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27 April 2011 @ 06:57 pm
{ short story } One's For Sport And One's For Blood: Or, Strength Through Music  
Title: One's For Sport And One's For Blood: Or, Strength Through Music
Rating: PG13/R (death, trauma, mild swearing)
Wordcount: 6,097
Story / World: Musicverse (before the Spark and the Astronaut)
Prompts / Concept:
March hint-fiction challenge: My Son's Fifth Grade Journal // This boy catches balls, divides fractions, won’t die if he drinks milk, grabs flags off the other team’s players. My dad loves this other boy.
Songs: Jack Straw (The Grateful Dead), Strength Through Music & Guitar Hero (Amanda Palmer), Twelve Line Song (8 in 8)

Characters: Jack Straw, Shannon Gardener, Patrick Noline.
Notes: This took a month longer than it was supposed to and came far too close to making me cry on several occasions. There's also that annoying tendency of mine of only creating canon OT3s to... well. (This universe is essentially new, was created for the 2011 Sex Is Not The Enemy challenge, and needs work.)


Doing things in order and correctly is important, and stories begin with introductions. So do conversations. Thus, some introductions are in order.

Foremost, none of them. They’re inseparable in all ways but physically, easy to divorce from one another that way – they split apart daily – but impossible to consider one-by-one. Just Jack or Patrick or Shannon would be an abomination. At the same time, they’re different people.

A coin-toss for who should begin.

Jackson Matthew Straw isn’t sure if that’s his real name but it doesn’t feel precisely wrong. Social Services picked him up a couple years late and since then he’s been out of synch in school and years as well as in foster homes. He’s always too old for his grade and the wrong kind of bright, grasping concepts almost quickly enough to merit being moved in with kids his own age but still so far behind that it’s hopeless.

It’s more important to social workers and principals and secretaries who want their paperwork to line up than to him, though. Jack’s nineteen and unremarkable but for the outlier status and the sickliness, and he’s been through five houses since the age of eleven. In every case he wasn’t quite what was wanted, a fact that no one could find it in themselves to deduce until they realised that the only coherent thing about the child they wanted was that it wouldn’t be him.

At school teachers assume he’ll pick fights with them because he’s too old – which speaks of flunking to them, and it’s not like Jack will flaunt the explanation when they don’t even say that out loud – and too tall, too quiet or not quiet enough. He carefully doesn’t bother just enough to get unremarkable grades in almost every subject, but Jack passes math with flying colours as long as he’s allowed to count on his fingers. Who knows why. It makes Patrick laugh. (Patrick passes everything.)

When there first starts to be talk of legislation heavily taxing animal products if not banning them outright, meat at least but with cheese and milk and eggs right around the corner, Shannon throws a shoe at him.

“It’s not my fault,” Jack protests, hands up, ducking as an empty gesture against the trajectory that had already went glancing off his shoulder, “I don’t do it on purpose.” Not the allergies and not his improbable luck that he doesn’t want to think about. He’s been told some kinds of mass system trauma can cause life-threatening intolerances as thorough and brutal as his but he doesn’t remember who told him that. Jack would prefer not to think about it either, really, and Shannon drops the subject like something that no longer interests her whenever it’s not actual-threat relevant.


Shannon is seventeen and gawky. Her knuckles stand out from her fingers and her hands are spider-thin and long; her limbs are composed primarily of bone and sinew and, according to anyone who’s ever gotten in a fight with her, knee and elbow. She has dark red hair, heavy-lidded eyes, aspirations of being an English major and a face defined primarily by the curves, lip and nose and chin, that the rest of her body lacks, and by the way her hands are always sketching over it and picking at the acne scabs.

Her last name is Gardener and her parents were going to name her Genevieve until a doctor with the unfortunate moniker of Melody Myfanwy Martin begged them not to, a story she’s fond of retelling (the amount of dramatic gestures and shouting supposedly involved varies with her mood). Her least favourite colour is all pastels and she should never, ever be allowed to attempt to pronounce Latin again. Today the tips of her fingers are covered in black permanent marker and the flaking remains of green nail polish. She’s made up of millions of tiny facets, actions and interests and presentations, just like anybody else. The difference is that in her case Jack cares.

