that much and then Seven hadn’t wanted to talk anymore. Not about that… not about anything at all.

Six had gotten the silent treatment for three weeks before he finally managed to coax Seven out of his funk.

Punishment for that escape attempt was solitary confinement and electro-shock treatments.

And Brenner cut Seven’s hair.

Six tried to tell Seven that it was useless to try to escape, that running was a hopeless and dangerous endeavor, but his words did no good. Instead, Seven got a bright, stubborn glint in his eye and gritted his teeth and shook his head.

Then Six tried to give him a version of Brenner’s line, that they were doing good work here, that they were the future of mankind. At least that got Seven talking to him again, but only to tell him how completely wrong he was.

A clicking sound.

A lock mechanism turning.

The door to the small room opens. Six looks up sharply.

There is a shuffling sound in the hall outside… it’s time.

Six pointedly doesn’t move. If he moves, there is no telling what the guards will do in response.

Better to wait, to hold back, even though every instinct screams at him to go go go. It’s just as well he systematically squashed those knee-jerk urges a long time ago.

The guards don’t linger, thankfully. They drag Seven in, holding him up by both arms, and then unceremoniously drop him on the ground and leave. One technician ducks in just long enough to leave a change of clothes folded neatly in the far corner of the room before slipping out again.

The door clicks shut and just like that Six is up and off the bed, moving towards Seven with a sure, graceful stride. He doesn’t go too fast and he doesn't say anything. He doesn’t want to startle the other boy.

Sometimes Seven doesn’t like to be touched after he is… after.

Seven is wet, shaking, and naked except for his ankle band, and he is curled up in a fetal position on the ground. As the previous hours ticked past Six had been forced to conclude that Seven was in solitary. He wonders now if he was wrong.

He doesn’t know what the wetness means. Seven has never come back like this before. This is something new, a new experiment, a new punishment.

At least they didn’t cut Seven’s hair again. He’d been so upset about that last time. They had so few things that really belonged to them in this place. It hurt to lose anything, even something that would eventually grow back.

Six reaches out slowly, carefully, and after a moment’s hesitation gently runs his hand through Seven’s thick brown locks.  

The reaction is immediate.

Seven lashes out, catching Six in the arm and pushing him away. His beautiful brown eyes are wide with fear and fury, and his breaths come in short, shallow gasps. His fists fly wildly, without any sense of direction and with very little force, but it is enough to make Seven’s feelings about his roommate crystal clear.

That voice, that useless voice in Six’s mind, says again that this isn’t fair.

He doesn’t deserve to be pushed away, to be denied what he wants. He didn't do anything wrong. He was good. He was good and that means he can have his reward now.

He reaches out again, patience fraying.

He didn’t make Seven run away, and he didn’t punish him afterwards.

All he did was bring him back. His target, his mission, with instructions that came directly from Brenner. Find Project Seven and return him to the Lab undamaged. Refer all civilian witnesses to the Clean-up Crew.

Bring Project Seven home.

Seven struggles as Six grips him, hands gentle yet firm as he tries to control the punches Seven throws. From here Six can see all the bruises on Seven's lean body, the angry red marks that mean that electrodes were pressed against pale, mole-dotted skin. He can feel how weak and tired the other boy is, can read exhaustion and pain in his flagging movements.

It is easy to hold him down.

“Stop,” he murmurs. “Stop.”

The other boy never did know when it was useless to fight.

“Shut up!” Seven chokes out. He sounds utterly miserable, his voice a low croak. “This is all your fault! I told you to let me go… I could have made it! Why couldn’t you just…?”

“You can’t go.” Just the distant possibility of Seven leaving is enough to make Six feel dizzy and sick. “You can’t go. You belong here. You have to stay with me.”

Six made his choice a day and a half ago when he cornered the other boy in the woods behind the elementary school. It hadn't taken him long to find Seven, and when he did figure out where he'd gone - not that far away, not nearly far enough as it turned out - he'd dragged him back to the Lab with a proportional amount of force.

Seven begged and pleaded and promised and fought him the whole way back, but to no avail. The decision had already been made for the both of them a long time ago.

“You need to stay with me.”

Six cradles Seven in his arms, stroking him and kissing his cheeks, his temple, his neck, his shoulders. He lets out a soft, soothing hum, desperate to comfort and reassure the boy, to make him calm and quiet and content, to ease the physical and emotional anguish that is mercilessly tearing him apart.

Seven tries to land a few final hits but they roll off Six like water. Unperturbed, Six runs his hands up those long arms, down that familiar chest, feels damp, solid flesh and a terrible kind of bone-deep relief at the knowledge that Seven is still here.

Still in a sitting position on the floor, he pulls a blanket down and wraps it around the other boy, trying to warm him up and dry him off. Once he’s got him bundled up and almost pliant, he wraps his arms around Seven and tugs him up and onto the (their) bed.

“What were you gonna do? Huh?” he asks, not unkindly. “Live with those little kids? Stay in their basement forever?”

“They fed me,” Seven replies, his voice soft and sad and distant. “They gave me clothes. They talked to me like I was… like I was real. They gave me a name. A real name. Not some stupid number.”

