I decided to distract myself by changing the subject, looking back over at Lynn. “So, what are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“An alchie. Alchemist,” she explained. “Alchie is the term most often used, but we’re called alchemists because we change the nature of other things or beings. We’re a rare species, and it should stay that way.” Her eyes darkened, looking sad and bitter at the same time. “The only people our abilities don’t work on is other alchies, so for most of us…we can’t ever have normal relationships. I can’t ever touch someone else without fearing that maybe my abilities will seep through, even with layers of cotton in between. I can’t even cook, or touch clothes normally, or do almost anything without the possibility of potentially destroying whatever it is I touch.”
She slouched down a little in her chair, but her quiet voice got a little more heated. “We’re not all like that, but a lot of us are. You’ve heard the story of the woman who turned people to stone by looking at them, or the man who turned things to gold by touching them? Those are alchie powers. The touch of gold, well, you saw – I have that. I can’t control it or limit it or turn it off, it just happens. Anything that is not pure nature, I turn to gold. Clay? No. But bricks? Yes. Food? That’s a hard one, I basically can only eat natural stuff or I can’t touch it myself. Maybe with a utensil, if I can find one that works. Things like wool, yes, but cotton – well, it’s on a thin line. I can wear it and it doesn’t turn to gold automatically, but the longer the exposure to me, the more likely my powers will work on it or maybe even work through it – so just wearing gloves doesn’t ensure I can touch things safely. For some alchies, though, they change things to stone or to amethyst or whatever, and they change it by looking at them or maybe by singing to them. Those of us whose powers rely in touch have it worse, because someone can avoid singing or even avoid ever looking at anyone or anything, but there’s no good way to avoid touching things.” She hugged herself, falling silent.
“That sounds lonely,” I said when it became clear she wasn’t going to continue. “Not everyone craves the touch of others, but if you do, that could be particularly tough. And if your species is so rare, it must be hard to find someone you could be with.”
“I don’t want kids,” she said immediately. I was about to explain I just meant that in the sense of having someone else she could touch, not necessarily a romantic thing, but she continued before I could.
“I don’t want to continue my race. I think alchies should die out.” It sounded like a harsh judgment, and she was apparently aware of it. She shrugged slightly, her brows furrowed. “I would never want to curse someone with the existence of an alchie. Never able to interact with the world, really. Just watch as other people do. Just wish and dream but never touch. Never.” She sounded bitter now.
“And before you suggest it,” she went on, “adoption wouldn’t work, either. I could never risk touching the kid. I can’t risk touching anyone, because I can’t 100% guarantee my abilities won’t seep through the gloves. I could kill someone I care about by accident. Besides, I can’t even live a normal life. Cooking, normal chores – even walking down the street, none of those are options for me. I can’t risk any of that.”
I tried to figure out how to respond to all of that. Lynn had a heavy burden I couldn’t even begin to fathom, and I definitely wasn’t a therapist, but I did understand the idea of watching the world but not being a part of it. For a long time, we’d been so wrapped up in hunting Hunters that we didn’t do anything else anymore.
“Maybe you need to figure out how to make a world you can interact with. Like, here,” I motioned around us, “we know what you are and what you can do. We’d be able to help you get clothes,” like Cynthia already had, “or food, or whatever you need. You could talk and interact with us, and I realize it’s not quite the same thing as family, but we could probably figure out how to make it work. Not that I’m suggesting staying with us, I realize that’s more than you signed up for,” I added hastily. She wasn’t exactly volunteering to join our anti-Hunter club. “But couldn’t you find some other supernaturals to room with or something? Cynthia knows some, so does George. Wouldn’t supernaturals be able to work with you better on stuff?”
“Sometimes.” Lynn’s eyes shifted from me towards the TV, but not like she was really seeing it – more like she just wanted something other than me to look at. She hunched in a little, like she was trying to appear smaller than she was. “But it’s a matter of personalities, too. Living with an alchie is almost like taking care of a disabled person. There’s so many things we need help with, that we can’t do on their own, that someone else has to do for us – how many people want that?” There was that bitterness again.
I wished I had some answers for her. “I don’t know about everyone, but I think for a lot of us, we don’t see it as a burden when it’s someone we care about.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and there’s an issue. I can’t call people or use the computer or any of that stuff.”
“Ah, wait.” I got out my phone and set it on the coffee table. “You probably haven’t seen recent phones. Some of them obey voice commands.”
This did interest her some as I demonstrated, but the limitations were still pretty clear and I could tell that even with voice commands, the limits on what she could do still frustrated her.
“Tell you what,” I suggested. “Stay here with us until you’re fully recovered, at least. Cynthia and George will have a better idea of what living with you looks like, so if you do end up wanting to talk to some of their friends, they can explain all the downsides in advance. Maybe you can even meet them, hang out with them here first, and make friends before considering moving in with them.”
“Yeah,” she murmured softly, “let’s see if any of them are excited about having to look after an alchie.”
I felt bad for her, trapped by her own abilities. I had no answers for her problem, though, and doubted the others did, but maybe we could at least offer her a safe place to live while she recovered. A chance to see that she could be treated like a normal person despite what she was.
I hoped that would be enough.
“Got a box of your gloves,” Jo announced as she carried in said box into the dining room. “This supplier probably wonders why we’re buying gloves in bulk.”
