November 11, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
Searing pain plucked him from his dreams. In complete darkness the awareness of his body, heavy and feverish, spread slowly across his mind. There was still the familiar pounding in his head and his stomach wasn’t completely settled, but his leg felt better for the time. The black enveloped him and he wondered how he had managed to get home. Had Kopi come back and gotten him? Why didn’t he remember anything past the fire and talking with the Hardings?
The unfamiliar smell of cedar and starch jolted him into consciousness. His eyelids sprang open and a feeling similar to a lightning bolt reverberated through his skull. He faltered, almost allowing his eyes to flutter closed again, but when the world stopped spinning his gaze fell upon a smiling figure at his bedside.
“Glad to see you’re awake.” It was the Harding’s older daughter, Miranda, staring back at him. Her long hair and shoulders encased in a halo of warm light.
He tried to respond, but the inside of his mouth was dry and his tongue and cheeks stuck together like wet tissue paper. All he could manage was a grunt in response.
“You passed out on us last night.” She stood and went to the bedside table, pouring water from a pitcher into a clear glass. “You had a pretty high fever, probably from that infected wound on your leg.” She waited beside him, holding the glass until he realized she wanted him to sit up. It took some maneuvering, but he managed to haul himself up enough on his elbows for her to wedge another pillow behind his back, leaving him in a nearly upright position. She handed him the glass and he sipped cautiously. The water was cool and refreshing, allowing him to speak with some considerable effort.
“I-I need to leave,” he stammered.
“Yeah, you said that last night. I don’t think you’re well enough to leave just yet.” She turned away from him then and walked toward the doorway. Her silky, auburn hair hung to the center of her back, full and gleaming with a multitude of tones: honey, copper, and mahogany. She was wearing a denim blue dress that clung to her curvy frame, flowing down to her knees. She looked back over her shoulder at him on the bed. “Now that you’re awake, I’ll go get my mom to check in on you.” With that she left the room. He could hear the soft click of her heels on the hardwood as she walked away.
Propped up in the bed, Kai looked around the room. The unease he felt did not match his surroundings. The room was large and sparsely furnished with just the double bed, night stand, chair and small wooden dresser. To his left there was an open window with pale green curtains billowing in the breeze. He was on the first floor. He could easily escape if he could just raise himself off the bed, with that idea he tried to swing his legs over the edge and found he wasn’t restrained at all under the blankets. However, when he shifted to his side for better leverage a shooting pain raced up his injured leg, leaving him limp and panting from the effort. A growing tension in his stomach gnawed at him, they’d made no effort to keep him in the bed or make it difficult for him to leave, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of being trapped. After a few deep breaths he tried to move back. Placing hands on either side of his hips he gritted his teeth and lifted his legs. A whimper escaped his lips just as Jean entered the room. She moved quickly to the bedside to assist him, pulling back the blankets to expose his legs. He shied from her touch and sensing his distrust she moved her hands back to her sides.
“Let me help you, Kai.” Her voice was calm and cautious, a tone you would use when speaking to a frightened child
He relaxed, giving a curt nod and allowing her to lift his legs and straighten them before pulling the blanket back over his body. He watched her fluid movements; she was small, even for a woman, but strong and confident.
“What did you do to me?” He croaked, his voice still raspy from sleep and possibly drugs.
“Not to be immodest, but I think we saved your life, Kai.” She stared at him from the chair. “You were going into sepsis, from the sore on your leg. Did you realize you were injured?”
“My leg?” He hadn’t realized that they’d seen his leg until then. Jean had already figured out he had an injury the day before at the well, but he hadn’t let her see it. He’d cleaned and wrapped the wound hoping it would heal, but it hadn’t and though he knew he needed medical attention, the thought of seeing a doctor petrified him. The trip to the hospital in Zone 6 when he was seventeen had been enough to sour his taste for modern medicine.
