Warnings: language, sexual situations, references to mental illness, depression, suicidal thoughts, grief and death, miscarriage, and murder/potential genocide.
When Jill arrived at the apartment, she found Buck upstairs, putting the finishing touches on one of his recent works in progress. She wasn't sure if he'd heard her walk in at first, but then he turned around and smiled at her. After he tidied up a little, he joined her on the bed.
"Jill, I have something I need to tell you," he said.
"Yeah," she said, "I actually had something I wanted to talk about, too."
"Well, I can wait..."
"No," she said, instantly, thinking back to the last time they had exchanged information in this manner. "You first this time."
Buck drew a deep breath and gathered up his courage, searching for the right words. "I was... I recently found out I was... pregnant."
"Pregnant?! But how could you have been abducted? Do you remember anything? I can't believe they would--"
"I wasn't abducted."
Jill didn't understand. "Then how?"
Buck stared back at her puzzled expression, raised his eyebrows, and glanced her over. Finally, it dawned on her.
"Oh my GOD!"
"I know. I was surprised, too."
"Are you serious? It was me?"
"I don't see how else it could have happened."
"How is that even possible?"
"Maybe it was when we--"
"Not that, Buck! I mean how could I have done that? How exactly would that even work?"
"I guess there's more alienness to you than meets the eye."
Jill had never even considered that. She'd always assumed that outward appearance was a reflection of how much those genetics expressed theselves, but it seemed that it was all a little more complicated than that. "I didn't know I could do that," she said. "I'm sorry. I would have--"
"I know." He took her hand. "And well, we know now. We'll be more careful."
"When did all this happen? Why didn't you say something sooner?"
"It was the day you went home. After we got the news about your father. I didn't want... It just seemed like a bad time. And I didn't even know what was happening at first."
"So you went through that all alone?" She felt terrible that she hadn't been there.
"Ripp went to the hospital with me."
She cringed a little, but then pushed aside her embarrassment for the moment. This wasn't about her. "Are you okay?"
"Physcially, yes. But I'm still feeling a little upset about it."
"I'm so sorry." Jill reached over to hug him. She didn't know what else to say. It all felt very abstract to her, and she certainly didn't want to have a baby yet. But she knew that this would obviously be much more upsetting for Buck. She was more affected by that than the thing itself.
"What did you want to tell me?" he eventually asked.
"Oh, well maybe this isn't the best time now."
"I can handle it, Jill. It's fine."
She took a moment to consider her wording. "Well, I was thinking that maybe I would go away to do this semester at a different campus." She glanced away, unable to meet his eyes. "On my own."
Buck considered this. "What about... us?"
She didn't have the heart to tell him her original plan. Not now. She hadn't intended it to be a breakup, not exactly. But taking some time off. They'd never even been apart since they were children. Surely, it would be for the best. But not now. Maybe by the time she was ready to go. She'd bring it up later. "Lots of sims do long distance relationships," she said. "It might even be good for us. To spend some time on our own."
She could tell that it wasn't what he wanted to hear, but he was putting on a brave face.
"But we don't have to worry about that for a while yet," she said. "It'll be some time before I know for sure if I can do it. To make all the arrangements..."
Buck remained silent and leaned towards her, reaching his arms around her. In that moment, she couldn't imagine them ever being apart. His body was so familiar. Like home. But that also scared her a little. They'd gotten together so young. What if it was all just familiarity instead of love?
She kissed him. Gently at first, but then deeper and deeper. She felt him respond, the hunger in him. That longing, that raw need. They all had that inside of them, every one.
Even her sweet little Buck.
She thought about what he'd told her, about what she was able to do with her own body. Having that ability, that worry. Was that what it felt like to be a man?
What it felt like to be... what she was.
All this time, she'd wanted to be as much an alien as Johnny was, as her aunts were, thinking she wasn't. But she was.
She'd been that all along.
Ophelia stepped down onto the ladder and into the pool.
She thought about what Nervous had said to her, how she had a choice. How had he known? And what had happened when he had touched her? What sort of power did he have? What exactly was he?
She had seen it, felt it, that moment of realization. What you saw when you let yourself go right to the edge of the whirlpool, and looked inside. When it was too late to turn back.