In fact, Jack loves her so much -- he no longer worries about using that word, which astonishes him or would if he thought about it -- that it hurts to realise, so he tries not to. Eschewing adjectives and flowery protestations he figures “That’s Shannon” is enough, because she is. It’s only if he tries to break down the criteria of Shannon that he goes wrong: atypical bibliophilian teenage girls who pick rings based on what would hurt more with a punch behind it and seem to own a single pair of shoes (bright pink high-tops with silver and black detailing when she had a marker and couldn’t resist) can be divided into fractions about as well as a nuclear blast can bake a cupcake.

Jack even loves her when she’s being terrible at playing harmonica, despite what he tends to claim at the time.

Patrick’s the one who will take the harmonica in question out of her hands and keep it in the waistband of his jeans out of stubbornness until she swears back and forth and on any blasphemy he can think of (“No Greek gods,” Patrick says, “childhood obsession, okay”) that she won’t play badly on purpose to annoy him any more. She tends to keep those promises for about a day. Shannon could probably beat him in a fight for her harmonica back even if Patrick would retaliate when not asked to, but neither of them would, so that tends to be the end of those things.

If Shannon’s hard to describe because too much of her is quantifiable to be given any order or precedence, putting Patrick to words in Jack’s head makes his concepts waft and run from him much like bricks don’t. There’s a reason why Jack doesn’t think in words, usually, but they are easier to remember, and he does need to remember all sorts of things.

Things like that Patrick was – is – is a genius, as far as Shannon cheerfully and half-invented will describe the “proper” definition, and weirdly doesn’t notice or care at all. Every diploma he earns (and he does earn them, he’s not like Shannon, who figures that the world of the present and once and future is based around computers so hacking in to fix her grades in a way means she’s earned them) leaves him with staring eyes and shaking hands, lips going through some sequence Jack doesn’t know. Patrick’s protestations that he doesn’t deserve it and doesn’t know what went wrong and who mistook him can be honestly awful to listen to, mostly because Jack can see even on Shannon that none of the three of them know what to do, and that’s terrible.

Still, when he hasn’t been accused of doing something right or well Patrick is okay. If Jack is regarded as an automatic menace for being too old then Patrick gets the opposite, bizarre teacherly affect that makes him talk about them with his lips pulled back from his teeth like a dog, but they’re honestly unsure why anyone cares if he’s sixteen. (Cue Shannon, always, with remarks about legality and a grin and a wink.) He doesn’t like to be touched but that’s perfectly all right, because Jack doesn’t like to touch people, and it’s perfectly all right as well because Shannon considers the world and Jack and Patrick in particular to be her jungle gym and teddy bear but Shannon’s an exception to all the rules.

The Noline family is actually a family, oddly enough, unlike the perfectly isolated and nothing resembling communicative Gardener household (“They stay together for me,” Shannon explains cheerfully, sure in her conviction as only an only child of parents divorced in all but name can be, “if they got divorced to trade me back and forth and keep up appearances and all would be such a commute”) or nonspecific Nathan and Magdalene Towers. Patrick is all over siblings, the accidental youngest of five, but neither Shannon nor Jack envy him. None of them have adults they actually want to be around, or a home in the emotional sense, so it doesn’t really matter where they are. Mostly they go to Shannon’s house because there’s less noise and she has free run of the basement unless -- dire threats, she says -- there’s a replica of a Certain Incident involving a hot glue gun and a box of multicoloured thumbtacks.


“Thumbtacks sound like they should either be for holding fingers up or have fingers at the safe end of the spike,” Jack says contemplatively, looking at the holes and scratches in the admittedly fragile wall. He’s not even really listening to himself speak, but it seemed like the kind of thing Shannon would want to hear.

She stops in the doorway with a choked-off laugh and Jack pulls himself up slightly from how he is sitting, upside-down on the only chair in Shannon’s basement with his knees hooked over the top of it.

“I’m just saying,” he justifies himself.

“Jack, I know what you’re saying,” she sighs, “and I truly am going to fix the wall like someday. Or so. Or that’s what I keep telling Mom, but I’m probably just going to make a poster and put it up instead...” It trails off like a question. “Do you think Patrick would paint me something?”

