Every fibre of his being cried out for him to move. Well, except for the bits that were crying out in pain, but that was secondary. He was used to pain. What he wanted to know now was; if he moved, was he in for more pain?
He kept his body lax and his eyes closed, straining his other senses to find out as much as he could about his current predicament.
Firm bed. Clean sheets. A pillow that smelled only subtly of previous abuses, but mostly of being washed. Beyond that, there were smells of new plaster and paint... a cacophony of make-up... not just the powders and paints, but some of the more extensive treatments. Latex. Glue. Solvent.
An animal smell and a distant scurrying alerted him to the presence of a pet rodent. The animal in question was clean, but beyond that, he could tell little.
Noise filtered in, now. Someone's TV... Survivor was on. A couple were arguing. A dog was barking. A baby started wailing. Someone, somewhere, was hammering on the radiator.
Closer to, someone was humming. Cooking, judging by the smells. The old style of cooking that didn't pay very much heed to nutrition or low anything indices, but everything to quantity and taste.
Mortimer almost moaned out loud. Having to lie there, dying to move, hurting like nothing else, and smelling those smells was torture.
He risked opening his eye a crack.
It was one of those cheap flats with supremely low rent and walls so thin that wrapping paper looked like 8-ply in comparison. The normally dilapidated walls had been patched and repaired. Painted over. The whole place had been - fixed.
The hamster he'd heard earlier scurried through a neon tube... one of many that wound through the flat, between plaster hands and faces, bits of latex drying on string... and an exercise bike hooked up to a generator. Many candles indicated that this particular flat was one of the ones in a blackout zone.
The space normally dominated by a television was inhabited by a construction that, because it also contained a keyboard and mouse, had to be a computer. The rest of it was an aggregation of just about every entertainment unit that was ever made. Improvised milk-crate shelving contained the media archives that made Mort wonder exactly what sort of maniac had him in their clutches.
The maniac in question was by the kitchen. Or rather, the excuse for a kitchen that these cheap little flats always had. In this poky space, the tall and thin creature currently humming had created a modest feast.
They began to turn. Mort focussed on looking asleep.
"Good morning," said the maniac. "Technically."
What? But his pretence was perfect.
"I quite understand pretending to be asleep, you know. We hardly know each other. I might be some psychotically crazed lunatic for all you know. All I asked is that you keep in mind that I did haul you out of the Hudson, drag you up here, and take care of you right up to this moment. As an extra incentive, I do rather plan to look after you until you're back on your feet."
Mort opened his eyes and glared at his captor.
The sight of the person's face was not exactly the most reassuring, but then, he'd been woken up by Sabretooth. A bad case of hives and some peeling skin was a minor disturbance.
"I made some soft food for you," said the maniac. "It'll be easier on your poor mouth. I made sure it's comforting-warm so you won't aggravate those burns."
Mortimer tried to say, "What the bleedin' blazes are you talkin' about?" but all that came out was, "Wh't?" before the pain in his mouth and throat overwhelmed his desire to speak.
The loony helped him sit up, pressing a warm bowl into his hands. "You had third-degree burns inside your mouth... and around it, too. It's almost like you were struck by lightning, given the way some of your accessories welded to each other. Except I've never seen lightning do what it did to you."
He was struck by lightning. He remembered, now. That weather-witch... she was responsible.
He should have died.
He should have drowned.
Except this peeling maniac had hauled him out of the water. "Why?" he rasped.
"I have a singular sympathy for life's flotsam," said Flaky. "I did try to take you to a hospital, but they all exercised their right to refuse treatment to mutants."
Flaky was lucky the food was good. Otherwise he would have made a run for it. As it was, Mort stiffened.
"Relax. You and I, we're in the same boat." Flaky rolled up a sleeve, displaying that, underneath the flaps of skin, tiny scales in many shades of aqua were growing in. "Like I said. Life's flotsam."
Okay. So he was in the hands of a mutant maniac. Fine. He couldn't even tell Flaky's gender. Working out whether or not they were on his side was going to take a bit longer.
A clock nearby chimed the hour, replete with a rendition of Ach du Leiber Augustine in chintzy bells. He knew it. He recognised it... but the sound sounded... odd. As if he were hearing it with water in his ears. A similar thing had happened to his eyesight. It was as if he were looking through gauze.
Mort felt his face to be sure. No. No gauze. There was a faint coating of silverzine on some of the remaining burns, but no gauze.
Stupid bitch must've screwed up his senses when she hit him.
Look at it this way, Muggins. At least you have a sense of taste, still.
Yeah, said another inner self. But how do we know that what we're eating is actually good?
Mort looked at the creature occupying the one chair in the entire flat. Flaky was eating its own cooking with every sign of enjoyment. It was enough proof for him.
