Parasite - Chapter 18 - Aalligade (2024)

Chapter Text

Drifter’s avoiding me. It’s been three full days since I’ve seen any sign of him and I’m starting to panic.

It was a bad idea. It was a terrible idea. I knew that fact and yet I went through with it anyway. Aoi warned me this would happen, and what do I get for ignoring her advice? A broken heart and a filthy, disgusting feeling that’s settled in the pit of my stomach and won’t go away. This is what happens when I don’t listen to the people who are just trying to help me.

It was too much. I was too much. What the hell was I thinking, biting the f*ck out of him and nearly chewing holes into his neck? Christ, I was so sure it meant something that I started thinking he was mine.

He isn’t mine. Not by any definition of the word. Just like I’m not his.

All that talk about how he’s my Tenno and I’m his Warframe was just the ramblings of an overwhelmed, uncritical mind. I was thinking with my dick and attributing motivation where there was none. For all I know, Drifter thinks it was just two guys helping each other blow off steam. Kazuhira has told me multiple times that his brother has the emotional intelligence of a particularly lively bush, so why would this be any different?

Of course he’d think this was just a one-time thing.

Just thinking about it is humiliating. Really, how delusional was I? Both of us were worked up and angry after Entrati’s little sh*t-show. He wanted to blow off some steam and I looked into it too deeply. He was willing to comfort me and, in my unending selfishness, I took that offer as a confession of his feelings towards me.

The worst part is that I practically forced myself onto him. Didn't bother asking if it was okay or not, and I’m sure he could see the desperation behind my actions. Maybe he could tell just how attached I’ve become.

I woke up alone the morning after. No Drifter, no note, no anything. The only sign that what happened wasn’t just a particularly vivid dream was the pile of neatly-folded clothes placed on top of my dresser. Somehow, it feels like more of a slap in the face than if he had just trashed my stuff. He took his time before he left and never bothered to wake me up or say anything. The comm device he gave me sits on the ground next to my bed, gathering dust. The urge to call him disappeared pretty quickly when I realized that would mean I actually have to talk with him.

For Christ’s sake, he’s literally named Drifter. What part of that suggests he’s the type of person that’s willing to form a relationship and settle down?

Is my love life destined to end in tragedy? It’s starting to look like that.

I finally come to terms with my sexuality and it’s because of a guy who always kinda smells like cigarettes and sandalwood and is obsessed with Secretariat the goddamn racehorse. Not only is he gay, he likes me enough to at least entertain my feelings towards him. God, my life would be a million times easier if he was straight.

Any sort of relationship between us was always going to end this way. I was just too blinded by my own overwhelming affection to see that. I deluded myself into thinking that, somehow, everything was going to work out. We’d beat the odds and figure out a way to stick together.

Jesus. How naїve.

He was only entertaining me. I can’t (and won’t) say that he was the one using me. He could probably tell that if he pushed me away, I’d start to spiral. Both of us were frazzled and upset and tired and all of that combined into a dangerously volatile concoction.

I hide under the covers of my bed, unwilling to face the world outside. In the past three days, I’ve only left my room sparingly, only to get food or water or go to the bathroom. I can’t stand looking at myself in the mirror. The first morning, I made the mistake of letting my gaze drift. The twin scabs on my neck made my stomach lurch uncomfortably and I spent the rest of the day hiding beneath my sheets.

They’re taking longer to heal than they should. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Void and Disease don’t exactly mix well. Maybe it’s the universe reminding me that I’m a sentimental moron.

I hope his neck is healing better.

Oh, god. Just thinking about it is making me feel even more like a piece of trash. I wanted to leave scars on him. I wanted there to be proof of our closeness. Of how I managed to get past his defenses and worm my way into his heart. Indisputable evidence of the fact that he allowed my teeth near such a vulnerable part of himself.

The near-perfect skin of his neck was ruined, and my traitorous mind imagines the silvery scars now adorning that part of his body. They would remain long after we’ve gone our separate ways, covered by his armor and scarf. A secret only the two of us would be privy to.

His name is known across the Origin System. The Drifter. The sole survivor of his timeline, brought to another and set loose. A murderer. A terrorist. A monster. A Tenno. Blood stains the hands that ran across my skin, as gentle as a man like him can manage. He was sweet and tender and patient.

I didn’t tame him. I won’t even pretend to think that something like that is possible. He allowed me to get close, and I was lucky enough to not get eaten alive.

This is good. Him giving me space is good, actually.

It’s like when birds push their chicks out of the nest, or when cows kick their calves in the head. He’s weaning me off the comfort of being close to him. It’s best to keep some distance when both of us understand that he has to leave eventually.

I turn my head and groan into my pillow. Why did I do it? Why did I go and ruin things? It’s been so long since I’ve made a friend and already I’ve totally screwed it up. Of course I couldn’t just be happy with our friendship. Nooooo, of course I had to f*cking kiss him and beg for him to jerk both of us off.

The memory of what his mouth tasted like is still bright and clear in my mind. Vanilla. Christ. And the inside was hot enough that I was worried I’d burn my tongue.

Everything about him is strange and alien, and I can’t say that’s not alluring to me.

When I traced a hand across his ribs, they didn’t feel right. There wasn’t a single, curved line that ran from his spine to his sternum. I can only describe the path his bones took as “meandering.” They swirled and connected at strange angles, forming a web beneath his skin.