A name. Sure. They’ve had this argument before.

Six has a name… they gave him a name when they approved him for missions. When he passed his tests and proved his loyalty, they gave him a name and a story to tell to strangers who asked about his past. They let him Outside for pre-arranged lengths of time.

At first it was just another experiment, another test, and when Six – or Billy Hargrove of California, now, according to his fake ID – didn’t run and didn’t fight back, they set him tasks to complete. The tasks were almost always people. People to hurt and people to kill and people to watch and people to capture and bring back to the Lab.

Seven doesn’t care about the tasks, doesn’t care about Brenner’s great plans or the Lab’s core prerogatives.

He wants a name, and to see and explore Outside. 

If Seven would only behave himself, they’d approve him for missions too. They could go out together, Six and Seven, and Seven would have a name like he wanted, and Six could have Seven with him all the time.

It would be as close to perfect as they would ever get.

“They named me Steven,” Seven whimpers, pulling himself away from Six and curling into a fetal position again, still wrapped up tightly in his blanket. “They’re going to wonder where I’ve gone.”

“They won’t care.”

“They will…”

“They won’t. They don’t even know you. They don’t care about you. Not like I do.”

Seven turns his head into the pillow and sniffles, and Six knows that his words have hurt him. Seven has always been more sensitive, more desperate for human contact and affection, more vulnerable to – what had Papa called it? – the ‘slings and arrows of fortune’.

Six is not sensitive. There are only a few things in his life that he truly cares about.

“Some people in this world are naturally weaker, easier to hurt,” Brenner told Six once. He remembers that moment very clearly. They were both standing on one side of a glass window, staring into the adjacent room and watching as Seven was strapped down to a long table, bare and exposed under blindingly-bright lights.

“The world is full of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We need to protect him… even from himself. Especially from himself. Otherwise he will keep getting hurt.”

Six watched as the doctors turned up the dials on the familiar, hateful machine next to Seven's head. He watched as Seven shrieked in agony.

He remembers another day, too... a day from long ago. It is his first memory, or at least the first one that mattered. It was the first time he saw Seven in the room they call the Nursery. He was small and pale, with shaggy hair and wide brown eyes full of wary curiosity. A pudgy little hand reached out to Six.

Six had known then that he would never be able to let the boy go.

Six wraps himself around Seven as if those slings and arrows Brenner mentioned were falling on them right now. He drapes his arm over the other boy's chest and presses himself against his back. He makes his body a solid shield, determined to keep Seven safe from the world.

He thinks that if he could absorb that pain for Seven, he would. If he needed to die for Seven, he would.

Seven belongs here with him. If Six is good, if he obeys, he can keep Seven and protect him.

Seven, for his part, just curls up into a tighter ball and refuses to look at his… friend?

They are not friends.

Six has been Outside a little bit, has learned some vocabulary… and he doesn’t think there is a word for what they are.

When the food comes later Six will feed it to Seven and get Seven out of bed and dressed in his clean clothes. If Seven is in one of his sad, silent moods, Six will gently cajole him until he snaps out of it.

If Seven lets him, Six will touch him, pet and caress him, run his fingers through his soft brown hair and press his mouth against his smooth skin.

If Six is really lucky, Seven will let him touch his penis, stroke it with his hand or put his mouth on it until the other boy has an orgasm. Seven's face will screw up and he'll make that breathy gasping sound that Six loves, and then he'll go boneless and pliant and sweet under Six's strong, capable hands.

It always makes Seven more content and calm when Six does that for him.

It makes Six calm, too. That is why he is allowed to keep Seven even though Seven is, as the doctors said once, “a highly unorthodox behavioral modifier.”

“Nonsense,” Brenner had replied, standing over Six while Six was strapped to a gurney and pretending to be unconscious. “It’s basic animal instinct. It’s the carrot and stick.”

A secret part of himself that Six never listens to, cannot listen to, refuses to listen to, tells him that Brenner believes that if he takes Seven away from Six, there will be no calming Six down or making him go on missions anymore.

It tells him that Six is something important, something that Brenner cannot afford to lose.

Six is afraid of Brenner... of Papa. Of course he is. How could he not be?

The little voice tells Six that Brenner is afraid of him, too.

Brenner will most likely want to punish Seven some more after this, and of course there are always more experiments to be done. Six hates it, hates being here as much as Seven does, but he will accept it if it means he can keep Seven with him. He’d take the punishments for him if he could. As it is, he can only endure it and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Anything... he’d do anything... even suffer, even cause suffering… because the alternative is unacceptable.

Seven cannot leave. He needs to stay with Six. If he tries to leave, Six will find him and bring him back.

He will burn down the whole world if it tries to keep him from his friendloverprisonercaptorhusbandsoulmate.

And he has always been very good at starting fires.

He pulls Seven close and buries his face in sweet-smelling skin and soft hair as Seven shivers and cries and drifts in and out of sleep.

The particular kind of unhappiness Six feels is very familiar. It is the kind he always feels when Seven is here in their small room, in their small bed, hidden from the world and safely caged in Six's arms.

It is the kind that is dangerously close to happiness.