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Monsters, We.

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A cover depecting a paper crane, a paper tiger, and a metal scorpion connected by a string.

Part 1:

Who you gonna be~

 

*

 

Chapter 1

The Bend Before The Break


2017


He knew a world built from nothing but scorching fury. His thoughts were charred. Brittle. They threatened to fall apart at the slightest touch. And his name— that tattered thing —was no more than an uncertainty at the far edge of himself. He’d been a furious heartbeat away from forgetting it.

That was when she called it.

“Kyle!”

Hm. Yeah. That was him, buried under the rage. Suffocating.

Angry. Angry. Angry.

Mad with the anger— and madder still with the need to find his way back to her —he clawed for control. It was hard work. Blood roared in his ears. His body was a tightly coiled puzzle made from red-hot iron springs; unresponsive, with a whim of its own. Agonizing heat filled his eyes. Blinded him, turned his vision to a blur full of sickly black shapes swimming by.

The shapes resembled people. They had heads. Necks. Shoulders. But none of them was her.

He couldn’t find her.

He whipped his head left. Then right. Strained and pulled until his neck muscles spasmed and whipped the back of his head against a hard surface.

“Kyle! What are you—” Fear. He heard it. Clear as ever. It quivered up and down her voice, snapped it like a badly strung string. “Stop— what are you doing— stop! Leave him—”

A muffled thud. A surprised, pained grunt.

Her voice cut off.

He hadn’t known his fury could soar even higher.

“Sedate him,” some asshole said. His voice was clipped. Sharp.

“Are you out of your mind?” A different asshole. A scared one. “This is enough. Put him down!”

“Not yet,” he heard asshole number one snap, followed by a dizzying well of even more voices adding themselves to the argument. They shouted. Back and forth. But they were all unimportant. They weren’t her.

He wrestled for a hold on his own body, fought it as it convulsed without him having given it permission to, and his mind as it wanted nothing more than to fall to ashes.

His lips pulled back. His mouth parted. A scream clawed from his throat, came up twisted and warped and not altogether human.

In contrast, the quiet ssssrrt of something tearing on his right was insignificant. Easily overheard. Unnoticed. But he’d noticed.

Kyle, his name echoed, carried by her voice; a beacon of cool light at the heart of a furnace that was burnt black.

His right arm was free.

Ssssrrrt—

“Watch out!”

And now his left one.

“Get the—” “Move—”

The shapes jostled. They bolted. One was too slow.

His fingers found cloth. Snatched it tight. He yanked. Pulled himself up. A white coat swam into his vision— clearer now, but still smudged —and he saw a set of wide-open, panicked eyes. The man he’d grabbed drove something into his arm. A syringe. It didn’t even sting.

Roaring, he ripped at the coat until the man’s throat was bared.

Then he tore into him and he tasted blood. It welled from between his teeth. Ran in rivulets down his chin, hot and wet and—

2036


Kyle woke, gagging.

There was blood in his mouth.

His own.

A shaky breath hitched up his throat, carried with it a hastily cobbled together “Fuuuuuuck—” and drifted off into the near-perfect dark that pushed in all around him. Kyle, his heart wham-whamming without rhyme or reason, scrambled to shove the ugly memory through a door at the back of his mind. Then he imagined himself slamming that very same door and stuck his overused Fuck you finger out at it for good measure. All in his head, of course. He couldn’t have lifted his arms even if he’d wanted to right now.

Though even with the memory— the nightmare —locked away, the reality of it remained. And hoo boy, was it real. Tangible. Full of consequences. Like those tremors that hopped along his muscles, the ones that made his fingers twitch. Kyle parted his lips and inhaled slowly, felt his tongue sting where he’d bitten down on it, and the air go down his throat and lungs like he’d swallowed a slab of half-molten razorblades.

Which all begged the question:

Panic attack?

Or seizure?

