The door slammed magnificently as the redhead, now red-faced, teen finally entered the safety of his home. Out of a combination of pure instinct and terror, he fell to the floor and hugged his knees to his chest, hiding his face.
Beads of sweat dripped down his face, mixing with the salty tears that had just began to dry on his cheeks and moistening the knees of his jeans.
It's not real. It's not real.
The rapid sounds of gunfire faded away, slowly getting quieter and quieter, as if the man was firing while walking in the opposite direction.
IT'S NOT REAL.
Finally, the banging ceased entirely.
Nathanael uncurled himself from his position on the floor, his muscles aching from being tight for so long. According to the clock, he must have been there for at least 10 minutes.
The hot tears on his face had started to sting in the air-conditioned room as his breathing simmered down like a boiling pot of water coming to cool.
A rather bitter mix of relief filled him, making his bones feel sour. It wasn't real. That gunshots, the man...
Another one…another hallucination. And it had audio that time.
It had been so long since he had a giant episode like that. I guess it's my fault for passing the alley and giving myself that fright. Since the accident, things had changed significantly. He did everything in his power to avoid anything that could trigger a vision to him.
But sometimes, one still slipped through his careful guide.
The first one he had, was when he passed the hospital on the way to school. All he could hear were sirens and flashing lights danced in front of his eyes like a seizure. The next thing he knew, he found himself being stared at by civilians, one or two thinking he was having a panic attack and refused to let him go to school that day. He got quite a scolding from Principal Damocles the next day. I guess I deserved that one.
In the house, the lights were all turned off and the doors and windows were closed, as a woman, dressed in a dark grey business suit, was gathering her belongings, ready to leave the building.
The woman's long fire-red hair was in tangled waves and strands stuck up from static electricity, not combed properly that day. Her tired amber eyes were bloodshot and the bags under her eyes looked almost identical to her son's and giving her the air of someone who looked much older than she actually was. Even her briefcase looked messier than it usually did, its normally pristine appearance, having loose papers falling every which way out of it.
"Hey, Mom." His legs felt like jelly as he stood back up again, any moment he could fall over again.
As soon as her eyes lay on her son, her world lit up like a Christmas tree. He was home safe, and that's what mattered most to her. Especially since… NO. It was too soon to talk about it. It was such a shame that her work prevented her from spending more time with him.
With what little energy she had left, she ambled over to her only child and hugged him tightly. "How have you been today, Nathanael? Feeling any better?"
The comforting hug didn't have the effect she may have hoped to get out of him. Inside, Nathanael was utterly conflicted. One side told him to tell her what was really going on, how he was really feeling. But the stronger part of him urged her to stay silent and keep up the act. She was having her own problems and didn't need anymore to worry about.
That part of reason always dominated his brain for weeks. Why stray from routine?
Being a lawyer in Paris, especially for akumas, was always a difficult task. The public was biased for the heroes and against the villains, making it very hard to defend them. Katherine Kurtzberg was one of the lawyers that the akuma victims always favoured. Even if she could refuse the offer, she didn't. She couldn't bring herself to condemn them to years of prison. So, she only stuck with them. But times had been tough; despite avoiding the consequences of prison, many of the newer akumas had lost their jobs and were unable to pay Katherine everything they owed her, or even anything at all, being from a poorer family. A result of this was being laid off. If she really got paid for as much as she worked, things wouldn't be this tough for her.
Often she was so exhausted that Nathanael frequently did favours for her, because he understood how hard she had been working for him and her. That was enough to keep his lips sealed.
"Yeah…a little." He didn't bother to force a phony smile her way, her eyes not trained on him. But he didn't frown either. Deep down, under all those layers of hurting and hopelessness, a spark of affection still remained. It was weak, but it still lived another day. Saved for only his family.
The energy to genuinely smile…it was just too much right now.
As he broke away from her embrace, far too soon for her liking, an apologetic smile graced her pink lips.
"I'm so sorry, kit," She called him by that endearing nickname as long as she could remember. Foxes WERE one of her favourite animals after all. "But work has just come up again. And I won't be back until late tonight." Her smile flipped into a frown. "I hope you aren't too upset."
Nathanael, in all honesty, only felt indifference. Being a lawyer, his mother had long shifts to work, some even lasting a full week at a time. At age 11, he had learned to take care of himself at home alone; don't open the door to strangers, know where the fire exits are, proper use of the stove and oven…the list goes on. And by age 13, she fully trusted his ability to stay home alone without any trouble.
When he was younger, though-NO! Thinking about things like that, would just make it worse!
