Actions

Work Header

Latchkey Hero

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

Part 1

GOOD INTENTIONS


  Excerpt from a later chapter: 

Kyle woke convinced he’d left a stove on.

A stove. Not necessarily his, no. And it might not even have been an actual stove per se. Maybe more of a toaster oven, or just a plain old waffle iron. With the waffles still inside, which would be a shame, because there was a pinch in his stomach that told him a waffle might have been the best fucking thing ever right about now. Either way, it'd get the job done, burn down a building somewhere, and he'd end up going Oops and get footed with a bill big enough to force him into prostitution. 

He sat, flung the covers off his bed, and groggily reached for his timepiece on the nightstand.

05:20

Seven hours of sleep. Not bad. Not particularly good either, judging by how his thoughts shuffled forward slowly and his eyelids remained stubbornly heavy. Maybe he should flop right back into bed, pull the scratchy, stiff covers over his head and let the figurative stove blow.

No, no he couldn’t.

Kyle gave in to the nagging feeling scratching at the back of his head and got to his feet. He found himself a passably fresh set of clothes, dug his belt out from where it had somehow ended up under the bed, and tied it while his thoughts kept turning themselves upside down. Come on man, get it together, he thought while he slipped the timepiece back onto his wrist. The anxiety kept crawling around the insides of his skull, like a pile of antsy... ants. Be worried, it insisted. Be out of your fucking mind.

He chalked it off as a pre-performance anxiety of sorts, his equivalent to a musician’s stage jitters before the lights came on. Only his stage was right out there, past that door, and his audience a flock of scared survivors and a militaristic psycho. He’d have to fool them all again today, keep them believing he was no more than some idiot who’d not been able to check travel warnings on TripAdvisor before booking his summer vacation in quarantined Harran. 02/10, wouldn’t recommend. Good weather this time of year, scenery nice, but locals very clingy. With their teeth.

Kyle left the unease behind once he stepped from the room, shed it clean as he could when he crossed the threshold. He even closed the door on it, just to make sure it wouldn’t come crawling right after him and catch up in the hallway. And then, with his stomach in avid agreement, went to search for something that’d pass for breakfast.


  

Awakening:  Stupid Tourist.


 Zofia heard the plane approach and raised her gaze to the afternoon skies. It came in from the West, and that was peculiar, since they usually didn't cross into the Quarantine from that direction. Mildly interested, she took another bite from a stale, dry and altogether too tough piece of hard-baked halva, and craned her neck to track the plane’s movements through wispy clouds.

Unlike the others, this one kept altitude as it passed across overhead. Another reason to dismiss it. Another reason not to care. 

“It’s better that way,” she tried to convince herself, stamping out an ugly twist of hope in her gut, and shoved the last chunk of food between her teeth. She wasn’t ready. Not yet and maybe not ever, but certainly not now. 

Bits of halva, sticky and sweet, lodged itself between her teeth. She made an effort to wash them down with a generous swallow of water from her canteen, and while she sat there gurgling and pushing at her teeth with her tongue, her eyes abandoned the skies to check on her perch. A bit of a sorry excuse for one, with a rickety folding chair placed dead centre on the flat roof of a three story shack. But it put her above things, and she didn't need to worry much about anyone (or anything) approaching without her catching sight of them. 

It made for a lovely view too, and these days that was about the only redeeming quality left to Harran. 

Ahead of her, the city's slums fell away in a downward slope. Blocky buildings made of naked red brick, with only the occasional pale blue or green paint-job clinging to the facades, made up for most of the immediate scenery. Rows of flat, ramshackle roofs baked in the sun, cobbled together from sheets of metal and planks of wood, with the occasional deep blue tarp thrown over them. To her left, the buildings nestled close to steep rocks ringing in the peninsula, and farther ahead they pushed as far as they could out against the bay.

Over there, across the wide channel of water, sat the mainland, with Harran’s architectural jewel standing proud along its shores. Zofia knew it only by the name Old Town, though the name fit. Harran's ancient heart had aged well, grown itself into an attractive metropolis that flirted with new and shiny things, but never quite separated from the old. Modern designs sprouted at its skirts, though the Ottoman roots remained, thick and gnarly and oh so pretty from where she sat. Zofia could see the brilliant, white buildings glaring back at the sun, and how skyscrapers mixed themselves into the traditional skyline of bulbous cones and delicate arches.

And then there were the thick, black pillars of smoke rising in-between it all. 

If the slums were bad, Old Town was worse, Zofia knew. She frowned at the bloated stadium close to the shore line, Harren's latest architectual marvel built for this years global sporting event. Her brows knitted, as if that thing was to blame for everything that had happened, even it it really wasn't. Probably wasn't anyway. Maybe. But it hadn't helped matters. And it was ugly. More tendrils of smoke curled upwards around the structure, and she wished it'd go ahead and burn down.

Sometimes the fires over there died. Then they started up again, because there was always more to burn. 

Yeah. Old Town was much worse.

Zofia pulled her eyes from the deceptively pretty skyline (if one discarded the smoke), and stared at the massive bridge spanning across the water instead. The Infamy Bridge it was called. She had no idea what it was so infamous for. Being really bloody big, maybe? Though from here, on the other side of the hill cleaving the slums in half, it didn’t look that big.

The wall though, that looked big regardless, even if she only caught snatches of it between buildings, way out there where they'd dumped the concrete walls meant to keep Harran in, while the out watched on and fretted about what they'd locked away. She scoffed and turned away from the water.

A heavy, hot silence squatted in the air. It stank. Decay. Piss. Shit. Stale, stale everything . The whole city, its slums and bustling metropolis alike, had run past its expiration date. Though up here, with her head above the alleyways, she could almost smell the ocean. Water. Salt. Seaweed. Stale, too.  

Zofia’s brow pinched and she absent-mindedly folded the halva wrapper, until she was left with a tiny paper kite sitting in the palm of her hand. It was a pathetic little piece, but she turned her head to the skies again, and with a flick of her wrist sent the kite arching up towards the rumbling plane overhead. Her kite barely made it past the tips of her fingers, before it veered off and tumbled out of sight over the edge of the roof. Zofia sighed. ’Useless.’ She picked up her water once more and lifted it to her lips for another sip.   

That was when the plane spat out a dark blob. A parachute opened moments later, stabilizing the blob as it plummeted towards the cursed alleyways and shanties of the Harran slums.

Zofia squinted.

“What the…?” She hurriedly squeezed the canteen between her thighs, snatched the binoculars from her belt, and peered up at the chute.

A man was attached to it. A person, not an orange crate filled with necessities meant to keep Harran’s citizens from— well, from being worse off than they already were. Something Zofia thought quite unlikely, no matter how far her imagination stretched. Once your neighbours started tearing chunks of meat out of you, and your streets were crowded with zombies shuffling shoulder to shoulder, you could safely assume that things couldn’t get any worse.

Weirder, maybe. Like a man paradropping into an unforgiving quarantine zone. That was quite bizarre. Interesting, too.

Zofia resealed her canteen with a quick twist of the cap, and stashed it away in her pack. The binoculars returned to her belt, where they bumped against her hipbone as she stood.

She wasn’t the only one watching the skies. Everyone did these days. A chute, no matter what it had attached to it, drew attention. Rais’ men would get to it first, of course. They always did. They’d pick the sad Tourist apart right after he landed, and leave what was left to the Biters and their gnashing teeth.

Zofia’s heart drummed frantically against her ribcage. While the men did their picking, they’d be distracted. Anticipation pulled through her stomach, a quiver of dread flirting with excitement. Ready or not, this could be it. A little distraction was all she needed.

She tracked the Tourist’s descent. He’d go down near the southern apartment towers, not far from her. Uphill, but not far.

“What are you waiting for?”

Zofia frowned. Yes, why wasn’t she halfway up the rise yet? She glanced at her bow propped up against the chair, a simple compound bow without the bells and whistles of a professional piece. At one point it had been painted a mossy green, though by now most of the colour had been chipped off, worn away by her rough handling of the poor thing.

Her eyes darted to the skies again. The chute was coming down fast, and her fingers twitched with her own uncertainty. She could choose to do nothing, of course. She could sit down again, enjoy the view for a little while longer. It was a decent enough day for sitting, after all. Her pockets were sufficiently lined with food. Her water supplies were in good shape too. Yes, she could just sit here, let the sun crawl across the skies until dusk called her back into the confines of her den.

Zofia grunted and snatched up the bow. She pulled the sling over her head and shoulder, and pulled it tight, securing it firmly to her side. A routine inspection of everything she carried followed as she stepped up to the edge of the roof. Bow, check. Hatchet on her right thigh, check. Pack, check. Makeshift quiver with a few arrows at the small of her back, check. Ready then, even if just for stretching her legs across the rooftops of the slums.

Below, in an alley barely broad enough to fit a man and a half, two lone Biters loitered with their ruined faces turned toward the sun. They ignored her, and she ignored them.

With her heart having found itself another fast paced beat, Zofia leapt from her perch to the shorter, squat building on the other side. She landed as softly as one could on sheets of corrugated metal, and jogged across the rickety roof. The noise of her feet hitting the metal stirred the Biters clustered around the house. An enthusiastic moan here, a wretched gurgle there, all squeezed up from throats that had long forgotten how to form words. Zofia ignored them still.

She plotted a route across the rooftops, and with the chute still in sight, made her way across.

* * *

Her fingers strained as she clung on to the edge of the roof. Her arms shook from the effort of pulling herself up, and Zofia thought, for a moment, that moving slowly and deliberately had been a terrible idea. Momentum helped when one tried to scale walls. With considerable effort, Zofia managed to get her knee over the edge. With more of the same she snapped her elbow up too, and slowly heaved herself to the top.

A shaded balcony greeted her. Concrete and red brick, walled in and covered by yet another sheet of metal. A wilting shrubbery stood in one corner, a dirty wicker basket in the other. The door was gone, but someone had pushed a bookcase across to make up for it and keep the monsters out. Zofia stayed low and crept to the other end, where she could get a good look at the street below. She’d seen the chute flutter out of sight here, but she'd had no idea what to expect.

The Tourist had landed by an abandoned grocery store across the street. Rather, he’d tried to. His chute had caught itself on a light pole on the way down, missed the shade roof that would have cushioned his fall. Now he dangled from the line like bait on a hook. He was clean bait, at least. His jeans were pristine, and his long sleeved black shirt lacked the dirt and tears that had become fashionable here in Harran.

No Biters had come to nip at his ankles, Zofia noted. Not yet. The street lay empty, save for a broken down bus that had made it halfway through the bend, and a burnt out car reduced to a blackened skeleton. When the city had turned, it had also stopped caring for keeping itself respectable. Rubbish lined the streets, gathered in piles where the wind collected it. Scraps of plastic, paper and rotting food didn’t bother her though. It was the blood. The dried smears of crimson. The dark pools that marked where a person had bled their life onto the pavement. She wondered, briefly, what the Tourist was thinking about the matter, as he hung suspended from the side of the building. Did he see where a leg poked out from under the bus? The rotting piece of meat with the white of the bone showing? Had he noticed the splash of red on the windshield? If he did, was he regretting things as they were?  

“You should help him,” she whispered to herself. He looked a little out of sorts up there, his head jerking left and right as he tried to get his bearings. An oxygen mask was strapped to his skull, so she couldn’t get a good look at his face, but she imagined he wasn’t all smiles and grins after the bodged up landing. Eventually he grew tired of hanging, unclipped his harness, and went to greet the tarmac with a pained grunt.

“Ouch,” Zofia murmured. She leaned forward, ready to vault over the wall and lend the idiot a hand, when she heard the beat of boots on the pavement. Heavy boots.

“Ah shit.”

Her mouth felt dry, her throat clicked. She pulled her bow forward, wrapped her hand tightly around it. Don’t be a coward. This is it.  Her shoulders shook, and Zofia ground her teeth together to keep them from chattering.

No. She wasn’t ready.

Three men fanned out in front of the tourist. They leaked malice, carried themselves with the same purposeful steps as a pack of attack dogs cornering their mark. Except dogs had redeeming qualities. These man, they did not. Their weapons were just as likely to crush a Biter’s head, as they were to knock a healthy man’s skull in, and then they’d rob the poor bastard of whatever scraps he’d had left to his miserable life.

“I told you that wasn’t a normal drop chute,” Thug number 1 proclaimed. He jutted his chin at the man lying in the dirty street.

The men had their backs turned to Zofia’s cover. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need to see the three yellow swathes of paint across their chests, like claw marks of some monstrous beast, to know who these dogs answered to. Who they belonged to. It was how Rais marked what was his. Territory. Property. People.

“Break his legs,” the tallest of the three ordered. “Then take him to Rais.”

Zofia’s stomach lined with ice. It turned, made her want to be sick. Tahir. She knew the voice. Couldn’t ever forget. Didn’t ever want to forget, since how would she ever be ready otherwise?

The men closed in on their quarry. Zofia choked down a whimper, and slid behind the wall. Her limbs were numb, heavy. She dropped her chin to her chest, stared at her fingers tightly wrapped around the bow.  Coward. Her knuckles had turned white.

“Back up, all of you!” Zofia heard the tourist bark. Desperation gave his voice a faint tremble.

“Stop,” Thug number 3 warned. “Loud noises draw them.” He kept his voice down, as if he was trying to make a point, because clearly the tourist didn’t know, and even though Zofia wasn’t looking, she thought he was about to cause a racket. Enough to have Rais’s men reconsider. Their feet shuffled across the tarmac. Cautious steps. Wary. For a while, Zofia fought against her dread, tried to get herself to look over the edge of the wall. She twitched, craned her neck up. Then came the first muffled TWACK of a bat meeting a meaty target. Then another, and another. Her resolve faltered.

Zofia squeezed her eyes shut. They kept beating him, and she hid in her corner.

Coward….

The tourist fought back. A gunshot cracked through the air. Or two, she couldn’t quite tell. It didn’t matter though, whether he’d fired one shot, or two. Or even three. The echo of it bounced through the streets, and jolted everything terrible awake.

Zofia held her breath. What was he thinking?

The first blood curdling shriek was quickly answered by a chorus of them, and they all came bearing down on what had, a moment ago, been no more than a quiet spot of murder.

“Fall back,” Tahir shouted. “Fall back!” His men didn’t argue. No one in their right mind would.

Zofia exhaled sharply and forced herself to peek over the edge of the wall. They were already legging it up the street and quickly out of sight, leaving the tourist dragging himself towards the shop behind him. She watched them run, their backs to her. Easy targets. They’d been such easy targets. The whole bloody time too.

You coward.

Quick footfalls and greedy snarls drew her attention back to the idiotic tourist. Three Biters (or Virals, rather, as the locals called them) came charging up the street. The early birds, the ones about to get their pickings on the worm.

“No-No-No,” Zofia stammered. She yanked the bow up. Her right hand dipped to the quiver at the base of her spine, and she nocked an arrow as the first raving things reached the downed man. It bit down on his arm. He screamed.

“Shit.” Her arm drew back— and stayed poised when a man came darting from the alley to her right. The newcomer knocked the Viral right off its meal with one practiced swipe of a baseball bat, and then proceeded beating the thing to a pulp. They were convincing swings, so much in fact, that Zofia almost didn’t hear her own death hoisting itself up the ledge behind her. She smelled it though. The whole city reeked of rot and decay, but a gust of wind could still betray the dead who’d not quite understood what being dead entailed. Not crawling up a wall, for one. Or lunging at her with wide, bloodshot eyes hungry, its yellow teeth bared, and fingers curled like claws. They were caked in dirt and dried blood. Zofia sidestepped its first grab. She slid back, drew the bow up, and let the arrow fly.

Missed. Fuck.

The arrow sunk into its open mouth and lodged itself in its cheek. It lunged again.

Zofia swung her bow at the thing's head. A slap, really, but enough to send it veering off its path and stagger against the wall. When it recovered and got its beady, blood soaked eyes on her again, Zofia bolted.

Fuck that tourist. Fuck him and his stupid parachute. Fuck him and his stupid gun.

She jumped from the side of the building, tucked herself and her bow into a roll into the ditch behind it, and started up the slope as soon as she got her feet back under her.

Zofia ran. Behind her, a woman screamed. Her cry carried grief. The scream, the loss and the despair, they came bounding after her, much more relentless than any Biter, and Zofia kept running. She hated herself for it. But she ran.

Chapter Text

Air Drop:  a Fool's Errand


 It stumbled against the wall. Small fingers, broken and dirty, scraped at the concrete. A fingernail snagged in a chipped crevice. The nail peeled off when it hitched its hand higher.

Zofia grimaced. She tried to stop looking at the child, at how it dragged itself forward with its forehead turned up at her, one eye bloodshot and dull, the other no more than a collapsed socket filled with ichorous pulp. A thick, sticky tear oozed from a slanted corner and dried against the squashed remains of a stubby nose. It had been a boy once, Zofia thought. Now it was a withered creature, all skin and bones covered in the tattered remains of a bright red shirt. A caped man in black was printed at the front. He missed his head, a patch of cloth ripped out where something had taken a bite out of the boy’s chest, and she wondered who he might have been. Superman? Batman? Captain Hammer? She winced.

The boy— The thing —opened its mouth, lips parting, slack-jawed and lethargic. Most of its teeth were gone, and a dark tongue squirmed behind what was left of them like a coiled snake in its lair.

Zofia pulled her shoulders together as the thing let out a wheeze. It couldn’t even gurgle like the rest of them. She glanced up, away from the boy, and over towards the row of cars parked neatly by the side of a service station. Three more children slouched by the trunk of a green hatchback.

They’d got trapped in here, she figured, within the walled off lot behind the garage. Maybe they’d already turned then. Maybe they hadn’t. Maybe they’d had family, a home, and hadn’t made it back in time. Or maybe they’d been street urchins roving the slums with bright smiles on their faces and hands cupped with hope.

Didn’t matter.

Zofia stood. Her knees creaked and her legs tingled after she’d squatted up here, motionless, while she waited and watched. It wheezed again, more optimistic this time, and lurched at her. Its face connected with the wall and it stumbled over its own feet. With a thud, like a bundle of twigs toppling over, what-was-once-a-boy hit the ground.

She snapped her right hand to her thigh, found the hatchet there and pulled it free. The convenient loops on her trousers were meant for hammers and such, and its pockets and satchels for screwdrivers, nails and whatever else a carpenter needed for their carpentry. Though as it turned out, carpenter bottoms made for excellent apocalyptical wear.

Balancing on top of the wall for a few steps, Zofia angled her jump to land out of reach of what-was-once-a-boy. It pulled itself across the ground once she'd come down, little fingers grasping for her and little feet kicking weakly. With a feeling much like liquid dread clogging up her throat, she left it behind and crept across the lot. Staying out of sight of the group of loiterers was easy, so she slid the hatchet back into its loop. Getting the door to the shop open on the other hand proved to be a bit of a challenge. It had already been pried open at least once, barely hanging on by what was left of its hinges. But whoever had visited it last had bothered with shoving it shut again, making her life a lot more difficult than it should have been. Zofia pumped her fingers into fists in preparation for the effort, then grasped the edges of the door and started pulling. She winced as it scraped across the ground, and let out a harsh puff of air when she heard the kid-things moan hungrily.

“Come on, Come on,” she whispered, until the door was open just enough. Hastily shrugging off her pack, Zofia cast a glance over her shoulder at the shambling stick figures making their way around the green car. She told herself that she should have brought her bow, then considered going for her hatchet. And do what? Swing it at the tiny kid skulls? They bumped shoulders, dragged their feet through the dirt, skeletal arms dangling by their sides. She fidgeted, held her breath. One swing. Two at the most if I— she exhaled, tossed her pack through the gap between door and frame, and then squeezed herself in before she’d finished thinking things through.

Inside, the garage shop was sparsely lit by dirty rays of light filtering in through milky windows. Zofia sneezed. Place was dusty too. Very dusty. She yanked the door shut again, picked up her pack, and started snooping up and down the rows of shelves.

Naturally, the place had been ransacked. Everything useful and not bolted down was gone.

Good thing she wasn't here for useful.

* * *

Back at her den, Zofia dropped her pack on the old couch with its scratchy red cover, and then dropped herself right along next to it. She sighed, pulled her knees up to her chest, and leaned her head back to have herself a staring match with the dirty, cracked ceiling. 

It wasn’t much, that makeshift home of hers. Tiny and narrow were the two words that best described the one room flat with its poor excuse for a bathroom squeezed into a corner like an afterthought. Cheap and sooty fitted just as well, since whoever had lived here once had spent more money on smokes than they’d put into decent furniture. When she’d found the place it had been abandoned, save for a hissing and spitting cat. Cute, if a little filthy with matted gray fur. Zofia had contemplated cat stew then, but before she could make up her mind, the animal had squeezed itself through the balcony door and fled the scene, leaving her standing in the middle of the messy flat. It had been in a sorry state, with full ashtrays cluttering the lone table, and piles of DVDs and questionable magazines surrounding the couch. She’d collected the litter, along with the useless, boxy TV, and tossed it all out back, and then she’d decided that this was a good a place as any to squat in.

Zofia unzipped her pack. She pulled out her prize from her trip to the garage, a full bottle of blue engine coolant, and propped it up on her knees. For a while, she stared at it. She read the label at the front, then at the back, but none of the words made any sense. Even the glaring yellow warning stickers proclaiming you really ought to not drink the stuff only barely registered. Her mind felt fogged up, crowded with doubt.

“This better work,” she murmured and sat up straight, planting her feet on the dirty carpet, and placing the bottle on the low table in front of her.

In comparison to the rest of the flat, the table was clean. Stacks of postcards lay on the left, a few pens weighing them down, and a row of empty Antizin vials stood like an orderly line of tiny, squat soldiers in the centre of the table. It had taken her half an eternity to collect the spent vials, and another half to make sure they all looked pristine. Then again, everyone needed a hobby. Antizin forgery certainly counted as one.

No. This won’t work. There was too much that could go wrong. For one, they might figure it all out, notice that the batch numbers on the vials didn’t line up or that they’d been painstakingly resealed. And then who was to say injecting themselves with the cocktail she was about to mix would even do enough harm?

Zofia frowned.

“Worth a shot,” she argued back, and got to work. “You might not be ready yet, but this— this you can do.”

* * *

By the time she was done, her stomach was twisting in on itself, desperate and empty. She felt queasy, lightheaded. Zofia lifted the last vial she’d tampered with, held it pinched between her fingers, and turned it carefully to see if she’d missed anything.

“Not bad.”

She put the vial back, got up, and walked across the room to the kitchenette. Dinner was to be sardines, apparently. It was the first can she swiped off her stack of food, and she almost pried it open right then and there. Restraining herself, Zofia wrapped a hand around the sorry little can and carried it across to the balcony door. She pushed it open and squeezed herself into the fading day.

From her den, Harran’s evenings were relatively safe. As long as she didn’t let her guard slip and allow for nightfall to sneak up on her, she had nothing to fear. The balcony was up high. Its railing was sturdy. The vine covered cage around it concealed her from curious onlookers. And better yet, it granted her a perfectly good view of the water, allowing her to pretend —even if only for a precious moment— that the heart of the slums with all its monsters, human and otherwise, might just be something she’d dreamt up. Zofia nestled her shoulders against the wall at her back, peeled open her can of sardines, and started wolfing down dinner.

By bite number two, Zofia’s hand was slick with oil. Manners, she’d accepted long ago, had been just another hapless victim of the apocalypse. She kept shovelling the fish into her mouth, and when that was gone, she tilted the oil down her throat. Today had been a productive day. Maybe she’d earned herself a second serving? Zofia pondered if canned pineapple would go well with sardines, all the while greedily sucking the oil off her fingers, when she heard the plane.

She paused, the finger still stuck in her mouth. Then she pushed herself off the wall, knocked her knees into the railing and leaned as far forward as she dared without toppling right over the edge. There, just over her shoulder. It came in low, diving directly towards the slums. Right towards her, to be precise. Her teeth scraped her knuckles. She almost snapped them shut. Are you joking? The plane coughed up its cargo: two crates attached to a beautiful white and yellow trio of chutes. And the whole package kept heading right for her backyard.

Not joking.

Zofia dropped the can. It bounced off the balcony and was still tumbling through the air while she was back inside and tripping over her own feet.

“Crap—Crap—”

Her boots caught on the dirty carpet and she staggered over to the table with her arms flailing.

Crap!

The grease… She’d almost scooped up the vials of ‘Antizin’ with her fingers still slick with oil, effectively botching all her careful work. Frustrated, Zofia wiped her hands on her trousers before hurriedly stuffing her pile of trojan ponies into her pack.

She tried to be methodical about things, made an effort to calm the jittery nerves that got her hands shaking, and to still the wildly thumping heart that aimed to squeeze itself out between her ribs. She failed. First she pulled her right glove onto her left hand. Then she was already halfway out the front door when she remembered that she’d left the hatchet on the couch. Right after that she’d had her hands around the door again, when she noticed she wasn’t even carrying her pack. Her bow, yes, but she really wasn’t ready for that, was she? She’d need her pack. Needed the poison. The coward’s weapon.

Attempt number four finally got her out into the evening with only her dignity and sense missing, but Zofia hoped they’d catch up by the time she reached the drop. She had to hurry.

Evening drops meant Antizin. And she had to get to it first.

* * *

A few stubborn gusts of wind diverted the drop a little farther away than she’d expected. It drifted on and on, until finally touching down at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Zofia reached it just as the crates landed, bringing with them their bright red flares and the plume of matching red smoke. She hesitated, one hand wrapped tightly around the railing of the steps. Her right foot hovered in the air, not quite willing to set down on the gravel. Rushing in, now that was stupid, so she took a moment to look around and thanked her wits for having finally caught up with her.

A metal fence to her right, and a red bricked two story building further ahead. The chute had caught on its roof. It stirred gently, yellow and green folds billowing out in the evening breeze. To her left, moss covered rock corralled her in, but right past the crates was a drop that led to the last level of the slums before they met the water. She tossed a look over her shoulder. Biters had started following her down the stairs, so once she was done she’d be going down, rather than up.

Zofia cocked her head, listened. Nothing stirred. The only noise was the pop and crackle of a stubborn fire burning inside a barrel pushed up against the building. The flames and flares lit the place decently enough, giving her a good view of the torso sprawled out in the dirt. Man or woman, Zofia didn’t know. All that was left of it was a slab of meat barely held together by tattered pieces of cloth. The sticky stench of dead body made her gag as she shrugged her pack from her shoulders and started towards the drop, gingerly stepping around the torso before hunkering down in front of the first orange crate. The second one had been thrown open by the impact and had spilled regular necessities onto the gravel.

She flipped the clasps on the mystery crate, heaved the top open, and caught herself hoping for nothing more than ordinary supplies. Food. Meds. Blankets, maybe. All of that would come in handy, and what she didn't need she could trade for more greasy sardines. Or for some toilet paper, which she was running dangerously low on.

No, it turned out to be Antizin. Three cases, to be precise.

"Fine. This is fine. This is good," she murmured to herself, and snapped the latches on the nondescript blue containers with their white Global Relief Effort logo printed at the top. After one more deep breath, her heart wildly pounding in her throat, she cracked the first one open. 

Life stared back at her, 28 precious vials of suppressants. 28 vials of borrowed time for the unfortunate souls who’d got themselves bit and managed to live.

Out of luck morons. Morons like her.

“Jackpot.”

She pulled her pack forward, and one by one started to replace every second vial with one of hers. She did the same with case number two, and then rewarded herself with the entirety of the remaining one, foam padding and all. Certain that an empty spot would not go unnoticed, she filled it with a stray carton from the other crate. Just in time too. The Biters had shambled halfway down the stairs and were picking up speed, drawn by the hiss of the flares, or just really eager to get their teeth into her.

Shut the crate. Reset the clasps. Make it all look like no one had ever been here, and certainly not got to sniff around the belly of the orange prize. Somewhat convinced that she'd masked her messing about with the drop, Zofia turned her head up along the brick wall next to her. The roof up there would make for a decent perch. She’d just have to keep her head down.

* * *

What if no one shows? Then you go home.

It’s getting late. Then you go home now.

But what if they show up then? Come on.

A steady, dull throb pulled through the muscles of her back, reminding her that she’d been crouching awkwardly by the edge of the roof for too long, when she heard the quick beat of boots approaching. She tensed. Held her breath.

The footfalls sped up, and then the metal fence to her left shook as a man vaulted over it. He landed on the other end, got his feet straightened out, and looked at the three Biters that had collected at the bottom of the stairs. Two of them were too busy gnawing on the torso to pay him any heed, and the other one was facing away from him, its head turned to the skies.

He rolled his shoulders and gave his arms a quick shake. Then, with his steps careful and wary, he approached the Biters hunched over the corpse.

Zofia exhaled. He didn’t look like one of Rais’ goons. He wore a simple dirty-gray button up shirt over a green v-neck, both halfheartedly tucked into a pair of washed out jeans. Save for the short brown hair and a thick shadow bunching up around his jawline, she couldn’t make out a lot of detail to his features in the flickering light, but overall, he appeared relatively harmless. Tall, yes. And he had a broad set of shoulders, and the rolled up sleeves of the shirt hinted at strong arms, but he lacked a certain brutish slouch that she’d come to expect from the men rallying around Rais. He wasn’t armed like them either, with nothing but a crowbar to his name. 

He grasped said crowbar tightly in both hands, lifted it, and drove it down into the first Biter’s skull with a precise stab. CRACK. He repeated the motion for the second one (CRACK ), and then turned just in time when the third came ambling towards him, attracted by the noise of its friends having their heads skewered.

Zofia shifted her weight. Her eyes flicked up the stairs, then over her shoulder, until she returned to watch the man stagger away from the Biter with its outstretched arms. No, he didn’t look like one of Rais’ men, but looks could be deceiving. He might still be. A scout of sorts, maybe?

Uncertainty made itself at home in her gut.

The man eventually decided on a two handed swing. His crowbar cracked into the side of the Biter’s skull, the impact almost lifting it off its feet. It snapped against the rock wall and slumped to the ground. He didn’t seem convinced, and followed through with another quick jab to its forehead. CRACK.

He was awfully calculated and precise in how he dealt with the Biters, but despite that Zofia thought she’d noted him hesitating. Second guessing himself.

Zofia hoped, notwithstanding the evidence, that Rais’ men would join him any moment now. That they’d come to claim their tainted prize. But what if they didn’t? She’d not paused a second in her plan, not considered the possibility that someone else might come pick up her poison. She chewed on her bottom lip.

Crap.

The man opened the crate. Rather than looting it greedily, however, he pulled up a satellite phone. Now that was a thing she hadn’t seen in a long while. Where’d he got it from? He dialled a short number, squeezed the phone between his ear and shoulder, and tentative reached out for the boxes.

“Crane here,” he said. “I’m about to recover an Antizin drop.”

Zofia arched a brow. She’d heard that voice before. Three days ago, right after he’d dropped from the skies. He’d sounded a lot less steady then though. The Tourist named Crane lifted the Antizin she’d tampered with from the crate and placed it on the ground. Halfway through propping open the top he froze and spluttered: “What? Wh—why?”

Who was he talking to? She leaned forward, peered over the edge of the roof at the top of his head while he hunched over the box. Whoever it was, they were getting a rise out of him. He sounded anxious. Confused.

“Bu-But there’re civilians depending on that stuff!”

Curiosity kept her where she was, and she watched with a mix of amazement and disgust as the Tourist first pinched one vial for himself, and then proceeded to stuff the two boxes into the burning barrel.

Zofia jerked her head back. Why the bloody hell?  What was he doing? Why would he- Cold rattled around in her stomach, like cubes of icy dread. No. No-No-No- She held her breath, listened. Silence prowled in close. Suffocating, deathly silence, like a beast getting ready to pounce. The slums held their breath along with her. No-No-No- And just like that the silence broke, and the alleys and gutters exhaled. Primal howls ripped through the night. Zofia’s innards shrivelled into a tight, miserable knot.

“Jade,” the Tourist muttered while the Antizin burnt. Defeat rode his voice. He seemed ignorant to the nightmares roused around him. Ignorant to death. “I’m at the airdrop. There’s no Antizin here.”

Liar. Stupid Liar. Stupid Zofia. She stared in horror at the darkness that had crept up on her while she’d wasted time waiting for her plan to unfurl. Her idiotic, pointless plan, which was about to get her killed.

Heavy feet thumped wetly against tarmac. So close. Too close. Guttural breath drew in stale air trapped within the alleys. Flesh tore. Bone snapped.

