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On the morning of December nineteenth, in a tiny apartment ten minutes away from Cumberland College, Erhard Muller wakes up feeling like a very small construction worker is running a jackhammer inside his head. His joints feel sore, like he’s been playing too much Wii Sports, and even contemplating moving seems like too much work. Ugh. Going to school today does not seem like a good idea. He attempts to kick the blankets off, lets out a small groan – ow, okay, bad idea, that hurt – and immediately his younger sister Rosalia is by his side.

“Big brother, come on, wake up, you’re gonna be late for class – oh my gosh, you’re practically burning up!” she exclaims, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead. She withdraws her hand with a frown. “Stay right there, I’m gonna go get Dad!”

Her footsteps echo as she leaves the bedroom that the two of them share, and Erhard is left alone to contemplate how his physical condition went so far downhill overnight. A thought occurs to him as he stares at the ceiling: Jeff, one of the guys in his lab group, had shown the symptoms of flu when they were cultivating bacteria in biology a few days ago, and he’d been out sick for two or three days now. Could it be that he had caught the flu from Jeff? And, even worse, Jeff had sneezed on their petri dish; could they have cultivated the wrong bacteria? Shoot.

Someone shakes his shoulder gently, and he drifts back to reality as his father comes into view, brandishing a thermometer and a cup of the canned chicken noodle soup they keep on hand for whenever someone gets sick. Erhard submits to having his temperature taken; when Albert finishes, he half-heartedly starts to sip at the soup.

“It is almost definitely the flu, my son,” Albert sighs, checking the thermometer with a practiced eye. “You will have to stay home today.”

“Can I stay with him, Dad? Please, please, please?” Rosalia begs, with her hands clasped together in a plea. “Big brother needs someone to take care of him, and today’s only a half day for me. I won’t miss a thing! Pleeeeease?”

“I suppose that you may,” Albert stresses the proper grammar, smiling fondly at his youngest child. “I will try to come home early as well… I have to go now, so be good, you two,” he orders. “I will see you later.” He rumples Erhard’s hair, kisses Rosalia on the forehead, and exits the room. Erhard can hear the sound of Albert’s footsteps echo in their little apartment as he strides down the hallway and leaves.

Rosalia follows him out, then brings her breakfast back into their room – a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with no milk, as per usual – and perches cross-legged at the foot of Erhard’s bed, chattering idly about the Christmas events that are coming up around town. She mentions a boy named Emilio once or twice; normally, Erhard would play the role of the protective older brother and fire off a series of queries regarding this boy and his grades and any other relevant information about him, but today he’s too out of it to even bother. The thought dimly registers that that’s probably why she’s saying this now, rather than when he’s actually well.

As Rosalia goes into great detail explaining a project that she has to do over winter break, Erhard ends up falling asleep for a while. When he wakes up, it’s ten o’clock, and Rosalia has disappeared; the can of soup sits on his nightstand along with a note from Rosalia telling him that she’s in the kitchen, working on her project.

He polishes off the last of his soup, picks up the empty can, and shuffles down the hallway to the kitchen. The radio is playing in the background, and Rosalia’s sitting at the table, gluing pictures on a poster. He puts his can in the sink—he’ll wash it later, he needs ibuprofen stat—and taking a glass from a cupboard, he pours himself some milk and takes a couple of Motrin pills. In fifteen minutes or so, he should feel… well, not exactly pleasant, but a lot better than he does right now. Albert’s left his newspaper behind on the table – today it trumpets the news that Jacob Tillman, a member of the City Council, is going to run for Assistant Secretary of something or other. Rosalia looks up, seeing Erhard, and glancing at the newspaper, observes, “Wow, shouldn’t he retire or something? He looks kinda old. Also, you should grab me the comics.”

“His eyes look slightly yellow,” Erhard mumbles, flicking through a catalog of diseases in his mind. Jaundice, maybe? He probably shouldn’t worry about it – responsible men like Councilman Tillman go to the doctor regularly, don’t they? He puts his diagnosis to the back of his mind and starts to look for the Sudoku puzzle. Setting the comics aside for Rosalia, he finds the puzzles and picks up a pencil, determined to make this puzzle pass from the world.

 “It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees, they’re puttin’ up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace,” Robert Downey Jr. croons. “Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on…” Rosalia hums along, and taking the comics, she flops down on the couch, putting her feet up on the coffee table. Still worried about the state of his biology team’s petri dish, Erhard puts his puzzle to the side, picks up his laptop from its spot on top of a pile of medical magazines, and fires off a quick message to his groupmates.

To: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu), Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu), Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Bacteria growth

Did the bacteria in our biology project grow properly, or did we end up growing the wrong bacteria? We might have; Jeff sneezed on the petri dish and he was out sick yesterday…

--Erhard

P.S. Jeff, now I’m sick. Thanks so much.

He returns to completing the Sudoku puzzle as a new song starts playing on the radio. Rosalia sings along quietly, “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away…

“This one should be a 5 or a 1,” he mumbles to himself, and tentatively penciling in a 1, he turns his attention to another square. Rosalia finishes with the comics and returns to working on her poster; Erhard’s laptop dings, notifying him that he has a new message.

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

Don’t know. Seems probable. Will update you at lunch. Have to put phone away. Being given the stink eye.

Get well soon.

Stephen

With a shrug, Erhard pushes his laptop away and returns to his Sudoku puzzle. About twenty minutes later, when there are only three boxes left to fill in, his laptop dings twice.

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

Wow, rude. I guarantee that there are no flu germs on our petri dish. Buuuut you know what? I’ll email you just to confirm after lunch, okay? I’m back at school today! :)

Um, speaking of flu, sorry about that, haha. Feel better soon, or Nate might fail our science test. :P

-Jeff

--

To: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Re: Bacteria growth

oh god oh man oh god i really hope we have the right bacteria. do you think shell let us do it over? im barely scraping a b- as is. gonna kill jeff for sneezing on our dish

and where are you???? crap. you better not be sick you ass, wholl study w/me??? get well soon, our test is in 2 days and i need you, dude

uh anyway ill tell you how it goes when i hit the caf

-- nate the great who is not feeling so great now cause SOMEONE decided to get sick all of the sudden

At one o’clock, Rosalia digs a container of deli turkey out of the refrigerator, and the two of them make turkey sandwiches topped with a slice of cheese and a couple of tomato slices.  Rosalia firmly draws the line at carrot sticks, pushing them over toward her brother’s plate. Erhard eats them absentmindedly, periodically checking his phone for a reply from his friends. An hour later, when Rosalia has put the dishes away and retired to the living room for a nap on the couch, he gives up on waiting and sends another message.

To: Jeff Marshall (jeffrey.marshall@cumberlandcollege.edu), Nate Graham (nathaniel.graham@cumberlandcollege.edu), Stephen Bourne (stephen.bourne@cumberlandcollege.edu)

From: Erhard Muller (erhard.muller@cumberlandcollege.edu)

Subj: Ha ha. Very funny.

Lunch ended an hour ago. Did you all magically forget? I’m going to guess that the bacteria are all fine and you’re just playing a prank on me.

(Nate, it’s “all of a sudden”.)

--Erhard

--

With that duty out of the way, Erhard returns to his room and reads back issues of Scientific American until he falls asleep. A few hours later, he wakes up feeling hungry. A quick glance at the clock tells him that it’s 5:00—he’d go and have a snack, but Albert should be home soon, and he frowns on people snacking less than an hour before dinner. Maybe he can have some hot chocolate while he waits. He rolls out of bed, shuffles down the hallway, and bumps into Rosalia in the kitchen. “Dad told me before he left that he’s gonna bring some takeout food home, so don’t make dinner!” she chirps.

“Wasn’t planning to. Do you want hot chocolate?” Erhard asks, sidestepping around her and grabbing a can of cocoa powder from a kitchen cabinet. Rosalia nods her assent and starts heating the water for their drinks while Erhard pulls a bag of mini marshmallows out. A few minutes later, they mix their drinks up, top them with the marshmallows, and sit down at the kitchen table to enjoy their drinks.

“Can we watch a movie while we wait for Dad?” Rosalia questions when she has completely finished her mug of hot chocolate. Erhard takes a long swig of his drink and nods. Immediately, she’s off to the DVD rack, poring over the titles like she does every movie night. She picks up several cases before shaking her head and putting them back. She’s not too fond of The Avengers, a joint birthday gift from Erhard’s friends; she just watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban last week; she’s not in a Pocahontas mood today…

“How about Lilo and Stitch?” she suggests.