The soft layer of fat covering him made it difficult to get a clear mental image, but it reminded me of the silver patches covering the walls of the Zariman.

He did say that his bones are made of Void-steel, but I guess I never really considered what that actually entails. I wonder what his skeleton would look like if you took an x-ray of it. Would he even look human? Is he even human?

That question’s rich, coming from me.

Or maybe I’m the only person who can ask it. He and I really aren’t that different, when you really think about it. Both of us might have an external mask of humanity, but how deep does it actually run? Can you consider a half-infested living weapon a human? Can you consider a Void-borne ghost a human?

We understand each other in a way outsiders never could. If I gave up on him, finally regained my senses and realized things would never work out the way I want, who else could I find that would understand me at such an innate level?

There would always be a level of separation undercutting any sense of closeness. Gwen’s friend August doesn’t know what it feels like to be a tool instead of a person. The handsome barista with the square jaw doesn’t have to worry about his body belonging to someone else in the most literal sense. They know who and what they are. They don’t have to worry about voices in their heads trying to convince them to just give up and succumb.

With them, I’d always be wearing a mask. Hiding the not-quite-human parts of myself and pretending that I’m not a wolf attempting to integrate within a flock. Drifter doesn’t bother hiding– everything about him stands out and screams Here I am. I’m an apex predator and you should be scared of me.

Ugh, sh*t, I need to get myself together and stop letting him take over every thought that runs through my half-dead brain.

I should apologize to him whenever we see each other again. Let him know that I’ve thought long and hard about my actions and that I hope we can move on from what happened. He’ll probably just laugh in my face, or something. At the end of the day, he still kind of acts like a jerk sometimes.

But that night, he held me and kissed me and even though I practically mauled him, he only bit back when instructed to.

Jesus Christ.

STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.

The more you think about it the more it cements itself into your mind and the less room you have to mentally punch yourself over and over again. Aoi was right, like she always is, and you just had to go and disregard the good advice she gave you. Every decision you make for yourself ends in disaster.

How am I supposed to follow my intuition when all it does is screw me over?

The Lovers. Gwen said she expected that card to be reversed, the first time she pulled it. Separation, fickleness, unreliability.

The Moon. The revealing of hidden problems. Unease and uncertainty.

Reversed King of Swords. A lack of self-discipline.

I had honestly fooled myself into thinking that if I just wanted something desperately enough, the stars would align and everything would work out in my favor. I misread the tarot cards and made the mistake of assuming a happy ending is even a possibility for someone like me. My fate has already been laid out– After Drifter saves the day and leaves, I’ll eventually lose my mind to the Infestation and get put down like a rabid dog.

There’s no other way my life is going to end and I’m an idiot for thinking otherwise.

Actually, my traitorous mind whispers. You could take the out Entrati gave you. Just convince Drifter to destroy the finger and you’ll get the cure. Sure, it might end with a bunch of people dying, but who can keep their morality intact while staring down the barrel of their imminent death?

How nice would it be, if I could just exist alongside other people? If I didn’t have to constantly worry about how much I stand out. Disappearing into a crowd is a luxury I’ll never be able to afford while I still look like this.

Ugh. There’s no way I’m putting my trust in Entrati again, even if the idea is horribly tempting. I have no reason to believe he’s telling the truth or that his supposed cure even works. He would’ve claimed he invented a Lander that can go from Neptune to Sedna in five minutes if he thought it would convince Drifter to help him.

Who knows if Entrati even has Drifter’s real name at all. Really, he could just print any random name on a piece of paper and claim it’s authentic. I wouldn’t put it past him.

I want him to get his name back. Kazuhira has one of his own now, but Drifter’s still… Drifter. I want him to have something to remind him of the family he used to have. The life he used to have.

Ugh. There are a lot of assumptions going on here.

Does Drifter even consider his name for his help a fair trade? It seemed as if he thought Entrati’s plan would end in disaster, if it ends in anything at all. There’s a not-insignificant chance that destroying the finger accomplishes nothing. What would happen then? Would Entrati keep his promise, or would he hold out until coming up with something new?

Would he keep stringing us along until he’s exhausted every last option? Seems to me like he has absolutely no concern as to how his actions affect other people. I don’t trust him, but I also don’t like the idea of allowing The Man In The Wall’s continued existence.

Who knows the kind of stuff that little black-eyed bastard would get up to if it wasn’t currently relegated to one timeline. Right now, it seems that the most it can do in 1999 is show up and make stupid, intentionally provocative comments. It showed us the path to Entrati’s train, but also tried to sabotage Drifter by mentioning Mag and Excalibur.

Everything’s a mess and I’ve completely ruined whatever Drifter and I had before. I should’ve been happy pining from a distance. I never should have made any sort of advance. Just thing of how much simpler everything would be if I hadn’t–

Abruptly, something heavy hits my head with a loud, sharp thwack.

An embarrassingly high-pitched yelp escapes my mouth as I sit up, getting tangled in my bed sheets as I move. When I try to get out of bed, I end up falling face-first onto the floor instead. My head spins and I groan in pain as I slowly push myself up.

“You were moping for so long, I started worrying you were dead,” Gwen says, her voice startlingly loud compared to the silence I’ve grown used to. She stands with one hand on her hip, a large pillow held in the other. The way she’s dressed tells me she’s about to head out– ancient sneakers, tight jeans, and a sweatshirt advertising an indie band one of her friends is a part of. Her long hair is pulled back into a ponytail. “C’mon Artie, we’ve got places to be!”