“Oh shit,” she heard the Tourist whisper harshly. “They must’ve heard me.”

Zofia pulled her bow in tight. Her hands were shaking, her breathing ragged, low. She didn’t want to breathe, for fear they’d hear her too.

Something heavy slammed into the fence. “Shit!”

He was going to die, wasn’t he? Out here, in the dark. On his own. It was not a good way to go.

Do something!

No, not a good way to go.

Anything…? Zofia snapped her elbows to her side and made herself as small as she could while the Tourist named Crane ran for his life.

Chapter Text

Pact with Rais: Manners


 Zofia lifted the brush to her nose and gave it a sniff.

A testing one at first, barely worth the mention. It smelled of arts and crafts, with Miss Turney in her apron covered by specks of colour. Another inhale, this one deeper and a bit more daring, and she thought herself standing in her bedroom, surrounded by white walls soon to be red, a dripping rolling brush dangling from her hand. One more drag of air, and the sharp scent of fresh paint kicked her brain into submission. She allowed herself a tight lipped smile. Sat very still. Waited. Gave in to a moment of nonsensical peace, or the illusion of it at any rate, and let the heady fumes take her elsewhere. They detached her from the turned over bucket she'd sat on, lifted her feet from the dirty tarmac, and then went on to pop her head right off her shoulders and got it floating for the bright blue skies like a vagualy Zofia shaped balloon. The illusion wiped away her hunger. Flicked away the pain and worry.

And when it passed it brought solemn silence, along with a bubbling need for more.

Zofia frowned at the paint, gave her head a quick shake, and returned to slapping another layer of —she glanced at the open can in front of her— Tractor Blue on her bow. Almost done.

“Sofia!”

She winced, glanced up, and tried hard not to let the jolt of her heart show. 

Jaffar got her name wrong. He always did. To be fair, most people ended up getting it wrong. At least he wasn’t calling her Sofie, which would have been downright criminal. Or, worse, Zo. She'd once killed a man because he'd called her that. In the confines of her imagination, at any rate. 

Her brow arched at the old man with his gigantic, heavily salted moustache, and his dark, weathered face crowned with shaggy silver hair. She had to admit it was difficult not to stare at the moustache. He kept the thing surprisingly well groomed, but otherwise he looked just as downtrodden as every other poor sod in Harran. He didn’t bother with the finer things of life, like scrubbing himself clean or ironing his clothes. Too busy staying ahead of things falling apart around him, much like everyone else. He was doing a decent job, too. Maintaining his Wheel Station, even after everyone else around him had fled the place, couldn’t be an easy task. It had been in a prime location, too. Right by an onramp to the highway keeping the slums connected, and at what might have once been a busy intersection. Still was busy, Zofia thought. Though instead of cars honking as they inched through traffic, they now sat abandoned, with Infected shuffling about day in and day out. It had been so busy, in fact, that Jaffar had reinforced the tall fence to keep the shamblers out. He’d even pulled up sheets of plywood, and affixed heavy duty spikes to them. The mean looking things jutted outwards and had to be regularly cleaned of Biters that had staggered right into them— or so Jaffar had told her the first time she’d come across his garage.

He even kept the main gate in working order, bless his heart, as if he expected cars to come rolling in.

The old man had help, of course. It was a small group, but a crafty one, and they’d stayed alive well enough. Zofia, despite her frequent visits, had never cared enough to get to know them, though she knew that at least one of them was supplying Rais and his garrison with supplies. She didn’t like him. The old man though, he was okay.

Jaffar dragged a bucket forward, turned it over, and sat down in front of her. He adjusted his greasy, stained overall, and then stared right at her.

“Where have you been,” he asked in his heavily accented English. Turkish. Arabic. One of the two, she’d never asked. “I haven’t seen you for a week!”

Busy.

Zofia frowned at him, not quite knowing what to say. Couldn’t tell the truth, since that’d just get him worked up. Didn’t want to lie either, since that just feel like wasted effort. She glanced back at the brush and watched a drop of paint separate from its tip. It landed on her boot. Another followed promptly.

Bugger.

“One day, girl—“ Jaffar continued. “—you’ll get yourself killed on your own out there.”

A little too late for that. Already dead, remember? Bitten. Just a matter of time now. Matter of missing a hit. Her fingers cramped around the brush, teased her with the promise of a seizure. None came. She’d imagined it. Conjured it. Zofia ground her teeth together.

“Why don’t you just stay with m-“

“No,” she cut him off. “We’ve been over this. No.”

He sighed. “Stubborn child.”

Zofia shrugged, continued painting. What a sweet old man, she thought. Trying to comfort them both with an empty promise. They would never let her stay. And they were right not to. She got two strokes in, along with her handful of wayward thoughts of good samaritans with their hearts still in the right place, before Jaffar leaned forward, fishing for her attention.

“Did you hear, Amir is dead,” he said, his voice a downtrodden mutter.

The words registered, but for a moment Zofia didn’t know what to do with them. She let her eyes travel up and down her bow. Good as done indeed, it just had to dry up.

“Who?”

“Amir Ghoreyshi! You’ve met him, I’m sure. He’s— was one of the Tower’s runners. A hero, that man.”

Zofia winced. Yes, she remembered him from her short stay at the Tower. Back when she’d washed up at their doorstep with her mind shot to hell, and hardly any meat left on her bones. Amir. Friendly smile. Honest eyes. A good man, supposedly. Fast friends with Jade Aldemir, real tight with her brother too, and second in everything to Brecken, the Tower’s reluctant leader. Friends with pretty much everyone far as she knew.

“Did Rais get him?”

Jaffar sat a little straighter. “What? No, no Rais had nothing to do with that.” He paused, lowered his voice. “You’ve really got to stop hating on the man. Him and his thugs are trouble, we all know that. But if you keep running your mouth it’ll be him who gets you, not the biters.”

He’s been there. Done that. Zofia shrugged.

“It was the Biters,” Jaffar continued. “Four days ago. Him and the Scorpion were out together, so I heard, but Amir never made it back home. They saved a man though. Not worth it, if you’d ask me.”

Zofia’s ears buzzed. Her jaw locked up. This had to be a coincidence. That man saving the Tourist four days ago… that woman’s desperate cry, while she’d bolted the other way?

Coincidence. Had to be. It couldn’t have been them. Since that would mean she’d— Zofia bit her bottom lip.

“There’s good news too!” Jaffar gestured enthusiastically in her peripheral vision.

“What’s that,” she murmured as she flicked her wrist to splatter drops of blue over the concrete ground. Don’t think about it. They made a pretty pattern. You didn’t have anything to do with it. It wasn’t them.

“The radio towers are back online. I’ve heard there’s been transmissions coming in from Old Town for at least an hour now. We can’t get them from outside, but this is great! No?”

Zofia craned her neck up at Jaffar. He was going to figure it all out, wasn’t he? Any moment now he’d call her out on what a useless coward she’d been, up on that roof, watching the Tourist get chewed up. Watching Amir, and Jade, risk their lives. But she hadn’t known that it’d been them. If she’d known-- her head spun, thoughts sloshing about like a pot of boiling mud. They were heavy. Suffocating.  They’ll all figure out you did this.

“I suppose,” she said, tried to flush the mud from her brain before it drowned her. I didn’t. I didn’t have anything to do with it.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got to get going.” Zofia dropped the brush into the can of paint. She held her bow out slightly, careful not to let the drying frame rub up against her, and with her free hand dug into the generous pockets of her pants to pull out a fistful of crumpled up money.

One would expect money to lose its value after the world went to shit, but Harran hadn’t quite caught on with a more communal attitude. It still ran on cash. Cash and a whole lot of blood.

Zofia offered the money to Jaffar. He looked at her, flabbergasted.

“For the paint.” She stuffed the bills into his chest pocket.

When she got up, everyone inside the fenced off Wheel Station raised their head. They turned their dark, judging eyes towards her, stared. Guilty, their gazes said. Guilty, they whispered between themselves.

Zofia’s anxiously pounding heart ran her from the station. She tasted bile on her tongue. It was nonsense of course. She’d not done a thing. She certainly hadn't killed a man.

No?

Zofia hit the streets. At least out here, nothing was about to judge her. Not the abandoned cars. Not the group of Biters that noticed her as she hurried past them, heading back into the direction of her den. They turned in clumsy unison, ambled after her. Still not judging her though. Just really wanting to sink their teeth into her, much like that one particular Biter on her left, with his torn green shirt and the tattered red shorts. She noticed him, but her legs kept carrying her forward. He lunged for her. A jolt of adrenaline granted her a moment of clarity, and she weaved out of the way with a twist of her shoulders.

So close, she could feel the air stir where he’d missed her.

“I haven’t,” Zofia told herself. “I had nothing to do with this.”

* * *

TWACK.

The golfball bounced off the Biter’s forehead. Its dislocated, mangled jaw wagged on impact, giving Kyle the impression the thing had taken to laughing at him as he sat on top the tunnel entrance. A long faced, slack jawed laugh.

Kyle pursed his lips in concentration.

“Crane is back on the field, Ladies and Gentlemen, and the crowd goes wiii-ld as he gets ready for the throw of the year. Watch as he—“ He snapped his elbow forward, and released the next golfball with a flick of his right wrist. It arched downwards. And missed.

“Fails,” he mumbled. “Spectacularly.”

His hand darted to the right, groped blindly for more ammunition, but came up empty. Scowling, Kyle glanced at the bare spot of concrete from which he'd emptied a neat row of six polished golf balls. He leaned back, propped himself up on his outstretched arms, and let his legs dangle off the ledge.

Ahead of him, striking out at the skies like some sore thumb, stood the slum’s tallest building. Perpetually unfinished, the skyscraper seemed to lord over the shantytown and its industrialised districts, proud and smug. The massive yellow banner, struck three times by strokes of black, didn’t help the impression, and reminded him a little too much of work, something he'd wanted to put aside for at least a little while. A six golf balls kind of while, and Kyle frowned, turned his attention to his knees, away from the structure. 

Below him, cars stood backed against the entrance of the tunnel. Biters, fourteen of them, all in different stages of decay, mingled between the vehicles. They shuffled their feet, drew in sharp, rasping breaths. They bumped into each other. They hacked up pieces of themselves. They pretended, with every twitch of a muscle, that there was still life in them. Or at least some poor imitation of it. Their minds had been wiped clean of complex thinking, stripped of even the most base needs that made man and woman tick. Sleep. Shelter. Sex. Twitter. Whatever defined the human condition— gone. What was left was the need to eat.

And, quite obviously, he’d made the menu.

The attention was exhausting. If he could, Kyle thought, he’d stay up here, where none of the fucking zombies could reach. Up here, out in the middle of no-and-where. Sort of. He looked up, lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the evening sun, and glared at nothing in particular.

His feet ached. His calves burnt. His shirt was a hot mess clinging to his skin, and his skull itched from dried sweat and dirt in his hair. This sucked, he decided, and absent-mindedly drummed his fingers against the crowbar lying by his side.

He was tired.

Kyle pinched the shirt at its neckline, tugged it out to let some air in, and cast a glance at his timepiece. An hour until nightfall. He scoffed. Not near enough time to cross the slums to Rais and his garrison, and then double back to the Tower before sunset. His shoulders tensed. That hurt too, pulled on abused muscles that screamed for a day’s rest, rather than a quick night of fitful sleep. Maybe he could stay here a little longer. Get a couple more minutes in. He could try and find more golf balls back at that shed. Or— he sighed. Get off your lazy ass.

Rest had to wait. He absolutely did not want a repeat performance of what had happened two nights ago. A blind race through the pitch black slums, with the batteries on his flashlight dying just as he’d tumbled ass over teakettle down a rocky slope. He’d had monsters on his heels. Monsters. Not like he’d stopped to get a good look. He’d seen the first one that had thrown itself at him, and that had been enough. A gnarly, bald head, split apart where the jaw should have been. Like a meat grinder with a set of bulgy yellow eyes screaming that they’d tear him to pieces from the inside out.

Kyle rubbed at his right forearm. Volatiles. That’s what they were called. They’d not been mentioned in the brief. He squeezed the still itching wound on his arm. That he might get bitten, that had been touched on in the brief, though they’d offered him a handsome hazard bonus for just that purpose. That, and promised him he’d be fine.

All in all, the briefing hadn’t even scratched the surface of what he’d found once his boots had hit the ground. My face, actually. He winced.

But that’s what they paid him the big bucks for. Right? Deal with the unexpected. Deal with it well. On top of that, deal with the local psychopath, and pretend you were a-okay with it.

“Fucking GRE,” he muttered. Running communal service for Kadir ‘Rais ’ Suleiman made him feel… sleazy. Even if— Kyle raised his eyes to the antenna tower thrusting for the skies on top of the hill to his right. He squinted at the criss-crossing metal construction reflecting the sunlight, and the antenna drums clinging to its sides. Not even an hour ago he’d been up there. At the top, where the wind whipped around his head, pulled on his legs.

This had been good work. Vertigo inducing, palms all sweaty type of work. But good work nonetheless. So what if the Emperor could now monitor his kingdom, or however Karim had put it. Everyone in the Quarantine benefited from the antenna being online again. The slums did, Old Town did, though it was a shame they couldn’t boost the signal quite enough to reach the outside.

“None of my business,” he reminded himself. All that’d be sorted once he had the documents and the GRE worked their magic on that cure. He turned away from the antenna, and climbed to his feet. Time to go.

Kyle slid down the side of the tunnel. He hung left, crossed a wide highway, and then dropped back into the bowels of the slums. From here he could have headed straight, but instead he followed the shaded pathway arching along the tall hill. It was pleasantly cool here, and Kyle found himself jogging along at a steady pace. Eventually the shade broke and he was back in the open. Back in the sun. He stopped, got his bearings. Tower. Right.  He turned, made to pick his path down a steep slope, when a series of frustrated screeches snapped his attention away from his goal and towards the cluster of brick buildings further ahead. Virals. Very upset and very stirred Virals. He followed the noise, downwards first, then up again, his arms protesting the climb onto yet another roof. It gave him a better view though, and he finally spotted two of the things clambering up the side of a blocky house. They seemed insistent on getting up there, desperately so. And since Kyle figured they weren’t just chasing their own shadows, he decided to at least take a look. He reset his grip on the crowbar (which had started to feel rather heavy), picked up speed along the side of a roof, and leapt across the gap onto the next building across a narrow drop.

Then he swung left, ambled across to the edge, and dropped into an open space leading into a covered up walkway.

Careful now.

He slowed, heeding his own advice, and crept along the walkway with the crowbar at the ready. The Virals had collected by a door. Kyle tried not to notice how one of them was a woman, and one of them a man. Or had been, at some point. One wore a plain white wife beater, now smeared with blood and pus and your run of the mill filth. The other sported a revealing, bright pink top and Kyle found himself grateful she had her back to him. He grimaced, stalled. Had they known each other? Had they stuck together after they’d gotten themselves bitten and turned? No, that was ridiculous.

Unlike the Biters, the freshly turned seemed to have retained a measure of urgency, but they weren’t particularly smart. They knew what doors were, sure, but he’d not seem them open any of them. Not yet, at any rate. But damn did they like banging against them, with their shrill cries grating at his ears.

Focus.

Kyle glanced left: Low railing, a steep drop. Then right: A metal fence, green paint flaking off the rusty bars. He rolled his shoulders to get them ready for more work, and without wasting any time, went for the distracted Virals. The bigger one he caught with the hook of the crowbar. The sharpened edge sunk into its skull, and with a yank it was dragged off its feet. Just as he pulled the weapon free, the second Viral caught on. It turned around. Oh fuck me, that is disgusting. The top was torn to ribbons at the front, and whatever had ripped them up, had raked at its breasts enthusiastically. The Viral blabbered garbled bullshit at him, and charged with its arms snapping up and bloody remain of breasts flapping grotesquely. Kyle wove out of the way. He shoved the thing with a quick tap against the side of its head, and watched it fall victim to its own momentum. The Viral screamed again, and continued screaming as it went toppling over the railing and plummeted to its well deserved death below. He heard the body hit the concrete. A wet, sickening sound, bones shattering inside a meaty sack.

Then, when the four seconds of putting his life on the line had passed, he kept still and listened. First, he listened for the thing stirring down there, getting up just out of principle, and against the laws of nature. It didn’t. And while he listened, he noticed the music.

Kyle blinked and stared at the door. It was coming from in there. Not particularly loud, but just enough to draw attention. An upbeat tune filtered through the door, interrupted by hitches of radio interference that might, or might not, have been voices whispering at the edge of the waveband.

He glanced at the crowbar, followed the length of it that was still pointed towards the first dead Viral, and noticed the thick gunk of brain matter and blood coating the curved edge. He stooped forward, wiped the worst of it against the Viral’s clothing, and once he was fairly confident he’d gotten the worst of it off, shoved the crowbar through the makeshift scabbard at his hip. Then he turned to the door and knocked.

Once.

Twice.

Nothing.

Frowning, Kyle paced along the side of the building. A balcony hung off it on the right, and a window covered by curtains sat just out of reach on the left wall.

“I could just let this be,” he told himself, but he’d already listened to his own judgement once in the last hour, and found no need to overdo it. Besides, someone could be in trouble in there. While Kyle didn’t peg himself a hero, he figured that he could at least make an effort to be a decent human being. Careful, and with a feeling much like a cold hand squeezing around his neck, Kyle flicked a set of lock picks from his pocket and hunkered down by the door handle. It was a simple lock and it gave way quickly. No deadbolt either. It swung open with a faint squeal of its hinges when he nudged it with his foot.

An orderly room greeted him. Orderly, and deserted. Aside of the radio muttering on a cluttered TV shelf, the place was quiet. Kyle walked over to the radio, switched it off. Last thing he wanted was more Virals with their chewed up tits hanging out coming barging in and interrupting his spelunking.

He surveyed the room, took a careful peek through a door leading into a tiny bathroom, and then tested the door by the balcony. Locked.

There were altogether five pieces of furniture crowded into the single room, if he didn’t count the kitchenette. A lone chair pushed into a corner. An incredibly uncomfortable looking couch, doubling as a bed if the blanket and pillow bunched up on one end of it were any indication. The TV bench with the stubborn radio on it, littered with bibs and bops ranging from useful to trash. A tall wardrobe, cracked open, clothes slung over the ajar doors. And a low coffee table with a vial of Antizin sitting on the edge of the table. It looked like a forgotten treasure, a stubby silver bottle worth a human life. His fingers twitched. Then he noticed the walls. They’d had pictures or posters on them once, evident by how the sooty yellow wallpaper brightened up in regularly spaced out squares. Now they were slowly filling up with postcards. More postcards lay stacked on the table. Kyle glanced at the Antizin again. His fingers twitched. Again. He grimaced and walked up to the wall, pushing the thought of swiping the vial into the back of his mind. For now.

The postcards depicted scenery from all across the City State of Harran. Beautiful architecture mingled with crystal clear blue waters and pale beaches, and then made room for the illustration of seasonal festivals. He saw the hype for the Harran Games, too, mostly drowned out amongst the white arches and strong walls of Old Town, the rolling hills of the outlying countryside— it went on and on. One particular card, or variations of it, made frequent appearances; A tall lighthouse standing at the edge of a lush green outcropping looking out over the sea.

He walked up to the wall and gingerly lifted one of the cards. They’d been nailed in place, one short nail per card. At the front, this particular postcard portrayed a cat, a tabby. It sat straight on a clean, white rock railing, with a large medieval sort of structure behind it. On the back, the card was painstakingly filled with tiny writing. He checked another one. Same deal there, same handwriting. Third one too, except here he could only see one word scrawled across it: SHIT

He arched a brow.

Then Kyle heard the floorboards creak. He felt his spine stiffen and the hair at the back of his neck stand at rapt attention. He turned, slowly, and stared at a bow bobbing gently up and down, an arrow nocked and pointed into his general direction. Attached to the bow was a boy— No, wrong. Shoulders too small. Hips too wide. Girl.

She slipped in through the door. Compound bow. Unsteady grip. Her arms shook slightly, but when she caught him shifting his weight, they steadied and the bow snapped up.

“You broke into my home,” she said, matter of fact. Not local. British?  She was right, of course. He had.

“Woah- Woah—“ Kyle raised his hands, palms turned up towards her. “Easy there, I’m sorry, alright? I’m not here to rob you. There— there were Virals at your door.”

He slowly stepped away from the wall and into the centre of the room. Her eyes snapped from him to the table, towards the Antizin bottle. For a moment he thought she might lower the bow, but then she turned her attention back to him, and took another step closer.

She looked… confused. Her pale lips were drawn together in a thin line, teeth nicking at her bottom lip, and her forehead creased with concentration. It might have been exhaustion, too. Sweat matted her mouse brown hair, which stuck out in uneven tufts from under an olive green band wrapped around her skull. It was likely she’d cut it herself. With horribly dull scissors, maybe. A haphazardly thrown together outfit of too wide carpenter pants and a filthy gray shirt clung to her small frame. Specks of blue colour dotted her shoes. The same blue as her bow. Actually, same blue as the smear on her cheek, too.

Aside of the colour, the rest of her face was pallid and blotchy. The angry red of never-ending circles of sunburn marked her cheekbones, darkened her ears. An ugly, puffy scar sat on the right half of her chin. A bite mark. Human.

She jerked her chin up. A gesture that should have been threatening, but showed only uncertainty. And while her cloudy, gray eyes studied him with some measure of intensity, the rest of her was by no means as convinced of what she was doing.

Kyle realised she wasn’t about to shoot him. She was terrified, trying her best not to show it, but falling short on all accounts.

“What you doing out here on your own?”

She frowned.

“What are you doing in my flat?”

Kyle lowered his arms. The bow bobbed. Her teeth were grinding together. Frustration. Anger. Still no intent to shoot though.

“You—“ he nodded towards the radio. “—left your radio on. I- I thought someone was in trouble.”

She swallowed. “Oh.”

Her head jerked again, first to the Antizin, then to him— then over her shoulder to the open door. Kyle waited, though he was beginning to worry the strain on her arm would get too much and she’d loosen the arrow out of accident rather than on purpose.

“No trouble here, you can leave. Please.” She sidestepped, made room for him.

Kyle did as he was asked, and carefully made his way past her toward the open door. She lowered the bow, wincing as she did so, and seemed to try and hurry him on with a somewhat convincing scowl. Halfway out the door, Kyle paused. He looked at her, raised his hand to his face, and tapped against his cheek. “You’ve got something— Yeah. There.”

She blinked. “Get out.”

Kyle grabbed the door and pulled it shut behind him.

* * *

Zofia let go of her bow. Bow and arrow clattered to the ground, and she fell right along with them. “Fuuuuuck,” she wheezed, her shoulder cracking into the wall. The wall was cold. Hard. She knocked her head into the plaster, let the touch of the cool surface soak up some of the fire dancing across her skin, and allowed her heart a few frantic beats to push the adrenaline from her system.

When the initial shock wore off, Zofia climbed to her feet, locked her door, and paced up and down the room. Had he taken anything? No, no he hadn’t. Everything was exactly where she’d left it. Even the Antizin.

She veered off into the bathroom, walked to the sink, and stared at her reflection in the grubby mirror.

The Tourist called— what was it again? Crane. —The Tourist called Crane was still alive. Look at that. He was right. She’d painted her own face. Zofia frowned, reached for the bucket of rainwater by the sink, and poured some of it into the basin. He’d managed to get away from the Nightmares, lived through the night.

With still shaking hands from the strain of keeping the bow trained at him, Zofia tugged a towel from the wall, dipped it into the water, and started cleaning the grime and colour off her cheeks.

But he’d pilfered one of the Antizin vials from the crate, and Zofia had no idea which one it was. If he used it, and it was one of hers, he might be in for a great deal of pain. Death, even. Then she’d have killed a man for certain.

A frustrated groan bubbled up her throat. Why’d he have to be so polite? It’d be easier just ignoring him if he’d not been that agreeable.

“Now what?” She stared at herself in the mirror. The dirt had washed off. The paint, not so much. She rubbed at the spot again, more vigorously this time around. To no avail, it seemed. Zofia lowered the towel, admitting defeat, and tapped a finger against the smudge of tractor blue on her left cheek. “Now. Now we go get that Antizin back, that is what.”

Chapter Text

 

Pact with Rais: Lavender


 Zofia felt the weight of ten lives dragging at her shoulders as she climbed the staircase. She might as well have been carrying slabs of concrete across her back judging by how the straps of her pack dug into her muscles. Or maybe she was just imagining it all. She tightened her grip around the straps. Squeezed. The stifling evenig heat made her hairline itch. Made sweat trickle down her nape and travel along her spine. She hated the sensation of her shirt stuck to her back, squashed between her skin and the pack.

You should be sprawled out on your couch now, stuffing tinned pineapple into your mouth.

Instead, she’d thrown herself back out into the slums. She’d even abandoned the radio. That stupid thing that had picked up a signal when the antennas had come back online— not the signal she’d wanted, but a signal nevertheless. Rather than searching for signs of life on the other end of the waveband, that last shred of hope of something that was her, something from the before, the normal, she’d chased after the remaining light towards the stubby twin apartment towers.

It was a quick trip. She’d stayed close to them, after all. If not out of necessity, then out of convenience, since where else would she barter? The lot in front of it, tarmac sweating in the sun, stood empty of threats. Biters that found themselves wandering into it were regularly cleared out, their bodies discarded in a ditch somewhere. Even so, there’d be no kids playing out here again any time soon. And she doubted anyone was still adding to the wall of mementos she’d paused at a few moments ago. Photographs of smiling faces, all with a little note attached to them that they’d gone missing and that please dear lord, could someone say they’d seen them?

People still carried flowers to it. The wilting tokens were frequently thrown out too, maybe right onto the pile of discarded Biters. She took a look over her shoulder, at the thin bundle of drooping blue flowers she’d just put there, squeezed into the lap of a tattered teddy bear. The thing was missing an eye and had been bleached by the sun, but it held together still. What a trooper. Eventually rain and wind would probably carry it off. Then she’d have to find a new one. She exhaled sharply, turned to face the stairs again, and continued her climb.

Zofia’s legs rooted themselves to the ground when she reached the last step. Why hesitate? Why not just march right in? The door was open wide enough, at any rate. It stood there, right in front of her, taunting her incompetent legs and undecided conscience. Zofia chewed on her bottom lip. The white bedspread tacked to the facade above the door spelled PLEASE HELP US! in washed out green paint, and another sheet on the left proclaimed SURVIVORS INSIDE in fading black. She remembered the first time she’d seen those words. They’d looked relatively fresh then, the paint still dark. And she’d been crawling up the steps. Her feet torn up. Her knees bloody. Her face a map of pain. Zofia frowned. When she’d collapsed it had been Amir and Jade who’d come rushing out the door.

Packing away the memory, Zofia convinced her legs to uproot themselves. She couldn’t stand out here any longer, night was coming, and there wasn’t any point in having yourself petrified by the memory of people who’d saved you. And then you killed one of them.

Once again adjusting her grip on the straps of her pack, Zofia headed inside.

It was pleasantly cool in here. UV light bathed the first level in a blue glow, a glow that anywhere else might have been considered cold and unwelcoming. Here, in the Quarantine, it was anything but. Here it meant safety. Just why the nightmares didn’t like UV light, Zofia did not know. She didn’t know if anyone did, let alone how they’d figured it out. But it worked, and she wasn’t about to argue with having herself surrounded by a good as impenetrable fortress of glaring blue light.

She navigated through the rubble and skirted around the meshed metal fence securing the last obstacle up into the bowels of the Tower. There were no stairs, just a bleak wall and thick black letters saying SAFE and an arrow pointing the way to said safety. She walked up to the wall, strained her tired muscles, and jumped up to grab the ledge. Before she could pull herself up, a pair of boots landed by her fingers.

“Can I help you?”

Zofia grunted, turned her chin up. She remembered the voice, as well as the face, but she couldn’t by the life of her put a name to either. Calling him Dude-with-red-checkered-shirt-held-together-by-tape-and-who-had-curly-black-hair was probably considered rude, so she didn’t even try.

He didn’t seem to care either way, nor expect a reply. He stooped forward. A rifle was slung over his shoulder, a mean looking thing, and he swept it aside before grabbing her elbow and hauling her up. Zofia flinched at the touch, but kept the protest to herself. Once her feet were back on solid ground, she quickly backed away and muttered a barely passable “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He turned away from her, and put himself back to where he belonged— a corner granting him a convenient view of the only viable approach up towards the ledge.

Zofia hung left. The bottom floor stood as the first, and last, line of defence. It was never empty, she knew, with a few guards rotating their shifts night and day. It also doubled as a restock station for Runners, those brave souls that roamed the streets and roofs in search of supplies. They’d repurposed the first room on her left into a depot of sorts, with a desk up at the front and a big man sitting behind it. The Quartermaster he called himself. He had a name too, but Zofia had never bothered to ask. He looked up as she passed by, then turned his eyes back to a paper splayed out in front of him.

She wondered how old it was, and what had been making news that day. Maybe there’d be a small column in there somewhere, stating for some reason or the other a man had bitten another. And then another. And then another. Maybe it had been the last paper that had run before the prints had stopped.

Zofia shrugged those thoughts off too, like she discarded a lot of them lately, and rounded the corner to the elevator. More eyes turned towards her, but no one stopped her as she pushed the button and shuffled her feet on the spot, waiting for the thing to ding open.

While she waited, Zofia tried to think of anywhere else within the Quarantine that might grant as decent of an illusion at safety as the Tower. They had food here. Guns, too. Plenty of water. Running water, even. They even had working stoves, for crying out loud. Sure, most levels of the apartment building had fallen to the Infected, or simply been abandoned, but the handful of people who’d built this shelter had gone to great lengths to secure enough floors to accept anyone willing to throw in with them.

They even welcomed those who’d got themselves bit.

How noble of them. How stupid.

The doors shuddered open. Zofia stepped inside, tapped the button to the floor she wanted, and took a shaky breath. She had a plan. Albeit a sketchy one, cobbled together hastily while she navigated herself to the Tower. There’d been two contestants towards the end, and she still hadn’t quite decided which one she’d pursue. The terrible one, or the one that stood to proof she’d lost her mind.

The doors started closing. Maybe you should flip a coin.

Then an arm snapped between the doors and they bounced back open. Zofia half jumped out of her skin, and only relaxed as she recognised the woman that squeezed herself into the cabin with her; The Tower’s diligent nurse, Lena.

She wore relatively clean, blue scrubs, and burdened herself with an array of bags dangling from her hips filled with everything she needed to keep the residents of the place alive. Short, black hair crowned a strained, but pretty oval face. She kept herself presentable, even wore makeup of all things. It wasn’t vanity, Zofia knew. It was coping. The world might have gone tits up, but when the sun comes up, Lena had once told her, an age old routine in front of the mirror helped soothe the nerves.

Her dark eyes snapped up to Zofia as she stepped in. They shone with an abundance of energy, something that she envied the nurse for. Then again, she envied her for a lot of things. Being useful was one of them.

“Zofia!” Lena looked her up and down, then offered her a careful smile. “You look terrible.”

Zofia coughed up a laugh. “Thank you, can’t say the same about you.”

Lena stepped forward, raised her hands and gently placed them against Zofia’s elbows. “It’s so good to see you. Did you just arrive? Why are you here? Oh you’ll have to tell me what you’ve been up to.”

“I—“ Zofia hesitated. The warm touch against her arms set her nerves on edge. It was a gentle touch, and light. And it was warm. Warm was good. Warm was comforting. She stood still, despite wanting to back away, and bobbed her head slightly. “Trade. I’ve come to trade, is what.”

“Of course you have.” Lena sighed. “But you know I’ll be trying to make you stay. We could use you here, you know that, right? We've lost a lot of good Runners. Too many, too quickly. Brecken! We almost lost him too, that stubborn man." She shook her head, murmuring under her breath. Then, when she looked up again, her lips were drawn in a heartbroken frown. "We've even...” Her voice faltered, and her hands slid down along Zofia’s arms.

“I heard,” Zofia interjected. “Amir.” Finally the warmth fell away and Lena folded her hands in front of her. The elevator kept climbing. Slowly. Zofia noticed that her stomach had decided to stay down below, with leaden guilt keeping it in place.

“How’s Jade holding up?” Yes. Ask how the woman whose friend you got killed is doing. That’ll help. Zofia had always thought there’d been more to the friendship between the two Runners. More than the hard earned trust between them, the one that kept them alive as they dared death daily with only each other to rely on.