Or almost too late. She'd gone there once before, and had managed to turn back.
She looked up, into his empty face.
He would take her, gladly. He'd been waiting for her for years.
I'm not afraid of you, she thought. Her family had not been strangers to death. They did not fear the shadows, the darkness. The Muenda family had been caretakers of the cemetery for more generations than they could count, preparing the dead and seeing them respectfully into the afterlife. Her father's family had done this, too.
When her grandparents had died, they left the cemetery to her mother and her aunt, as many generations had done before them. Two sisters, Olive and Willow, both named after trees. Symbolic of life, death, immortality. Trees grow roots as deeply as branches stretch high, and death and life are so intertwined. Her mother had eventually left to branch out and focus her life more on the living instead, while her Aunt Olive had followed those roots down deep into the underworld. To what extent, and how far down, Ophelia was terrified to contemplate. But it was not the dead, nor even Death itself, that she feared.
Death was simply death. The end of life. It was that stealing away, the defiling of life that was the thing to be feared. The paths leading to death. It was the dying.
Death. The Grim Reaper, they often called him. And surely he was a grim figure. There was no denying that. But he'd always seemed impartial to her, not evil. Not something to be feared. Simply there to carry out a function. Pragmatic. Not judging of the whys and hows, just following the rules. He didn't care how you lived your life or how you died. He simply came for you.
He'd come for her parents, then waited a minute or two for her as well. She'd almost gone with him.
Yes, he'd been waiting for her for years.
Slowly, she let out her breath and drifted to the bottom. She sat there for a minute, letting the slow creeping panic build within her. That feeling again. She could stay. She could fight it. There was always that choice.
But no, she would not go with him. One day, but not yet. Ophelia would not choose to die. Though she sometimes felt that life was too much to bear, she would never choose death. Not then, not ever. Not before her time, and not by her own hand. She had gone down that road once before, and she knew it was a dead end. Why had she even come here? Was it just to prove this to herself one last time?
Sometimes you needed to let yourself go close enough to the edge to look in. As a reminder. Nobody else could do it for you.
Sometimes you had to do it on your own.
But she did have one question for him. "Nervous Subject..." she asked, looking up. "How did he..."
He wasn't there.
He had never been there. Of course not. He didn't show up for maybes.
"Good evening, child." The man's voice startled her. She hadn't heard him approach.
"I'm not a child," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You seem very young..."
Ophelia didn't respond. She could understand how he'd think that. In that moment she did feel very young, and very vulnerable.
"You seem to have lost your way," he said.
"No," she said, "I... I just strayed from the path for a moment."
"You've experienced a lot of pain in your life for someone so young."
She took a step back. How had he known that? "Yes... some."
"What if I told you you could start over, and leave all of that behind?"
Could there be an escape without death? Could she do that?
"You could leave this world behind and be reborn," he said again. "You wouldn't even remember the pain of this life."
Would she do that, given the choice? Ophelia thought back on her life and all the things that haunted her. Of her recent loss. But then she also thought of all the good things. The feeling of dirt under her fingernails, the smell of flowers, the sound of laughter...
The sound of laughter. Her boys, laughing. Even now, she could hear them. Maybe those days were over, but she'd always carry them with her. If she left the pain behind, she'd also lose the things that had made her happy. She'd lose the good things too. She'd lose Johnny and Ripp, and everything they'd brought into her life. Even if they were nothing more than a painful memory now, she would never choose to leave them behind. A faded memory of them was better than not remembering them at all.
"No," she said, "I don't think so..."
"You could be so much happier."
She considered it. The man was offering her something that she had long dreamed of: another chance at life. A happier life. Starting over. She wanted to. She could start over. But maybe she could do that herself. She could start today, and it would be another chance. She could have a new life within her current one.
She thought of Nervous, back at home. There was always him. He needed her. He would miss her if she wasn't there. It wasn't just about her. Her life was bigger than herself. It mattered that she was there.
And there was that, too. She could make that choice. She could do it on her own, or with Nervous's help. He was able enough to help her, and he'd surely do that.