Hot - okay, comfortably warm - food in his stomach made him drowsy, but he sure as hell wasn't going to go to sleep with the resident loony just a few feet away. Getting up wasn't exactly an option, either. Waking up after a near death experience was exercise enough. Eating on his own seemed to have taxed his reserves.
Between one blink and the next, Flaky was kneeling next to him. "Finished?"
He made to stab it with his spoon.
"Now, really," it chided. "Is that any way to behave? I haven't hurt you at all."
Right, cocky... and for all I know you're saving it up for later.
"It's all right," Flaky soothed. "It's going to be okay. I have some silverzine for your burns and a saltwater rinse for your poor mouth, and then I'd like to tuck you back in. You're obviously tired."
Mort made the mistake of blinking again. His spoon was gone and so was the last remnants of his food.
Flaky was daubing silverzine on his face with a surprisingly soft touch. It was almost a loving caress... were it not for the patient, businesslike expression on the mutant's face.
Close to, beyond the haze of his vision flaw, Flaky looked positively effeminate.
"There," Flaky cooed. "Ready to rinse, now?" It offered a glass of warm water that smelled of salt.
There was a bucket nearby. Conveniently nearby.
Mort swigged, swished and gargled the revolting stuff, spitting accurately into the obvious receptacle. Ha. He hadn't lost that ability. He grinned.
"A spittoon expert, I see," Flaky smiled. It wiggled like a female when it walked, but that was no true indicator. He knew from experience that some people were permanently in-between classical gender roles.
Mort blinked again, and Flaky was tucking him in, making sure he was both comfortable and warm. Topping up the IV he hadn't even noticed until Flaky touched it, and checking the catheter bag.
Mort realised with some alarm that he was next to naked in the home of a complete stranger.
Flaky blushed. There were some interesting colours under the looser parts of its hives. "I know. Hideously forward of me, but... well... you were unconscious and you needed help. With everything. Um. I promise I'll restore your dignity, self-reliance and decency once you have the strength for it... but in the meantime, alas, needs must."
Mort blinked. When he opened his eyes again, it was dark. Save for a single candle - one of those ones in a glass pot - left burning by the window.
Hello... Flaky's keeping vigil for someone...
He could, with a little effort, make out a shape underneath a coverlet in the next room. If there was any better time for sneaking through this loony mutant's stuff, he didn't know when it was.
That is, until he tried to get up.
Mort lay back in the second-hand pillow and watched the sparkles fade from his vision. Okay. Now he knew better, and he knew that Flaky meant it when it said he had to get his strength back.
The better time for espionage was next week, sometime.
In the meanwhile, he needed his rest.
His fogged senses alerted him to someone moving around. Once again, his instincts - honed through pain - made him feign sleep and take in whatever cues were availlable.
It was the furtive noise of someone trying to be quiet and busy at the same time. Mort opened his eyes a flicker. That tall figure in the fog-shrouded dark was none other than Flaky, his loony host.
He drifted back into sleep.
At least until the singing started.
It was still quiet, the tremulous warbling of someone singing just loud enough for music to come out.
"Good morning starshine..."
Mort checked, moving just enough to be able to see his captor.
Okay. Flaky liked dancing naked in the dawn's early light. Its one concession to the coming winter was that it - no, she - danced behind the safety of the glass doors that lead to the pocket balcony.
Flaky was most definitely female.
And younger than she acted.
The joints were a dead give-away. She'd yet to grow into them, so they stood out against the rest of her.
Amazing to think that Flaky had yet to reach her full height.
Mort rolled over and evened his breathing before Flaky finished her early morning peep show. If he was lucky, he'd fall back into slumberland and Flaky would never be any the wiser.
"I know you're awake," said Flaky. The soft noises of a robe being put on barely filtered through Mort's foggy senses. "All I want to know is whether you saw anything, and if it was accident or design."
Mort opened his eyes. Damnit. How the flying fuck did she do that? Was she some kind of--
"I'm not a telepath," she said, despite evidence to the contrary. "I've spent a large number of hours watching you sleep. You mutter."
News to him. Besides, how could he mutter anything with his throat the way it felt.
"Well, it's more of a whisper, at the moment," Flaky qualified. "When you're pretending to be asleep, your lips stop moving. Don't get me wrong, anyone else would be marvellously fooled. I just -uh- pick up on the details."
Okay, so he was in the hands of a highly-observant, nudist, mutant, loony Samaritan-wannabe. Flaky was packing on the adjectives, and he'd only known her a day.
Mort made an effort, propping himself up on one arm. Mutant healing factors were all very well, but pain was pain the world over. After the flashes subsided and he had his breath back, he rasped, "Acc'd'nt."
