A Lifetime Ago.
The Lockheart Residence in the White Mountains.
“Happy birthday to you~” Michelle sang as I covered my face.
“I don’t like all of this attention.” I muttered.
“Happy birthday to you!” Michelle repeated as Richter and Mom joined into the song, “Happy birthday dear Michae-”
“Let him live, kids.” Dad said, elbowing Richter on his left and glancing past Mom to Michelle on his right.
We were all sitting at the kitchen table, eating and singing celebration of my tenth birthday. Mom and Richter had spent all day yesterday preparing a cinnamon-apple pie, and now that it was steaming on the table in front of us and I could smell it, I was sure their efforts would pay off. Dad…may have spent some years as a human now, but cooking anything more complex than fish or steak was a little bit beyond him.
The last time he had tried to cook for me…it went badly. So I was glad that Mom and Richter had taken care of things this time around.
Dad still managed to contribute, however, by grabbing two pints of vanilla ice cream from a brewery some colonies over. (It was our favorite, and Dad being the Great Beast of Light and all meant that he could make the trip in a matter of seconds. It made up a little for his very basic cooking skills.)
“Can I cut it?” I asked.
“Sure thing, big man.” Richter teased, handing me the knife, “Think of it as your first blade.”
“I’ve used a knife before, bro.” I sighed. “Actually…wasn’t there that time I was five and…?”
Mom and Dad froze on the opposite side of the table, very clearly remembering the incident I was talking about. Michelle winced and Richter chuckled lightly before continuing, “How could I forget? You were starting to learn to use your speed. And you had a knife.”
“One of my knives.” Michelle sighed, “Right after I had gotten them. Tsukimono. I think you wanted me to share?”
“They were pretty.” I mumbled.
Richter patted my back for support. “It’s okay, we aren’t mad at you. Well, Dad might be a little bit. He’s the one who had to catch you.”
“I’m not mad.” Dad reassured.
Mom chuckled. “Go ahead and cut the pie, Mikey. It’s okay.” Saiten said.
I nodded and started cutting, dividing the pie into halves, then those halves into halves, and so on, until there were eight pieces.
“Wait,” I said, “There’s something missing.”
My parents raised an eyebrow.
“Mom, can you put something on?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded. “I have just the song in mind.”
Saiten Lockheart pushed away from the table and stood to her full height, moving into the living room to dig through her binder of vinyl albums beneath the TV. Finding one she liked, she pulled it out and moved to the vinyl player on the counter bordering the kitchen and living room. She pulled the record out of the vinyl’s sleeve and gently placed it into the player.
After a few moments of adjustments, the song started playing.
She turned down the volume a bit- so it’d be more of a comfortable background noise- then came back to the table shortly after. Using a pie server, I carefully removed a slice and placed it onto my plate. I then handed the server to my right, to Michelle. As we all started preparing our plates, Richter tilted his head.
“This song sounds happy, but it’s actually kind of dark.” He noted.
“You and Mikey loved it growing up.” Mom remarked.
He shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Once the slices of pie and scoops of ice cream were all distributed, we started eating together. Richter shared details of the beginning of his Royal Guard training with Stane, while Michelle talked about her efforts to get into some university where she’d be able pursue her interests in ornithology. Dad didn’t usually have much to talk to us about aside from his times as a Great Beast a hundred years ago, and he stopped talking about it as much once he realized they kind of made him sound like the bad guy.
It was my tenth birthday. The warmth of the house, the sweet spice of the pie, the overpowering vanilla of the ice cream and the laughs and smiles of my family filled me with joy.
But it was a joy I took for granted.
I didn’t know it back then, but this would be the last time that all of us would be together like this. Richter would be leaving for a week tomorrow, and by the time he came back, Dad would be gone and Mom would be dead.
I wish I had known back then. I still think I could have saved them.
My mother started singing along to the song, in a wonderful and airy voice. She was singing for me and, glowing, I smiled back at her.
Season One: Recursion
Episode Fifteen: Inmate 0026
March 22nd, Year P-132.
Colony 1’s Maximum Security Prison, Bedauern.
I woke up in my prison bed once more and sighed, pushing myself into a sitting position.
Across from the foot of my bed and almost touching the bars of my cell was a desk, full of correspondence letters I’d been sent, some books I owned, and a notepad that I had used during my travels to write out plans and the such. For now, these possessions- alongside the Lockheart Family pendant on my neck- were all I was allowed. The bed still sucked, but this was still better than my first few days in Bedauern.
After brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth in the mirror, I sat at this desk and dug through the letters.
There was one from Aiko, sporting cutesy writing on the envelope. Upon seeing this, I opened the envelope and pulled out a folded sheet of paper, a letter saying…
That I was a nerd. And that she got me.
