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  1. There was a pounding on the door. Hanna woke with a start, eyes wide, bed smelling of vanilla. For a moment, he was deeply confused - and then he moved, and felt the bruises on his ass and the claw marks on his hips, among another more intense and intimate soreness.
  2.  
  3. He'd gotten drunk on wine and slept with the Marked leader, the wolfen hybrid.
  4.  
  5. "Just a second!" he called, rolling out of the bed - and then he leaned against the wall, groaning. He was... EXTREMELY sore. After a few moments, he managed to walk his way to the bathroom and turn on the hot water.
  6.  
  7. He didn't have time for much of a shower, but he at least managed to rinse and wash his fur as fast as was possible.
  8.  
  9. The pounding came again as he slipped from the shower, working with a towel to get his legs dry.
  10.  
  11. "Give me a god damned minute!"
  12.  
  13. The high powered blow dryer made quick work of the remaining dampness, letting him tug on a pair of loose fitting, casual pants.
  14.  
  15. Again... pounding.
  16.  
  17. "Tala for fuck's sake, I'm working on it! I had to clean myself up!" he roared, stalking out of his bedroom and to the front door. Throwing it open revealed...
  18.  
  19. The feline hybrid.
  20.  
  21. "My name is Illia," she said, eyebrow raised. "You slept with my superior, I see. Very attractive. You were a good choice."
  22.  
  23. He blinked, glancing down at himself.
  24.  
  25. "Uh, a second," he muttered, shutting the door. She pounded on it again while he tugged on a loose tunic that left a good bit of his chest exposed. When he opened the door again, he demanded, "what? I mean, what is it?"
  26.  
  27. "Malachi slipped out while I was in the bathroom. The boy is quick, subtle. We need you to tell us where he might go. He isn't in his-"
  28.  
  29. The sheriff shut the door again, tugging on socks and boots as fast as possible. When he opened the door, she was standing there with her fist raised, as if to knock.
  30.  
  31. He put his hand on her face, all but engulfing it, and pushed her aside, stalking off his front porch.
  32.  
  33. "Rude," she said, jogging to keep up with him.
  34.  
  35. "I know where he'll be," he muttered, glancing around. It was early afternoon. The sun was high. There would be dragonflies... dragonflies and neongs.
  36.  
  37. They walked, together, joined quickly by Tala and the rest. It took only twenty minutes to reach the edge of the forest, and ten minutes beyond that to reach a clearing surrounded by particularly thick foliage.
  38.  
  39. "Where are we going, Hanna?" Tala asked, near the edge. The big man stopped.
  40.  
  41. "There's a pond. I showed it to him on his eighteenth birthday."
  42.  
  43. "This place is special to him?"
  44.  
  45. "He kissed me there, three weeks later. His first," the big man muttered. "Jesus, I'm going to hurt this kid so bad just because I couldn't keep my dick in my pants."
  46.  
  47. "Stop that. Just go talk to him."
  48.  
  49. He sighed, nodding, and pushed through the foliage, leaving a gap between the trees. Through it, they saw the boy framed.
  50.  
  51. He stood on a large, flat rock overlooking a small, reed ridden pond. Fat, colorful insects drifted in the air. Frog-like neongs croaked and chirped. Crickets added to the soft din. In the afternoon sun, they could see he'd stolen a skirt from the Marked womens' bags, enough to cover his lower half with black cloth.
  52.  
  53. Hanna stopped a few feet back from him, staring at his back. Enough of his arm had been left for a short stump on his right side, bandages wrapped around the end, though there seemed little need for it. All of his wounds were healed, pale scars clawing their way across his back - though, black lines intersected the scars.
  54.  
  55. A skull leered at the Sheriff, stylized and simplified, almost like a tribal tattoo - yet, different. Something about the lines ending in points and the way they curved around the empty sockets...
  56.  
  57. It felt sacred. It felt... special. Important.
  58.  
  59. The missing arm didn't seem to bother the boy. Being shirtless didn't either. A strange tint had taken over his skin, however - he looked as if he was a black and white photograph, almost. Almost all of the color had drained from his skin. Even the two freckles on his left shoulder blade - Hanna sighed at memories of kissing them - had shifted a gray so dark it was nearly black.
  60.  
  61. The snowy white hair and long, soft rabbit ears hanging down his back did nothing to alter this strangeness.
  62.  