“If you asked him? Yes.” Jack is very honest. “If he had to see it? No.”

“Yeah,” Shannon says, and puts her ponytail in her mouth instead of words. Jack kicks himself off the chair entirely and struggles upright, peering at her over the back of it like someone much younger, fairly solemn even so.

“Anyway, you get me to fix this—” He gestures expansively at her itvee screen “—and Patrick to paint for you and everything and we might as well move in here.”

“I’m taking everything when I move out!” Shannon replies brightly, like she’s offended he’d even think otherwise. Shannon doesn’t steal, exactly, she just is very slow to let go of things once given the suggestion of them being hers. “I mean, this is basically my house, like. But without... rent. And a kitchen and stuff. I’d like a kitchen...”

It’s sometimes vaguely fascinating to watch Shannon jump from topic to topic; before Jack pulls back he can see nothing odd about any of it and when he does, smooth zoom like his brain’s a camera, Shannon’s words make the strangest map. “You’re leaving next summer,” he points out. It’s been coming up lately, which means Shannon’s the opposite of homesick. Not so much him and Patrick, he thinks. Jack doesn’t have a home, so he’s easy.

“Right.” Her shoulders slump a bit. “Okay. Yeah. And that!” She strikes her arm out in a manner only reminiscent of a match in that both are forceful, abrupt motions, and the sense of fire at the edge. “That is not going to make me as sad as a thing that is sadly sad! I am resolute in this fashion.”

Jack doesn’t quite giggle.

“So,” Shannon goes on casually, starting to walk again after having been projecting theatrically at the whole room from her standing perch by the door, “officially you’re over to help me with this.” She unplugs the itvee in a way abrupt enough to make Jack wince and glances at him when he does it. “It won’t shut off,” she protests. “I know you’re, like, machine empathic but seriously all I can do is cut off the power and I had to take the batteries out and everything and it won’t switch off this and this and—”

He knows that tone of rising self-defensive panic in her voice. “What did you do?”

“Oh, well,” Shannon says, and flops back onto the single slightly oversized chair, still holding the screen. The resulting mash of her and him and hardware is almost enough to distract him until they manage to get him perched half on an armrest and her trying not to chew on the corner of the screen.

“Well, oh,” he mimics.

“I kind of... was trying to get a pirate channel to see if I could and because if they really do, like, monitor then I’d have an excuse to jailbreak and if I went pirate-corporate it would look, ah, typical teenage crime instead of going pirate-original broadcast? Yeah? So then everything froze and I can’t get it to anything and—” Her voice does not rise to a wail. Normally it would, but the faces Jack’s making at her would distract a rabid rhinoceros and Shannon is easier.

At least, probably she is. Jack has never had to distract a rabid rhinoceros.

“Let me see what I can do,” he says, not quite resigned – yes quite smiling – and Shannon leaps up in place to kiss him on the cheek and tips the whole apparatus of them over.


There ain’t a place a man can hide, Shannon
To keep him from the sun
Ain’t a bed to give us rest, now
You keep us on the run


He is good at English in only one direction, but Patrick is positively fluent in Feet. The problem is that no one else is.

While he can understand and revel in the tongues of others, Patrick himself can’t get through, and so the point in trying is negative and nonexistent. It’s a net loss, and entropy may be the final fate of the universe but he has no need in mind or heart to help it along. Meaningless action, energy dispensed to no purpose or consequence, is pretty entropic.

At any rate he likes music with the blindness of (he’s told) really truly loving something but on this scale that means he can still name it for others and so it is not pure or all-consuming. There are other things where this is not the case and to be kind he is ambivalent.

Patrick is ambivalent to gravity and it is ambivalent to him; he hits the ground roughly with his feet and all of him comes off at a very slightly different angle. Patrick’s knees knock against each other and make his feet skid on the ground on the next step. His back is intrinsically unstable, more so than is the case of his sisters and brothers combined and worse yet for everyone having been sick of the idea of treating another Noline child, and his head comes out at the neck pointing a bit down and to the side while his arms hang loosely from his shoulders like they’ve been dislocated. He is a rag doll, essentially, filled with helium and lightly tethered to the earth to keep him bouncing back, and this is why the way he walks is so strange.