“Sounds good to me.” Erhard picks up his mug of hot chocolate, grabs a blanket, and joins Rosalia on the couch. The Grand Councilwoman starts to talk and Rosalia stares at the screen, mesmerized. On the other hand, Erhard’s feeling rather tired…

He drifts off for a while, and only awakens at the sound of Nani and Lilo arguing loudly. It’s something about a rabbit which Rosalia can quote nearly word-for-word, but he personally can never remember what is going on. “I hope this never happens to us,” Rosalia comments. “Wouldn’t you hate it, big brother?”

Go to your room!” Nani yells at her younger sister. “I’m already in my room!!!” Lilo retorts. Nani retreats to her room, and both sisters scream into their pillows.

“Hm. I don’t think we need to worry about that,” Erhard thinks out loud. “Neither of us is really the screaming type. Dad’s going to be around for a long time, anyway,” he adds as Lilo confesses to Nani, “I like you better as a sister than a mom.”

“Guess you’re right,” Rosalia replies. The siblings return to watching the movie in silence. The only thing to be heard throughout the apartment for a long time is the sound of the movie playing and the slurping noise of Erhard sucking the dregs of cocoa out of his mug.

Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind,” Stitch says, bringing tears to Rosalia’s eyes. Erhard, on the other hand, has dozed off again; his headache has finally receded, leaving in its place a wave of fatigue. He only wakes up when the Grand Councilwoman attempts to bring Stitch back to outer space: “This is my family. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good,” Stitch says. Rosalia snuggles a bit closer to Erhard, and he puts his arm around her, blinking the sleep from his eyes. No matter how old he gets, he’s going to have to admit that he has a soft spot for this part. He and Rosalia have definitely experienced their share of broken, bad families. Having a “little, broken, but still good” family is pretty good, he thinks.

As the ending credits begin to play, the siblings’ silence is broken by a loud growl from Rosalia’s stomach. With surprise, Erhard notices that it’s already 7:30. Their father should have been home hours ago.

--

Text from Erhard Muller (301-501-1984) to Albert Sartre (301-171-7872) at 7:30 PM

Where are you? We’re getting hungry. Making lasagna.

--

His father doesn’t reply promptly, so with a frown, Erhard shoves his phone into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls a lasagna out of the freezer. He and Rosalia put it into the oven, set the table for themselves and Albert, and eat dinner twenty minutes later. There’s still no word from Albert when they finish dinner; Rosalia looks slightly concerned now, and Erhard is really getting worried. He sends Rosalia off to take a bath and change into her pajamas, then dials his father’s phone number and sandwiches the phone between his ear and shoulder. Tapping his fingers impatiently on the counter, he waits for Albert to pick up, but he never does.

By nine o’clock, Erhard and Rosalia are both curled up on the couch again watching TV. Old reruns of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are on, and the two amuse themselves by yelling the answers at the screen before the contestants can get them. Soon, however, the fun starts to fade, and by nine forty-five, Rosalia is fast asleep and drooling on Erhard’s shoulder.

Bored of the game shows, Erhard flips on a whim to the news channel and is greeted by a helicopter view of Cumberland College, where police cars are zooming around, paramedics abound, and red and blue lights illuminate silhouettes of bodies lying all over the campus.

“Wait, what?” he says out loud, and Rosalia shifts in her sleep. He turns the volume down and stares wide-eyed at the screen, where the cameras are zooming in on bodies spotted with very familiar bruises. Image after image of people bleeding, screaming, dying—oh god, he knows that guy, that’s Andrew from his history class—he’s seen all these symptoms before in Dr. Sartre’s lab, but they’re definitely different when viewed on people. He feels like he’s going to throw up.

As if to distract him from the carnage on his screen, he hears the cheery jingle of his cellphone, informing him that he has a new text message. It’s been repeating for a few minutes, he finds, as he checks the message that he’s received.

--

Text from Albert Sartre (301-171-7872) to Erhard Muller (301-501-1984) at 9:55 PM

We’re going to need you to come with us soon. Stay calm and get your sister. Professor Jacobsen will pick you up in five minutes.

--

The doorbell rings, the door opens, and suddenly Erhard is acutely aware that he and his sister are both in pajamas, they still have remnants of hot chocolate mustaches, and their hair is a mess. Blinking sleepily in the glare of the hallway’s bright lights, he sees Professor Jacobsen, flanked by two policemen.

“Erhard, my boy, there’s been… an incident,” Professor Jacobsen says uncomfortably.

“I saw it on the television,” Erhard replies, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the TV, now muted but still flashing images of the devastation on campus.

“Then you’ll understand that we need to investigate your apartment, Mr. Muller,” one of the policemen says, stepping out from behind the professor and flashing a badge at him. “Nothing against you, of course, but they believe that suspicious activity could have been taking place here. They also want you down at the station as soon as possible to answer some questions.”

The symptoms of shock are beginning to set in, but Erhard’s able to analyze the situation pretty well. They suspect his father of causing the deaths of all those people, probably bioterrorism, and by helping with the research, Erhard has effectively made himself a suspect in the eyes of the police. This was not how he was expecting his winter break to go. “Let me… wake my sister up,” he mutters, and turns his back on the policemen to shake his sister awake.

“Nngh, wha’s goin’ on?” Rosalia mumbles, blearily opening her eyes. “Is Dad home?” The policemen melt into the shadows of the hallway leading down to Albert’s room, while the professor stands awkwardly in the doorway.

“We’ve got to go out for a bit, Rose,” Erhard says. “Professor Jacobsen’s going to take us somewhere, okay? Let’s grab our jackets.”

Still bleary-eyed, Rosalia sits up. The TV, which is still displaying pictures of the victims, catches her eye, and she immediately snaps into full consciousness. “Oh,” she whispers. Having donated blood endless times for the sake of her father’s experiments, she knows exactly what happens when “her” virus infects another living being. Like Erhard, however, she’s never seen it affecting anything that isn’t a rat. “Uh, y-yeah, let me go get my…” Another image of someone bleeding from the eye sockets flashes on the screen, and she practically sprints out of the living room. Erhard hears the sound of retching a few moments later and correctly guesses what’s happening.

He shuffles back to their room, picks up Rosalia’s jacket from her bed, slips into his own windbreaker, and paces back to the kitchen to grab a snack for himself and Rosalia. When he meets Rosalia outside the bathroom, he gravely proffers her jacket and a granola bar; blinking back tears, she nods and takes both items. The two of them silently follow Professor Jacobsen out the door to his parked car and sit together in the backseat. The policemen are still searching the apartment, so as the siblings stare up at the window of their apartment, they can see silhouettes of the policemen methodically going through their things.

Rosalia shivers, although her jacket is warm, and curls into Erhard’s side. The car ride is silent for a few minutes, then the professor, apparently unable to stand the quiet, switches on the radio. A cheerful Christmas song plays, completely at odds with Erhard and Rosalia’s moods at the moment. Despite the background music, the car is still uncomfortably quiet, and the exhausted siblings are almost glad to reach the police station.

A friendly-looking female officer greets them; taking in their exhausted faces with a concerned eye, she says, “Hello there. I’m Officer James. We just need to ask you some questions before we send you back home, okay?”

“Is this gonna be like that James Bond movie where you record us and ask us to do psych tests and stuff and M is watching from behind a mirror that’s actually a window?” Rosalia asks, looking anxious.

“We are going to record you, but I promise there won’t be any psychological tests tonight,” Officer James says with a friendly smile, and gestures toward a door a few feet away. Rosalia takes hold of Erhard’s hand and the two of them enter to find a table and a few chairs. The officer picks up a small tape recorder from the table and motions to them to sit down, then becomes all business; she flips a switch on the recorder and starts the interrogation.

“Case S01, Officer Natalie James interrogating. State your names, please.”

“Erhard Muller,” Erhard replies, and Rosalia follows up with “Rosalia Rossellini.”

“You two are Dr. Albert Sartre’s adopted children?”

“Correct.”

“Did you have any knowledge of what was going to happen today?”

