I only need one more “physical therapy” session by the time the end of the week rolls around. Max decides that we’d have it Monday so here I am, sitting on the couch across from him on the common floor while he runs through a list of things we could do.
“There’s a pool in the tower, you know,” he says matter-of-factly. “On the same floor as where we normally train, too. It could be nice. It’d be a good way to celebrate your graduation.”
“My graduation,” I say flatly.
“Yeah, c’mon, now, even though you only had two PT sessions, I think we need to celebrate. You did got shot, you know. You can stop acting like that’s not a big deal. I’ve only been shot once and it was in the leg. You almost died. Twice.”
Everyone keeps reminding me about how I almost died. It may be because I’ve been walking around the tower like a living corpse lately, but still. I get it. I almost died. I needed blood transfusions and surgery and physical therapy. I was in a medically induced coma. Blah blah blah. I don’t feel like it’s a big deal, but maybe the problem is that I can’t really feel very much at all right now. A psychologist may say that it’s because of all the times I’ve been hurt before. I never had a lot of time to process injuries when I was a kid, so maybe that has something to do with it.
The gunshot wounds have healed over. The scar tissue is still very dark pink so it’s in the early stages, but at least they’re not always bleeding all over me. That got old very fast. There are now, however, two circles of scars that have just joined the collection on my chest. None of them are anything I want to show off.
“I, uh, I don’t know, Max,” I say as I shift around uneasily. I pick at the hem of my long-sleeved shirt and avoid looking at him. Is it possible for a single look to give me away?
I can feel his eyes on me for a moment before he sighs that “I’m too old for this” sigh of his and he finally says something.
“Listen, kid, if this is about the state of your torso, then don’t even worry about it. Not with me. When they brought you into the ER, I mean, you were dying, so they obviously just ripped your shirt open and did their job.” A flare of panic explodes through my insides. Who else saw? “And before you start, I was the only one who went with the ambulance crew. They’d only take one of us.”
I breathe a silent breath of relief. Good.
“Just us?” I say quietly.
He practically beams before jumping to his feet in excitement.
“Of course,” he agrees immediately. “C’mon, Ford!”
Max grabs a roll of clear saran wrap before he practically bounds to this elevator. I still hesitate like I normally would when it comes to taking my shirt off in front of someone, but Max keeps an open expression on his face as he waits patiently. I eventually toss it off to the side and allow him to wrap the portion of my chest still burdened with the gunshot wounds so that the chlorine doesn’t fuck with them. Call us paranoid but I’ve been wrapping them when I shower, as well, so this is really no different.
Once I’m all wrapped up and ready for exposure to water, Max basically tosses me into the water. I land in the deep end and swim all the way down to the bottom of the eight foot portion. There are metal handles screwed into the floor of the pool in some parts that we can hold onto. I grab hold of one and just look around. I’ve always enjoyed sitting at the bottom of a pool and just enjoying the otherworldly feeling.
I resurface once I eventually start to run out of air. Max is floating around on an inflatable pizza slice.
“You’re more like a fish than I thought you’d be,” Max remarks casually. “Then again, you are a water bender. Should be expected.”
“It’s...well, it’s the scars. I’ve known there’s a pool here since I started with the team, JD told me about it.”
“You really care that much about those marks?”
“You shouldn’t. This entire team is like a group of Frankensteins. Scars from stitches and surgeries, burn marks and knife slices. Cecelia is more freckles than skin,” he reasons.
“Yeah, I know.” It’s not just about the scars. Seeing them goes along with asking how I got them. That’s not a story I’ve ever shared with anyone. Danny has seen them but he doesn’t know how they got there in the first place. Derek knows, but that’s only because he was there right after it happened. He was the only reason I didn’t bleed out and die.
“And if anyone ever gives you shit about it, I will personally see to their disembowelment,” Max adds for good measure.
We float around a bit on the inflatable pool floaties. It’s quite relaxing and I can’t help but admit that I missed getting to swim as often as I did as a kid. I stopped after the incident that marred my torso, but before that it was nearly all I did. I’m a water bender after all so I’ve felt connected to water ever since I fell into that lake when I was little.