The idea is stupid, ridiculous, and far too complicated, and Patrick considers he might like it with the blushing shame appropriate to being wrong. If it was true, his backpack wouldn’t be the tether, despite being the right weight and all. Patrick can take it off whenever he wants and soon he should, there’s stuff he needs in it.

His headphones would be a safety net, gentler and stronger and far more fragile for it, for being something kinder than he deserves. Patrick breathes in staccato that contrasts unflatteringly with the shadows of a lovely bass line and an overenthusiastic, vibrating contralto being hummed into his ears.

Maybe Jack could tell him how that works. To Patrick anything to do with music would be a miracle, but he truly dislikes most gods. Would Patrick even be able to speak to the ones he used to covet? Can gods read minds?

Patrick’s thoughts aren’t really clear enough to read like water, they’re jumbled and ugly and undercut with screaming, intermittently, and a constant hideous buzz. He shies away from the sounds and landscape of his mind as far as he can, runs his tongue over his teeth at the thought of it, so he’s glad no one else can get into his head and maybe run away making more noises and maybe see it better than him.

That thought makes his breath do strange, slightly painful things again, and Patrick plays at volume until he can’t hear his body any more, which is how things ought to work. It’s not a very good body. All that could be claimed to be its purpose is carrying his brain around and all it really does is make his brain hurt, instead.

There are no nerves in the brain, Patrick knows this. His head aches quietly even so.


After what feels like either five minutes or two hours and so is possibly the average or just a completely different number (the average of a hundred and twenty and five minutes is messy, anyway, and if Jack was estimating to thirty actual seconds they’d already have gone by) Jack has reallocated to the floor. After a screwdriver, the judicious application of a shoe (in context it made sense, and Shannon’s look of terror was priceless), an actual manual keyboard, the judicious application of a shoe to the keyboard... They were making some progress, he thought. Shannon had relaxed into an odd combination of just going with it and horror, the blueprints that had come with the itvee had been proven suspiciously wrong in at least three places, and Jack had found himself forced to take off his hat.

Shannon was of the opinion that it looked better on her anyway, perched jauntily in the strange muddle that was her attempt to catch her ponytail up into invisibility and thus procure some manner of resemblance to an extremely pretty boy, and had not been shy about voicing this. Shannon was very rarely shy about voicing anything.

Currently what she wasn’t being shy about voicing was, “Do you think it’s that far inbuilt into the hardware, though? At this point I’d kind of just like it to start working again and get out of receiver mode, we have homework.” She shoves her finger up into her mouth and her lip curls back as she bites on it. Around the digit that she’s chewing on as if it weren’t her own Shannon goes on, “I’d almost worth living in the ‘naughts for this, not having all and everything depend on one machine, you know?” Belying her calm voice, the foot she throws out blindly hits the same much-abused wall and produces a thump and disproportionate chalky dust. Jack looks over as it settles on Shannon’s foot.

“I’m the tech support,” Jack says, “I get to kick walls if it is a time to be with the kicking of walls, if you get my gist here. And it’s not, I’m doing either more or less okay or really well, depending on what time it is. What time is it?”

She gestures, smirking, at the almost mostly sort of kind of practically in one piece (he didn’t take it apart very much, no matter what Shannon’s frightened trembling would make you think) screen lying across his knees.

“And the clock is going to be dead, because I can’t let it do outbound,” he sighs. “Okay. Okay. I can work with this. Where does this go?” Jack adds, holding up a piece of plastic backing, just to hear Shannon’s anguished howl at the idea that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.

He doesn’t, but between the blueprints – schematics, really, insufficient excuses for such things – they have and the real ones he’s seen here and there, they’re not doing too badly. If Jack doesn’t tell her he’s trying to give her a freed machine based on instructions for a completely different system he saw once on /lb she will probably actually hit him. Shannon is very protective and to say this extends to her machines is an understatement and a misstatement besides; the root of all things she will claim are hers and bite attackers to the bones of their hands otherwise is either stories or humans, but her tools are right there on the second tier.

