This story is by Phoenix Hoekstra and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The group huddles around me. Night is dripping down the skyline like a viscous syrup. We all eye it warily, silently thinking what no one will say: the Sundowners are going to stop us.
“We’re not going to make it in time,” Mango says flatly.
It’s my fault we were out so late; Mango and I were arguing, and I forget sometimes that the world outside our Aegis Commune follows strict curfew laws.
“Don’t be so pessimistic,” I say brightly.
A few members of the group are new, so they look up in confusion as I speak. It’s empty air to them. To me, it’s Mango, burly and dark and beautiful.
Mango juts a thumb over her shoulder. “They’re scared.” Maybe because they can’t see her, she chooses not to look at them. It’s a touchy subject, and so I don’t touch it. “They’re always scared,” she adds with a sneer.
Suddenly, Mango holds her arm out in front of my chest. I still without question. The group’s reaction is stark and immediate. Their faces drain of blood and someone shudders.
I squint into the receding sunlight and wait. Then the trees and bushes are pushed aside by violent, gloved hands and the Sundowners are here.
A low growl escapes Mango’s lips, and I thank the stars that I am the only one that can hear her. Mango notices the thought the moment it forms in my head and shoots me a sullen glare, but I can’t worry about her moods right now.
“Out a little late, are we?” the Sundowner says, licking his lips with anticipation. My anger pools in my gut slowly like the drip of a hospital IV, but Mango’s is quick to catch fire. Her tolerance for the Sundowners, the heavy-handed police, was never much to measure.
“And where are you headed?” the Sundowner tilts his head with a plastic curiosity. He knows exactly where we’re going.
“The Aegis commune,” I say casually. I can feel the twitching fear of my group behind me. “Of course,” I add after a beat. There is nothing in this direction but our tiny haven.
The Sundowner nods with a dash of his tongue to his lips. I can see the promotion floating in his eyes; he’s found exactly who he wanted to find. “I want everyone in an orderly line facing me with hands on their heads. We’ll start the identification with…” He trails off as if there is any doubt. I wonder idly if he enjoys playing pretend. Mango is circling behind him, studying him with the cold detachment of an apex predator. If only he could see the blades in her eyes, he might not sound so smug.
“You.” He points at me, as we all knew he would. He could identify me himself with the expensive machinery that lines his black gloves but he chooses to perform the manual inspection. Perhaps this is how he finds enjoyment.
“Name: Ditto. Designation: CX93611.” The number rolls off my tongue like an old dominoes set. It’s tattooed is on the back of my neck, but I don’t need to see it to remember and he doesn’t need to hear it to know.
“CX? You’re a bastard then, are you?” The Sundowner doesn’t suppress his glee.
“Wouldn’t know.” I berate myself for exacerbating the situation. “CX is the orphan designation. Isn’t that something you learn in basic training?”
Mango shoots me a proud grin, and my stomach clenches happily. I tell myself now is not the time and push up a mental wall so my thoughts won’t be so easily read. Mango’s grin falters when the wall goes up, then she’s frowning again and staring at me, head tilted. I look away, a strange pain in my throat and sudden weakness in my limbs.
The Sundowner’s smile breaks brittle. “Time for a random search, orphan.”
I hold out my arms. None of the contraband rests on my person; Mango is holding it all, and none of them can see her. Still, the moment those gloved hands start patting at my clothes, Mango is by my side.
“Sir, isn’t Ditto the one with the Demon?” a Sundowner asks anxiously. “Shouldn’t we take her into custody?”
Mango snorts. Ire rolls off her, waves of heat forming a battle circle in the cold forest. Her visceral reaction comforts me and I’m frightened for her to know just how much. Another mental wall is put into place; I feel Mango’s eyes on me again, curious. My body weakens a little more.
The Sundowner’s expression darkens as the search goes on. Mango smiles tightly. Her white teeth flash bright against her skin, dark like the bark of the trees that hide us. Then her smile fades. “They’re not listening. We’re going to have to fight,” she warns.
My muscles loosen like ice at sun-up. Mango is never wrong about this. The youngest of my group, Osten, stands the closest to me. In my most level voice, I say, “Osten, I want you to take the rest of the group back to Aegis. No matter what you hear, don’t look back. Do you understand me?”
I feel, rather than see, Osten nod shakily. The Sundowner captain’s eyes are nearly frantic with excitement now.
“You think you’re leaving?” He shakes his head. “No. You and the Aegis commune are a blight on this world and once you’re dead, your precious town falls next.”
Mango is nearly leaping out of her skin with exuberance. “Finally,” she whispers, “these wastes of human life will pay for the way that they treat you.”
Another flash of something in my gut, an emotion or adrenaline or something, and I don’t have time to hide it. Mango smiles up at my unguarded feelings.
“Are you going to be okay, Ditto?” Osten asks.