It hurt a little less, this time. Thank whatever God was around that took pity on him.
Flaky was bustling around the kitchen, putting this and that together. "Ah. So I can trust that it won't happen tomorrow by design?"
Mort managed a nod, still trying to figure out how to sit up without too much strain. He wanted to say, I'm not in the habit of perving on underage girls, love, but his injured throat would barely let two words out without threatening a coughing fit or worse.
Flaky paused in her bustling to bring over a white tablet, a marker and a duster. "Here. This should help save your vocal chords." A few long strides and she was back in the kitchen. "Terribly sorry, but I kept getting distracted, earlier. My mind's all over the place at the best of times."
The scent of cooking cinnamon assaulted him, making him spend a great effort not to drool on his writing.
First things first. Who ARE you?
"Sara Louise Adrien, swimming in come-uppance," she said. "I got thrown out of my last school, so Mother had enough of me and the rash..." she rubbed her arm over her sleeve. "It lead to an unpleasant discovery. I'm sure you can guess what that was."
An active X-gene, for sure. He hadn't needed any medical tests. A kid with green skin and webbed hands and feet was either a mutant or a freak. Either way, his real parents hadn't exactly cared, and fobbed him off to the nearest hell-hole orphanage they could find.
"So, of course, Mother disowned me," Sara continued. "She refused to let me back in the home until I stopped, and I quote, 'all this mutant nonsense'... and now I'm legally emancipated, taking correspondance school, and trying to make ends meet. Precisely what I deserve, as Mother would say."
He wrote, Name's Mortimer, and after a pause, added, Toynbee.
"Well, Mortimer Toynbee, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance," she smiled, warm and genuine. "Do you prefer Mort?"
He nodded, eager. Far too eager. The last time he felt like this... he'd been saved by his mentor, Magneto. And it all ended in flotsam. He had to stop himself feeling glad to receive a smile.
But right now, it was too much work.
"Mort," she said, making him feel warm and welcome. "Would you like to make an attempt on the waffles, or would you prefer to surrender at scrambled eggs?"
Never surrender! he wrote. He could chew and, if necessary, use his slime to make sure things eased down. It eliminated taste, for the most part, but considering some of his 'meals', that was a mercy.
"Gung ho," Sara chirped. "I must be doing something right. For a change."
He watched her bend over her implements. She's underage. Don't even think about it, he reminded himself. Hell, the last time he'd been with a woman, Magneto had paid exorbitantly for her time.
It just re-enforced the message that nobody would volunteer.
This woman - this girl - had no fear in her eyes when she looked at him. No disgust. She'd seen him naked - the catheter bag was a clear indicator - and she still kept him in her home.
She's still a loony, he argued. For all I know she thinks I'm from mars.
Waffles with a side of scrambled eggs arrived on a plastic tray. Sara took hers and the one chair to the computer to work one-handed on something mysterious as the other one fed her.
Ambidexterous, and completely unaware.
The hamster ran through the tubes to a platform by the monitor.
"No, Chuckie. The vet said you're not allowed sweet treats. Have a bran thingie." Long fingers pushed a brownish oblong into the hamster's presence.
Chuckie sniffed it, nibbled, and decided it was good enough to carry away.
Sara chuckled. "Oh dear... more hate mail from the anti-mutant faction. And I quote, 'God luvs me coz I haet muteez adn God haets U'... charmant... I feel a Strong Bad moment coming on." Click. "Deleted!"
Her whole voice had changed with the last word.
What the flying fuck?
Sara noticed his confusion. "You don't look like you spend a lot of time online. Strong Bad's this character from an ongoing flashtoon site." As she spoke, she brought up a window. "He answers email from mostly real people."
Mort watched the animation with growing perplexity... and then amusement. Finally, he laughed until his throat complained and almost made him choke.
Sara was there in an instant, offering the saltwater gargle. She showed real concern. Real worry.
Loony or not, she cared.
He reached out, impulsively, to touch her cheek. The parts where her skin was still alive were warm and smooth. Even the dry, dead skin covering the scales was not an unwelcome sensation.
"Mort?" she said.
She didn't resist when he pulled her closer. Didn't flinch when he kissed her brow.
He wanted her lips... craved them... but she was underage. Off limits.
When he let her go, she sat dumbfounded on the floor, touching the memory of that kiss.
"What was that for?" she asked.
You cared, he wrote.
It was clearly evident that Sara had forgotten that she hadn't got dressed yet. One bare leg slid from the flannel folds of the robe as Sara's fingers hovered over the memory of his kiss.
One eyelid fluttered, causing the cheek muscle to twitch. Then her whole head jerked to the side.
Her upraised hand curled slowly in on itself and lowered to her lap.
