As far as Hannah was concerned, things were going pretty easy.
They’d dragged an unconscious Aedan back to base in silence, where Overlord had immediately shut her in a room that had been hastily converted into a cell, while he proceeded to ‘examine the circumstances of your desertion, Solomon’. On the other hand, she wasn’t complaining; the solid door gave her a measure of privacy, there was actual plumbing, running water, a real bed with blankets, and some semblance of air conditioning. There was always a guard at the door, to make sure she didn’t escape, but they were men she didn’t know and who didn’t much care for her either. Hannah missed her team. Aedan had been in and out of surgery for the past week, and even though he kept pulling through, she couldn’t shake the guilt she felt at causing his pain.
A week or so later, Shadow came for a visit, being the first one to be allowed off bed rest. The team’s recovery from the starvation and drugs was slow; Shadow’s eyes were sunken and ringed with black circles, his cheeks too hollow and his shoulders slumped.
“Can I come in?” he asked, knocking on the door.
“Sure,” Hannah answered, from her place sitting on her bed.
“You okay?” was the first question out of his mouth when he saw her – mostly because she was too busy trying to figure out whether or not the too-thin figure in front of her was really Shadow.
"I should be asking you that yourself. You look like shit," she said.
"I feel fine. Why did you leave?"
She sighed, looking away. “Straight to the hard questions, huh?” she muttered. “It was a mistake.”
"Hell yeah it was. We were worried about you."
“I know,” she said sadly. “I’m sorry. I thought if I left, they’d leave you alone.”
"Well, that was a load of bullshit."
“It was a sound theory.”
"Look where it got us. We were actually starting to think that you were the traitor."
She sighed. “Shadow, what do you want me to tell you? I can’t excuse my actions.”
"I know. Look, don't leave again. I don't think we could handle it, especially Aedan."
She sighed. “I know,” she said. “I didn’t know they were watching me. I shouldn’t have gotten so close to him.”
"Do you regret what happened between you and him?"
“I can’t before finding out what happened.”
"What do you mean?"
“I don’t know what it was. We went out. I like him, and I clearly showed that enough that Aleski knew to target him. The fact that that tactic worked shows that he’s right, Aedan is a weakness for me. I find that confusing.”
"Is he a weakness you want to expunge?"
“I don’t know. I should. I can’t afford a weakness, there’s more people like Aleski out there. But there’s too much risk, I can’t do it.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
Hannah slumped as though she’d been deflated. “Won’t,” she confessed.
"You care about him, don't you?" Shadow asked glumly.
“I guess I do.”
"Aedan still cares about you as well, and then some."
“Let’s see what he thinks about that when we figure out if he’ll ever move his hands properly again.”
"Why would that change his mind?"
“Because I’m dangerous,” she said. “People who get too close, things like this happen to them. He’d be safer without me.”
"Safe? Hannah, he's a SEAL. Safe isn’t in his job description."
“This is bigger than what he does. It’s so far above his pay-grade that I can’t expect him to sign for something like it. Not without knowing all the details. But I can’t do that.”
"He loves you. I think he'll want to stay by you."
“He loves what he thinks I am. He doesn’t understand that I can’t reciprocate.”
“I don’t have the emotional capacity for that kind of attachment,” she rattled off dully. “I was never programmed for that.”
“Rosie, you aren’t a computer.”
"But I don’t think I’m really a person, either.”
Shadow sighed. “I’m not a shrink, Rosie,” he said. “I don’t have those answers.”
Hannah nodded. “I know,” she murmured. “Enough about me. How are you holding up? You really look like shit, how did they let you out of bed?”
"I threatened to break out of bed if they didn't let me go."
She sighed. “How long did Aleski’s men have you?”
"A bit less than three weeks. Blade's almost recovered, Wraith and Blackburn will be walking in a few days, and Aedan's up as well. He looks okay. Well, as shitty as the rest of us, but that’s normal.”
“We woke up in a cell. Turns out it was a gas chamber. I have no idea what they were pumping in there, but we spent the last two days throwing up because of it. No food, water through the gas vent, too bright to sleep and too cold to sweat out the drugs. Eventually, they came in. Aleski focused on Aedan, probably because he was in charge and closer to you. You showed up. The end.”
Hannah nodded. “I’m so sorry I dragged you into this,” she said softly.
Shadow nodded. “Aleski… you two knew each other well. Who was he?”
Hannah sighed heavily. “I don’t remember everything,” she warned. “I didn’t remember any of it until Red – he was my trainer, back then – told me, and then I saw Aleski, and I guess it triggered something and now I remember a lot of what they did. He was another subject in the experiments. We grew up together.”
“How many of you were there?”
Hannah shrugged. “It was rare for one of us to live past ten. I was the four hundred and fifty-second subject, and the second to live past ten years old. That means four hundred and fifty-one children came before me. Maybe ten of them lived to see eighteen. All but two are dead now, assuming their deaths haven’t been faked.”
“Where did they get them?” Shadow asked, eyes wide in horror.
“You’d be surprised how many children there are out there that nobody would notice vanishing,” Hannah answered. “I was one of them. There’s more than that.”
“But what he was saying about… killing the people who deserve it… you did that too?”
She nodded, looking away.
