This is Issue #16 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Ellison swung before he knew he’d even moved. The fury in him was still there, no longer below the surface once he’d seen Jet curled around his son. Everything about him felt trembling and raw; his closed fist met its target with as much force as he could muster.
Kieron hit the floor, dazed, his brow running blood. He slumped down, shaking his head, trying to clear it, rocked and bleeding. He held himself up, but only barely. All of the world spun in slow motion. Blood dripped to the floor as though it took effort to fall through the air. He watched dust motes dancing in the sunlight that came through his window. He was still shirtless, pale skin chilled from how he had slept, covered in snow.
“Ellison!” Delia cried, shocked. She went to put her arms around Kieron, trying to brush past her husband to get to her son. “How dare you! This is your SON! You cannot–”
“He is NOTHING!” Ellison said, turning to snarl at his wife. Red-faced, fists clenched, he had lost all control of himself, and when he turned to shove Delia away — to keep her hands off of him, and keep her from getting to Kieron — he pushed her quite roughly.
Kieron’s mother staggered, off balance, and turned an awkward pirouette, twisting her weak ankle, going down against the end of Kieron’s bed with a cry. Her head struck the footboard, and then all of her hit the floor heavily, and did not move.
“Mother!” Kieron cried, scrambling to her side. He gingerly pulled her head into his lap, patting her cheek trying to rouse her. When she didn’t respond, he looked up at his father in horror, whispering, “What have you done?” His voice rose, hiccuped in his panic. “What have you DONE?”
Ellison’s fury evaporated, and he dropped to his knees, putting his hands over his mouth, his eyes wide in fear.
Maybe because he hadn’t yet been forced out of the house, maybe because he could hear Kieron’s pain, maybe out of sheer fury, Jet turned on the guards, reaching to grab the both of them by the head, and clack them together like a pair of erasers. With them stunned, he came thundering back up the stairs. Running in, he saw the wreck of the situation, and moved to help Kieron lift his mother.
The young men held her carefully, removing her to her room, for comfort, and perhaps for the first time, Ellison had cause to look at his son not as a child, but as a grown man — young still, but no longer a little boy, and certainly more of a man than he’d been, even if only counting the last terrible ten minutes. Shame twisted his features as he followed them to his own bedroom.
Kieron and Jet laid Delia on her own bed, and began to help her, to check her wound, to wash her, to open her eyes, to talk calmly to her.
“Master Brody,” Jet said, looking back over his shoulder at the distraught husband. “Summon your physician.”
Ellison left to do just that, spine rigid with determination — he barked orders at his staggering, returning guardsmen, and stayed away from both Kieron and Jet as much as possible.
* * *
Under the ministrations of the family physician, Delia woke within hours, but remained unresponsive. After a day, her dulled eyes would follow a speaker, and she could be given simple instructions. After another day, she would occasionally nod, or shake her head, in communication, but otherwise, she spoke not at all. She could be fed, and deal with her toileting. She was a beautiful doll, with pale skin and glassy eyes, who never spoke, and only faintly smiled.
Ellison was devoted to her; he read to her, brushed her hair, bathed her, cared for her, sent for other physicians, invested in any kind of treatment and medicine he thought might help.
Kieron visited his mother when his father was off taking care of business problems, sitting with her, brushing and braiding her hair, reading to her quietly, napping with her. He wouldn’t speak with his father, or acknowledge his existence, and in that respect, he and Ellison did not come to conflict.
In the months that followed, Ellison became a hollow man, the ghost of his former self. Where once he strode his hallways with a lifted chin and spoke to his workers with authority and conviction, he instead ordered one of his subordinates to handle the business for the foreseeable future–a phrase which gave Kieron an occasionally venemous smile; he still hadn’t forgiven his father–and retreated into the house to timidly look over Delia, and retreat even further to avoid running across his own son.
Kieron might have followed suit, withdrawing, but for Jet, who refused to let it happen.