"Oh... d-d-da-d-d-da-d-arn..." a shoulder took up the flailing as she struggled to her feet. "P-p-p-lease exc-c-c-use mmm-e..."
What in the blue bloody blazes?
No kiss in the history of humankind had done this to a person.
Maybe it was him.
He watched in anguished confusion as his saviour made her twitching way to the only other room in the flat, and vanished behind the door.
Mort wanted to get up. He wanted to rush to her side. Offer what help he could, or at least a punching bag for being so fucking stupid.
Bedsprings creaked in the next room. Garbled half-words and ugly noises of pain slithered out of her room and into his ears.
And all he could do, with some effort, was observe the toes of one foot through the gap... in a mirror on the closet.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm sorry I'msorryi'msorryi'msorryi'msorryi'msorryi'msorryi'msorry... Mort curled in on himself as Sara's noises subsided. An old, old remnant of the orphanages.
When things got too much, he'd curl in on himself and try to vanish into the wainscotting by sheer force of will.
And the only thing he could control was his breathing, because if his eyes leaked, he was as good as dead...
And then she was there. Beside him. Comforting. Touching.
Touching him. Voluntarily.
He looked up out of his huddle. She was dressed and groomed. Mostly groomed - little could be done about the affliction invading her face. "There, now," she cooed. "See? All over. Nothing to fret about, dear. It's just... something that happens. You weren't the cause, I promise." Her gentle hands invaded, soothed the moisture from his eyes without comment, straightened him out of his curl by careful pressure. Guided him into her robe and helped him cover up.
He could smell her on the garment. Warm, clean woman and a faint hint of lilac.
He went sort of numb, after that, just letting Sara check his IV, change his catheter bag and discuss a trip to the bathroom as if it were the first excursion of a housebound, yet recovering invalid.
She brushed his hair.
Mort remembered actually finding a pre-Disney version of Peter Pan and Wendy in one of his many quests for isolation in the orphanage's attic. The dusty volume had been his friend for days, taking him away into a strange world where fairies were real and you could fly if you had a happy thought. What he remembered most was thinking it was ridiculous for grown men to want a slip of a girl like Wendy for a mother.
Now it wasn't that ridiculous at all.
It was a long trip from his matress on the floor to the bathroom. One that left him surprisingly winded.
A trip that gave him a long time to think.
You're gettin' confused, Morty, he told himself. We never had a Mum. Magneto was never our Dad... much as we wished it.
He remembered being a starving kid, filching the keys from the wrong man's pocket... and meeting the man who both saved him and doomed him at the same time.
Saved him from starving on the streets.
Doomed him to determined subservience in gratitude.
We're old enough to be her father. Assumin' we'd find someone willing to breed with us.
He remembered the initial comfort. The subjective luxury. He remembered weeping into the man's arms, so thankful for the care and attention he'd never had, before.
And we're thinking of ourselves in plural again. Dangerous sign, laddy-o. We're one person. One. Mortimer Toynbee. We are Mort.
Sara arranged him on the commode with the professionalism of a nurse and the warm companionship that lead Mort's thoughts towards increasingly wrong paths.
Lucky for him the flesh was weak.
"And here's a bell, if you need me to help you stand, again. It's a nice, loud one. Once we're certain that you can get up and down all right, I'll take the catheter out for you," Sara was prattling. "You have to go every couple of hours until you feel used to yourself again. You can see why I want to make certain of things. I'll be online in the next room if you need anything. Okay?"
Another warm smile. She lit up when she smiled. Sara backed out and almost-closed the door. Giving him privacy.
The last time he'd needed medical care, Magneto had been - cold. There was no privacy. Just the invasion of what his body needed... and nothing for his mind and heart.
Was there a motive behind this succour she gave him? Did she want a grateful subservient to do her bidding?
Was he, in short, about to be used again?
There was only one way to find out... but would he be able to monitor the situation, whilst also being in it up to his eyebrows?
He hadn't been able to, last time.
Mort blinked. Judging by the chiming of the clock, he'd 'missed' half an hour. There was hot chocolate and a warm coat over clothes - proper clothes!
He sipped. Still near-scalding and almost too sweet.
"Ah, you're back," noted Sara. "Though barely, I think. You went a little... automatic, for a while there. I was worried."
She was worried? About ugly, toady Mort?
"But then again, I can see why you didn't want to be at home, as it were. Best not to delve into unpleasant things, eh? It's better forgotten... than haunting one." She sighed. "Wish I had that knack."
He found the marker and the small whiteboard. It's a curse as well, luv, he wrote.
Since he was on the only chair, Sara half-leaned, half-sat on the table. She sipped at her own mug. "I suppose all blessings carry a curse. The gift of having a phenominal memory... has the curse of having a phenominal memory. Being able to willingly forget... it must be annoying, afterwards. Trying to figure out if you should remember or not."
