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A Kidnapping is the Worst Way to Die (So, Let's Not)

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They didn’t seem to know who Riou was. If they had known, they probably wouldn’t have gone through with this nonsense. Or they would have at least taken a moment to reconsider when they saw Flik- Riou, the leader of the State Army and Flik the Blue Lightning together sounded more intimidating than they really were. Unfortunately, reputation can only deter someone from doing something bad to you if they know that you’re the person they’ve heard about.

Panting, Flik couldn’t help himself. He spat in the face of the ringleader, who had just finished backhand slapping him. It was insulting and that was the point. Whoever this guy was wanted to look and feel big and it was just condescending to slap your prisoner when you could be pummeling him or worse. Flik’s pride was already chafing before the slap, but the slap pushed him over the edge.

Nanami gasped at the sight. The kid apparently didn’t know him as well as she thought she did. Flik knew he was hotheaded. His temper had cooled a bit over the past several years, but deep down, he was still the same hot-headed, thick-skulled fool that thought he could go up against the Imperial Army and win.

The hands that were holding him in place on his knees tightened painfully on his shoulders as the ringleader glared down at him. Flik glared back, straightening his back as much as he could.

“This is a mistake-” Flik began, determined to take advantage of the moment he had earned with his spit, but his sentence was cut off by a fist slamming into his face.

“Flik! No, you have to stop!” Nanami shouted.

“Shut up!” The ringleader shouted before punching Flik in the face again; Nanami fell silent.

With his head spinning and his nose throbbing, Flik lowered his head just a moment to spit out a mouthful of blood. He raised his gaze again to focus on this imbecile with the darkest glare he could muster.

“Is that the best you can do?” Flik heard himself saying before common sense could kick in and save him some pain.

“You got a death wish, pretty boy?” The ringleader growled, grabbing Flik by the collar and leaning into his face. “Go ahead and spit on me again. I’ll cut out the girl’s tongue.”

Flik’s muscles tensed and his hands curled into hard fists. “Threatening a teenage girl isn’t a very manly look. It’s one thing to beat me, but another to hurt those kids.”

“Your attitude is grating on my nerves.” The man snarled. “We don’t usually go out of our way to torture the people we rob, but there’s just something about you that I hate. So uppity, so… Proud. I’ll break you down into nothing. Watch and see.”

“Do your worst. I’m not afraid of you.” Flik declared.

“Flik, you shouldn’t…” Riou interjected before trailing off as the ringleader shot him and Nanami a dark glare.

“I’ll be fine,” Flik answered, drawing the man’s attention back to him and away from the teenagers. “You were saying?”

The ringleader made an upward motion with a single finger at the men holding Flik on the ground. They pulled him up into a standing position and tightened their grip on his arms. Flik glanced at his captors from the corners of his eyes; this was a good development. He could kick one or both of their legs out from beneath them and break free. That would still leave the issue of his hands being tied behind his back, but he could figure that out once he was able to get these goons off him. He could hear Viktor in the back of his head asking him if not having a plan was really his plan here. He could have contemplated his other options if a fist hadn’t buried itself in his solar plexus.

The strike knocked all the air completely out of his lungs and sent agony flying through him. This guy wasn’t going to pull his punches, apparently. He was starting hard and Flik had the briefest moment in which he fretted that maybe he was in more trouble than he had realized. His temper had definitely made this situation worse. The first strike was followed by several more after Flik regained his breath. The man didn’t strike his solar plexus again, but he didn’t need to do that again, not with the abuse he was hurling on Flik at the moment. He gritted his teeth and refused to allow himself to shout or scream in pain. He wouldn’t give this clown the satisfaction!

Flik heard Nanami shouting again and there were sounds of a struggle somewhere to his right where the teens were kneeling. Flik wanted to be concerned, but his nerves were screaming in agony and the pain drowned out most conscious thought and his senses. The fist collided with his unarmored chest with even more force than the blows that had come before it and Flik heard the crack of a bone- one of his ribs if he had to guess- before he felt the fire of agony turn into a raging inferno. One of his ribs was definitely broken. Not bruised. Broken.