Despite Shannon’s way with words she has never thought to explain that to anybody, though, so usually people think she’s being a bitch, purposefully unkind and petty, instead of if anything maternal and in her mind perfectly justified. She’s thus gotten used to saying she’s sorry a lot.

Jack waves off the apology he knows is coming, on that note, and takes advantage of her being this close to steal his hat back.


Patrick can’t hear his footsteps and he can’t hear his heartbeat but he can see them. The rhythm, wrong for any music, beats at him through the white tile of the floor and the white shirts of the uniforms and the white-painted ceiling and the whites of people’s eyes as they go past him. He’s dimly aware of that he’s going the wrong way, that somewhere he has class. Patrick’s dimly aware of a lot of things.

His shoes scuff at the wrong angle against the floor and his eyes beat to the tuneless rhythm of the stupid whites of everything and his head picks it up and runs against the song. He slings his backpack off his shoulder in anger and leaves it up against the wall in absent-minded carelessness. Patrick speaks with his mouth but it’s not the way that anyone else would, so he speaks with his body but everyone else does it different, and so he can at least sort of rely on the fact that no one else will read his motions. He’s broadcasting his thoughts so widely it’s obscene, even though no one can see – screaming curses in Ancient Greek would still be weird and rude even in a crowd of Russian as first-last-only language-speakers a thousand miles in – and he’s shaking, and his head hurts so much.

Mal gets migraines and Patrick was at least lucky enough to not inherit that, but his other siblings do – just more mild proof that he doesn’t quite fit, some of the illnesses and some of the weaknesses but the wrong strengths and the wrong accent and the wrong face and too-light hair – it’s just Mal’s the only one he really talks to so of course Mal will come to mind first. The only one who really talks to him, rather. Patrick would speak to anyone if they would listen but he’s long used to being incapable of conversation through sheer translation convention.

So his older sister (who is also his older brother, sometimes, but he met Mallorie first and young enough that he doesn’t have the weird disconnect the other three and their parents do dealing with him and with her) fits a lot of really odd stereotypes. Pyromaniac and sharpshooter and really should’ve either been a psychopath or gone into the military, apparently, he is told by all the people still impressed by or still afraid of Mal, and is instead studying accounting. There you go. Owen, Victoria, and Hanna are all far more conventional and convenient and consistent in who they are and what they seem like. (Mal’s the one who taught him how to shoot, enlivened by that no one else had been interested and Mal with new information would always burn to force it into the heads of other people. It didn’t even bother Patrick to have to have his hands that still.)

The amount of time he’s spent thinking about this is straddling two different kinds of and reasons to be called stupid, namely too much and too little. On the surface of things he’s thought out nothing at all and is in fact an idiot (what else is new?), and under that he should be slapped for obsessing over things that will never happen. If he wants something that can never happen he should listen to Jack or Shannon for five seconds and that will do him for a year.

Shannon and Jack are specifically and exactly at the top of the list of things he shouldn’t be thinking about, though, which is headed also with Anything. He puts the heel of his hand against his forehead and opens his eyes.

Every colour has decided to be itself and stop jumping. Every sound is gone. It’s – it’s quiet. No one’s making any noise at all. Not even his brain.

It’s better than a dream.


Jack’s howl of triumph is akin enough to the inattentive (okay, not-Jack) ear to a howl of everything having gone wrong that Shannon throws herself bodily off of the top of the armchair in surprise. She lands heavily on the heels of her feet and the palms of her hands and curses in a sped-up whirlwind tirade at the fact.

“We have lights!” he proclaims over her. “And, uh, are stuck on the news. But I can get menus! I can also do that.”

She plucks his hat off his head like she doesn’t even notice she’s doing it when she comes over to look. “Are you going to have to shut it down to work on it more, then?”

He frowns. “What I really honestly need is a monitor to see what it’s telling everybody. As-is we’re good. People wreck things all the time and I’m, like—” Jack explains the concept with hands like parody angels’ wings and Shannon giggles because that was more a for-Patrick kind of joke but he’s not here right now “—qualified. So anything it’s telling anyone isn’t enough to come back and bite you but I’d like to know what to work on next.”