Just like that, she'd nailed it. He scrubbed out his previous message and wrote, You sure you're not a telepath?
"Positive. There's no more room in here--" a tap to her temple "--for anyone but me and my psychoses. Promise. It's just that you have a very animated face... and your body language is more than eloquent."
A deeper chill. She wasn't reading his thoughts. She was reading him. What sort of nutcase was he staying with? What did she want him for?
Sara was taking deeper swallows of her drink, almost like she needed it, but was too refined to gulp. "Trying to figure me out again? Look around, dear. Does it seem to you that I would posses the resources for a dastardly plan?"
Once again, the sparsity of the little flat made itself known. One chair. One table that had obviously had a rough life. Improvised shelving and storage. The objects that were out in the open were either handmade or extremely cheap.
This kid was dangling on the end of the poverty line.
Mort shook his head.
"Good," Sara announced. "Now, perhaps, you can work on the idea that I did this out of the goodness of my own heart?"
Mort shrunk in on himself... but carefully, since his body ached.
"Oh, it's all right. I'm not mad."
Something flickered into his peripheral vision. He flinched.
Sara's gentle hand eased down his cheek. "You've been in a very bad place. It's only natural to suspect what you're not used to. Something we have in common."
Which lead to the question... what was she un-used to, that she suspected?
Mort watched. He was good at watching. It had helped his survival and most of his education to learn by observation rather than by tutor.
Sooner or later, he would get his answers.
Sara's skin rash - due to the spreading growth of her new scales - was routinely concealed when she journeyed outside the apartment building for her numerous job interviews, and on one occasion when the CPS inspector came by to see how she was doing.
The crisp woman raised an eyebrow at Mort, but accepted the explanation that he was someone in need that Sara had elected to help.
The girl's words remained in his head. "There have to be good Samaritans," she'd said. "If we don't help somebody, how can we be sure that somebody won't help us?"
The illogic was impeccable, Mort knew, but he also knew that there were many who took and very, very few who gave in return.
Inspection passed, including the repeated importance of finding permanent employment - or at least long-term - and the crisp woman went away to inspect others.
Alas, long-term employment was hard to come by. Sara juggled part-time temp-work, babysitting for fellow denizens of the building, shopping and dog-walking. Sometimes, she'd gain a commission from somewhere, but most of the time, she was doing things for other people for fairly low benefits - or managing several small web-based companies.
Anyone else wouldn't have had the hours in the day to manage. Sara fit it all in by apparently being awake longer than anyone else on the planet. She only needed a small collection of hours on his ex-mattress - she'd given him her bedroom in deference to his infirmity - and she was back to her permanently energetic self.
In daylight hours, the mattress made an impromptu couch for the both of them and any small visitors who also spent their time there.
Meals - such as they were - were filling fare that warmed body and heart without paying very much attention to a properly balanced diet. Most of them were heavy on the calories when they weren't brimming with protein.
And through the passing weeks - during which Mort became more of a help in this tiny world - no disaster large or small ever phased her. Sara was automatically prepared for doom. She expected the dire and prepared for it with an almost eerie prescience.
But when he kissed her... when he flirted or managed to rasp a compliment out of his burned and blistered throat... she would twitch. Her peculiar little seizures would begin and - if he persisted in showing concern, care, or a natural desire to embrace her until it went away - they would have to be ridden out in seclusion.
The longest time he spent tying his guts in knots over those seizures was fifteen minutes.
Then it came to him in the cold of night.
She wasn't used to being loved.
That singular epiphany held him sleepless until dawn brought her little song through the walls to his ears.
Knowing what she was doing out there... was only a slightly worse torture. To think. Once, he'd wished to God that he could find someone just like him.
I take it back. I take it all back.
Nobody deserved that much pain.
He'd reached the grand maximum of being able to speak three words in a row when Mort decided to riffle through Sara's things while she was out. It wasn't an invasion of privacy... Not exactly.
It was investigative... wossname. Investigating. Yeah.
He already had access to her room, so he started there. Practical cotton undergarments. No lace. No naughty implications. No expectations of finding a mate who would appreciate any effort in the unwrapping department.
I really take it back...
The kid had more T-shirts than she had underthings. Most of them pledged allegiance to some fandom or another. Weird critters abounded on each and every one. There were a sparse few that would pass for a job interview.
The closet held three dresses in anti-dust shrouds and an eye-boggling stack of boxes. Surprise, surprise, they contained T-shirts. An assortment of sizes. All blank.
There were photo albums under the bed. Snapshots of informal moments that were the antithesis of the studio photographs containing herself and a much older man who Mort presumed to be the girl's father. Or the completely separate portraits of a smiling woman who much resembled Sara as well. When he reached the third framed portrait, Mort noticed the glaring error.