The foot had bothered him from time to time before they escaped the camp and continued until a year or so after. The pain had started in his toes and spread up his leg; a jarring, burning agony. Before long the skin turned red and hot to the touch, then black and cold. When the color and numbness spread to the heel, Kopi found a ride to the airfield so they could make the trip to the mainland. It was a two day trip and once there the doctors concluded that his foot needed to be amputated. It had all happened so fast, there had been no time to argue. He remembered fighting the nurses as they tried to put him under and four hulking security guards having to haul his brother from the room. Waking up in the hospital room after the procedure had been terrifying, like a flashback and once he’d realized his foot and half his lower leg were gone the panic really set in. He and Kopi left in the middle of the second night without being released and never went back. The stump had healed and it didn’t take long for him to learn to walk with the aide of crutches or when it was safe, a sculpted water-foot that allowed him to walk normally, but was too suspicious to use in public with all the military about. Not many mutants were powerful enough to sustain their powers for longer than a few minutes let alone a full day.
Jean was still staring at him from the chair at his bedside. The space between her blonde brows was creased; he couldn’t tell if she was worried for him or just impatient.
“When did you injure yourself?” She continued to probe.
“I don’t want to answer your questions. I want to go home.” He tried to make his voice steady, commanding if possible. Kopi was so much better at intimidating people into letting him have his way.
Jean sighed, closing her eyes and resting her forehead between her thumb and forefinger. After a minute, she spoke again without moving or turning up to look at him, she sounded exhausted. “Kai, you were very ill and the only way you’ll get better is if you rest. We have no way of moving you right now without putting you at risk. Please, let us help you, that’s all I ask.” Her eyes opened to plead with him.
There was no anger or malice in her blue eyes, just an uninhibited look of empathy and awe. For an instant he thought of Auntie, when she’d taken them in all those years ago; two young men lost, hungry and broken with no memory of the outside world or how to care for themselves. Their aunt had given them shelter and food, taught them all she could of the world and how to live in it, and she’d loved them as she had her own two boys that she lost to the very camp Kopi and Kai had escaped. That same compassion and patience they had tested so many times was written on Jean’s face. Seeing that familiar expression he felt the need to choke down emotions he’d long since buried. Suddenly, he felt more at ease; he wanted to trust her, even though he knew he shouldn’t.
“Why?” she paused, mulling over his question. “Why help you, you mean? Kai, we told you, Reggie and I are doctors. We couldn’t let you suffer. The nearest hospital is days away and you were in no condition to wait that long or to make the journey there. We came here specifically to provide medical services to those in need.”
“You said you were geneticists, too, that you worked on mutants.” He wanted her to validate his suspicions, he needed to mistrust her; the alternative was too confusing.
“We are geneticists and we do specialize in mutant genetics, that’s all true,” she answered plainly.
“Are you helping me, because I am a mutant?”
“I’m helping you, because you’re sick. In truth, I don’t even know if you are mutant, Kai. I had my suspicions about you and your brother, suspicions your brother confirmed last night, but I know that just because he is a mutant does not necessarily mean that you are.” She reached out a hand to him, when he flinched she laid it beside him on the bed.
“What do you want with us?” He was beginning to feel as though the Hardings were as harmless as they seemed. None of them had mentioned Compound 17 since they arrived or Globalnetics, though some of their crates bore the government’s emblem, but so did most shipping crated since the Resolution. Then again their project had brought the army down upon the zone and they could be just as masterful at hiding their intentions as so many other government officials he had encountered over the years.
“With who? You and your brother?” She asked.
“With all of us; the mutants in this zone?”
“Kai, we don’t want anything from you.” She stopped and squinted a moment. “Well, I suppose that is not entirely true. I told you last night that we moved to this zone in hopes that we could build a life here for our children and ourselves, one where our skills could be put to good use. We wish for the children in this sector to attend the school we’ve built here and for the local population to seek our services for their medical needs. Education and proper medical care are services you sorely need in this community; services the government has overlooked. Reggie and I are research scientists in a rare field and we are hoping that a few of the mutants in this zone will eventually step up and participate in our studies, but we are not requiring anyone to use our services or participate in anything they’re not comfortable with. True research must be voluntary.”