Or Ripp. He was still out there somewhere, or so she hoped. She could find him, and ask him to come back. She could ask him to help her. Even reluctant, unprepared, and terrified, he would be there for her. She knew that. All she had to do was ask. If she could only find him...
She would. She would find him, and ask him to come back.
No, she thought, with sudden certainty. She wouldn't need to go looking. If he was still out there, he would come back on his own. The more she thought about it, the more she knew that he'd eventually come back. She knew Ripp. If she knew anything, she knew Ripp Grunt. She probably knew his mind and his heart better than she even knew her own. The window to his heart had always been wide open to her. She knew he was afraid. He was hurting from this new loss, and afraid to move on. He didn't believe in himself, but she knew that surely, deep down, he must believe in them.
He would come back.
She knew he had it in him, even if he didn't. She believed in him. In them.
Yes. Her life, her path, it extended out before her like an invitation. She could follow it. Yes, yes, yes. Suddenly, everything was becoming a resounding yes. That was her path now, and she would take it. It was time for her to focus more fully on life instead of death. Her current pain was just a small hurdle. She would bounce back from even this. She had so many things to live for.
"You could find happiness," Mr. Humble said.
"I know," she said, "I could." She smiled, to herself more than him. "And I will."
"Then you'll come with me?"
"No. I'll go by myself."
She began to walk away. He called out behind her, still selling his promises, but she didn't even hear him.
He was waiting for her in the living room.
"Phi!" He lept to his feet and pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Hey. You're here. You came back."
"You're all soaking wet."
"Yes, I... I went for a bit of a swim."
"Oh Phi." Panic spread across his face. "No..."
"It's okay," she assured him. "I'm okay. I'll be okay."
"You needed me, and I wasn't here. I said I would always be there for you when you needed someone, and I wasn't."
"You're here now."
"I am. But what if I'd been too late? Don't scare me like that! Don't ever..."
"Really, I'm fine. It wasn't like that. I just needed to clear my head."
"In the bathtub next time, okay? Please? With bubble bath and candles and a nice book."
"Okay." After a moment, she asked, "Where were you?"
"Me? Well, I guess you could say I was bottoming out."
She nodded her understanding. "Like me."
He pulled her close again, and held her in silence. Then he said, "Maybe you could... see someone, you know? I think maybe I--"
"Could do it, too?"
"That's probably a good idea. Well past time, I think, for two such as we are."
He smiled. A real one, that shone through all the raw, broken parts of him. "Two such as we are," he repeated. "I like that." They stood there silent for some time.
"It's just you and me now," she said. "And well, Nervous too, I suppose. But us, together... without him."
He managed not to flinch. "Yeah, now you're stuck with me."
"What a terrible fate..." She leaned into him, slowly bringing her lips to meet his and set off a reaction in both of them.
They tore at each other's clothing, and tripped over themselves until they were in Ophelia's bedroom. She swung him around and flung him onto the bed.
"Are you sure it's okay?" he asked, suddenly. "Are you sure you still want me?"
"What kind of a question is that?"
"I'll never be Johnny Smith."
"You don't need to be. Just be Ripp."
"I don't know if he's good enough for you."
"Ripp, you were good enough before. Nothing has changed."
"Before I was number two."
She turned this over in her head for a moment. "And now you're the only..."
"I can't be the only."
"Can't... or don't want to be?"
"I want to be, I do. But I'm so afraid. What if I fuck it all up? What if you end up hating me?"
"I could never hate you."
"You say that now..."
She nodded her understanding. Surely, the Grunts had not started out expecting their marriage to fall apart. "Look, I'm not asking you for anything you can't give me. I'm only asking you to give me what you can."
"But what if that isn't enough?"
"Do you love me?"
"Yes, of course I do. You know that."
"And I love you, so let's start from there. We can figure out the rest as we go. Can you do that?"
He nodded. "I can." He took a deep breath and continued. "Phi, I love him. I was... in love with him, too."
She smiled. She hadn't known for sure, the extent of it, but it was hardly as shocking to her as he seemed to think it would be. "Then I guess that's one more thing we have in common."
"Do you think he'll ever come back?"
"We can hope, but we'll never know for sure unless he does." She reached over to him and ran her fingers through his hair. It seemed to soothe him.
"Do you still want me?" she asked. "Without him?"