That’s fucked up, Aiko.
I smiled regardless.
Aside from that, the letters were from a bunch of strangers. A few people who couldn’t believe that a Lockheart was in prison, and an overpowering amount of letters telling me to kill myself for treason against the Royal Family.
I didn’t have a trash can for these, so I piled them up on the left side of my desk to get them out of the way. I then started flipping through my notepad, only to find that one drawing of Nalia I had done. Yesterday, I actually colored it.
Art provided by bananatwinky on Tumblr.
It wasn’t…quite accurate, and I definitely made him skinnier than he actually was. Bit lighter, too, couldn’t find the right shade. The red undertones were an artistic liberty as well, and his scythe wasn’t detailed at all. Despite this, I was proud of my work, especially now that I had colored it…
But I really hoped Nalia hadn’t seen it when he retrieved my belongings.
I gulped and cast that thought of my mind.
Flipping to a fresh page, I tapped my pencil against the blank page in thought, wondering what I would write. Some kind of fucking prison diary? Escape plans? Fanfiction?
Everything I could think of seemed like kind of a bad idea.
I could write a letter speaking honestly about my feelings to send back to Aiko. Tell her the real reason I broke things off. Try to make it right.
I nearly gagged at the idea of being that emotionally honest with anyone else. Hell, even myself. Writing it out would mean I’d have to confront my own chaotic haze of emotions, and that was way too much bullshit for me to deal with today.
I could individually write back to everyone who sent me hate mail and tell them to kill themselves instead.
I looked at the pile of hate mail on my left and raised my eraser to my lips in contemplation.
Fun idea. Too much work.
A buzzer went off and my cell door suddenly opened.
“Time to eat, inmates!” called a man over the intercom.
I sighed and stood to my feet, exiting my cell and looking up and down the hallway. Due to my…status, I’m in a separate wing from the rest of the inmates, but I do have to eat with them in the cafeteria and go out into the yard. A prison officer approached me from the left, and my inhibitor cuffs snapped together with a surge of Dark energy.
“Turn around, inmate.” The officer commanded.
I turned away from him.
“Now walk.” he said.
Once I made it to the cafeteria, my cuffs released and I was allowed to walk freely. Despite my best attempts, however, nobody else in this prison seemed particularly interested in making friends, so after grabbing some sludge in a bowl that I was told was some kind of beef stew and a toasted bread roll (that was surprisingly quite good), I found myself eating my food alone as usual.
Until a very large man crashed into the seat opposite me.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked. He was large, white, muscular and hairy. Had a tattoo of caterpillar on the right side of his face, and piercing blue eyes. He didn’t seem to actually be asking.
“Sit where you like.” I answered calmly, then returned to eating my food. The stew’s consistency was thick, a little bit too thick, but the taste was about in line with what someone could expect from a beef stew. At least, a canned beef stew that was left out in the sun for a few days and then reheated. The bread, however, was sweet and fluffy and refreshing, so there was that.
“Name’s Snake.” the man growled.
I nodded. “Thought it’d be Caterpillar, to be honest.”
“Why do you think that?” Snake asked.
“Your tattoo is a caterpillar.” I said, indicating a spoon toward his face.
“My tattoo’s a what!?” He hissed, pounding the table, “God damn it! I’ve had this thing for a week and nobody told me!”
I backed up slightly and put my hands up. “Sorry, dude. Don’t know what to tell you. Guess your tattoo artist played a prank or something.”
He glared at me. “Are you playing a prank on me, punk?”
I shook my head.
“You think you’re better than me, Lockheart!?” he shouted, standing to his feet.
“No, your tattoo is just a-”
“IT’S A SNAKE!” Snake screamed, looking around the cafeteria, “IT’S A FUCKING SNAKE!”
I really do not want to get shanked over this.
The cafeteria’s mumbling went silent. A few guards in a far corner tensed up and looked in our direction.
I squinted at him. “You know what? You’re right, man.” I lied, “It’s totally a snake. Sorry, I guess I had something in my eye.”
He took a deep breath and sat down. Conversation continued as normal among the other inmates.
“Thank you for telling the truth.” he said, “If you hadn’t, I would’ve killed you.”
I believe that.
“I would never dream of lying to you.” I said, nodding at him again, “By the way, the bread’s the best part. Try it.”
Snake tore off a piece of the roll and placed it into his mouth.
He quickly spat it out onto the floor.
“I don’t like bread.” he mumbled.
“Can…I have it?”
He handed it to me. “Thank you.” I said, “I appreciate it. What do you think of the stew?”