“So, listen,” Max begins after a long stretch of comfortable silence. I sigh quietly. Max always starts with that when he’s suggesting something he knows I won’t be enthusiastically on board with. “Rowan can’t be part of the team until he takes the exam, so he needs training. I was wondering if you’d be okay with me bringing him into our Wednesday session.”
“Well—” I start, but he cuts me off.
“Before you start, hear me out. You’re very good at what you do. It’s kinda scary, to be honest. That baby face of yours, like, disappears and is replaced by this ruthless badass. Your powers are opposites, anyway, and I think we can get them to complement each other very well if we work on it.”
“I guess you’re right,” I grumble.
“And, okay, I also don’t really know what happened between you two, so I’m really not gonna push you to agree. I’ll respect your decision either way, but I just thought it’d be a good idea if you were interested,” he reasons, shrugging from where he’s floating on the inflatable pizza raft. “If not, I’ll just train him separately only.”
I consider this for a while. Max doesn’t pressure me for an answer. I slide my way off of the raft and back into the water. I don’t look back at him as I dive down and reach for the metal rail at the bottom of the six foot section of the pool. It’s easier to think down here for some reason. I can hold my breath longer than the average person. My record is hovering just around the six minute mark. That should be enough time to make a decision.
I can understand what Max is saying. It’s perfect, really. Fire and ice? They’re two opposites. One normally destroys the other. Harnessing that blatant difference and using it to make them work better together instead of against one another? That would be nothing but an advantage in the field. No one would expect the guy who controls ice to be working with the one who controls fire.
The issue I’ll be working in close proximity to Rowan isn’t as easy to swallow. I’ll have to have that long overdue talk with him eventually, so saying no right now will just be delaying the inevitable. I was the one who advocated for him. I agreed when Max said we should recruit him to our team. It’s kind of hard to work with someone in the field when I can’t even talk to them.
I look around at the bottom of the pool and run my palms across the blue and white tile. It’s not the fake plastic covering in those pop-up pools seemingly ever upper suburban home has in their backyard. The tiles are real and carefully placed. This is truly a beautifully crafted pool. I should really come around here more often.
I let go of the handle and kick up to the surface. I could have gone longer but my decision has been made.
“He can join us,” I say quietly. “But if I wanna leave, I’ll leave.”
“Of course,” Max agrees with a wide smile. “C’mon, let’s go get some lunch, huh?”
I try my best to not dread the upcoming training session for two days. It doesn’t really work. I go for my first run since being in the hospital on Tuesday and only make it a few laps at a leisurly pace before I have to take my pain medication and lie down. It was kind of embarrassing, really, so I’m glad that no one was around to witness.
It’s Wednesday. That normally means meeting with Max but now it also means seeing Rowan. The guy I betrayed. The guy who burned me and permanently scarred me. The guy who lost control enough to grab me right where he had already hurt me not even an hour prior. That guy. I’d love if someone would please remind me why I agreed to this in the first place.
They’re both already there when I get to the athletic floor. I nod to Max when I come in and avoid looking at Rowan all together.
Max doesn’t start off easy. He didn’t go easy on me so that must be Max’s way of training. Rowan drops and gives a measly thirty push-ups before his arms give out and he admits defeat. Max almost smirks a bit at the proclamation before nodding and directing him to the indoor track. There’s a loud, exasperated sigh that rumbles out of Rowan’s mouth, but that’s all the protest he gives before he sets off.
“I only want you in for hand-to-hand,” Max says after coming over to join me where I’m standing off to the side. We watch Rowan begin his first lap. Max didn’t actually give him a number at which to stop and instead just told Rowan to keep running until he tells him to stop. Seems kind of cruel, if you ask me, but I won’t question it. Max might make me run if I do, and I’m so out of whack these days that I’m pretty sure all I would succeed in is embarrassing myself.
“Powers?” I say quietly.
“No,” he replies instantly with a shake of his head. “Not today. You’re already roughed up enough. Without powers will be bad enough. You’re arms are already charred as it is, and—” Max stops abruptly, cutting himself off.
I look over and study his face. He looks like he’s putting two and two together. I should be panicking but I’m too tired to really care right now; I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.
“Are those from…” he begins before trailing off into silence.
