The second time around, he awakes inside a dwelling. It’s a crash pad shaped like a box, barely two meters tall and six in length, stuffed to the brim with storage crates and piles of canned food, packaged bread, dried biscuits – all sorts of bland military rations.
It’s late afternoon breaking dusk. The only tell is the clock hanging from a nail on a wall. Soft light radiates from the kerosene lamp to the side, warming the spot where he lies on the floor. His disheveled hair reflects off golden yellow rays and with half-lidded eyes, like this, he looks particularly soft and groggy.
He shifts in his position and realizes that his head is actually resting on a pillow – not the softest, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless. He slowly sits up and runs a tentative hand along the back of his head. The bruise still stings when he presses on it but it’s not paralyzing. It’s also quite considerate for his kidnappers to have dressed the gash on his forehead and the laceration on his shoulder. His ribs though, are visibly blue and purple. He sighs softly.
He takes a quick glance around for his shirt and his jacket – not here – and then pushes aside a few crates to find his backpack – not here as well, but he doesn’t remember having it during the car ride before. The room he is in is too cluttered to move freely and he can’t leave through the small vent either. It’s much too small, though logically, he would prefer not to venture half-naked during wintertime.
So, it seems like his only option would be the slightly ajar door ahead, which is very obviously beckoning to him. Thankfully he’s not barefoot, else the cement tiles would freeze his toes off.
His brain processes things a lot faster now when the pain is dulled. As such, he ponders on some details. First and foremost, it hadn’t been long since he’d been kidnapped – or taken against his will, which is essentially the same regardless. Half a day at most. Secondly, he’s likely at a refuge site, some underground shelter not by the inner city. Then third and most importantly, he clearly remembers being knocked unconscious, which brings him to where he is now: still held captive.
The priority should be to make a stealthy run for it, but… well, he didn’t expect for five people to be gathered in the adjacent room, playing a carefree game of checkers. The young man hadn’t made much of a sound at all when he slid open the door, but every person turns toward him, their eyes watching him carefully. He stays unmoving, posture relaxed.
“Just in time,” whistles the man with a stubble. He gets up from his bent position on the chair and scatters all the board pieces as if to nonchalantly hide his losing game. “Hey hey, let’s not count this round. Yang Rong, the pretty boy is awake.”
The player on the other side, Yang Rong, or the person recognized as the colonel, leaves his chair as well. He glances over at him and then gestures to the spot he’d emptied. “Have a seat.”
Not much can be done now. He recognizes that these are military men. Maybe they’re here to gather information and not to shoot him on sight, but he doesn’t hold it against them. He sits anyway. Tense silence overtakes the room as Yang Rong walks off to the corner. The other four are watching him closely, especially at his emptied hands, in case another fight breaks out.
Yang Rong returns soon enough, holding a kettle and an empty glass.
“Tea or coffee?” Yang Rong waits for a response – there was none – before pouring a glass of warm water and sliding it across the felt table. “Water?”
He sighs and takes the latter.
Yang Rong seems satisfied. “You have calmed down now?”
The young man taps at the brittle glass, watching the reflections on water. He cuts straight to topic. “You suspect I am an anomaly.”
“Correct,” the man replies. He leans forward, one hand propped on his chin. “And are you?”
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
Yang Rong smiles. “It is unfortunate, but I will need to take you to the Nexus for genetic review. There needs to be confirmation, regardless of how slight the possibility may be.”
“You think it is slight,” he replies. “Otherwise you would have left me outside instead of bringing me here.”
“This time, you are only partially correct.” The colonel studies him inquisitively, eyes trailing from his face to hair, locking onto his eyes. “The possibility is very high that you are different.”
“By what standards?”
“If not from your appearance alone, then…” the man seems to think about it, “intuition?”
“I was born with this appearance.”
“Show me your birth certificate.”
The young man is visibly annoyed. “I don’t have one.”
“Then I cannot confirm.” Yang Rong, most definitely screwed up in the head, seems to like watching him struggle. An amused glint makes way to the colonel’s irises. “Any more excuses?”
The young man doesn’t want to talk anymore. He takes a slow sip of water and opts out of conversation, already zeroing in on the exit to the far right. The distance is five meters, easily scalable, two seconds top – he would need a shirt first, though.
The colonel, however, wouldn’t shut up for a second. “What’s your name?”
“Where’s my shirt?” He frowns and it’s quite uncomfortable, really, to be sitting half-naked here. It’s also not exactly warm. The shelter has little insulation.
“In the wash,” the man responds, “we took it off to dress your wounds.” After saying that, he turns toward one of the men in the corner. “Jae, give the pretty boy a spare shirt. Any is fine – take one from the duffle.”
The small soldier salutes dutifully and runs off.
The young man looks around. “My backpack?”
“You weren’t carrying one when we recovered you. Where did you come from?” Yang Rong adds as an afterthought, “Pretty boy.”
“Where is this?”
“Are you from the outer districts, pretty boy?”
Alright, so it seems Colonel Yang is hellbent on getting at least one of his questions answered. The young man finally replies with much annoyance. “…Noah. My name.”
