When they finally located her, they’d needed to medicate themselves before they could even enter her room. Abilities like hers, potent as hers, were rare and dangerous as a big drug bust. They’d each taken a dose of high-strength Antaxyl, the hormone regulator. This Unit sent for her were elites, but even these burly men-in-white tip-toed their way across her threshold, not breathing.

She’d known they were coming, of course. Could smell them before they even climbed over the main gates. She just didn’t care. Hadn’t, for months.

The moment they swung back the door all the men staggered backwards, those at the front almost knocked down to their knees. They all felt this heaviness, previously trapped inside the four walls, rushing out and bowling them over like waves of sand. A few men swore; Containment would be a problem. They would have to deal with the neighbours later.

Her room was pitch-black. When they drew back the curtains, there was so much dust on the fabric that it sent a dust cloud flying. The sunlight blinded them all momentarily, but she didn’t even open her eyes. She didn’t need to.

She was skinny, all matted hair and yellowing clothes. There was something fetal and ugly about her, like a chick that had just cracked its way out of its shell, crimson and crumpled.

As they carried her out of the room with gloved hands, her body limp as a sack of meat, there was some sluggishness in their footsteps as they stepped somberly over the dead body in the middle of the living room, even despite the Antaxyl. After the mission, many of the Unit were out for a week on physical fatigue.

The girl was bound, medicated, and sent to the Wellness Centre.

That was where he found her.

She could not smell him. That was the first thing that pierced through the darkness that hung onto her skin, in the air all around her. It piqued her interest. She opened her eyes, wincing at the effort as her eyelashes came unstuck, and light directly hit her irises for the first time in a while.

She spoke. Or tried to. At first it was just air rattling through stiff vocal chords. When she finally talked, it came out raspy.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Lucas,” the boy said. In the bleached-white cell the brown of his skin splashed colour in the room, gave her eyes something to focus on. It was… different.

“Why can’t I smell you?”

“Have you eaten?” He sat down in front of her, cross-legged like her, and reached into his bag. She recoiled instinctively, but when he drew his hand out it was just a fist-sized piece of bread.

“I thought they gave up trying to make me eat. I have an IV for that,” she said, pointing at the medical equipment next to her bed. The needle always stung on its way in, but she didn’t mind it much. It had been a while since anything had. Since anything had bothered her enough for her to do something about it. The darkness was… everything, and it rarely parted. This was the first time in months that her curiosity was lit brightly enough for her to see through it, even a little. She was going to make it count.

She observed him. His face was smooth, not in that stretched and taut way that people usually looked around her, as though trying to hide something, but relaxed, like a piece of paper laid perfectly flat on a table. When he stared back, the black of his irises held so steady she felt like she was staring down the barrel of a gun. He didn’t blink until her own eyes watered so much she had to. So this boy was unnaturally calm, and won staring competitions.

She continued her silent examination of him, following the outline of his slim build, the way his shirt hung off his bones, the way he sat perfectly upright, like he was just a paper cut-out of a boy. How strange. How intriguing.

“Did they give you something stronger than Antaxyl? How did you hide your smell?”

“Eat, and I’ll tell you.” He reached the bread, wrapped in plastic, out to her again.

She took it, the plastic crinkling around her fingers. The bread was soft and spongy under her teeth, and sweet on her tongue. The darkness seemed to lighten just a little at that. She chewed one bite and swallowed.

“Now tell me,” she said.

“They didn’t give me anything,” he said, still not blinking.

“You’re lying.”

“You would know if I was.”

She closed her eyes, concentrating on finding his smell… and gasped. There was nothing. If he had taken pills, she would still have smelt it, masked by something else. But this was the smell of emptiness. Of vacuum.

She considered all the possibilities. For a minute she was convinced he was a hallucination. It wasn’t likely, but this situation, in itself, wasn’t very likely at all. Finally, she opened her mouth, eyes hard, mouth set.

“You’re suicidal.” It was a statement, leaving no room for debate, only confirmation.

He was silent. Cocked his head exactly forty-five degrees to the side. Little, perfect, paper boy.

“No, you are,” he said, and smiled for the first time.

Trying to dig into his emotions was like trying to break open a pebble. It was perfectly smooth, hard, and impenetrable. In the sea of her emotions, he was completely unperturbed, a funny little stone she could squeeze tight within her fist without worrying that it would burst. She could scream and cry and shout at him, and he didn’t even flinch.

He didn’t bring light into the darkness. No, the only person who had ever done that was her dad. But Lucas, he was… here. All the way down here, underground, in this deep and dark well of unmoving water, where no one else ever dared or could ever come down to. They threw him in like a pebble, and he sank down, perfectly straight, taking the shortest path, all the way until he landed right at her feet.

