True to his word, once the rather shattered recon crew has rested up, Omar wastes no time in moving out of his uptown hideout--at least for now. He gathers up a few things: in his coat, his guns; in a bag, some spare clothes, the boxed-up elf-dagger, and a handful of food items and toiletries swept more or less randomly off their shelves; and, slipped into a pocket of his jeans, three photographs which don't get shown to anyone else. Then he's off, leaving his hideout behind without a second glance. If all goes well, he'll be able to return to it. If he screws up when it comes to the elves, well...ditching his apartment will be the least of his worries.
He sends Kurt and Sam off on a more circuitous route to where he's headed, with orders to contact a weapons supplier in Music City, let him know that Omar needs to talk. Six, though--Six he takes with him. Considering how good a look at her the elves got the other day, he wants to keep her in his sight until they're downtown.
But he doesn't explain this to her. He simply says, "Six, you with me," after he's sent the other two off. And that's all. He doesn't talk much on the way downtown, either, save to explain where they're going: an enclave of people a bit like him, heavily armed and often involved in drugs, who nevertheless refuse to have anything to do with uptown. They're kind of ambivalent about him, too, but he offers little explanation about that.
Their destination is fairly far downtown, in Alphabet City. It's quite a long walk, but Omar only slackens his pace if it seems that Six needs it.
He'll find that Six keeps up with the pace he sets fairly well. Her legs are short, despite being long enough in comparison to the rest of her, so sometimes she has to trot a bit to keep up - but she does so without complaint.. and without it seeming to wear on her. She isn't tireless, but Omar would have to push her a great deal harder than he is, and for longer than he might think to wear her out.
She'd put up no argument to going with him - has put up no argument for anything at all since they'd left the hideout. Her own things take less than a minute to gather up - she was still carrying her knives, after all. The gun is reloaded and put back into the holster, and then she's ready. What few things she has collected since coming here are either at Radio City, waiting to see if she'll come back to them - or stashed in hidey-holes across the city.
She's uncharacteristically silent during that trek downtown, despite the fact that it is taking her over new territory. Silence doesn't stop her from looking around, but for once there isn't a barrage of questions over everything they see. The kid, it seems, has retreated inside the soldier.. at least for the time being.
So it is that the trip downtown is made mostly in silence. Every so often Omar glances back to see what Six is looking at. As they pass through uptown, he stops occasionally to point out a specific corner or building and give a little lecture on what members of the criminal element are associated with it. But these informative tidbits fade as he gets further downtown, and by the time they're past Central Park, he has nothing more to say about the city around him. He's not completely unfamiliar with it--but he doesn't know it like the back of his hand the way he knows uptown. And even that, he doesn't know like the Westside of Baltimore. Five years is no substitute for a lifetime, and being in this less familiar part of town only reminds him of that.
It's probably a large part of why he's being so quiet. Leaving uptown reminds him that, in the end, he feels even more out of place in Nexus City than the people who come in through the rifts. At least they have no other home in this world. He has one--it's just that trying to get back there would be too much of a risk. Especially since the people, other than the government, who have the most secure routes out of the DMZ, for the sake of their smuggling? Most of them hate his guts.
So while he holds his head high and walks as proudly as ever, by the time they reach Alphabet City, Omar is practically brooding. He ignores the looks people give him as he approaches--some merely curious, others bordering on antagonistic. He's not as well known here as he is in uptown, but he's not a complete unknown, either.
Finally, he sits down next to a tree in a neighborhood that's a strange mix of unkempt and well-loved. A flash of children's eyes can be seen now and then around the corner, and occasionally people pass by carrying what amounts to groceries in Nexus City--but most windows are boarded up, doors are closed tightly out of habit, and the people who pass all carry guns.
Omar sets the bag of supplies down next to him. He nods to Six. "You hungry?" It's the first he's spoken in a while.
Six settles down next to Omar, watching the buildings.. and occasionally watching the kids. She doesn't watch them the way a kid watches other kids, though. Orient was probably the first to notice that. Most of the time that she's outside, she's not around other children. Six watches kids her age as though they're an alien species she's uncertain of. She doesn't understand them.. and she doesn't bother to hide it.
"I'm always hungry," she says, sitting there, all stiff and proper, chin tilted up while she observes the street.
Omar's gaze rests on Six for a long moment. The way she looks at the other kids is as alien to him as they are to her. Even in his world (which is this world, only not the one most people know), where kids were expected to grow up into soldiers by the time they were twelve, kids were still allowed to be kids in their free time. Six is different.