The sound he made was humiliating, but he almost couldn’t register the embarrassment over the pain. The hands that were holding him up released him and his legs buckled in protest against the abuse the rest of his body was enduring. He collapsed and fell to his side with a pained gasp.

The ringleader seemed to have lost interest in him. He walked over to the teenagers, who were torn between looking up at him or down at Flik. The man started manhandling Riou roughly, digging around in the teen’s pockets. He seemed to be becoming agitated when he saw that Riou hadn’t been keeping some ridiculous sum of money in his pocket rather than the pack which had previously dumped out on the ground.

“Hey…” Flik wheezed too softly to be heard.

The ringleader was demanding that Nanami and Riou produce something of value and both teenagers flinched under his insults and shouting as the man grew angrier and angrier.

“Hey!” Flik shouted, wanting to sound strong and intimidating, but his voice cracked with pain as the effort of shouting made his chest ache even worse. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m talking to you, you glorified pickpocket! You’re finished with me already?”

“Flik, no…” Nanami squeaked but spoke much more softly than she had been earlier.

The man turned to face Flik, who had closed his eyes to try to suppress the pain that he was drowning in. As he started to approach Flik again, Riou spoke up desperately, but calmly.

“Wait!” Riou paused long enough for the man to turn and face him. “My name is Riou. I’m the leader of the-”

“Riou, no-” Flik interjected.

“-State Army. We didn’t carry anything of real value on us other than our weapons and armor. But the chief strategist, Lord Shu, will pay anything you ask to have all three of us returned safely.”

The man looked skeptical but glanced at Flik, who had grown quiet quite suddenly. “Leader of the State army, huh? Prove it.”

“I can’t, not unless you take us to North Window where people will recognize us.”

“Are you expecting me to just let you go just because you’re supposedly that hero kid people have been talking about? That isn’t happening. We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make a profit here and we’re not just going to let you go because some Highlander kid decided he wanted to play hero.”

“You’ll get anything you want- but only if we are all alive when you make the deal and all released at the same time. I will guarantee it.”

“Who is this prick to you?” The ringleader gestured at Flik.

“My friend,” Riou answered calmly. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t hurt him anymore.”

“You’re in no position to make demands, Hero.” The ringleader stated before turning on his heels and kicking Flik in the gut. “I don’t think your friend learned his lesson yet.”
“If you kill him, you won’t see a single potch! You will get nothing!” Riou declared assertively.

“R-Ri-” Flik gasped for breath as he tried to speak. “Hu-sh… Don’t be stupid. Don’t take away the only incentive he has to let you go at all.” His voice was barely more than a breathless gasp, but he was able to make himself heard by those closest to him- barely.

“Ah, now he’s grown some brain cells!” The ringleader chirruped. “See? All that took was a little reminder to put him in his place.”

Flik started to retort but slammed his mouth shut before he could say anything stupid. The ringleader chuckled at him, earning a defiant glare from the warrior. The man paced around thoughtfully. It seemed to take the man forever to come to a decision.

“Fine. You say this Shu person will give me whatever I want? He will probably be wanting proof that we have you at all. I’m not stupid enough to march into the headquarters of an army with their leader as a hostage. I’m not suicidal, either. So we will come up with a different way to prove that we have you.”

The man turned to look at Flik again and crossed the short distance between them. He knelt beside Flik, who watched him warily. The man jerked Flik’s bandana off his head, earning an annoyed growl from the warrior. He then rubbed the bandana against Flik’s face, wiping the partially dried blood off.

The man then ripped Riou’s scarf off his shoulders, ordering one of his cronies to bring him some paper and a quill. Flik relaxed into the dirt he was laying in; there was no point in making this more uncomfortable for himself. At the moment, he was out of options. Riou had bought him some time to reevaluate his approach and plan out his next attempt; the kid was sweet, but there was no way they were all getting out of this alive. Flik was all for dying for a good cause, but being murdered by run-of-the-mill thieves was not a sufficiently good enough cause for him to be satisfied with. As it was, he was the most likely to be murdered and that was his intention- it was his job to protect Riou and Nanami, even if they might balk at the idea of being protected. He would rather them kill him than the teens, but he would also rather not die personally.