"Of course! You know I do."
"It sounds silly when I ask you, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. A little."
"Ripp..." She reached for him, caressed him. "Of course I want you. You know that I do. How could you doubt that? I want you..." She pulled him towards her, kissing him deeply, and he kissed her in return.
"All of you. Now."
He reached over the side of the bed for his discarded jeans in a well-practiced motion.
"No," she said, pulling back his arm.
"You don't need that this time," she said. "Just you. Me. With nothing between us."
He froze, the breath knocked out of him. Was she testing him? So soon, and already he was doomed to fail. "I... I can't do that."
"I won't get pregnant."
"How can you possibly know that?"
"Because I already am."
"Johnny's," he said.
"Yes," she said. "It's his."
He hadn't expected to feel disappointed. He hadn't expected that moment at all, but once it arrived he felt a vast array of emotions he'd never even thought possible. Fear was one of them, unsurprisingly, but that was just the beginning of it. There was also happiness, because they'd at least have that small part of Johnny left behind. And there was jealousy. He wanted to be a part of her pregnancy. He didn't want to feel like an outsider to it. Could he also contribute something of himself to her? To become a part of it, so it would be his baby, too?
He was surprised at how strongly he felt that. He wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to, and he would be. "It's okay," he found himself saying, almost without willing himself to. "It's going to be okay. I will be here. We can do this together. We may not have much, but we'll always have each other, right?"
Tears rushed to her eyes. "Yes. We will."
"Oh Phi... come here." He took her into his arms and held her close, then kissed her, slowly inviting her to lead them back to where they'd been going. "I've never done this before," he confessed.
"First time for everything, right?" A smile returned to her face, and he matched it.
So he gave her what she'd asked him for, both physically and otherwise. "Oh... wow." he said.
She voiced a similar approval.
"Oh my god."
She laughed. "What?"
"It's just... Buck was right," he said, as if she would somehow know what he was talking about. "And I may have been wasting my life."
"Careful now," she warned. "We wouldn't want you to get too excited here."
"Oh nice," he said. "Just for that, I should make this last for like five hours. Just the slowest possible thing."
"You can go ahead and try," she said with a smirk. "I'm sure I'd appreciate the effort. But we'll see how long that lasts."
"Were you always like this? I thought you were supposed to be the nice one."
"No, you're the nice one. Sometimes."
"Well, I'd just love to continue this conversation, but dammit woman I'm sort of in the middle of something here!"
"So go for it already."
"Maybe I won't now."
"Then I guess it's all up to me."
"Oh yeah, now we're talkin'..."
"Congratulations on your promotion, Corporal Grunt," said the military officer, as he lead him to his new office. "You must be proud to be moving into work in this department, since it was your father's own pet project."
Tank grunted in agreement, though he wasn't aware of all of the details of his father's work. He knew it involved stopping the alien invasion, so he assumed he would be involved in building up defenses against them, but he didn't know what this would entail. Details on the mission were top secret to all but those directly involved. Despite this, he followed up the statement with, "It's an honour, Sir."
"We'll get to the details of our entire defense system soon, but I'm going to introduce you to our best hope for defense right now. We're quite proud of this achievement."
Tank watched as he produced a vial from the machine and held it up.
"What is that?"
"It's a biological weapon. It's a synthetic copy of a virus that's threatening the alien population, which was found in a spacecraft that we obtained ten years ago in Strangetown. We've had sims working tirelessly to replicate it, and now we have proof that this prototype works. This past week we've seen its results in action."
Tank froze. The man's meaning had dawned on him, and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
"Pollination Technician No. 9 had plagued us for many years. Our attempts to take him into custody always fell through. Even in a place as isolated as Strangetown, the media attention would have been too much to risk." He turned the vial around in his hands. "But now, he's more than made up for that, and he has finally served a purpose for us. We should thank him. He's tested our new weapon, proving its effectiveness. Now we can go about our work to administer this to the remaining alien population."
"How will we achieve that?" Tank asked, doing his best to cover his true reaction to the news about P.T. No. 9.