Finally, without a word, he reaches into the bag and pulls out a chocolate bar. "Ain't much," he offers, "but ought to do for now." He's such a responsible guardian! As he tucks the bag closed again, he nods to a building a little ways down the block. It looks like it was once a bar or club. Now, its windows are boarded up and its door is sealed with plaster. "We holin up in there for now." And he stands once more, tipping his head in that direction: let's go. Then he's starting that way.
There's a spark, finally, in those dark eyes. Six takes the chocolate bar and opens it eagerly, sniffs at it before breaking off a piece and stuffing it into her mouth. They never had anything like this. Never. They were well fed. They were given everything their bodies needed to grow strong and healthy - but there wasn't any candy. No treats. She smiles, once, as the taste floods her mouth, then wraps the rest up, tucking it away. She'll save it for later.
Pay attention. It might be the only time she ever does anything like that. Then she stands, brushing herself off, and prepares to follow Omar. She won't speak again, for a while - and when she does, it's quiet, and a little uncertain. "Omar? You - you don't really think I.. I failed back there. Do you?"
The sweetness of that smile is unexpected, and for a moment Omar actually looks almost taken aback. Then a smile briefly flickers up on his face before he turns away. It's good to see her acting, if only for a moment, like the child she actually is. But then--she also actually is the soldier.
When he reaches the door, he reaches into a coat pocket and takes out a small pocketknife. He flips it open and starts working at the plaster sealing up the door, flicking chunks of it to the sidewalk. He's done almost enough to pull the door open when Six poses her question.
The knife slips in his hands, its blade darting up against his thumb. A tiny streak of blood wells up. But he doesn't wince; he simply turns to give Six a hard stare. "There only been two ways to fail at that job, Six. One is, you go in there and you come out again before you got close enough to find anything out. You ain't done that. The other is, you get killed. You can correct me if I wrong, but I don't think you done that neither."
"I messed up," Six says, and only the brief stumble in the words gives away the fact that she saw that slip with the knife. She stands tall, under that stare, but there's something there in her eyes that doesn't show up very often. She's scared. Deep down, to the bone scared of what she's asking him. "I made mistakes," she continues. "Did stupid things I shouldn't have done. I didn't do the job right."
More silence from Omar. For a long moment, he doesn't even move the knife. Then, still not saying anything, he turns back to the door and carefully chips out the last few pieces of plaster. He tucks the knife away, pausing briefly to wipe the blood off his thumb. Then he he pulls the door open.
He turns to face Six, and there's a peculiarly uncertain expression on his face. Like he's in unfamiliar territory and about to set foot onto ground that might or might not hold him. "C'mon," he says simply, and he ducks inside. All without giving her an answer--yet.
He might be more unsettled if he saw the expression that comes over Six's face when he turns away. Defeat, in her eyes and in her posture. Resignation, as she steps through that door. She doesn't wait for him to continue, either. The moment he is inside, she's taking off the holster, and setting it on the floor. Her knives follow, one by one - each hitting the floor with a distinctly metallic rattle, against the wood. She doesn't speak. She doesn't even look at Omar.. and when she is done?
When she is done, she takes a step away from the small pile of weapons, folding her arms behind her back, each hand grabbing the opposite wrist. Her chin lifts, that stubborn tilt back in it - but there's that look of fear in her eyes, again. She doesn't want to die. She hasn't even had a chance to figure out what living is like yet. "I won't fight," she tells him. "I messed up. I know I did."
But he doesn't see it. Omar can't be looking everywhere all the time--only most of it. Instead, he's busy inside the dusty, low-ceilinged room, lighting candles on what used to be a bar countertop. It's only when the sound of weapons falling reaches him that he realizes something is off. He turns, shaking out the match, starting up with, "Hey, ain't gotta just toss 'em to floor like tha..."
He trails off at the sight of her expression. And as she speaks, his eyes widen. Finally, there's comprehension on his face. And he does not look happy about it.
Then that flash of vulnerability is gone, and he's all toughness again. His mouth curls back in a sneer. "I ain't yo old masters, Six." There's fire in his eyes. "Now sit yo Very Expensive Self down. I gonna tell you a story."
Six blinks, startled - and a little scared by it. She doesn't know what it means. He's pushing the boundaries of What Is a little further than usual. "You won't put me down?" she whispers - but she's already scrambling to sit. If he isn't going to do it - if he won't kill her, then she won't argue it. Dying is the last thing she wants to do.
Sinking down to the floor, she settles into a cross-legged position, still watching Omar with that wary look in her eyes. He's not her old masters. This isn't the first time he's said that, but it's the first time she's really starting to believe him. The only problem with that is that it leaves her wondering just what he is - and what she's supposed to do now.