“No,” the siblings speak at the same time. Rosalia looks faintly green again. Erhard wishes he’d brought a paper bag or something—he doesn’t think that the Cumberland police department would appreciate an eleven-year-old throwing up on their immaculate floors.

“Was Dr. Sartre acting suspicious at all the last time you saw him?”

“Not really,” Rosalia answers. “He said we could stay home from school ‘cause big brother’s sick”—here she gestures to Erhard, whose headache is returning—“and said he’d buy us takeout food for dinner. But he didn’t get the chance, I guess.”

“I see,” Officer James nods, and looks a little sad. “How were you linked with Dr. Sartre’s research?”

“I donated blood,” Rosalia declares matter-of-factly. When the officer looks confused, she clarifies, “Daddy says there’s a powerful disease inside me, but I’m a-symp-to-matic. And he also says that if you use it right, it’s got the potential to wipe out lots of diseases! And I wanna help him save the world from sickness if I can, so I helped by doing that.”

“I helped him run trials; I injected the rats with different strains of the ‘Rosalia’ virus and observed the results from each,” Erhard adds. “The disease was contained very well within his lab, so I’m not entirely sure how… this happened.”

“I understand,” the officer replies, and shuts off the tape recorder. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Do they think Dad’s guilty?” Rosalia blurts before the officer can dismiss them.

“We’re still gathering evidence,” she discloses hesitantly. “All the labs are being inspected for traces of this ‘Rosalia’ virus. We’ll let you know more when our information has been confirmed.”

Erhard can’t recollect much of what happens next—he thinks Rosalia might have finally thrown up, aided by nerves, and he faintly recalls a police officer steering both of them back into Dr. Jacobsen’s car. Mostly, however, he remembers falling down on the doctor’s couch and thinking “This is only the first day” before blacking out completely.

Chapter Text

Erhard awakens on a couch to the sound of the morning news. His head aches terribly, and for a moment he’s confused. Albert never watches the news in the morning—he prefers to read the newspaper. “What’s going on?” he mumbles.

He opens his eyes to see that he’s not even in his own apartment. A couple more moments follow in which he stares around in confusion, and then suddenly the memories come rushing back.

The first of the funerals for the students and faculty killed in the Cumberland College incident will begin in an hour,” the news announcer pronounces somberly, and a look of sudden determination settles on Erhard’s face. “Andrew LeRoy, age nineteen, was among the best and brightest of Cumberland College’s sophomores; he leaves behind his parents and two older sisters. The service will be at Holy Family Church at ten o’clock…”

As the announcer continues to give out details on the upcoming services, Erhard makes up his mind. “I’m going out,” he abruptly calls to Dr. Jacobsen. Rosalia’s still sleeping, so he scrawls a note for her, telling her that he’ll be out for the morning and should be back after lunch. He knows it’s probably really terrible of him to leave her alone like this right after Albert left and didn’t come back, but… He can’t find the words to explain why, but he feels like it’s something he needs to do by himself. Call it a penance of sorts.

As he passes a mirror in Dr. Jacobsen’s foyer, he checks his reflection: he’s still in his jacket, a T-shirt, and sweatpants, and his hair is tousled from a restless night on the couch. He’s not exactly dressed in funeral-worthy attire, but he has an idea. Shoving his feet into his sneakers, he feels in his jacket pocket for his wallet—good, it’s still there—and sets off for the nearest bus stop.

A short bus ride later, Erhard enters his apartment building and takes the stairs up to his apartment. Slipping his key into the lock, he opens it to find a couple of police officers still investigating the place. They haven’t made any big differences to the apartment; the place doesn’t look like it’s been ransacked, but there’s a definite air of wrongness surrounding it nonetheless. Things have been shifted by an inch or two; he can see the dents that the couch had made in the floor during his seven years in the apartment, and—oh, there’s that history assignment Rosalia lost last month. Hm.

He looks up to meet the gaze of one of the police officers, who eyes him suspiciously for a moment. “What are you doing here?” the officer finally asks.

“I’m going to get some better clothes for a funeral,” is Erhard’s rejoinder, and he shuffles away down the hallway. Albert’s room is predictably cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and another police officer is in there scrutinizing Albert’s papers, but for the most part, Erhard and Rosalia’s room seems to have been left alone. He opens the door, slips inside, and finds his suit hanging where he’s left it. Dressing quickly, he runs his fingers through his hair, thinks for a moment, then stuffs some of his and Rosalia’s things into a backpack and exits the apartment before the other police officer notices he’s there.

If anyone notices a slim, black-haired boy sitting quietly in the back of Holy Family Church during Andrew LeRoy’s funeral, they don’t comment on his appearance. He appears again and again at every funeral mourning the deaths of those from the Cumberland College incident, sometimes with a diminutive, silver-haired girl next to him, but invariably vanishes in between the end of the service and the interment. Both children sport a guilty look on their faces, and some of the people at the funerals swear that they saw the boy whisper “I’m sorry” to the bodies of the deceased. There are suspicions as to who he is, but Cumberland isn’t a very small town, and no one ever figures out that the children at the funerals are actually the children of the “Devil Doctor”.

In between attending funerals, recovering from the flu, and packing up their belongings, Erhard and Rosalia are shuffled around the surviving Cumberland professors while the adults attempt to figure out what they can do. None of the professors can particularly afford to keep two children in school (especially when one is in medical school, and won’t be out for years yet), clothe them, and feed them. None of them particularly want to, either. Although the teachers are fond of both children, there are limits to human sympathy, and most of them have children of their own to tend to.

There’s also the fact that associating with suspected assistants in bioterrorism is probably not good for any teacher’s image, but the siblings are trying their best not to think about that.

While they’re transferred from family to family, Erhard and Rosalia spend some time going through Albert’s papers and records to see if he has any relatives they can contact. They learn that he had a falling-out with his parents when he was seventeen, and both are long dead. He had a younger sister, who died of leukemia when he was fifteen—an entry in his journal dated about a week after she died reads, “I want to become a doctor so I can cure cancer. That way, no child will ever have to go through what Camille did.” Memories of all the blood drawn, all the tests run, and all the hope their father had had for his research run through Rosalia’s mind, and she breaks down sobbing. Erhard is admittedly not the best at comforting people, but he hugs her close and holds her until she stops crying.

After a night with Dr. Jacobsen, two days with Professor Lin (during which the “apocalypse” comes and goes, but no one in town pays attention—how can they, when their lives have been turned upside down?), and a night with Professor Bell, the two are packed off to Dr. Foster’s apartment, where they’re going to stay until the day after Christmas. Dr. Foster, unlike the other professors, doesn’t treat them like they’re broken or need special help; instead, she distracts them with the cheer of the holiday season, commandeering them to help her and her fiancée make Christmas cookies and set up the Christmas tree. The holiday happiness doesn’t really fix all the problems in their lives, but it makes them feel better for a little while. Erhard reflects that this is probably why the doctor has always been one of his favorite professors.

On the twenty-third, as he’s reading a book on the couch, he gets a phone call from Officer James—the investigators have found a petri dish labeled “Stephen Bourne, Nate Graham, Erhard Muller, Jeff Marshall – Bacteria Project, Biology II”, and want to know if it belongs to him. He replies yes, it does, and Officer James informs him that it’s filled with flu germs, in case he wanted to know, and they’re going to autoclave it, effective immediately.

With a brisk farewell, the officer hangs up. Erhard stares blankly at the wall for a minute, holding the phone and ignoring its tinny dial tone. He doesn’t know why, but the first thought that runs through his mind is “Well, Nate’s definitely going to flunk biology now.” The second thought is “That’s stupid, Nate’s not even alive to flunk biology,” and then that’s when it hits him. None of his friends will ever pass or flunk biology. None of his friends will ever pass or flunk a class again. None of his friends will ever come to school, pass him in the hallway, copy his homework, eat lunch with him, or help him with a tough homework problem, because they’re no longer alive to do so.

Rosalia finds him hunched over on the couch ten minutes later, shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Like he did for her before, she hugs him quietly, rubbing slow circles on his back.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, when he’s calmed down a little.

She doesn’t mention it again, and neither does he.

Christmas is uneventful and quiet, compared to the surrounding days. They sleep in, receive a book each (a joint gift from the Cumberland professors), and Dr. Foster and her fiancée take them to the cinema to see a movie about French revolutionaries. This turns out to be a bad idea, because almost everyone dies, and both Rosalia and Dr. Foster exit the movie with tears streaming down their faces. All of them agree that they shouldn’t have expected anything happy if they were going to see a movie called Les Misérables.