Shannon tilts her head.

“They use the same hardware to monitor you as you use to interact with everything,” he says, not quite despondently, in response. It was obvious, of course, but popular culture certainly loves the concept of the single chip you can crush under your heel and fix everything and Jack had kind of hoped. Holistic everything and actual good design in surveillance could bite him, like with teeth.

“Well—” she says, the stumbling optimism of deciding to reassure him before having any idea what she’s going to say to do it, and then leans over his shoulder and kind of squeaks. “Is there sound? Fiat sound. What is that.”

“No,” Jack says, “I’m not God, of course there’s sound, who would put the motherboard somewhere that would mean I’d have to disconnect the speakers or – oh that’s an idea if there’s a spare, remind me to check that – okay.” He turns it on and then notices the legend under the blonde, worried-looking anchorwoman’s face.

There is a pause, filled with treble-heavy panicked narration on blonde-bob-red-jacket’s part.

“Oh” kind of falls out of Jack’s mouth, soft and meaningless. Shannon buries her face in his shoulder and knocks the hat off her head on his ear in the process.

She’s talking.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, that doesn’t happen,” she says. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen any more, that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

“What does he think he’s doing?” Jack asks, and shifts his knees a bit so she can get a better if entirely unwanted view.

“No.” He hears her inhale, only a little bit snuffly, and starts to laugh.

Shannon sits up and prudently takes the screen away before he knocks it onto the floor. “Shh,” she says, like she wasn’t just the one panicking, like it’s not his turn now anyway, like there aren’t people they know dying and – and Patrick is – and Patrick. “Come on. Just. Give me a second.”

Jack can’t hear himself make any sound but the nervousness on her face and the tone of her voice and something about her hands tells him that’s not a good sign either. She sets her itvee down on the floor and mutes it with a hand that falls like a punch to warp the plastic with force far beyond that which is necessary and wraps her arms around him and it’s only in contrast to it that Jack can halfway realise that he must be shaking.

“I’m going to figure this out,” she says.

“Count to seventeen and close your eyes,” she says.

He does.


A large part of it is aesthetic. Clean and sharp are almost infinitely appealing concepts, and apparently (Jack wouldn’t remember) the scars on his arms are proof to that his first family wasn’t very careful about children, knives, proximity to, subtype of not leaving the toddler on the kitchen counter. (Also, fire.) He remembers there was a reason he started carrying one with him but he can’t remember what it was that happened; Jack has the worst memory of anyone he knows.

After long enough it was just a thing. Contents of Jackson Matthew Straw, inalienable, necessary: hat, book, knife, boy.

He left his book at Shannon’s, forgotten under something or other. She gave him back his hat with the strangest blessing he’s ever heard out of her – enumerating issues with it in his head, he’d start with Bread is not any manner of god but he may have misheard that, she kind of was crying and all the Latin he’s learned was off her, it is after all her favourite – and the strange, cold face she puts on when she doesn’t want to show she’s hurt, and said she’d catch up.

More than anything, he’s fairly sure, she’s disappointed in Patrick. He knows he almost is. Jack can’t muster up any kind of grief, but they were almost out. If Patrick could’ve waited less than a semester they would have been able to leave and everything would be fine somewhere else.

(That was the plan, anyway, but Patrick always – he never said it outright, but And what if everything’s still wrong somewhere else? was his manner of objection.)

So Jack catches up with him walking along the side of the road like an idiot and spits this out in automatic banter before he can think, and Patrick turns, of course, like it’s the only thing he’d answer to. It kind of is.

There’s a moment when Jack can’t breathe because he wonders if Patrick will kill him – it hadn’t occurred to him before, this was Patrick – and then a moment when Patrick doesn’t. Breathe. A lot of them.

“It’s fractions,” she said, rubbing her face with her hands, like spreading the drying tears all over would help somehow. “You just. You can’t. Murder is bad.”

“What do we do,” Jack kept repeating, toneless to his own ears but at least aware of it.

“I can’t--” Shannon sounded frantic. “I can’t let this – I can’t let things like this happen. I can’t. Quantity to quality ratio aside people are people and I can’t—”

It took him long enough to understand.