  63. "Hey, Hanna," he said, softly. "I can hear your heart... you're so tense."
  64.  
  65. "I can't hear yours... but I get the feeling you're upset."
  66.  
  67. The boy turned, meeting him with a tired sort of smile the huge man had never seen on him before.
  68.  
  69. "They're taking me away," the boy said. "I'm not a person, now - not a free one."
  70.  
  71. Hanna bowed his head, exhaling slowly. They'd explained the Marked to him, and their... restricted freedoms. They were considered people, they had rights, they could even eventually hold their own contracts...
  72.  
  73. But they weren't free. Not really. Not for a long time after the awakening of their Marks. From the moment a Marked was determined to be such, a contract was created by an international, interplanetary organization with representatives from every recognized nation in the universe.
  74.  
  75. They were registered, photographed as soon as possible, documented...
  76.  
  77. It was their powers, their abilities, their strength and speed and ability to resist the cognitohazardous effects of many of the abominations left behind by the Dead God's War.
  78.  
  79. The Goddesses, in their deaths, made many mistakes - and had done many things one would not be likely to call a mistake. Hanna could remember a few. One of them was the femininity that Tala had explained the night before. Another was that their free will remained intact. While predisposed for service, they weren't made into thoughtless slaves. Instead, they could choose who they followed. They could say no. They could, despite wanting to serve, choose instead to lead.
  80.  
  81. There was no guarantee they'd be a force for good. Instead, the goddesses chose to trust that people were good, and that those who carried the goddesses' blood down their bloodlines would seek and guide them.
  82.  
  83. But there had been instances in the past where Marked had gathered teams, where those who could suppress their urges to follow had instead chosen to lead... and done great damage. There were, too, stories of criminals with empty eyes carrying Marked as assistants and more.
  84.  
  85. It wasn't a good system. It wasn't even an incorruptible system.
  86.  
  87. But it was the only system they had.
  88.  
  89. "Xexiva is a good woman. She helps Marked find the one their soul cries out for," Hanna replied.
  90.  
  91. "What if I don't want to find that person? What if I'd rather stay here? With you?"
  92.  
  93. "You don't, kid. You've got a chance to do something great, protect someone important. This village, this was never the place for you," he replied, looking up. Mal was staring at him, eyes wide, tears running down his cheeks. "Goddesses, you're terrified."
  94.  
  95. The boy nodded, rapidly, dashing at his cheeks with his three fingered hand. With a heavy, tired sigh, Hanna stepped up and pulled him close.
  96.  
  97. "You haven't been happy here since you were sixteen. Farming occupied you, but never interested you. We've talked about this," he murmured, into the top of Mal's head.
  98.  
  99. "I don't want to leave. I don't want my parents farm to disappear. They loved it. I don't... I feel like I'm torn in so many directions."
  100.  
  101. "Part of you wants to go, huh...?"
  102.  
  103. Mal pulled back, looking up at him. The corners of his eyes and all the little veins in them were black. His lips... black. Even the blush on his cheeks was dark, a grayish charcoal color.
  104.  
  105. He looked beautiful.
  106.  
  107. "I don't want you to think I never cared about you," he half-sobbed. "I don't know what's right. These feelings have been getting worse for so long. I don't even know what I am."
  108.  
  109. Hanna smiled.
  110.  
  111. "You're a hero, kid. I'd never think you didn't care about me. You lost an arm for my dumb ass," he said, chuckling bitterly. Mal glanced aside, as if trying to look at a raised right hand that just wasn't there. "It'll be painful. It'll hurt. They'll have to hurt you, to help you find yourself."
  112.  
  113. "I'm so scared, Hanna," he rasped, shoulders hunching. "I'm so scared to leave, I can't legally stay... I... Hanna what do I do?"
  114.  
  115. "Sit with me, for a few."
  116.  
  117. The big man took his remaining hand, painfully conscious of his missing fingers - he had such beautiful fingers, slender and perfect. Tala glared at one of her subordinates as she made an impatient noise, silently ordering her to just shut the fuck up.
  118.  
  119. Hanna sat down on that huge, flat rock, legs crossed - and Malachi all but melted into his lap, sitting with his legs out and eyes forward. The slick, ultra-bright skinned neongs hopped around, all six of their bizarre legs making them look more like jumping spiders than the frogs they were descended from.
  120.  