Kai sneered inimically. “We’ll see.”
“Why do you distrust us?”
“I have my reasons to be suspicious.” Kai tried to stay aloof.
“Will you at least submit to an exam, so I can access your progress?” Jean was exasperated, but determined.
“Fine.” Kai laid back, relaxing against the pillows as she set to work examining his leg. She pulled back the blankets and removed the bandaging from his wound. As she poked and prodded at the tender flesh of his leg she continued to try and sway him to her side. “I know we’re not exactly on friendly terms, but since you did bring it up, are you a mutant?”
Kai watched her, weighing the pros and cons of breeching this subject with a geneticist, and finally deciding to tell her; she could look up the information in the registry anyways. “I am.”
She didn’t say anything, just mumbled some kind of acknowledgment and continued her investigation.
“I’m an Elemental, like Kopi.”
“Really? So, you can control fires?” She was obviously interested, but was trying to suppress her curiosity.
Kai chuckled a bit. “No, I’m a Water Elemental.”
Jean looked up at him, puzzled. “How unusual?”
“Not really, Kopi and one of our brothers were both Fire Elementals, our oldest brother and sister were Earth Elementals and I’m a Water Elemental.” Jean looked at him quizzically and he continued. “I don’t know how it works exactly, but my father was fire and my mother was earth and somewhere in there somebody carried the water genes, so here I am.” The corner of his mouth quirked up a bit at that.
Summer rushed into the room them with a whirl of energy. She stopped at the foot of the bed; her cheeks slightly flushed.
“Your brother is outside.”
“Kopi? He should be at work.” Kai mulled over the information in his mind before realizing that Kopi had no idea what had happened the night before after he left, he wouldn’t know why Kai hadn’t made it home. “He wants to know where I am.” He looked to Jean. “He’ll think you kept me here against my will.”
“I suppose in a way he wouldn’t be wrong. You were unconscious.” Jean teased pleasantly.
Summer interrupted their amiable moment, speaking directly. “The guards stopped him at the gate; it’s causing quite a commotion.” As she spoke they could hear that commotion making its way toward the house. Outside there were shouts and the shuffling of boots. He could pick out his brother’s gruff tone as he commanded the soldiers to move out of his way and Kai bit his lower lip to hide the faint smile growing there. The storm grew louder as the group climbed the steps to the front door. The door burst open, escalating the noise another level, and thundering footsteps approached their room. Kopi appeared, looking haggard and frustrated, in the doorway and stood accessing the scene before him. He set his eyes sternly on Jean, who was repositioning bandages over the stump of Kai’s leg.
“What’s going on here?” He looked at his brother; tempestuous eyes beneath furrowed brows. “You didn’t come home last night. Did they hurt you?”
Jean was stunned enough to lose her focus on bandaging his calf. Kai, still unable to get out of the bed on his own, tried to present a calm face to his brother. “No, Kopi, they didn’t do this to me. This started days ago.”
Kopi took a step forward as the young lieutenant from the night before moved around him. “Of course, they aren’t keeping him here against his will. What are you suggesting?” He was facing off with Kopi again. Kai sighed, hoping the officer wouldn’t be sticking around the zone for long; otherwise he and his brother were likely to kill each other.
“I don’t know, why don’t you tell me why he’s still here then.”
“He was ill last night and couldn’t leave the house until we brought his fever down.” Jean smoothly interjected.
“What fever? He was fine when I left.” The pulsating cloud of frustration that surrounded Kopi was growing and billowed out now toward Jean. Surprisingly, Kai felt the urge to butt in and defend her, but stopped himself, knowing it would only serve to further irritate his brother. Jean and Kopi continued to stare down each other, and despite her serious disadvantage in size, Jean Harding could hold her ground. Kopi seemed to visibly calm after a moment; the petite doctor had managed to soothe the savage beast, and this time Kai didn’t try to hide his amusement at the thought.