Why not both, he thought wryly and struggled to sort out his breathing; which was quickly ruined by his chest deciding that, yeah, let’s seize. So there went that. All that effort. Ruined. His life. In shambles. The milk. Burnt. Kyle wheezed up a pained laugh, capped it off with a breathless “Fuck. Me.”, and ended up staring listlessly into the dark, his eyes stinging from tears that’d begun to well up uninvited.

The dark acknowledged him with a quiet rustle.

His blanket— that scratchy thing —moved enough to bare a line along his side, let in chill air that licked its way from his hip all the way up to his shoulder. Kyle, who’d been quite fond of the warmth, shivered. Or seized again?

The blanket eventually tented, and while he was still busy deciding if he was being whiny over the cold or if he was about to bite another corner out of his tongue, careful fingers began to dance along his left wrist. They circled it, grabbed it gently, and lifted it, peeling his arm out into the open in the process.

Brrr, he thought, only for the entire damn blanket to come off. Not cool. 

The cheeky thief responsible for that depravity— no more than a shadow in the pitch-black —bent over him. She brought a frustrated hum with her, along with the touch of her knees squeezed to his side as she straddled him. Then came a whiff of old, dusky feathers, married to endless— measureless— tenacious— relentless— comfort.

CLICK

A light came on overhead. It hung from a hook tied to a low, wooden ceiling slanting off into the dark. The light— of the UV variety, to be precise —was a harsh, shitty purple/blue glow. And it slugged Kyle straight in the face.

Kyle groaned.

He couldn’t shield his eyes with his left hand since the blanket thief— one featherweight Zofia Sirota Crane (least if you asked him)—held that one tight. And when he tried with his other hand? Well, that didn’t work out so well either. An aftershock to his last seizure chased it downwards— hard —and Kyle rapped himself on the nose.

Equally hard.

“Ow,” he complained. Which was him being real fucking tame, because there were words he’d have liked to use right then that he simply didn’t have the steam for yet.

It was the light. Yeah. Let's go with that. He’d blame the light; how it licked at his skin in a full-body pressure wash kinda way, except someone had swapped the water with sand. Very sharp sand. The sharpest.

Fi, ever-caring, said nothing. Not about him moping or about him getting bullied by the light. 

So Kyle peered past his hand at her hovering over him. She was crowded in by a low ceiling and your typical attic Fen shui. Cobwebs. Boxes. More boxes. Plus an average century's worth of dust and then some. But never mind all of that. Never mind the wooden slats around them. Never mind the creepy crawly spiders hiding in the gap between those slats. He had something better to occupy himself with.

Feeling a smidge cheeky, Kyle watched her from behind the cover of his hand, the back of it resting on his nose and his fingers curled uselessly.

The UV light falling around her like a weird halo added sharp edges to Fi’s already bony frame. A frame she kept modest with nothing but a threadbare tank top hanging off her shoulders and too wide boxers riding her hip. The top was plain and green. The boxers had puppies on them. Kyle— who prided himself with having a nose for finding the best pre-apocalypse undies —still thought they were about the cutest fucking thing ever. But. Anyway. Focused as Fi was at present, her brows were pulled down in a scowl. It gave her a severe kind of look, accented by scars telling tall and unfortunate tales right there on her weathered, forever-pale skin. Like that bite mark on her chin (near as ancient as it was insignificant at this point), or the pockmarked burn under her hairline on the left, which liked to outdo even the hooked slash framing her right brow like a wobbly S.

Kyle considered those scars failures on his part. Moments where he could have done better. But they were a part of her now and Kyle wouldn’t have her any other way; scarred, with her large, dull grey eyes, and her hair a lovely, spiky nest of mouse-brown waiting for a fam of birds to come claim it.

Plus, that silver ring with its golden centre that she wore around her sinewy neck by a sturdy leather cord.

Kyle, with his mind absolutely in the right place, found himself wanting nothing more than to reach up and either a) bat at the ring dangling between her breasts or b) run his fingers through her hair.

Said fingers twitched again and his stomach got out the knitting needles to knit itself into a shitty, malformed sock.