“Best I’ve ever had.” Snake replied, scarfing it down, “The absolute best.”
Out in the prison yard, most people were hanging out with their respective gangs or brooding. About a dozen were playing a game of basketball, but the sky above us was cloudy enough that it seemed to be bumming everyone else out. I took to walking around the yard, looking through the fence at the city of Sunder, just out of my reach.
“Lockheart!” called an unfamiliar voice.
I turned around.
It was an older man, black, scarred all over. His hair was cut short and his eyes were a light brown. The number on his prison jumpsuit was 0026, and he towered over me.
“Hello, twenty-six.” I replied, “Do you have business with me?”
He shook his head. “Not with you, no. I just thought I would give you a warning.”
“A warning about what?” I asked.
He pointed over at a group of men occupying a set of bleachers, talking amongst themselves and glancing occasionally in my direction. “Those guys.” 26 replied, “I’d suggest you watch your back. I think they’re going to jump you.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“I can tell you’re new to this.” he replied, “And I don’t think you realize how many of these men are in here because of the efforts of your family, directly or indirectly. The Lockhearts have been a major part of the Royal Guard since it was founded, so to some of them, you’re to blame. Even if it wasn’t you, or your brother. Your family is tied to the system that keeps them here.”
I shrugged. “I don’t have anything to do with that, dude.”
26 nodded. “Maybe you don’t, kid,” he said, “But you are a part of it. Just giving you a heads-up.”
He walked past me.
I sighed and tensed myself.
Guess I’ll have to keep my guard up.
We were escorted out of the yard in a line. I was pretty much dead-last in line, as I figured it would be the best place to stay out of trouble. For once, our cuffs weren’t snapped together, and the guards at the front and back of the line didn’t seem to care to activate them. That was a small mercy. As we re-entered the prison, we started walking through a long hall that would lead the other prisoners to their wing. After they were dropped off there, I’d be escorted to mine by the remaining guards.
About halfway through the hall, my cuffs snapped together.
“Hey, what gives?” I asked, turning my back.
The guard manning the back of the line was gone.
The guys from the yard- four, by my count, were in front of me. Their cuffs weren’t snapped together at all, and the largest of them- the leader, I suspected- brandished a shank.
I started backing up.
“You’re a long way from home, Lockheart.” the leader jeered, “How’d a spoiled brat like you end up in here?”
“I hear they aren’t pressing charges.” said one of the goons, “Word on the street is he could be out in a week or two!”
“That’s a damn shame,” said another, “But if he hasn’t been charged, what did he do to end up here?”
“I heard he picked a fight with royalty and got off scot-free.” the leader snarled, “Just like you’d expect from a Lockheart. They can do anything they want. Grab him, boys!”
From behind me, two more men grabbed my arms and held me still. I struggled against them as the leader came closer.
“I wouldn’t want to miss my chance to do this.” the leader growled, “Tell your brother hello in Hell.”
In one instant, he lunged for my stomach.
In the next, I moved my hands to block it. His shank impaled me through my left hand.
As I howled in pain and he gasped in shock, I grabbed the shank with my right hand and pulled away, swinging my cuffed hands into the stomach of the man holding me on my left, stabbing him with the shank.
I ducked the leader’s swing as I pulled back, shaking off the grip of the man on my right and stabbing his stomach, too, leaving a ragged wound. Blood splattered to the floor around us.
I couldn’t separate my hands enough to pull the shank out of my left hand. I hissed in pain as I tried to adjust to it, my fingers still dripping with blood. The leader’s goons took a few steps backward at the sight of me, and he snarled, pulling yet another shank out his jumpsuit.
“You think I didn’t bring a spare, you little shit!?” he shouted.
I took a deep breath and let him charge me, remembering what Stane taught me about disarming an opponent.
He predictably lunged his shank forward. Moving my hands up quickly and using the blade I already had, I slashed it out of his hand. In the same motion, I slammed my left elbow against his chest and pushed him against the wall, holding him there with his bloody shank less than an inch away from the side of his neck.
His goons started moving.
“One more step and he dies!” I shouted.
I glared into his eyes.
The goons that had ambushed me from behind were on the floor, clutching their wounds and moaning. In the distance, I heard the pounding of footsteps. The guards would be here soon.
“If you ever try some shit like that again,” I hissed, “I will kill you. Do you understand?”
“You’re bluffing.” the leader spat.
I pressed the shank against his neck.
“Am I?” I snarled.
He took a deep breath, but said nothing.
“Put your hands in the air, Lockheart!” shouted a guard.
I backed away from the leader, letting him fall back against the wall as I raised my hands up.
“Sweet Meiro,” one of the guards gasped, pointing at my hands, “What the hell happened?”