She sighed. “At first, they would tell us we were the good guys,” she said. “When we were very little, we didn’t question it. They said we were heroes. They said that the few had to suffer for the survival of the many, and we should be honored that we were chosen to serve the common good with our lives. They would make us repeat it over and over, wouldn’t let us take a breath between sentences until we passed out, until it was so far in our brains we couldn’t question it. When we’re killed, after we hit thirty, it’s supposed to be a good thing. So that we never have to live to see ourselves become useless. When we get old enough to wonder why it is that we aren’t allowed to be happy, and why we have to follow orders that bring us nothing, that’s when they start drugging us.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“They tried a few depressants, mostly the common roofies and things like that. They worked – we stopped asking questions. But they made us sluggish, we couldn’t work well. So they had to develop their own agent.”
“What does it do?”
“It burns,” she said, voice quiet. “It takes away all emotion besides fear or anger, burns away your conscience and self-identity. It turns you into a mindless machine who will do anything, because the more you fight it, the more it hurts.” She shivered. “And it makes you enjoy it.”
“But you got out.”
Hannah sighed. “I was lucky enough to have a very fast metabolism, faster than they thought. I burned through the drugs fast enough to run away before they re-dosed me. If I hadn’t, I would be just like Aleski.”
“But he didn’t seem drugged. He knew what he was doing, he wanted to.”
Hannah nodded. “When we reach adulthood, the effects of the drug become more permanent, but slightly muted. And after living our whole lives with this, they can let us off the leash a bit. We accept that our place in life is to suffer and kill and follow orders. So long as we continue to believe that, we’re allowed to maintain an identity of our own.”
"That’s terrible," Shadow said, disgusted.
"That's what's necessary. They couldn’t make us believe we were happy, not when we were starving to death with no reward. So they taught us that we weren’t made to be happy. Our job is to win, by any means necessary. It’s a truth I’ve learned to live with."
“So you aren’t happy?”
“I don’t think I’d be able to tell if I were,” she answered. “I don’t remember what Happy feels like. Maybe I have been. Maybe I am now. I don’t know.”
"But don't you want to get out, get married one day, have some kind of a normal life?”
Hannah shrugged. “I could never really settle down, not with someone else. There will always be people out there like Aleski. Anybody I end up with would be at too much risk. It’s not worth what they would go through.”
“Don’t you deserve some happiness in life?”
“I know what it is to be unhappy,” she said. “I can handle it. I can’t handle being responsible for the death of someone I love. Besides, let’s be honest, who’d marry me anyway? I’m literally a sociopathic killing machine.”
"I can think of one person," Shadow said as he saw Aedan in the doorway.
Hannah looked toward the doorway, paling at the sight of him. "How much did you hear?" She asked quietly.
"Everything," Aedan said as he sat next to her.
"I'll leave you two alone," Shadow said, standing to leave.
They sat together in silence for a while, Aedan looking over the woman he’d thought was dead, Hannah desperately avoiding Aedan’s eyes.
"I am so sorry,” she said finally, breaking the silence. “I never wanted this to happen to you, ever," Hannah said as she looked at his thickly bandaged wrists.
"It's okay. I would have taken it a thousand times over for you."
"You shouldn't have had to. You didn't deserve any of this. You don't deserve someone who puts you through this kind of pain. You deserve someone less fucked up than me."
"Hannah, all throughout my life I've never been in a relationship where someone genuinely cared for me like you do. I have never known a woman who cared for more than the SEAL or the looks," he said as he kissed her cheek. “I don't want anyone else. I want to be with you. I love you, Hannah. And I’d better say that now, because last time I chickened out, I thought you were dead for a month. But I do love you. And I’m not giving that up, because I’m a selfish bastard and I want you all to myself,” he said as he finished.
Hannah blinked a few times, frozen in shock.
“Hannah, say something,” Aedan pleaded. “I kinda just bared my soul to you, some support would be nice.”
Hannah swallowed hard. “You’re crazy,” she said, gathering her wits. “I’m not complaining, since I get you out of the deal, but do you realize just how fucked up I actually am?”
"Yeah, and I don't care. No matter what happens, I want this with you. You're the most loyal, beautiful woman I've ever met."
Hannah nodded once, silently. "Okay," she said, in the docile, non-confrontational way that meant she was terrified out of her wits.
There was a smaller voice in the back of her head that froze in fear and pain. No, get away, he’ll hurt you, get out before it’s too late, it’s a test, always a test, you don’t want to hurt him please don’t hurt him Aleski why did you let me do it Aleski please no stop screaming I’m so sorry so sorry-
Aedan took her hand. "Hannah, are you okay?"
She sighed heavily, turning to face him. "Thank you."
“I’m not an idiot,” she said. “I know I’m… more than a little different. I know I have the strangest triggers and my psyche is pretty much one giant landmine. Thank you for not taking advantage of that. I know you could.”
He sighed sadly, folding her into his arms again. "I know," he said. "I love you, Hannah, and I understand that that scares you, I really do. But it's the truth and I won't stop."
Hannah turned her head away, resting her cheek against his chest where she could feel his heartbeat. “And if I can never tell you the same?” she asked. “What if I never get better? I’ve been like this for a long time, and I know I’m trying, but some things can’t be fixed.”
“I know,” he promised heavily. “I knew that going into this. If you can’t do more than what we have, if you can never tell me you love me, that’s okay. This is enough for me.”
She smiled and hugged him, pressing a soft kiss to his chest. "Thank you."