Anticipating what was about to happen— because she was perceptive like that —Fi’s grip on his wrist tightened. A beat later his whole-ass arm began to spasm.

Fi didn’t let go.

She held on even as his back jerked, her (lack of) weight settling on his lap. Neither did she budge when his right arm first snapped up (where she caught it against her forearm) and then down to punch the floorboards. Or when his neck muscles pulled together so tight he thought something was going to snap in there and that’d be it. Murdered by his own uncooperative, cursed body.

Nope.

Fi held on.

Her good hand stayed wrapped around his wrist like a vice. Which wasn’t to say she had a good and a bad hand. Maybe whole would have been a better choice of words, what with how one of them sported no more than a thumb and index finger. That one— the Still Very Good One But Maybe Not Entirely Complete One —she’d shoved against his chest.

Kyle focused on that. On her, really. On her fingers digging into his wrist. On the skin-on-skin of her knees snapped around his hip. And on her palm pressed to his heart; a heart that beat so fiercely, she likely felt each and every thump.

For a while, Kyle thought of himself as a boat getting tossed around in a storm-whipped ocean, and of Fi’s feathery weight as his anchor. An anchor that kept the anger from dragging him from his mind. An anchor that’d help him remember his name.

Yeah, he could, on occasion, get pretty poetic. Even while his neurons were having a rave.

The seizure (which had been mild, really, or she woulda thrown him on his side to stop him from choking on his own tongue) eventually settled. His thoughts realigned themselves. The illegal underground rave scattered. And with his arm no longer threatening to flail from its socket and dance away, Fi twisted his wrist into the light. Like one might stick a bug under a lamp for inspection. Or dissecting.

No, wait, he thought a bit dumbly. That’s vivisecting. I’m still alive. Go, me.

Her two-fingered hand lifted from his chest— which left behind an unpleasant, cold spot —and landed on the inside of his arm instead, where her index finger tracked lightly across his skin.

Kyle watched her trace a vein down the length of his arm; the kinda vein nurses and their needles dreamt of, but which was currently looking about as fucked up as he felt.

He winced.

Shadows wept under his skin, muddying up his blood.

“I’m fine,” he croaked.

Predictably, Fi threw him a flat stare. She lifted her finger to tap it against his throat instead— where, yeah, you guessed it, he had another one of those shitty veins —and then concluded her inspection by flicking that same finger against his forehead.

‘cause you only needed a thumb and index finger for that.

Kyle grunted. She huffed.

Shorthand for I am and You’re not.

A dance as old as time.

Moping, Kyle leaned his head into his pillow/folded up shirt, and convinced his right arm to make itself useful by flopping into Fi’s general direction so he could settle his hand on her bony hip. His mind limped off. Got busy thinking about her weight on him and how he’d have liked to be more appreciative of it, if only his heart hadn’t decided to be a misfiring shit right now. So he sighed, laid there, perfectly still, while she leaned to the side and pulled her pack over to them. It slid quietly over the wooden boards. Because Fi did everything quietly.

. . .

This sucked.

Already done with lying still, Kyle’s eyes cut left. Then right.

The attic— originally designed for storing crap you probably just wanted to keep out of sight at that point, rather than shelter a pair of pilgriming, uh, Pilgrims —had a low ceiling, but ran the entire length of the building below them. Their gear (weapons, packs, clothes) laid only a grab or two away, stacked on one side, while off the other way was a landscape of boxes full of worthless junk. Junk that, admittedly, had once meant enough to someone to keep it from wandering into the trash. Shit like mouldy Christmas and Halloween decorations, tiny pillows (also mouldy — or turned into luxurious nests for mice), and fairie lights and urns and— yeah, there’d been a lot. He’d gone through most of them when they’d still had daylight.

Overhead, hooked to a useless wire that led to an equally useless lightbulb, hung their battery-powered UV lamp. He glanced at it. The UV light hummed innocently, unburdened by how much like last week’s compost Kyle felt lying under it. Helpless, really. As if the fucking thing bleached all colour from him.