His reverie was interrupted by the ringleader’s shadow looming over him. His muscles tensed involuntarily- a force of habit which he had painstakingly instilled in himself over the years, but at this moment, it made him look weak and frightened. His grit his teeth together and glared up at the man, who was holding a wicked looking dagger in one hand and Riou’s scarf in the other. Part of Flik groaned inwardly about how unfair that was. Hadn’t they gotten enough blood already? His bloodied headwear would be enough to draw concern and if nothing else, Viktor would insist that it was his headband and demand that Shu take action.

“Cut me with that and I will kill you in your sleep.” Flik snarled.

“Maybe he didn’t learn his lesson after all.” The ringleader snarled back with a sadistic glint in his gaze. “It was only going to be a teensy cut this time, but now I think something more drastic is in order. You’ll kill me in my sleep, Toranite?” There was a brief flicker of surprise in Flik’s face that he had been unable to suppress. “Yeah. You’re no Highlander or Harmonian and you sure as hell aren’t from Jowston. That doesn’t leave a lot of options. But there is a rumor about some war hero from Toran fighting for Jowston against Highland. If this is Riou, the leader of the Jowston Army, then you must be that guy. I bet it makes you feel all righteous to judge me for being a petty thief when you’ve toppled an empire.”

“I don’t hold being a petty thief against you,” Flik said. “Some of our best fighters in the Liberation Army were thieves and bandits. More than once, I helped steal supplies from the Imperials- that’s how a rebellion works. You fight and you survive and you take what advantages you can away from your enemy.”

The ringleader had a dangerous, but curious expression on his face. Flik had a captive audience and he was going to enjoy it as long as he could before that knife buried itself somewhere in his person. Flik hoped it wasn’t going to be somewhere that would kill him.

“No, I judge you for not giving enough of a damn about your own country to release people fighting for your freedom and your very survival. Do you think Luca Blight will spare you because you’re some unimportant flea of a bandit? No, he won’t stop until he’s burned all of Jowston to the ground and killed all of us. But you’re too stupid to see past the chance to make a quick buck-”

It had taken the man longer than Flik had anticipated for him to bring the knife down into his shoulder on his dominant side. Flik had started to hope that maybe his accusations were going to make an impact on this guy after all. Maybe this sadist had intended to make Flik feel that fleeting moment of hope in some sort of psychological warfare.

He forced himself to speak immediately following the yelp that escaped his throat as the knife hit him. “Did you know that at the beginning of the Liberation War, Lady Odessa and Commander Tir McDohl were poisoned by bandits in the mountains? This was before our forces numbered anything higher than twenty or thirty fools dissatisfied with the way things were. The minute those bandits realized who Lady Odessa was, they let all of them go immediately and returned all of their belongings because they knew Odessa was fighting for them. They even joined our army later.”

“So, you want me to join your little army, mister revolutionary?”

Flik let out a bark of a laugh. “You wouldn’t last a day.”

The ringleader bent over and pressed Riou’s scarf into his bloodied shoulder. To make it even more unpleasant, he pressed his fingers through the scarf into the wound. Flik hissed in pain, but that did nothing to alleviate the discomfort.

“Are you done talking now, revolutionary?”

Flik glared daggers at the man but said nothing. He needed to take a break from poking this bear if he was going to have any chance of being rescued by his bear. Besides, he had managed to keep Riou and Nanami from being hurt any worse than they already have been and this guy was pretty pissed with him. Flik figured that if any further abuse was going to come, he would be taking the brunt of it. Better him than them.

Ringleader was ordering Nanami and Riou to stand and the men standing guard behind them kept a sharp eye on both teens. Flik watched for some sort of opening to do something, anything, to help them escape. Ringleader was turning to face him and one of Riou’s tonfas was in his hand. Flik tested the ropes tying his wrists together, but they wouldn’t budge. He did not want to get hit with that. Fists and boots were bad enough, but a big chunk of wood like that? It would do serious damage- which is presumably why it was such an effective weapon. His breath caught in his lungs as he laid there.