For now, though, she'll settle on obedience. He told her to sit. She's sitting. He wants to tell her a story. She'll listen. She likes stories. She's heard more in the last several weeks than she ever did growing up. People in Radio City - they like telling stories. And that's what she's expecting now. A story, like the one they tell the children, there.
"Put you down--" Omar all but spits the words. But he's gone from looking angry to looking affronted. Offended by the idea that he'd do that to someone he considers one of his people. So he just shakes his head in irritated disgust, letting out a sharp, annoyed breath as he drops to the floor in front of Six.
"Aite," he starts. "This be a true story, right? Happen fourteen, fifteen years ago, back where I from. 'Bout that. I just start with the stickup--before that I been runnin with my brother, who deal respectable-like." It just might occur to him that describe the activities of an average drug dealer as 'respectable' is a little bit twisted--but if it does, he keeps the irony private.
He goes on, clarifying his terminology for Six: "I only been robbin dealers for a few weeks, then. Month, maybe. And I find a new place to jack up--a whole stashhouse this time. I lie outside in wait for an hour or so. Then I figure, that's good enough, right? I seen 'em, I know how to deal with 'em." He lifts one finger. "Mistake number one."
He spreads his hands. "So I creep up on 'em and I smash on in there. And it go fine, and I about to get out with the stash...when more muscle arrive." He lets out a sharp breath. "Turns out, they got backup waitin in the next building. If I wait longer, watch more careful, I woulda seen it. But I ain't." And he exhales again, but this time with a low, rueful laugh. "I take down the one with the gun, but the other, he got a knife. I ain't used to that. I figure, he ain't got a gun, how dangerous he be?" He lifts two fingers. "Mistake number two." He doesn't put the fingers down; instead, he lifts them and draws them down his face, tracing the familiar path of the scar. He's half-smiling, his expression almost sardonic.
He drops his hand back to his side. "Even I made mistakes once, Six." Note, however, that he does not say that he still does make mistakes. Because as far as he's concerned, he totally doesn't. He can't afford them. "The important thing, I be quick enough to survive 'em and I be smart enough to learn from 'em. See, it'd be *stupid* to kill you for a mistake, 'cause I know you smart enough to learn from it, and you gonna be better now." A beat. "And I don't do that to my people."
He sinks back abruptly as he finishes talking, bracing himself on the floor with one hand. And he blinks. He doesn't talk about his past. Not like that, anyway. Why did he do it now? He looks, suddenly, very drawn.
He makes mistakes. Survives them. Learns. Keeps going. It's a concept fundamental to the human race.. and utterly alien to Six. She sits, watching Omar pace, and doesn't move. She barely seems to breathe, trying to find a way to fit this into the paradigm she lives by.
He's scared by what he's revealed - and so is she, though for vastly different reasons. She can feel her heart, going like a jackrabbit in her chest. Little black spots floating at the edges of her vision. Utter terror, as her world turns upside down, one time too many, in too short a time.
And then she gets pissed. Because it isn't fair. It isn't fair that people here can make mistakes, that they can screw up, and they're allowed to learn and grow and keep going. Not while she and her people can't. Breathing harsh, she stares at the ground, her hands clenched in fists. "They came sometimes," she tells Omar, pausing between words until she can get them under control. "In the night. Or to the classes. Called somebody's name, and took them away. And we never saw them again. Didn't graduate. Didn't go to their patron - they just vanished. Nobody would say - but everybody knew. Cause it was always the messed up ones. The ones that didn't seem to learn quick enough - or made serious mistakes. The ones that didn't do what they were supposed to do." And that's hard. Just talking about that. Every child in the universe has a boogeyman under the bed. That had been theirs.
"They were gonna come for me."
Fortunately, Omar has an easy answer for that. He rises to his feet, all fluid and furious grace, and glares down at Six. "Got news for you, girl. That ain't happen here--" And he stops. He stops because he's thinking, and he's remembering.
He's thinking of back when he and his brother were working corners for a drug lord, just like most teenage boys in his world. Or at least, the ones he knew. He's thinking of the other boy they worked with, who screwed up the count one time too many and was found the next day beaten to within an inch of his life. They said he would learn after that, but it hadn't been about learning--it had been about setting an example.
He's thinking and remembering some more: back before his name had become a byword for fear, what the higher-ups would do to the hapless stashhouse guards who let themselves get robbed. He's thinking of all the bodies, and he's wondering how many of them really needed to fall, and how many had simply been taken down for mistakes.
So instead, he corrects himself, and he settles for something else: "I don't do that. And I ain't gonna let anyone do that to you, neither." But he looks even more drained now.