  121. "Mal. You're a Marked. The system isn't perfect, but there are a lot of good people seeking your kind, training them, preparing them. You can fight monsters, you can travel. You can find a life your soul sings for and follow it to the end of time. If you get trained, and it turns out that's me... then you come back to me. We're on different paths, now, and that's okay," he said, softly, heart breaking with every worth. He wasn't even sure it was the right thing to do. If someone had to claim him, at least Xexiva had the experience and capability to do so. "Go with them. Walk your path. Hold your head high. Make me proud."
  122.  
  123. Mal shifted, turning and squirming and nearly falling, until he was on his knees, the big man's legs forced apart.
  124.  
  125. "We were never going to be together, were we?" Mal asked, smiling. How, Hanna wondered, could someone be so beautiful while crying jet black tears?
  126.  
  127. "Ah, hell, kid. I wanted to. I couldn't resist you. But you're so damn young, so damned smart. I was always going to push you to go to the city, always going to be staring at your future more than selfishly focusing on my present," he replied, pushing that tired smile back onto his face. "This isn't the end of our friendship. I want phone calls. Post cards. When I manage to find some vacation time, I'll come see you."
  128.  
  129. "Do you promise?" Mal asked, that tired smile still touching his lips.
  130.  
  131. "I do. I'm proud of you, kid. I'm proud to have known you. I ain't giving that up quite so easily," he replied, managing a grin. "You've got wacky powers and all sorts of new shit to learn. Better to learn it from people who know their stuff, right?"
  132.  
  133. The smile on Mal's face looked far less tired, far more genuine. He nodded firmly, ears flopping, messy hair fluttering in a light breeze.
  134.  
  135. "You're right. I... I'm having hard time saying I want something. Can I... just do it?"
  136.  
  137. "Go ahead."
  138.  
  139. Mal crawled forward, stumbling a little with his altered balance, and pressed his lips to Hanna's. Tala glanced aside as they shared the kind of kiss one only ever experiences when saying goodbye for a long time - long, slow, deep, passionate.
  140.  
  141. Finally, they parted. Hanna pulled him into a tight hug. His wounds were healed. The boy was a regenerator. He was...
  142.  
  143. "I want to ask something, Mal. Is your blood really black too?"
  144.  
  145. The boy stepped up, slipping his hand into the man's pocket. He pulled free Blake's keys, awkwardly struggling to flip the man's key chain pocket knife open.
  146.  
  147. Before Hanna could stop him, he ran the blade across his chest, cutting deep. The big man stared, breathless, as black blood oozed from the wound - and then strings of it like spider legs emerged from the surface. In the space of a second, all that had wept out was drawn back in. For a split second, the black, hairlike things like the legs of a daddy long legs writhed out of the wound - and then it sealed shut from where it began to where it ended, leaving nothing behind but a line so pale that Hanna wasn't even sure it wasn't his imagination.
  148.  
  149. "I don't really bleed now, I guess," Mal said, staring at the knife in hand. There were dark circles under his eyes, that Hanna hadn't noticed before - but with his head tipped down, his eyes were shaded just enough to make them look extremely intense. "It hurt..."
  150.  
  151. "Are you okay?" he asked, slowly. The boy blinked, looking up - and then carefully closed the knife and proffered it, grinning.
  152.  
  153. "I'm fine! It was just pain. I guess... I have to go now, huh?"
  154.  
  155. "You do. I'm sorry, Mal."
  156.  
  157. The boy just got to walking, passing the man close enough to brush against his arm. When Hanna rounded to follow, Mal stopped, looked back, and said, "I'll come find you, some day. You can hold me again, if you want, sir."
  158.  
  159. "When did you start calling me sir?"
  160.  
  161. The dark circles. He looked so tired. They looked like they were getting darker - but maybe it was just that all of his tissues were in grayscale, and his membranes were ink black.
  162.  
  163. "I don't know. I guess it just feels right, now. After all, I was ready to give my life for you, right? So calling you 'sir,' just... feels right," he answered, turning back to the edge of the woods. "Some day, it won't feel weird when I call you that, I hope."
  164.  
  165. "You'll never feel weird to me, kid."
  166.  
  167. Mal chuckled a little and kept walking. Tala stepped from the edge of the woods, draping a coat recovered from the boy's house around his shoulders.
  168.  
  169. "I'm angry at you," Mal told her. She nodded.
  170.  
  171. "I understand."
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