The next trip they take isn’t any happier. The day after Christmas, Dr. Foster takes them back down to the police station to see their father. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved; Albert rasps at them, “My son, forgive me…! I was enticed by the Devil!” and the security guard nearby snaps, “CR-S01, stop, you’re agitating your visitors.”

It’s both strange and sad to see Albert Sartre, the most complicated man Erhard knows, reduced to a mere string of numbers and letters. Erhard and Rosalia spend an uncomfortable half hour trying to talk to him and find out his motives for the horrific incident that’s still fresh in their city’s mind. However, aside from his initial outburst, Albert seems not to notice the two of them. He’s lost in a world of his own, and spends much of the thirty minutes they’ve been allotted staring blankly into the distance.

So they say goodbye—Albert doesn’t notice—and then return to Dr. Foster’s apartment to pack up once again. Out of all the places they’ve lived in over the past week, Dr. Foster’s is the best; she sends them to bed at a reasonable hour and generally doesn’t interfere with their lives. The problem is that on December thirtieth, she’s going to leave to spend a sabbatical year in Australia. She’s offered to take Erhard and Rosalia along with her, but they have to return to school, and the other professors have agreed that since Albert has no remaining family, they should be kept in the Cumberland area to minimize the awkwardness of their transition to a new host family.

“It’s kind of going to be awkward either way, isn’t it?” Rosalia asks quietly as the adults discuss what to do, and Erhard merely nods in response.

After days of debate and legal negotiation, the professors decide that the once-again orphaned siblings should go to the orphanage on the outskirts of town, where Rosalia spent four years of her life after her own sickly parents had passed away. A Metro bus can take Erhard to Cumberland when it reopens, while an earlier stop on Rosalia’s school bus route is a few minutes’ walk away. The orphanage is run by government grants and charitable donations, so placing them there won’t even cost anything, save for a polite donation. It’s quite a nice and tidy plan, but the two can’t help but feel a little abandoned.

So finally, when the contents of their apartment are neatly packed into a storage unit, and Erhard and Rosalia have packed two small suitcases with the things they need to survive, Dr. Foster drives them over to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Orphanage on the afternoon of December twenty-ninth and rings the doorbell while they fidget on the doorstep. A deep chiming noise echoes from within.

A nun opens the door, beaming down at them. “You must be the new children,” she smiles, and sweeps them inside. The door clangs shut behind them, as the doorbell continues to echo throughout the enormous house. If Erhard were a poet, he'd write that the bell seemed to chime an ending note to his childhood as he stepped through the doors of the orphanage and the heavy doors slammed shut behind him. But Erhard is no poet, just a lonely teenage boy who has no idea what will happen next and is slightly intimidated by both the slam of the door and the deep ring of the doorbell.

“Welcome to our humble abode,” another nun chimes in. If there's a word to describe this place, "humble" isn't the one that Erhard would use. The orphanage is large and sprawling, with a façade of peeling white paint. The interior is slightly shabby but spotless, no doubt scrubbed clean under the eyes of several watchful sisters. He snaps back to attention as the woman continues. “I’m Sister Anne, and you must be Rosalia and Erhard. I’ll take you to meet everyone else—Sister Elizabeth, if you’d attend to the final paperwork with Dr. Foster?” The first nun beckons to the doctor, who nods briefly, gives Rosalia a quick hug, and shakes Erhard's hand. “Good luck, and I'm… sorry about all of this,” she sighs, encompassing the entire orphanage with a gesture of her arm.

“Have fun in Australia,” Erhard replies awkwardly, because he's never really dealt well with apologies, and what else is he supposed to say, anyway?

“Take pictures of the koalas for me!” Rosalia pipes up. Dr. Foster nods, blinking furiously, then vanishes down the hallway with Sister Elizabeth. Sister Anne takes each sibling by the arm and steers them down a different hallway to a room full of children ranging from about three to seventeen years old.

“Everyone, listen up!” Sister Anne chirps, and everyone’s heads swivel to look at them. It’s faintly unnerving, to be honest. “These are Rosalia and Erhard. This is their first day here, and I expect you to make them feel at home!” Nods from the older children and blank stares from the younger children follow. “All right— I guess I’ll leave you here,” she smiles at the siblings. “Dinner is at six o’clock! I’ll see you then.”

Erhard’s still awkwardly standing in the doorway when Rosalia practically takes off, like a rocket—she’s by his side one minute and gone the next, tackling an older girl who looks vaguely intimidating. “Maria!!!” she exclaims, and immediately, the other girl sweeps her up into a hug.

Rose?! Is it really you—Wait, wait, you were adopted, what’re you doing back here?” the girl asks in confusion, frowning at Rosalia. “What happened?”

“I’ll… tell you later.” Rosalia’s face falls for a moment, but then perks up again. “Look, look, this is my big brother!” She drags Maria by the hand over to Erhard, who is still uneasily staring into the room of children.

“Nice to meet you,” he mumbles.

“Same,” she replies, then scrunches up her face in a frown. “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

Erhard shrugs noncommittally. The news has left him and Rosalia alone for the most part, but he’s still a bit scared that someone will recognize him and he’ll be ostracized. He had enough of that as a child, thank you very much.

“Hm,” Maria grunts. “Well, c’mon, there’re some people here Rose doesn’t know, and you should probably meet some of us instead of standing in the doorway like a dumbass.”

She then proceeds to lead him and Rosalia around the room, introducing him to various children and pointing Rosalia out to other old friends of hers. There’s David and Teresa, a virtually inseparable pair of teenagers who enjoy drawing and making terrible jokes; Jack, a New Yorker with an almost indecipherable accent; and Sonia, a polite, petite, blonde girl who shows them the intricacies of working the orphanage’s old Nintendo 64. (A nearby boy makes a joke about blowing the cartridges, then snickers when Sonia’s ears turn red and Erhard coughs.)

By the time Maria finishes her round of introductions and Rosalia finishes catching up with her old friends, it’s five fifty-nine, and the children have mostly streamed out of the room, down another hallway to a large dining room.

Dinner is a mostly informal affair, save for a quick prayer before it’s served. The children bow their heads and a nun intones solemnly, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.” Erhard meets a few more people, but doesn’t quite remember their names. It’s been a long day, and he’s too exhausted to parse any more information.

After dinner, everyone disperses over the building to carry out various activities. The younger children are sent to bed at nine o’clock—the nuns send the teenagers to their rooms at ten, with strict instructions to have the lights out by ten-thirty. Erhard sprawls on his bed with his battered and well-loved copy of Gray’s Anatomy, paging idly through a section about neurology. David is sketching something with one hand and surfing the internet on his phone with the other. A boy whose name he doesn’t know is singing quietly and plaintively, accompanied by another boy picking out chords on his guitar.

Oh, my friends, my friends, forgive me that I live and you are gone; there’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on…

Something wet splotches onto the page as Erhard drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Erhard wakes up bright and early the next morning with his face plastered to a page describing the glossopharyngeal nerve. The sound of someone humming echoes throughout the boys’ cavernous room.

“Wakey, wakey!” David sings out almost maniacally, yanking the blinds of the window at the far end of the room wide open. Erhard squints at the sudden burst of sunlight, while other boys grumble, swear, and pull their pillows and sheets over their heads. David turns, silhouetted in the light streaming from the window, and belts, “Riiiise and shiiiine and give God the glory, glory, riiiiise and shiiiiine and give God the glory, glory—”

“Shut the hell up, Davey,” Jack groans, and lobs a pillow at David.

David takes a deep, theatrical bow, then rapidly dodges as the other boys follow Jack’s shining example. Erhard unsticks his face from the glossopharyngeal nerve and sits up just as Jack nails David in the face and a nun bustles into the room.

“Jack, what have I told you about throwing pillows?” she asks sternly.

“Mornin’ to you too, Sister Joan,” Jack grins rakishly. The nun rolls her eyes and turns to the rest of the room with a brisk “Up and at ‘em, boys; we’re going to church in an hour.”

Mumbled complaints follow, but every boy reluctantly throws off the covers and pulls nice clothes out of the foot lockers at the end of his bed. Bits of conversation filter through to Erhard as he fumbles in his foot locker for a church-worthy outfit. “I’m tellin’ you, this is a great deal, I smell money – nah, you smell foul – so I met this girl last night – David, move your elbow – hey, Keith, pass the towel – for a buck I might!”