Uh oh. She’s using nicknames. That means she’s really trying to make me feel better.

I manage to untangle myself, but I don’t make any move to stand up. The last thing I want to do is face the outside world. “Ugh… Gwen, I’m really not in the mood right now,” I sigh.

“You don’t have a choice!” She grabs onto one of my arms, leaning backwards and using her entire body weight to try and get me off the ground. The only issue with her plan is that I probably weigh twice as much as she does, so her efforts are ultimately useless. “What kind of sister would I be if I let you rot alone in your room with all the blinds closed?”

After another moment of struggling, I start to feel bad for her, and stand up so that at the very least she’ll stop trying to yank my arm out of its socket. The way she grins tells me that she’s counting it as a victory. “I’m up. Now what?”

“Now, go make yourself presentable. You look like you just got run over by a semi-truck and your dead-eyed stare will scare every kid that sees you. I’m going to be a generous big sister and treat you to lunch, so hurry up!”

Lunch? I just woke up— how is it already lunchtime?

I glance over at the clock hung up on the wall. 1:35. Huh. I must’ve slept in for longer than I realized. “Oh. I, uh… didn’t realize what time it was.”

Gwen raises an eyebrow, then silently points towards the door to my bedroom.

Not willing to argue with her, I trudge towards the bathroom. The man in the mirror stares back at me and yeah. He looks like total sh*t. She was being nice by saying I only look like I was run over by a semi-truck. No, I look like I don’t even know what the word sleep means. My hair is gross and greasy and the dark bags under my eyes make it seem like I just clawed my way out of my own grave.

What am I, a teenager trying to get over his first girlfriend dumping him? It was a one-night stand and I’m pathetic for letting it get to me like this.

I cover the bite mark with my hand, digging my fingers into the tender flesh underneath. A wave of warm, radiating pain emanates from the wound. Each of Drifter’s canines were nearly the size of my thumb. A little soreness is the best possible outcome of him biting my neck. I’m lucky he didn’t hit an artery.

No, that’s not giving him enough credit. There was no luck involved. You don’t kill as many people as he has without learning a thing or two about people’s weak spots.

After taking a shower, I start to feel less like a sentient bag of flesh and more like an actual person. When I leave the bathroom, Gwen is holding her tote bag and standing by the front door. We’re heading to a cafe she likes, she informs me. A little fresh air and decent conversation is exactly what I need in order to get over this little mood. According to her, at least.

We walk to the cafe because Gwen thinks the subway is one of the most soul-crushing places you could ever step foot in and one of her friends reported “dark vibes” coming from one of the trains. I tell her that sounds scary and she agrees.

But I keep seeing Drifter everywhere. An unusually tall man, a woman with a long, black scarf, the sound of loud, barking laughter. I feel like I’m starting to go crazy. Well, crazier.

She has a real talent for finding hidden spots that I’ve never heard about. It must have something to do with the fact that she has a million different friends from all over the world. Every spot she visits is either frequented by one of said friends or has one as an employee. It’s why she’s always bringing home free stuff.

This cafe in particular is hidden behind a plant shop owned by another one of her buddies. I really have no idea how she knows so many people. She spends most of her time at her job as a librarian. Every inch of wallspace is covered in art and photographs brought in by visitors. The place is crowded and small, but considering the time, there aren’t many other people in here. Gwen directs me towards one of the tables in the back, and says that she’ll order for us.

I figure I can trust her to pick out something I’ll eat, so I drop into one of the chairs and wait. The overhead speakers are playing quiet classical music. Ugh. Everything reminds me of him.

Calm down, Arthur. It’s not like he dropped dead or something. You don’t even know why he left in the first place or what he’s been doing since you last saw him.

What kind of stuff would a guy like him get up to in 1999? There’s no Natah around to give him orders and guide his bloodlust towards more useful endeavors. I hope he’s smart enough to realize that going around killing random people would be a monumentally stupid idea. I haven’t heard any panicked news stories about recent murder sprees, so that’s a pretty good sign.

When we first met he seemed underwhelmed by everything, and I can’t imagine that feeling’s changed very much. We don’t have Landers or Archons or Relays or really anything especially impressive. Or maybe Cher and Brittney Spears have touched his heart and made him realize that 1999 isn’t a completely miserable time period to live in. There’s also the chance he’s running around doing stupid sh*t like throwing rocks at cars and doing backflips off skyscrapers.

Yeah. That sounds like something he’d do.

Gwen returns with two drinks, setting one in front of me as she sh*ts in the seat on the opposite side of the table. “Don’t you feel better already?” She asks as she takes a sip from the oversized mug.

“A little,” I answer vaguely. Bringing my cup to my mouth, I breathe in the warm smell of coffee. It’s probably one of the few things the past has over the future– the pitch-black slop Drifter referred to as “coffee” tasted like literal dirt and had so much caffeine it made my eye twitch for two hours straight. Not even Aoi could stand drinking it straight and that’s saying something.

After a moment passes, she turns and starts digging around in her tote bag. “Y’know… your friend gave me something before he left! He seemed like he was in a pretty big hurry, for some reason.” She sits up, then places the Void Angel feather on the table between us.