Sara and her mother were never in the same frame, despite the fact that both her parents were still alive.
The snapshots now had a bigger meaning. They were, he realised, the shots that didn't make it into the better albums, the ones that were offered to guests.
The ones placed in the front were those of Sara and her mother.
Treasured, rare moments. Captured and rejected.
Sara's treasures were kept safe in hidden corners. Kept away from everything else by one barrier or another. The rest... was stuff that ultimately didn't matter because it was cheap scrattle.
A thief desperate enough to break Sara's locks would find a bare apartment and a lot of debris before they discovered anything of significant value... like the jewellery box concealed in the far back of the bottom drawer of her dresser. One of those little chintzy ones that eight-year-old girls favoured.
And just like the girl who owned it, appearances told exactly nothing of the story inside.
Maybe I ought to find out where her old bird lives and rip the bitch off,_ he thought. He didn't even consider hocking Sara's little valuables. He owed her that much, at the very least.
All of her jewellery was finely-made. Expensive make, without being brash about it. This was bought with old money. So relaxed about its decoration that it didn't have to brag.
He put the box back exactly where it came from. He didn't even touch the letters that were reverentially saved nearby.
Which left, in this sanctuary from the outside, the hope chest.
It had been decorated by a much younger Sara, embellished with unicorns, My Little Pony portraits, fairies, elves and dragons. The words "Hope Chest" were professionally lettered on the top.
An older Sara had written the word "Lost" above those words in some kind of marker.
If anything was going to tell him about the inner workings of Sara's mind, it was the contents of this box.
Mort picked the lock anyway.
Top layer, ribbons from beauty pageants... junior beauty pageants. Kept on the top so that the ruffles wouldn't be damaged by the weight of other objects. These, too, were the edits. Second places. Third places. Most Winning Smile.
Underneath these was a trophy - Best Effort - and a studio portrait. All three Adriens together. The two ladies wearing falsified smiles. The younger's eyes were tinged with sorrow and fear. The older's - pure venom.
Sara was six.
Mort knew that this was the last portrait that Sara's little family had shared together.
There were books, next. Chronologically arranged in bundles. The earliest ones were diary entries and, judging by the dates, young Sara had been a precocious prodigy. Some of her entries at age four were book critiques.
It was when she turned five that trouble started entering the picture. There were detailed analyses of the competitors, the competitors acts, their scores and their totals... plans for costumes, outfits, and acts that should have blown the judges out of the water.
And again and again, entries about Sandra Lee Merriweather. According to the pictures, she was a bubbly little blonde with ringlets and a cuteness factor fit to rival Shirley Temple. She could tap-dance.
So, evidently, could Sara.
Mort found the entries for Sara's final competition. Sara was alarmingly cute in a pseudo-military outfit - replete with a swagger stick - and had evidently sung the entirety of A Modern Major General in full patter mode.
The total scores reasoned that Sara should have won, yet Sandra Lee had beat her hands down.
The very next page was full of one word. "Why?"
Because she was cuter than you, pet, reasoned Mort. You were gangly and she was petite. That's all there was to it. You'd lost before you started. Poor girl.
More pages obsessed about Sandra Lee. A full bio. Classes taken. Grades achieved. Beauty secrets.
Sara had even attempted to go blonde. That had been a resounding failure, judging by the picture of Sara with bleached hair. She looked like some kind of forlorn creature from an underground civilisation. Sara with bleached hair and a fake tan looked even worse. A lesson underscored with the words, "Artifice is not our friend".
Sara had tried to defeat or equal Sandra, and broken her heart in the effort. People forgave Sandra identical flaws to Sara because the former was so much more... huggable.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Sara attempted to be smarter than Sandra. Again, the precociousness blossomed, and young Sara far overtook her lessons.
She was doing high school problems in the elementary grades... and told by various teachers that she needn't worry about such things.
Later books were encoded, to increasing degrees of complexity. The images embedded in the increasingly microscopic texts were awesome. Fibonacci numbers inside a daisy. A spiral galaxy. The solar system expressed as atoms.
He put everything back the way he'd found it and re-locked the chest.
Lost hope, indeed.
Could he give it back to her?
Could he even try?
He started simple, with an emailed request for the correspondence course catalogue for the next year. Such an item turning up in Sara's mailbox would hardly raise suspicion.
Step two was harder.
He had to get his hands on some dosh.
Mort's old clothing - preserved in a box for unknown reasons - had bought the big one after the lightning hit and being soaked in both harbour and Hudson. His useful little gizmos, things that could have made nefarious work a lot easier, were welded together in an interesting lump.
It made an interesting paperweight/letter spike, but beyond that... dross.