Assailed on all sides by the sounds of teenage boys waking up, Erhard finally digs his suit out of the back of his locker; it’s slightly wrinkled but otherwise none the worse for wear. He hasn’t worn it since the funerals— a quick sniff reveals that it still smells of incense from the last time he went to church. Squeezing his eyes shut to ward off the memory of the weeping family gathered around the coffin, he turns his back to the other boys and quickly changes into the suit.

Fifteen minutes later, the boys are all attired in varying degrees of fancy dress ranging from a polo shirt over a pair of jeans (David) to a collared shirt, tie, and suit pants (Erhard, who’s deemed the jacket too fancy for this outing—that, and there’s a stain on it from when he and Rosalia bought hot dogs with ketchup and mustard after the last funeral). Another nun strides in and declares them all fit to head out. Shuffling slowly out of the room one by one, they troop down to the foyer, where all the girls are waiting. Five minutes of waiting later, the news trickles down from the boys closest to the door: the younger boys have apparently had some sort of mishap with the soap, and they’re all waiting until everything gets cleaned up. Erhard doesn’t ask.

While they wait for the younger boys to finish cleaning up, Erhard has received a crash course in orphanage workings from Rosalia, with Maria interjecting occasionally. The younger boys that they’re waiting for sleep in a large room next to the teenage boys’ room; likewise, the younger girls and older girls sleep in separate rooms. This is apparently to keep the teenagers from depriving the kids of their precious sleep. Rosalia opens her mouth to say something else, but the troublemakers appear, looking sufficiently contrite, and an older girl shushes them. They line up at the door in two straight lines of boys and girls.

Herded by a flock of nuns garbed in habits, they troop five blocks to the nearby church. Erhard doesn’t really know what to do when he gets inside, so he parrots the actions of David, who’s sitting next to him and seems to know what he’s doing—more so than Erhard, anyway. The service is mostly uneventful; however, as the orphans file demurely out of church like good little boys and girls, a Hispanic man stops Erhard for a moment. “You are Erhard, yes?” Erhard nods, frowning slightly in confusion—it’s not every day that a stranger stops him on the street and knows him by name. “I was friends with your father Albert. He gave me this to hold for him for a little while, but it doesn’t seem he’ll be getting it back for a long time.” He presses an envelope into Erhard’s hand and looks the completely confused boy directly in the eye. “I am sorry for your loss… You look like your father,” he says sincerely, and disappears before Erhard can even formulate a response like well, er, he’s not really my father you see or who on earth are you.

Erhard promptly sticks the envelope into his suit pocket, promising himself he’ll read it later, gives himself a paper cut, and forgets about it after two minutes because Rosalia falls down and scrapes her knee. As the wound begins to trickle blood slowly, Erhard sprints to catch up to the group. Things could go very wrong if her injury isn’t handled correctly. “Uh, you guys can go ahead,” he calls to Maria, David, and Teresa, who are hovering around in concern. “I’ll take care of her. Tell the sisters we’re right behind you.”

Maria frowns, but shrugs and gestures to the other two to follow her. As David drags Teresa away, Erhard gets to work. “You okay?” he asks his sister, bending down and pulling some tissue from his suit pocket. Handing it to her, he assesses how best to treat her knee. “Hmmm. Here, put that tissue on your knee—we’ll get Band-Aids and some Neosporin when we get back to the orphanage.” The blood flow is slowing gradually, but… there’s some on his hand? Oh. Well, this could be problematic. He squats there for a minute longer, thinking of what could happen if someone came into contact with the blood via inhalation or through an open wound. Would they contract the Rosalia virus? It would be a pretty big risk for them to just leave it there.

“Rose, do you think you can clean up the blood?” When she gives him a why don’t you get it, big brother, I’m bleeding here look, he justifies his claim by brandishing his left hand and explaining, “I have a paper cut on my hand, see. And someone else might catch it if you leave it lying around, you know? We learned from… that incident… that it might be airborne.”

A serious look comes over Rosalia’s face; she nods and quickly uses the rest of Erhard’s tissues to mop up the small amount of blood. They surreptitiously incinerate the tissues in the orphanage fireplace before the nuns notice their return, and get Rosalia’s knee bandaged up in no time at all.

“See? We didn’t get kidnapped or anything,” Rosalia beams at Maria as they reenter the main room, where a scene of barely organized chaos fills the room.

“I can see that,” Maria replies, grinning. “But hey, why’d your brother make such a big deal out of it? Is he the overprotective big-brother type? Wouldn’t have guessed it.”

“Oh, uh…” Rosalia looks around for help, but Erhard has completely vanished from the room. He’s disappeared down the hallway to his dorm room, where he’s examining his paper cut with a worried air. It seems as if a little of Rosalia’s blood has seeped into the cut.

Maybe I’m just imagining things, he tries to convince himself. Maybe… my papercut opened up again? I might have strained the skin as it was healing. Yeah. Yeah, that sounds about right.

David and the rest of the boys burst into the room at that moment and Erhard files his worries away for another time when he’s alone. He spends the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon helping his roommates scrounge together their school supplies from all corners of the room and finish their homework. School begins again the next day for most of them, save for Erhard and the very young kids.

“You mean he doesn’t have to go back to school?!” someone at the table yells at dinner. “No fair! I wanna be a college kid!”

“They’re still fumigating the campus grounds,” Erhard shoots back, and an awkward silence fills the room before Teresa starts talking too loudly about the latest new movie. Everyone else joins into the conversation as Maria elbows the offender in the ribs.

The next day, Erhard helps the nuns watch the little kids. It’s not that hard—he’s content to let the little kids climb all over him while he studies another page of Grey’s Anatomy, and he only has to get up to separate two fighting kids or bandage a scraped elbow or knee. The latter job leads to a new nickname for him, “Doc”. The babies and toddlers can’t pronounce his real name properly, so this moniker is much easier for them. Erhard’s fine with it, and so the nickname spreads until almost everyone calls him Doc.

The week goes by quietly, with Rosalia and everyone else off at school, and that Saturday, on the fifth, Erhard officially turns seventeen. Aside from being his first birthday as an orphan in eight years, it’s actually quite a nice birthday: the nuns bake him a cake, Rosalia and Maria team up to give him a couple of novels, the boys in his room buy him a new notebook, and Dr. Foster even sends him a birthday postcard with a picture of a koala on it.

“You’re seventeen, huh, Doc?” Jack ruminates, as the boys retreat to their dorm room for the hour of “quiet time” before bed. “So where you gonna go when you turn eighteen?”

“What do you mean?” Erhard responds, confused. He flops onto his bed, grabs Gray’s Anatomy again—he’ll read it when this conversation is over—and stares at an envelope addressed to him which falls out of the book. Hm. Did he leave it in there after his weird encounter with that guy on Sunday?

“Oh, come on! You don’t know? Haven’t you ever seen The Dark Knight Rises?” David asks incredulously. When Erhard only stares at him blankly, he clarifies. “When the guys at the orphanage in Gotham turned eighteen, they were let go from the orphanage because they couldn’t afford to keep ‘em anymore. Costs a lot to feed a growing boy, y’know?”

“It’s the same with us. Either when you turn eighteen or when you go to college, whichever comes later, they let’cha go,” Jack picks up the thread. “Kinda sucks, but what can you do? I’m gonna go to Santa Fe once I’m outta here! University of Santa Fe is calling my name right now, I bet.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to California. Or Texas,” David chimes in. “New York sounds pretty great, too.”

“Huh,” Erhard says. He doesn’t really know where he’d like to go—college in Cumberland has always been the only option for him, and he’s got a sister to take care of, anyway. “What about Rosalia? What will happen to her when I leave?”

“Oh, the orphanage always tries to keep siblings together. They’ll optimize your legal custody-gaining whatchamacallems, so you’ll get to keep your sister if ya want,” Jack explains. “Sometimes, though, the older ones leave their siblings behind ‘cause people will take better care of them here.” At this statement, David seems to withdraw into himself. Erhard surmises he’s been the subject of this practice.

The scowl on David’s face deters both Erhard and Jack from any further conversation, so Erhard turns back to Gray’s Anatomy to find the envelope staring him in the face. Might as well see what’s inside, he decides, and rips it open. Three pieces of paper fall out.

