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[personal profile] drworm
Title: Aquifers
Rating: PG
Summary: When Pendergast runs, sometimes cogs and pinwheels get shaken loose.


He is running.

It is fall in Virginia. The sun is just rising, throwing a warm glow over the dusky grey of early morning, highlighting the red and gold of the dying leaves on the trees and the spindly forms of the branches that have already been laid bare. Off the path, the ground is covered with a layer of dry leaves, which rests atop those that have already been compacted and partially decomposed by rain, forming an ankle-deep carpet through which the green of the summer grass occasionally peeks. Rain from the previous night has created the occasional hazardous mud puddle, and moisture soaks the hard-packed dirt trail to make finding traction and balance a conscious exercise.

He runs past a tree that is cluttered with simply stenciled wooden signs; he has seen them so many times that their bold, simple messages no longer shock or propel him: “Suck it in; hurt; agony; pain; love—it; pride; attitude; respect, loyalty, 110%, I’m being me.” He bypasses the elaborate Yellow Brick Road obstacle course he’ll have to navigate later in the day during his group’s fitness session, running off the well-trampled path and between two large elm trees. With a crackle of leaves swirling around his calves, he leaps over a large fallen branch and lands heavily with his arms outstretched for balance, startling a flock of swallows into taking flight.

He is darting through the trees, running in a jerky, spastic way that is staggeringly different from the steady, thoughtful jog that is taught and practiced at the Academy. The streaks of the passing trees jump hazily in his line of sight as he dodges brambles and dense patches of underbrush. Perspiration drips into his eyes; it stings, but he does not pause to wipe it away. His pale skin and hair flash, ghost-like, through the gaps between the foliage, while his dark trainee t-shirt absorbs the scant amount of light, stealing it away from the eye.

He is running with the wind behind him and the rising sun on his left. He is running as if he is being chased.

There are secret pockets in every person’s subconscious, self-contained sinkholes where hated memories, fears, fantasies, and long-absorbed feelings too distasteful to be expressed come to either fester or atrophy. He can feel his own memories, squeezed tight beneath the veneer of culture and social graces, education and haughtiness; they roil and churn every time his heels hit the ground. When he slips on a patch of wet leaves and slides down a shallow embankment, these inner turmoils cartwheel over one another, and he grits his teeth in protest. Running is mindless, it is Zen, and yet when he runs he always feels as if he is picking at a boil that will continue to swell and eventually burst no matter what his efforts.

He regains his balance as he reaches level ground and resumes the tearing, frantic speed he had been at moments before. A lock of hair, white-blond and fine as a child’s, falls across his forehead, and he pushes it back from his face, impatient. The air is cool and dry, far more so than what he is used to. The light breeze pushes insistently at his back, and he can feel it wrapping around his body, drying the sweat on his neck and underneath his arms. He feels the hairs on his forearms rise in protest and he shivers, longing for the heat and humidity of the home he knew in Louisiana—unpleasant though it often was—or even the stifling, solid feel of the air in the jungle.

The nostalgia dissipates as stronger, more sensuous and threatening memories begin to surface: his brother, hunched over one of his journals, writing furiously; the smell of blood in the dim light of dusk in Tanzania; Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”; Helen just before she died, her expression distracted, the sun through the wide, overhanging leaves bestowing a halo upon her; the weight of a rifle in his hands; the sinking feeling of powerlessness in his gut.

No, he does not want to be back in Louisiana, nor does he want to be on the East African plains, hunting human or animal quarry without purpose. He does not want to be in New York or California, he has no need to revisit England, and he is apathetic toward any location with a more tropical climate. He is in Quantico, Virginia because he doesn’t know where he wants to be, and he hopes that the FBI will make his decisions for him, providing the intense personal structure he so desperately needs.

What he wants to do is run, to beat back his mental distress and disorganization with exhaustion and the constant, pounding stress of movement. In these early morning sprints, with half his time spent hurdling over bushes and scaling the occasional deadfall, he covers ground much in the same manner as a frightened deer, long, thin legs pumping wildly as his hands reach out in front to brush low-hanging branches from his path. He runs in isolation, thinks in isolation, remembers in isolation, although he has not removed himself physically from other people. He still walks among them, inexorably swept up by the cult of conformity the FBI offers, dressing in the dark polo shirts and khaki slacks for his classes, feeling uncomfortably bourgeois in his uniform and yet still frustratingly intellectually separate.