The man quickened his pace and spun the weapon once and then twice as if testing its balance. Then, he made eye contact with Flik before he walked around behind him. Flik’s heart was racing. This was going to hurt.

He was mistaken. It didn’t hurt. It was like a flash of blinding light followed by darkness. When he came to later, it was like wading through mud. His head throbbed and he had been draped across the back of a horse, which was being led somewhere by one of their assailants. He slipped in and out of consciousness several times, but he had no idea how much time had passed between each bout of wakefulness.

The final time he came to, they were in a room that was dimly lit by a couple of candles with all the windows tightly shuttered to block off most of the natural light from the sun. His back was pressed uncomfortably tightly against the bed frame at the foot of a bed. Riou and Nanami were to his left. The teenagers were tied together, back to back, and their ankles were bound like his. That honestly felt like overkill to Flik. He was wounded and the teenagers looked pretty scared. It wasn’t like they were dangerous without their weapons in a fair fight.

“Flik, are you okay?” Nanami whispered.

“I’ll be fine,” Flik felt a pang of worry rise up in his gut when he realized that his words had slurred together. The others seemed to notice it, too. He paused and then carefully enunciated. “I’ll be fine. What about you two?”

“We’re fine,” Riou answered. “They hit your head pretty hard. Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah,” Flik answered briefly before trying to shift into a more comfortable position. “Damn…” He muttered. No position that he could shift into was comfortable at all. If nothing else, he had made the pain worse.

Riou and Nanami started squirming, Flik noted whilst watching them through the corner of his eye. They were trying to work the ropes loose. Good kids. That was smart. They were alone for now, so this could be their best bet for escape.

“Wait, wait, Riou!” Nanami whispered. “I can feel your hands. Let me try to get the ropes off your wrists and then you can do mine.”

Flik couldn’t help the swell of pride that filled his chest. They were both more than just fighters; they were smart, too. Minutes passed as the teens worked to free their hands. Nanami hissed triumphantly as she managed to loosen the coil of rope around Riou’s wrists enough for him to pull them free. They were still tied back to back, but they were one step closer to freedom. Riou started working on Nanami’s wrists. Flik, unfortunately, was having more difficulty getting his wrists loose than the teens. He didn’t have another set of hands to help loosen the knots and every attempt he made at wriggling his wrists free ignited a fresh wave of pain that flooded through his shoulder, back and chest. He sighed wearily and sagged against the bedpost, watching the teens work. Something hot and wet streaked down his chest and Flik knew he had reopened the wound.

“It’s okay, Flik! We’ll untie you once we’re finished!” Nanami whispered enthusiastically.

“Okay,” Flik answered weakly.

The silence in the room was broken by a key being slid into the lock on the door and turning. Nanami and Riou frantically hid the ropes between them in an attempt to keep their abductors from discovering the progress they had made.

Three of the original six thieves entered the room and each one scanned the room to make sure their hostages were behaving themselves. Ringleader walked deeper into the room, scanning the hostages a moment and then speaking.

“If Rolf doesn’t make it back by sundown, we’ll deliver the Toranite’s head to North Window by dawn.”

Flik sighed. That’s how it was going to be, then. He didn’t really expect anything better, but he had hoped that these people would be too stupid to include such a threat in their hostage negotiations.

“If you let us go now, I’ll guarantee that Rolf will be allowed to leave the city unharmed.” Riou tried negotiating again.

“No dice, kid. Your strategist will play ball or we’ll kill all three of you, one by one. If it comes down to it, would you rather die before or after the pretty little lady?”

“Leave them alone,” Flik ordered with the sternest and most authoritative voice he could muster. “Shu will pay for their safe return. If your friend doesn’t come back and you deliver him my head, Shu will pay what you ask for their freedom. There’s no point in frightening them any more than necessary. Or is that something else that makes you feel like more of a man?”

“You are exhausting,” Ringleader declared, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket.

Flik took a moment to be amused by the image of this petty thief carrying a dainty handkerchief around. The moment didn’t last long, though. The ringleader pried his mouth open and shoved the cloth into his mouth and wrapped it around the back of his head where he tied it in a tight knot.