An I'm not was about to reach his tongue, but before he could speak to her, she got to her feet. "To make it up to you…I got you an early birthday present."
Wait…it was his birthday? Red and cyan eyes glanced at the screen of his smart-watch as his mother fetched the gift. What did you know, it was his birthday.
Oh. His birthday.
Nathanael turned off his watch, trying to forget what day it was. It had been officially one year since…well, since he was akumatized. Hooray. Now he had two reasons to celebrate this day…NOT.
Something stirred inside of him, reminiscing back to the hours he was an akuma. But the only part he could really replay in his head in full detail was him, selfishly trapping Marinette and Cat Noir on a sinking boat with all intent to drown them and no intent of mercy.
With his twisted mindset, he believed she was just like Chloe, a manipulative, shallow, ugly-hearted person, who only wanted to see his misery.
But…he knew that wasn't true. He understood that she only wanted to save him, that she just wanted to make sure he was safe from Hawkmoth. Marinette, fierce, confident, strong Marinette, was only looking out for him.
And he still tried to kill her.
For the days to come, aftershocks in the form of nightmares plagued his dreams of Marinette screaming at him that she hated him, loathed him, never wanted to see him again. The most heartbreaking one was the roles were switched and she was the one drowning him. Except he didn't have any way of getting free. And that he ran out of air much sooner than he expected. That was the nightmare that woke him up in a cold sweat every time.
He never accepted an apology from her.
He never talked to her.
Or rather, non-verbally refused to.
The night terrors had warped his mind so badly, that even in the daytime, he feared for what she would say to him. Feared how she would react to him. So, whenever possible, he avoided her everywhere. If he saw even a glimpse of her in the park or at the Eiffel Tower, he'd hightail it out of there as fast as he could.
This went on for months.
And she still didn't apologize to him. It wasn't that Marinette didn't care. It was more of she gave up trying. Things went back to normal and his jitters left him.
This lack of feelings reminded him of his time he feared the baker's daughter.
But this time, instead of anxiety and nervousness that shook him to the core, it was pure emptiness that barely stirred him in the slightest.
What was wrong with him?
I can name a lot of your flaws, stupid. His mind growled back at him as he sat down on the couch in the living room. Blue-green eyes slowly closed as he allowed himself to succumb to the darkness, only to shoot his eyes open again. Darkness…
Wrong thing to do when trying to forget about being an akuma….
"Here she is." His mom's voice once again jolted him back into brutal reality. But this time, she was holding her birthday gift for him and kneeling down to meet him at eye-level.
"Happy Birthday, kit."
The so-called gift was a tabby cat, ice blue eyes staring back at him. Her coat was a rich carrot orange, with a white underbelly, paws, muzzle and chest. Black stripes swirled around her legs, back and head. But just like everything else, she looked grey to him.
Nathanael could only stare at his mother's choice of gift. A pet? Now?
"I saw her in the animal shelter yesterday. Poor thing looked so lonely in the cage. The employee mentioned that she usually spent her time alone. Just like a certain someone I know." Her mouth twitched at the corners as she made the comparison between the tabby and her son. It was quite uncanny.
As he took the orange and black cat, gently feeling her soft cottony fur between his fingertips and the vibrations of her purring, something fairly peculiar started to happen.
Colour started to flood her body with such a vibrant tone that she was practically glowing a faint orange light as well, standing out from the greys of his world and her blue eyes adding quite a contrast.
She was the first colour he had seen in a long time.
What would be a good name for her? Tiger? Too plain and obvious-sounding. What about Destiny? No...not quite...
Finally, he decided on a name that stuck out to him.
Khan. That fit her well.
"I have to go now, sweetheart. But I hope you enjoy her. I will be back as soon as I can. Don't stay up too late. Love you, Nathanael." His mom laid a kiss on his forehead, but it was only the remnants of a ghosted one to him.
The door closed tightly behind her. Nathanael didn't move.
All he continued to do was ever-so-slightly run his fingers through her fur.
He had to admit...
This was nice.
But he knew it wouldn't last long.
Not with the plans he had.
The pocket knife's blade was stained red by now.
But that was nothing compared to the mental relief he felt.
On his left shoulder, one of the few places on him that was left untouched, was now a drawing of a tiger, the stripes bleeding off the pelt and crimson bleeding out of him.
He didn't know why he found such comfort in this.
Maybe it was the fact he was an artist.
He knew that there wouldn't be any important veins in the shoulder and even if there was...