It floats an inch or so above the surface, bobbing up and down slightly. The air around it grows colder, and a faint blue fog wafts from it.

I take another sip of my coffee, trying to dislodge the lump that’s suddenly formed in my throat. Of course he just so happened to leave on the one day Gwen gets up at the crack of dawn in order to meditate in the living room. “Oh. You, uh… You and Drifter talked, huh? Did he… say anything to you?”

He’s not a total moron, right? There’s no way he’d run his mouth to her about our personal business, right? Right..?

“Nothing worth repeating,” She answers with a shrug. Great. That really helps. It’s not like that could mean anything from “didn’t say anything at all” to “threatened to kill you.” The playful glint in her eye doesn’t ease my worries at all. “But I do have to say, finally getting to meet your passenger face-to-face was a bit of a surprise. A lot’s happened in the… 24 hours since I’d seen you last.”

Oh. Right. Before we left, all I had told Gwen was that Drifter had a plan and I thought it had a good chance of working. He and I were just barely on speaking terms and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

“Uh, about that…” I start, watching as she raises a single eyebrow and takes another sip of her drink. “So, Drifter’s original plan didn’t exactly pan out, but we figured out another way to separate us and that involved getting on this weird secret train Entrati built under his labs, and that turned out to not be a train at all, and. Uh. What I’m trying to say is I was stuck in the distant future for three weeks.”

A pause. Yet another sip. Whatever sort of reaction I was expecting, I don’t get it. I feel like a child that just admitted it wasn’t the dog that drew with markers all over the wall– like she thinks this confession is obvious and can’t believe I’m bothering to tell her.

I sit back in my seat. “You don’t seem surprised.”

A small, impish smile crosses her face. Leaning towards me, she rests her chin in her hands. “When you left, I knew something was going to happen. Your energy was all over the place, like it couldn’t decide where it was headed. And when I saw your friend the other day… I swear I saw some of your energy field mixed in with his…” She lets her voice trail off and glances away.

I want to smash my head on the table and give myself a concussion.

Of course it’s his energy field that gives us away. Of course Gwen can see through whatever pretenses I might come up with. “It’s not–” I start, before realizing that lying to her is ultimately useless. “The two of us are… close. Closer than we were, at least.”

Oh, yeah. We were real close when I tried to shove my tongue down his throat.

“I’m sensing there’s a “but” in that sentence.”

“I screwed up. I did something I shouldn’t have and ruined whatever kind of relationship we had.” Crossing my arms, I rest my elbows on the table. I can’t look her in the eye, so I stare at the Void Angel feather instead. “I just… ugh. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”

There’s a moment of silence as the two of us sit and stare. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her tilt her head side to side, like she’s trying to figure something out. Then, she places her hands on either side of the feather.

She pats the table with her right hand. “This side is yes.” She pats the table with her left hand. “And this side is no. Is this situation completely and utterly hopeless?”

I”m about to argue with her, but close my mouth with an audible click as the feather gradually leans towards her left hand. Huh. She gives me a wide, self-satisfied smile. “What, you’re using it like a simplified ouija board? I thought you said dealing with the Void was dangerous.” I’m trying to change the topic, and she sees right through me.

“Is my brother assuming intent?”

It leans to the right.

“Should he heed my advice for once in his life and follow his intuition?”

It stays still.

She glances up at me with a smarmy, self-satisfied smile. This is ridiculous. How come all of her mystic magic stuff always ends up being correct? It isn’t fair at all. “See? Even the Void agrees with me!”

“I thought you said that you don’t trust the Void?”

“Not in matters of life or death,” She says, grabbing the feather and tucking it back into her tote bag. Then, she grabs onto my right hand and encourages me to lay it face-up on the table. “Here— if the word of the Void isn’t good enough for you, we’ll do a palm reading.”

With her pointer finger, Gwen traces a crease in my palm, humming to herself thoughtfully.

If her magic jumbo-jumbo hadn’t already proved itself, I’d probably make a smartass comment about how the way my hand folds definitely holds the secrets to my future. Because I don’t want to tempt whatever higher power is making this stuff work, I keep my mouth shut.

“See this line here?” She points at a crease in the center of my palm. I lean in closer to get a better look. “This is your “listen to your sister” line. See how it’s smooth and unbroken? That means if you follow my advice and stop second-guessing yourself at every opportunity, you’ll invite in all the good stuff the universe has in store for you.”

“Gwen,” I huff, slumping back in my chair.

“I’m serious!” She laughs brightly, patting my hand. “Things are rarely ever hopeless, Arthur. All you have to do to see that is stop focusing on the clouds so much that you miss the blue skies around them.”

Aoi and I sit in the waiting room of the lab examination rooms, silently flipping through the provided magazines while offensively inoffensive music plays on a small radio. Dr. Foster wanted to run some additional tests, claiming that she wants to monitor the progression of our Helminth cells. That meant more blood draws and having cotton swabs stuck down my throat.

Aoi keeps looking at me out of the corner of her eye, like she wants to say something but is waiting for the right moment. Two soldiers have been stationed near the entrance, which I assume is the reason behind her reluctance to speak.

For once in my life, I’m glad that my every move is being surveyed by paranoid idiots with guns. They’re the only things standing between me and an uncomfortable argument over bad decision making and my inability to follow good advice. Aoi’s looking worse for wear, but I know that won’t stop her.