To my good friend Lorenzo—

I believe the research is nearly complete. The time is near, and this virus will save us all.

I have bought the house in Mexico; thank you for your help in the process. After all this is over, I plan to take my children for a nice, long vacation. I am sure they will enjoy Mexico, and I know I will be thankful for my time away from work.

Please hold the deed for me. Our apartment is very small, as you know, and it is more than likely Erhard or Rosalia will find this and ask me questions about it.

Thank you again for your help.

Your friend,

Albert Sartre

The next piece of paper is a simple deed to a house in Mexico, paperclipped to a photograph of a small cabin in the middle of a sprawling field of asclepias flowers. A note scrawled on the back of the photograph reads Gracias por hacer negocio con nosotros. Esperamos que a usted le gusta su casa nueva.

The last piece of paper is a simple note, dated two days before the Cumberland College Incident.

Lorenzo,

I fear things may go wrong, but I cannot stop now. I am so close it pains me to even think of giving up this dream.

Rosalia may save us all, or it may kill us all. Only time will tell.

If I should become incapacitated in some way, as I fear I may, give the deed to Erhard and Rosalia; hopefully, they will get some use out of it. And if such a situation occurs, please tell them I am sorry. I tried my best.

Albert

“Lights out,” one of the sisters calls from the hallway, and Erhard shoves the letters under his pillow as the boy nearest the door flips the switch, plunging the room into darkness.

He drifts into a sleep plagued by incessant nightmares. Dead friends haunt his dreams; they walk just ahead of him down busy streets, whistling “Happy Birthday” in merry tones, and when he runs to catch up to them, they turn to show blood streaming from their eyes, from their noses, from their mouths—

—and he screams and he screams but no sounds come out—

—and they press closer and closer, blood dripping from every orifice, whispering your fault your fault your fault

I’m sorry, he wants to scream, I’m sorry, but he’s still speechless, and they crowd him on all sides with the stench of the dead intertwined with the smell of asclepias—

—and he wakes up, shuddering and gasping and feeling like he wants to retch.

It is twelve-thirty in the morning.

The dreams do not stop.

He tosses and turns fitfully all through the night.

Chapter Text

Rosalia Rossellini wakes up one bright Friday morning to find that a blizzard has nearly buried the sleepy town of Cumberland beneath a blanket of snow. All the schools in town are closed for the day, and after a lot of pleading, the nuns permit the older teenagers to walk the children over to the city park.

Not many people are courageous enough to brave the roads on this snowy day, but the few people determined enough to go to work on that day spot lines of children dressed to the nines in snow gear. They cross the roads and troop down sidewalks in complete decorum, but upon entering the park, all the good behavior evaporates and a furious snowball war begins.

In the midst of the chaos, Dave and Teresa recruit Maria and Erhard to help them build a snow fort. Inspired by this, other children break off from the war gradually and build their own snow forts—granted, the forts are just one wall with small supports on either side of the wall, but they protect the children from the raging war. The war inches to a stop as all the children become engrossed in building suitable walls of snow.

“I engineered an end to this war singlehandedly. You can thank me later,” Dave boasts, poking his upper body over the top of their wall and spreading his arms wide. A snowball, thrown from the ten-year-olds’ snow fort, hits him square in the face, and he drops like a rock. Splutters and calls of “You little—I’m gonna get you for that!!” drift up from behind the wall, and with that battle cry, the war begins again, fiercer and more furious than ever.

Behind the first wall, the scene is much more orderly; Rosalia is rapidly making snowballs and handing them up to Maria and Teresa, who pop up from behind the wall and fire them with astounding precision while Erhard performs a cursory check on David’s head.

“He’s fine,” Erhard confirms. “Just took a blow to the ego.”

“Wow, Doc, I didn’t know you could joke like that,” David deadpans, and springs up again to hurl a snowball at the ten-year-olds’ fort.

“I try,” Erhard deadpans in return, and retreats to where Rosalia is, helping her to make snowballs.

He looks fine right now, but Rosalia’s been worried about him for a couple of weeks—ever since his birthday, she’s noticed that he’s become more withdrawn and tired. He’s even abruptly fallen asleep at dinner a couple of times, but when he wakes up, he looks even more fatigued than ever. Rosalia’s not sure why. Things seem to be getting better for the two of them, from her point of view. School is going well for her, they’ve adjusted to orphanage life, and they’ve even made friends. Their life is by no means normal, but it’s definitely improved.  Maybe he’s stressed about going back to school, she thinks; after all, Cumberland College reopens the following Monday, and since their family is partially responsible for the decimation of the school population, returning could be awkward, to say the least.

A buzz emanates from Erhard’s pocket, distracting Rosalia from her thoughts. The nuns don’t own cell phones, and everyone who could possibly want to text Erhard is right here with them. Who could be calling?

The confusion Rosalia feels is mirrored on her big brother’s face. He digs in his pocket, pulls out the phone, hits a button and says “Hello?” hesitantly. The color drains from his face as the person on the other end of the phone continues to speak. “Yes… I understand… Stay at the orphanage? Yes… Thank you for letting me know.”

He turns to Rosalia. “Father’s collapsed,” he states flatly. “He’s showing black bruises. Convulsing. Saying strange things. Hearing things.”

An uncomfortable silence falls over the fort, and the snow begins to turn to rain. Erhard’s face is white, Rosalia feels a sense of panic building inside her, and even David and Teresa seem at a loss for words. The silence is only broken when Maria stands up, sticks her pinky fingers into her mouth, and emits a piercing whistle, catching the attention of every soldier in the snowball war.

Listen up!” she yells. “It’s raining, so we’re gonna go back now before all of you catch pneumonia or something!”

Disappointed groans arise from the group of orphans, but everyone reluctantly puts their snowballs down and emerges from behind their snow walls. Rosalia stands up, getting ready to troop back to the orphanage, but stops in her tracks when she hears her brother explaining earnestly, “They took him to the hospital. We’re only half an hour from the hospital, it’s just a few bus stops from here. I can’t just leave him to them. They don’t know how to treat it. They won’t be able to cure him. He’ll die.”

“What are you going to do?” Teresa asks.

“I’m going to save him,” Erhard mutters in determination. “Come on, Rosalia. We’ve got a bus to catch.”

“Hold up. You’ve got to have someone go with you.” Maria plants herself in front of Erhard, hands on her hips. Although she’s six inches shorter than him, she cuts an intimidating figure, and Erhard inadvertently takes a step back. “What if you pass out again, huh? I saw what happened at dinner last week. Rosalia’s not gonna be able to haul you to the hospital all by yourself. No. I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t need to get involved in this—” Erhard begins, before Maria cuts him off. “Yeah, I do. Someone’s gotta watch out for the two of you airheads.”

Erhard appears to realize that arguing with Maria is wasting valuable time, so he scowls in frustration and gives up. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”

 “We’ll take the kids back,” Teresa reassures them. “Good luck.”

“Maria, do you remember how I said I’d tell you later about why I’m back at the orphanage?” Rosalia ventures, once they’ve boarded the bus, paid their fare, and found three seats together near the back. As Maria predicted, Erhard passes out again, almost as soon as he hits the chair.

“Yeah, what about it? Are you going to tell me now?” Maria asks.

“It’s kind of a long story,” Rosalia begins, “but what happened is there’s a virus inside me, and Dad said it could be repurposed to create a sort of… he called it a pa-na-see-ya, I think. If he got it to work the right way, it could cure all sorts of things by attacking the bad cells and leaving the good cells behind. It could even cure cancer for good!”

A look of surprise settles itself on Maria’s face. “How…” she whispers, trying to wrap her mind around the fact that the possible cure to all of the world’s illnesses rests in the eleven-year-old next to her. A memory briefly floats back to Maria, a raging flu epidemic during the winter when she was thirteen years old. Everyone in the orphanage caught the flu. Everyone except for Rosalia. “Is that why you were never sick when you were little? The virus got everything before you started to show symptoms?”

“Uh-huh,” Rosalia nods. “But the thing is, the virus only works naturally like that for me. Daddy had to edit it so it’d work the right way for other people, ‘cause it didn’t know in other people’s bodies which cells to attack and which to leave alone. So in the experiments, it just attacked everything. He and my big brother were trying to fix it at Cumberland…”

I’m sorry,” Erhard mumbles in his sleep, shifting uncomfortably. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry…”

Oh,” says Maria, as the bus comes to a stop outside a hospital. Rosalia quickly shakes her brother awake, and they exit the bus.