Lena frowned. “Well enough. All this death, at some point we grow used to losing people.”

“Yeah,” Zofia murmured. It was a lie, of course. No one got used to it. No one in the right mind, at least. You got better at putting it aside though. At sealing it up, at not thinking about it. Until you eventually did. And then help you God did it hurt.

“We have a new Runner though. He seems capable.”

Zofia’s stomach snapped back into place. It jittered. “Uh-huh?”

“Yes.” A hint of mischief curled the corners of Lena’s lips. “Might even give you a run for your money.”

“Would he now?”

“He managed to get the antenna towers back online.”

Ah. A real life hero. She tried hard not to let the shame show for what she’d done, or rather what she hadn’t done, and tried to get the jittery pieces of her to stop rattling about like coins in a tin can tumbling down a staircase. Instead she nodded and made a noise that she hoped sounded approving enough.

“Maybe I should go say hello.”

“You’ve just missed him. He’s up with Brecken right now. They’re—“ Lena let out a frustrated puff of air. “We’re running out of Antizin. Brecken is getting desperate and trying to—“ Again Lena paused, looked at her with alarm creasing her brow. The nurse’s jaw worked silently. Come on. Just say it.

“He wants to trade with Rais?” Zofia concluded for her. “That’ll end him dead.”

The elevator lurched to a halt and the doors rattled open. As she followed Lena into the corridor, Zofia slipped one strap off a shoulder and moved her pack to her side.

“What else are we supposed to do? We can’t beat him to the air drops, and running them at night is suicide.”

Yes it was suicide. Yet some did it. And some made it, and then they went and burnt the Antizin, and— Zofia tried to make sense of the scraps littering her mind, but turned up with too many missing pieces to the puzzle. Not like it mattered. It wasn’t any of her business.

She trailed Lena through a small checkpoint fenced off with wire mesh, again guarded by a man with a mean looking rifle. He didn’t even bother looking up.

The moment Zofia had stepped from the elevator, her ears picked up the silence. A silence that hid between the chatter of voices, the murmurs of conversation. The silence of… no Biters. No sad gurgles, no hacking breaths. No wet wheezing.

She felt her shoulders try themselves at relaxing, her ears contemplating to drop the strain of listening every damn second for a threat that wanted to tear her up.

“Lena.” Zofia stopped, snatched her pack open.

“Yes?” The nurse turned around.

When Zofia dug out a slab of padding, cleanly cut around ten vials of Antizin, Lena’s eyes widened.

“I need food. Meds. Figured I shouldn’t turn up empty handed.”

“This—“ Lena’s head jerked left and right, and she rushed up to grab for the suppressants. She stopped herself just short of grabbing it all. “Where did you get that?”

Zofia ran her tongue along the edge of her teeth. “Don’t ask. Just take them.”

Lena picked the pad from her hands. Carefully. Like the precious cargo that it was. “You have no idea how—“

“Don’t mention it.” Zofia zipped her pack closed and shrugged it back onto her back. “I’ve got some more things to turn in before the whole place falls asleep… so…”

“Yes— yes, sure. I’m just going to get this to the infirmary, and then— Zofia, you have no idea—“

You’re sweet. “Lena.”

“All right. Just, come down later, okay? You can stay with me tonight and we’ll get you everything you need tomorrow. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Oh, and—“ Lena started raising a hand to her own cheek.

“I know.” Zofia tucked up her left shoulder and rubbed her cheek against it. “It’ll come off.”

“I have rubbing alcohol, that will take care of it.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Lena agreed.

Zofia had watched the nurse head off with quick, hasted steps, and then she’d doubled back to the guard by the elevator. She had figured he’d know where the Tourist named Crane would be staying, considering the man had got himself famous, and apparently she’d been right.

And now, with her heart in her throat, Zofia turned into the repurposed apartment plainly labeled Guards. It was vacant. So far so good. She passed the bathroom, threw another look over her shoulder, and ducked through the next door on the right.

The first thing that greeted her was a map of the Harran slums, spreading from ceiling to floor and tacked against the wall outcropping in front of her. She had a map too. It was smaller. Pocket sized. Also crumpled. Torn, a little. Zofia frowned. It wasn’t fair, she thought. Not only was his map bigger, but the Tourist had a room twice the size of her den. Worse, he had a proper bed. A desk. Even a cork board, which she figured would have made pinning her post cards a lot easier. A large wardrobe was pushed into the far corner on her left, and a comfortable looking futon stared at her from thereabouts as well. The bed stood just by the window, with the desk doubling as a nightstand. It had a fucking reading light, with two books carelessly thrown on top of each other below it.

Overall though, the place didn’t look like it had been warmed up properly yet. It felt too clean, too orderly. The books, and the duffle bag sitting by the foot of a futon were the only indication that someone had decided to live here.

There we go. Zofia padded across the floor to the bag. The back of her neck ran hot and cold, tingled with a touch of sin. It was the sort of shiver that told her she was about to commit a crime, no matter how good her intentions might have been. Eventually it settled in her chest and gave that a squeeze for good measure. Didn’t matter that he’d done the same. He’d gone through her den. Gone through her postcards. They were private things, those. Didn’t matter she was just returning a favour, and maybe even trying to help. She ignored the conflicting thoughts, went down on her haunches, and carefully pulled the bag open. Clothes. Stuff. She rummaged around in it, her hands feeling every fold and flat piece of cloth in search for the bulge of an Antizin bottle.

Nothing. Fuck.

Her eyes darted about the room. Oh man, he even has a guitar? Come on. Her fingers twitched with a distracting desire. The desk maybe? She rushed to the other end of the room. A pair of handcuffs dangled from the knob of the first drawer, and Zofia’s eyebrows came up. What did he need those for? She shook her head, pulled the drawer open. Empty, aside of a few pieces of blank paper and pens. So were the others.

“Come on now, where are you hiding it?”

He wouldn’t be carrying it around, now would he? It wasn’t like she always had a spare on her, just in case the seizures were getting bad enough and she’d start flaking out.

Well, this was the terrible plan, wasn’t it?

She groaned, got back on her feet, and decided to check the wardrobe before moving on to plan B.

* * *

Kyle needed a bed. He’d have liked a drink too, and maybe a TV. What day was it anyway? Thursday? There’d be a new episode of Archer out. He rubbed at the back of his neck and trudged down the hall, with his eyelids heavy and his limbs aching. His head buzzed with the argument he’d had to witness between Brecken and Jade, neither of them willing to let up. What if Rais didn’t give them Antizin? Maybe he should go himself after all, Brecken insisted. No, no way— Jade would go. No, that was ridiculous, she couldn’t. It went back and forth, while Kyle stood at the sidelines, hating himself for having destroyed the suppressants.

There was no point arguing anyway. Tomorrow, Kyle would be headed back into the lion’s den, if not for the Antizin, then because that’s what he was being paid for. Then Rais might cough up the drugs, or he might not. Regardless the outcome, nothing would change for Kyle. Much like nothing changed how fucking tired he was.

Bed.

He rubbed at his eyes as he turned into the otherwise vacant apartment. A quick glance into the bathroom added Shower to the list of things he needed desperately, and then he reached the threshold to his room.

“Crane!”

Kyle stopped, whipped his head around. Or rather, turned around slowly, since there wasn’t enough steam left in him for anything more than a jerky tilt of the head. Jade came hurrying into the apartment after him.

What now…?

She was a blur in her formfitting dark undershirt, revealing the clean, tanned skin of her arms and shoulders, her feet quick and light. Large, dark eyes caught him groggily mustering her as she came to a stop in front of him. Her arms folded below her chest. She’d changed out of the tight leather jacket and the distracting dark gym pants, but she looked no less— perky. Yes, that was still the best word he could come up with to describe the Scorpion. Kickboxing Champion of Harran, etc… A compact, slender frame, with a delicate neck and perky, currently bare, shoulders. Perky— everything, really. She wore her jet-black hair tightly bound at the back of her head, where it fanned out in a mop of thick dreads and loose strands. When she tilted her chin up at him the mop bounced wildly.

Kyle propped himself up against the doorframe. Sleep could wait. “What’s up?”

* * *

Zofia was elbow deep in the wardrobe when she heard the slow footfalls. Fuck. Her stomach evacuated the premise, dropped right to the first floor, not bothering with the elevator.

”Crane!”

Double fuck.

At the sound of Jade’s voice, Zofia found herself all the way inside the wardrobe. She pulled the door closed behind her, allowed it to click softly back into its grooves, and tucked herself into the dark. A sheet of light broke through the thin crack between the doors, illuminating her shaking hands as they wrapped around her knees.

The wardrobe wasn’t empty. In fact, it was pretty damn packed. She’d almost finished rifling through it all when she’d been rudely interrupted, had flicked open every single unmarked cardboard box that littered the bottom and turned up nothing. Nothing but scraps. A few shirts and trousers, all still in fairly good condition, hung from a rail at the top. She’d gone through those too. Had even found a pack of gum, which she’d squirrelled away out of habit alone. Now, as she sat there with her shoulders nestled against the wall behind her, a pant leg brushed against her head. It tickled. Zofia scrunched up her nose.

At least it smelled nice in here. Lavender. Mothballs.

”What’s up?” She heard the Tourist called Crane ask.

What were you thinking hiding in a closet for? You bloody moron. How are you going to get out? She buried her chin between her knees. Wait for him to fall asleep?

”I wanted to thank you. We’re too caught up with, with all of this. Brecken, and me, we really appreciate what you’re doing for us. The whole Tower is in your debt.”

”It’s— it’s no problem really. I’m infected too, remember? Sitting around on my hands isn’t going to help anyone.”

”But you don’t have to, that’s the point. You’re risking a lot for us. Rais, he is unpredictable, if he—”

”Look, I told you already—“ Zofia heard them move, the slow shuffle of feet further into the room. She bit back a disappointed growl. ”—I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”

Somewhere out there, Jade sighed. It was a meaningful enough exhale, dragging with it emotion that had Zofia’s brows pinch in the dark.

”What?” The Tourist sounded cautious, and she could hear a few more tentative steps carrying him into the room.

CLICK. That was a door. A door closing, to be more precise.

Zofia felt the silence out there. It sat heavy on her skin. Oily. Guilty. She held her breath.

Cloth snapped. Someone exhaled quickly. ”Jade?” Now he sounded downright startled. More footsteps, staggering clumsily, rapidly approaching her. Jade whispered, the words bouncing off the closet doors and leaving Zofia with a sinking feeling of dread as she huddled herself deeper into the dark. Then her hiding place shuddered, a violent, quick THUMP of two bodies hitting it without much regard for furniture integrity. Let alone the person hiding in it. Zofia almost yelped.

This has got to be a joke!

She could hear their quick, ragged breathing through the crack between the doors, and the hectic, desperate rustle of cloth. The doors bent inwards again.

And Zofia's world shrunk in on itself. Glitched. Fell to a memoryto the touch of a calloused hand locking around her knee. Squeezing. Squeezing harder, fingers digging into meat. ‘—come on sweetheart, don’t be shy,’ the harsh voice slipped against her ear, thick and heavy and real. No-no—no—Zofia squeezed her eyes closed. Her hand jerked, searched for the fingers ripping into her, wanting to pry them off, but she found nothing but the worn fabric of her trousers. Scratchy. Damp. Wet. Moving as they hitched down, dragged away from her. Leaving her bare and kicking and No-no—not real—not now—not now—get out of my head. No-No— She sucked in air and he crushed her. Suffocated her. Drowned her in his stench, the sweat and stale alcohol, the death riding him. Blood.

Zofia dug her head between her knees, pressed the palms of her hands against her ears. The closet bucked again. Then the weight lifted. The Tourist growled— a strained, but eager noise. Wounded, not down, and she pushed the palms of her hand against her ears. Curled her fingers into them. Clawed and scratched, wanting to tear them off, make them stop ringing and screeching like nails scraping at the insides of her skull.

’Why’re you his favourite? The clammy heat of his skin lined her with ice. ’You’re not special.’ He tore at her. Hands. Fingers. Teeth. 

Outside the hell of her confinement, a heavy weight landed on old springs. They squeaked in vocal protest. Metal cracked against the wall. Another squeak. Then another. And another.

It's okay. It's okay. It'll be okay. Let it happen, it will be over soon. Let it happen, it will be over soon. Just another. Just another. Don’t fight. Teeth sunk into her chin. Bit down. Drew blood. She screamed. 

Make it stop! Please, please-pleasepleaseplease.

Her eyes burnt up, turned to molten sludge. Bright red pieces of memory shattered against her tightly closed eyelids. She tried to shake them, tried to think through the frantic pounding of her heart. There was no rhythm to how it squeezed the life from her with each beat.

Make it stop… The muscles in her left leg cramped from the strain on pressing her knees together against her skull. She opened her mouth, let it hang open with a scream that never found itself up her throat. She couldn’t scream, not here. She couldn’t move. Not here. Couldn’t anything.

Make it stop…

She exhaled, pushed the air from her lungs, wishing they’d refuse to draw in another breath. But they did, one hitching gulp at a time, slow enough to spin her head from her shoulders. Seconds stretched into minutes. Minutes into hours. Hours into an eternity of hands squeezing her skin, tearing at her hair, of the trespassers that broke into her, promising her safety for a pound of flesh.

Make it stop…

CLICK. A door. Opening, this time, before falling shut again. Zofia’s left hand slid from her ear. Silence sat out there. It hunkered at the edge of her hearing, somewhere past the screaming and the grunts and the groans and the squelching of her memories.

She blinked. Her jaw hurt. She’d been clenching that too. Then the rest of her started reporting in, muscles raising their flags in wild objection and nerves firing in agony.

”Shit,” the Tourist said out there, bouncing the word off the walls for his own benefit. Frustrated footfalls carried him towards the door.

”You fucking idiot.” He paced the other way again. ”Shit. Shit. Shit.”

Zofia heard clothing rustle again, no doubt coming on this time, rather than off, and then he went marching across the room and out the door.

Her left knee snapped to the side, pushed the door open. With effort, she peeled herself from the closet. Her joints, stiff as they were, ached and creaked, but she kept herself on her feet while she nudged the doors closed again and tried not to take too deep of a breath of a room that smelled of sex.

When she was certain she’d be able to move her legs into the general direction of out, Zofia started wobbling for the door. She paused by the threshold. Still empty. A heavy knock against the wall to her left jerked her head to the side. The bathroom. Another thud, followed quickly by the sound of rushing water.

He has running water.

Snapping her hands up to the straps of her backpack, Zofia hurried from the apartment. She decided that, from here on out, she would thoroughly hate the Tourist named Crane. This was his fault anyway. He could just go ahead and choke on her fake Antizin.

She really didn’t give a toss any more.

Chapter Text

 

Pact with Rais: Zofia


 Kyle woke convinced he’d left a stove on.

A stove. Not necessarily his, no. And it might not even have been an actual stove per se. Maybe more of a toaster oven, or just a plain old waffle iron. With the waffles still inside, which would be a shame, because there was a pinch in his stomach that told him a waffle might have been the best fucking thing ever right about now. Either way, it'd get the job done, burn down a building somewhere, and he'd end up going Oops and get footed with a bill big enough to force him into prostitution. 

He sat, flung the covers off his bed, and groggily reached for his timepiece on the nightstand.

05:20

Seven hours of sleep. Not bad. Not particularly good either, judging by how his thoughts shuffled forward slowly and his eyelids remained stubbornly heavy. Maybe he should flop right back into bed, pull the scratchy, stiff covers over his head and let the figurative stove blow.

No, no he couldn’t.

Kyle gave in to the nagging feeling scratching at the back of his head and got to his feet. He found himself a passably fresh set of clothes, dug his belt out from where it had somehow ended up under the bed, and tied it while his thoughts kept turning themselves upside down. Come on man, get it together, he thought while he slipped the timepiece back onto his wrist. The anxiety kept crawling around the insides of his skull, like a pile of antsy... ants. Be worried, it insisted. Be out of your fucking mind.

He chalked it off as a pre-performance anxiety of sorts, his equivalent to a musician’s stage jitters before the lights came on. Only his stage was right out there, past that door, and his audience a flock of scared survivors and a militaristic psycho. He’d have to fool them all again today, keep them believing he was no more than some idiot who’d not been able to check travel warnings on TripAdvisor before booking his summer vacation in quarantined Harran. 02/10, wouldn’t recommend. Good weather this time of year, scenery nice, but locals very clingy. With their teeth.

Kyle left the unease behind once he stepped from the room, shed it clean as he could when he crossed the threshold. He even closed the door on it, just to make sure it wouldn’t come crawling right after him and catch up in the hallway. And then, with his stomach in avid agreement, went to search for something that’d pass for breakfast.

That early in the morning, the Tower’s halls stood quiet. It’d stay that way for maybe another hour, before the civilians would prop their apartment doors open and life would come spilling out. Until then he could climb the stairs to the next level and make his way around without having to dodge kids flying down the corridor, locked in their make-believe games of hunting down whoever had drawn the short straw and was moonlighting as the Zombie this round.

The Tower didn’t have a mess hall, not exactly. Most families, or the equivalent in loosely knit groups of people sharing their living quarters, stuck to their apartments. But they’d repurposed one of the units on the 20th floor enough to let it pass as a commons room. It wasn’t particularly cozy, but it had reminded Kyle of a dingy R&R corner during one of his previous tours.

He hooked his thumbs into his belt and bunched up his shoulder blades. That had been before Zombies had been a thing. Kyle scoffed. Despite evidence to the contrary, he still couldn’t wrap his head around this new status quo. He’d been standing in his backyard when the news had hit, a bottle of beer in one hand, a charred steak happily sizzling on the barbecue. He’d dismissed it at first. Laughed it off. Then the next day it had become reality, and the morning paper had made Zombie a thing. Real. Like that bite on his forearm. That was real too.

Thinking of the bite had been a mistake. The wound started itching the moment he gave it any attention, and his abdomen tensed with simple, cold fear. Despite the GRE’s reassurances, Kyle couldn’t simply ignore the fact that he’d been infected. And if untreated, he’d eventually find out what it felt like having himself dragged from his own mind, kicking and screaming, and then leave him— well, kicking and screaming and biting and not much more.

Kyle shook his head. Shape up, man. Embrace the suck and get the job done. First, he’d need to get himself fed though. And preferably soon. No one worked well on an empty stomach.

To his surprise, the commons room wasn’t entirely deserted. A lone early riser sat hunched over an open can of beans, listlessly stabbing at its contents with a fork. Oh what he’d do for some fried eggs, bacon and toast…

At the sound of him approaching, or maybe in reaction to his stomach letting out a pitiful whine, the bowed head snapped up and swivelled to face him. Kyle almost hadn’t recognised her without the bow threatening him, but the smudge of blue on her cheek was a dead giveaway. Judging by how her posture stiffened, and her fist clenched around the fork, the girl wasn’t any less flustered about seeing him here than she’d been back on her turf. When her eyes— still very pale and very wide —locked onto him, Kyle noticed he’d stopped walking.

Awkward…

He got his legs moving again, and passed through the common room to the counter with its sorry selection of foods leftover from yesterday. His neck itched. She was watching him, wasn’t she? He dug into his pants pocket, fished out one of his food tokens, and slid it into the box marked 1 for 1, Play Fair.

It was a simple system, really. One token, one meal, though Kyle was a little sketchy on the finer details of the Tower’s rationing practices. People couldn’t simply march into the storeroom, that was guarded well enough, but this shelf ran by the honour system. He got the idea behind it, the show of trust— that bit of human that kept them together. Still, a little dicey, far as he was concerned.

He picked up a can, turned it slowly in his hand, and frowned at the label printed in Arabic. The picture looked meaty enough, though it didn’t really matter. He’d eat it.

When he turned around, the girl’s head whipped forward. Yes, definitely watching him. Kyle cleared his throat as he approached her, and watched how her shoulders pulled together and how she dropped her left hand on the pack she’d placed on the chair next to her. Like he was going to just swoop it up and run off with it.

“Morning,” he offered. “Mind if I sit?”

She looked up, sized him up with pale gray eyes darting left and right across him like she was measuring him shoulder-to-shoulder, head-to-toe. All that was missing was the tape and she’d be set to tailor him a suit. Or fit him a casket. Judging by how her forehead creased and her teeth clicked, Kyle thought the casket was considerably more likely.

Then she nodded and he dropped himself into the chair, placing the tinned mystery meat and a fork in front of him. It occurred to him that the way her right eyebrow came up meant she hadn't invited him to sit after all, but he’d already committed himself to the situation. He was hungry, and he did feel a little scummy for what he’d done yesterday, good intention notwithstanding. Maybe he could make amends. Somehow.

“Look, I’m sorry about giving you a scare yesterday,” he started, his fingers tapping against the can he’d started turning between his hands. “Didn’t mean to.”

She graced him with a shrug for an answer, before her attention turned back to shovelling food into her mouth. Considerably quicker than before, he noted.

He glanced around the unit, at the blocky old TV standing on a rickety looking wooden box, and the two futons in front of it. Maybe he should leave her be. Be respectful and all that nonsense. The futons were probably a lot more comfortable than these plastic chairs. But then her head twitched and she pulled her shoulder up, and he watched her rub at the stain of blue on her cheek with the dirty cloth of her shirt. There in front of him sat a human, small and with hope bitten out of her. The tilt of her head gave him a good look at the teeth marks on her cheek, and Kyle doubted they were a love bite gone wrong. She couldn’t be older than thirty, if even that. She’d probably had a plan in life. A goal of sorts. Had dreams. Crushed ones. Chewed up ones. Ah shit…

His appetite exited the premises. She’d probably come to the Tower for Antizin, and they’d probably had to tell her there wasn’t enough for her.

“I’m Kyle, by the way. Kyle Crane.” He extended his hand.

Her eyes didn’t lift from the food. “Good for you,” she mumbled between two mouthfuls of beans.

Kyle’s fingers twitched. Little… He sighed. So she didn’t want to talk. Fine, he could work with that. He’d probably be pretty damn sour too if he was her. He grabbed the latch on his can.

Jesus— what if I can’t get Antizin from Rais? He pulled the latch.

No, that’s ridiculous. There will be more drops. All I’ve got to— The latch snapped off, leaving him staring at his breakfast still neatly locked away by a thin sheet of metal.

“Great.” Kyle didn’t appreciate how fed up he sounded, how the guilt turned itself to anger the moment it made it up his throat, but what was he supposed to do? He’d had orders. Second guessing your superiors never got anyone far, and if the GRE thought destroying the Antizin drop had been worth the risk, then it was worth the risk. It was that damn simple.

A knife slid across the table. It was incredibly unbalanced, with a stubby blade and a heavy, thick handle wrapped in black tape, and wobbled wildly before he caught it by slapping his hand on top of it.

So the quiet girl in blue wasn’t entirely engrossed in her beans. Good to know.

“Thanks.” Kyle lifted the knife. Dulled edge, thick tip. No good for cutting, or any other fine work, but still a decent enough tool. He placed the tip against the ridge of the rim, wrapped his hand around the hilt, and slapped his palm down to knock a hole into the metal. By the time he’d worked the lid off, he’d gotten his appetite back, and only by bite three he realise how disgusting this whatever really was. But it was food. Food mattered. Food was good. He grimaced. Usually.

“Why did you burn the drugs?”

Kyle bit down on his fork. The hell? He looked up. She’d pushed her empty can aside, the fork balanced across the open top.

“What?”

She fidgeted on her seat and tossed a look toward the open door of the unit. With her eyes still to the door and her voice low, like she didn’t want it to carry into the hallway, she repeated what he’d heard perfectly clear the first time. He’d simply not let himself believe his ears.

“Why did you burn the Antizin?”

The stage jitters from before turned to freeze him on the spot, and Kyle was painfully aware that he was staring at her from across the table, the fork still hovering in the air by his mouth. How…

“What— Ho—How do you know?”

Well played. Go straight to admitting to it. You fucking idiot.

“I was there,” she said, all matter of fact. Like it was the most obvious thing ever— like he should have guessed. “You were talking to someone. They told you to do it. Then you lied to Jade.” At that her brow pinched, and why did Kyle feel himself being judged unworthy right then and there? Unworthy of what?

The girl sat back. She hugged her arms around her chest and straightened her back. She’d also gotten a little narrower, tucked her shoulders up, like she was getting ready to slide right off the chair and bolt. Kyle noticed he’d leaned forward, widened his own stance, elbows spread out in front of him. His neck tensed painfully, and a burning noose crept up his throat; the dread of critical mission failure.

“And then you ran,” she added.

“You’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.” He cocked his head back. Set his jaw. The GRE had made one thing perfectly clear: At no cost was he to jeopardise why he was here, why they needed him to find Suleiman, and what they needed from him. Mission integrity was an obvious priority— failure to maintain it could lead to the file’s destruction. To the cure being lost. To hope being lost. To him not making it out of here.

Kyle got to his feet. Slowly. He stepped around the table, toward the door. The colour drained from her face —whatever little she’d had behind the grime and flaking sunburn— and she grabbed her pack and the knife she’d offered him earlier. Her chair toppled backwards as she made to dash for the door, but Kyle slipped in front of her. She sealed her fate by jabbing the dull knife at him as she tried to slip past him, a clumsy stab that wouldn’t have broken skin regardless of her effort.

He grabbed her wrist. Twisted her arm. It only took one halfhearted squeeze for her to drop the knife, and one push to get her staggering back into the unit, away from the hall. Kyle kept his eyes on her, watched her hug her pack close to her chest, and then reached for the door behind him and flipped it shut. The sound of the wood settling into the frame drained whatever pink had been left on her cheeks.

“You have no idea,” he repeated, “what you’re talking about.”

Maybe she’d get the hint. Her chin came up, a touch of defiance, of some conviction that she’d misplaced a moment ago and had now tripped over again. No, she wouldn’t get the hint. She’d not be giving this up, he realised, and the thought alone only squeezed the dread tighter around his throat.

Kyle followed her into the room. He paused only to stoop forward and pick up the toppled chair, and she kept retreating until she withdrew past the food shelves and backed herself into a corner. When her back hit the wall the defiance slipped right off her face and made room for something less flattering. Panic.

Kyle planted himself in front of her, all the while desperately trying to strangle the tiny voice knocking about in his skull, the one that insisted he was being a dick for intimidating the poor girl. His success was marginal at best. It continued kicking, but he didn’t really have a choice. He’d have to feel bad later, once he figured this out.

“Let’s get this out of the way first,” Kyle started. He raised one arm above her head, placed his palm firmly against the wall, and loomed above her like the insensitive asshole he was currently feeling like. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

Shit, she’s tiny.

“But don’t fucking test me. Clear?”

Her head bobbed up and down. Wide eyes stared up at him.

“Good. Now— What do you want?”

She blinked and the corners of her lips pulled down in a puzzled frown.

“It’s been a few days. You’ve had plenty of opportunity to rat me out to Brecken. But you haven’t.”

Kyle kept his expression to a singular threatening frown as he watched her right eyebrow come up. He didn’t want to rush her, didn’t want to hurry her thoughts along as she worked out whatever it was that danced behind her gray eyes, but he knew that any time now someone might come through the door and find him cornering a frightened girl. And that’d raise questions, and he couldn’t have that.

“So, what gives?”

“The drop wasn’t meant for you,” she eventually mumbled, her voice frayed at the edges. “It was meant for Rais and his men.”

“You— work for Rais?”

“What? No. ” Her voice lost the uneasy quiver, sharpened itself on some great offence, and Kyle figured it might as well have slapped him in the face. Sore spot. Got it.

“I—“ She lowered the pack she’d been clutching to her chest. He felt the muscles in his stomach tense when she shoved a hand into one of the side pockets, anticipating her pulling another knife, one likely much sharper. No knife though, just an innocent, bulgy vial of Antizin.

“I swapped the vials. The ones you burnt? Half of them were no good.” The girl shrugged the pack onto her shoulders, all the while carefully avoiding moving any closer to him than absolutely necessary.

“You took one of them,” she continued, and Kyle caught himself nodding lamely. Yes he had. But she’d done what now?

She was hugging the vial against her chest, cradling it in her hands in a meek offering of sorts.

“All right.” Kyle fished the vial he’d lifted from the crate from the padded pouch on his belt. “This?” It looked perfectly normal, if a little worn, the label a bit off-centre.

She squinted at it, nodded. “Yes, it’s filled with antifreeze. And— stuff.”

“It’s— it’s what ? Are you insane? You could have fucking killed someone with this! What if the Tower got to the drop?”

“The Tower did get to the drop,” she argued. “You got there. You burnt the vials. Why did you burn the vials?”

“What does it fucking matter why I burned the damn vials?” Kyle held out the fake bottle, pinched it between his thumb and index finger and lowered it to her nose. She looked at it, then at him, and then at some spot above his left shoulder like she couldn’t stand him staring at her. Whatever remorse he’d felt, or whatever panic had kicked him into motion earlier, that was gone, replaced by an irrational anger at the selfish little shit cowering behind her vial of suppressants. “You. Could. Have. Killed. People. Kids, for fucks sake. What’s wrong with you?”

“Rais would have gotten to them first.” Meek again, words crumbling right out of her mouth with no real edge to them.

“And Rais sells this shit!”

She blinked.

“Yeah. Didn’t think about that, huh?” Nice work, Kyle. Classic misdirection, the class would be proud.

Her jaw clenched, and she started chewing on her bottom lip, still not looking at him— still holding on tight to the vial. Then her eyes flicked to the door, and Kyle heard it opening barely in time to push himself off the wall and take two long steps back.

The tell-tale sounds of the rousing Tower spilled through the open door, and along with it came Rahim. Jade’s younger brother froze with his hand still on the door handle, his green eyes darting from the girl to him and back.

Kyle liked the kid. He had spirit. Incredibly reckless and infuriatingly stubborn spirit. He was cocky, too. And he wore it all right out in the open, beginning with the pair of tinted fly safety goggles he hardly ever pulled off his forehead. Right now he looked a little fazed. Like he’d gotten himself together in a hurry, and now realised he’d forgotten something important. Like, for example, leaving the stove on. His shirt and sweater were on all lopsided, halfway stuffed into the wide cargo pants, and halfway squeezed through his belt. He’d ditched the knee pads, so he wasn’t going to be training any scouts or runners just yet, but he did give Kyle the impression of a young man on a mission. A way early mission, he noted as he chanced a glance at his timepiece.

“Hey— Hey Crane!” A wide smile broke the puzzled mask right off Rahim. He pushed the door open all the way and came striding right in.

Kyle tossed a look at the girl slowly making her way forward. She’d ditched the Antizin. He narrowed his eyes at her — Don’t you think about it, Missy. — noted her blanched expression, and, hoping she wasn’t going to be ratting him out right then and there, turned to meet the enthusiastic Rahim.

Who marched right past him.

“You met Zofia?”

“Who— Oh. Yeah.” He filed the name away. And then he sorted her reaction away too, the one when Rahim walked up to her and pulled her into a hug. How her eyes snapped wide open. How her hands fell to her sides, fingers curling into loose fists. And that slight smile, lips parted just right, brows pinched just enough. Fake.

“Lena told me you were heading out again,” Rahim ranted. “Why didn’t you drop by?”

“Just passing through, Rahim.” Her voice was level, steady as could be. Like she’d not been horrified a minute ago. Kyle filed that away, too.

“You should do that more often, passing through. Especially if you’re bringing Antizin every time.”

“Well, I don’t.” Her eyes caught him watching, and he noted some silent challenge in them. “I got lucky.”

“Crane, can you believe it?” Rahim peeled himself off the girl and, still holding on to her shoulder, marched her along with him towards Kyle. “Lena said she brought us ten vials yesterday. Ten! I mean, we’ve still got to deal with Rais I guess, but now we’ve got hope, right?”

Ten. Twenty-eight vials by box, half the vials fake, and he’d burnt two boxes. She still had eighteen of them. Somewhere.

“That’s impressive,” Kyle admitted— and bit back the Where’d you get them?

“Lucky break.” She lowered her eyes, careful not to look at him, and stepped away from Rahim, skirting back around to pick up her empty bean can. The young man seemed perfectly oblivious to the residual tension, and followed her with his mouth running at impressively high speeds. She shouldn’t leave yet. Why not join him and Jade later? He had an amazing plan on how to take out a nest of Volatiles, and she’d love it. She nodded. She shook her head. She frowned and she smiled, but all in all she looked ready to get away if he’d let her. Her shoulders twitched when Rahim told her how obviously dangerous it was out there on her own.