The dark circles under her eyes still haven’t gone away, and there’s a slight gauntness to her face that scares me. For once, I’m glad Dr. Foster wants to perform all sorts of tests on us.

She’s looked rough ever since we returned to 1999, which is starting to worry me.

Aoi’s sitting to my left, and I’m tempted to cover my scabs but I know that will only draw her attention towards them. There’s a good chance she’s already seen them, and I can only imagine the barrage of questions I’m about to be assaulted with. I don’t want to talk about it, but I know I won’t have a choice.

A fine sheen of sweat covers my forehead. Aoi’s gaze burns into my skin and my heart pounds in my chest in anticipation of–

“So. What happened to that… girl you’re always talking about?” She asks, tilting her head and regarding me with a pointed, suspicious stare. Her eyes dart across my face, like she’s trying to figure something out. For a second, I’m afraid that she’s been reading my mind the entire time, and any attempts at deflection will be met with a knowing, piercing glare.

“... huh?”

She scowls. “You know. Black hair, built like a brick sh*thouse, kind of a bitch? The one I keep telling you is bad news? Usually, you can’t shut up about her. The radio-silence’s making me worried. I know you have my number, Arthur. You haven’t been responding to any of my texts, and I’m just… wondering if she has anything to do with that.”

I know Aoi’s been trying to reach me. I kept my phone next to my bed and every time it buzzed it scared the hell out of me. She was just trying to check in with me, but I really wasn’t in the mood to talk with anyone.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised she didn’t show up and threaten to kick my door in if I didn’t talk to her. I know she has Gwen’s number— maybe she said something to at least let Aoi know I wasn’t rotting in a ditch somewhere.

“Uh… no, not really.” It’s a lie and she isn’t fooled for a second.

“Mhm… where is she, then? You’re usually inseparable.”

“You know we aren’t allowed to bring unauthorized guests,” I huff, bouncing my leg in order to try and get rid of my nervous energy. “And I’m not her babysitter. She’s allowed to do stuff without me being there to constantly supervise her.”

Her eyes narrow. That was the wrong thing to say. “I just figured that since she’s new to the city, you’d want to be the one showing her around. Both of us know she tends to get into trouble when left to her own devices.” She leans in closer, as if trying to intimidate me into telling the truth, and she glances towards the scabs on my neck. “What the hell happened, Arthur?” She hisses, her voice too quiet for the soldiers to hear.

I swallow thickly, keeping my gaze squarely on her forehead. “I…” I start, pausing in order to really consider if I should tell her or not. “We… might… have, uh… slept together. Theoretically.”

Aoi’s mouth drops open, and she stares at me with a shocked expression. Uh oh. Quickly, it morphs into one of exasperation and I know I’m in for a talking to. “What the hell did I say to you, Arthur?! One thing! Are you trying to get your heart broken? Are you just a secret masoch*st or something?!”

“I… I didn’t think–”

“No, Arthur, you didn’t think.” She closes her eyes and sighs heavily, her shoulders slumping. After taking a moment to massage her temples, she speaks again. “He up and left you, didn’t he? You’ve had a kicked-puppy look on your face the entire time we’ve been here. Jesus, I’m going to wring his scrawny neck…”

“Please don’t do that,” I plead. “I’m an adult. You don’t have to… I don’t know, defend my honor or whatever. I made a stupid decision and… now I’m paying the price.”

She scowls, but before she can launch into a tirade about how she’ll make Drifter “pay,” the door leading further into the medical wing opens. Dr. Foster steps out, her attention trained on the clipboard in her hands. “Mr. Wright? Ms. Sato? If you’ll follow me—“ She steps to the side, gesturing towards the doorway with one hand.

Aoi gives me a look that says our conversation is far from over before both of us stand up and let Dr. Foster lead us through the empty white halls. She continues to flip through her papers as she walks, the heels of her shoes clicking loudly against the tile floors. “A majority of your tests came back normal, but your blood samples… I’ve never seen results like this before,” She says as she stops in front of a door with an “authorized access only” sign on the front.

She swipes her card through the reader, and the door opens with a click. We walk into a clean, brightly-lit lab filled with various machines and assorted devices. The only thing I can name with absolute certainty is a microscope.

We’re instructed to put on lab coats and protective eyewear. Even if we aren’t coming into contact with anything even remotely dangerous, it’s still proper laboratory procedure. Dr. Foster says that we’re also supposed to be wearing close-toed shoes, but she’ll make an exception just this once. I glance down at my feet. It’s not like I really have any toes to cover at this point.

Dr. Foster guides us towards two microscopes that have been set up side-by-side. “Some of my colleagues were examining your blood smears when they noticed something…” Her face twists as she tries to figure out how she wants to phrase what comes next. “Odd.”

“Odd…” Aoi repeats, looking worried. “Like, the bad kind of odd?”

The doctor opens her mouth, closes it, then opens it again. That really does a lot to make me feel better. “Well, I think it would be easier if I just showed you. Here–” She gestures at the microscope closest to me. “Is the smear containing Ms. Sato’s blood. If you’d take a look, I can explain what you’re seeing.”

I comply, leaning down and looking into the twin eye-holes. The entire slide is covered in tiny red blood cells. A majority are smooth and round, but a few stand out– their edges are spiny, and when a white blood cell passes by, they don’t squish out of the way like the normal cells do.

I only took one biology class in college and that was because it was a requirement. I’m sort of just making educated guesses as to what I’m looking at.