I look away and back towards the track where Rowan is already showing clear signs of exhaustion. He’s breathing hard and only through his nose. His form is atrocious. There’s a lot he has to learn and a lot I can teach him if I’m willing. Maybe that’s another reason Max wanted me down here with them today.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say in a voice I barely recognize as my own. “It’s taken care of.”
Max makes a noise like he clearly wants to say more but he doesn’t. Instead we stand there and watch as Rowan’s feet start to drag after the first half of his second lap. Sad. How does he expect to be allowed into the field if he can’t even run a mile? Running a mile is actually part of the entrance exam, and for good reason. Pursuing or being pursued makes the ability to run for a considerable distance the difference between life and death.
Max stops Rowan at the end of his second lap and lets him get some water before we actually start in on the sparring. I try to look as intimidating as possible once I finally step up to face Rowan on the sparring mat.
Once Max says go, Rowan grabs me right by the arm, spins me around, and kick me behind the knees. I guess I’m completely out of practice because I didn’t even see the basic series of moves coming. I crash to the floor onto my knees and he holds my arm behind me so that my shoulder is turned in a position in which he could easily break my arm. Max announces the end of the mini-match and Rowan immediately releases me.
Okay. Alright. I guess this is war, then.
When I’m back on my feet and facing off with Rowan, my counterpart, our society’s version of a “soulmate,” my throat is burning with anger. Who the hell does he think he is coming in here and knocking me down like that? No way am I going to let that go.
I’m on him the second Max starts to the say the word “go.” I tackle him like this is some insane kind of a wrestling match and we roll around, each fighting to be on top until I get him exactly where I want him. He’s on his back and I’m sitting right on his chest, obstructing his breathing and holding his arms tightly above his head. I raise a fist only a few feet from his face and ready it to deliver a blow.
My fist shakes where it’s suspended in midair. He’s holding his breath. I’m huffing harshly out of my nose as my mind runs a million miles a second. This is the end of the match. I’ve already won. I could punch him, though. I could crack the bones in his nose and watch the blood pour. I could.
But I won’t. I tighten up the muscle in my arm and hand to stop the shaking before lowering it slowly so that all I’m doing is sitting on his chest. I glare into his eyes as if I can see directly into his soul. His eyes are wide but I can tell mine are blank and uninterested. I manage to convey a message without even really meaning to: I can control myself in situations where you can’t. It’s enough for me.
I get off of him and rise to my feet with jerky, mechanical movements. My thoughts are unusually quiet like they’re not even there and my fingertips are tingling.
I break eye contact to redirect my gaze to Max. His eyes move from Rowan who’s still sprawled out on the floor to me where I’m standing and uncharacteristically unbothered.
“I’ll see you next Wednesday. He can come if he still wants to,” I say. This time I really can’t identify with the voice that comes out of my mouth. The words convey what I want them to know, though, so I turn abruptly, grab my things, and leave the room.
I take the elevator up to my suite and spend the rest of my night pretending that I’m not avoiding any other human being like the plague. I consider texting Atlas or calling Derek a few times. Maybe this would be easier if somebody knew exactly who Rowan is to me. He’s not just a fling like the few people who even know anything about us think he is.
I sit around and write a bit for the rest of the evening. I’ve been making some decent progress on the short story I’ve started a couple months ago. It may or may not be born more out of my own current situation, but, hey, it’s real easy to write about what you know. It will never be something I want published, but posting it online can’t hurt. I have quite a following on one of the writing sites I frequent, and at least they seem to enjoy it.
I venture down to the common floor later on in the night. My suite’s kitchen is out of hot chocolate mix and I’m dying for a mug of it even though it’s only a week from June.
The coast seems to be clear when I step off of the elevator so I make a dash for the kitchen. There’s still nobody around when I check again so I also find nothing wrong with hopping up onto the marble counter near the wall-mounted microwave to reach into the top cabinet. Some sick, twisted tall person decided that putting the mix of which I am the only one who actually consumes at the very top shelf. Rude.
My hand closes around the box and I make a small noise of happiness. I’ve got the goods. Now it’s time to make a swift, stealthy getaway. I climb back down from the counter and look down at the box as I turn to go back the way I came, but I nearly have a heart attack instead.
There’s Rowan, looking smug that he caught me chocolate-handed. I shouldn’t really be surprised. I’ve never been much of a lucky person.
“Hi,” he says innocently.