Yeah.

Okay.

Fi was right.

He wasn’t fine.

“Two pumps,” his observant Paper Tiger— who had, for the longest time, been more Tiger than Paper —whispered. “Else you won’t make it through half of tomorrow night without a flare-up.” She’d unearthed an inhaler from his pack. An inhaler that might have been disposable at some point but was now vehemently reusable. Fi gave it a few shakes, pressed it into his hand, and then shoved that same hand towards his face.

“Yes ma’am,” he said before he stuck the puffy end into his mouth. Two pumps later, and the dodgy, diluted, disgusting (and he could kept the d-words coming, honest, but we’d be here all day) Antizin worked its magic. It dulled the pain. Got his next seizure to cease and desist. And, to put things into perspective, made Kyle feel like a lukewarm rag, which was, frankly, hardly better than the whole last week’s compost deal.

While Fi returned the inhaler, Kyle negotiated just about enough energy out of his body to turn his head sideways and to grope along the floorboards until he found his timepiece.

04:15-or so the hands told him. Oh, and to think he’d lasted until daybreak only yesterday.

Good times. Good times, he thought.

“And what about you?” His question sat around in the dark, unanswered, while Kyle stared blearily at the tic-tic-ticking watch face. “No munchies?”

Fi’s right knee snapped a bit tighter against his hip. He grunted.

“That’s a no then.”

He fixed the timepiece to his wrist, adjusted its strap, and peered back at Fi as she leaned sideways, an arm stuck in either his or her pack. The angle at which she’d tilted herself hiked up her tank top, baring a thin line of skin belonging to a too-flat stomach. Too flat, because fuck the apocalypse.

Kyle, still numb from the suppressants hammering him straight, briefly considered resisting. Very briefly. Then it occurred to him that, Eh, you only live once, champ, and he snuck a finger under her top. He tapped it gently against her warm skin, tickle-drumming his way upwards in a bodged kind of rhythm, and slowly lifted the top higher.

After what she’d done with the blanket, this was only fair, no?

Her legs squeezed tight. Her stomach muscles jumped. And Kyle? Kyle ran head-first into a near disaster. Unavoidably, his eyes focused on the stretch marks texturing her stomach, which made his heart kick against his ribcage and promptly fragmented his thoughts. They scattered — and what they left rearing in his chest was a raw and tragically possessive longing.

It came wrapped in sorrow, devotion, and regret. Two of which he preferred to keep locked in their nailed shut boxes and stashed at the back of his mind. And one which convinced his hand to stay on target.

Or it would have, anyway. Then Fi squeezed up a quiet snort (which defo was more than just roommates with a squeak) and shoved his arm down.

“Hands, Crane,” she chided.

Kyle allowed himself a rueful smile. “What? I’m trying to distract myself here, okay? From, you know, feeling like I just got run over by a truck carrying another ten trucks.”

Ever optimistic, he worked his fingers back under her top.

And, ever-loving, Fi unfolded a map right over his fucking face. Spluttering, Kyle had himself a mouthful of paper. Old, stained paper that, currently, seemed to smell a bit like the ghost of coffee’s past.

“The nerve,” he said, smiling. “The gall.”

Armed with a theatric pout, he hooked a finger over the top of the map and pushed it down under his chin.

Fi, unshaken, narrowed her eyes at him.

Alright. Not entirely unshaken.

Waking to him seizing? That’d shaken her.

Counting their renaming doses of Antizin when she’d gone through the pack? Yeah, that too.

She hid it well enough. Who wouldn’t after all those years of practice; all those years of living on borrowed time, only one bad decision away from the Damocles sword suspended above them to come down and lop off what made them human.

Kyle swapped his pout for a careful smile and settled his hands on her thighs. He squeezed. Gently, but with conviction.

We’re okay, he said, all words omitted.

Her lips set into a thin line, Fi traded him a quiet nod before she turned her attention back to the map.

Which left Kyle holding on to her, tethered under her feather-light weight.

And a faint taste of blood haunting him.