“You should be able to see a mixture of normal red blood cells and Helminth-infected cells. The proportion of Infested cells is starting to become… worrisome, but otherwise, this slide is what we expect from you. Mr. Wright’s blood is just… strange, to say the least.”

Taking the cue, I move over to the other slide.

The difference is immediately apparent— each cell is coated in a strange, reflective substance, causing them to shimmer beneath the light of the microscope. There are a few Helminth cells near the edge of the slide, clearly separated and not interspersed with the others. It’s as if something went through and methodically organized the different cells.

There’s also a noticeably higher amount of white blood cells. They look less like something you’d find in a living being and more like liquid metal.

Void-steel? I can just barely make out the telltale rippling pattern on their surfaces. But how the hell does Void-steel end up inside of me? The Void doesn’t tend to play nicely with living things, and is anathema to the Infestation. I should be dead, if what I think has happened has happened. Or, at the very least, I should be suffering from a severe case of Void exposure.

“You remember what I said to you over the phone, right? About how your cells stopped replicating completely?” Dr. Foster asks.

I step away in order to let Aoi take a look. “Yeah. Do you think this is related to that?”

“Possibly. The thing is— your cells have resumed their normal rates of replication, only the Helminth cells have completely stopped attacking your uninfected cells!” She sounds genuinely surprised, and there’s a tinge of disbelief in her voice. “It’s as if a barrier’s been put up between the two, keeping the Infected cells unaware of the uninfected. I’ll be completely honest, we have no idea what’s caused this.”

“But… it’s a good thing, right?”

She clasps her hands together. “Yes— probably the best thing possible, considering the circ*mstances! If this means what we think, this would suggest that you aren’t at risk of a… let’s say “hostile takeover” anymore!”

Oh.

Wow.

It’s as if a weight I didn’t know I was carrying has been lifted. I almost can’t believe it— there’s no way it’s this simple, right? There has to be some sort of catch.

The Void is a living thing. It doesn’t give out freebies and I know I don’t want to be in its debt. There has to be some sort of reasoning behind this that I can’t see just yet. If it was Drifter’s doing, he’d tell me as much. Did The Man In The Wall do this? I have no idea why it would. Like Drifter said, I’m not the one it has a deal with. Why would it care if I live or die?

Unless all of this is just another aspect of whatever game it's trying to play.

Aoi steps away from the microscope and gives me a complex, concerned look. “But what about me?” She asks, her anger from earlier gone completely. Nervously, she fiddles with the edge of her jacket, and whatever relief I felt is suddenly gone.

Dr. Foster’s smile drops, and I am intimately familiar with the blank, carefully and professionally neutral face that follows. “Ah… well, it seems that whatever caused this change in Mr. Wright failed to do the same for you. But— we are still looking into potential therapeutic treatments!”

I can see the gears turning in Aoi’s head as she stares into the distance, her lip between her teeth.

Turning to me, Dr. Foster quietly asks if I have any idea what might have caused the change in my cells. I can’t exactly tell her that I let a mercenary from the future control my body for a bit, so I just give a noncommittal shrug. No, I haven’t really changed my daily routine. I made a couple new friends, but there’s no way that has anything to do with this, of course.

(Is it the act of Transference itself? It must be– I doubt that his biting me or the small amount of his blood that ended up in my mouth could’ve caused this.)

“I think I might know where to start,” Aoi says, her face scrunched in determination. I have a good idea as to what her plan might entail, and I can only hope Drifter is prepared for the kind of hell she’s about to rain down on him.

It's late by the time I get home. Aoi wasn't willing to just let me leave after I dropped that bombshell onto her, and demanded a fuller explanation over dinner. Which I had to pay for, of course. After having to answer literally every question imaginable, I'm exhausted and all I want to do is go to bed. I push open the door to my apartment and freeze.

There— dressed in his perfect, gleaming armor, with his scarf pooling on the ground beneath him, leaning against the open window of the living room— is Drifter. The smooth plane of his back is facing me, and I watch as a cloud of smoke is carried away by the cold November breeze. I can faintly smell the distinctive scent of tobacco.

Why now?

Why has he finally decided to show up after three days of radio-silence?

His mask sits on the coffee table, its eyes dark and lifeless. It watches as I slowly, carefully step inside and close the door behind me. He already knows I’m here, and yet I still step lightly as I approach.

The apartment is dark, lit only by pale moonlight. It gives Drifter an almost ghostly appearance— like I’m only imagining him, and the moment I get too close the facade will shatter. He’s always had an otherworldly quality to him, like he’s less of a person and more an example of Void given shape. Perfect, cold, unfeeling. At least, until he opens his mouth and destroys any sense of mystique he might otherwise have.

But when I’m close enough to touch him, he doesn’t disappear, and scoots to the side in order to make room. He watches me with those sharp eyes of his, and the sight of his face still surprises me. My heart clenches because he’s just as handsome as he was in the training room and the sudden proximity after three days of nothing makes my head spin.

Silently, he holds an unlit cigarette out to me, and I take it from him with a muttered thank you. Cupping a hand around its end, he lights it for me.

Our faces are close, and the embers from our cigarettes cast both of us in a warm orange glow. He watches me through his long eyelashes. I never felt the urge to smoke before I met him. I guess he really is a bad influence.