I glared down at the leader and kicked his other shank over to him.
“He missed.” I growled.
I spent the night in solitary confinement, cuffs snapped together and my left hand patched up.
The following morning, the door to my cell opened and my cuffs separated.
Standing there was a large man in the sleek black uniform of the Royal Guard’s higher authority, tighter than the jacket my grandfather used to wear. On its back and the right side of its chest was a white-and-gold version of the Royal Guard’s crest, a sword pointed downward with a crown on its hilt.
The man looking down at me was tanned, with short-cut brown hair and cold blue eyes.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Last name Guy, first name Some?”
He grit his teeth. “I’m Jackson Moreno,” he snarled, “Acting Commanding Officer of the Royal Guard.”
I smirked. “Emphasis on ‘Acting’, huh. Are you my brother’s stunt double?”
He glared down at me. “I’m your brother’s successor,” he declared, “And I’m not going to cut you any slack because you’re a Lockheart.”
I pushed myself to my feet.
“Really?” I asked, “Then why are my cuffs released? Why are you here?”
“To escort you back to your cell.” he sighed, “We reviewed the footage. You acted in self-defense.”
“Thank you.” I said, smiling sweetly.
I could practically feel the anger radiating off of this man. Seeing as Stane had passed him up as his successor and Richter had stolen it from him once already, I had a more than slight feeling that Moreno didn’t quite like the Lockhearts.
He turned his back. “Come with me.” he commanded.
I followed him out of solitary confinement.
“Wait.” I said, “Can I see a prisoner?”
“…Why?” Moreno asked.
“I’d be dead if I weren’t warned about the attack beforehand. The prisoner’s number was 0026.”
Jackson Moreno laughed. “Twenty-six, huh? Alright, Lockheart. Let’s make a detour.”
In another private wing, 0026’s cell was found. It was even worse than mine- he was chained by his wrists and ankles to the opposite wall, and the chains didn’t stretch far. His mattress was on the floor to his right, his sink and toilet to his left.
He looked up at me dully while Jackson stood to my right.
“I came here to thank you.” I said.
26’s face betrayed no emotion.
“Why don’t you tell him why you’re here, Inmate 26?” Jackson jeered.
“I bombed a church.” he responded dully, staring through me.
“And what compelled you to do such a horrible thing?” Jackson asked, in mock-horror. He clearly already knew the story.
26 sighed. “My best friend was a terrorist, and I didn’t know. After he was caught and captured, I was pulled into questioning. I didn’t have anything to say, but they didn’t believe me.”
“Who didn’t believe you?” Jackson pushed.
26 stared directly into my eyes. “Stane Lockheart didn’t believe me,” he replied, “So he took me away to a dark room, five floors beneath the Royal Guard HQ…”
26 broke eye contact with me and started staring at the floor between his parted legs. “That’s how I got these scars,” he said, “All over my face. My body. He wanted me to talk. He…he told me that I was lying, that I was a conspirator, and…after a while, I believed him.”
“So what happened next?” Moreno asked.
“Next?” 26 asked. “Next, he had to let me go…due to lack of evidence. But I started to realize that maybe he had a point, that maybe I was…guilty. So I did what he said I would do.”
26 stared back into my eyes. “I killed twenty people and injured thirty-two more that day.” he said.
“Why did you help me?” I demanded, “Why did you save me?”
“I have to balance the scales somehow,” 26 responded, “Your grandfather already passed. I thought if I could save people like he did, then maybe I could be forgiven in the next life.”
26 closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.
“Please go.” he said, “I’m tired.”
Jackson Moreno couldn’t keep the smirk off of his face as he turned to look at me. “You know what to do, Lockheart.” he said, “Follow me.”
We returned to my cell. As I entered, Jackson pulled the door closed behind me and stared at me coolly through the bars.
I looked back at him.
“The Lockheart’s era is over.” Jackson declared, “Do you see why?”
I didn’t answer. I let the silence sit between us.
Moreno’s eyebrows perked as he remembered something.
“Ah, I almost forgot…” he muttered, digging into one of his larger pockets, “This is for you. Only letter you’ve gotten today, mister celebrity. Hand-written, by the looks of it.”
He handed the envelope to me through the bars.
I looked at the sender address on the envelope.
That can only mean…
“That name mean anything to you?” Jackson asked.
I hid the emotion on my face. “Yeah,” I lied, “He’s an old friend from school. Guess he wants to catch up.”
“He sure picked a good time for it.” Moreno replied.
Jackson Moreno walked away as I opened the letter from “Jeremy Fraser”.
To a casual eye, it’d just appear to be some frat bro waxing off about how he wants to reconnect with a high school pal.