Brandon had never been one to suffer from motion sickness before.
Usually, he was totally fine with all sorts of travelling. Car, train, that one plane ride to Disneyland Paris... he'd always been tip-top. Absolutely dandy. Until today, it seemed, because he was about one jolt from throwing up all over the upholstery that was probably worth more than the cost of his entire dorm's furnishings.
He groaned, dragging a trembling hand through his fringe and leaning back into the seat. The train was rocking softly, gently, as if it was moving to the beat of a lullaby. At any other point in time, it could've even been soothing, but today it just made him dizzy. Dammit, he must've eaten something.
He was sitting in the First Class compartment, Michael Brewster across the table from him, fixated on his laptop screen as he tapped impatiently at the keys. He hadn't spoken to Brandon in hours; in fact, he'd barely even looked at him at the train station, standing steadfastly against the cold air and Brandon had shivered and pulled his jacket tighter around himself, as if doing so would actually warm him up in any way.
Brandon didn't know what to do- maybe he should try and make conversation? No, that would be stupid- so he didn't do anything, not three hours ago, at the station, when the train pulled up with a reluctant sigh of gears and metal joints, and still not now, after two hours of smothered noise and endless landscape.
His mobile phone was sitting in his pocket, silent as death. Sam probably hasn't even woken up yet- it still was only seven in the morning after all, and it was a Saturday, meaning that the guy didn't actually have a single reason to want to get out of bed. So, no, Sam wouldn't be texting him for a good couple of hours yet.
And if Brandon was honest, he was happy Sam was going to have more time to himself. After all, Brandon wasn't going to be around for a bit, which meant that Sam wouldn't have to sit in his apartment and wonder if his friend had tried to drink himself to death again after telling him he was going to another of his casual acquaintance's friend's brother's parties, so wouldn't really be around for the next few hours.
Brandon knew Sam hated it when he went out to those- the shady buildings that are thrumming with the beat of music, the beat shaking the foundations like a giant's heartbeat. And if he's being completely honest, Brandon hated them a little bit too. There wasn't anything particularly captivating about them- the people were the same as they were in every club, at every party: drunk, high, electrified by noise and excitement. The alcohol was always bland and never strong enough until the drunken stupor washed over him in one tsunami wave and always sent him keeling over to the floor.
He hadn't been to one in over a month though, and Brandon was pretty sure that was almost a record for him. Even Sam had eventually agreed that the internship-that-could-maybe-lead-to-a-proper-job had been a good thing. Brandon's degree hadn't been getting anywhere, anyway, so he was saving money in that regard, too.
On the other hand, Cat had been far less pleased. But he could understand her point of view as well, because hell, they met at university- they were in the same lectures, after all- so yeah, she wasn't seeing him as much as she used to. So that was fair enough.
Man, he'd really grown as a person over these last few weeks. A month ago, he'd have been sitting in his dorm sulking, the bite of anger stinging his throat like bile, all because his girlfriend didn't agree with him. And now... well, he was doing a lot better.
Aside from the travel sickness, of course.
He yawned, blinking the sleep from his eyes and he stretched and swallowed, glancing back around his surroundings. He'd never managed to sit in First Class before, never been able to afford it, and for once, he could understand why it was so much more expensive. The seats were actually comfortable enough to sleep in, the carriage fresh and cool. The countryside flashed past in a blur of colour and silent noise. It should take a handful of hours to get to Scotland, and Brandon was almost excited. It was good to get out of town.
The convention was boring as hell.
Brandon was relatively disappointed.
There was nothing but old men in plaid jackets shuffling around a room, coughing out compliments like they tasted bitter, and running spindly hands across bald patches like they could hide them.
Brandon's shirt was too big and it itched, and the building wasn't even the kind of place that considered skinny black jeans an acceptable fashion choice, meaning that he had to wear the one pair of ironed trousers that he kept at the bottom of his drawer. And they were uncomfortable as hell.
To make matters worse, Brandon lost Michael Brewster approximately three minutes after they walked into the room: a stretch of building lined with chairs, like pews in a church. This meant that he was forced to walk around like he actually knew what he was doing; skipping from conversation to conversation, nodding silently and moving on before he could be dragged into any serious discussion.
No one was sitting in the many chairs that filled up the room, but he knew that wouldn't be for long. There was meant to be a lecture in half an hour or so, meaning that he still had enough time to find Michael. He lifted his head, scouring the crowds eagerly. God, how many people were really that interested in jewellery? Because, sure, it looked nice, but that was really it. If he wasn't so incredibly desperate for a proper job as he was, he'd probably had refused to come at all. He was the only one who didn't fit it, like the wrong puzzle piece being forced into a jigsaw.
Okay, so scrap that- he was one of the two people who didn't fit. On the opposite side of the room, leaning against the gaudy wall poster advertising the event itself, a claw of colour amidst the crushing monochrome around him, was a girl, only a few years older than Brandon himself, platinum-blonde hair dragged into a high, sleek bun. Her face was narrow and hollow, shadows trickling down her face like spilt makeup, pooling in the smudges of sleepless bruises beneath her eyes and cheekbones.
She met his eyes at the exact moment he looked at her, and there were chills down his spine, like a knife being dragged down his neck. He shuddered, and she gave a small, cold smile, pushing herself away from the wall and walking towards him. The girl was dressed smartly, just as everyone else was, but it didn't fit her. She was walking awkwardly, as if the flat shoes were stilettos, as if the smart office blouse was two sizes too small.
The girl took another step forward; he tried to walk away.