“Well, if he’s not ill then he can leave.” The lieutenant walked to Kai’s bedside and eyed his injury coolly, as though the man before him were no more than a noisome ant or the cold body of a long dead enemy. Lightning quick, Kopi was at Kai’s side, staring over his form on the bed at the churlish officer. His brother bent forward and slid his hands under Kai so that Kai’s shoulders and bent knees were supported on his solid forearms.
“What are you doing?” Kai shirked at the thought of being carried from the house in his baby brother’s arms, but in an instant there he was, suspended in the air, his legs kicking out uselessly in protest. In shock he stared wide eyed at his brother. In his mind he tried to draw together all of his irritation and what little dignity he had left. “Put me down, Kopi.” He commanded. His brother regarded him with a grimace that said he had no intention of doing anything Kai suggested. He began again, this time his voice was edged with anger. “I am not a child! You will put me down.” Summer and Jean were hovering about behind Kopi’s back, quietly murmuring warnings for him to be gently and to avoid disturbing his wound. His brother set him carefully back on the bed. Kai’s victory was short lived, however, as he realized how ridiculous it was for him to fight for his pride while half naked and laying exposed in front of a room full of people he barely knew.
“Would you mind giving me some time alone to talk to my brother, please?” Kai addressed Jean, purposefully ignoring the lieutenant, who huffed derisively at his side.
“Absolutely, that’s a good idea. We’ll get out of your way.” Jean gracefully pushed her daughter toward the door and as she passed she reached out to pull the lieutenant out with them, but he shrugged her off.
“I’m not leaving that one alone. He was told specifically not to return here.” He explained as he watched Kopi.
“By who?” Jean’s hands found a place at her hips and one foot, set slightly forward of the other, tapped out a warning; Kai was beginning to really like the woman’s brusque side.
“By me, I am in charge of your security for the time being.” Her son replied.
“Well, your father and I are in charge now and I told him no such thing, but I am telling you that you’re going to the kitchen with Summer and I. Now.” With that she left, closely followed by the scolded head-of-security, who retreated with his tail between his legs.
“Good. Now I can get you out of here.” Once they were out of earshot, Kopi bent to pick him up again and Kai shoved him firmly in the chest.
“I told you not to carry me, Kopi. I’m fine here. Jean is right, I’m not well. I can’t even get out of this bed on my own.”
“All the more reason why you should be at home, who knows what they’ll do to you while you can’t get away.” His brother seemed genuinely worried, and he empathized, he had the same suspicions not long ago.
“They won’t hurt me. If they wanted to they would have already. I was unconscious all night and all they did was doctor me, and I have to admit, I feel a lot better now.” He patted Kopi’s hand, trying to be reassuring. “You can stay if you don’t trust them, but I’m not leaving until I can walk out the front door of my own power.”
“You don’t even know them, what if they’re the ones making you sick?”
“I’ve had a fever for days, Brother. There’s a sore on my leg, you can see for yourself, it got infected.” He pointed down toward the gauze-wrapped leg. Kopi was eerily quiet as he scowled at the bed linens. “What’s wrong and why aren’t you at work? You were supposed to report back to the ranch this morning.”
“Jaxon let me go.”
“He what?” Startled he searched his brother’s placid face.
“The Harding’s son went to the ranch after the incident last night and convinced Jaxon to fire me.” He was very calm about all of it, which was unusual for him.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet; take the boat out more I suppose, sell my catch ‘til I can figure something else out.”
“Aren’t you upset?”
“I was. Then I went home and you weren’t there and I panicked. I don’t know, I kind of forgot about it while I was looking for you.” He pursed his lips a bit. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Better than I was last night, yeah. The Hardings aren’t so bad, well, the ones that aren’t conscripted in the Globalnetics army.” He chuckled a bit.
Kopi gave him a serious look. “You don’t know them well enough to know they aren’t in league with the military, Kai. You need to be cautious.”
“I know, Brother.”