TW for smoking, PTSD, mild violence, trauma stuff.
I’d tried to quit smoking something like five times, and I was on try number six. I only had three cigarettes left—two now, I guessed—but desperate times called for desperate measures, and after dealing with the last few days with what I thought was an exceptional amount of grace—I needed a goddamn smoke.
Now if my hands would stop shaking. It was cold out here, on the steps of my house. That was my excuse. My thumb kept slipping off the wheel of my lighter.
“Here,” murmured Will. She took the lighter from my hands, flicking it on and then holding the flame to the end of my cigarette. It was starting to get dark outside. Where had the day gone? I couldn’t even remember half of it. The shapeshifter. Calling Will. Lila.
“We should talk about that Mercury that keeps rolling around your head,” Will said quietly, and I jerked away. She flipped the lighter closed. “Sorry. It’s—pretty loud.”
I tried to relax. She was trying. God knows I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. “…Is…” I swallowed. Paranoia versus good sense. Paranoia was good sense. “Why was Avery outside my house that night? When I went to LeBreton Flats?” I tried to keep something repeating in my mind, to maintain some element of privacy. Peter Piper picked a peck of pepper how the fuck does this go again? Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb—Realistically, I should just talk to Will about it. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that all these freaks (don’t call them freaks you’re one too) showing up at once couldn’t be a coincidence.
The look in Will’s eyes wasn’t helping the paranoia, either. She kept looking at the ground, counting grains in the asphalt. “They keep track of people they think might be, y’know. Gifted.”
“Gifted. That’s a new word for it.”
“Eh, there’s lots of words for it.” She chuckled lightly. There was a sadness to it. Cursed, more like it, my brain supplied. Haunted. “Avery is—look, forget what Lila said. Lila’s a self-centered prick. Avery looks out for people.” Will lit her own cigarette, although from the face she made while taking her first puff on it, she wasn’t a big smoker.
“Don’t feel obliged on my account. It’s bad for you.”
“So’s being trans,” she replied with a wry cynicism, “but I manage okay. I’m keeping you company. Anyway. You were asking about Avery.”
I paused. “Are they actually a cab driver?”
“For real! Licensed and everything.”
I stared at Will. She didn’t look like she was fucking with me…this time. “They can control minds and they drive a taxi.”
“We don’t control minds. We just…suggest things. Strongly.”
I snorted. “That’s one way of putting it.” The cigarette was helping. I didn’t feel so much like I wanted to cry. “So they just like doing it? Being a cab driver?”
“I mean, yeah. They like helping people. And it’s not like we can just go get any job we want. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Like hell it doesn’t.”
“Not if we wanna be good people,” she retorted. “Besides, I can only control so many people at once. Tricking one person into thinking I can do, I don’t know, taxes or something is one thing. Tricking a whole corporation is quite another.”
I supposed she had a point. Mind control had scary implications. Then I frowned, tucking one of my hands in my armpit to ward off the cold and cocking my head at her with a nervous look. “So even before you could hear Jo—you knew what I was?”
“Avery more than me. It’s something you develop with time. Apparently.”
“Ah. You’re almost as new to this at me.”
“Not exactly. Just, kinda new to being decent about it.”
That explained a lot, including the tender way she said Avery’s name. I took my cigarette from my mouth, lowering it down by my thigh so I could think. “…How’d you meet Avery? You two seem pretty close. And you already said you’re not dating.”
Will brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, flicking my lighter on and off and sending orange patterns flickering over her face. “I can probably tell you another time. Like I said. They like helping people.”
I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical. “It’s not that selfless. Is it?”
“I can—what, stabilize people? What does that mean? I’m not a bloody therapist, and I’m a lousy medium.”
She laughed, then shivered a little in the cold. “God, I should have worn pants.”
“Don’t sass me. Uh, stabilization is—basically, powers are a pain in the ass. Lila’s an Earth elemental. She can—well, you saw. She can move things with her mind.”
“Yeah. Which is my least favourite bit.”
“And her problem is—?”
She rolled her eyes at that. “Christ. Power trips and an utter inability to ask for help instead of treating people like tools. Weirdly enough, we get along fine when she hasn’t decided she’s Dominatrix Queen of the Paeons again.”
I gaped at Will, who raised an eyebrow. “… she stabbed you.”
“That was still a stabbing!”
Will shrugged. “I’ve done worse.” Then at my look, she grinned sheepishly. “I said I was new to being a good person.”