For two years it’s been illegal to explicitly depict death in fiction without special permits and ratings you have to jump through hoops to get around – Jack has heard – both as creator and as consumer, so it’s not like he really had anything to go off of, he’s never felt the need to try. And. And.

He only realises he’s been standing there staring when Shannon’s suddenly beside him with a shovel and her hair shorter than a recovering cancer patient’s. She almost looks like she’s fussing, for a moment, and then she hands him the knife and shuts Patrick’s eyes.

At least he was smiling, careful as ever not to show teeth (“well, obviously, I mean, I like you”). Or maybe that’s creepy. Jack puts his hat down over Patrick’s face so as to not have to decide.

They’re too far from the road to be seen and the dirt is powdery and soft. He helps her dig.


Opposite of him, Shannon babbles when she’s nervous, and is nervous when she’s afraid. Right now she’s terrified – he can tell even if she can’t, what are they for but for being able to tell that about each other (Patrick could back him up, if if if) – and Jack is numb, a perfect audience for someone who could easily and in other circumstances quite happily make do with a wall.

It’ll work, she says, and sniffles.

The dye is mixed wrong, he’s fairly sure, because it’s likely not supposed to burn his head like that, but then Shannon looks in a way he’s sure she’d like to think is dispassionate and asks why he’s apparently been clawing gashes in the skin of his scalp that have just been covered by hair. He’s not sure. He doesn’t remember, but he does wake up with bloody fingernails sometimes, so. Mystery solved.

It’s amazing how easy it is to render them unrecognisable. There’s not much to be done for Shannon’s face, distinctive as anything, but the lack of hair will at least engender double-takes, and Jack can’t even recognise himself sans hat, let alone wild-eyed and white-blond and hatless on top of it.

“I’d been thinking about running away for a while,” Shannon says quietly, which is as much of an explanation as any for why she’d been packing.

(Jack has never managed to get her to explain why she can’t stand it here. It’s nothing so easily flashy as is ostensibly contained in, say, his own past. If it was something she ever wanted to say she’d have spit it out, though. Shannon isn’t good at prudence or considering audiences, she just groups everything into Secrets and Not Secrets and talks about the latter.)

He’s scared, Jack realises, maybe as much as Shannon or maybe it’s just that he can almost feel her own metallic terror coming off her in waves and it reflects in him. Jack has the worst memory of anyone he knows and he can’t forget this. Any of this. It’s jumbled and pale and confused but it happened and he has to remember.

Once they’re on the fission train out of the city Shannon starts to sing without apparently thinking about it and then bursts into tears again.

She knows a guy, she says, wiping her nose on her sleeve and trying to pretend she’s not. Has Jack ever wished for a different name?

Not really, Jack says, so she decides for him.


Jack Straw from Wichita
Cut his buddy down
He dug for him a shallow grave
And laid his body down


Their parents don’t love them, Shannon says blithely. He doesn’t even have parents. It’ll be fine. No one will miss them.

People would’ve missed Patrick. Patrick was unwanted but not uncared for, and he had exponentially more people to notice if he left. They never could’ve done this with Patrick, not without a lot more trouble and maybe being older. A lot of people missed Patrick, now for different reasons, but they didn’t find him for a while. Shannon and Jack together dug very, very deep.

The two of them together are still nothing near enough. It’s sad and painful and pathetic. Eventually Patrick’s body was found and there was an outcry until he was identified and then no one cared any more.

When the new ID cards come around Jack’s tells him he’s John Henry Quarter. There’s a joke in there, from Shannon, that Jack doesn’t bother to decipher. He just shrugs and goes along with it.

Shannon knows what to do and she’s incredibly blithe about it, and people start to be afraid of them, of her. She gets bored and decides to sell people out to keep the remainder on their toes and she always smiles when she does it, a good smile, a real one. He knows the scars she’s accumulated on her hands as well as he knows everything else about her.

They are mercenary if not actual mercenaries and neither side of the stupid tiny war is right. She’s the mysterious Gardener and everyone who’d recognise her face is dead. He’s Jack Quarter and he’s never been to Wichita in his life.

It’s okay.