It shouldn't have bothered him.
Cole grabbed a blade of grass and absent-mindedly pulled it apart.
He was sitting on the lawn in front of his house. The sun was burning at its highest peak and the stillness of summer kept his mouth parched. He held a flask in his hands- twirling the contents before deciding to quench his thirst. He glanced at his watch again, annoyed that his last days of freedom had no urgency in his friend's mind.
Twenty minutes late, he thought to himself as he heard the heavy breathing and light footsteps head his way.
Cole got up and patted the dirt off his pants, doing his best to compose his impatience. He squinted towards the direction of the noise and felt his annoyance leave as he saw his friend arriving.
"Sorry about that," Alex huffed, his face red and damp, "You know Gallagher's street? That was not the move."
Cole grinned at his friend's inconvenience and gave him a light pat on the back.
"It must be so hard being part of the Core," Cole teased as he grabbed his backpack, "Hurry up - we're running late now."
The two made their way past the broken streets and empty alleyways that they grew up in. They were headed towards the trees.
Cole would never venture in the Night Forest without Alex. After all, Alex was braver and stronger. He had begun training in combat when he was 11. Pulled from the rest of them, when the scientists realized that some genes were immune to the transformation. Some blood was better. They said you're either born with it or you're not. Cole was not. He didn't need to be reminded of it though. He spent many restless nights reliving how the Break turned his parents into vile, disfigured versions of themselves. Hungry for blood with their muscles awkward and bulging, veins bursting against their sickly skin. They didn't even recognize their only son, their black eyes fixated on the blood pumping through him.
When the Breakout started Cole and Alex were only kids. Now they would soon reach their 18th birthday, and Cole was old enough to enlist in the war against the Beasts. Alex would stay. He, and those like him, had the potential to harness an antidote.
They came across a path marked with their own secret symbols. They followed it along, shaded from the sun and all its creatures. Cole and Alex faced a cave they had discovered a few years ago. The duos' hidden lair.
"So, what exactly are we running late for?" Alex scrubbed at the dried dirt on his face.
That's all Cole said as he led the way, taking note of the turns as they walked deeper into the dark. Finally, they arrived at their makeshift lounge. It was a modest space. Barely a room wide and surrounded by solid rock. A few camp chairs, stone fire pit, and lanterns had made this hollow abyss feel less daunting.
Cole finished lighting up the space. The flame flickered across his face as he stood.
The sound of embers echoed.
Alex had sat on one of the chairs, staring at the warmth. A few moments passed between the two friends. At last, Cole broke the silence.
"Do you remember Tessa?"
Alex thought for a minute.
"I haven't heard of her since she joined the Formation."
"Hmm," Cole kept his eyes on the fire, "She's been keeping busy. They're on to something."
Alex furrowed his eyebrows, "What kind of something?"
"Not a cure," Cole spoke quietly, "But a weapon."
He watched the fire dance.
"Something that’ll give me a chance," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"I have something to offer now - I can be like you."
Alex looked at Cole, "What are you talking about?"
"She gave it to me the other day, but I was waiting to tell you." He kept his voice low, his eyes darkening against the light, "You know, they've been hiding it for years now. But it works. And it's powerful. Powerful enough that you'll be able to have all their strength but keep your mind."
"Don't look at me like that," Cole scoffed, "This was my only option."
Alex grabbed Cole's arm, "What did you do?"
Cole said nothing for a minute.
Alex held both arms, gripping tighter as he faced Cole.
"What else was there to do? Wait for the Core?"
Alex didn't realize they were both standing.
Alex's eyes widened, "Does it use their blood - like us?"
"You think they're using your blood for anything?" Cole spat, "There is no cure. There is no saving me. Or the rest of us.”
He tore away from Alex's grip. He took something out from his bag and flung it on the floor. The flask echoed in the empty space.
"The Break is in my blood now. Just as much as the cure is in yours."
He would never understand. Alex was part of the Core. He didn't have to worry about his next meal or keeping guard at night or turning into one of the Beasts. He would always be special and protected and wanted. No one would remember Cole.
"There is nothing," Cole repeated as his face began to pale and his limbs drooped, "There is nothing for me."
Alex's eyes were filled with emotion. But it was the anger that surprised Cole.
"Nothing? What about me? Aren’t we brothers? You idiot," Alex steadied his breathing as he pulled up his sleeve. His slender arms revealed countless scars and stiches, some faded into white streaks while the fresher ones glistened red.
Cole stiffened; black lines began to trace his body.
"You think I don’t know? Every night, they cut me open and they sew me back. They’re desperate at this point. I know it's hopeless. They know it's hopeless. They have tried everything. At this point, I'm just something to keep the hysteria from taking over," Alex's glare softened. He watched as Cole's arm shivered, his fingers extending slowly.
Cole stared at Alex’s arm.
"You think I want this? I'd rather fight with you - be like you. I wish it was never me. I wanted to leave. I was going to tell you on your birthday - that we can leave together, I- I didn't know."
Cole was breathing heavy now. The air felt hot and thick.
"I'll be stronger," he spoke between breaths.
It was a slow transformation; Cole's body shook violently, and his spine curved upward before it expanded a few inches. His skin ripped at the elbows, exposing white bone that lengthened in a quick burst. He let out a terrible sound as he let the Break spread.
Alex stepped back, feeling his grip on Cole weakening.
"I wish I was like you," Cole said softly. His veins settled in like ink on a canvas. He leaned his head against the cave's rough stones. The only noise that echoed was his flesh as it began to tear and take shape. He was getting harder to recognize.
"You are like me," Alex assured, "We're brothers."
"You better leave," he closed his eyes. They whites had already turned a dark black.
"She never told me what the side effects are."
Alex hesitated. With Cole taking up most of the space in the room, it seemed smaller than before. He found himself close to the entrance, eyes still on his shape-shifting human. Alex grabbed the flask and held it tightly.
"I'll find you," Alex promised, "We'll fix this."
Alex took a mental photo of his best friend. At the skin stretched and boney. It looked translucent as the black blood raced through his massive body. His figure at least three feet taller, wider.
As he navigated the twists of the cave and dangerous of the darkness, Alex didn't know if it was the beating of his heart or the shaking of the walls that echoed all around him.