He finds that physical distress is more difficult to leave behind than any emotional distress. But he has studied the doctrines of the Stoics along with Buddhist meditation techniques, and so is quite proficient at keeping his mind free of either. And yet, when he runs by himself in the early morning, his mental controls drip away with the fog and the dew; he feels the pain of the stitch in his side, the grating of his knee joints, and the sharp aches in the balls of his feet. Every time his foot hits the ground, pain travels like lightning from his sole to his ankle to his kneecap and thigh and hip, all the way up to the place behind his eyes where it throbs against his heartbeat.

When he emerges from the forest after completing a rough half-circle, he comes out on a track that is parallel to Hogan’s Alley. As he jogs past, his eyes idly scan the empty mock buildings. Everything is exactly as it was the day before. He continues to run, and every step he takes sinks another artesian well deeper into the hidden aquifers of his subconscious.
His tennis shoe skids on a patch of wet grass, his leg jerks out from beneath him, and he sprawls onto his knees as his balance tips forward, thrusting out one hand just as he has been taught not to do. His palm sinks into the soft ground, and he holds his breath for a moment, bowing his head and closing his eyes as he recovers from the shock of the fall. Mud seeps, wet and gritty, over the back of his hand as he curls his fingers into a fist. He shifts his weight back, hunching his shoulders and pulling one knee up close to his chest, and sighs through his nose when he sees the streaks of mud and grass on the bare skin of his calf. When he hugs his knee, he notices black dirt beneath his fingernails and winces.

He lifts his chin, breathing heavily. Nausea bubbles at the back of his throat, and he is glad that he never eats before he runs. When he looks up, he doesn’t see the hazy grey of the dim morning sky, but instead the odd mismatched eyes of his brother staring down at him. He blinks. In his mind, he is nine years old, kneeling in the damp grass and furiously digging a hole for his dead pet, a sleek albino rat that lies beside him, wrapped in a dishtowel that is stained with small drops of blood. Silent tears streak down his cheeks as he jams the metal blade of his trowel into the ground again and again. His brother stands over him, casting his dark shadow over the grave. His expression is placid: vaguely interested, but not sympathetic.

Crybaby,” his brother says, his tone faintly amused.

You’re the one who killed him,” he answers in his high-pitched little-boy drawl, trying to keep his voice steady and free from the choke of tears. But the accusation doesn’t have the desired effect, and that is not surprising. He knows that his brother feeds off of the pain of others.

His brother’s eyes—one a milky blue, the other a more uniform hazel—flicker over him hungrily as he finishes his task and prepares to reconcile himself to the aftermath of his grief. He looks up at his brother, full of hate and fear and righteous indignation. How could you? he thinks but does not say. His brother smiles lazily in return.

He blinks, and the memory begins to dissipate, becoming like the haze of heat over a fire. He is not nine. He is an adult again, kneeling in the mud of Virginia, not Louisiana. He has not seen his brother in years. The mud on his hands and knees feels cool and wet. He feels very cold inside and begins to anticipate the hot shower he will be able to take once he returns to the dormitory. He stands, testing his footing on the soft ground conscientiously before easing back into a brisk trot and then a run. He heads straight for the trainee housing, occasionally checking the area behind him with a rapid glance tossed over one shoulder.

Most of his classmates are just emerging from their sleepy cocoons as he jogs through the halls of the dorm and slips into his room without even a click of the lock to announce his presence, a thief of the early morning. His roommate stands in front of his dresser in a pair of white Jockey shorts, stretching his arms high over his head and yawning. He turns when he hears the creak of the door’s hinges and grins easily, running his fingers through his already messy hair. “Hey, it’s Early Riser!” He frowns. “What happened to you?”

“Fell.”

“You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No.”

“Oh. Okay.” His roommate falls back onto his bed. “But, damn, you look like shit.”

“Thank you.” He moves over to his own dresser and begins to pick out his clothes for the day, handling them cautiously between thumb and forefinger so as to prevent them from becoming stained with the mud that is still on his hands. “We have a lecture this morning?”

“Uh… yeah. And the practical exam with Milford after lunch.”

“Good, good,” he murmurs to himself as he cradles his uniform in the crook of his elbow and steps toward the suite’s shared bathroom.

“Hey!” His roommate calls to him as he opens the bathroom door. “You know, maybe some morning I should try to get myself up early enough to come with you...?”

He stops and turns slowly, fully aware of the pull and stretch of the muscles in his face as he gives a small, calculated social smile, despite the horror that fills him at the idea of such an intrusion into his privacy. He presses his thin lips together tightly as he answers. “Yes. Perhaps you should.” He steps into the empty bathroom and jerks the door shut behind him. “Someday.”


[First posted in April of 2005.]
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