“Much better, don’t you agree?” He asked Riou, who said nothing in return. “Now, let’s settle down and wait for Rolf to come back.” He chirped.

“Um, um…” Nanami began nervously, earning a sideways glance from the ringleader. “I’m sorry. But um… I need to go.” The man’s eyes narrowed at her and she started squirming. “I need to pee.” She whispered with a faint flush in her cheeks.

The ringleader sighed loudly. “Hold it.”

“I can’t.” Nanami insisted.

“Take her out to piss, Miles.” Ringleader grumbled.

The goon walked over to the pair and untied her ankles first. Then, he untied the rope that was wrapped around the pair. He realized after the ropes fell loose on the teens’ laps that Riou and Nanami’s hands were both already untied. It was too late to reverse course then. Nanami punched him in the groin and kicked his legs out from beneath him while Riou frantically untied his ankles. He jumped up as Nanami swiped a knife from the fallen thief’s belt. He balled his hands into fists and lunged at the nearest man.

The second goon struggled with Riou, trying to overpower the boy, but he was too fast to catch and pin down. The first goon was regaining his feet and Nanami braced herself to fight for her life with the knife. Flik tried to work his wrists free again, but the knots were too tightly tied. All he managed to do was give himself rope burn and send fresh waves of agony through his shoulder and chest.

Riou downed the goon he was fighting and Nanami had managed to cut the man that had untied her with the knife, but it was mostly superficial. Riou grabbed his goon’s sword and made to stab the man.

“Stop!” The ringleader commanded and Flik felt the sharp kiss of a knife against his throat. His chest constricted and fear reared its ugly head. Was this the end? This was a terrible way to die! There was no honor in getting your throat slit!

Riou had frozen in place, both hands on the hilt of the sword as Nanami backed away from the goon she had been fighting with. The ringleader made a satisfied sound before he motioned for Riou to back away from the man he had downed. Riou complied reluctantly.

“Not too shabby.” The ringleader hummed. “You’re survivors, alright. But you’re both going to drop the weapons you’ve borrowed and you’re going to sit down, back to back, again.” Neither teen moved a muscle. “Your friend really wants you to do as I say.” He warned, pressing the knife harder against Flik’s throat.

Flik shook his head slightly, not enough to cut himself on the knife, but enough to be seen. He willed them to understand what he wanted. They had to escape. There was no way that these people were going to release them once they got their hands on the ransom money. They would all be killed and dumped in a ditch somewhere. Riou couldn’t die here, even if it meant Flik had to die to buy his survival.

Riou’s eyes flicked from the ringleader to Flik’s face to the knife against Flik’s throat and back again. He seemed to be calculating his chances and running through different plans of attack. After the briefest of moments, Riou dropped the sword and kicked it aside. He avoided making eye contact with Flik, who avoided making eye contact with him in return. Nanami sighed and dropped the knife.

The man Riou had attacked was back on his feet now. He balled his fist in Riou’s hair and shoved him down to his knees. Riou yelped when several painful punches and kicks knocked him the rest of the way down to the floor on his stomach. Flik strained against the ropes, but they wouldn’t give. He wrenched his eyes shut and tried not to listen to the sounds of fists pounding into flesh. Nanami was shouting and Flik could hear the sounds of the girl fighting with the goon that was keeping her from helping Riou.

A hard hand roughly patted Flik on the head before its fingers wrapped in his hair and pulled his head up. Flik opened his eyes to look up at Ringleader. The ringleader was grinning at him.

“Thanks for your help! Might have had a little difficulty there, if it hadn’t been for you.”

It was a mind game and Flik knew it, but… The man was right. He had been a burden on these kids. It was his fault they were in this mess in the first place- he wasn’t strong enough or fast enough to drive off their assailants when they were attacked and now he wasn’t even able to speak or move to attempt to defend them. Guilt filled his gut as he was informed that these kids could have made it out just fine on their own if he hadn’t been there. He was helpless and the kids knew it. Everyone in this room knew how helpless he was. It made his pride chafe. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end!