It took a knock at the door to draw Kyle’s attention away from the ticking time bomb armed with his secrets, and he turned to face Lena standing by the door. She wore an expression of professional impatience.

“Crane, can I get a word?” She indicated at him with a cigarette pinched between her fingers before taking a long drag from it. The tip bobbed nervously.

“Sure, what’s up?”

She exhaled a puff of blue smoke. “Outside?”

Great. He swallowed. That Zofia girl is going to blow that whistle. She’s going to tell Rahim I burnt the vials. I am so fucked. Curbing the urge to throw a look over his shoulder with each step, Kyle reluctantly followed Lena into the hallway.

“So, I heard you’ve got Antizin now,” he started.

Lena nodded. “I wish that meant you don’t have to go talk to Rais, but—“

“I know, it’s not enough. Don’t worry, we’ll work out a deal with him. He can’t be that unreasonable.”

“Thank you, Crane, but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. It’s Brecken. He’s been hurt pretty badly. Worse than he wants people to know. He took a blow to the head when he went after that airdrop. Now he’s starting to have seizures, and I don’t have any Loratax.”

“I doubt anyone does,” he said— still fighting the itch to look back into the recroom. “Anti-seizure drugs were passed out like candy when the infection started, pretty sure the stores ran out weeks ago.”

“Yes, thats right.” She quirked a brow at him. “How do you know that?”

Nicely done Kyle, how about you just start wearing a GRE uniform? That’d be less subtle at this point.

“Look— what do you need me to do Lena?”

“There’s a man in town named Gazi. He’s not altogether there, if you know what I mean. His mother had epilepsy, so he picked up medicine for her each month. She died two years ago, but Gazi kept going to the store to pick up her prescription. He likes his routine, and Gazi can be very insistent. So they kept giving it to him.”

“Right.” Kyle nodded. “If he’s been stockpiling them..”

“Yes, that is what I’m hoping. I’d like you to go check on him and get us those meds.”

“Where can I find him?”

“He lived below the overpass but… I have another favor to ask.” Lena’s voice dipped to a whisper and she pulled him aside. Kyle noticed her eyes shifting towards the recroom. “I’d like you to take Zofia with you.”

“Her?” Kyle jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Why?”

“She knows her way around town, much better than you at any rate. And you can help her get back to her place in one piece.”

“Why not make her stay?”

“You cannot make Zofia stay.” Lena coughed up a laugh between drags from her cigarette. “I’ve tried.”

“What’s her deal anyway? I met her out there yesterday— she actually lives on her own?”

Lena nodded.

“That’s pretty ballsy. And stupid.”

Again Lena nodded.

“How has she survived the outbreak?"

“She—“ Her shoulders sagged. “She hasn’t, not from the start. Zofia was one of Rais’s girls.”

“Huh?” Kyle regretted having asked the moment his mind slotted together everything he’d seen today; The disgust when he’d accused her of working for Suleiman, the jitters and the tension.

“Rais likes to keep his men happy, loyal. So he feeds them and he arms them and he gives them women.” She squeezed the last word through gritted teeth and squashed her half finished cigarette against the wall. “That animal has been grabbing girls off the streets ever since he established himself here. Zofia was picked up in Old Town, before they closed the roads. Right after the outbreak, almost.”

“Oh...” Kyle’s stomach twisted into a tight knot of bitter resentment. Shit. He’d bullied the poor thing back there. Probably scared the wits out of her while he was worrying about his flaky cover. You’re going to hell, Crane. Pretty damn fast, too.

“Lena, are you sure you want me to get her back home? What about Jade? I mean— are you absolutely certain that’s a good idea? Considering, you know…”

“Yes, I am very sure. You’re a good man, and she needs to know she can depend on others, because otherwise she’ll get herself killed.” Her voice hitched in her throat. “You should have seen her when she came to the Tower, Crane. She was bleeding to death when Jade and Amir found her, and she had a pretty bad concussion. She’d been bitten too, and I swear I almost lost her that first night.” Lena let out a weary sigh. “How can people be such monsters?

Inside the recroom, Zofia still hadn’t gotten away from Rahim. In fact, Rahim had managed to get her to sit back down, and claimed the seat where Kyle had left his breakfast. Was eating it too, one stab of the fork at a time. Not like it mattered. Kyle wasn’t feeling particularly hungry any more.

 

Chapter Text

 

Mother’s Day: Evicted


  The elevator doors shuddered shut, and the last thing Zofia saw before the Tourist called Crane killed her, was Lena’s reassuring smile through the closing gap. It’s all going to be okay, the crinkles around her eyes said. It’ll all be over soon.

Zofia dropped her eyes away from the closed doors and stared at the black and white checkered floor by her feet. It was too clean. Someone must have been sweeping in here, mopping up the trails the Runners and guards left as they went and up and down, and down and up. She frowned at her own boots, the dirt caked around their soles, and the blue colour on her toes. Oh. She’d forgotten to get the rubbing alcohol from Lena.

Ah well, least you’ll die with some colour on your face.

Her hands crawled into her pockets, her heart made itself comfortable at the base of her throat, and that’s how Zofia stood waiting for him to end her. What’d be his excuse, she wondered. ”I have no idea how that could have happened, Lena. I’m just as baffled as you how she managed to trip and break her neck.”

Or maybe she’d get herself impaled on his crowbar, the thing he carried strapped to his hip. Somehow. Enthusiastically hugging him, by any chance? That sounded totally like her.

Her heart stalled when his arm came up in front of her. Here we go… She registered the click by her right— an elevator button being pushed —and then the arm dove out of sight again. The cabin jerked. Started moving.

Okay— okay— not dead yet. He’d probably wait until they were outside, where excuses shambled aplenty through the streets. ”I’m so sorry, Lena! There was nothing I could have done… she was dead before I got there.”

Yes, that was more likely. A pack of Biters made for an excellent cover-up.

Zofia lifted her chin and glanced at Crane. He filled out the whole bloody elevator cabin, top to bottom, left to right, and whatever room he left her was quickly eaten up by his scrutinising stare. Or glare, rather. A smouldering sort of You’re-about-to-be-sorry glare. Then his brows pinched and his eyes turned to the top of the elevator doors, where a sad little light dinged itself from floor to floor.

He sighed, rolled his shoulders, and then went for the chest pocket on his washed out button up shirt. He patted at it, frowning in confusion, and murmured something under his breath that Zofia didn’t quite catch.

It probably related to the pack of chewing gum he’d expected there. The one she’d nicked from the grey-blue-I’ve-lost-all-will-to-live shirt in his closet. Yeah. How about keeping your mouth shut this time? No need to add fuel to the fire. Zofia clicked her teeth together. She wished she could tie her fucking tongue too, worried it might start wagging out of principle alone.

Since he didn’t find his gum, Crane busied himself by hiking up his sleeves. Left first, right next. Then he played with the folds pushed up to his elbows, fingers idly tugging and pinching the fabric while the light kept crawling its way towards the first floor.

Zofia shuffled her feet. They itched. She itched. Every fibre of her, every bloody square inch of skin. She couldn’t be in here with him. Couldn’t be out there with him either. Once they cleared the Tower, Zofia thought, she could run. Take right off. She noticed how she leaned forward, took one sliding step towards the elevator doors. Why wait until then? All she had to do was squeeze herself out before they opened properly and he’d never be able to catch up with her.

The answer was simple. She couldn’t. Lena had asked for her help, and that was that. Such was the nature of favours owed and debts to be repaid. You didn’t ever get to pick and choose.

Zofia inhaled sharply and cocked her head up towards him.

“I won—“ she blurted.

“You shou—“ he started.

They frowned, him rubbing at the back of his neck, her curling her fingers inside her pockets, and for a moment the temperature inside the elevator cabin climbed, made the air unbreathable. Thankfully, the little light reached the bottom, and a faint DING broke the silence.

Past the Tower’s double doors, dawn painted the sky in heavy reds and gentle pink. No clouds, Zofia noted. It’d be a hot day. She checked her gear, made sure the hatchet was well secured, and tied her bandana over her head before she started down the stairs.

“How far is it?” Crane stood by the bottom of the steps and watched her deliberate, slow progress. Left foot. Right foot. Look out across the lot, see if any Biters had shambled up during the night. Left foot. Right foot. Eyes straight ahead. Don’t make eye contact with him.

Maybe, Zofia figured, if she dallied enough he’d decide to do the right thing and go run his errands without her. You can start limping. Trip down the stairs, pretend you sprained your ankle. Because obviously you’re nine years old and can’t bloody deal.

When she reached the bottom he was still there, an eyebrow quirked and his thumbs tugged into his belt. He looked a lot less menacing that way, almost neighbourly, too. Except he was still very tall, and she’d got a front row demonstration of a potential for violence in those arms. No matter how relaxed they might appear right now.

He cleared his throat. “So— uh—“

Zofia blinked. “What?”

“How far is Gazi’s place?”

Oh. Right. He’d asked her a question.

“Half an hour,” she said as she passed him, trying not to wither as she felt him track her.

She could do it in twenty, especially with the sun still low and the air relatively breathable, but there was no telling if the Tourist named Crane would keep up.

With any luck he wouldn’t.

Five minutes out, and he was still behind her. A few more, and he still hadn’t tried to kill her. Almost there, and she almost got him killed.

* * *

     “Why aren’t you staying at the Tower?” Crane stood behind her. She knew exactly where too, could tell he was maybe a hand’s width from her left shoulder, judging by how the muscles in her back knotted and her neck prickled.

Shame. He’d been so wonderfully quiet while they’d made their way through the shanty town, almost allowing her to forget about him firmly attached to her heels.

Except that one time when she’d balanced across the wooden rungs of a balcony roof. One of them had snapped when he set his foot down, and he’d barely managed to keep himself from falling off the edge and into a backyard chock full of Biters. Then he’d cursed, and thrown her another one of those smouldering glares. She’d shrugged and kept going, positively on fire from the look, but refusing to let him burn her to cinders. Not her fault he was too heavy.

Zofia ignored him putting his nose where it didn’t belong, and peered around the corner of the gas station she’d circled around. It stood by the mouth of a two-lane tunnel breaching the hillside, shielding them from the view of a dozen Biters ahead. A pileup of cars crowded against the gaping maw of the tunnel, like everyone had decided to try and push through at once. That wasn’t all too unlikely, Zofia knew. She’d seen the roads before they’d been closed, had seen the rush of metal and people as everyone tried to get away, without knowing where away was. Anywhere but here, they’d likely thought.

It hadn’t mattered. They'd not got far.

She wondered if some of them had come back to their cars once they’d turned, had tried to get their gnarly fingers into the door latches. Driven by familiarity maybe, or by being worried about getting a parking ticket.

Zofia clicked her teeth and took a hasty step back when one of the Biters ambled into her general direction.

“Woah—“ Crane’s voice crept down her spine and his hand latched against her side as she bumped into him, almost tripping herself over his feet in her hurried retreat. She snapped her arm down to bat the hand away.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

She felt herself being guided back with a tug against her pack, and then she stood behind him and he’d pulled his crowbar free.

“We going through there?” He didn’t turn around when he asked her, stayed facing the tunnel and the Biters that had taken an interest to them.

Tell him it’s right through here. Then run. He’ll be too busy playing fetch for Lena to bother with you.

“Yeah.” Zofia threw a glance over her shoulder.

“Kay— let’s go then. Come on.” And just like that he fell into a slow jog towards the tunnel.

But…

Zofia clenched her jaw. “I hate tunnels,” she breathed, with no one around to hear.

She followed him as he skirted around the cluster of Biters, putting the rows of cars between them and their dragging shuffle-step. Her hand went to pull her torch free from its loop on her pack, and she clicked it on the moment her feet crossed into the dark. Crane had a much better one than she did, one of the L-shaped spelunking torch, which he wore clipped to his belt. He’d lifted it free for now and held it above his head, the cone of light canvasing for movement amidst the wrecks.

He moved slowly and deliberately— though mostly he shuffled sideways, squeezing himself between the rows of cars backed all the way into the tunnel. In here, the vehicles had piled right into each other. The residual stretch of leaking oil, petrol, burnt rubber, and scorched metal permeated the air. At any other given time, Zofia would have likely choked on the nauseating mixture, but compared to the constant whiff of rotting meat it was almost pleasant.

The tunnel was short. By the time they reached the reason for the mass collision, Zofia could see light reflecting off the ceiling ahead. She frowned at the obstacle in front of them, a bulky bus lodged sideways into the tunnel, its centre of gravity all off and the wheels facing them lifted off the ground.

How? Just how did someone manage to do that? A bit too much GTA? Zofia felt her lips tickle, but the smile she’d have liked to try on died when she felt her left foot set down on something squishy. Her imagination promptly declared it to be leftover Biter snacks.

Crane stopped in front of her. He tapped the crowbar against his thigh absentmindedly, while his torch flicked across the dented exterior of their obstacle. The windows had been blown out. The doors looked warped. Eventually he nodded to himself and quickly climbed the bonnet of one of the first cars that had rammed the bus. Maybe that was how the bus had been lifted, an unrelenting tide of metal surging into it.

He shifted his weight a little, testing his footing on the bonnet. It crunched and groaned under his weight, and again Zofia’s lips tickled. It’d be droll if the front caved in. She might even laugh. Then Crane looked at her, and the budding smile dove for cover again. He jerked his chin up, following the cone of light that cut to the roof of the bus.

“Up and over,” he told her and extended the crowbar towards her. She frowned at the thing. “It won’t bite,” he added when she’d stood rooted to the spot longer than he deemed necessary, and the crowbar bobbed up and down.

Zofia grabbed it and he pulled her up alongside him.

“Okay, hold on.“ He snapped his light back onto his belt, grabbed the crowbar with both hands, and spread it out in front of him, presenting her with a one-rung-ladder of sorts.

Again Zofia frowned. I can manage, she wanted to say, feeling a little bit insulted by him expecting her to need help, but then he made some unidentified noise and gave a reassuring nod, and Zofia figured she might as well appease him a little. It might be a man thing. Chivalry or some such nonsense.

She placed her foot on the crowbar, grabbed onto his shoulder, and let him push her up. With a little bit too much vigor, it turned out. The momentum of the shove almost carried her too far and she landed clumsily, tipping over and coming to a halt with her backpack knocking against the sloped roof. Show off.

She stood, readjusted the straps on her shoulders, and took a moment to gauge the distance to the exit. It looked clear at least, with only a handful of vehicles stranded on this side of the wreckage. No Biters either, at least not from where she stood. As far as tunnels were concerned, this one was beginning to look okay. Maybe she’d been too harsh on them.

A faint tap of metal against metal drew her attention back to Crane. He was waving the crowbar at her and was making that noise again; Encouragement and impatience all wrapped in one grunt. Zofia grabbed the piece, pulled it up, and watched him hoist himself up after it.

He stood, looked up— and threw himself right at her.

She snapped up the crowbar, her mind drawing a blank on how to react to the man attacking her after he’d given her his weapon. Swing the thing? Kick him? Tackle? Back away? Bolt? What! He got her arm. Shoved. She was thrown from the roof, spun right off, and landed pack first on the tarmac. Her teeth clicked shut. Her skull bounced against the ground.

She hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t heard it. She’d even missed the slight tremor beneath her feet as the monster pulled itself through the roof hatch of the bus. Though now, lying sprawled on the ground, she saw it. It leapt at Crane. Its clawed hands reached for him, its jaws fell apart. An inhuman scream ripped from its lungs. Zofia’s brain shut down. Her bladder pinched. Her breath hitched. Up there was death, and it was coming for her.

Zofia didn’t need reason, didn’t need to think clearly. Fight or flight was simple enough, hardwired into her as much as it was hardwired into the hare when the buzzard’s shadow fell over it. She pushed herself around. Her feet came up, too slow and too clumsily, and she started half crawling, half scampering before they righted themselves. By the time she stopped staggering and raced towards the light around a single, impossibly long bend, she realised she’d dropped her torch. Not the crowbar though, she still clutched that one tight, and it was dragging her down as she ran, an unfamiliar weight that she couldn’t shake because her stupid hand refused to open.

A van stood in her way. She threw herself around the bonnet. Right into the slouched figure of a Biter. Zofia barrelled into the thing. The collision knocked her off-course. She set her foot down wrong, lost her balance. The ground dove up at her, all dirty, grimy and deadly. The noise caught up next, the heavy, wet thuds of wide feet galloping after her, and those rattling breaths sucked into malformed lungs. Death.

It also gave the hectic “Shit-shit-shit” time to catch her, and then Crane grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her along with him. What was he thinking? She’d have fallen. She’d have tripped the Volatile on their heels. He was being stupid.

Volatiles were fast. So damn fast, Zofia waited for the moment its claws raked at her back and tore her spine out. She still expected it even when her eyes stung with light hitting them, and the air turned from cool and acrid to warm and damp. She kept running, too. Didn’t want to stop, because maybe this one thing forgot it didn’t like the light and was still hurtling after her. She would have kept going, would have run her lungs empty and her feet into the ground, but the hand on her elbow tightened and started steering her wherever it so pleased. Until it pulled her to a stop behind a shack and squeezed so hard she thought her bones cracked.

She slammed into wood. Something gave way in her pack, broke with a sad little pop, and then she figured she’d be next.

Crane tore the crowbar from her hand and crowded her against the shack. The world shrunk in around her, reduced itself to his strained breathing, the white knuckles around the weapon, and the unchecked anger locking his jaw.

“Were—“ He jabbed the rounded end of the crowbar into her stomach “—you—“ jab —trying to get us killed?”

The next jab hurt and bore itself into her gut, the cold metal alien against her skin. Zofia flattened herself against the shack, tried to relieve some of the pressure, but it only dug deeper.

Please…

She wheezed. “I didn’t think there’d—“

“No, no you didn’t. Of course you didn’t think. Was that how you came up with your genius plan to poison the Antizin too?”

That’s not fair…

“How was I supposed to know there was one of them in there?” Zofia grabbed the crowbar as it kept digging, wrapped her fingers around it and tried to push back. His response was him leaning forward— and any time now, Zofia thought, he’d run her right through. Blunt end or not.

Please stop…

“How were you supposed to know no one innocent would get those drugs!” He didn’t raise his voice above anything but a harsh whisper, yet he might as well have been shouting at the top of his lungs the way it demanded her to listen.

“I didn’t!”

Zofia would have liked to think she’d said that with some conviction, that she could make herself believe it and make him stop looking at her like she’d committed some terrible crime. Instead her voice cracked down the middle. She snapped her mouth closed, swallowed the thick disappointment lining her tongue, and raised her hands in submission.

He was right. She was wrong. Dead simple.

Crane pulled back, growled in frustration, and paced away from her. He made room for the adrenaline to leak from her system and for reason to come limping back in, with its tail between its legs. She focused on the ache in her stomach, curled her fingers around her shirt where the crowbar had pressed in, and stared at Crane as he seemed to have already forgotten she was even there. Miserable. Hurting. Scared. Fed up.

Zofia kept her eyes on him, watched him how he gripped the crowbar tightly, and how the cords of muscle running up the sides of his neck strained. So he wasn’t doing all too well either. Was that supposed to make her feel something? She didn’t know. She really didn’t know anything right now, except that breathing hurt and he scared her.

“Okay— okay…” Crane came back around and lifted the crowbar at her.

Zofia flinched, expecting a bludgeoning, and got two gentle taps against her shoulder instead. They were accompanied by a look of professional curiosity.

“You hurt?” Gone was the anger, replaced by a smidgen of concern.

“What?”

“Are you hurt?” He glanced at her arms, then her legs, before hooking the crowbar into her pack’s strap and pulling her around, making her face the shack.

“No, I’m fine,” she lied, all things considered. The fall had started catching up with her, left her bones aching and her head throbbing. Right. The tumble off the bus. Remember that? Remember who pushed you?

She stared at the wooden planks in front of her.

He’d saved her life.

Somehow knowing that didn’t help. It yanked whatever rickety footing her thoughts had found right out from under her again, and left her dangling by a thread. That shouldn’t have happened. That didn’t make sense. That wasn’t how things worked. Not out here. Not for her. Zofia placed her hand on the crowbar still hooked into her pack and turned to face him.

She felt light headed. A bit out at sea, embarrassed by the budding guilt, by being scared, rather than thankful. By thinking of him like just another one of Rais’s thugs, and treating him as such. By not having caught on to what he’d done back there earlier. That the “Thank you,” she mumbled right now hadn’t been the first thing out of her mouth.

His right brow twitched up. Zofia noticed the nick in it, a thin scar stopping short from his eye. She frowned. A switch flipped in the recess of her mind, rerouted her thoughts from whatever had mattered a moment before. They presented her with a blank slate where she’d previously stacked all her impressions on the tourist called Crane. She thought him rude. Because he broke into her place. Deceptively polite, for not robbing her. He didn’t take a hint, ignored what she wanted, did it anyway. He was a bully. An idiot.

He didn’t let her die. She knocked the old stack over. Start again. Reorganise. Rethink.

Zofia looked at him. Properly, without painting him in yellow.

He’d seen better days. Had broken his nose at least once, and collected trophies of sorts across the right half of his face. Scars. A map of them working their way upwards. The widest one cut into his scalp, kept hair from growing there, giving him a lopsided trim that likely made him look a bit silly if he’d been all cleaned up. Another scar crossed over the bridge of his nose, and the closer she looked the more marks she counted. She tried to think of them as ugly. They ought to have been detracting from his square jaw, the one she’d not paid any attention to before the latest disaster. She tried, but she couldn’t. Even if she'd decided to hate him for reasons that seemed a little childish where she was standing right now. It seemed impolite now, regardless. You didn’t hate someone who’d saved your life. Or who carried a scar across the top half of his lip, which drew your attention and made you wonder if it came with a story? Maybe she should ask, because it might be a good one….

Hell no.

Zofia pulled the handbreak on her thoughts, flicked her eyes away from his face, and landed them on a spot of oily dirt on his shoulder instead.

“For back there. If you hadn’t pushed me I’d be dead.”

The shoulder she’d taken to staring at shrugged.

“Force of habit,” he said. “My life would be a whole lot easier without you nosing around.”

Zofia jerked her head back up. She caught the trail end of a smile, a slight shake of his head, and just like that it was easy to loathe him again. A little, anyway.

“Relax. That was a joke.”

Twat. “Your jokes are shit.”

“Oh don’t I know it,” Crane gave the crowbar another tug. “Where to now?”

Zofia felt herself being towed towards him, a fish on a hook flopping out of the comforts of its water, leaving behind a current of emotions that had been dragging her no-where good. She yanked the crowbar off her.

“Could you not?”

His lips gave a rueful little twitch, but they’d been headed up, rather than down, like he found tickling her the wrong way funny. Arse. Colour crept up Zofia’s neck. She skirted around him, jabbed a hand around the corner of the shed, and continued hating him with her back to him. With a little more conviction.

“Right there. Over the fence.”

* * *

   Gazi was dead.

Zofia found him lying on the couch in his living room, his head resting on a pile of pillows covered by a green checkered table cloth. When she’d first entered the room, she’d thought there were two people. Gazi (or at least someone she figured to be him) sprawled out on his side, and a tall figure with a blocky head cradling him in their lap. The figure, as it turned out, was made of pillows stitched together by the seams, and a bucket for a head with a wide smiling face painted on it in red. The words WORLD’s BEST MOM were written over its chest. He’d even drawn a lopsided little heart into the last O — and then at some point he’d gone and died in her lap.

Zofia’s heart squeezed. Today really wasn’t letting up, was it?

She tugged her bandana down, bunched it around her nose and mouth, and stepped into the living room. The sickly sweet stench of death, and the buzzing of the old TV in front of the couch, made her head spin and made her want to throw up. Then the knock at the front door and Crane’s “Hey! You all right in there?” had her want to hurl something heavy at his head.

That made no sense, of course. Are you all right, was a show of concern. It shouldn’t upset her, shouldn’t get her to thinking how it was unfair that she was still breathing and walking and talking, while that innocent man had died. To make matters worse, she wasn’t only scanning the room for the meds Lena had asked for, but for anything else that looked even remotely useful.

“Zofia?”

She ignored that too, flicked the TV off, and walked around the couch one more time until she spotted the pile of meds on a table in an adjacent room.

* * * 

   Kyle pushed down on the handle again and leaned his shoulder into the door. What part of ”Get in there and open the door,” had she not understood? He stepped back, glared at the door. The thing was damn stubborn, with a lock he hadn’t been able to pick. Though there had to be a hatch on the roof, Zofia had told him, and so he’d helped her up there and made it as clear as he fucking could that all she had to do was get the door open.

Instructions. They weren’t that hard, were they?

There could be a Biter in there.

Kyle pushed his ear against the door and listened. Nada.

Shouldn’t be an issue. She ought to be able to handle one of those.

Except he really didn’t know, did he? Sure, she was quick. Damn light-footed too, and with a head that stayed on the swivel without pause. Except there wouldn’t be anywhere for her to go in there, and he found himself faced with a vivid image of her having herself cornered and her throat torn up, her hatchet buried in her attacker’s shoulder. Kyle groaned. If he got her killed out here Lena would have his balls.

He knocked his fist against the door again, this time with a little more emphasis than he’d been going for.

“Come on, open the damn door!”

CLICK, it went in response and Zofia slipped out, pulling it shut right behind her again. He got out of her way, because that felt like the right thing to do all things considered, and watched her drag her bandana down from her face and draw in a few greedy gulps of air.

“What took you so long?” What the hell, Crane? Tact. Jesus fuck, you’re dense.

He winced when she shoved a bundle of cloth into his chest, the contents clattering happily. A quick glance verified that she’d brought him at least a dozen pill bottles. Overkill. But he wasn’t going to complain, and neither would Lena.

“Gazi?”

She shook her head.

“Right. Then let’s get you home.”

That didn’t seem to sit right with her. She shoved her hands into her pockets and stared at him— without actually letting her eyes meet his. Right now, he thought, she seemed awfully interested in his right ear, or the top of his shoulder. He caught himself wiping at it, wondering if he'd started carrying that chip out in the open. Or had gotten himself shat on by a bird.

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I don’t need you escorting me back.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you don’t.” Kyle dropped his hand from his shoulder and made a show of looking around. He pulled his lips down in the most convincing frown he could manage and pointed into the general direction of the tunnel. “It’s just that I have no idea where I am, and I am not going back through there.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“What? Me?”

This time she did look at him. Her light grey eyes cut right up. They narrowed. Slightly. Was she itching for a fight there, fangs out and ready to go? It certainly looked that way. The muted glint in her eyes reminded him of earlier, back at the Tower when he’d insinuated that she worked for Rais. Not one of his proudest moments, Kyle had to admit, but what moment really was these days?

He tried on a smile. She scoffed.

“I promised Lena.”

Mentioning the name worked a bit like pulling rank might have. Her spine straightened, her shoulders squared, and Kyle was half expecting her to snap off a salute. A little Sir-Yessir would have been a nice change of pace, but lacking that he made due with her begrudging little shrug. She spun away from him, pivoting on the balls of her feet, and started trekking the long way around.

* * *

     The long way around was, as it turned out, just that. Long. A lot less eventful too, which Kyle could appreciate, but at the rate things were going he’d have maybe half a day of light left once this escort was wrapped up.

And then it’s right back to pimping out your soul to Suleiman.

He flinched, caught himself looking up at Zofia scurrying up a concrete wall and balancing along it like a two-legged cat. He’d given up on trying to follow her step by step. Instead he stayed close enough not to lose sight of her, while she navigated them through the shanty town. Surefooted, never missing a beat, not pausing unless she had to wait for him or a Biter to pass, and absolutely confident in where she was headed and how she’d get there.

She must have spent weeks mapping out the Harran slums, memorised every bend, maybe used the linen or cardboard canvases with their pleas for help for landmarks. It certainly looked doable, navigating your way from one HELP to the next SURVIVORS INSIDE and then turning left by the NEED FOOD, not once stopping because all that was left in those shacks and shops was an unhappy ending.

A bit like her, that unhappy little thing with her stupid timing being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seeing things she really shouldn’t be seeing, too. God damn, what am I going to do with her?

He’d been raking his brain for ideas ever since they’d left the Tower, arranged them by bad to worst and downright horrible. At first, he’d considered doing nothing. Maybe pray, he hadn’t done that for a long time. Pray she’d forget about it, maybe forgot she’d ever seen him at all. Extortion, maybe? I won’t tell on you, if you won’t tell on me? Then he’d toyed with a concept that involved adding more weight to his argument. At that point the crowbar had come into play, along with a side of anger over almost dying.

A terrible idea, in hindsight. Kyle could still feel that little something rattling around in his stomach, the one that had dislodged itself when he’d seen the terror in her eyes. The defeat had been worse though— that moment of bleak acceptance, as if she’d surrendered to death, and he’d been left with his conscience catching up with him.

“Fuck…” Kyle muttered. They were almost there. Only one more flight of stairs and it’d be time to make a choice.

“You do a lot of that?” She’d ditched the wall, walked right in front of him as they made their way up the steps. “Talking to yourself?”

Kyle frowned at the top of her head, bit down on a less than flattering retort, and settled for a drawn out “Uh-huh.”

Zofia didn’t seem to care much either way. She kept going, eventually leading him down a much more familiar path that ended them in front of the door to her hideout.

She froze the moment it came into view, and Kyle had to brace himself against the wall on his left or he would have bowled her over. The What? didn’t make it out of his mouth.

There, in front of them, leaned her door. It had been ripped from its hinges and torn from the frame. Then someone had gone through all the trouble and propped it up against the wall. They’d also painted it.

With three swathes of dirty yellow.

 

Chapter Text

Siblings Paper Tiger

Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎). The term refers to something that seems threatening but is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge.


 They found her.

She’d hid under the bed, yet they’d found her.

Her fingers curled into the carpet, her mouth pressed against the thick, coarse fabric, and each muffled sob sucked stale dust down her lungs. Her eyes burnt with hot tears, and she couldn’t hear a thing past the deafening beat of her heart pressing against her ears. It drowned out the heavy steps climbing towards her.

She didn’t need to hear them though. She felt them clearly, the jerk of the ground underneath her, the fear climbing her spine in icy tendrils choking all thought from her mind.

They found her, and one of them fastened his hands around her ankles. Then they dragged her out, hauled her up by her belt, and threw her across the room with their laughter the sum of her existence.

They pulled on fistfuls of her long hair. They clawed at her.

They’d found her, and they ripped it all away.


 Zofia stood ramrod straight. Not again, she told herself. They couldn’t have. She’d been so careful for so long. Had made sure no one ever followed. Made sure no one ever saw her come or go. How had they done it? How had they found her again?

She wanted to turn around, to start walking at a brisk pace and to only stop once she found herself suitably burrowed under a rock somewhere, but her legs decided to move on their own accord and carry her towards the door with the ugly yellow on it. Determined to get her killed, no doubt. Walk her right to her death.

“Wait—“ Crane hissed as he pulled on the loop of her pack. He towed her past his shoulder and placed her right behind him, his broad shoulders and back blocking out the view. Staring at the already sweaty cloth clinging to his spine gave Zofia’s thoughts enough room to realign themselves. She’d have to move. Find somewhere new. And she couldn’t just run, not yet. She had to see if they'd left her with anything-- or if giving Lena the Antizin had stolen all her time away. She swallowed a lump of panic forming in her throat, right as Crane started marching for the door like a man with a plan. Plans were good. Zofia liked plans. She started following him, perfectly okay with piggybacking whatever he’d cooked up.

His left hand snapped up. “Stay.”

Zofia almost choked on the lump, curled her toes in her boots, and did as told.

A moment later he disappeared through the empty frame of the door, reduced to the memory of a man holding a crowbar aloft, ready as it would ever be, and moving so god damn methodically he made getting her place broken in look as if it was perfectly normal.

Zofia kept trying to get the lump back down, but it had got itself lodged in tightly. By the time she started thinking about what a perfect timing this would be for one of Rais’ goons to pop out from the gutters and spring their trap, Zofia could barely breathe any more. 

She shoved her shaking fingers into her pockets, threw a look over her shoulder, and decided that No way, they’d catch her out here.


Kyle had smelled it the moment he’d stepped inside. Piss.

What the hell?

These fucking assholes hadn’t just tossed her place. They’d gone out of their way to pile her clothes together, and then they’d pissed on them. He worked his fingers around the crowbar, and caught himself hoping to find one of the thugs hiding in the bathroom.

And what are you going to do if he has a gun? Bringing a tool to a gunfight. Genius.

He lifted his makeshift weapon. His fingers flexed around the metal. He felt his knuckles pop and the leather of his glove stretch damp and sticky over his skin. 