The walls Six has built up around herself over the last several hours shiver, and start to crumble. Soldier and child alike - she's tired, and she's scared. And Omar is promising her the moon - the sky, and all the stars in it. "I don't understand," she whispers, staring at his face with those huge eyes. They fill, and overflow, and she doesn't even bother to wipe them away. "I don't understand anything here."
When Six had been taken out of her creche, the Project had been in existence for fifty years. Fifty years of finding the right DNA, finding the way to control it and change it and weave it together. There'd been hundreds of children that had never lived to see birth - too malformed, too broken, too monstrous to work. Hundreds of batches before they'd found their way towards creating a new breed. Not human. Something else.
One that had been found, they'd started production. As Six came out of her creche, the first batch created was just entering adulthood. Every six months, a new batch was taken from the creche. Every six months for twenty years. Six wasn't the last batch. Not by far. By the time she fell through the rift, there were sixteen new generations behind her - each of them comprised of twenty children. Three hundred and twenty children, just in those eight years. All of them destined to be born, to grown and to live in stations, without ever seeing the sky, or running free under it. All of them knowing, as solid certainty, that the very breath in their lungs belonged to their creators, and to their patrons. They didn't own anything - not even their lives.
But Six turned out different, didn't she? Not just in her mischief, her tendency to run and explore--but in sheer chance. She fell through the rifts. She landed in a place where people would actually take care of her. And one of those people just so happens to be a man who knows, knows in his bones that his life belongs to him and to no one else. He knows it because he's fought to free himself from the chains of society's institutions that tried to lay themselves on him from birth. He knows it because he's seen everyone else in the world (this world) he came from, and he knows that though they might not have been as aware of it as Six is--none of them belonged to themselves either. None of them had tossed off those chains. And the worst part was, it wasn't because they liked them; it was because they couldn't. They could barely even dream of it.
Omar had resigned himself to being the only one who was free. It had even become a matter of pride for him, that he was different and fierce and alone. But here he is now, with, for once, the opportunity to teach someone how to do that. How to free themselves. And it's a shock like cold water to realize that he wants to. He wants to make this little difference--
(--and maybe in the process he'll learn how to be less alone; but he refuses to think that, he buries that thought. Being alone in the end is not simply good; it is right and proper.)
He looks down at Six as these realizations tumble into place behind his eyes. "You ain't gotta understand," he tells her. "Not yet. You got time to learn, now. And I gonna help."
There's a moment of hesitation, then, and it shows in his eyes. He's not good with verbal comfort, with open communication. Just telling Six that story, invoking his own past in an attempt to make this world make sense to her--just doing that terrified him. But if there's one thing he can express, it's physical affection and comfort. Granted, he's not even used to showing even that with people he isn't sleeping with--but it's not a huge leap between hugging a lover to show you care and holding a scared child to comfort them. Besides, it needs to be done here and now.
So, before he can talk himself out of it, he drops to one knee, folds his arms around Six, and squeezes her into a quick, fierce hug. "You gonna be all right here."
Nobody.. nobody ever held those children. They were cleaned and wiped, their nappies changed. Fed and washed and put to bed - but never hugged. Never cuddled or played with. The earlier batches, perhaps - that was before their caretakers learned to distance themselves from their charges. It was better that way. Easier. By the time Six came around, it was second nature. They weren't children, they were units.
She's never been hugged. She's seen it. She's watched Omar's affection with Sam, even seen the quick, fierce affection between Tick-Tick and Orient, between mothers and their children, in Radio City. But she'd never understood what she was seeing. Not really.
When Omar pulls her close, her first instinct is to struggle and get away. Her second is to go stiff as a board. And then it's gone. It's just gone, and whether or not he'd intended it to be a brief hug is a moot point. Six wraps her arms around him, and holds on just as tightly, hiding her face against his chest. "I'll learn," she promises, the words thick with tears. "I will. I'll learn good. I won't be bad no more."
Of all the people for Six to first get a hug from--it shouldn't be a shotgun-toting gangster fiercely devoted to his own freedom and incapable of properly expressing the depth of his feelings for...anyone, really. But because sometimes (most of the time) life doesn't work out in predictable ways, that's who it is.
For a moment, when Six starts clinging to him like that, Omar looks surprised. He didn't intend for this to be an extended hugging session! But whatever he intended, it is now. He pats the back of Six's fuzzy-haired head awkwardly. "Y'ain't been bad, girl. Just new. This all be new to you. Only natural there some things you ain't been knowin. But I gonna teach you, you hear? I gonna teach you."