Nathanael let out a non-existent sigh as he slumped down against the tiled wall of the bathroom, goosebumps prickling at his arms. On his right lower arm, he gazed at an older picture of a red fox, the slits still healing.
He knew it was wrong to do this to himself.
He knew that he would regret it later in life.
But did he care?
It all started a few weeks ago. The buildup of pain inside of him was too great. He couldn't take it anymore.
The moment he got home, with his mother gone on another trip, he grabbed a small kitchen knife, ran to the bathroom, threw off his jacket and-
A crooked red line appeared on his pale arm, only an inch long and blood dripping down with gravity and beading on the tiles.
Ragged gasps came from his mouth as he stared at the new wound.
The pain came only a split-second later as the adrenaline withered away and cold air stung it harshly, causing him to grit his teeth.
But to his confusion,
He enjoyed it.
Soon, another line joined it.
And another yet.
A small crude picture of a horse in blood made its new permanent home on his left arm.
Finally, he had found a way for release.
As time progressed with his days getting greyer, sometimes the only bright part of his day, was arriving home and cutting a new design or image into his skin. He had no fear of people finding out. He always wore long sleeves and pants, even in gym class with sweats. No one would be suspicious. It wasn't like anyone cared about what he was doing anyways. It had been that way for years.
The more he cut, the better quality his blood drawings got.
Instead of the normal long straight lines, his would be curvy and all different lengths, carving out the image on his arm.
The fox one was made up of cheese-grater cuts, a technique he had searched up about online, consisting of small cuts all grouped together.
For bigger cuts, he made into designs. A particularly long one on his right shin became a flowering vine loosing its petals that drifted all around the limb.
The adrenaline, the endorphins that came along with the pain afterwards, he craved so badly, so intensely, sometimes he thought he was addicted to the sensations.
He was probably right.
By now, almost all of the usable places were filled up with his grisly new art form, some of his sketchbooks long abandoned. The only places left were on his right shoulder, his left hip and his wrists.
What was he going to do once he filled those spots of clear skin up?
Maybe I could wait for the other scars to heal completely and draw over those? I mean, no one would see it right?
The warm water was stained pinkish as he cleaned both the pocket knife and his tiger cut. Sure, he would cut himself, but he didn't want them to get infected. That would be too far, even for him.
With a dollop of antiseptic cream and a fresh wrapping of clean bandages, there was no way it would get infected.
But this cutting session, there was no pain or pleasure in his cutting.
Just like the shell he used to be.
For one last attempt to feel pain, he pressed down on his shoulder. HARD.
A sear of pain struck Nathanael through his body like a bolt of lightening; so quickly, yet so fiercely.
There it is. He thought in sour contentment as he put on his pyjama shirt.
As the door swung open, he felt something soft and furry wind around his legs.
Oh, right. Khan.
He almost forgot about her. He did have a newfound tendency to forget things.
Nath picked up his new pet, the way he could recall his mom doing and set her on the bed. Khan happily yawned and kneaded his comforter with her claws, before arching her back and laying down on her stomach.
A small unconscious smile curled on his face, seeing her do that. Nathanael didn't know why he was feeling better because of her, but maybe it was because of her presence. He had heard of therapy pets.
But yet another corrupted thought filled his head; how much had his mom paid to get Khan? She seemed like a pure-bred... something. He couldn't put his finger on which breed it was. And pure-bred pets were very expensive. That, and with all the supplies need to take care of her...
It all ended up to be a very big sum of money. And money wasn't something they had much of right now.
Instead of happiness flooding him, it was now frigid, unbridled guilt.
Why would his mother spend so much on a simple birthday gift that he could have gone without?
If anything, he didn't deserve something as wonderful as a living, breathing pet, let alone a cat like this.
He didn't deserve her at all.
But there was nothing he could do with her. If Khan "ran away", that would just show ungratefulness and his mom would buy another cat in her place, wasting even more money.
Any ideas of giving her away to someone else who deserved her, was a big no-no.
So...she was stuck with him.
That didn't make him feel any better though.
He truly was grateful for her, but just not happy.
Khan's whiskers tickled his neck as she squirmed under his arm, practically asking in cat language for more petting.
And he obliged for the most part, at least.
"Khan, do I deserve you? Because I certainly don't think I do." Khan tilted her head to the side as if befuddled at his statement.
"You're a wonderful cat. And I don't think I deserve you at all." The redhead waited in silence, as if waiting for an answer.
Then he got one; the tiger-like tabby wriggled out of his arms and ran out of the room.
"I see you agree with me."