Shot dead in a pile of piss soaked clothes. Good going, Crane. You’re a real prodigy.

He sidestepped quickly, crowbar ready to crack down on anyone lurking around the corner, and tensed his core, ready for absolutely anything. Even a tiny, empty room. Kyle scoffed at himself and let some of the tension roll off his shoulders.

He took one step into the bathroom, sweeping it with a quick, practiced glance. You didn’t turn your back on a room you hadn’t checked thoroughly, no matter how cramped it was and how unlikely it might be someone was skulking behind the dirty shower curtain. You just didn't.

You really need to get yourself a gun, he told himself after he let the plastic curtain fall back down. There were a lot he needed, not only a proper gun. Most of which were out of question, thanks to the localised issue of an apocalypse. Except maybe a shave. His eyes caught sight of himself in the narrow mirror above a surprisingly tidy sink, and he pulled a face at the strained reflection staring back at him. Yeah. A shave is doable. How about we get started with that?

Nodding to himself, Kyle lowered the crowbar and stepped back into the main room. He found Zofia out there, standing in the remains of her ransacked home, right in the middle of a patch of discarded post cards.

The word home left a sour afterthought kicking around his head. A home, that was shelter. A home was safety. Not this. Squatting in some dead man’s bachelor pad with the lock and key at the door as much use as tits on a bull.

Zofia stood with her hands hidden in the pockets of her wide pants, and her light grey eyes canvassing the place.

“Jesus, what’s it with you and instructions?”

She sniffed, her nose scrunching up with disgust as she got a lungful of piss drenched air, and shot him a glower that could have been all sorts of unpleasant if it wasn’t for her whole frame shaking on the spot.

He jerked the crowbar to the side, gesturing towards the empty kitchenette. “There’s nothing left, we might as well go back to the Tower. They can get you set up there.”

Her shoulders gave a meek little shrug and her eyes flicked from her turned over table, to the couch lying on its back, and then to the wall. A few scraps of paper still clung to the nails left on the wall, but most of her postcards had been ripped off and were now scattered over the floor.

That evoked more of a response from her than the rest of the chaos had. Her features softened and her shoulders drooped. She wasn’t about to start crying, was she?

“Look--” he started, hoping to prevent any unfortunate spillage. Tears weren’t exactly his MOS.

She sucked in her bottom lip. Her eyelids fluttered. He panicked.

Dear god, please no.

“Fucking wankers,” she muttered. And padded right past him.

So the kitten had claws. Or at least spat like it did before it went back to scampering up a pole somewhere.  

Kyle frowned at the top of her head. She was a real paper tiger, that one. All shot and no powder. But she tried, and he'd have liked to think that mattered. Somewhere. He watched as she gingerly stepped around the wet mounds of clothes and slipped inside the wide open closet, ducking under the metal bar with a single cloth hanger still dangling sadly by its own. She shoved it aside. It flipped right off and clattered to the ground. After a moment of silence, in which she pulled something from a pocket on her pants and then started working the closet back-wall with it, Kyle followed the paper tiger. He smirked, feeling a little too pleased with himself than he probably should. But the nickname fit. He'd keep it. She didn't need to know about it.

“What you looking for?” He quirked a brow at her narrow back, how it wove left and right while she balanced herself on the tips of her toes. “Narnia?”

Zofia froze momentarily, before her hands went back to working a screw out of a corner of the closet. Eventually the screw popped free. It whizzed through the air and bounced off his chest. She started digging at the edge of the wall with the tips of her fingers. Then her patience must have run out, because she let out a frustrated little grunt, snapped a fist forward, and promptly lost her balance.

Kyle stopped himself halfway into catching her as she fell into the wall. He watched her pull herself back up, her face firmly planted against the wood and her body bent awkwardly. Help her! an insistent voice screamed at the top of its sore imaginary lungs, while another one argued that any attempt at touching her would earn him another rabbit-in-the-headlights look. And he’d had enough of those for today. The paper tiger didn't need any more either, he guessed.

Or you are overthinking this.

“Need help?”

Her neck rolled indecisively. Was that a shaky nod or a sort of nod-like shake? Kyle frowned. Zofia made up her mind a moment later, pointed at where she'd hit the wood, and mumbled a “Could you?” into the closet. 

“Sure—“ He tried to position himself into the wardrobe without crowding her, something he was certain wasn’t in the realm of any sort of possibility, and knocked his fist against the very same spot. An almost perfectly concealed plank of wood gave way, its bottom half snapping forward and hitting Zofia’s shin. She squeezed a “Ta..” through gritted teeth while Kyle worked the plank free.

And then she crushed herself even further into the wardrobe, one arm diving out of sight, shoulder and all.

She kept her eyes stubbornly trained at nothing, her lips drawn into a thin white line, and went about her business while he stood idly by. Kyle allowed himself a moment to study the paper tiger while she quested for whatever treasure she’d stashed away, for once not having to worry about an arrow nocked at him, or his stomach empty and his thoughts reduced to guilt.  

Despite having been in excessively sunny Harran since the Outbreak, or most likely longer, she’d kept her pallid complexion. The only colour on her were the lines of sunburn on her cheekbones, the scabs on her ears and nose, and that smudge of blue riding her cheek. A bit like a corpse. Or corpse to be. Deceptively dull eyes stared blankly forward while she kept digging, lined by too little sleep and too much of everything else. Her face was a little sunken in, much like the rest of her. Skin and bones. Her neck seemed impossibly thin, and he could see the bony ridge for a collarbone clearly, right where the strap of her pack chafed against it. 

She didn’t look like someone who could survive out here on her own. Yet she had. Somehow. Kyle glanced at the hidden compartment. She was crafty, sure. But that wasn’t enough. She’d have to stay one step ahead of everything, not only the infected or Rais, but hunger and thirst and the next dose of suppressants. Any injury, anything that would put her out of commission for even just a day, could potentially lead to her falling behind.

And there’d be death there. Simple as that.

She’d stopped her rummaging, and Kyle noticed she’d caught on to him staring, the frantic, confused look she gave him having him momentarily regret he’d been born. The tiger had shed its claws again and was falling in on herself.

“Smart,” he offered up, and pointed at the hole she undoubtedly now wanted to crawl into.

Her right brow perked, barely registering on the Seriously-mate- scale, but at least she stopped looking so damn worried. Though that, he guessed, might as well have been because she’d found what she’d been looking for; Her bow, along with a gym bag tied with a glaringly orange string.

The bag received particular care as she stepped from the wardrobe, being gingerly kept from knocking into anything and quickly gathered against her side. Kyle would have liked to bet a dollar and a beer, one of which he had, the other one he woefully lacked, that it was filled with Antizin. When he tried to reach for it to help her with carrying all the weight she’d started stacking on her, Zofia twisted her torso away.

“Thanks, I’ve got it,” she insisted. And there they were again. Claws. “You can run off and do whatever it is you do. Go be a hero, fetch some kittens from a tree or whatnot.”

He froze mid motion, watched her shrug the bow harness over her shoulder. It was a proper hunting harness, the type that would allow her to draw quickly from the hip or her back. A poorly stocked quiver of metal arrows dangled from it.

“Don’t be stupid. Where are you going to go?” Up a tree?'

“I’ve got a place.”

"This was your place.” 

She turned around, jabbed the tip of the bow at him, harmlessly knocking it into his crowbar. “I just want you to leave me alone. Can’t you do that?”

“I could. I don’t really feel like it though.”

“Why the bloody hell not? I’m not your problem.”

“You made yourself my problem when you caught me burning the drugs.”

She coughed up a short, mirthless laugh and shook her head. Kyle tried, he really did. He liked to tell himself that he'd done everything he could think of. He tried to reason with her, tried bargaining, but by the time she turned away and started walking, he'd run out of ideas. Safe of straight out knocking her over the back of the head, tossing her onto his shoulder and lugging her to the TowerKyle was left with no other option but to let her go.

And hope she didn't get herself killed. And lose all the Antizin in the process.

You're an ass, he told himself. Little did he know he'd be feeling a lot worse by the time the day'd be over. 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Siblings: Peaches


 Three days later, on the 8th day after the Tourist’s descent to be more precise, Zofia begrudgingly accepted her situation as a hungry and altogether bothered individual. She left her hovel with a growling stomach and headed towards the twin towers looming against the overcast skies of an early morning.

The 19th floor was abuzz with noise. More than she liked. Too many people, she thought. They moved about like someone had nudged their proverbial bee hive, stirred them into action as they whizzed up and down the halls and in and out of their flats and work rooms. Some great happening was brewing, and she’d stepped right into the middle of it.

You’ll live, she told herself as she navigated through the press, wanting nothing more than to just survive until she reached the store room and filled the duffel she’d brought with food and meds. They owed her a lot more than that for the ten vials she’d left here a while ago. Nevermind that she’d really only wanted an excuse to try and make up for her failings and the trade had been no more than a clumsy ruse.

She kept her elbows tightly against her side and swallowed the unease with her throat clicking.

Almost there. One more corner and then there’d be food. Maybe even peaches. She could ask for tinned peaches. She liked peaches. She’d liked them even back then. Back when lounging on the couch with her fingers dipped in syrupy water and her eyes glued to some procedural crime show streaming on Netflix had been the extent of her exertion for one evening.

Damn that Spencer Reid with his curly hair and lanky form, she’d have been thinking then. He looked a little ridiculous. And then she’d have shoved half a peach in her mouth and grinned with a stupid, orange grin at the lanky young lad doing what lanky young geniuses on TV so often did.

Zofia wanted a peach then. Tinned or not, it didn’t bloody matter. Long as it was sweet and juicy and— a pair of hands landed on her collarbone, and Zofia came to a sudden halt. Her mind jumped back onto its tracks and she was reminded that distraction led to disaster these days.

This wasn’t her living room. This was Harran.

She snapped her chin up, at the faded yellow shirt in front of her, and then a little further still until she found a perplexed Kyle Crane looking down at her.

She quirked a brow. Something was off about him. She blinked.

He let his arms drop away and took a step back, and she realised what had started bothering her. He’d shaved.

After she’d gotten over the fact that he looked a little silly without the shadow on his cheeks, Zofia’s first thought was to call him a dolt and tell him that he ought to watch where he went. But then she’d been the one blindly rounding the corner with her mind trapped in a better past, and that’d have been terribly rude.

“You’re still alive.” He looked surprised. Sounded it as well.

That was rude, too. She frowned at him. When had Hello, what’s up? gone out of fashion?

“Sorry for that.”

“What? No— that’s good. Lena’s been worried sick—“

Zofia let out a whistle for a sigh, her eyes rolling in their sockets with almost painful frustration. “You told her about the break in?”

He nodded. How could he nod? How could he be so bloody stupid?

“Why would you do that? All it does it get her worked up, and she doesn’t need that on top of worrying about everyone here.”

Crane cocked his head to the side and folded his arms.

“That’s what people do. They get worried about someone they care about. You should give it a try.”

Her teeth clicked shut. She bit back a coarse selection of words and settled for a lame nod instead. Let him think he had a point, that’d get him off her back. Right?

No, as it turned out.

In front of her, Crane swept the corridor with a quick glance. A group of men wandered by, not paying them any attention, and still he waited until they were out of earshot before turning his light brown eyes back to her.

“You here to cause me trouble?” The gaze nailed her to the spot. Then stepped on her and ground her into the dirt.

Zofia’s shoulders twitched and she managed a meek shake of her head. That she succeeded to keep her voice on the level surprised even her. “I’m here to stock up. Won’t be getting into your hair this time around, don’t you worry.”

His pointed stare softened. “You weren’t in my hair.”

Zofia stared at him, her brain fishing for a retort, but coming up with the equivalent to useless weeds. Icky, slimy, and stinky weeds. She scoffed.

“I’m glad you’re okay though, Paper Tiger.” Crane leaned towards her, his arms still folded, and a hint of mischief crinkling the corners of his eyes.

Paper what? Zofia’s mouth dropped open. Not by a lot, she hoped, since that’d make her look ridiculous.

“And Lena will be too. Say, you know how you can make her stop worrying, right?” He didn’t give her a chance to interject. “You can stay here. Or you could at least tell her where you are. Let the Runners check in on you once in a while. How does that sound?”

Terrible. It sounded terrible. It had sounded terrible the first time Lena had wanted to know where she’d be going, or when Jade and Rahim had interrogated her on the whereabouts of her den. Keeping it from them had obviously been a wasted effort, considering Rais had found her anyway, but it still sounded like a bad idea. She didn’t need anyone dragging their dirt on her carpet. Or the other way around, as things so were.

But he had a point. Why’d he have to have a point? And why’d he have to shave? He really did look stupid, like he was trying to pretend he wasn’t all gruffy. It didn’t look right.

Zofia dug for her black permanent marker in her trousers pockets, tried to not think about absent beards too much, and only realised what she was doing by the time her mind was all made up and she’d already wrapped her fingers around the pen. She never left her den without it. There were houses to mark, the ones she’d looted and the ones she’d like to return to if she found anything worth returning for.

“You’ve got a map?”

Crane’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Huh?”

“A map. Do you have one on you?”

“Wha— yeah, I do.”

She waved the pen at him wordlessly, and the slow dolt caught on. He fished a neatly folded square of paper from his trousers and handed it to her. It was laminated. He had a laminated map. Zofia ground her teeth together. Not fair. She peeled it apart and gave herself a moment to familiarise herself with it. Not a lot of detail to it, she noted. It covered all three of Harran’s districts; the slums, Old Town and New Town. A few buildings of the slum area had been circled in red. Rais’ garrison was one of them. She felt her knees knock together.

“Here,” Crane said, reeling her thoughts back in.

Zofia looked up. He’d turned around, presenting her with his back, dirt stains and all. Patches of sweat had pooled against his nape, darkening the faded yellow. He’d been busy already? Did the man sleep at all?

She hesitated, glanced at the wall next to her. What did he think they were? Teenagers?

Humour him. It’s a man thing, remember?

Reluctantly, Zofia placed the map to the right of his spine, a fingers width below his shoulder blade. He had a very warm back. Solid muscle rolled under her touch as he stood a little straighter. She smoothed out the map and pressed her palm against it to keep it in place. Then she started looking for the tiny square that’d represent her den, her finger tracing a street she knew would take her there. Once she found her place she set the tip of the marker down and marked it with an X.

“Bit lower,” Crane murmured.

“Excuse me?” Zofia’s voice hitched up and her hand hitched down, driven by instinct rather than conscious choice. His back shook against her palm with a muted chuckle.

“Yeah— that’s the spot, right there.”

She almost dropped the pen, and the map escaped. It floated downwards, all the while gleefully cackling at her for getting herself so damn worked up over a harmless joke. Zofia cursed and dove after the paper. She teetered forward, almost losing her balance as blood rushed to her face and a hint of impossible vertigo told her to knock her forehead into the ground.

When she came back up, map clutched in one fist, Crane had apparently turned around.

She felt the top of her head brush up against the rough fabric of his jeans, her bandana hitching down and sliding down her nose. No-NoNo.. Her balance shot from the dive, Zofia managed a clumsy jerk upwards. A second later, or maybe even less, and her head connected with something warm and soft and ohdearlordZofiawhatareyoudoing.

He grunted with surprise. Livid heat snared her throat and her stomach and her everything, left her absolutely mortified with the knowledge she’d gone and head butted a man’s crotch.

Zofia recoiled, almost falling over backwards, and just about caught herself and managed to look up at him, standing there with a small, rueful smile on his lips.

“Sorry,” he said.

Sorry? Sorry?! She’d— and he— Appalled and ashamed, Zofia shoved the map at him, which she’d crumpled between her fingers like she wanted to strangle it. She’d have liked to hand back a lot more, not only the map. All of the embarrassment, the whirlwind of disconnected thoughts tossing about her head. All of that.Here, take it all back. The whole moment. The whole everything.

Crane took the map from her, left everything else right where it was. He still wore the tiny smile, and Zofia noticed it looked a bit strange without the stubble around his lips. Her brain cracked down the middle at that realisation, and she desperately wished for a bucket of ice water. Or a bathtub, rather.

“Tell Lena,” she started with her voice having itself a fit and making her sound like an out of tune flute. “That she doesn’t need to worry.”

To his credit, Crane pretended the whole disaster had never happened. He rolled the map up and lifted it to his forehead in a sloppy salute.

“Yes Ma’am.”

And that should have been it. She should have made off, picked up her supplies, and forgotten about this on her way back home. Instead she turned around, and there was Jade heading up the hall.

There came the cure for the embarrassment, striding towards them with nimble steps. The sight of the Scorpion sucked the heat from Zofia’s cheeks. She took a shuffling step back.

No. Crane stood there. Couldn’t. Couldn’t go there. She felt a careful weight against her back, atop of her pack.

Zofia grasped for a thread of resolve, but all she found was that freezing water she’d been wanting before. Her heart dipped into it, lined itself with ice.

Jade’s voice rung hollow in her ears. So did Crane’s, and so did her own as they exchanges such stupid, irrelevant words like “Hello.” and “It’s good to see you.” and “I’m so terribly sorry I killed your friend.”

She’d not said that, of course. She’d made up an excuse, squeezed it up her dry throat, and left the two heroes to their hero things while she went to live another day.

* * *

Kyle squinted at the map and then at the nondescript red door in front of him. This was it, right? What, think you can’t read maps any more? How useless are you?

He tossed a look over his shoulder, at the heavy clouds blotting out the fading sun. Oppressing heat pushed ahead of the storm front. The wall of roiling clouds had been gathering at the Harran borders since early morning. It had sat out there, blocking out the mountains and rolling hills that would otherwise stretch towards the horizon, until it eventually decided to come creeping up towards the edge of the city.

All day long the damn thing had been promising rain and thunder, and a pretty light show maybe, but it had yet to deliver on any of that. Instead it brought that infuriating, thick humidity and the faintest of drizzles carried on warm gusts of wind.

He hated it, Kyle decided. He abso-fucking-lutely hated it.

His hair was wet. His shirt the right amount of uncomfortably clammy. And he was so damn hot he wanted to climb out of his own skin. Worse, knowing his luck the storm was likely going to come boiling right on top of him the moment he started trekking back to the Tower.

He grimaced and glanced at his timepiece.

Nineteen hundred had come and gone. That left him with an hour of daylight, and even that was pushing it with the weather taken into consideration.

Go back. Kyle knocked his fist against the door, blatantly ignoring himself. Or don’t. Suit yourself.

A set of ocher curtains to his left shivered. He smiled at them.

You’re making yourself look like a grade A creep, Crane. Grade fucking A.

“What do you want?” Zofia’s voice sounded muffled through the door. And annoyed to boot.

“Lena sent me.”

“Why?” He heard her unlock the door, and a moment later she peered through the gap, all pale grey eyes and blue cheeked. Kyle figured he’d end up missing that smear once she got around to rubbing it off. It seemed to have become an integral part of his picture of the girl, along with her inability to look at him. Her eyes flicked to his right shoulder, terribly interested in whatever she liked to see dancing on it.

Behind him, Kyle heard the clouds finally giving up on their burden. The drizzle turned to sheets of water pouring from the skies. With the downpour came an almost pleasant breeze sliding up his back.

Perfect timing. Fuck my life.

Kyle looked down at the Paper Tiger hunkering in her door, and chided her with a click of his tongue. “Has anyone ever told you that you have terrible manners?”

Zofia’s head cocked to the side, and her eyes turned skywards while her lips twitched into the opposite direction. Was she really so damn unhappy to see him? And did he really have to feel so offended by the fact?

“Fine, get in.”

The door fell open and she dove out of sight.

Kyle closed the door behind him. She’d left the key in the lock, a small yellow something dangling from it by a blue string. Might have been a duck at some point, he thought, and locked the place up behind him.

He glanced at her, noticed how she stood staring at the key, her arms wrapped around herself. Christ, what does she think I’m going to do? Trap her in here with me? Kyle’s stomach did a terrible little flip. That was probably it. He removed the key from the lock, mangled duck and all, and tossed it at her.

She gawked at the yellow projectile arching through the air, her hands going everywhere but where they ought to. A bit of clumsy fumbling and awkward juggling later, and she caught the thing against her chest. Then she stuffed it into a pocket, rewarded him with a torn frown, and wandered over to a small square table pushed up against a boarded up window.

A small square table within the confines of a fittingly small square apartment, he observed. Kyle looked around. Her pack stood by the end of a bed sofa and a badly stocked kitchenette nuzzled up against the corner where she slept. The bathroom was no more than a stall with a curtain drawn across to block out the view.

She’d downgraded. How was that even possible?

He scanned the windows. The apartment had two. One boarded up, the other with metal bars reinforcing it on the outside, ocher curtains pulled shut to block out the view. His eyes turned up. Roof hatch. Padlocked.

Then he glanced back at the couch and the three postcards nailed to the wall above it. One for each day since she’d had herself chased from her last hideout, he guessed.

Kyle forced himself to stop checking out the sorry state of the place and followed her to the table.

“Cozy,” he said, hoping he sounded like he meant it even if he really didn’t.

She glanced at him as he pulled up a chair, seemed to reconsider some life changing choice, and quickly wandered off to sit on the couch instead. Kyle sighed. He turned the chair around, sat with his arms propped up in front of him and his legs straddling the backrest, and watched the Paper Tiger fidget on her cushions. She’d pulled her bow along with her and held it down against her lap with nervously twitching fingers. No arrows anywhere in sight though, so at least she wasn’t planning on shooting him. He unfastened his own weapon, the same crowbar he'd been lugging around for almost week now, and placed it across the table top. Far enough away that he hoped he was making a point. I come in peace, it meant to say. 

Outside, the first low rumble of thunder prowled the slums. Rain pelted against the metal roofing above, a peaceful enough sound that allowed his mind a moment of respite. It took him back to less insane deployments, when keeping his feet and firearms dry had been the worst of his concerns. Except getting shot at. That had been a bit of a downer. But very much within the realm of doable. Least when you were getting shot at the person doing the shooting wasn’t too hot about getting shot at back. Here? Those comfortable rules of engagement did not apply in Harran.

Kyle discarded the memories and reached for his belt, unclipping the extra radio he’d brought along.

“Lena wants you to have this.” He carefully lopped the radio across the room. This time she managed to catch it. Barely.

Her eyebrows pinched.

“Don’t argue. She insisted. You don’t even have to turn it on. Ever. Just don’t make me carry it back to her, or she’ll castrate me.”

Zofia’s lips twitched. Oh, so that’s funny, huh? Little shit.

“Don’t I get one of those things too?” She lifted a hand and tapped at her ear.

Kyle frowned and gave the wire of his earpiece a quick tug. “No, those you’ve got to earn.”

More thunder rolled in close and she turned her eyes to the ceiling, then back to the radio between her hands.

She didn’t press his statement, didn’t ask what she’d need to do, and Kyle found himself disappointed that he’d not get to use his list of hilarious retorts. Hilarious in his head, anyway.

“The right frequency is already set,” he nodded towards the radio. “Just got to push the button.”

“And who’ll be on the other end? Not Lena, I presume. She’s got enough to do already.”

“You might get me.”

She let out an unidentifiable noise, a bit of what-the-fuck-man with fucks-sake sprinkled on top, and placed the radio next to her like one might a hot potato. Kyle couldn’t help feeling a little crestfallen, but he took the disappointment like a man, and wondered how shit making his way back in the rain would be.

It’d be slippery. Visibility would be shit. He’d get all muddy if he slipped. In fact, he might slip and break something. Whether that was better or worse than sitting here wrapped in awkward silence had yet to be decided.

Kyle busied himself with another glance around the room.

What passed for host and guest etiquette in Harran these days anyway? Was she supposed to offer him coffee? Or tea, since she sounded so damn British. Or food? His stomach knitted and growled and Kyle flinched.

Right. Saddle up. We’re going to have a conversation, and you’re going to enjoy it.

“Where’d you get the bow?” He watched her bounce the weapon on her thighs. “I haven’t seen anyone else with one so far.”

When she didn’t answer right away he kept rambling, hoping she’d grow tired of the sound of his voice and interrupt him for the sake of it.

“They’ve got a few rifles at the Tower, but they’re too noisy to make them worth carrying around. The handguns are a bit better, but ammunition is damn hard to come by. Don’t think I’ll bother anyway, not until I figure out how to fit a silencer that doesn’t break after the first two shots.”

Come on, ask me how to make a silencer. Please.

She hefted the bow up, apparently not interested in his craftiness. Her eyes turned a little wistful then, as if she was regarding the weapon with a level of fondness he’d not seen her spend on anything, or anyone, else before. “Found it in a pickup truck, up at the Infamy bridge.”

“Isn’t that a bit risky? Last time I checked the bridge was full of Biters.”

“They’re slow and stupid.” She stood as she said that, left the precious weapon behind, and padded over towards the derelict oven in the kitchenette. “Not a lot of people go there, so there were a lot of provisions still left in the cars. The truck had two bows and some gear on the back. I took the smaller one and all the arrows I could find.”

She turned back around, two cans in her hand. Kyle felt hope blooming in his stomach. The noisy sort.

“Where’d you learn how to shoot?”

Zofia glanced between the cans, lifted them to her ear one by one, and shook them. They had no labels on them.

“Riding camp,” she said as she thrust one hand out, offering him a can.

He took it. Carefully. “Is that like band camp?”

“Funny,” the Paper Tiger said with her claws showing, at least a little. “I’m not very good at it, but it helped. Got a cat once. Ate well for two days.”

Kyle froze with his finger on the latch of the can. He’d eaten cat too once. Or twice. Granted he’d not been asking many questions what went into the stew on that particular deployment. A hungry stomach was a hungry stomach and didn't care what you stuffed into it. But looking at the girl in front of him he’d rather preferred picturing her hugging a cat instead of skinning and… he tossed the thoughts aside and pried open his food.

“Thanks.” Canned peaches. Peachy.

“Don’t mention it.” She went to sit on her couch again, the bow quickly returning to her lap. Though she didn’t touch her own food, just squeezed the can between her knees and kept it there.

“I’ve only got five arrows left. Then I can throw the thing away.”

He thought she sounded a little sad then, and Kyle caught the emotion rubbing up against him in-between two bites of peachy peaches. Fucking finally, he thought. There’s something you can actually help her with.

Kyle opened his mouth to tell her he could fix her up with more arrows when she stared right at him, for once not caring much about either of his shoulders.

* * *

Zofia watched him pop another slice of peach into his mouth. Why’d he get the peaches? She liked peaches. This wasn’t fair. Hers was going to be pineapple again, she just knew it. It had sounded like pineapple anyway, all chunky and coarse and sour. The sound of sour being the sound of misery.

She locked her jaw. It was getting late, as evident by the five o’clock shadow clinging to his cheek, and she knew she couldn’t send him out into the downpour. The slums were treacherous enough come dusk, even without everything slick from the rain. And then there’d be nightfall.

He’d be stuck here, wouldn’t he? Zofia tangled herself in the look he gave her and tried to hold his stare.

She would be stuck with the Tourist called Crane, so she might as well try and figure him out a little.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

Crane’s right eyebrow hiked up a little. “Lena. And I thought you could use the—“

“No,” she interrupted him and gestured towards the window by the door, her eyes flicking towards the sliver of stormy grey skies peeking in through a slit in the curtains. “ Here. In Harran. Why would anyone choose this?”

She turned her eyes back to him, and this time it was his turn to break the stare. He glanced at his can of peaches. Picked one up and popped it home.

Not fair.

“Everyone else wants out,” she continued. “But you? You paradrop in. Like a man on a mission. Who does that? A journalist might, but no offence you don’t look like one. They also don’t come with guns. I think.”

His eyes cut back to her, a curious glint in them that she could have really done without. “You saw me land?”

Oh brilliant, Zofia. Well done. He really didn’t need to know that, did he?

What was she supposed to reply? Lie? Confess? Yes I did. I was there. I even beat Tahir and his men to you. I could have got you down before they reached you. I could have helped you. I could have not let Amir die.

She’d gripped the bow tightly. Had let the world fade to nothing but her knees and the silver can digging painfully into them. A fitful shiver ran up her spine and her teeth clicked together.

Stupid.

“Hey,” Crane said from outside the cold bubble shrinking in on her. “There wasn’t anything you could have done.”

He sounded… genuine? Like he meant it. And like reading her mind was a perfectly natural thing to do. Zofia raised her eyes and found a solemn smile waiting for her. She accepted it for what it was, an offer of sorts that she didn’t need to keep talking, and flicked her gaze to his peaches rather than his light brown eyes.

He jostled the can. “Want one?”

Zofia nodded.

He started waving the can. “Come get one then.”

She abandoned hers and the bow, wandered over, and picked a slimy slice of peach from the gooey water. Then she carried her prize back to the couch and settled herself into the uncomfortable cushion at her back.

“All right.” Crane stabbed at the moment of silence that had started stretching its gangly legs between them. “I’ll trust you not to tell anyone. Not even Lena. Especially not Lena. They have no idea, and I need it to stay that way, understood?”

Zofia frowned and nodded.

“I work for the GRE.”

She was halfway through savouring the sticky sweet fruit when her tongue squished it to the roof of her mouth. He did what now? Worked for the organisation that kept Harran afloat and supplied them with all that borrowed time? Then why— She swallowed the last of the peach.

“And they told you to burn the drugs?”

He nodded with so much hesitation Zofia could almost hear his neck creaking.

“Why?” Yes. Why? Why would the same people that dropped the things ask you to destroy them?

“I needed a way in with Suleiman.”

“With who?”

“Rais,” he corrected himself, and Zofia could feel herself bristle at the sound of the name.

“I know, I know— He’s bad news.” Crane caught on to her distress. “I get that. I really do. He’s made me extort money from people over the last two days, made me feel like a fucking monster, and I’m still no closer than I was when I dropped in.”

So he was a reluctant bully? Good on you. Zofia puffed up a grim little laugh. “You got off easy. Least he didn’t ask you to kill someone.”

His relaxed demeanour glitched out. The tendons of his neck strained. His jaw flexed.

Oh.

“He did, didn’t he?”

“Might as well. I won’t do it though, no fucking way. I’ll figure something else out.” He sounded like he meant that, but there was something in there that told her that he might not have a choice. She didn’t like it, much like she didn’t like how she kept asking questions.

Stay out of this, the sensible Zofia said, but she was slow and her mouth ran on ahead.

“To do what? If its Antizin you want then you’ve been going about this a little backwards. No offence.”

“No— Well— Yes. That too, but if I play this right then you won’t have to worry about Antizin any more.”

Zofia leaned back, nestled her shoulders into the sofa. “You lost me.”

“Sule— Rais, stole documents from the GRE before they had to pull out of Harran. That psychopath doesn’t know it, but he’s sitting on the cure for the fucking virus. All I need to do is get in there, find those files, and the GRE can get to work.”

He was joking, wasn’t he? She tilted her head. Her reality tilted too, sat askew for a moment as she bounced the word cure around in her skull. This must have been her hearing things. Maybe the thunder shaking the building was playing tricks on her ears.

“They can fix this and then everyone gets to go home.”

He was still talking. Still not making any sense. She stared at him, at how his eyes cut to her chin. Where she wore her death for everyone to see.

“You’ll be okay,” he added. “Everyone will be.”

Okay. The word whistled like a boiling teakettle, distracted her from breathing. It was scalding hot too, coiled itself in her stomach and presented her with something alien. Something unthinkable. Hope?

Zofia didn’t believe in hope. She shook the thoughts clear and tried to refocus.

“What does he want you to do?”

Crane shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to part with that. No big deal, he didn’t have to.

Zofia let the silence stretch its legs again. She didn’t like it. What it did to her head, how it made her come up with plans, while it really shouldn’t have. This was a child’s fancy.

No one dropped from the skies to save the day. That was ridiculous.

“I know a way into his garrison,” she said even while she kept thinking him full of shit and then some.

“And I know the place,” she kept going, noting the careful look he shot her. All soft scowls, like he was walking on a thin sheet of ice. “I know where he keeps the Antizin. Where he sleeps, and where he works. He’s got an office.”

She choked on the last word, the disgust that came with it.

“It makes him feel important, I suppose. He runs everything from there, and I bet he keeps your files there, too. I can help you get in there, but you’ve got to promise me something.”

Crane adjusted his arms where they hung draped over the back of the chair. “What’s that?”

“You help me hurt him.”

Her words had some effect. They seemed to catch him off guard, and for a while he looked at her. Zofia thought he’d deflated a little. As if her offer was particularly odd. Sad, even. She didn’t understand, but then again she didn’t understand him.