"Volunteers. Or maybe some of our men will be 'volun-told', if none come forward. It's obviously not a very desirable task, given the side effects." He gestured a large pregnant belly in front of him. "But very effective! We'll plant the virus on them at the time of abduction, thus infecting the pollinator. It's slow, unpredictable work, but it will take them out, one by one."
Tank nodded. "A very effective plan."
"We'll be very careful, and take it slowly, to avoid suspicion. We wouldn't want them to discover the truth and set out to attack us directly, though we're preparing for that very thing, as you know. We've suspected that for many years. After they've reached their target number of sims, they just might attempt to annihilate us to make way for their new hybrid species."
Again, Tank nodded. "And the hybrids...," he ventured, "the virus doesn't affect them?"
It was a small relief.
The officer placed the vial back into the machine. "But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Tank reached down and grasped the table for support, but tried to remain casual. He kept his composure.
"Now, Grunt... I understand that you have some family connections to the Smith family. Your brothers were not completely forthcoming when we questioned them a number of years back, but we know that they've formed relationships with them. You have always followed in your father's footsteps, and he stood a firm ground on this issue. This whole project is his baby. He was very dedicated to the cause. To our freedom and safety as a people and a species. Is that true of you as well?"
Tank nodded, without hesitation. "Yes."
"We don't have to worry about you, do we? Family or not, we expect you to do what needs to be done. No exceptions."
Tank took a deep, steadying breath, but slowly enough to avoid suspicion. "No," he said. "You have no worries with me."
"Good," he said, reaching out to grasp Tank's hand. "Then welcome to your new position."
He didn't remember much about the the trip home. He passed the usual sand and cacti. Same old shit as every other day. The next thing he was aware of was arriving in front of his house.
He found himself thinking about the aliens, and thinking about Johnny Smith.
He didn't trust the aliens. He hated them, what they were doing. He wanted them away from his planet. But the Smiths were more than just aliens. They were also sims. They were his neighbours.
And he disliked Johnny, maybe even truly hated him. He disliked him as a person as well as distrusting him for being an alien hybrid. He wouldn't be sorry if he was no longer a part of his life.
Could he really take part in a process that was very likely to eventually kill him? Could he kill Johnny Smith, as his father had killed P.T. No. 9?
What choice did he really have? He was already completely ensnared in it. His whole life had been leading him to this moment. His father had paved the way for him, and his father had also dropped them there, in Strangetown, leading them to the problem with Ripp and with Buck. If his brothers only knew what they'd done to him, to their father, and to themselves...
How far they had gone against their father's wishes. And now, they would all pay dearly for it.
But what could he do? This was his destiny. He'd never been given a choice in the matter, and now he was there, too late to turn back. Even if he decided he couldn't do it himself, it would happen. He wasn't foolish enough to think that he could stop it, but wasn't it better to at least be aware of what was taking place? To stay and see it through, to even perhaps guide the process in the best way he could?
What choice did he really have? That was his life now. He had no choice.
That was Tank Grunt's life.
He walked upstairs, and into the spare room. Outside, the sounds of the desert night were mixed with the faint sound of fists hitting a punching bag.
Again, and again, and again.
This feels like it could be the ending, if it wasn't for the fact that it's not even close to the end of the story. If I had decided that I wasn't going to be able to (at least attempt to) finish the whole thing, I'd have been almost satisfied to end it here. Almost.
Thank you once again to everyone that has helped out with this chapter. Sophie, W-sims, and Meetme, you were all a great help to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you! And an extra thanks to Meetme for taking a look at my story Strangetown, which is quite old and has had several Very Bad Things done to it over the years before I knew any better, and for helping me to fix it up a little to try to ensure that it stays around a little longer. Also, backups. Backups are good.
I also liked Knocking on Heaven's Door as theme music for this chapter (the Guns 'n' Roses version, in particular), mostly in reference to Tank, but it felt a little "on the nose" for the rest of it. I like how Hounds of Love can work for a number of the characters and what they're both running away from and towards in this part of the story, and for the imagery of "taking the plunge" when it comes to love. Plus it's a beautiful song. In addition to the Kate Bush original, I also really like the covers by The Futureheads and Eivør. Well worth a listen, I think.
As always, thanks for reading. :)
- Current Music:Hounds of Love by Kate Bush