There isn’t a touch of fear on my soul. “I’ll be fine. Mango won’t let anyone hurt me, ever. Now go home. Run and don’t look back.”
Osten complies, the rest of the group chasing behind. The subordinate Sundowners attempt to cut them off, but Mango is too fast, and they don’t see her, don’t hear her, don’t realize she exists. My eyes close in concentration. Our minds meld and then we are fighting as one.
Suddenly I’m inside Mango; I feel her skin, her hair, the feel of her eyelids blinking against the cold. I feel the sweat on her wrists from her pumping fists and the combustible fury that makes up her veins instead of blood. It’s not that we move as one; we are one, we are the same, and we are powerful.
Our movements would be too fast to see even if Mango were visible. The coldness with which Mango draws her blades across the throats of the Sundowners keeps my own feelings in check. No matter how often we are forced to protect our own, I still wonder at how young these soldiers are as their blood paints the snow with jagged blossoms.
It doesn’t matter how young they are, Mango thinks at me. She doesn’t miss a beat as the primary group falls into a semi-circle of corpses. The Sundowner leader is whipping his head about wildly, terror in the whites of his eyes that have become so much wider, so much larger since the massacre began. They are the ones who are trying to kill us. To kill you, Ditto.
For a moment, it’s almost as though Mango loses her momentum, but it is so quick and so expeditious that I wonder if it happened at all. As we begin to circle around the Sundowner leader, I find myself distracted. Mango’s protectiveness has always been a part of her, of us, but something feels different now and for a moment, I dare to hope…
No. I slam down the thought forcefully. I create a mental wall so sudden and so thick that Mango and I are separated and I’m thrown back to my body, the air knocked out of my lungs. I grab at my throat and chest with a mixture of panics. I’ve never been separated from Mango before without our consent and is she okay?
“Mango,” I wheeze.
There’s a thud, and then Mango is kneeling beside me, cradling my head in her arms. I stare up at the hard lines of her face, the masculine cut of her jawbone and the hard, angry lines. My mind is blank and something inside me tells me that important things are happening, too important to be staring into my Other’s eyes and thinking about how beautiful they are.
“The… Sundowner?” Each word comes out with another breath. My legs are numb and I wonder if something is damaged.
“Dead,” Mango says shortly, then hoists my body into her arms like a child and stares me in the eyes. “Don’t ever do that again.”
My eyelids lower and I bite my lip nervously, thinking she’s going to yell at me. Instead, she leans down and kisses my forehead with her characteristic swiftness, so rapid that it barely registers before the Sundowner rises silently behind Mango and clubs me over the head.
When I waken, everything is sore and tight. My chest rises slowly, shallow breaths struggling to make their way into my lungs, and I can hear the air wheeze between my lips.
Mango fills my vision. I’ve never seen her eyes brim with worry like this and strangely, I find myself happy. As soon as the thought slips through my mind without a barrier, my breathing eases and my muscles relax. I note the transition with some interest.
“What happened?” I ask quietly. It’s then that I realize where we are.
We’re in a cell.
“We’re prisoners. I’ve done some recon while you were asleep but I can’t really make a move until you’re up.” Mango’s voice is quiet. She sounds… hurt.
“Mango…” I begin.
“You kicked me out,” she says gruffly.
Guilt tugs at my heart and I bite my lip.
“You were there, and then you just… weren’t. It hurt, Ditto.” I can hear it plainly now; Mango isn’t mad at me. She’s heartbroken.
“I don’t know how it happened. I-“
Mango pulls me to a sitting position, cutting off my words. Her sudden nearness and the feeling of her hands on my arms swallows the entirety of my focus and I hear my heart racing in my ears. “I know what happened,” Mango says so quietly I can barely make out the words. “You’re hiding something from me and it’s tearing us apart.”
The truth of it stuns me into silence. I stare at her as though I’ve been caught stealing from her pocket. She fixes me with her no-nonsense stare. “I’ve been watching you,” she says. “You’ve been hiding thoughts from me. You’ve been growing weaker ever since you started.”
“Not just hiding from you,” I whisper, “but myself.” The starkness of the confession throws me off balance, but I feel strength return to my limbs as I speak. Mango is right.
A clatter behind me catches my attention and I remember where I am. The Sundowners have finally taken me, us, prisoner. My body is so weak, in so much pain, that there’s no possible way we can escape. The situation should distress me more but I find myself more focused on Mango beside me. They’re almost certainly going to kill us, and all I can think of is the truth so close at hand, the nervousness now tingling at the tips of my fingers as I consider how she may react when I finally confess…
“It’s okay,” Mango says.
She smiles softly; I’ve never seen the lines of her face smooth out so. I’m lost in wonder at the affection in the small curve of her lips now.
“It’s okay, Ditto. I love you, too.”
After that, nothing in the world could have stopped the strength that flooded my body.