“I’ll think about it,” he eventually said and fitted a small smile on his lips that didn’t quite survive its trip to his eyes.

“If you’d like I can help you with something else already. Free of charge.” His chin gave a little jerk. Into the general direction of her lap.

Zofia’s jaw dislodged itself from its hinges and colour raced up her neck.

“The bow!” He spluttered and sat straight. “I can show you how to make arrows. You’re running out of arrows. I can help you make more. Arrows.”

Her heart settled back down, but she still felt like throwing the can of food at him. And if his radio hadn’t gone off then, she might have actually done so.

Instead, she watched Crane tap at his earpiece, his expression shifting between relief, to a brow furrow of confusion, and eventually blatant worry. His words came quick and steady though, not betraying how his eyes flicked quickly between her to the door and back and then out at the window. He’d got to his feet, too. Was pacing madly.

She didn’t need to hear the other side of the conversation to know someone was in trouble. Properly all the way up in shit creek sort of trouble.

“Stay where you are, Kristov,” Crane wrapped up his business. “I’m on my way.”

He tapped at his earpiece again and looked at her as if he was about to take a bite out of her.

Oh no. No-no. You’re not going to ask me to…

“Where’s the Motel?”

Her body shifted into the general direction of East and her arm came up.

“How far away? Can you get me there?”

… help you.

Zofia winced and nodded, even though she’d wanted to shake her head until it came right off, since it was getting dark out there and what the hell was she doing?

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Prodigal Son: Room for one.


  Visibility was, indeed, shit. Much like he’d expected. And everything was slippery as hell, too. A bit like his conscience, Kyle decided, the one that had been trying to squirm its way out of his grip ever since Zofia had raised the question of ”What does he want you to do?”

Kyle would have preferred not to think of Rais and his demands for the rest of the night. The rest of everything, truth be fucking told. He’d tried to bury them under some goodwill as he’d trekked across the slums to bring Zofia the radio, told himself that he’d figure it all out. He just needed a bit of time. A bit of room to move and think. A bit less “Crane, we’ve got to get Antizin,” from an agitated Harris Brecken, and a whole lot less “Crane, report,”   when his handler at the GRE decided to check in.

He could have really done without hearing the sleazy psycho’s voice in his head, too. The one that said: ”You want more Antizin, Crane? Very well. Bring me little Sirota, and I will give you not just one, but two crates.” 

Kyle’s jaw clenched. He balanced himself with wide spread arms as he slid down a muddy slope after aforementioned little Sirota, kept his eyes on her back, and heard: ”So what will it be, Crane? Will you play the Tower’s lapdog and bring me the girl? Or will you walk your own path? Be a man?”

Fuck you. Fuck you with a fucking porcupine you fucking fuck.

Ahead of him, the Paper Tiger who knew nothing of his consciousness strangling itself, continued to refuse to melt in the rain, and sure as hell didn't check her pace just because sheets of water laid a veil of darkness around them.

”The Biters can’t hear or smell us in all that rain,” she’d said to him earlier as she’d locked the door to her apartment, blissfully ignorant to how he stood with one foot down in hell already. She’d not wasted much time back there, just pulled on a pair of gloves, the tips cut off for better grip, and fetched her bow along with her last five arrows and a small hatchet. Then she’d gone for her pack and he’d told her to ”Ditch that.” earning himself a puzzled frown. She’d not argued though.

Then she’d set off.

Lightning lit the skies above them, followed quickly by the roll of thunder. Zofia kept up her momentum as she reached the bottom of the slope. She vaulted over a guardrail, her legs snapping over it as she pivoted around her hand, and fell into a slow jog as soon her feet hit the ground.

Her progress stalled a moment later, and Kyle joined her where she stood with her shoulder rubbing up against a blue van. The vehicle had come to a stop in the middle of the road, and sported two flat tires which made it lean at an awkward angle. She peered around the front, then ducked her head back and turned her eyes to him.

Head back in the game, he told himself and stepped around her, steadying himself against the van with an outstretched arm. He felt his left side tense with an apprehensive pull, aware of the Paper Tiger huddled against the vehicle next to him. Staring. Without actually staring. He’d probably never get used to that.

Don’t crowd her, Crane. Don’t crowd her, Crane, he reminded himself while he shot a look out across the street, at a whole lot of bullshit piled up under the sleek curtains of rain.

This couldn't be it. He groaned. No way this was the only Bites Motel in the slums, its gates thrown wide open, and a sea of Biters washing up against a bus that had knocked over a section of the fence. There had to be another one.

But this one was the only one with a bus sticking halfway out of its carpark. A working bus. Full of people. God damnit, Kristov. The engine on the vehicle whirred and whined, coughing miserably as it turned over and over and over until finally choking out with a last, desperate clunk. The Biters surged forward at the sound, crushing themselves against the sides of the vehicle.

He’d have hated to be in there, separated by nothing but a thin layer of metal and glass from these fucking things as they tried to claw their way in.

“How are you going to get them out of there?”

Zofia’s voice dragged his thoughts away from bloody hands sliding down the glass windows and noses smashing themselves against the panes. It got him right to thinking, where he should have been to begin with. He sucked in a breath of air, straightened his shoulders, and swept the area.

A third of the bus had pushed through the fence. It had plugged the hole nicely. No other visible damage to the tall fence, and even the gate still looked in proper order. It was open, which was not ideal, but he could work around that. His eyes flicked up towards the motel. Lights. Someone had mounted a ring of lights across the parking lot. He squinted. Grimaced.

“UV,” he muttered to himself.

“Huh?”

Kyle ducked behind the van and glanced at his GPS. The one with water dripping from her nose and chin, and a livid set of gray eyes unable to decide which shoulder to land on.

“I’m ninety percent sure the place is rigged for a safe zone,” Kyle told her, and she managed to hold his stare long enough to judge him.

“What’s the other ten percent?”

“That’s healthy self-doubt.”

She scoffed.

“All we’ve got to do is get that gate closed—“ He cocked his head into the general direction of the wide open entrance. “—clear out the Biters in there, and get the lights on. We’ll be golden then.”

The vehicle’s engine started labouring again, barely audible this time around as another throaty thunder rumbled by.

Kyle winced and tapped at his earpiece.

Stupid kid…

* * *

   We? Had he said we ? He’d said we. She’d not just heard him wrong and misheard the I that he should have been using.

Zofia shrunk against the van while Crane kept looming up there with his arm propped up behind her. He’d started looking around again, his eyes scanning the area for anything that might come try sneak up on them, while he told a Kristov how he should stop cranking the engine and keep his head down.

She wanted to keep her head down, too.

“Come on.”

Zofia stood watching him stalk off, his stupid crowbar at the ready again, and plowing right into the disaster spread out in front of them. That man was insane. That was the only plausible explanation she could find. Insanity.

She flicked her eyes up at the skies. Her throat tightened and her heart made itself cozy with her bowels. Dark. So bloody dark she wanted to crawl under the van and shove her head into the muck. Not only was he bleeding mad, he was stupid atop of that.

Her legs started moving. Or maybe he just knew what he was doing, and she was being incredibly harsh on him.

They reached the gate without incident, the Biters too busy crowding themselves against the bus in a throng of broken bodies to pay them any heed. Zofia kept to Crane’s left in an effort not to get in the way of his swinging arm, the one with the crowbar that he gave the once in awhile idle swish at the air, but he wasn't making it easy on her with all his twisting and turning.

He was walking backwards just as much as he was walking straight, the beam of light from his now lit torch dancing madly through the gloom in front of him as he tried to keep track of everything around them.

Zofia scraped at the insides of her cheeks with her teeth. A light of her own would have been damn fine by now. But she’d left her good one behind. In her pack. The one he’d told her to ditch, for whatever bloody reason. Probably, she allowed herself to think, because this wasn’t supposed to be a sleepover and she ought to be back by bedtime, ready to tuck herself in and tell herself a bedtime story. And she’d done as told, though now it seemed he’d been wrong, because they were going in here to look for trouble even if trouble had not gone looking for them. How goddamn stupid was he again?

And how stupid are you? Helping him. Listening to him. All she had for lights now was a sorry excuse for a penlight in her trousers, and she doubted that’d be able to cut through the rain. Its tiny beam would get washed right out of the air.

This was ridiculous. The whole head-out-at-the-edge-of-dusk-to-play-heroes thing was just daft.

Once both of them had crossed into the lot, and he’d concluded his sweep, Crane went straight for the gate. He grabbed onto the metal bars and leaned his weight against them. The gate jerked forward, bouncing treacherously on its rails, and rattled halfway across. Then it shuddered and stopped.

“Shit. Come on…” He stepped back. Threw himself back into it, the tendons in his neck straining with the effort and his arms shaking as he pushed and heaved and battled the thing for all he had. His left foot slipped and he staggered. Then his right foot went too and he let out a frustrated growl that got itself swallowed up by an in tune rumble of thunder.  Though the gate didn't care for all his effort. It didn't budge. “Come on-come-on-why-won’t-you,” he whined.

Zofia could see his eyes frantically scanning the rails for an obstruction. They’d cut to the bus on occasion, where a mop  of dark hair appeared over the edge of one of the windows. Kristov, Zofia guessed. She couldn't see him clearly, because he’d duck right back out of sight whenever one of the two Biters at the front of the bus slapped its hand against the glass, but he looked awfully young. Maybe Rahim’s age.

Her stomach lurched. What was she supposed to do? Go try and lure those Biters away? Help Crane with the stubborn gate? Try to stay out of the way?

She fidgeted on the spot. How was she supposed to know?

“If you move,” she heard Crane squeeze through gritted teeth, drawing her attention back to him. Her head jerked around. But he wasn't talking to her, he was growling at the gate, which he’d started leaning himself into again.

“I promise I’ll come back later.” He wheezed. Shook the bars. They stayed solidly locked in place. “With lube,” he added. Another yank. The gate rattled. “I’ll lube all those hinges. You’ll be good as new when I’m —” He dug his heels in, hands wrapped around the metal and his legs shaking from the exertion. “—done with you.”

Definitely insane, she concluded as the gate finally gave in and rolled shut, and Crane let out a quiet, breathless whoop. Zofia felt the noise snag at her stomach with all its triumphant innocence.

She frowned. The light touch of warmth was unexpected.

* * *

   The gate snapped closed and he flipped the latch on it to lock it in place.

One problem down.

Kyle shot a look towards the bus, where two Biters still banged their fists against the door. He felt his right arm grow a little heavier with the anticipation of having to swing the crowbar after all that work from just now.

Two to go. Get cracking. You can catch your breath later, you lazy bum.

He turned towards the bus, his flashlight dancing in a narrow cone across the lot, cutting through the dense rain that was getting heavier by the minute. It caught Zofia huddled a little off to the sides, one hand wrapped around her bow, the other opening and closing around empty air.

She watched him, a judgemental frown pulling her brows together. When she noticed him looking her eyes darted over to the Biters. Some flicker of determination pulled her lips into a thin line. Like she was going pounce them. Like a Paper Tiger might. Her right arm extended slightly and her left seemed to contemplate going for the quiver.

“I've got this.” He had to raise his voice over the rush of rain. Her head jerked back to him. Her elbows relaxed.

“Go get the lights, okay?” Kyle nodded towards the motel. “There should be a fuse box behind the reception.” Or in a closet somewhere, or out back. Or anywhere, really. Just get her out of the damn rain. He could fix it later once the Biters were done with.

* * *

   Zofia swallowed her heart back down. So she didn't have to go help him with the Biters.

Good.

Except, did he think she couldn't handle them? Really? And what had that look been all about? The one that made her feel like she’d stood in front of the class that expected her to present on molecular biochemistry. While she’d spent all night before reading Guards! Guards! and swooning over Sam Vines.

Her jaw set.

“Fusebox,” she echoed and turned away. ’Right.’ Least she’d be in the dry.

Zofia hurried for the open front of the motel. Behind her, Crane shouted “Stay where you are, Kristov. We’ll get you out of here once its safe. Oh, watcha’ looking at, fugly? Me? Huh? Yeah— come get!”

The corners of her lips twitched up. Briefly. Then she stood facing the perfect darkness of the motel’s bottom floor, and her mouth felt suddenly very dry.

“You can do this,” she told herself and fished the sorry little penlight from a pocket. It coughed up a thin, stuttering beam.

“You can do this too,” she muttered at the thing.

Shadows dove for cover wherever the light touched, dancing grotesquely against the walls and floor. She transferred the brave little light to her left hand, snapped her elbow up and held it at eye level. There’d been so much of a racket out there the place had to be empty. Any self respecting Biter would have dragged itself towards the bus long ago. Right?

Right.

“Fusebox,” she repeated, let the light cut right. Wide open space all around and a door leading off into god knew where. It cut left. Counter. Wall. Open doorway into the back.

“Behind the reception he said. That looks like a reception. Or a bar. Or both. Let’s go take a look at the reception.”

She turned that way and started walking, one tentative step at a time. As if walking slower would have made it any better. Then her penlight stuttered and faded, and the world rocked around her. A flash of lightning lit the place and thunder rolled, and Zofia’s feet lifted off the ground with a desperate little jump. She’d probably made a noise too. Something altogether embarrassing.

“Bloody hell... “ she wheezed. “I'm going to need therapy after thi--”

A hand snapped up from behind her. Grabbed her torch. Snuffed out the light. Snuffed out her heart, too. Another one clamped around her mouth. Squeezed, choked out a scream. Wet, rough leather caught the whimpers she tried to squeeze up her throat, and a frantic breath through her nose inhaled the acrid scent of metal mixed with sweat and damp earth.

Her brain shortened out, fell to the white noise of dread.

Please-don’t-please-stop-please

Her left arm was trapped against her side and the world jerked sideways. Her feet came off the floor, and she saw the night staring back at her from the outside; The rain pelting the tarmac, the wet shimmer of the slick ground— the naked figure with its bent back hunkering in front of a lone torch rolling listlessly through the night.

“Sorry—“ Crane breathed against her ear. And yet she feared him more than the Volatile that turned its scarred, bald head towards them. It chattered into the night with its stuttering wail, yellow eyes catching the glow of the light by its feet.

Then it dove out of sight as Crane dragged her behind the counter and onto the floor. The world coloured itself pitch black, shrunk in on itself and left her trapped against a wall of heat and cold ground at her knees. There was a heart drumming loudly somewhere, but she wasn't sure if it was hers, or his. Or maybe the Volatile’s. Already on her. Already ripping her to pieces.

“Light,” Crane whispered. Turn it off, was what he meant.

Zofia nodded with the hand still on her mouth. She slipped a shaking hand into his, found the switch, and on the sound of the click his hands fell away. His arms stayed where they were though, crowding her shoulders together. A trembling breath ghosted against the top of her head.

That was okay though. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tried for a tiny little breath. Then another. It was okay. Okay-okay-okay. Because out there was death. Okay-  It crept into the hall. Okay-okay. Drawing closer. And closer still.

She caught her tongue between her teeth, bit down a whimper, because even that would be too much.

Death sucked in air out there, inhaled the whole bloody room. Even if she stayed perfectly still, perfectly quiet--- No way it didn't smell her. No way it didn't know exactly where she was. And she had nowhere to run. There was no light at the end of a tunnel this time, no sunlight to save her. Just a whole lot of night, with the horrors prowling it and ohgodletmeout.

A hollow thought settled in her head: Zofia would have liked to live a little longer, she decided. Just a bit, maybe another day, and then another if it wasn't too much of a bother. She wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. There were things to do. It wasn't fair she couldn’t finish them, wasn’t fair he’d had to ask for her help and get her killed. Wasn’t fair, and she wanted to tell him that. Wanted to scream at him and beg him to tell her WHY?  Why’d he have to show up? Why today. Why tonight. Why couldn't he have just stayed away.

The counter rocked, and the why was no longer important.

Death snarled at the air, another stuttering noise, not much unlike a cat’s yowl hacked to pieces, and stubbed out any thoughts of life that she might have liked to cling on to.

Short spasms wracked Zofia’s core, shook her shoulders, her arms. Her legs twitched. Her teeth clicked together. Her breath turned to miserable gasps numbing her head.

Around her, the warmth pressed in a little tighter, encasing her almost completely. Something landed on her head. A knob of bone, maybe a chin. He’d trapped her fully in a cage of arms and legs, his too loudly beating heart still drumming against her spine.

Let me out, she begged. Let me out, please. Now. Let me. Out.

The counter bucked again. Zofia felt her bladder pinch.

Don’t. Don’t let me out.

The cage around her squeezed and above them the Volatile huffed. She could even smell the thing now, an altogether alien stench dripping down around them. Flirting with death, but not giving in to it. Sour. Sweet. Something old and weathered and vile.

It’d get them now, she knew. Except then it started plodding away, heavy feet following its own ragged breaths, and left her head spinning as she forgot how to breathe.

When her ears started ringing she gulped down a mouthful of air, and as if he’d just remembered so himself, Crane exhaled. Slowly. A hand cupped around her shoulder. Weight settled on it. Then the wall behind her moved, shifted against her back, while he propped himself up against her shoulder to peer over the edge of the counter.

“Okay,” he whispered as he came back down. He moved. Cold came rushing in immediately when he peeled himself away from her.

“Did you find the fusebox?”

She shook her head into the dark. He must have seen that, because he let out crestfallen little sigh. Then his hand tapped against her shoulder.

“Stay low. Follow me. Quiet, okay?”

This time she nodded and crept after him as he ducked along the counter and towards the open archway into the adjacent room. Once through he grabbed her left arm, his hand questing downwards until it found hers.

“Let go,” he murmured.

What? Her fingers opened, and she remembered she’d been tightly holding on to the penlight still. Its narrow wavering beam cut forward. A room. Full of things. She couldn’t put names to anything. Everything looked like Volatile and Behind us and We are going to die, until Crane pulled her towards him and put her in front of a box mounted to the wall.

“It’s still in here.” He kept his voice low as he grabbed her hand and lifted it to the box. “We need to get it out of the motel. Here—“ He pointed at a row of switches. “You flip these, okay? When you hear me scream like a little girl you just flip it all right up. Got it?”

Zofia blinked.

“What? What are you going to do?”

“Something very stupid,” Crane admitted as he stepped away from her, the beam of light dancing in front of him. He let out an approving sort of grunt and picked up something from a corner. A bat. A solid wooden baseball bat, to be precise.

He stalked back towards her, eyes cutting to the open door as he did and feet still barely making a noise as they landed. She gathered herself into a straight little rod, one hand now back on her bow. That useless bow, strapped to useless her. She might as well just have thrown it at the Volatile that was how much good it’d do them.

His eyes landed on her, and when Zofia felt herself wanting to look away, he tapped at her chin with the torch casing.

“Hey. Look at me.”

She did.

“You’ll be okay.” He wore a look of professional calm, brows lifted reassuringly and head inclined slightly. Making himself look less threatening. Asking her to trust him. To listen. Believe him.

She didn’t.

“If— if, the lights don’t come on, wait for a minute or two, then go get those people out of the bus. There are rooms upstairs and you can probably hole up in there until daybreak. Got it?”

Zofia frowned.

“Did you hear me?”

She nodded.

“Okay. Oh-kay.” He rolled his shoulders. A nervous smile curled the corners of his mouth. “Wish me luck.”

She didn't do that either.

* * *

   Remove the threat. Couldn't secure the perimeter with the Volatile still stalking the motel. Couldn’t get the civilians out. Had to remove the threat.

Preferably without getting himself shredded to ribbons.

Which, Kyle thought as he vaulted over the counter back into the main hall, was likely going to happen regardless. He’d lost his mind, after all. Somewhere back there, when he’d cowered in the dark with a shaking bundle of twigs pressed against his chest. Her bow had dug painfully into his side. Her fear right into his gut.

Focus.

He rang the dinner bell. Once, then twice, the baseball bat banging into the counter behind him. The borrowed light jerked across the hall, and caught the monster bounding from the opposite room, straight at him. It howl-screech-wailed, that unnatural sound that didn’t fit anywhere, and Kyle dove out of its trajectory before it could tear into him.

He sprinted for the rain.

Claws dug into tiled floor behind him. The counter creaked as a mound of muscle slammed into it. The Volatile screeched. A proper screech this time. Pissed off. At him.

Good.

The rain hit him hard. It blurred his vision and made the weak light good as useless. He didn’t need the light. Didn’t need to see much. Just needed to run.

He veered right, lined himself up with the stranded bus. That thing back there, the one tearing out from the motel, it fancied itself an apex predator. Top of the fucking food chain.

Kyle’s stomach agreed, knotting painfully and probably sucking up his balls right along with it. No, definitely doing just that, with the Volatile eating up the ground behind him, one leap at a time. Every single one of them could have been the one landing atop of him.

Yes, he’d definitely lost his mind, he thought and dropped the thin light to get a two handed grip around the shaft of the bat.

Kyle spun his centre around. His left heel dug in. His right leg snapped out in a wide stance. The Volatile wailed with delight. Its unnaturally long arms reached for him, a wide embrace tipped by clawed hands.

Kyle allowed himself a wheezing roar and swung.

The bat connected. It cracked into the Volatile’s bald head. Should have caved it in, not just jolted his arms, jarred his wrists, and thrown the thing off course. It toppled over itself and landed heavily.

Kyle didn’t wait for it to claw itself back on its feet.

He bolted for the bus. Caught sight of a wide eyed Kristov staring at him as he leapt up against the front of the vehicle, feet kicking and arms pulling. He got his elbows over the edge, got his shoulders there and his knees. Almost slipped. Almost cracked his fucking nose into the fucking roof with the fucking bus shaking under him as the Volatile came after him.

Kyle got his legs straightened out, staggered towards the rear end of the vehicle, and decided it was time to scream like a little girl.

* * * 

”—et the lights. LIGHTS!"

He didn’t sound like a little girl, but Zofia’s shaking fingers frantically went for the switches anyway. One by one she snapped them up. They were unwieldy. One of them refused to budge until she pried it up with both of her thumbs. And then a THUNK shook the whole place. Her teeth itched. Her skin prickled. A buzz of electricity settled in the air. She smelled ozone, and her eyes squinted shut against the bright glare of light flooding the room.

It worked.

* * *

   The Volatile ripped a scream from its lungs as the UV light scorched its back. It staggered forward, still swiping at the air with its claws, but with very little direction to its jerky movements.

Kyle swung the bat. It caught the Volatile’s chin, snapped its head back into its neck, and sent it toppling over the side of the bus. Right into the sea of Biters still lapping up against it like a tidal wave of rot.

They scampered. It was a jerky sort of scamper, interrupted by being crushed and torn at by wildly flailing claws, but it was a scamper nonetheless. Even the Biters knew better than to stand around one of those fucking things.

Once the Volatile had stomped out a patch of free real estate around itself, it went and turned its beady yellow eyes up at him. Its jaws fell open and it snarled, and Kyle decided to do some scampering of his own.

He slid off the bus, rather than jumped, not quite trusting his legs to tuck on command. His knees were ready to buckle. His thighs cramped. His lungs burnt. Every inch of him wanted to roll on his back on the asphalt and stop moving. Right. Now.

There wasn’t any time for that yet though. He still had work to do, which started with a sweep of the perimeter now that he had enough light.

Fence. Check. No more hostiles. Check. Still tired. Check.

Going to live to torture yourself another day. Check.

Kyle sighed a defeated little Oorah and knocked a fist against the bus.

“Open up, Kristov.”

The door was yanked inwards, and Kristov’s voice came spilling out, all Thank you and We would have been dead and God, being a Scout for Brecken is more dangerous than expected. No shit. Kyle waved him off as his ears starting buzzing with the promise of even more agonising exhaustion.

“You did good, Kid.” The reassurance sounded a little hollow, so he added: “You kept those people safe. Now get them off this thing and into the motel.”

He left Kristov to deal with the frightened group of civilians and made his way back to the entrance hall. On his way there he scooped up the two lights he’d dropped, clipped his back where it belonged, and slipped the other one into his back pocket. The crowbar he left right where it was: Embedded in a Biter’s skull and abandoned in favour of high tailing it into the motel when he’d seen the Volatile climb the bus earlier.

That bat would do for now.

Kyle noticed how his progress across the lot was being watched with great interest from just inside the motel. A shaking Paper Tiger stood with her hands tightly clutching onto her elbows, the tips of her fingers digging into her skin. She kept looking from him to the people spilling out of the bus, and the more she counted, the more she looked like she’d be ready to hike through the night to get to anywhere but here.

That, Kyle decided, was not going to happen.

“Thanks.” He tried on a smile that hopefully didn’t look like he was about to keel over, and busied himself with flicking water from his hair and then rubbing at the back of his neck. “Perfect timing with the lights.”

Her head bobbed up and down. She looked a little paler than usual. Also a bit blue around her lips. Shock, he guessed. The storm hadn’t exactly brought a cold front with it. Even the rain was pleasant and warm, if not incredibly annoying. And the air in here still needed a bit of cooling down after the long, humid day. He sighed.

Next deployment? Norway. Maybe some tall blonde ladies needed their natural resources protected. Or fjords conquered. He snorted.

The sound of his inability to keep his exhausted mind in check drew Zofia’s attention. Her eyes cut up to him. She frowned, and all he could think of was Please don’t ask… absolutely certain she’d not share his sense of humour after all of this.

Thankfully she didn’t, instead she turned away, skirted around the counter, and popped open a wall mounted cabinet. Kyle followed her. Not around the counter, thinking she’d just keep drifting off into the other direction if he did. Instead he leaned himself heavily against the wooden top and briefly contemplated crawling atop of it and going right to sleep.

The floor would do too for that though, he figured. Anywhere would. Really.

Zofia turned around. She paused when she noticed him staring at her, and he saw the collection of keys clutched her hands.

Smart cookie. Will it share?

Kyle lifted a weary arm and extended his index finger. “Room for one.”

Zofia scowled at him.

“Please?”

The scowl gave way to straight out disbelief.

“We almost died.” She’d started gawking a little now, her lips slightly parted and eyes wild with judgement. “How is it you— how can you—“

Her words died halfway up her throat. She groaned, dropped the keys in a pile in front of him, and then went to rub at her skull as if her brain was itching from the inside. Her fingers curled into the bandana. Tore it off. Dropped that, too. Her hair stood off in uneven tufts, wet and grimy.

Kyle picked up one of the keys and let her chew on her words. Number 3. He bounced it up and down in his palm.

“You’re laughing this off. Like this is perfectly normal. And I— I just want to sleep. I want to go home, I want fresh clothes. Dry clothes.”

She snatched the key from his hand just when he’d started getting the hang of flipping it in the air.

“I’m wet and I’m miserable.”

Don’t say anything, Crane. Don’t say anything, Crane. Shut up. Shut up. Oh god what are you doing— His mouth opened, but the Paper Tiger beat him to it.

“No,” she wheezed. “You’re terrible and you should feel terrible. I’m not going to be the butt of one of your stupid jokes.”

Her voice cracked around the edges, desperately tired and desperately scared, but she tried, she really did. And still her heart wasn't all in it as she squeezed out “You almost got me killed.”  before grabbing a fistful of keys and hurrying off.

* * *

   That fucking idiot. That bloody moron. Zofia saw a group of survivors shuffle into the motel as she hurried towards the exit herself, wanting nothing more but out and away and leave that stupid hero to his hero things.

Eyes turned towards her as she rushed past. She heard a Thank you, but ignored it and kept going, turned left as soon as the rain hit her, and made her way up the flight of stairs there.

Halfway up her foot slipped on the slick concrete. The hard edge of a step knocked into her knee. Her shoulder cracked into the other. She dropped the keys and she dropped her dignity and was left with a wildly beating heart and a whole lot of rain. Zofia clenched her teeth. She closed her eyes, sucked in a harsh breath and held it down while she waited for her eyes to stop stinging like she was about to start bawling. Right here. In the rain. On cold steps. With no real reason to, because she’d lived and nothing had really changed.

So why then did she want to scream at the top of her lungs? To cry. To—

“You okay?”

Oh for fuck's sake…

Zofia cracked her eyes open, saw Crane hovering two steps below her, his head tilted with that infuriating professional curiosity of his. At least he didn’t have a crowbar to start prodding her with this time, just a set of light brown eyes and a hand that came up in an offer of peace. Peace, and help.

She scooted back and pulled herself up against the railing.

“Yeah. Slipped.”

“I saw that.”

She gathered up the keys, swiping one of them from the steps just as he was about to swoop it up, and started climbing again. Her right leg smarted when she set it down. So she’d survived a Volatile attack. But she’d almost ruined her knee on some stupid stairs. Great.

Behind her, Crane was keeping step, and he was still behind her by the time she reached the first room that matched one of her keys. She tossed a look over her shoulder while she fitted the key home and unlocked the door.

“Shouldn’t you be downstairs? Help these people?”

He shook his head. “They can take care of themselves.”

“So can I,” she squeezed through gritted teeth and tried to shoulder her way into the room. Crane snapped forward. He grabbed the door handle with her hand still on it, and pulled it closed again. Her spine stiffened and she glared at him.

“Sure you can,” he said and she wasn’t sure if he was mocking her then. “May I?”

Zofia peeled her hand out from under his and stepped away. Her neck flushed with embarrassment and she’d have liked to kick herself then. ’Way to end the evening, Zofia. Bumble headfirst into a room you haven’t checked.’

He stood away from the door, nudged it open with his foot, and kept the baseball bat he’d traded for his crowbar raised at the ready. Zofia frowned. She’d liked that crowbar. Why’d he have to ditch it? She figured it had probably deserved a name by now.

Her thoughts tangled themselves between names for murderous tools while Crane stepped into the room. He came back out two seconds later, shook his head, closed the door, and locked it again.

“You don’t want to go in there.” He looked a little spooked.

“Okay,” Zofia mumbled and started following him as he walked over to the next door. Her stomach settled. Her eyes stopped stinging with unshed tears. And the panicked flutter of her heart died, too. Much like the rain, it seemed. The downpour of before had reduced itself to a gentle pitter patter that fell to her left where the roof outcropping didn't reach.

Kyle stopped and so did she. “Keys,” he said and she offered him the collection she’d carried upstairs. He picked out one of them and repeated the ritual of before. Unlock. Step back. Nudge open. Wait. Step inside. Step back out and shake his head.

“Tossed,” he said. Again she followed him.

Attempt number three yielded better results. He didn't come back out immediately, but neither did she hear him getting eaten. Then he stuck his head out and gave her an encouraging wave.

Zofia let herself be beckoned, albeit reluctantly, and stopped just past the threshold of an almost pristine room. A double bed with untouched white sheets stood in the centre of it. Almost pristine because the motel ran with a single star and a half, most like, its rooms fitted with old, cheap furniture and its walls covered in grotesque ( And probably mouldy. ) floral wallpapers. Drab, washed out brown flowers. Not green or red or yellow or whatever the fuck flowers were supposed to be when they went on the walls.

But it had a bed, and there was not a single speck of blood anywhere in sight. Her back ached with a sudden need to sink into the mattress and her jaw clicked as she wrestled back a yawn.

“Here,” Crane said from her left. He was holding out a bundle of clothes. Waving it, too. “Might fit.”

Zofia stepped around him. She watched the offer of clothing follow her, along with a tiny, rueful smile, until she managed to peer past him at two suitcases propped open on a table by the wall. Their contents stuck out as if he’d just gone ahead and gored the poor things.

“The shaving cream is mine.” Zofia’s eyes cut back to him. His brow pinched threateningly, a gesture easily lifted by the smile curling his lips. “So’s the iPod. I’ll fight you for it if I've got to.”

Zofia grabbed the clothes and would have liked to grab onto all that hatred and anger of before as well, but she found it maddeningly difficult to drag them back out into the open. Instead there churned lazy warmth, tired and beat from an evening of almost dying, but there. Persistent. It didn't even go away when he stuck around until he found himself something else to wear. Or when he stuck around a little longer still so he could look out the window of the room.

He whistled then and gushed “Nice view!” at the wall of rock out there, before testing the latches on the frame like he was worried she might try and run off into the night. And all the while she sat on the bed and watched him, the clothes folded on her lap and her knees squeezed together.

She felt silly. Useless. Shy.

You’re kidding, right?

She watched him and noted the wear and tear. The slouch in his shoulders. The dragging steps. His eyes were still awake but he yawned thrice and rubbed at his stubbly chin with what she could swear were shaking fingers. But he didn’t slow and he didn’t stop, at least not until he thought his inspection was completed. Deemed the place fit for a night’s sleep.