He came every Thursday with a bag full of bread.

“They call you a psychopath,” she said, trying to rile him up for the sixty-second time. He hadn’t ever cracked before, but it didn’t stop her from trying. She was keeping track of each time she tried. It gave her something to look forward to, and to mark the days. After floating in that timeless void of darkness for a while, his visits were giving her a renewed sense of the passage of time. Like a flash of colour every few pages, or a note every few beats. A rhythm.

“Do you think they’re right?” he asked, taking a bite of his own piece of bread. This time he’d brought sausage buns. They were saltier than she was used to.

“It makes sense. They always told me my Ability is a kind of reverse-empathy. Like my emotions can grab hold of other people’s and change them. If I can’t with yours, it means you can’t feel my emotions. Or anyone else’s.”

She bit into her bun, letting the smoky salt of the sausage meat and the faint sweetness of the bread dance on her tongue.

“Does that scare you?” he asked, his voice that characteristically mixed tone of slight boredom, slight amusement. Everything about him was slight. Diluted. She rarely read him well.

She held his gaze for a minute, wondering whether she was still capable of feeling fear. The little pricks of anxiety still ran across her skin from time to time, but they were almost always crushed by the darkness. It was hard to feel anything when there was a thick layer of snow smothering and muffling it all. Sometimes it helped, like with the fear. But it flattened everything, and she was beginning to get tired of the sameness of it all.

Scared of him? Maybe at first. But his unfeelingness was now more comforting than anything else. All along she had been supposed to feel other people’s feelings, fix them, make them feel better. It was her gift, her dad said. One she never wanted.

She didn’t have to do any of that with him.

“No,” she said, “you intrigue me.”

“Well,” he said, “you do too.”

“We’re doing something different today,” he said as he entered her cell.

“They’re tired of you feeding me bread like a pigeon?” she said, throwing a paper ball at his head. He ducked, blinking, and he frowned for the first time. Anger. That was new. She was going to write it down after he left. 152nd Try. Success. Anger. She watched his face smoothen back into place.

“Do that again and you’ll regret it,” he said, the fluorescent lights casting sharp shadows on his face, but his voice calm.

“What will you do?” she said, wanting to see how far she could push him. Whether she could break the pebble.

He studied her carefully. From this distance, she couldn’t quite make out the tone of his gaze. She thought about the ants he would look at through his magnifying glass, and then focus the sunlight on until they singed and stopped writhing and filled the cell with a faint bitter odour. She felt like he was looking at her through a magnifying glass. The tendrils of fear finally awoke and pushed through the sleepy darkened soil to squeeze around her heart. She felt the blood pulsing in her eardrums, her heart racing in its cage. It felt new. It felt exciting.

When he finally spoke, it was quiet. Casual.

“I’ll stop coming.”

The lightness of his tone did nothing to mute the panic that spiked through her veins. His visits were the one thing helping her keep the darkness at bay. She knew that he knew that. He knew so much about her, and especially what she was afraid of. It was the first time someone had bothered to get to know her so well. For years it had been the other way around. It was both unnerving and a relief.

“Sorry. I won’t do it again,” she said.

He looked at her with that strange, unblinking gaze.

“I know you won’t,” he said.

He walked closer and put his bag down, his expression already back to normal.

“Today they want me to try something new. How comfortable are you with physical contact?”

She instinctively wrinkled her nose. With other people, touching had always meant a stronger sense of their emotions, and usually heightened the pain they inflicted on her before she fixed them up. The only person she didn’t mind touching was her dad, but that was before…

“They’ll let me come more often if I show that we’re making progress,” he said, having registered her disgust.

“How often?” she asked immediately, ready to haggle.

“That depends on how well we do today. Best I can negotiate is probably… once every five days.”

“Make that three.”

“I can’t promise that,” he said, sighing.

She smiled because she knew she had already won. He’d lied.

“You know you can. You know exactly how to play them,” she said. “Once every three days or we don’t touch at all.”

He sneered, clearly disliking that she could call his bluff, but not bothering to hide it. He never bothered to hide it, with her. He knew she didn’t care.

“It’s good for you too, okay? You get the money. I get to kill the boredom. Win-win,” she said.

He glared at her. “Fine. But only because I get to kill the boredom too.”

She smiled back at his glare. It was like staring into the sun, letting it burn her retinas. It hurt, but she’d always wanted to see how it looked like.

“Let’s start with the hands. Come here,” he said, opening his palms and offering them to her.