* * *
“You don’t have to baby me!” Kieron shouted, hunched over the toilet. This latest slip had been an awful one; every time, Kieron began to panic when he felt the familiar twinges, knowing soon he’d have to live and die through someone else’s last moments. It had been months, and the visions were happening with increasing frequency. Lately, he’d been making himself almost as sick before the slip as after it, something which prompted Jet to drag out of Kieron a painful admission: that he was worried he would have to experience his mother’s death.
Every time he came back, Jet handled him with caution, and asked Kieron if he knew who it was. If he didn’t know, Jet insisted they contact Kieron’s home, and ask the servants about his mother’s health, to put him at ease.
So far, there had been no change — for better, or for worse. It never seemed to ease Kieron, who walked around jumping at shadows, terrified of everything.
“Stop shouting,” Jet sighed. He handed over the small washcloth, and then a glass of water. “Brush your–”
“I’ve got it!” Kieron said testily, grabbing the toothbrush.
Jet didn’t answer in words, but laid the flat of his hand against Kieron’s back, fondly, resting the heat of his hand between Kieron’s shoulder blades, and watched him glare in the mirror for a bit, before leaving him to the last of his post-slip rituals. He walked back out into the main area of their shared dorm bedroom, and laid down on his bunk, staring up at the ceiling. It would get better. Kieron just needed more time.
Kieron came out, only a short while later, and sat on the edge of his bunk, staring off into the nothing, looking miserable.
“We could go speak with your f–” Jet began, turning his head to look at Kieron.
“I’m joining the Corps,” Kieron blurted, turning his face away, and pretending to look out the frosted windows.
“I know,” Jet said easily. “We both are. After graduation, we’re going to Officer School so we won’t have to go right to the front to–”
“No. I signed up to join the scout force. I ship out for basic tomorrow morning,” Kieron said, closing his eyes. Tears spilled from them, wetting his cheeks, but he refused to look back at Jet.
“What?” Jet’s jaw dropped; he stared at Kieron, a welling misery taking root in his stomach. He rolled out of the bunk, his feet hitting the cold floor. He crossed the short space between his bunk and Kieron’s in two steps, and knelt before him, hands out, beseeching. “You can’t… you can’t take that back, Key. They execute all deserters for treason. You sign up, and you owe them two years!” His heart thundered in his chest — the misery easily flared into panic. “You… There are no home scout forces, Kieron. They’d ship you out to the warfront,” he breathed. Kieron still wouldn’t look at him, and so Jet reached up his hands and put them on both sides of Kieron’s face, turning the other boy’s gaze to him. “What are you doing?” he begged. “What are you DOING?”
“What I have to!” Kieron shouted back, shoving at Jet, anger exploding from him as he stood back up, pacing. “You think this is easy for me?” he demanded, his hands in fists. “I keep seeing it, again and again, Jet! I’m looking down at myself, but it isn’t me! It never is! I’ve watched it dozens of times — the only constant is us,” he shouted, his voice hoarse, his eyes red.
Baffled, Jet let Kieron pace, and tried not to flinch back from his fury. “What… what are you talking about, Key? Why are you so upset? Why won’t you talk to me?” he wondered.
“Because this is about you,” Kieron said, stopping, putting his hands to his face. “It’s been about you for months,” he said dully. “You take a knife for me. Bullets for me. Once it was a truck. Hoyt. A mugger. My father,” Kieron said, shuddering. “I have felt you die a hundred times. And every time, while your heart was stopping, I held you. I watched my own face have to lose you again, and again, and again, and I can’t do it! I couldn’t figure out how to save you! I couldn’t stop it. All I was doing was changing the details,” he said, his chest heaving as he struggled to explain himself. “But if I leave you, if I leave you behind, Jet, if we’re not together — it can’t happen.”
Jet slumped against the wall near the bed, and stared at Kieron in baffled agony. “How could you think that would make it better?” he breathed. “You think if you separate us, it’ll magically save my life?”
“I’m sure it will,” Kieron said quietly.
“But how could you know?” Jet crossed the room, and stood before Kieron, looking him over carefully, pained.
Kieron looked up at Jet and took a long, ragged breath, his eyes wet with the rest of his tears. “I haven’t had to feel you die since I signed up.”
* * *