I decided I wasn’t regretting the smoke. Not after getting thrown around like a ragdoll by somebody with psychic powers. I took another deep puff of my cigarette, then coughed as I got a lungful of ash—okay, maybe that part tasted a bit of regret. “You’re still dodging around what stabilization is.”
“Our powers aren’t as stable as they look. They react to our emotions, how we’re feeling, how we’re doing. And sometimes they get a little out of control.” Her breath came out of her mouth as smoke in the cold air. “So, yeah. Stabilization is how we can reel things back.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. I didn’t want to think about what ‘out of control’ meant. Out of control mind-control powers… “Earth. You said Earth. There’s Fire?”
“Out of control fire powers.”
Will swallowed. “Yeah.”
“And—and how often does—” I tried to stop squeaking. Tried to get the image of fire out of my head. Fire, Earth, Air, Water, Sulfur, Salt, Mercury. “This is a normal thing.”
“Normal-ish? Usually there’s more Salts around to help us out. And for the core elementals they all stabilize each other so it’s not as bad.”
“This is—This is a lot.” I couldn’t breathe. “So Sulfur a-and Mercury, the shapeshifter ones—they need Salt elementals. To—to stop being, what, crazy?”
Will flinched a bit at that. “It’s not that simple.”
“How often does it happen? How often?”
“It’s kind of a prerequisite to be a little fucked up. So, uh, pretty often.”
I dropped the cigarette and ground it out under my heel, storming back towards the house.
“I’m not a therapist!” I shot back.
“It’s not like that—”
“What does prerequisite even mean?”
“It’s how we get the stupid abilities in the first place!”
I paused, hands slowly closing into fists in the air. Then I turned on my heel, glaring back at Will. “What.”
“You hadn’t figured that out?”
“I have met five people with weird superhuman abilities so far, and had extended conversations with two of them,” I growled through gritted teeth. “Now what’s this about how we have to be ‘a little fucked up’?”
Will took a step backwards. “Er, you’re not going to start with the punching again, are you?”
“That depends. Do I have to—?”
“Trauma,” she sighed, her eyes fixed on mine with a flicker of—I wasn’t sure if it was uncertainty, fear, or just the trepidation of telling me something she knew I didn’t want to hear, reflecting my own raging emotions back at me. “We get our powers because of trauma.”
I could feel something splintering in my chest. Who knows why. Maybe it was just because I didn’t want to think about it—the horrible little question that had been chasing me around my whole life. Why. Why can you see ghosts? Why do the dead cluster to you? Why are you still talking to your sister years after burying her?
I didn’t want to know.
“I’m already outside—”
“I don’t care.”
I stalked back inside, and slammed the door behind me, the impact shaking the doorframe. I didn’t have trauma. I just had a stupid shitty life, but it wasn’t—it wasn’t trauma if you didn’t know anything else. It didn’t count. It didn’t count.
Jo was in front of me, grey eyes wide. I didn’t want to talk to her. I didn’t want to figure it out. I didn’t want to feel bad about slamming the door on Will or about—any of this.
I sat down on the stairs with a dull thud, rubbing my eyes and trying not to cry. “Yeah?”
“It’s pretty cold outside. Are you sure you want to leave her out there?”
“Don’t lecture me,” I grumbled. “She can go home.”
Jo raised an eyebrow at me. I pretended not to see it and leant my head onto my knees. Time passed. I wasn’t sure how much.
“Jamal,” she said quietly.
“I know,” I murmured back. I really was going to cry. Jo was my conscience. If she’d just died and I’d never been able to talk to her again—
I opened the door. Will was sitting on the porch steps, shivering and toying with the loose end of the dishrag still tied around her arm. “You’re not gonna leave, huh?” I said, unable to hide the smile. I probably would have preferred it if she had gone home, but…
“I would, but I would prefer it if nobody killed you while I wasn’t looking.”
I could appreciate that. “…I don’t have a couch. I don’t even have a bed.”
“That’s fine. I’m pretty much nocturnal anyway.”
I leaned against the doorframe with a sigh. “Do you like horror movies?”
“Hell yeah.” She got to her feet. I couldn’t tell if the red on her cheeks was from the cold or if she’d been crying. “Wait, you can’t afford a bed, but you have Netflix?”
“Who needs Netflix? I have the Internet.”
“I like how you think.”
I caught Jo’s eye as Will came back in, and she gave me a thumbs up. I flapped at her with a scowl. I didn’t need her teasing me. I had a friend. It was a start.