Which left the old avenues of picking pockets and small-time hustles.
And wouldn't you know it? There wasn't a pack of cards in the entire flat. He briefly considered sleight-of-hand with the hamster as a way of gathering pennies... except the creature was agoraphobic and he'd probably traumatise it.
Getting people to give him money to go away had worked when he was a smelly street urchin. He doubted it'd work now that he was a regularly-cleaned adult. People were more likely to hit adults than kids, even mutie kids. Trying that trick now would likely get him lynched.
The knock on the door scattered his thoughts to the four winds.
Moments like this always had him panicked. His mind generated horrors from subtle - some kind of legal eagle - to gross - a mob after his and Sara's mutie hide.
No-one immediately visible through the spy-hole.
"Who'zit?" he rasped.
"Baby-sits," said a youthful voice.
Mort let the kids in. Only one of them was over four, and that by a few days.
"Where's Sara?" enquired the eldest. A kid with a checkerboard haircut.
"Out," Mort managed. "She showed me..." a pause to swallow some lubricating slime, "...'ow t' put toons..." another swallow, "...on."
"Croaky man," announced a little sprite who couldn't be more than two. "Croaky man!"
"Mort," he croaked. God. He even sounded like a bloody toad. Lessee... crank this up and click *that*, then go there and... voila. The latest in educational TV. With some Hamtaro and Teen Titans thrown in. He grinned at his accomplishment. Computers weren't all that much trouble once you knew what did what. "You lot want... sarnies?"
"Sara makes us PBJs," said the four-year-old.
"Righ'," he said. Americans... gah. Only the yanks would consider putting peanut butter and jam on the same piece of bread and then *eating* it. Not saying that it wasn't a taste thrill... or that he didn't like them... it was just that the concept was vaguely disgusting.
"Wozza sarnie?" asked the sprite's twin brother, who'd followed him.
"Sandwich," Mort rasped, gesturing with the bread. "Go watch TV."
At least this lot were easy to handle. And not a one of them made a comment on his appearance.
But then, these were all kids who interacted with televised muppet-monsters on a daily basis. For all he knew, they thought he was some kind of learn-to-read critter that just didn't talk a lot, right now.
They'd learn intolerance soon enough. Possibly when their panicky parents yanked them from his arms in screaming terror.
The screaming terror was a long time in coming. Older, school-aged kids practically let themselves in and almost ignored him.
"Wot, no 'allo?"
An older kid, plausibly the sprite's older sister, shrugged. "You're Sara's friend. Sara does all the talking."
That was true. Mort nodded. "Me thoat's bung," he gravelled.
The older sister set up her books on a handy patch of floor. "You know, if you play _Snoochie Bears_, the little kid's'll fall asleep and we can get our homework done in the quiet."
"You are so dead, Jackie," said one of the others.
"You got 'omework," said Mort, "you do it." He'd liked homework. Nobody was allowed to bother him when he was doing homework. He queued up some episodes of the Snoochie Bears on Sara's computer. "Keeps th' grey matter... workin' righ'."
Moans from most, but not Jackie. She just set to it like a pro.
"Gunna think yer... way out?"
Jackie nodded, pencil moving.
"Good onyer." He'd tried, at one stage, to learn his way out of the abyss he was in. Unfortunately for him, constant abuse from his peers had made him - errattic... when shut in a whole room full of contemporaries. "Get to th' top. Sucks at th' bottom."
The homework and Jackie-hater glared at his new clothes. "Like you'd know."
"When I can... talk better, boyo... I'll tell yer... stuff'll turn yer... hair white." He needed a drink after that, and soothed his throat with water. "Trust me. I know."
It was getting late. Mort was starting to get worried about Sara's job interview... or current place of employment... or wherever she'd gone, today.
Had something gone wrong?
Had someone happened to her?
The younger children had slid into unconsciousness in a quasi-incestuous heap on the mattress. Even the older kids were yawning and pondering where to fit themselves for something passing as a nap.
The full rendition of Ach Du Leiber Augustine chimed through the flat. It had gone nine.
Seized by a moment of illogic, Mort bought out a spare candle and lit it from Sara's vigil light. Come back, he thought. Don't abandon us. We couldn't cope if you abandoned us. He leaned against the door, peeking down at what he could see of the street.
What was he going to do?
What could he do?
A knock at the door made him yelp, then dodge over the rugrats to get it. The candle had worked! Sara was home!
The woman at the door wasn't Sara. On the upside, she wasn't the police, either. She appeared to be tired and just a little strung out from stress. "Oh! You're Sara's friend."
"Mort," he croaked. "Can't talk much."
"I remember Sara saying something about a lightning strike?"