Six nods against Omar's chest, her breath hitching several times before she gets it back under control. When she sits back, her eyes are swollen and red, and she's wiping her cheeks on the back of her wrists. Right now, she doesn't look very much the soldier. "My teachers," she tells Omar, almost shyly. "They said I learned quick. I was the best in my unit. They - you know.. we had lots of classes. Get out of bed, go to PT, then breakfast. Then classes. Then lunch. Then training sessions, then bed."
That's when she looks away, cheeks flushing a dull red. "That wasn't why they were gonna come for me. I'm good, Omar. I am. I know I am. I learned quick. I did what I was told in class, and in the training sessions. But.. there was something wrong with me. In my head. See.."
She isn't sure how to go on from there, and there will be a little silence, while she tries to figure out how to explain. She doesn't lean on Omar, but she stays close - not right up into his lap, but edged up on it. If he's not careful, she'll end up there. "Every day was the same. Classes change - training sessions change, but everything else.. it's always the same. We go to the same places. We eat the same stuff. And I *know* - I know there's got to be more there than just what we see. All those places we weren't allowed to go. So.. lights go out, and I'd.. I found ways. They taught me recon - how to get in and out of places without being seen. And I used it. I got all over that station. I wasn't trying to be bad. I.. I just wanted to see."
It would probably be the first time ever Omar's had a girl on his lap. Admittedly, an eight-year-old girl in this case. So he's quite unprepared and does not make any move to back away from Six. Instead, he tilts his head to the side and listens.
"Good to know yo environment," he finally supplies. "Guess they ain't seen it that way." But there's something subdued in his eyes, because he knows: they're not talking about the same thing. He wants to know his environment so that he can control it. Make it his. And once that's done, he has no desire to see anything more. It's why he could spent the first three decades of his life in Baltimore without the slightest regret, leaving only when circumstance forced him to, and then only temporarily--or at least, that was always his intention. But Six?
"You was curious," he says. "Made you dangerous to they eyes, ain't it?" He hesitates for a moment. Then he reaches out and squeezes her shoulder with one hand. "Makes you smart to mine." Just a trace of wistfulness escapes into his voice. He's not sure what it must be like, to have that thirst for knowledge and exploration for its own sake. He's only known tastes of it. Like the time he found his eighth-grade teacher's tattered old copy of Bulfinch's Mythology. Most every other time in his life--knowledge was simply something to be *used*.
Maybe Six can teach him something, too.
She sidles closer, like a skittish cat, just a millimeter at a time. By the time she's scooted herself up into his lap, it's a toss-up over who's more surprised to find her there - Omar, or Six, herself. But she tries it for size, and finds it good. He's big, and warm and feels like safety. So she leans back against Omar's chest, and lets herself relax, her eyes drifting half-shut.
"First time.." she tells Omar, her voice taking on that incredulous whisper children's voices hold when they talk about something they aren't sure is real. "I found this.. this deck. This place I think they went to, when they weren't working. And one wall.. Omar, it was all a big window. Cool on my skin. And there wasn't anything past it but.. so much black, and stars. Everywhere I looked, stars. I leaned on it, just stood there looking out, felt like.. like being in them, in the middle of all those stars."
To Omar's credit, when he finds Six in his lap, all he does is blink. Well...she's harmless enough. To him, anyway. So he lets her stay. And, if asked, he will firmly deny that it's actually kind of nice and comforting--different from the casual cuddling with lovers that he's so fond of, not quite the same as the dutiful but heartfelt hugs he'd give his grandmother back at home--but worth a try. He lets her stay.
And he listens. For a moment, as Six describes the wonder of the stars, he feels an old stirring at the back of his head. It takes him a moment to identify it. It's a little like how he felt when that middle school teacher started talking about the old stories that once made up religion. "Stars," he repeats slowly. "Back before history had much to it and people ain't knowin any better, you know what they thought stars were? They thought they was the shapes of heroes. That when the gods love someone fierce, and that someone, they die, the gods throw them up into the sky and they stick there, like glitter."
For Six, that is a completely new thought. Her world didn't come with heroes, or legends - or even nursery rhymes or songs. She thinks on that, leaning against Omar, just a small, warm weight.. and slowly, she smiles. Heroes. Stars.
"I like that," she says, tilting her head back, to look at him through her lashes. One of these days she's going to grow up into a heartbreaker - the shadow of that is in her face now. One hand reaches into the pocket of her cargo pants, retrieving that chocolate bar, and she breaks it in half, offering part to him. "I like that. Someday, I'm gonna be made out of stars too."
And when Six does grow up into that heartbreaker--well, Omar is already equipped with the shotgun with which to menace suitors that don't meet his standards. For now, he simply takes the half of the chocolate bar and solemnly nods his thanks. "You surely will, girl. And they gonna be some fine stars."