The man released Flik’s hair and walked over to the window, which he opened to take a look outside. Flik ignored him and watched the others tie Nanami and Riou up again. This time, they were placed in opposite corners of the room. Nanami was now positioned in a corner where Flik could no longer see her in the position he was in.
Flik wriggled his wrists again, even though the action hurt more and more with each attempt to pry his hands free from his bonds. He ignored the fire that the motions sent running up through his shoulder.

After a while, he gave up, letting his head rest against the post. The sun was starting to set and Flik realized that he was running out of time. A fleeting glance at Riou’s worry stricken expression was enough to tell him that the kid understood it, too. He wished he could say something to reassure Riou or to distract the ringleader a bit so he could earn himself a little more time, just in case rescue was on its way.

“The sun’s going down,” the ringleader sounded disappointed. “Guess Rolf isn’t going to make it back. It’s a shame, but now I’m going to have to kill a war hero. Mm, but it’s not entirely my fault. The war hero should have stayed home and minded his own business. Then, he wouldn’t be in this mess at all.”

He left the window open. The setting sun’s orange rays cast their shadow on Flik. He gulped past the lump of fear that had formed in his throat. He wouldn’t beg. He wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of believing that they had broken him.

“So, Riou, wasn’t it?” The ringleader started. “What do you think? Fast or slow?”

Flik gave their captor an alarmed look; this was beyond sadistic! Making the poor kid decide how they were going to kill his friend? Unimaginable! Riou said nothing at all. Flik didn’t dare look at the kid. It had to be hard; Riou didn’t deserve to be in a position like this and Riou didn’t deserve to watch something like this, let alone make a decision about how to proceed!

“No opinion, then?” The ringleader sounded disappointed again.

“Don’t,” Riou stated.

“Don’t kill him?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t one of the options, kid. What about you, girl?”

Nanami sounded like she was on the verge of tears. “You don’t have to do it. Maybe your friend is just running a little late! He’ll be here soon, I’m sure!”

“Well, isn’t that sweet? These kids really like you, Toranite. That’s so nice. At least you’ll be remembered when you’re gone, right?” He patted Flik’s cheek gently, almost affectionately.

The man climbed onto the back of the bed behind Flik and his bedpost. “So, I’ve decided on slow, since the little girl wants to wait for Rolf to get back. Who knows? You might get lucky, pretty boy. Maybe he’ll come rushing in the door with some bags full of gold and we’ll be dropping you off where your fellow soldiers can find you and take you home in no time.”

Flik breathed deliberately slowly. He refused to panic or show fear. He fixed his gaze on the doorknob and waited, teeth clenched over the rag in his mouth. The ringleader seemed content to make him wait, which only made the anticipation much worse and allowed his imagination to run wild about all the different ways that you could kill a man. A length of rope descended in front of his face and then hugged his neck lightly. His heart skipped a beat; strangulation sounded awful. Traitors had been hung by some of the imperials, but it wasn’t as common as other methods of death, such as being stabbed or beheaded. Flik had watched one person be hung in the courtyard of a small town and it had haunted his dreams for weeks afterward.

“Feel that? This is how you’re going to die,” the ringleader informed him as he slowly pulled the rope tighter against Flik’s throat.

Flik was still able to breathe, but his airway was constricted, which made it more difficult. He took the deepest, calmest breaths he could, but after half a minute, it was impossible to draw air in at all. He clenched his eyes shut, not wanting Riou to watch his eyes bulge as he struggled for breath. He tried to sit still, but it was becoming impossible to not squirm. His body moved of its own accord, desperate to draw in just a single breath- a half breath!- of air into his lungs.

He heard the awful gagging and gasping sounds that were escaping his throat with a sort of detachment. Those awful sounds couldn’t possibly be coming from him. His thoughts became muddied and his vision began to blur and fade out. His body felt heavier than lead.