"'S me. Most th' kids... asleep." He gestured at the slowly growing tangle of slumbering children. "Guess y' know... yours."
"Went out," he said. "Ain't come back."
The woman came in, gently shaking some older children and scooping up some younger ones. "Proving herself again, probably. She wouldn't have done that if she didn't trust you, you know. Girl's the most punctual creature I ever did meet. Sticks to a schedule better'n glue. Does your people a credit."
"Whites?" Mort hedged.
"No, silly. Mutants."
Mort froze. His heart, he swore, stopped. She'd call the police on him. She'd get her angry spouse/lover to beat him into a pulp. She'd find a way to poison them...
"Of course I know," said the woman. "I'm not college educated, but I'm smart enough to know the signs. Poor girl's gonna go through hell when she can't... pass..."
Mort followed her gaze. Sara was just coming in the open door. All fear and trepidation... and shame. Her long fingers were spread across parts of her face. Some of her clothing - job interview gear - was in disarray.
OmiGod, did someone rape her? "Sara?"
"Just a minor skirmish," she rasped. Her voice was raw. "Hideous timing on my part. My face fell off." Sara let go, and flaps of skin fell away to reveal beautiful aqua scales. "So much for cheating on my latex budget..."
Mort automatically put the kettle on, readying her 'undertow' mug for the hot chocolate he knew she desperately needed. He turfed a blinky lad out onto the mattress so she could sit on the chair. "You okay?"
Her hands fiddled with the flaps, trying to piece her old face back together. "It was a good interview," she said. "I was doing so very well..."
"Well, strictly between you, me, and the gatepost, I'm running several small businesses online already. I'm familliar with most web programming languages, Microsoft office software, photoshop, some computer animation programs..."
"Stop... stop," said Ms Herbig. "You'll over-qualify yourself."
"I like to think of it as techno-JOATing," said Sara. "I'm capable for the job. Practically any job."
"Do you have any... flaws? Any little quirks that might - youknow - make things a little difficult?"
"I can obsess very easily," said Sara. "If the problem's intriguing enough, I won't put it down. On the opposite end of the scale, I'm easily distracted when I'm bored... I try to ameliorate that by working several projects at once... and then I get bogged down in projects."
"Just... how many projects can you handle at once?"
"Assuming least-complexity for each... somewhere around... thirty..." Sara blushed. "I'd have to get back to you with the exact figure."
A bell rang. A single chime that made the entire warren of cubicles stand up in unison. Including that odd blonde girl who struck Sara as being very subtly wrong somehow.
"Lunch hour," said Ms Herbig. "There's a nice restaurant just around the corner, I'd *love* to find out more about you Miss Essel."
"Miss Adrien... I get that a lot."
Ms Herbig gave her a blank look.
"Sara Louise? S, L?"
There was the usual clucking embarrassment, and a small amount of furforal over pre-meal payment arrangements as they followed the generic exodus into the building's lobby...
And then fate played its trump card.
A tiny attachment of skin on the bridge of her nose gave way, forcing the burden of weight onto the piece it was glued to.
Bit by bit, her face fell off.
Ms Herbig screamed.
The entire office staff turned to stare...
"...and that's when the riot started." Sara sipped her drink. "It was all I could do to get out of there alive. It's probably on the news..."
"Don't watch," said Mort. "Bloody depressin'."
Tears fell at last. "What am I going to do? That was almost regular employment..."
"Just be who you are," said the mother, sleeping child still draped across one shoulder. "My people used to try and hide, those of us who were pale enough to pass... it rarely worked. And when it failed..." she sighed. "Well. It failed all over the scenery."
Sara raked her fingers through her hair, incidentally dislodging a swath of loose skin and pulling her tresses into a peculiar shape. "I certainly did *that*, didn't I?" A bitter laugh. "I need to see the news. I need to see the news, please..."
Maybe it was because she said 'please'. Mort couldn't help it. He turned on the news and settled back on his haunches as CNN started the story all over again.
It didn't help that the Media called it, "Terror in the City".
"I'm lucky to escape with my life," said Ms Herbig to a reporter. "It was right next to me. I actually shook hands with a mutie..."
They even had security camera footage of the event.
"Oh, sod... I look hideous."
Mort was next to her in a second, gently prising her fingers away from dead skin and easing her old exterior away. "Never," he said. "You're beautiful."
"I'll be back in a few," said the mother. "These little ones need their bed."
Sara was staring blankly at the screen, shivering slightly as she sipped her drink. "They're blaming it all on me. One mutant plus one mob equals forty-two injured and one scapegoat."
"Two scapegoats," said Mort. "Ain't leavin' ya. We can be... a conspiracy."
Sara laughed, and then cried into his shoulder.
Whatever happened next, he'd never leave. No matter what.