It was kind of necessary, though. In the last six months since Lynn had started to live with us, she’d discovered she could wear a pair of gloves about three times before they’d turn to gold, so wearing new ones was sort of helpful. You know, to prevent most of the rest of the apartment being turned to gold. Thankfully, the gold gloves more than paid for their replacements and the elves were happy about the steady gold supply, so it seemed to work out well for all of us.
“Okay, here.” George finished tinkering with the weird-looking contraption he’d made. In his previous life, he’d been a robotics engineer, or whatever that was called, and I didn’t think even George realized how much he missed it until he was trying to come up with a way to help Lynn interact with the world without touching things directly. This was his 9th attempt at making some sort of exoskeleton-type glove for Lynn that she wouldn’t touch directly but would use the muscles in her arms to figure out what she was trying to do. The earlier attempts either hadn’t worked or had ended up turning to gold, so I didn’t actually hold out high hopes for this one, either.
Initially, none of us had planned on Lynn staying. However, her presence had turned out to be a breath of fresh air, in a way. We suddenly had something other than hunting Hunters to worry about – trying to help Lynn interact with the world safely – and we all seemed to enjoy the distraction. Even Jo, although she never said it. Cynthia was in contact with some of her mysterious supernatural friends that were better at electronics than she was, trying to figure out if she could come up with a computer and phone that would be entirely verbally-controlled, while George had been working on this exoskeleton thing for Lynn and I had been…not really doing all that much to help. Talking, mostly. Or listening. For some reason Lynn seemed to like to confide to me more than the others, but I’d noticed as the months passed that she seemed happier now than she used to. She was happy to just be a part of our weird little group even if she wasn’t helping us with the whole anti-Hunter thing.
We were still doing that, of course. We took a 2-week break after beating Allen’s clan, partially to help Lynn adjust, but then we’d gotten back to work. I was kind of curious after dealing with the next clan to hear from Lynn what the others did all day while I was gone infiltrating the clan. I was particularly surprised – but deeply touched – to learn how much George paced and worried about my safety while I couldn’t contact them.
After that clan, though, Cynthia had told us we were taking a long break. Not just two weeks – she wanted us to take half a year off.
We’d all kind of stared at her, shocked.
“We need time doing other stuff, having Lynn here has proved that!” She had lectured, hands on her hips. “August, you broke your ankle this time, for crying out loud – we can’t even go back to work for several weeks anyway, until that heals! But this job we’ve chosen for ourselves is draining, physically and emotionally, and a few days or even weeks off here and there isn’t enough. We need more time, time to do normal stuff. So we’re taking half a year off, and after this I think we need to start pacing ourselves better. Take a month or two off between missions. We can’t do this back-to-back stuff, we’re all getting older, and it’s not working as well.”
The older remark was really about me, and we all knew it. I was the only human, so I’d age like a human, which meant I’d age a lot faster than they did. She was probably right. I couldn’t keep pushing myself like I did as a young 20-something, I would burn out faster than I used to.
“Half a year is too long,” Jo had crossed her arms, glowering. “What are we supposed to do, all run off and do our own stuff? Then just get back together? Are you trying to break us up, Cynthia?”
We had all kind of looked at her uneasily at that assessment – apart from Lynn, who’d just been watching all this – well aware of the risk. Maybe that was part of the reason we didn’t take long breaks. We were afraid if we did, the others wouldn’t want to come back when it was time to start up again.
Cynthia’s expression had softened a bit. “I’m not suggesting we all split up,” she’d clarified. “In fact, I think we can stay put and just do stuff together. We’re practically family, in a weird sort of way. We can just be more normal – do normal stuff, not just always work on hunting Hunters. If someone wants to take a vacation and travel, we can go with them, or they can go on their own if they prefer, and, well, if someone doesn’t want to come back after a break, that’s a risk we take. We’re not going to force anyone to stay, and people staying just because we don’t have time to think about whether we still want to do this is no good.”
So we’d eventually agreed to Cynthia’s plan of a break, but while we were all staying here for now, there was that unspoken thought put out there – that we needed to consider during this time whether we still wanted to be anti-Hunters when the time was up. Whether we might want to live a more normal life once we’d been reminded what one was like.
Right now, watching George’s anticipation while Lynn tried on the glove, it was hard to think about our “normal” lives, or what was normal for us until now – hunting Hunters. George seemed happy doing this, although he’d told me he now viewed robotics as a hobby, not a job.
“Is it working?” Even Jo seemed curious, leaning forward a bit to watch as Lynn flexed her fingers and watched the glove move.
“I think so?” Lynn started to say, then paused as she saw a bit of gold start to appear along one of the sensors. She and George both groaned a bit and she quickly pulled it off before any more of it could turn gold.
“So,” George murmured, “anything up to your elbow is at risk of turning gold. Above your elbow doesn’t seem to be a problem. Huh, wonder why that is.”
Lynn bit her lip. “Alchie rules are weird. I don’t understand them.” She seemed happier now than she used to be, and at least this setback didn’t seem to bother her that much. George, either, thankfully. He was just more focused on the problem and how to solve it.
I was leaning back in the recliner in the living room, pretending like my ankle didn’t still hurt. Technically, it had been eight weeks since I broke it when we were dealing with the clan after Allen’s, but while I could walk on it without a cast, it still wasn’t up to normal. That was part of the reason I’d agreed to this break Cynthia suggested – right now I could use it.