“Noah,” the man rolls it off his tongue. “Why did we find you half-dead in a restricted area, Noah?” Yang Rong doesn’t wait for a response before he crosses both of his arms, leaning back to assume a languid, yet predatory posture. “And you do know it is restricted, do you not?”
The younger man meets his eyes and smirks slightly. “I had no idea.”
“The creatures that reside in these alpines are highly lethal and infectious. Executive orders have prohibited entry into such places due to staggering mutation rates. No one, civilians and common military troops included, has been allowed in here for decades.”
The colonel is coming strong with the interrogation. Every sentence he says with emphasis, not like recounting a story, but more like redefining the narrative. He’s manipulative but subtly so, knowing how to speak the right things to get the right reactions.
“This morning, I stumbled upon someone with silver hair and different colored eyes. He also had a bite gash on his shoulder, not from falling off the plateau but from a pterodactyl that he interestingly managed to escape from. I would like to ask…” Their eyes are deadlocked when Yang Rong finishes, “Would this person be a human?”
Noah pushes the glass cup toward the center of the table. “Possibly?”
“It is strange,” Yang Rong muses. “Anomalies that take on human form are usually easy to identify by behavior. You do act human but…”
“You do not look human,” he finishes. The colonel seems to struggle with the right words. “How do I put this – you are too, hm, pretty… or is it ethereal? Like a different organism but not quite like those creatures.”
A loud snort comes from the corner. The gruff-looking soldier who had stayed silent all this while can’t contain himself any longer and guffaws like a madman, hands slapping his own thighs. He gasps out an apology half a minute later – “ha…sorry, sorry for interrupting…haha!” – before dragging himself next to Yang Rong, head dipped low to share a secret.
The elder man switches from English to botched-up Chinese, thick accent and all, and says conspiratorially, “Yang Rong, are you flirting with him or are you interrogating him? I knew he was your type but really…”
“Shut your mouth, Hannes,” the colonel also responds in Chinese but it’s clear, crisp, fluent. “I am not flirting; I am simply saying he is pretty. I can think someone is good-looking without insinuating that I want to fuck them, okay?!”
“You’re not wrong.” Hannes nods in agreement and sends over a lecherous look his way. “He’s a beta? His body is white and slender, like a doll.”
“Do you think omegas roam freely outside the Nexus?” Yang Rong smacks the soldier on the head.
“That’s a shame,” Hannes laments. “I would’ve liked to have a taste of—"
A glass cup comes hurling their way at Mach speed, cutting off the conversation and crashing into the wall behind them. Glass shards avalanche in all directions, startling everyone in the vicinity. If not for his quick reflexes, Hannes would’ve been smashed right in kisser.
Contrary to the flabbergasted faces around him, Noah calmly picks up a large piece of glass. The bottom of the cup had remained miraculously intact. It had ricocheted from the wall to where it is now by the leg of his chair. He holds it in between his slender fingers, raises it up and slowly places it back on the table.
The edge of it is sharp enough to pierce. The young man flicks a pair of harrowing eyes over to the two soldiers. He speaks, dangerously, in fluent Chinese, “Shut up.”
Hannes blinks owlishly at first but regains composure promptly afterward. He speaks in English again. “Just talking outta my ass, kid. I have a foul mouth. We joke around often, so don’t take our words seriously.”
Yang Rong frowns and, knowing the conversation had taken a turn for the worse, tries to mediate. “Noah—"
At this moment, Jae returns with a cotton shirt in his hands. He’s obviously nervous from the way he’s walking, taking hesitant steps toward the young man at the table, avoiding the spills of water and the glass shards on the floor.
“I…found a shirt for you,” Jae says cautiously. “I hope the size is not too big.”
Noah takes it expressionlessly and shrugs it on. His ribs strain at the movement, appearing even more bruised than before. The discoloring is all too obvious on such pale skin. He senses Yang Rong staring at him from the corner of his eye and mentally curses the man out. Sure, Noah takes some of the blame for threatening the latter with a knife, but he was delirious as well as kidnapped. The colonel showed zero mercy back there.
Fortunately, the black shirt covers the bruise nicely. It’s not made of the softest material – he hardly has the energy to nitpick though. His head is hurting again and he’d much rather leave.
“Will you run away?”
Yang Rong leans against the table. He’s just watching him without doing anything. He probably isn’t worried either if Noah tried to leave right now – with these injuries, the young man can only go so far.
“Will you stop me?” he asks back instead.
Yang Rong replies, “I am not allowed to let a potential threat go free.”
He actually despises how weak he is right now. His head throbs in reminder and he frowns, raising a hand to touch the cut on his forehead. It’s bandaged and cleanly wrapped up with gauze, just like his shoulder. Quite the handiwork – whoever’d done it has had years of experience.
He turns and starts heading back to the storage room. Even at this careful pace, Noah staggers in his step.
“I won’t run yet.” His voice comes out lower than usual, a half-whisper. “…A little tired.”
Yang Rong curves his lips. “Alright.”