I can’t see his neck, but that’s a good thing. Out of sight, out of mind. Hm. If only it was that simple. I know my mind’ll be on it until I see it again for myself. I’m too sentimental. I feel like I need to know what the memories I’ve carved into him look like.

The two of us smoke and watch as the cars below pass us by. Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching and the traffic’s only going to get worse. Gwen and I never do anything special. At most, we watch the parade on TV. I wonder if we’ll do anything this year. Who knows— maybe we’ll actually buy a turkey or something.

“I don’t wear a mask to protect my identity or anything like that,” He speaks up, cutting through the night air like a blade. With his free hand, he taps against the brick exterior of the building. “That’s what most people assume. But they’re wrong.”

I watch him out of the corner of my eye, not willing to face him fully. He isn’t watching me, anyways. He’s staring straight ahead, a distant look in his eyes.

“I know you saw what happened on the Zariman. With my father.”

A wave of fear washes over me. sh*t. This is the part where he starts yelling at me about not being honest about it. For not just admitting that I’ve witnessed first-hand one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.

I should apologize, try to make things right, but my throat is tight and I know whatever comes out would be pathetic and unappreciated.

There are a lot of things I should apologize for. I need to start keeping a list.

“I look like him, don’t I?” He asks. The cigarette between his fingers is nearly burnt out, but he takes one last drag from it before snuffing it out on the windowsill. He tosses the butt down to the street below and pulls out a fresh one.

“What, like… like your father?”

A nod in return.

I turn to look at him, the dead, slack-jawed, empty-eyed face of his father returning to the forefront of my mind. There’s some resemblance, I guess, but that’s a given. Beyond that, there are only some superficial similarities. The line of his nose, the harshness of his brow. I still have no idea what his mother looked like, so I’m not sure which features he got from which parent.

My pause must be taken as an answer, because he sighs heavily and lets his head hang down. “There’s only one real mirror in all of Duviri. In Teshin’s cave. I didn’t have the guts to look at it until I was… what, 25? 26? And it ended up happening as a complete accident. I just caught a glimpse of myself and…” His jaw clenches tightly, and I watch as he chews on his lip. “I thought it was him. f*ck, I got so scared I just… bolted out of there.”

His mouth twists into a tight, bitter frown. There’s a surprising amount of expressiveness to his face. I guess when you hide behind a mask, you never have to worry about what your expressions might give away.

“And when Operator… when Kazuhira and I first met… f*ck me, it was even worse. He was terrified of me. Couldn’t look at my face without having a panic attack.” There’s a slight tremble to his hand as he brings his cigarette to his lips. He pulls in a deep breath, holds it, then exhales. “Things only got better when I started covering up. But it’s my face. I have to live with it.”

The distant wail of a siren reaches my ears, as well as a car alarm going off.

“You’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this.”

I lick at the scar on my lip, then nod.

“I care about you, Arthur,” He says, turning to face me fully. His eyes shine in the darkness of the apartment, and I have a difficult time maintaining eye contact. “I care about you a lot. More than I should. That’s why I’m trying to get you to understand that this–” With the hand holding his cigarette, he gestures between us. “Is a bad idea. The absolute last thing you want or need is to get involved with a guy like me.”

Drifter’s words cut into me– wounding the small, desperate piece of hope I can’t manage to get rid of. At the same time, there’s an undercurrent to what he’s saying that’s impossible to ignore. I am reminded, out of nowhere, of those horse movies where the little blonde girl yells at her beloved equine, trying to make it run away.

She doesn’t want it to leave, but sometimes the best course of action hurts everyone involved. “A guy like you,” I repeat, because I’m weak and he’s right there and I want him to just shut up and hug me again.

“I’ve got baggage heavy enough to sink a Corpus gas city,” He sighs heavily. Only now does he look his age, bathed in the pale light streaming through the window. “And I’m not going to let you attach yourself to me. I kill people, Arthur. I like killing people. I’ve ruined countless lives and totally destroyed even more. You think you want me. You don’t. You shouldn’t.”

Listening to him is painful.

Drifter’s voice wavers, missing the confidence he usually speaks with. This doesn’t feel like the same man who went on a one-man suicide mission against a cult that spanned the entire solar system. He sounds almost unsure of himself, like he’s only regurgitating stuff he’s been fed and is hoping I immediately give up instead of pushing further. (He sounds like he wants me to argue against him. So I do.)

“Maybe what happened in the showers was just the result of poor decision making on both of our ends. You wanted to blow off steam and I just so happened to be available,” He continues, holding his arms out to the side before letting them drop back down. “Doesn't matter. What matters is that it isn’t happening again. I’m not going to let you– knowingly or not– attach yourself to me.”

“You think you aren’t good enough,” I say, because I know that’ll push all the right buttons. “You think that if I get close, I’ll start seeing things I don’t like and call it quits.”

It gets exactly the reaction I was going for.

His eyebrows furrow, and he scoffs with a mixture of shock and indignation. I went off-script and he doesn’t know what to do. This is a dangerous game I’m playing. The odds of this blowing up in my face are astronomically high. “What– I— not good enough? I’m– that’s not the point!”

“Then what is the point, Drifter?” I challenge as I take a step closer to him. “Because right now, it sounds like you’re trying to give me a bunch of worthless platitudes in order to spare my feelings. Tell me how you really feel. About me. About us. Because I have no idea why the f*ck you jerked me off and then ran away without even saying anything!”