They follow the sound of shouting to where a crowd of doctors is gathered around Albert Sartre. The man in question lies on the floor, shuddering as blood drips from his mouth. “Rosalia…” he whispers.

Maria takes charge of the situation, elbowing her way through to the center of the circle. Erhard and Rosalia follow in her wake. The doctors are so surprised by the appearance of children that they fall silent.

“Hold it right there! That’s a convicted prisoner. If you’re attempting to escape with him, give it up. Make one move and I will be forced to shoot you,” a redhead in sunglasses barks at Erhard. He trains a gun on the teenager, his hands steady as a rock. Staring down the barrel of the gun, Rosalia is frozen in terror, Maria is seething in anger, and Erhard shows nothing but determination.

He draws himself up to his full height and stares the man down. “Then shoot me. I’m not leaving my father to die.”

The man’s hands begin to tremble. The other doctors remain frozen in place. Taking advantage of this small opportunity, Erhard hauls his father up by the arms and begins to drag him away. Maria grabs Rosalia by the hand and the two rush after Erhard; they catch up just as he pulls Albert into an empty hospital room and locks the door.

“Rosalia, sterilize the equipment in that sink in the corner. Maria, get a chair and wedge it under the doorknob. Where are the surgical gloves—ah, here they are.” A soft series of thumps follows as Albert is unceremoniously dropped onto a hospital bed and dragged into place. The bed whirrs as Erhard adjusts it into an optimal position. “Are the instruments ready?”

“You’re going to operate on him here?” Maria hisses. “What the hell? This is a hospital room, not an operating room, you dumbass!”

“Maria, I’m going to need you to support me,” he continues, ignoring her furious exclamations. “He’s exhibiting symptoms of asterixis. It’s most likely his liver; we’ll need to do a lobectomy.”

Looking around the room, Rosalia finds some anesthetic—who leaves this stuff lying around? she thinks idly—and offers it to her brother. “You’ll need this, but I don’t think there’s much left. You’re gonna have to work quickly.” Nodding, he takes it from her and applies it to their father.

Footsteps stampede past the door. They’re on the wrong track, Maria guesses. “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she murmurs. Taking a deep breath, she steadies herself behind the tray of equipment. “Ready when you are, Doc.”

 “Let’s begin the operation,” says Erhard, and the battle begins. An incision gives him an ideal view of the liver, pale pink and glistening in the light from a fluorescent light bulb. Rosalia feels sick, but steels herself and intently studies her brother’s actions. These are her genes wreaking havoc inside her father’s body; the least she can do is watch and make sure she knows how it is treated.

“What is that?” Maria’s eyes widen as she spots a black splotch in the veins surrounding the liver.

“It’s a focus.” Erhard doesn’t even break his stride, quickly analyzing the situation and coming up with a plan. “We’re going to need sodium hypochlorite to get rid of it. Drain, please.”

“You sure about that? I read in chemistry last year that that’s dangerous. Deadly, even.” Maria passes the drain over, but looks doubtfully at the syringe and the orange vial of sodium hypochlorite that sits next to it.

“That’s right… That’s why I have to inject it directly into the focus.” The drain gurgles, sucking up the excess black mucus to reveal an orange focus. “Syringe. Give me the blue medicine, it’s a vasoconstrictor.”

“That’ll cut off the nutrients to the focus, right?” Rosalia asks, remembering a long-ago visit to her father’s lab.

“Mm-hm,” her brother nods, watching the focus shift from orange to navy blue. “I need the sodium hypochlorite now, Maria.”

“Careful with that thing,” Maria mutters, passing it over. The three fall into silence as Erhard deftly injects the focus and excises it from Albert’s liver with a pair of forceps, dropping it into a small tray that Rosalia holds out. Two more foci appear, and are dealt with in the same way as the first.

“There aren’t any more,” Maria sighs in relief. Erhard reaches for the needle, ready to close the incision, when Rosalia bursts out, “Wait! Look, there’s a shadow inside the blood vessel… It’s moving!” Her big brother exclaims in surprise and Maria swears softly.

“Ultrasound,” Erhard orders. Upon discerning the outline of the foreign object, he swiftly makes an incision. Seeing blood pooling quickly around the object, Maria hesitantly flicks the switch on the drain and empties the incision, leaving Erhard to remove the object with a pair of forceps.

“I’ll leave you in charge of the drain,” he decides, just as a loud banging on the door reverberates throughout the room. More objects appear in Albert’s liver, and Rosalia slips away from the operating table to stand guard in front of the door. Granted, a tiny eleven-year-old girl like her won’t do much to slow down a big man like that redheaded guy if he decides to barge in, but she wants to feel like she’s being useful in some way.

Behind her, the drain gurgles, the scalpel slices softly through skin, the vials and syringes clatter together, the forceps quietly click, and her big brother’s voice runs like a current through it all, a soft undertone of instructions amidst all the noise.

And in front of her, the doorknob begins to rattle. Thinking quickly, Rosalia grabs the large curtain that stretches across the room. It takes her a minute to drag it across the room, but once it’s in place, Erhard and Maria are hidden from view, and nothing appears out of the ordinary.

“Good work, Rose!” Maria calls from behind the curtain. “You can come back here now—wait, what the hell is that bruise thing? Looks like a hand.”

“It’s constricting over the liver, look,” Rosalia hears Erhard mumble almost inaudibly.

The operation can’t be interrupted at this stage—if someone bursts in now, it might break her brother’s focus. Rosalia braces her back against the door, feeling the door shake as the people on the other side try to break it down. Planting her feet firmly on the floor, she leans back with all her might,

Shit, they’re moving,” Maria whispers, and the sounds behind the curtain intensify. Judging from the new instructions being issued, Maria has figured out how to treat the foci, and she’s taking care of those while Erhard deals with the objects.

The door shudders violently, and although she does her best to hold it closed, she abruptly lands on the floor as footsteps pound past her. “Please let them be done already,” she whispers. A passing doctor takes pity on her and helps her up, and she slips between the doctors until she can see the remnants of the operation.

“Let this disease pass from this world…” Erhard whispers, deftly stitching up the incision, spreading some antibiotic gel over it, and bandaging it up. The doctors stare in awe.

“He looks so… at peace,” one of them says, motioning to Albert’s face. Maria mouths a fuck yeah, but continues to stare warily at the doctors.

“What you did was incredibly dangerous,” another doctor scolds Erhard, but his reproach is halfhearted at best. The doctors mumble to themselves and examine Albert carefully; all his symptoms have vanished, the color has returned to his face, and the group of medics is left wondering how a kid could operate better than they could.

“You did a good job, kid,” one intern with a shock of spiky greenish-brown hair informs him. “That’s pretty damn impressive.”

“The anesthetic’s wearing off,” Maria reports, as Albert comes to and blinks his eyes. The doctors quiet immediately, wanting to know what the infamous Dr. Sartre has to say.

“My son… Rose… I remember now,” Albert smiles, before sinking back onto the pillows of his hospital bed and falling unconscious once more. Not much of a statement, but Rosalia feels an intense sense of relief; even if their lives won’t return to normal

“I’m glad we were able to cure him,” Erhard sighs. “It was the least we could do.”

“You were amazing!” Maria exclaims. “Don’t tell me you’re still beating yourself up over the Cumberland incident! Yes, people died. That’s important to remember, and you shouldn’t ever, ever forget it! But it’s not all your fault. Do you think they’d still want you to be—to be grieving for them? They’d want you to move on, wouldn’t they?”

Rosalia watches as Erhard, normally so articulate, is knocked speechless.

The next few hours fly by in a blur. The doctors take Erhard in for a blood test after he comes clean about Rosalia’s scraped knee and his papercut, in order to make sure that he hasn’t caught the virus they’re calling “Rosalia”. After an eternity of waiting, the test comes back clean, and shortly afterward, they’re allowed to visit Albert, who is still lying in the hospital room where Maria and Erhard performed their emergency operation.