Not for him though.

Ask him if he wants to stay.

The warmth fled. Heavy, oily cold wrapped itself around her spine.

He’s looked after you. Look after him. Because that’d only be fair.

She must have reacted in some way, though all she remembered was a haze of red falling against the back of her eyes and her breath freezing in her lungs. But she’d done something, because Crane paused while he stood over the suitcases, a few choice items already awkwardly squeezed under his arm and squirrelled away in any pocket he still had room in.

“You okay?”

There it was again. That professional curiosity.

She nodded.

“Cool.” He didn't believe her. Did he? “If you need anything, I’ll be— uh— Somewhere. Just come find me, okay?”

“I won’t need a thing,” she reassured him and his shoulders jerked up in a tired shrug. Then he struggled a little as he pinched her penlight from his back pocket, arms preoccupied by a heavy baseball bat and all his loot. He flicked it towards her and it landed with a tiny thud on the sheets next to her, before rolling right off.

She watched it go. And then watched him go, too.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Siblings: a volatile Venture


 ”Let me go let me go let me go!” Zofia shrieked at him. She hated him. Loathed him-hatedhatedhated him. She tore into him, curled her hands around his neck, dug her nails in--

Her eyes flew open.

Weak light. Dirty. Dusty. A ceiling right above her. Dirty, too. A mattress at her back. Soft and warm and a little damp. A pillow supporting her head. Also soft. Also damp. And a frantic thumping in her chest, like a drill working its way out.

She tried to breathe. Her lungs disagreed, constricted the wrong way. Out. Never in-- folding themselves together like a broken accordion. They swallowed her screams and allowed her no air. All she was given was panic and dread and so much white hot fury she thought she’d burn up from the inside.

Her throat snared shut. The muscles in her back seized up. Every fibre of her had itself wracked by the seizure, and even though her eyes were wide open she could barely see through the murky yellow clouding her vision.

Then her jaw clenched and her body bucked against the mattress, turned the world sideways and brought a cold, hard floor cracking into her shoulder. She landed with a hollow thump and her hip snapped down. More spasms. More pain. She squeezed her eyes shut, tried to banish the sick, yellow and green tint, but it didn’t help. Her eyelids were a canvas to the same muddy splotches dancing wildly before her, reminding her of vomit and pus.

She was suffocating. Pulled under by anger and lack of air.

The room shuddered, light touched her tightly clenched eyelids. She flew off the ground. Spun towards the ceiling. Fell back down, her spine hitting a soft and yielding surface.

Still no breath. She opened her mouth, sucked greedily at the air, but nothing would come.

“—Zofia. Zofia!

The voice hurt. So damn loud. So damn close. She wanted to claw at it, but her hands wouldn’t move. Her shoulders wouldn’t either, they were tightly clasped in heat.

“Short breaths, Zofia. One at a time. Quick, short breaths, come on you can do it.”

She thought her teeth might crack from how firmly her jaw set itself, but she did as told, drew in a quick, desperate pull of air through her nose. It made it all the way into her lungs, so she dragged in another. And another. She wasn’t counting, just kept breathing, until her muscles quit screaming and her tendons stopped trying to snap themselves.

In she breathed— “Crap.” Out again. In. Out. “Crap.” Every quick gulp of air helped a little, until her mind seemed her own again and her eyes fluttered open to find Crane leaning above her.

The anger simmered in her chest, alien and unwelcome and altogether unreasonable. Or maybe not that unreasonable, since this was his fault. She’d missed a hit. She needed suppressants and she needed them now, and he’d made her leave her pack behind. In that pack there’d have been a dose of Antizin, and if she turned now it’d be all his fault and she hoped she’d at least get to bite his stupid nose off. The one he was sticking so damn close to hers.

His mouth was wagging. Saying things. Talking. His hands pressed down harder against her shoulders. A worried crease folded his forehead.

“You’re okay,” she eventually heard him say and Zofia didn’t believe him.

She couldn’t be. This wasn’t okay, this was the worst seizure she’d ever had and that couldn’t mean anything good.

“Hey. You’re okay,” he repeated. His hands vanished. The shadow of him looming above her went with them.

She allowed herself a moment to remain still against the mattress, her mind limping along after having itself scrambled by the seizure, eyes turned up towards the wall. Her tongue went to find her teeth, counted them. Then it found her lips, dry and cracked and bloody.

No, she wasn’t okay at all.

“You need Antizin,” Crane stated so damn uselessly she almost felt like laughing. Almost.

Instead she mouthed No Shit at him and earned herself a short, unexpected chuckle that made the mattress bounce and sent the anger and dull panic packing.

Zofia flicker her eyes towards him. He was studying her with that professional curiosity again. A little more warily than before, calculating the risks of her going for his throat, no doubt, while he waited for her to say something. Or do something.

She frowned and so did he, a mutual exchange of cluelessness on how to approach the situation at hand. Whatever that might be. Eventually, he attacked the silence by clearing his throat and standing. The mattress bounced and squeaked as he did, and Zofia watched him turn away, his hand coming up to rub at his neck.

“I’ll be outside. Grab your stuff, we need to head back to the Tower and get you dosed.” Crane vanished through the door, nudged it halfway shut behind him. “And you might want to put a shirt on while you’re at it.”

Zofia almost choked on the humiliation lodging itself in her throat. She remembered how she’d ditched the shirt he’d found for her, all in favour of not melting in the stuffy room. Mortified, she grabbed for one of the pillows and dragged it over her face. Maybe suffocating wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

Once her ears had stopped burning, Zofia felt the dull panic come wrestling its way back in. It helped her to her feet and helped her find that shirt. It helped her shed the trousers she’d borrowed too, and pull on her still damp carpenter pants instead. No way she’d leave those behind. Her fingers and knees still shook desperately, each tremble its own little aftershock of the seizure. But she made it through and she even managed to fasten her belt. The leather snapped painfully against her hipbone when she pulled it tight.

Fully dressed and with her gear back where it belonged, Zofia followed him outside, where she found him sitting on a plastic chair just to the right of the door. His head rested between his knees, hands clasped around his nape. A discarded blanket and knapsack lay by his feet, and a pillow had got stuck between the chair’s backrest and the wall.

Her heart squeezed. He couldn’t have, could he? Why the bloody hell would he?

“Did you sleep out here?”

Crane rolled his shoulders. “Me? Sleep? No— no of course not. I don’t sleep. Ever.”

His last words were swallowed by a yawn, and Zofia couldn’t quite decide if she should be smiling or frowning and what that pinching feeling in her gut was. She didn’t like it, anyway. Didn’t want to like it, rather.

Crane, oblivious to the tug of war in her head, got to his feet. He cast a quick look at her, like he was making sure she’d not forgotten the shirt, nodded briefly, and then jabbed a thumb into the general direction of the twin towers.

Last night’s storm had left the air cleansed as it had rolled through. Wisps of clouds stretched across the early morning sky, ribbons of white that drifted lazily in the almost still air.

It’d be a nice day, Zofia thought. A nice day for not dying on. And the Tower was closer than her new den, so maybe it’d be reasonable if she went with Crane instead of heading home. Yeah, sticking with him for a little while longer seemed to make perfect sense. Even if he’d almost got her killed last night. It wasn’t like he’d meant to.

* * *

A little more than halfway there, and Zofia’s stomach convulsed with the promise of another seizure. Her right foot caught her left and she staggered, almost fell. Would have too, but Crane was there. He kept her from snuggling up to a pile of rubbish still sodden from the rain. Kept her from thinking, too. And all the while he looked alarmed as ever.

He didn’t say anything. Didn’t need to, because what was there to say. They sat in the same boat, and it likely reminded him that this could be him, rather than her. He offered her a hand though. She refused it and kept walking, with him close in tow.

* * *

Lena was angry. At her, at Crane— she was furious with the both of them as she shepherded Zofia into their makeshift sick bay and told her to sit and not move a muscle until she’d come back with Antizin.

Zofia obeyed, not wishing to find out just how terrible the nurse’s wrath might feel if channeled on her. She much rather preferred watching Lena march Crane from the room, her finger jabbing at the perplexed man’s chest while he backed himself towards the door.

And then she sat and waited. Her arms went around herself and her eyes darted across the narrow room they’d repurposed. It was cramped in here. Smelled terrible, too. Of antiseptics and of rubber and of clean metal, with that subtle hint of death lurking on her tongue after each pull of air. A few locked cabinets stood impressively well stocked with medication, though how much of it was useful and what was just borderline trash they’d collected from the slum’s pharmacies, Zofia could only guess. One of the lockers, she noted, was full of alcohol. Her eyebrow came up at the selection of hard liquor secured behind thick glass.

Harran’s roots made it difficult to find alcohol. She’d tried, and she’d only been moderately successful at best, with three cans of beer and a bottle of half empty scotch. The beer she’d drunk the same day. It had tasted like shit, warm and stale. The scotch though, that she’d saved for some occasion of sorts, only to lose it when Rais’ men had raided her den.

Too bad. Today felt like an occasion, and she could really use a sip.

The whole bottle, that’s what you need.

Zofia’s eyes flicked back to the door.

No Lena. No Crane, either.

She squeezed her arms a little tighter to herself and glanced at the three men occupying the bunks farthest to her right. One of them mumbled in his sleep, a miserable groan here and a pitiful sigh there, but they all looked equally pallid, with their faces flush from what she guessed to be fever. Some ordinary sickness maybe, or an infection of sorts. It might have been something altogether unremarkable, for all she knew, but made worse by the fact that the modern comforts of medicine had been reduced to Lena’s tireless, but likely limited capabilities. What, she wondered, happened if someone had to get their appendix taken out? What then? Were they just going to die because there was no surgeon about? Something that trivial out there-- was that death here?

Back to the door her eyes went.

No Crane. No Lena.

She frowned.

Why’d it matter if he came back or not? He likely wasn’t, since he’d said nothing about coming to check on her. In fact, that little three fingered salute to his temple had probably been his way of saying Have a good one, now let’s never talk again. before Lena had laid into him about how he’d supposed to be— Zofia hadn’t paid much attention. She’d just fidgeted on the spot. Like she did now, with her chest feeling suddenly very hollow.

Oh.

Her lips pursed. Her heart stuttered.

“Hell no,” she mumbled.

She was not hoping he’d come back, and she was certainly not hoping he’d do it soon and then stick around and ask her if she wanted more company. She was not feeling attracted to that stupid Tourist. She wasn’t. No.

So what if he’d been friendly? So what if he’d gone out of his way for her? So what if he’d saved her life.

Almost. Got. Me. Killed.

Someone decided it was a good idea to fill her stomach with warm, bubbly liquid.

Saved your life, the awful, traitorous thing at the back of her mind insisted, the one that made her remember that busted nose of his and the alert set of light brown eyes. The one that still wanted to ask how he’d got that scar on his lip.

Zofia threw her head back into her neck and groaned at the ceiling.

“Oh, is it too late already? You’ve gone and turned in my infirmary?” Lena called from the door, snapped Zofia’s thoughts back to the issue at hand that didn’t involve her terribly neglected and evidently confused libido. Because that must be it. That, or maybe she suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Except, she thought as she watched Lena approach her with a hypo brandished in one hand, she wasn’t really being held a hostage by Crane, now was she.

No, something else then.

Her lips turned up in a weak smile. What was that thing called again? When you got all flustered and obsessed with someone who treated you right, someone that made terrible things go away? A bit like crushing on a therapist? Transference, wasn’t that what Freud had called it? School was a few years out already and she’d never cared much about impractical things like the human condition.

Her tongue slipped between her teeth.

Crane had shown her kindness where she didn’t expect any, and where she certainly hadn’t wanted any. Zofia flinched as Lena grabbed her arm, turned her wrist out and extended it towards her.

“You should be more careful,” she chided her, set the cold tip of the hypo against her skin. “I’d hate to lose you.”

“I wasn’t exactly trying to get into trouble, you know.”

Zofia’s protest met a sad little smile from the nurse.

“You’re not trying hard to stay out of it either.”

So, in that case, why aren’t you all over Lena then? She’s sufficiently concerned, too.

The hypo hissed and the injection stung. Zofia winced, her fingers curling uselessly and her arm twitching. She hated those things. Crane probably didn’t mind them.

Oh for fucks sake… Could she not think about him for a little while?

“This one wasn’t my fault. You’re the one that sent Crane after me to bring me the radio. So I could check in with you and whatnot.”

Lena’s shoulders pulled back and she tilted her chin. Her eyebrow came up too, and overall Zofia thought she looked a little as if she’d just announced she’d cross bred a shark with a cow and was about to try milking it.

“I did no such thing,” Lena said, her lips curling into a careful smile.

“Oh.”

Something cartwheeled itself dizzy in her stomach.

“Look--” Lena let go of her arm. “He’s a bit of a brute, but he’s a good man. Obviously he thinks you shouldn’t be out there on your own, and you know I agree with him on that. So don’t be too hard on him, okay? He means well.”

“I just want to be left alone,” she admitted, not entirely certain why it felt like a lie all of a sudden. And not all too fond of how her words seemed to hurt the nurse who’d started packing up the hypo and came back to her with a tired frown on her lips.

“You’re too stubborn.”

She shrugged and earned herself a sigh.

“Anyway, Crane asked for you to come meet him up in his quarters once I’m certain you won’t need putting down. You should at least do that.”

Zofia had to suppress the urge to fly off the table right then and there and find the nearest window to throw herself from. Crane-Crane-Crane his name was bloody everywhere, stamped all over the inside of her skull, and Lena was just putting more of them up there.

“Ah—“ Zofia narrowed her eyes, tried to look suspicious, instead of giving away that cartwheeling thing in her gut. “Did he say what he wanted? I was just going to head home…”

Yeah. Right. Sure you were.

“Likely he wants to talk to you about just that. He seems to be just as stubborn as you.” Lena stepped away from the table, made room for her to get off. “You should probably listen to him, you know. You don’t have to keep being afraid out there. Rais can’t get to you in here, Zofia.”

Probably not, but there was no point in arguing with Lena about why she couldn’t stay. About how she thought just being around the Tower put them at risk, because— She sighed, flicked the thoughts away.

“Thank you,” Zofia murmured lamely and slid off the bed.

Lena deserved those words. For putting up with her, for sharing the suppressants that the Tower so sorely needed, not knowing that Zofia had a whole stash of them waiting at her den. She’d have to come back with a vial. Repay her, else she’d be owing her, and that was unacceptable.

And maybe she should go tell Crane that too, use those two words on him and then get out of his hair. She had nothing to give to him except her gratitude and her removal from whatever path he was hurtling down. His claim that he was in search of a cure, that the cure was here was ridiculous at best. So she might as well give him and that quest of his a wide berth. That’d probably be for the best. Even better yet, it’d probably help with the commotion in her gut, too. The one still happily cartwheeling about the place.

All I’ve got to do is get some distance between us. Then it’ll all be okay again.

“Wait—“ Lena caught up with her as she’d made it from the sick bay and thrust a bottle and some swabs at her. “Rubbing alcohol,” she added and touched her own cheek with the tip of a finger.

Oh.

Zofia frowned down at the bottle and fumbled to get her hand around it. She’d all but forgotten about that stupid blue smudge.

* * *

“You— what sort of humanitarian outfit are you?” Kyle spat into the satellite phone. He dropped himself into the lawn chair he'd found neatly set out by the edge of the roof, folded his torso forward and clenched his fingers around that ugly, beat up yellow leash that kept him tethered to the GRE. A second later he sat up straight again, leaned into the chair and looked around, eyes scanning the Tower’s rooftop. Empty, save for himself and a flock of doves collecting at the edge on his left. They fluffed their wings and cooed at the late morning sun. Ignorant, stupid shit machines that didn’t care at all that he was being ordered to exchange Zofia for a slim chance at the GRE’s files.

“I’m sure she will be okay,” his handler tried to soothe him. It only made it worse. He wanted to reach through the fucking thing. Knock her pearly fucking teeth out.

She kept talking, like he even cared to listen. How there was too much at stake. How this was for the Greater Good. How they were not paying him to care, but to get the job done. If this was what the Greater Good looked like, and what his conscience was worth, then Kyle thought he might be okay being a little poorer.

“I’ll think about it,” he snapped. Clenched his left hand into a fist. Fought the urge to throw the satellite phone off the edge of the tower.

Get it together, Crane.

He weighed his options. Balanced some unfavourable scales in his head. And when Zofia’s end of things came up too light, he thought he’d be sick.

* * *

By the time he was back inside, Kyle had convinced himself that he’d figure this all out, because that was what they paid him for. Though he wouldn’t be able to do much coherent thinking any time soon, considering the steady pressure slowly building inside his skull. It threatened to pop his eyeballs right out of their sockets.

Then there was the rest of him, a bit like a road trip up pain valley. Turned out that sleeping in a dollar store chair which might, or might not, have cost a whooping buck, had been a terrible idea.

Last night it had sounded brilliant though. Sit by the girl’s door because you didn’t like the look one of the survivors had thrown up the stairs. That sleazy sort of look. The one he’d expect from Rais’ flunkies.

Kyle sighed, squeezed at his neck with a hand that had started shaking with fatigue again.

He’d felt guilty, that had been it. Guilty for even having listened to Rais’ proposition, instead of laughing into the man’s face and then walking off.

And now the GRE wanted him to walk back. With her in tow.

No. He wasn’t gonna do that. Couldn’t. Even if she’d come up light on the scales of fate. Kyle’s brow pinched.

She’d come up light from the floor, too. Back when she’d woken him with a strangled cry and a hollow thud from inside the room. He’d been on his feet before he’d been conscious, apparently, tripping over the blanket caught around his ankles and then almost falling through the door.

A bad seizure had knocked her off her bed. He’d scooped her up, dumped her back onto the mattress, and had tried hard not to think about her turning right then and there while he’d pinned her down. Instead he’d thought about getting her to breathe again and attempted-- and failed spectacularly --not to notice how she wasn’t wearing anything for a top.

Nada.

Just a lot of white skin stretched over bone and a pair of tiny breasts. Very tiny. 

She needed to eat more, Kyle decided for her, and violently ejected thoughts of negligible breasts from his mind. Put some meat on that ribcage which showed every single rib, and that sharp angle of her hipbone that could probably cut him if he bumped into it.

Yeah.

She needed to eat more. He’d find her food, instead of bringing her to Rais. Feed her, if he had to, rather than turning her over. He yawned. He’d have to feed himself too though. Right after an extensive nap.

Thoughts of stretching out on his bed hastened Kyle’s footsteps. Not by much. It turned his zombie like shuffle into a casual stroll, and by the time he reached his room, he was ready to pass out.

He’d gotten his hand up to the door handle when the sound of a guitar being choked froze him mid motion.

“Drat.”

Kyle cocked his head to the side. Listened.

A mellow chord played. Was choked off again.

“Stop being difficult,” Zofia muttered through the crack in the door, and Kyle helped himself to a peek.

She sat on the bed. A guitar— the one he’d found abandoned in the room —on her lap. Kyle nudged his shoulder against the door. She had a hand up by the headstock, her fingers questing about. Her eyes were fixated on the thing, her head bowed, presenting him with a view of her wild mop of mousy brown hair and her scarred jawline.

Another note filled his room, throaty and dry, and Kyle pushed the door open just enough to start feeling like a proper creep lurking on the threshold. But chances were she’d stop trying the moment he announced himself, and Kyle wasn’t ready to face her just yet.

He really couldn’t make himself pretend everything was just fine and that she’d not been weighted against the fate of the world.

Bullshit.

Zofia plucked at the guitar, teased a row of notes from it. Snapped her hand back on it, choked it out. Still a little out of tune, but she went for it again. Same row of notes. A little shy. A little clumsy, with her mouth tightly pressed together in a thin line.

The hesitation didn’t last. It gave way to a clear rhythm. Made room for a beat that filled his unit wall to wall. Her heels came up, snapped back down. Her knee bounced. Her lips curled.

Kyle raised an eyebrow. She was smiling. Not a toothy, wide grin, not a delighted sort of beam. A simple, content smile. Simple like the notes she played as Time of your Life by Green Day fell crisp and quick from her fingers.

* * *

She could breathe. Deep, liberating breaths, which fed her heart and made her feet bounce off the ground in the rhythm to the music.

Zofia had forgotten that feeling. Had not considered it since the day they’d told her whatever ticket home she’d had? Now invalid, no good any more. They’d told her to sit tight and someone would sort it out. Except no one had. No one might ever get around to fix it all, but here she was, wrapped in a small bubble of elation while the quarantine existed, but for once did not matter.

Nothing mattered.

“Crane!”

Rahim’s voice popped the bubble and everything she’d managed not to care about came wrestling its way back in and arrested whatever pleasantries she’d dared surround herself with. Her left hand snapped down on the strings, her right strangled the guitar’s neck. From one moment to the next Zofia sat ramrod straight, eyes flying up towards the entrance, where she found Crane watching her through a half open door.

A needle went to stab at her heart.

She stopped breathing. Stared. Caught red handed committing a crime, no doubt, one involving trespassing and getting her fingers on things that weren’t hers. A bit like when she’d looted her first can of soda and scavenged her pack. Or when she’d found her carpenter trousers and stolen them right off a drying rack.

Except she really hadn’t wandered into the room to take anything. Hadn’t even done that the first time she’d been here, back when she’d— the needle in her heart dug in a little deeper.

Right.

She’d come to thank him, not steal his guitar. Tell him she’d be okay now and that he didn’t need to tell her how to make arrows. She’d be okay. She’d be just fine. She’d be so damn peachy.

Zofia lowered the guitar. Lowered her hopes and dreams. Ground them up underfoot. Wished she’d never had them.

Crane looked disappointed as he stepped into the room, some small crease to his brow that wasn’t for once angry or worried or just agitated with the situation at hand. It just looked a little disheartened. Then he turned his head away from her and greeted a bright eyed Rahim rushing in after him.

“Brecken really needs to talk to you—“ Rahim froze in his steps as he spotted her, his mouth forming an Oh he didn’t quite manage to say out loud. Then he looked back at Crane, who’d taken to wearily rubbing at the back of his neck. His jaw flexed and adam’s apple bobbed up and down. Swallowing a yawn, Zofia guessed, and not giving off much excitement over being summoned by the Tower’s leader.

“Okay.” Crane’s eyes flicked back to her. “Can it wait?”

He’s not asking you. Zofia’s back stiffened. The curious intensity of his stare crept down her spine and anchored her to the thin mattress.

“No. I— I don’t think it can. He said it’s urgent. Something about the Antizin drops? He wasn’t being very specific…”

“Of course the Antizin.” Crane’s eyelids snapped shut. His shoulders rose and fell with a What-else sort of sigh. When he opened them again they were so damn hollow and tired, Zofia almost got up to chase Rahim from the room and tell him to never come back.

“Okay,” he breathed. “You—“ Crane jabbed a finger at her. “Stay where you are. I’ll be right back.”

And don’t think about arguing, the stare following his finger added. Zofia thought she might have got sucked into the mattress a little more still, and offered him a short bob of the head. Then she hugged the guitar a little closer to herself, and watched Crane slip past Rahim and out of sight.

That left her with the younger man standing with an awkward tilt in his shoulder. Though then again, Rahim always seemed a little off-centre. The round goggles he wore snapped to his head were on a little sideways, his shirt and sweater too long on one side, too short on the other. Though today, Zofia noticed, he’d dressed himself for— for what? Battle?

She frowned at him. Tightened her grip on the instrument cradled in her arms.

Tape reinforced his forearms, a simple attempt at Biter protection. Unreliable at the best of days, since the tape would ride up and down when the things worried their teeth against an arm, and would expose weak spots fairly quickly. But it could buy a second, maybe two, and that might be all one needed to get away.

He sported a pair of knee pads and had strapped two empty holsters to his thigh, readily awaiting weapons of sorts, but none of that gave it away as much as the nervous and almost guilty fidgeting as he stood there trying not to look conspicuous.

That, and he’d not even said hello.

“What’s the matter, Rahim?”

His green eyes snapped to her. He frowned and smiled, both things wrapped in one confused twitch of his lips. But this being Rahim, the smile won and he rushed into the room to drop himself on Crane’s armchair.

“Can you keep a secret?” He sounded positively bubbly, but kept his voice low and proceeded with throwing suspicious looks towards the door every once in awhile.

Zofia nodded.

“Cool. So— look— you remember that Volatile nest?”

Again Zofia nodded. The fingers in her left hand tapped idly against the guitar, teasing the strings but allowing no tone. He’d told her about that once before, about his fancy of blowing up a nest that had cropped up in an unfinished apartment building. A brilliant idea in theory, Zofia had thought then. A bit ridiculous in practice.

“Jade and Crane found explosives a few days ago.”

Ah.

Of course. Jade and Crane, the two heroes. They’d do something like that, wouldn’t they? Zofia’s eyes cut to the wardrobe standing behind Rahim, who thought the sudden twist of her neck was a sign of interest. In reality it was just that needle again having another stab at her heart. A dejected, miserable stab.

They’d do other stuff, too.

The cartwheeling thing crumpled.

“Omar fixed up those explosives with timers, and— and please, Zofia, you can’t tell Jade, okay? Not Crane either, he said it was too dangerous. He called it crazy! But he’d go himself, you know?”

Rahim’s hands flew up.

“Calls my plan crazy and doesn’t want me to go, but he’s fine going himself?”

“He knows what he’s doing,” Zofia’s tongue decided to wag on her behalf, not waiting for her brain to interject its protest.

“And I don’t?”

You’re a kid. How old are you again? I don’t even bloody know. Eighteen? Now stop looking at me like that.

“That’s not what I meant. And if you’ve got the boom now, why not just attack Rais?”

Rahim’s mouth snapped shut.

“Blow him from the slums,” Zofia continued, one idle finger tracing up and down a smooth string. “He’s a bigger bother than the Volatiles, no?”

“Brecken would never allow that.”

She shrugged. Zofia didn’t know the man, but from all she’d heard and seen and witnessed, Rahim likely had it right. Brecken wasn’t a warlord ready throw his hat into the ring with Rais and fight tooth and nail for who got to rule the Quarantine. All he wanted was a safe little haven for those who needed it and to sit out the shit storm.

Her eyes went to the door. What’s he want from Crane?

She felt a string dig into the tip of her finger as she pressed down on it. What do you care?

Her heart had itself needled again, and once again Rahim got the wrong idea from whatever she couldn’t keep off her face.

“I’m sorry, Zofia. We want to get rid of him too, but I don’t know if Brecken would ever—“

“It’s okay.” Was it though? The thought of the garrison crumbling around Rais and Tahir while they stood in the maelstrom of their own undoing felt just a little too right as it knocked about in her head.

“But once the nest is gone,” Rahim finally continued and leaned far as he could towards her from the dusty old armchair. “We can run for Antizin at night. It’ll take a lot of power away from Rais.”

She nodded idly.

“So don’t tell Jade, please.” How often was he going to ask her that? “Omar and me are going to head out later today.”

Zofia’s head snapped around to him.

“Are you insane?”

“We’ll be fine! We have a route planned out and everything.” Excitement got his voice staggering over himself, and the clandestine whispers were forgotten. “If we wait until nightfall to go in, the nest will be empty. So we’ll camp out in the train yard. And then all we have to do is plant those explosives on some of the bottom floor supports. Omar said the whole thing will come down if we blow the right ones.”

He gestured enthusiastically, presenting her with a depiction of boom and a crumbling building.

“It’ll be awesome!”

“You’re going to get yourself killed. Have you even been outside? Are you taking anyone with you that knows the way?”

He frowned. “We have a map.”

“You’re not taking any of Brecken’s Runners? Or a Scout?”

The frown turned itself into a guilty grimace.

“Brecken doesn’t know?”

Rahim shook his head.

“Bloody hell, Rahim. Your sister is going to kill you if you live through this.”

The boy’s shoulders straightened. “Or maybe she’ll finally get it that I don’t need protecting all the time. That I can’t just sit around all the time and do nothing.”

“You train Runners. Scouts.” she interjected.

“On a nice, safe course, yes. Everyone can do that.”

“I heard you’re pretty good at it.”

His eyes pinched a little. Embarrassed maybe, or flattered. He looked away, towards the door that she knew she’d been glancing at every once in awhile herself.

“I’m tired of being useless.”

The words sounded awfully familiar, and for a moment Zofia thought she’d said them herself. It hurt. There wasn’t any other word to explain how her core pinched tight. Hurt.

“Crane’s been with us for nine days. Nine. And he’s— he’s set up a safe route through half the slums, he’s got the electricity back on when it fell in one of the sectors. At night ! He’s even got the antenna towers online, negotiated with Rais for Antizin, he’s—“ Rahim’s shoulders sagged again. “He’s great, okay? He’s really damn good at what he does.”

Zofia thought about all the Antizin he’d burnt. And how she’d swapped it for poison before that. She thought about his why. That secret he’d shared with her. What was it with people wanting to tell her things she really didn’t want to know? Or needed to, for that matter. She’d been perfectly fine being ignorant to Crane’s insane claim that he’d come to save the day. Still didn’t quite believe him, anyway. And now Rahim.

Though she couldn’t blame the boy who so wanted to be a man, could she?

No.

Rahim kept rambling. About how he wanted to just prove he could do something worthwhile. How he’d been here, trapped with everyone else, and achieved nothing, while Crane had done so much in so little time. He spoke of Amir, too. That man, that hero, that— Zofia wished she could have stuffed her ears with cotton swabs soaked in petrol and set them on fire.

Eventually the confession trailed off into a meek “You won’t tell anyone?”

“No,” she lied.

* * *

Rahim left her in Crane’s room to go off and find Omar. Something about getting everything ready. Ready to get himself killed. At first, Zofia sat still, rooted in place by the Stay right where you are that continued to fill the room. It took a lot of effort to get up, to gently place the guitar back where she’d found it. It took even more of her already wavering willpower to leave it there.

If she didn’t know better, Zofia thought she might have left a piece of her with it.

She rubbed at where Lena had stuck her with the hypo as she walked the busy halls of the Tower, eyes set straight ahead and shoulders tucked in to make herself as inconspicuous as she’d ever manage. When she reached the wide set of double doors that had Headquarters scrawled next to it, she came to a fidgety halt. Turned on the spot. Looked left, looked right. Back at the door, at the knobs on the front. She pictured herself opening them. Stepping inside. Walking right on into the unknown and telling Crane and Brecken about Rahim’s plan.

Hell no.

She couldn’t just march in there. She might interrupt something important. Maybe she’d just wait out here instead. Her eyes went to a wall close by, and then she saw herself leaning there until Crane came back out. So she could tell him. Only him, because she didn’t know Brecken and didn’t want to know him either.

But what’d he think if he saw her standing there?

That she’d been following him? That she’d been clingy?

Hell no.

She wasn’t clingy.

Sighing, Zofia wandered over to the corner, a new scenario playing itself out in her head. Once Crane came out she’d just round that corner and make an effort to look all worried. She’d tell him about Rahim. He’d thank her. Then he’d smile at her and it’d be a nice smile and— Zofia ripped those thoughts right out of her head, planted herself by the corner, and waited.

It didn’t take long. In fact, she’d barely managed to start picturing him not believing her or thinking she was a terrible snitch, when the double doors flew open.

Crane came out, eyes downcast of all things, shoulders slumped. He looked like he was about to just keel over, his steps lazy as they dragged themselves a little.

Zofia swallowed her heart back down and willed herself to get around the corner.

But then Crane turned around and right after him came Jade, and she reached for his hand, and Zofia’s hips twisted her about and she went hurting down the hallway with her lungs frozen mid-breath.

Jade’s head had tilted up, her pretty face carrying a worried little smile. Crane had looked a little puzzled, squinted a bit, and he’d been saying something she hadn’t been able to hear because there’d been a pop in her ear that left her deaf.

She shook her head to herself. Jammed her hands into her pockets. Jammed her heart into a vice. What was left of the cartwheeling thing set itself on fire and dissolved in a miserably hot sludge seeping through her innards.

And Zofia walked. Walked like her life depended on it, the hall around her shrinking and tilting like the melting walls in a dollhouse. Soon they'd drop in on her and she'd be crawling, and then Crane and Jade would walk right over her, ignorant to how she lay squashed under their feet. 

* * *

It took her a while. She wandered aimlessly at best, eyes darting along the dirty floors and carpets, flicking up towards doors, skirting out of the curious glances of children and women— and eventually finding Rahim.

She could almost breathe then. Almost. And by the time he asked “Hey— are you okay?” she even managed to lie again and tell him “I’m fine.”

