“I’m going to count to ten,” he said, voice smooth as polished silver. Silver-coated words so carefully spoken that no one would ever hear the bite beneath them. Two eyes behind him, watching Ian speak to the girl, carried a look of pained concern. They wanted to make sure he wouldn’t say anything too harsh. Do anything too harsh. “Just ten, and then I’m going to kill you.”
“Wait just a minute,” James said quickly, stepping forward, but Ian had already begun to count, and one firm hand on James’ chest, my hand, stopped him in his tracks. I shook my head very slightly, and James searched my face. No worries, said my expression. He would never do such a thing. And James, soft, sweet James, set his jaw, turning his gaze once again to where Ian knelt before the girl. Believing me. I knew from her file that she was nineteen. Her birthday was in a week.
Soft numbers. So soft. Her hands faded in and out of sight as her unconscious fought to escape, feeding her skin with whatever information it required to blend in so brilliantly with its surroundings. Chameleon. That’s what they called her. Unimaginative, but she didn’t pick it. They never let anyone pick their own names. I was the Watchman, before I ran away two years ago. Chameleon was seventeen then and faced a bright future. She was even one of the ones picked to hunt me.
The breeze on my face ceased to whip against me, and the trees froze mid-sway, half-dropped leaves hanging inches from the ground, branches grappling at the still clouds above. James’ eyes were glossy, staring unblinkingly at Ian’s hand, which gently gripped a metal baseball bat.
By now, Chameleon –Elise– would’ve noticed that something was amiss. That the world had stiffened around her. That the air was neither warm nor cold, and that the grass pressed stubbornly against her bound hands, refusing to bend under her weight.
The bat hit her arm with a dull thud, unrealistically soft-sounding, like Ian’s careful words. To her credit, she made only a soft hissing sound, toppling over sideways into the obstinate grass. The grass was always so uncomfortable. I took my hand from James’ chest, noting the hand print left behind on his shirt, the fabric pinched and wrinkled. If I pushed him now, he wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard I tried.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
She began to make little whimpers, like a cat, through clenched teeth. Her face was perfect. Pristine. Ian never went for the face. Not right away. I always wondered if the point was to keep them lucid, or if he had personal reasons.
It didn’t take too long before she started screaming. She was only nineteen, after all. A highly trained nineteen-year-old, but nineteen all the same. Not that I wanted her to scream, but it’s nice to know your efforts are paying off. I looked at my watch, noting the seconds ticking off. Four minutes left. If we ended up needing to do this a few times, then ten minutes was the limit. Anything more than that would cause an unnecessary strain. James’ eyes stared into the spot where Chameleon sat a few moments ago. She was several feet away now, desperately trying to worm her way from Ian and his bat. She moved lopsidedly. Broken ribs. A broken leg. Her skin was split open at the shoulder. I wondered vaguely if she could feel the grass at all anymore.
“Thirty seconds,” I called out, warning Ian of the shift, and readying myself as well. For some reason, everyone seemed to think that time shifters aren’t affected by the movement. If anything, it’s worse for us. Ian doesn’t complain. I’ve always liked that about him. He brings the bat down hard on her skull, and her eyes go dead. But she isn’t dead. That would ruin the entire exercise.
The second hand on my watch reaches its limit, and my teeth seal together, muscles freezing in place. For a second’s worth of forever, the universe binds us in place, dead flies pinned to cork board, and then the shift begins. It’s not as bad as breaking a limb, especially if you know how to let your mind go. Since I have to save our experiences this time, save our minds, it’s worse, but not unbearable. The bubble of time retention swells around our brains, nerve endings severed from backwards-moving limbs. Ghost pain flits up through the lost connections. Retracing steps. Retracing words. Retracing the swinging of the bat. I watch the bat bounce comically as Chameleon’s flesh repels it again and again. How many swings did it take to kill her this time? I don’t remember Ian saying anything. He should’ve told her, at least. Given her a warning that this would happen again. And again.
Until she told us everything we needed to know.
This was what James would never see, and never know. As the time shift neared ten minutes ago, back to the countdown, I found myself facing his ice blue eyes, his dark brows knitted in concern. Such a good guy. He wasn’t recruited by the Agency like we were. Undiscovered. I wasn’t jealous of him, but I did wonder what went through that gentle mind of his. What made worry for his enemies light up his eyes.
The time shift shoved us back into place.
“Five. Six,” Ian said, easily resuming his countdown, voice silver smooth. But his eyes gave him away. I couldn’t see him from here, but they always did. Pupils wide, stretched across his iris like a rabid animal’s.
“Please, I’ll tell…”
Her voice was so soft, so small, we almost didn’t hear. Ian stopped counting, a frown forming on his face, and my eyebrows went up. It was unusual for an agency member to talk after only one death. But, I reminded myself, she wasn’t a normal agency member. She was a spy. The person in the bushes… not the person in the battlefield. Weak. Ian’s disappointment radiated off of him, and his silver words turned to acid.
“Where’s your camp. Your teammates. We want all of you.”
I caught James’ eye and patted his cheek playfully. He nodded, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Because he knew we wouldn’t hurt her. Knew that, deep down, we were good people.
Such a nice guy.