“I do not remember everything just yet, but I remember what’s important. That incident. You could… go to the house in Mexico. Start all over again, and escape all this,” Rosalia hears Albert say, as she leaves the room to buy dinner for herself and Erhard. She knows she shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but she pauses by the door to listen anyway, obscured from view by a thick curtain.

“I can only imagine how you felt,” Albert continues. “How the city reacted to that terrible, terrible virus. All those young men and women, gone from this world so soon… I do not think all the good deeds in the world could assure my forgiveness.”

Rosalia can’t see her brother, but she’s sure he has that one look on his face, the screwed-up expression that indicates he’s deep in thought.

“No, Father,” Erhard says finally. “Rosalia’s just getting used to everything here. We’ve made friends. I think we’ll be okay staying here. We need to—to atone for what we’ve done. Make it up to the people we’ve hurt, somehow. If we were to start all over in Mexico, I’m not even sure where I would start.”

“You’ll need money once you’re out of the orphanage...” Albert ruminates. “I’m going to write Lorenzo a letter and request that the deed to the house be transferred into your name. Hear me out,” he continues as Erhard begins to protest. “I am not saying that you must move there, my son. The house will be yours when you turn eighteen, and if you change your mind, you may move there; if not, talk to Lorenzo again. He can help you sell the house, and you can use the money to get started once the orphanage can no longer support you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Take care of your sister,” Albert says in reply. Here, Rosalia realizes that she’s supposed to be getting food and quietly exits the room.

They visit with Albert for half an hour more, then the nurses shoo them away. Visiting hours have ended, so they dart one last uncomfortable glance at the redhead in sunglasses standing by the entrance of Albert’s room, find Maria in the hospital coffee shop, and start the long trip back to the orphanage.

Rosalia hadn’t even realized it, but as soon as she sits down on the bus, the day’s fatigue catches up with her, and almost as soon as she closes her eyes, she’s fast asleep.

(That night, Erhard’s dreams replay the final moments of Albert’s operation, and as he looks up, his friends surround him. The smell of asclepias floats through the air, and for a moment he’s terrified before Maria’s voice rings through the air again: They’d want you to move on, wouldn’t they? His friends turn their faces to him, and the blood that usually appears streaming from their eyes is gone; they’re exactly the same as they were the last day he saw them.

You did good, man, Nate says, ruffling Erhard’s hair. We’re proud of you.

“Aren’t—aren’t you angry?” Erhard stammers, struggling to find the words. Logically, he knows that these aren’t his friends, that they are long dead; some small part of him, however, struggles to find closure in this dream. “I mean, if you are… I wouldn’t blame you.”

It’s not your fault, Jeff shrugs. You weren’t even there on that day. Don’t blame yourself.

Stephen chimes in, Everyone has to die someday, after all. You wouldn’t know it, but you prevented something worse from ever beginning.

A monarch butterfly flits through the scene, trailing golden scales behind it.

It’s okay, someone says, as Erhard tilts his head up to look at the insect. Keep moving forward.

Just make us proud, all right?)

Chapter Text

The late-afternoon sun streams through the windows of a small apartment, waking Erhard from an unintentional nap on the couch. A faded, battered copy of Gray’s Anatomy slides off his chest as he sits up, hits the floor with a dull thunk, and lands facedown, sprawling across the faded carpet.

It’s been a little over a year since his emergency operation on Albert. A lot has happened since that day. Maria graduated high school and promptly left the orphanage last June, applied and was accepted to a medical program at Resurgam First Care. Rosalia completed sixth grade, spent a summer helping Erhard with research and burying herself in some of Erhard’s old medical books, and went into seventh-grade science knowing more than the teacher did. Erhard’s eighteenth birthday has come and gone, and with a tiny sum from the orphanage and the proceeds from the sale of the house in Mexico, he’s moved into a tiny apartment a few blocks down the street from Resurgam, where he’s interning and working a side job with the research department. Maria splits the rent with him, which has definitely cut down on their costs, but they still work hard to make ends meet.

The door slams shut, a loud bang echoing around the small apartment.

“Hey, I’m back,” a voice calls from the door. As Erhard rubs his eyes, Maria comes into focus, a fistful of letters in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. “How’d work go?” she asks, dropping her things on the table, crossing the room, shoving Erhard’s legs to the side, and flopping onto the couch.

“All I had to do today was enter a lot of data,” Erhard shrugs. When he’s not interning or studying at Resurgam, he’s in the research wing of the building working as the professors’ grunt, recording data, running errands, and occasionally offering his own input on the experiments being run. It’s not the best work; he’d rather be a surgeon than a researcher, but his grunt work pays the bills.

“Mm,” Maria hums in sympathy, kicking her shoes off and propping her feet up on their tiny coffee table. “So, get this: a new girl transferred into my class today, and you’ll never believe what she is. She’s a fu—”

Rosalia enters the room and drops her schoolbag on the ground, and Maria hastily amends, “—a frickin’ ninja princess. From Japan. She even has a butler and everything, man, she’s rolling in money. Did you even know ninja were still a thing? I was gonna ask her about it, but class ran overtime and I had to get to work, stat.”

“How was work today?” Rosalia asks, fitting herself neatly into the space between Erhard and Maria.

“Ugh, this idiot came in and couldn’t make up his mind—” and Maria’s off, ranting about the people who come into the coffee shop where she works without knowing what they want to buy. Once Maria’s rant is over, Rosalia states that she’s hungry, and the three of them reluctantly leave the couch and walk the ten feet to the kitchen.

Dinner is a quick job between the three of them. While some Minute rice cooks in a pot over the stove, Maria fries some pork, Erhard opens a can of refried beans, and Rosalia chops some vegetables. Everything is pulled together into a dinner worthy of three teenagers. Erhard clears their tiny kitchen table (that is to say, he pushes all the papers on the table to the end), and the three of them arrange themselves around the remaining space.

“Let’s watch a movie!” Rosalia chirps, after dinner is over and the plates have been cleared away. Erhard sifts through the mail on the table; pulls out a strange and scuffed package with David’s name and a return address somewhere in New York; remembers that he and Teresa took a road trip up there, fell in love (with the city, that is), and haven’t returned to Maryland since. A couple of postcards from Jack spill onto the table as Erhard picks up the package, turns it over, and examines it. One postcard lands face-up, with a hastily scrawled message: Wish you guys were here. Santa Fe’s great. Come visit.

“Big brother, hurry up! We’re gonna start without you!” Rosalia calls.

“All right, all right, I’m coming,” Erhard calls back, and ten feet away, soft Hawaiian music starts to play as the DVD player boots up.

It’s been a long day at work, and so Erhard thinks he can’t be faulted for falling asleep during the movie; he falls asleep shortly after Lilo says, matter-of-factly, “I like you better as a sister than a mom”, and awakens to hear Gantu yell, “You're vile. You're foul. You're flawed!

Also cute and fluffy!!!” Stitch screeches in reply as he flies through the sky.

Erhard senses something’s off when Rosalia doesn’t chuckle as she normally does at this point; he turns his head to the side to see that she’s fallen fast asleep. Her head plummets to the side and lands on his shoulder.

Maria laughs quietly. “Cute,” she comments. “Looks like we’ve all had a long day, huh.”

Minutes later, as the crew arrives on land to find the Grand Councilwoman waiting to take Stitch away, she’s dozed off, too. Her head falls onto Erhard’s shoulder with a warm thud, leaving him on his own to finish the movie.

This is my family,” Stitch falters, but gains determination and tilts his head upward to stare the Grand Councilwoman in the eye. “I found it, all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

Erhard feels the warm weight of Rosalia and Maria on each of his shoulders, still using him as a bony and awkward human pillow; thinks of Albert, slowly regaining his memories and operating every day in order to return to his children as soon as possible; thinks of the postcards and letters and weird packages from Jack and Teresa and David lying on the kitchen table; thinks of the constant stream of e-mails on his phone from Dr. Foster, checking up on how he and Rosalia are doing; thinks that Stitch has a point.

“Yeah. Still good,” he agrees with Stitch.

The last year has been one of the strangest years he’s ever experienced. He and Rosalia have come a long way since that day when he collapsed on Professor Jacobsen’s couch, thinking This is only the first day. It’s been many, many days since then. Their entire lives were turned inside out, everything changed, and they’re miles and miles from their old home.

Still, he hasn’t felt this at home in a long, long time.

He falls asleep to the sounds of Wynonna crooning Burning Love.