"Brandon Hope?" The voice was rough, as if it'd been taken to with a sheet of sandpaper, ill-suited to the small, narrow girl it belonged to. He turned around and she was there, barely half a metre away from him. Her eyes were dark, deep pools of oil he could drown in. "It is you, isn't it? Please say it is."
He dragged in a breath. Took another step back and tugged at his fringe. "What does it matter to you? What's your name?"
The girl was over a head smaller than him, so thin she was almost a skeleton. "We gotta talk somewhere privately. It's... it's important, trust me." Her small hand wrapped around his and began to tug him away, and Brandon could only thank God that Cat wasn't hear to see it, because she would not take kindly to another girl holding his hand, even if that girl was nothing more than a skeleton, each bone in her hand prominent and pressing through her skin, as if they wanted to escape her body completely.
Brandon was led out of the room, through a small 'STAFF ONLY' door and led up a flight of stairs. He shouldn't be letting this happen. What if this was all an elaborate kidnapping plan? What if this girl had just escaped from a mental hospital? "How do you even know my name?" he pressed, but she shook her head before glancing around furtively, as if every shadow was going to attack her.
"In a moment," she whispered. "Just- lemme find somewhere I can talk to you. Properly. There're too many people down there."
"Why do you even need to talk to me? Who even are you?" The girl didn't answer him anymore, pulling him another two flights of stairs and swerving back into a corridor. Brandon had completely lost all sense of direction. He hadn't even realised that the building was so big. Sure, the convention was taking place in one of the halls in a university, but he'd been sure that the rest of the building would have been sectioned off.
Finally, the girl stopped, Brandon almost crashing straight into her. They were in just another corridor, identical the every other one that he'd seen, and the girl let out a heavy breath, the air whispering between her cracked lips like cigarette smoke.
Brandon stood over her. "So what's going on?" he hissed. "Why do you know who I am? And what do you want? And who the hell even are you?"
He was given a small wheeze of a laugh in reply. "Who am I," the girl repeated. "I wish I knew, if I'm honest, Brandon Hope. I really, really wish I knew." She shook her head softly and gave that same fragile laugh again, turned and slouched against the wall, slid down, legs straight and arms at her sides. She hung her head. She looked tired, defeated. She looked as if she'd been punched.
Finally, she lifted her head again, met his eyes with a heavy, level gaze. "You know who Michael is? He's talked 'bout you before."
Brandon frowned. "Yeah, I do. What about him?"
There was a rattle of a breath. "He wants me to kidnap you, you know. I'm gonna try not to, but he might kill me if he finds out that I've spoken to you and not dragged you down."
He choked. "He- what? When did he say that? Why- how do you even know him?"
She shook her head. "That's not important right now, but you have to go. Please say that you'll go."
"You can't just say that my boss wants you to kidnap without any explanation, okay? Do you seriously not get how fucking crazy that sounds?" He took a step back, glancing back at the way that he'd came. Brandon was pretty sure that he could outrun whoever this crazy chick was, but he really didn't want to have to try. He needed to get out of there."
"Listen to me." The girl struggled to her feet again, swaying slightly as she glared up at him. "Please. I managed to get away, but they're gonna be looking for me soon, and if you're still around I'm either gonna have to take you back with us- them- or they're gonna kill me. And I've gotta escape. I can't die."
Brandon shook his head, took another step back, and she was lunging forward, thin hands pressing into his shoulders, pushing his back against the opposite wall. She was far stronger than she looked, but there was a glimmer of insanity in her eyes, cold and cruel and malevolent, and now he was very glad that he didn't try to run.
"Listen," she hissed. "You can die for all I care. You can end up in some fuckin' basement and get your head all messed up like mine is. Because it really don't matter to me what happens to you. But if you get outta here right this minute, you can tell people that there's some real bad stuff going on up in some big house about as north of Scotland as you can get, and then this religious nut and his little following will get shut down and I'll get away. You're just like everyone up there- you were in some bad place and he offered you a better life and suddenly BAM-" her fist shook the plaster from the wall next to his ear- "you get picked up and dragged away and turned inside out and ruined."
It was silent for an instant, and Brandon could see how much the girl was shivering. Her sleeve had ridden up and he could make out the bruises lining her wrist, like her hands had been tied. He felt like he was frozen, the air trembling with intensity, like the split-second before a lightning strike.
"Brendon Hope," he heard Michael say.
He was standing at the end of the corridor, another woman behind him.A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling like a convicted criminal, flickering faintly, filling the room with enough light to make out Michael’s strong figure, but dying slowly. There were no windows, leaving it as closed in as a lion’s cage.
Brandon cleared his throat and the girl took a step away. "Mr Brewster-" he began, but Michael interrupted him.
“Brandon Hope,” the cold voice said. “It’s quiet in here, is it not?”
His breathing stuttered, and Michael shook his head. He looked disappointed. "Alicia, if you could do your job, please."
Brandon had enough time to turn back to the girl to feel her fingers wind through his hair, pulling him forward, before smacking his head against the wall. Once. Twice. A third time.
There was pain, but it was distant, as he was submerged in oil, drowning in it, and he felt himself falling, the world spinning. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think. Black was seeping into the corners of his vision. He was going to pass out.
Michael was still talking, but it was muffled.
There were strong hands on his shoulders and was turned round to face him, breathing stuttering, fragmented, and those cold eyes of Michael’s were blazing, burning with such a fierce intensity that Brandon thought he might be sick. He couldn’t move.
“This world is rotten, Brandon Hope, and you and I… we’re going to save it.”