The smile drops from my face and I immediately a move to go around him. He corners with his arms, though, and backs me into a corner.
“Gimme a chance, please,” he begs. “Please.”
I sigh, looking this way and that, all while wishing I could just go back to my suite and make some damn hot chocolate.
“Fine,” I say finally. “Three minutes.”
“Alright, so, firstly, thanks for everything you did for Bella. You didn’t even have to put in a good word for me, just her, but you did, anyway, and kept us together. I don’t think I can thank you enough for that. She doesn’t have anyone else.”
“Okay,” I say with an awkward nod.
“Next, I’m,” he begins, but his voice breaks and he has to pause for a second so he can clear his throat. “I’m sorry for...for burning you. I didn’t, I didn’t know that’s what my dad wanted to do. I didn’t even know they were gonna grab you. I think he may have noticed that I stopped wearing my necklace, but that’s still doesn’t make it your fault. I fucked up. Badly. And then, when I grabbed you--”
“Stop,” I say weakly. “It’s fine.”
He surprises me by grabbing my hands and shaking them up and down a bit.
“No, it’s not,” he insists, shaking my hands in time with the words, “I’ll never stop being sorry. I think about it all the time. I can’t stop. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done. I don’t know how to make it better.”
“It’s really okay,” I say. I pull in a heavy breath as I try to get my thoughts in order. “Really. It’s okay now.”
“Really. I...accept your apology.” I finally say what I have a feeling he’s been waiting with baited breath for. I’ve never “officially” accepted an apology before, but there’s a first time for everything and this seems like the perfect situation for it. “Now, how about…” I trail off, suddenly unsure of myself.
He waits for me to finish.
“How about we make some hot chocolate, and you come back to my suite with me.”
He looks at me in disbelief. It makes me impatient.
“I’m not gonna offer again,” I say snappily, rolling my eyes and shifting from foot to foot uncomfortably.
“Okay,” he says as a soft smile slides onto his face. “Sounds good.”
We boil water in a kettle on the stove and dig some mugs out of the cabinet above the kitchen sink. I don’t even have to ask where Bella is. It’s way past her bedtime so she’s definitely already asleep. She’s his responsibility, anyway, so he would have already said if him sleeping up in my suite is a problem.
I pop a jumbo marshmallow into both of our cups and smile smally at him. He leads the way to the elevator and it takes us to my floor in a flash.
All the lights are off except for a string of white Christmas lights Wendy put up while I was in the hospital. We drink our cocoa in relative silence while the TV in my bedroom plays at a nearly silent volume. My bedroom is actually kind of a huge mess but Rowan doesn’t seem to mind a bit. All the days of barely being able to move, be it from pain or depression or a toxic combination of the two, means that I’ve been tossing things here and there without any thought. There’s a heap of dirty clothes in the corner of the room, empty pudding cups on the nightstand, and cords for chargers and headphones all over the floor. I should really set aside some time to take care of it all.
I turn the TV off and curl up under the comforter after we’ve finished our hot chocolates and I’ve shove our empty mugs into the remaining space on my nightstand. It’s a normal blanket on top but soft fleece goodness on the bottom that’s gotten me through more than I’m willing to admit. I eventually turn onto my side to look over at Rowan. He’s on his side, too, and facing me with an expression akin what a kicked puppy would wear. Oh boy.
“They’ll go away, right?” he says quietly. “The burns. My healing factor has always kept me from scarring after my powers presented.”
I start a bit at the unintentional slap in the face before smiling shakily back at him.
“Not everyone has a factor, and none of them are the same, Row,” I say softly. “Not for me, no. Everything scars.”
I definitely don’t like the devastation that spreads across my counterpart’s face, but I just couldn’t bring myself to lie about it. He would find out the truth eventually, anyway. Lying would’ve just been avoiding the inevitable.
“Oh,” he murmurs back, and the sound shakes as it makes it way out of his mouth.
“It’s okay, Row,” I say before scooting closer and depositing myself neatly into his chest, “they’re just a part of the collection, now.”
My words probably won’t make him feel better, but they weren’t really supposed to. They’re the truth, and the truth is the something the two of us really need from now on. No more lying. About anything.
We sleep just like that and it’s the easiest sleep I’ve had in a long time.