Just as Flik’s body began to sag and relax into unconsciousness, the rope loosened and Flik’s throat opened enough to draw in air. And draw in air he did. Desperately, greedily, he gulped down cool, fresh air between ragged choking coughs. The rag was soaked with saliva, he had a moment to realize, and it made it harder to breathe through his mouth.
The ringleader seemed to take pity on him and pulled the gag out of his mouth to let him catch his breath. No one had entered the room, so Flik was at a loss as to why the man was sparing him in this moment. His lungs didn’t care why they were being allowed to breathe, though, so as his desperate gasping turned into uncomfortable, deep inhales, he wasn’t able to actually ponder why the man had stopped.

Just as Flik had nearly fully regained his breath, the rope tightened against his throat again, this time abruptly tight and painful rather than slow and calculated like before. He writhed and kicked, but nothing he could do could actually help him. His murderer was behind him and out of reach of his bound feet and he couldn’t move his arms from behind his back.

The man seemed to wait longer this time before he released Flik’s throat and patted him on his uninjured shoulder. “You’re a tough one, aren’t you?” He said after Flik started regaining his breath. “I kind of admire you for your restraint. Most folks would sob and beg, but not you.”

Flik couldn’t form sentences. He was too desperate to breathe and get as much air as possible into his lungs so the next session wouldn’t kill him too soon. Even though his current existence was painful and he had no control, he was still alive and he still wanted to stay that way.

The rope hugged his throat again and before he realized what he was saying or where he was or even what he was going to say, his mouth opened and words spilled out. “W-wait-”

The ringleader laughed and tightened the rope around his captive’s throat again and squeezed. Flik was exhausted. He wanted to just lay there and wait for the unconsciousness of death to claim him or for this man to let go of his throat long enough to give him a breath of air. He was so tired, but his body still jerked and struggled. He wanted to sleep, but his body screamed and shouted for air, even just a single breath!

Nanami was sobbing and begging for them to stop. Riou was shouting, too, but Flik couldn’t make out much of what either of them was saying. He only knew pain and breathlessness and desperation to survive and the vaguest concepts of sounds around him.

The man released Flik’s throat again and Flik just wanted this to be over. Until the rope began to hug his neck again.
The rope tightened around his neck. Flik took in the deepest breath he could manage just before the rope cut him off from air, but the man jerked the rope, tightening the rope suddenly and with enough force to force part of the breath back out of his throat before it could escape.

There was a sound of footsteps that Flik was only barely conscious of hearing. He writhed and struggled in vain, but the door was suddenly kicked in.

“Get off him, you sonuvabitch!” It was a familiar voice that bellowed into the room, but Flik was too busy passing out to realize what his arrival meant.

The rope tightened further as Nanami shouted something from the corner. It didn’t matter; he was tired now and he was going to sleep. The pain would go away after he went to sleep.

The rope suddenly went slack and fell into Flik’s lap and he sagged forward limply. There was a loud crunching noise somewhere behind him, which was accompanied by an animalistic bellow and a higher pitched yelp of pain. There were other shouts and screams all around the room, but Flik couldn’t focus on any of them. His body betrayed him and everything went dark.

“Hey, hey! Sir Flik! Wake up!” Freed’s voice pierced the darkness. “You’re safe now! It’s gonna be okay!”

Flik moaned through his abused, hoarse throat. A more familiar set of hands rested on his uninjured shoulder and brushed his hair out of his face. As he regained more and more consciousness, his body began to tremble involuntarily. He was freezing and everything hurt and he- he could breathe?

“Easy, easy,” Viktor soothed.

“Vi-k…” Flik opened his eyes and locked gazes with Viktor, who was looking pretty unkempt- as if he had just been in a bar fight.

“I’m here. I’ve got you.” Viktor reassured him as softly as possible.

“Ri-”

“They’re fine. Just relax, okay? Are you thirsty? Does anything hurt more than it should?” Viktor interrupted, trying to calm Flik down when he was clearly barely holding it together himself; the others may not have been able to tell how freaked out Viktor really was, but Flik could.

Flik couldn’t help it; he laughed. It was just a short, hysterical bark of a laugh, but it was still a laugh. Of course, everything hurt more than it should! He had been beaten and abused and strangled nearly to death! The question was hilariously unnecessary. He tried to push himself up again and this time, Viktor helped him into an upright position.