As I advance towards him, he continues to retreat until his back hits the wall. There’s a fearful, almost manic glint in his eyes. I’m cornering him and this has the potential to turn very bad very quickly.

But I have to know. Staying in the dark is killing me and I know I’ll never be able to stop thinking about what happened unless I get an actual answer.

“Tell me the truth,” I say, my voice soft.

Drifter’s mouth twists, and he repeatedly makes short, distressed sounds, like he’s about to say something then decides against it at the last second. “The truth is you like the idea of me,” He eventually says. “Not the real person standing in front of you. I’m a rude, selfish, overbearing control freak. I’m neurotic and I don’t know how to act like a normal person. My only friends are a bunch of orphan children and I’m a terrorist. I spent hundreds of years getting executed every single day.”

His breathing is rapid and shallow, and I start to worry that he’ll hyperventilate and pass out. “I don’t like to share and I know that if you give me an inch, I’ll take a f*cking mile. Every time I look at you I feel like I’m going insane. I want you so badly that it terrifies me. You’re… I’m not a good person, Arthur. Not like you. You should know that by now.” Every word is spat out like the admission causes him physical pain.

God knows what he’s saying is hurting me.

I shouldn’t have pushed him. I should have just accepted the out he was giving me– agreed that neither of us is a good match for the other, that we can’t change what happened but we can be smarter going forward.

But I don’t want to be smarter. I want to keep making stupid mistakes and getting too involved and being selfish. How long have I spent living for other people? I’ve continuously put my life on the line for a bunch of people who aren’t even willing to stand next to me. I’m allowed to be stupid and selfish. I’m allowed to get myself into a short-lived and ultimately tragic fling.

Drifter’s saying my feelings are reciprocated— that he feels the same overwhelming need to possess. There’s chemistry between us and I can tell he’s been thinking about this just like I have.

Sure, I just spent three days self-destructing over how I shouldn’t have done exactly this, but things have changed. I’m not alone in my room with worst-case scenarios running through my mind on repeat. He’s standing right in front of me and he’s deliciously off-kilter and out of his element.

His hair is messy and windblown and all I want to do is run my fingers through it again. Maybe give it a tug, if I feel particularly daring.

Screw Aoi’s (excellent and well-meaning) advice.

I’m a fully grown man. If I want to ruin my own life, that’s my choice to make.

“You’re all of those things,” I admit with a small nod, watching his mouth turn into a frown. “But you’re also brave and smart and kind, and … I just… I want to know why it happened. I want to know why you left the morning after without saying anything.”

(Is this as weird for him as it is for me? We’re two grown-ass men standing in a dark apartment talking about our feelings. If you told me a year ago that this is where I’d end up, trying to coax the guy I’m gay for into admitting why he loved then left me, I’d probably laugh in your face.)

“Because you were going to wake up and realize you–” He pauses, wiping a hand across his face. “You slept with a man. You slept with me. I was throwing a goddamn fit and you wanted me to stop breaking stuff. I… I know you aren’t gay and I still took advantage of you.”

A light switch in my brain flips on.

Oh. Oh sh*t.

I never even bothered telling him about my little sexuality crisis, did I? The last time I even mentioned my preferences was when Aoi asked if I was gay, and I responded that I wasn’t. As far as Drifter’s concerned, he slept with a straight guy and didn’t want to be around when I eventually came to my senses.

Okay. Okay, this is salvageable, I can work with this.

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me for the past three days?” I ask.

He sighs heavily, reaching up and scratching at a spot on his chest. He looks exhausted, like he’s spent his entire sabbatical running. “I don’t know how to face my problems,” He tells me, a defeated expression on his face. “I run from them. I ran from you. For thousands of years I never had to worry about any of my actions having consequences. You– hm. I–” A muscle in his jaw twitches as he tries to figure out what he wants to say.

Slowly, so that I don’t wind up startling him, I take another step closer. “You don’t have to run.”

“That’s so f*cking cheesy,” He mutters, glancing to the side. A light blush colors the bridge of his nose, which I now notice is slightly crooked. “You— ugh. Arthur, I’m trying to be a responsible adult right now. This is a bad idea.”

“The same way getting blackout drunk was a bad idea, or the same way letting Aoi and I into Duviri was a bad idea?”

The corners of his mouth twitch upwards, but his smile is gone as quickly as it arrived. “I don’t know. But the people close to me always end up getting hurt. Teshin, Natah, Kazuhira…”

“And we aren’t close already?”

“You know what I mean.”

Drifter crosses his arms over his chest, and I reach forward in order to place my hand against the Void-steel of his right forearm. Unlike the rest of him, it’s unusually cold.

He stares at my hand, then grasps it with his own. His thumb rubs across the back of my hand, the claw occasionally catching on the bumps of the sword-steel. The ambient Void energy emanating from his hand makes my fingers go all tingly.

“I’m gay,” I confess, and finally saying the words out loud is a relief. The truth is out in the world and it’s up to Drifter as to what he’ll do with the information. I don’t get a suddenly relaxed posture or sigh of relief. He finally meets my gaze, and I can see dark shapes swirling behind the orange glow of his eyes. I give his hand a comforting squeeze and watch as the features of his face soften ever so slightly.

“It’s still a bad idea,” He repeats, whisper-soft.

“I know,” I answer.

Parasite - Chapter 18 - Aalligade (2024)

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