“I mean it. Take it easy. You stopped breathing for a minute. You’re not fine and you’re not even okay right now. And that’s okay. I killed that bastard- sorry for taking the pleasure away from you, by the way, but I couldn’t help myself. He was dead before I realized it. Freed here pulled me off the guy so I could help with you.”

“T-took you long enough,” Flik muttered, still shivering.

“Yeah, well, consider it payback for how long it took you guys to bust me out of that Imperial prison that one time.”

“That wasn’t my fault. Blame Mathiu and his convoluted plans.”

“Shame on you! Telling me to shift the blame onto a dead man!” Viktor’s words were scolding, but his tone and the laugh that accompanied them were merry and mirthful. He sounded less worried than he had when Flik had just woken up.

Flik coughed suddenly as his abused throat reminded him how thirsty and dry it was. A soft blanket was draped around his shoulders, presumably by Viktor, who was positioned behind him, holding him upright. Freed offered a canteen to him and Flik took it in trembling hands.

His wrists were bruised and bloodied from his struggles, which explained why they hurt so badly. He carefully drank from the canteen, mindful of how much he was taking in at a time. He finished and handed the canteen back to Freed with a soft word of thanks.

“Is he-” Riou began so softly that Flik almost didn’t hear him.

“Yeah, he’s fine. Come on over here.” Viktor encouraged.

Riou switched places with Freed, who went to look out the door of the cabin. Nanami was hovering over to the side, Flik noted from the corner of his eye. Poor Riou looked bedraggled and his arms and cheek were already starting to bruise. Flik knew that he had to look even worse than Riou.

“Flik, I-”

“Don’t.” Flik cut him off, pulling the blanket tighter around himself. “I’ll be fine. And it wasn’t your fault, no matter what that bastard said. I don’t blame you for what happened.”

“I thought you died. It was really scary.” Riou admitted after a moment of silence.

“So did I,” Flik answered honestly.

“I’m glad you didn’t.” Riou continued.

“Me, too.”

Riou suddenly moved forward and wrapped his arms around the back of Flik’s neck and squeezed, being careful to not hurt the warrior. Flik raised a sluggish arm up to Riou’s back and patted it.

“Hey, that’s not fair!” Viktor protested. “How come he gets the hugs and not me, buddy?”

“You smell like a wild boar.”

“I do not.” Riou chuckled and pulled away as Viktor denied Flik’s accusation.

“You don’t. It would be easier to hug you if you weren’t behind me.”

“Oh. But you can’t sit up on your own.”

“Of course I can!” Flik retorted defensively but without making any effort to push away from Viktor’s chest.

“Okay, pal.” Viktor patted him gently on his uninjured shoulder and continued without arguing the matter. “We should see about bandaging that shoulder, though. It looks like a pretty nasty wound.”

They stripped Flik of his tunic and undershirt with great care; the dried blood made the garments stick to the wound like glue and it pulled at Flik’s skin painfully. They rinsed the wound off with water from a canteen before bandaging the wound. It wasn’t the best job in the world, but it would do for now.

Flik looked up at Freed when they were finished and the man looked really worried. It wasn’t especially unexpected, though: Freed was always worrying about something. He was terribly easily excited. But the way Freed looked at his throat made Flik worry a little bit, too.

“Is it that bad?” He croaked.

“It looks pretty bad,” Freed confirmed hesitantly. “Your throat must hurt.”

Flik raised a hand to his throat and rubbed at it gently. He could feel the impression that the rope had left in his neck. The actual impression was gone, but the skin where the rope had bitten into his throat was hot and throbbed with pain.

As his mind wandered back to the moment when the rope had been wrapped around his throat, he remembered that there were other members of this bandit group. Where were they? Were they on their way back and would they be able to overpower Viktor and Freed?

“There were others,” Flik stated, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group. “I’m not sure when they’re going to be coming back, but we probably shouldn’t still be here when they do.”

“Your wish is my command!” Viktor picked him up with a gentle flourish; Flik winced as the motion jostled his ribs, but he didn’t complain about the pain.

“I’m also sick of not being able to do things for myself, so why don’t we start with me attempting to walk?”

“Nah. I like this better. I can hear you breathin’.”