Rahim looked no less worried though, except Zofia thought he was likely fearing that she’d gone and told on him.

That plan had failed spectacularly, and now she stood there, looking at the boy playing at being a man.

“I want to help,” she heard herself say.

“You want to what?” He recoiled a little. Like he’d just gotten slapped by a cold wave of water. His green eyes widened and his mouth worked on some silent words of disbelief.

“A map isn’t any good out there. I can get you to the train yard and I can get you back again.”

“But why?” He ducked forward, looked around her, expecting some trick most likely.

“Because you’re right. About it all. And because I want one of those explosives in return.”

His head snapped around to her, mouth slightly agape.

“Can you do that, Rahim? Get me one of them?”

“Sh— sure.” He didn’t ask what for. Didn’t need to, because she’d made her intent perfectly clear before. This one’d be for Rais, and she needed no one’s bloody approval or help.

“Great. Tell me when you’re ready and we’ll head out.”

No. She needed no one's help. Especially not Crane’s.

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Siblings: Rahim.


 Crane,” the radio snapped at the air and made itself sound like Rahim. “Crane, can you hear me?” Kyle exhaled, rolled over, and tucked his head between his forearms. He squeezed, tried to shut out the buzz of static filling his ears. Get back out there, Crane the GRE told him. We need that Antizin, Brecken begged.

“We fucked up,” Rahim said.

“Good for you kid…” he murmured into the pillow squashed up against his face and burrowed himself a little deeper into it.  

Couldn’t they ever let him sleep?

* * * 

Zofia caught Rahim’s weight against her shoulder. A wet warmth pressed into her side. Soaked her shirt and clung to her skin. Zofia smelled the blood, a thick and copper scent. Fading life, trickling into the gravel by their feet as she dragged the boy along the derelict train tracks.

His weight hurt, made her spine ache and her knees shake, and Zofia knew she couldn’t do this much longer. His leg would fail him soon. Or he’d trip. Or she’d trip. Or there’d be a line of Biters up ahead, hidden by dusk’s failing light and her stinging eyes.

It was no use. His pleading into the radio fell on deaf ears. The Can you hear me? Come on, please answer! only served to hurry along the Biters keeping up, and soon they’d be right at their backs and she’d feel their fingers snatching at her shirt.

Zofia’s mind ran ahead of her. It dropped Rahim. Left him sprawled on the train tracks. It rushed her back into the slums. Rushed her behind the set of ugly, yellow-brown curtains in her den, where she’d be safe.

He’d buy her time down there on the ground, just enough for her to get away. She’d done it before. She could do it again.

* * * 

Can you hear me? Come on, please answer!

Kyle grunted and flung his arm out towards the noise. He’d squish it. Like some fat, buzzing fly. It’d pop and it’d shut the fuck up, and then he’d roll over and it’d all be okay.

Grow up, you sissy.

“Yeah— yeah—” he muttered. “What is it?”

His hand groped blindly along the bedside table, where he rapped the back of it painfully against an edge and then found a book, rather than the radio. But he refused to open his eyes, because the moment he did that he’d actually have to get up. And getting up, that meant getting himself ready for more work. And getting himself ready for more work, that meant making decisions, and his stomach wanted to climb up his throat just thinking about it.

He found the radio and with a clumsy grab knocked it to the floor.

“Fuck,” Kyle breathed. He rolled towards the edge of the bed, his movement followed by the straining squeals of springs and hinges, and tried to follow the stupid thing.

* * * 

Almost there.

Her eyes turned up to the lance of red clinging to the skies above the train yard, the wide hanger a shadow looming against the skies. So close. Just another minute. Maybe two.

Rahim staggered. His dragging foot caught on a rail and he took them both down with him. Metal cracked into her hip, jarred the bone. A bolt of pain arched through her, asked for her to scream, but Zofia refused. She clicked her teeth together and exhaled sharply through her burning nostrils and allowed herself no more than a drawn out whimper.

Rahim, on the other hand, cried out. It was a miserably little yelp, but still one noise too many in the evening’s deceptive silence.

They’d hear him. They’d hear him, and they’d be on top of them.

Zofia pulled herself across the ground, fingers groping at the wooden ties between the rails. Shaking fingers. Bloody fingers. Her knees came up and she planted her feet under her. Biters turned towards them. Towards her. Her bladder pinched.

This was it. She couldn’t stay. Zofia bolted on, persuaded her legs to run. She’d make it. Just a little farther…

Behind her, Rahim’s radio crackled.

“Crane here, what’s up?”

Her heels dug into the ground, kicked up gravel as she flung around. A few steps back and she fell to her knees, hands reaching for the radio.

* * * 

Almost awake.

Kyle hung halfway off the bed as he fished for the radio hissing away on the floor. He swiped it up, pressed it to his ear, and threw a bleary eyed stare across the dark room lit only sparsely by the poor remains of light filtering through his window.

He was thirsty. He was hungry. He needed a piss. And he needed to find out how long he’d slept.

“Crane here, what’s up?”

He yawned. His ears popped and his jaw cracked and— “ … train yard, we’re at the train yard, please come get us—“ Zofia. Panicked. On his radio.

His mouth snapped shut, his heart ramped up the beats, and he’d fallen out of the bed even while his eyes were already looking for clothes.

* * * 

Slow down.” He sounded calm and steady. Like she’d told him she’d forgotten to buy milk.

His voice was stronger than it had any right to be, too. Especially since it squeezed itself through the beat up radio tightly clutched to her cheek. Much like Rahim clutched to her as she continued guiding him across the track. Biters pooled in towards them, a swarm of shuffling, groaning death heralding worse things to follow.

”Where are you right now.” Not a question. An assertion of a truth she’d be given him any moment. There’s still enough milk. No. No there wasn’t.

“Third warehouse,” she squeezed between hurried breaths. “The one in the North.”

”Okay, listen. Get somewhere safe. Get into a cart. Close the door. And do not move. Got it?”

Zofia heard him exhale sharply, followed by a bang of metal against metal. While Crane coughed up a curse, her eyes flew up towards the building drawing closer with each step.

* * * 

New crowbar, check. Cocked and locked 911 tucked under his shoulder, check. His sanity? Unaccounted for. Kyle fumbled with the latches to the slim pack squeezed up against his side, the one doubling as a bandolier carrying a short array of two signal flares and two compact UV flashlights. The weight of the handgun was familiar, the tight straps reassuring. Almost like he had things under control and knew what he was doing.

Stand back, I got this. I’m a professional, you see.

None of that helped with the stubborn fatigue though. His vision blurred and he wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. Still not enough sleep. That he’d forgotten dinner, along with lunch and breakfast certainly wasn’t helping.

Focus. You can eat later.

He let his hand ghost along the pack, giving it a slight, reassuring pat. He’d crammed two questionable protein bars in there. Along with med supplies. And Antizin. ”He’s been bitten,” she’d squeezed through the radio, so there went his spare dose.

Kyle gritted his teeth. It’d be a long night.

Out the elevator doors. Past Mesut. Down the drop. Through the doors, right into whatever was left of dusk. Not much, by the looks of it. A slim gleam of light still clung to the horizon, a remnant of the day he’d wasted to sleep.

Kyle flicked on his flashlight and followed the cone of light into the slums. A few steps out he let his hand fall to the radio on his hip and tuned it to a different frequency.

“Brecken?”

How was he going to break that news to him? And what the fuck was he going to tell Jade… His stomach turned.

One thing at a time.

* * * 

I need to get this open. Get this open. Come on. Open.” The train cart did not listen. It stayed stubbornly shut as her bloodied fingers slipped from the handle with each hard pull.

Zofia’s knees shook, wanted to fold under her and suggest she should crawl under the cart, rather than into it. Her lungs burnt. Her everything burnt, sweat stinging her eyes and drenching her hair.

She’d die. They’d die.

Rahim slumped against the cart in front of her. He looked pale, ghastly so. Feverish eyes found her and a trembling pair of lips moved wordlessly. Then he nodded at her, a stubborn little bob of his head, before he grabbed the cart door and helped her pull. His weight was all she’d needed, and together they broke it open. First only a hand’s width. Then enough for her shoulders to fit through. She squeezed herself through the gap. Turned around to grab the door again and yank on it some more.

Her eyes caught the Biters drawing closer. Stretching for Rahim. Lunging. She pulled him forward, grabbed his shirt and pulled and pulled and pulled while a Biter grabbed for his leg. Its fingers curled around his boot, but he kicked at it while she kept pulling, and then he was inside, and their legs were inside, and their arms, and all their bits and pieces, and Zofia slammed the door shut and wrapped them in darkness.  

What now? She curled herself against cold metal at her back, sucked in air that burnt down her throat. She tasted blood, smelled blood, felt blood.

Now Rahim will turn and you will die.

She held her breath. Listened for Rahim’s own ragged pulls for air, his quiet and barely suppressed whimpers.

You just wait and see.

* * * 

He’s bleeding,” she whimpered. Her voice sounded hollow, metallic, and carried itself on a faint echo. “What do I do?”

“How bad is it?”

Bad as this ? Kyle’s eyes turned down.

They’d come the same way, crossed the overpass right here. He hunkered on his haunches, eyes flicking up to scan the derelict cars barring the road. One stood in flames. Heat pushed in against him as the fire licked for the skies and acrid smoke filled his lungs.

He tried to put the pieces together in his head. Something had gone wrong. Debris littered the ground. Scorch marks traveled outwards from the burning vehicle. An explosion? Not a big one, but enough to cause harm and to make a whole lot of noise.

Death had come quick after that, at least for Omar lying in front of him. He’d had his neck torn out. A relatively quick way to go.

Kyle stood. What had Rahim been thinking? Why’d that stupid kid with his stupid ideas have to drag Zofia into this? And why hadn’t she told him?

He grimaced and started pacing, left the blazing car behind and worked his way slowly towards the edge of the overpass. From here he could probably jump right atop the first of the three warehouses lined up in front of him. It’d be safer than going back down. Quicker, too.

“I don’t know,” Zofia’s voice cut through his planning, still all hollow and trembling, with a panicked pitch to her words. ”It’s dark, I—“

“Get some light, Paper Tiger,” he told her and looked out across the bowels of the slums. Time to get to work.

* * * 

Zofia sucked in a quick breath. What?

“Light,” she repeated. Of course. A shaking hand went up to the pocket on her shirt, tried to find the penlight she’d stuffed there. Empty. The pocket was empty. She’d dropped it. Of course she’d dropped it, because she needed it, and Zofia dropped things she needed. She bit down on the inside of her cheek.

“Rahim?” She shook his shoulder. “You’ve got a torch.”

He groaned “What?” and she scrambled for words, because who didn't know what a torch was?

"Flashlight. You got a flashlight. A light."

Another groan, this one more Yes, and a beam of light hit her eyes. She squinted. He’d taped it to his shoulder, and it took her longer than she’d have liked to tear it free.

”Found one?” Crane’s voice insisted from where she’d squeezed the radio between her knees.

”Oh shit. One second.”

His breathing had turned laboured, hectic. She heard his quick footfalls, hurrying him along hard ground. Then a rush of air and something tore. A pained grunt. Then silence.

“Crane?”

Nothing.

“Cra—“

A series of stuttering clicks came from the radio and Zofia’s lungs lined themselves with ice. Volatiles.

”Shit,” he whispered and paused. “Fuck. ” Another pause. “God. Fucking. Damnit.”

Even within the relative safety of the stuffy train cart, with a bleeding Rahim by her knees while something shuffled and scraped against the outside walls, Zofia’s bladder pinched at the sound of the strangled yowl that followed Crane.

* * * 

He’d slipped. He’d fucking slipped. One moment he’d made the climb, the next his foot hadn’t found purchase and he’d fallen right off the side of the building. Tore his shirt up on his way down, too. And then he’d been surrounded, caught right in the middle of a picture perfect pincer manoeuvre as three Volatiles had prowled the train tracks around him.

Clever. Fucking. Assholes.

They’d not seen him. Yet. He stayed out of sight inside a concrete tube left over from a construction project that’d never see completion, and let the things thump by. Their rattling breaths had the hairs at the back of his neck stand at rapt attention. They made him want to run. Just fly right out of there and high tail it down the tracks.

But that’d be stupid, even if sitting here meant he was wasting time. While he sat here, waiting, Rahim could be bleeding out. Or worse. He might turn.

Kyle’s right foot moved. Then his left. He could smell the stagnant death on the air as he slipped past the Volatiles and picked his way through the dark.

* * * 

So much blood. Warm and wet and looking terribly black where the light didn’t touch it as the torch trembled between her teeth. She told Rahim to sit still and he leaned himself against the side of the cart. The movies said put pressure on it, so that’s what she’d do. All she had to do was find the wound underneath the torn up clothing.

“Let go of that,” Zofia tried to make him release the pack with the two charges of explosives. He shook his head. Held on to it a little tighter, like it was the only thing left in his life that mattered.

Omar might have thought the same thing. Right before he’d dropped them, since dead men were prone to do that. She hadn’t noticed, been too busy trying to run. But Rahim had, and no amount of pulling on the boy’s arm to get him to leave them had convinced him. He’d gone back for them, and the Biter got him. He’d died right there, but he’d kept walking anyway, limping. Then the railing had given out under them, and they’d both almost stopped walking altogether.

* * * 

Kyle stayed low, his shoulders hunched forward as he ran across the top of the train cart. Each hollow thump of his footfalls made him fear he’d attract attention, but he couldn’t afford weaving his way through the Biters on the ground. Not in the dark, where his flashlight cast too long shadows that made a stick look like a limb or a limb like a stick, whichever was the most inconvenient.

He almost had it though— three or four more carts and he’d be right up there with the last warehouse towards the North, the one closest to the skyscraper Rahim had wanted to level.

He didn’t like the silence in his ear though, only broken once when Zofia’s choked voice told Rahim to leave it alone, he’s coming to get us. She’d sounded close to tears there. Or in tears.

How the fuck should I know.

Kyle tried not to think of them cornered in there, trapped and left to die if he didn’t make it, since Brecken had refused to tell Jade. A good choice, of course. She’d just have gone out half cocked and gotten herself killed in the process. If anyone deserved to pay for their joint idiocy of leaving the explosives at the Tower, within easy reach of her kid brother, then it was him. Not her. He should have known the kid wasn’t going to just leave it be.

”You bring that boy back alive,” Brecken had told him. Sure. Easy. No pressure.

Kyle ran a little harder.

* * * 

You can get them inside,” Rahim pleaded and Zofia shook her head at him.

“I’m not leaving you here.”

“I can show you how to set the timers, and—“ He went for the bag again and she hissed at him.

“No. Rahim. No. Stop talking. Try to focus on not dying, okay?”

* * * 

He leapt across another gap.

End of the line.

His light angled outwards, across the wide yard, and caught the side of the building. Unlike the other warehouses, this one stood a little stunted, not quite as wide and imposing. The side facing him remained faintly lit by dirty light fixtures still drawing power from the grid. They made it easy for him to scope out his approach, and Kyle clicked off his flashlight.

He needed a moment. Just enough to catch a breather. Get his bearings a little better. Almost there didn’t mean time to get cocky. A lesson learned young, or a lesson learned too late.

A group of Biters lingered somewhere to the right. Too far off to be of any concern, so he disregarded them for the time being. Filed them away in the back of his head to take into consideration once he got there.

Two train carts stood between him and the building. Some crates, too. This might have been a busy loading area at some point, but the only thing that was now left to attend the carts were three Volatiles huffing at the air as they prowled between them.

That was trouble. He sorted their paths in his head. Looked for a pattern. Found none.

Okay.. still doable.

And then there was that thing straight ahead of him. Right across. Right by the slightly ajar door. A fourth Volatile. Not the usual sort, no. Naturally this one had to be different, lacking the raw, red muscle and tendons stretching over bare, red flesh. This thing was armoured, with spikes on its fucking head and long, crooked fangs protruding from its jaws.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Kyle scanned left, scanned right. He’d have to circle around. Maybe there was another way in.

* * * 

Talk to me,” Crane urged from the floor.

Zofia’s eyes snapped to the radio, then up to Rahim who had started staring at the explosives he still held clutched to him. She picked it up with a bloodied hand, hesitant at first since she didn’t want to ease the pressure on the gash on the boy’s side. Whatever he’d caught himself on it had sheared right through cloth and skin when they’d fallen.

Her thumb pressed down on the talk button, but then her lips parted uselessly. What was she supposed to say?

* * * 

His earpiece clicked. He paused mid motion, let a Biter shuffle past. Slipped around it. Still no other way in.

“So,” he whispered. “You did go to band camp.”

”What?” Zofia’s voice pitched with surprise.

“The guitar. You were pretty good with it.” He backtracked. Found himself where he’d started, with the armoured fucker still in front of the door. He glowered at it, scooped up a rock, and imagined himself chucking it at the thing’s head.

Or over his head, rather. Maybe it’d go investigate. And he could slip right past. Or maybe it’d just be enough of a noise to get them worked up a little and draw more of them to the door.

Options. Where were they when he needed them?

Kyle watched the thing tilt its scale tipped head towards the night skies and have a good go at an earsplitting, stuttering howl. A chorus of answers echoed through the train yard, and Kyle didn’t even bother counting them. He also let the rock roll from his fingers again, abandoning that idiocy. For now.

On the other end of the radio, Zofia inhaled sharply.

“They’re outside. Don’t worry.” He crept up to the front of the same train cart as before, grabbed on to the ladder hanging off its side and climbed back up. “So. Can you do any Foo Fighters?”

An even worse idea than the rock formed in his head. He unlatched his sidearm, drew it from its holster.

You’re batshit insane, Crane.

Startled silence filled his ear, and he stopped judging his plan for premature failure before it even had a chance to prove itself. Instead he thought of thin, quivering lips moving in disbelief.

“Ye— yeah.”

* * * 

Her core shook, made the rest of her tremble along with it. She could barely keep her weight on the wound any more, and feared she’d just slip right off and then not find the strength to set her hands back down on it. Rahim, in the meantime, had started emptying the two charges onto the floor, rather than helping her with his own bloody life seeping into the sawdust that covered the inside of the cart.

”Which ones?”

Zofia blinked.

Is he for real?

“Everlong, I can do Everlong.”

Could she? Yeah. She could. Probably. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d tried to play it, if it had been any good at all or if it’d ever be any good again.

“Any others?”

She wheezed.

“What? No. I- I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

”Okay, okay. What about Sweet Home Alabama? Can you play that?”

Her tongue clicked against the back of her mouth.

“Why?”

”Well, thought maybe you could play it for me when we get back?”

“You’re from…” She blinked.

“No, I’m not from Alabama,” he said. His voice sounded different, all southern drawl and lazy slur. “Ma’am,” he added and something unknotted in her throat. The hand pushing against Rahim’s side steadied.

Zofia squeezed her eyes shut. She heard a clack on the other side. A sliding sort of snap of metal against metal. Then gravel crunched and he grunted. He inhaled a shaky puff of air.

”Please?”

“Sure…”

”Sweet. Now hang tight. I’ll be right with you.”

Silence. Not the hush of him holding his breath, but the one that turned the other end of the radio to static.

And then a gunshot.

* * * 

Kyle flattened himself against the tracks. He couldn’t see shit from under the cart. Just a lot of death headed right for him.

Four Volatiles came bounding across the yard. He could make out their clawed feet tearing up the gravel as they ate up the ground, and then the cart above him shuddered when they hauled themselves onto it. He started crawling, dragging himself along on his elbows until he reached the edge.

I’m getting too old for this.

He flipped on his back, grabbed the side of the cart. Pulled himself out. His arms shook, muscles teasing him with the idea of cramping. An icy tension coiled in his stomach. Or maybe he just really needed to piss. Not like he’d have time for that luxury yet. He clenched his jaw as he peeled himself out from under the cart. Got up. Tucked his head between his shoulders and started in a hunched over jog towards the door.

He made it halfway when the Volatiles' clicking and huffing turned to excited, strangled cries. They threw themselves after him a moment later, their heavy forms landing with dull thuds as they started their pursuit.

“Fuuuu—“ he started, abandoned his jog, and broke into a desperate sprint. A hand flew to his makeshift bandolier, tore one of the UV lights free. He hit the wall running, threw himself at the door and flung it open, while snapping the light up with the other hand. He flicked the button, and met the charging wall of terror with a sweep of bright blue light.

They didn’t slow.

They should have fucking slowed.

Kyle gritted his teeth, yanked the door shut. Found a locking bolt on the inside. Grabbed it. Threw it down.

The door, along with the whole wall around it, shuddered. It bent. Rocked. Heavy bodies wanting to tear him to pieces threw themselves at it with enough force to knock him aside and sprawl him out on his back.

His head snapped against the ground. He groaned, squeezed his eyes shut. Stars. He was seeing fucking stars. Kyle pulled his knees up, rolled to the side, and with his head pounding and his heart racing, tried to get his bearings.

Legs were shuffling towards him, with their jerky fucking Zombie walk. Biters. Drawn by the gunshot, no doubt, and now him as he crawled back to his feet, a stupid, useless UV light dancing around him like a beacon to the dinner table.

“Okay. Okay, you can do this—“ he told himself, and slunk out of their line of sight behind the closest cart.

* * * 

Zofia flinched. A cacophony of noise filled the hangar. First a loud rattle. Then a series of unnatural yowls, the sound of cats being eviscerated right outside their cart. They’d never stopped howling. Even now she could hear them as they threw themselves into the wall trying to find a way in.

Then came a few metallic thumps. Closer this time, drawing nearer with each THUNK and THUMP. Something scraped noisy across the roof. The cart shook. More scraping, and the stomp of feet right above her head. She ducked her head between her shoulders and next to her Rahim rested his back against the wall and stared upwards with bleary, bloodshot eyes.

Then whatever had been dancing on their heads fell off. It landed wetly. Warbled. But not for long. A sickening crunch silenced it, bone breaking inside a fleshy sheath.

“Rahim? Kid, you in there?” Crane. Right outside. Calling the boy’s name, banging a fist against the door. “Zofia?”

The door squealed open, let in the hangar’s stubborn light and a stubborn man along with it. Zofia squinted, tucked her chin against her shoulder. He hoisted himself up.

An alarmed set of light brown eyes landed on Rahim. His brows furrowed. His lips pinched into a thin line. Then the eyes switched over to her, and Zofia wished she’d got herself eaten by a Biter.

This is your fault. You did this, they accused her.

Crane twisted around, cast a look over his shoulder. A thinking sort of crease bunched itself up into his forehead, and then he’d made up his mind with whatever it was that a man with a plan so thought about, and pulled himself across the floor.

He knelt right in front of her, filled out the whole cart far as she was concerned, wall to wall and floor to bloody ceiling. All shoulders and chest, both rising and falling quickly, and a whole lot of dirt clinging to him.

She dropped her chin to her chest, refused to look at him any longer than she absolutely had to, and kept her eyes lowered even as he pulled her hands away from the wound.

“You’ll be okay, kid.”

Zofia slid away from them, gave him room to work.

“Crane, you need to get those explosives to the nest. They—“

“Rahim. Do me a favour and shut up, okay?”

She started wiping her hands across her trousers. Tried to get the blood off. It didn’t work. So she pulled her knees up to her chest and squeezed her lips together. They’d started trembling, the corners twitching downwards. Her eyes stung. Zofia chewed on the inside of her cheek and fought the tears with all she had left.

She watched Crane pull a knife and cut away on Rahim’s layers of clothing. He was talking. A lot. Being a little bipolar about it as well. One moment he’d be pissed, the next concerned. And then he’d be right back to furious, only to drop his voice to sound so damn caring Zofia felt her heart split right down the middle with what she’d done.

He’d come prepared, she noticed as she watched him from between her knees. Armed, even. A handgun was holstered below his left shoulder, and a sidepack hugged itself close to his right. Along that she saw a tear in his grey cotton shirt, starting at his navel and moving halfway up his chest. Blood soaked the fringes, red tendrils fanning out like veins on a butterfly wing.

He didn’t care about that though, or the cut she caught sight of as he moved and whenever the gap in the shirt let her peek at the skin beneath.

Crane focused solely on the boy, on getting him dosed with Antizin, on getting the wound cleaned and packed and then wrapping medical tape around his chest to keep it all in place.

By the time he was done the cart looked a lot like a butcher shop, and he’d wiped sweat from his brow so many times his forehead was smeared with red.

And then he turned to her and Zofia shrunk in on herself.

* * * 

What? What did I do?

Kyle blinked, lifted his arm, and wiped at his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Maybe he just looked terrifying. Being ready to pass out after running a marathon against night terrors, and then following it all up by playing field medic might turn anyone into a monster, he figured.

Zofia huddled a little farther away from him, and her chin dipped down between her knees. She stared at him as if he was getting ready to give her a thrashing. Wide eyed fear tracked his movement, flicked nervously between his shoulders and sometimes even dared to meet his eyes.

No, he didn’t want to thrash anything. What he’d have preferred to do was to pull her towards him and start scouring every inch of her for nicks and bruises. Make sure she’d be okay.

Aaaand that’d not be appreciated.

So he settled for a: “You hurt?” and accepted the shake of her head at face value.

“It’s safe out there. Mind helping me get Rahim into one of the other carts?”

She hesitated, but nodded.

“I can walk,” Rahim complained.

Kyle’s lips twitched. Complaining was good. The kid ’d live after all and he could stop worrying himself sick about what to tell Brecken and Jade. Alive, but bitten. His lips twitched down.

Fucking A.

* * * 

Rahim didn’t appreciate being helped down the cart and Zofia gladly stood back while Crane dragged the stubborn boy along with him. He made it look so bloody easy, too. While she’d struggled not to crumple under his weight, Crane just marched him right across the warehouse and towards whatever cart he’d picked for them.

She looked around as she followed them, spotted the bodies littering the floor. Their saviour had been busy out here. By her first count she noticed at least six Biters, along with one of these things the Runners called Toads. She shivered. If that thing had seen them on their way in…

“Please, Crane…” Rahim whined while he was being helped into a cart. “There’s still time, and you promised you’d do it.”

“And I will. Zofia?”

Her head snapped up. She’d frozen halfway to the cart with her hands in her pockets and Crane came walking up to her. He stopped in front of her, raised a hand like he was about to plant it on her shoulder, and then jerked it up to rub at his neck instead.

“Rahim lost some blood, but he’ll live. We can’t move him back to the Tower in that condition though, not at night, anyway.” He looked over his shoulder at the pair of boots sticking out from the cart where he’d left the boy.

“Tomorrow Brecken will send some runners to help us.”

Zofia nodded.

“Now.” She didn’t like the tone his voice took; A promise of grim business ahead, which clenched her chest together painfully.

“I want you to get in there, close the doors behind you, and not come out until either me or Brecken knock on that door. Got it?”

When she didn’t nod, because she didn’t get it, couldn’t comprehend he’d go through with this on his own, he placed a hand against her nape. Her shoulders twitched and her feet tried to carry her backwards, but the hand wouldn’t let her. It didn’t squeeze. Didn’t grip tightly either. Just sat there, his fingers curling against her spine, his thumb riding up to her ear.

She forgot about breathing. Forgot about a lot of things.

He guided her chin up. Made her look at him.

“Can you do that?”

His eyes held a feverish quality. But they were stubborn and they held hers, even if they looked so bloody tired she thought he might just collapse any moment.

She nodded. And he smiled. It was a flash of a smile, accompanied by a reassuring squeeze against her neck, before the hand fell away and he headed past her to fetch the explosives.

Zofia didn’t want to turn around. Didn’t want to watch him go. She lifted her hands to her neck, draped them around the warmth he’d left there, and headed for Rahim’s boots sticking from the cart.

Back inside, Zofia listened to Rahim pass instructions through the radio, while she sat as far away as she could from him, perched on a upturned wooden crate. Her fingers curled against her trousers, nails digging into the fabric. Her heart shuddered meekly, no longer up to the strain of having to thump wildly.

Then came the hollow crack of the explosion.

It shook the cart around her, clicked her teeth together. A moment later the whole world started trembling. Every bit of dirt inside the cart bounced wildly, and even the air danced inside her ears. For a moment Zofia thought the building Rahim wanted to level would come down right on top of them. Bury them alive. Bury Crane alive, too.

“Crane?” Rahim stared at the radio. That stupid, quiet thing lying in his hands. “Come on man.”

Nothing.

Zofia stared at the radio. Willed it to speak. Any moment now. It had to. Just had to. She'd not been hating on the man and wishing he'd be out of her life just so she could get her wish. Just because she couldn't keep her head on straight any more. Because he'd tickled her the wrong way and she'd not minded. Just because he'd be back at the Tower after and go play heroes with Jade. No. That wasn't how it worked. He'd be fine. Had to be fine. So she could hate on him some more. Try to get away from him some more. The radio clicked. She leaned forward. 

And then recoiled when the thing burst with laughter. Victorious whoops filled the cart, followed by an ecstatic and utterly breathless: “Shit! You should have seen this!”  that made her wish she'd had. 

Just in time too, since Zofia had forgotten how to breathe again. 

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Siblings: Rubble.


 When Crane returned he smelled of mud and dirty green water.

He reminded her of the pond back home. Of a dry summer week that left the backyard reeking of rotting vegetation and moist, black sludge.

What had he been doing out there? Aside of trying himself in demolitions, which she thought would leave him covered in fine white dust and torn up by shrapnel. Instead his clothes and hair were drenched, dripping water into the cart. Weeds had got tangled in his short hair. More of the same collected on his shoulders and snagged on his gear. Wet mud smeared his cheeks, like he’d tried to camouflage himself in it as he prowled through a jungle. And under all that mess, splitting the dark shadow of his beard, sat a happy, white grin.

Zofia curled her fingers against the edge of the crate she sat on, holding herself tightly in place since she didn’t know what she’d do if she’d slide off it. Hurry over the sawdust covered floor, most like, and— what? Hug him? No. Zofia didn’t hug. She’d manage an awkward hovering in front of him, mouth agape and whatnot, before embarrassment sent her back into her corner. Where she damn well belonged.

So she spared herself the humiliation, stayed where she was and thought: He’s fine.

Crane pulled himself into the cart, his mouth running at high speeds, declaring the general level of amazing on what he’d just done.

What Rahim had cooked up, to be more precise. His plan had rocked and he rocked, and the whole bloody world rocked— like who the fuck cared that they all could have died.

The boy seemed out of his mind with glee, as if he’d been right there with him, and met Crane’s extended fist by knocking his own against the top of it. Thump-Thump-Knucklerap they went, a perfectly choreographed display of some manly ritual, all the while beaming ear to ear like boys who’d just nicked the entirety of cherries from the neighbour’s cherry tree.

Or blown up a skyscraper.

Who did that anyway? Professionals did. Not scrappy madmen who—

“Hey,” the madman said and Zofia’s eyes flicked up from where they’d started staring at her boots. Worn out. Bloody. The soles had started peeling off. She’d need a new set. Last week.

A weak smile tugged on his lips. Not the brash, happy one he’d worn a moment before, but something cautious and unspeakably tired.

Behind him, Rahim tried to catch up with him, to drag himself across the floor into her half of the cart, but he flinched and groaned and fell back against the wall.

“We’ll stay here tonight, right?” Rahim sounded awfully hopeful. Boy must have been hurting something fierce, she guessed.

Crane nodded while he invaded her corner, placing himself to her left, just by the halfway open door allowing in the faded, dirty light of the warehouse. He stretched his legs out, using up even more space than she thought he was rightfully allowed to. She had to shift her feet out of the way as to not knock her boots into his ankle. It annoyed her. A little.

“Get comfortable, you two,” he added while he fumbled with the zipper on his satchel, fingers slipping half the time whenever it got itself stuck on dirt lodged between the little teeth. “Good a place as any to flop.”

Zofia’s brow pinched. “Flop?”

He looked up at her, just as the zipper on the satchel finally gave way. A tired, but triumphant smirk tugged the right corner of his lips up. “Sleep.”

Americans. Brutes. All of them.

She hugged her arms against her chest at the offence of having her language butchered by long legged brutes (or because she was cold and dirty and exhausted), and let her eyes shift from one end of their shelter to the other. Train carts were big. Relatively. But between Rahim on the other end, and the tall Crane by her left, all four corners seemed bloody close. She’d not put it past them to suddenly start creeping in further and decide to squish her like a hapless little sardine.

Sardines.

Her stomach rumbled, right in tune with a rustle of plastic tickling at her ear. Zofia snapped her eyes to the sound and caught Crane snarfing down the contents of the wrapper he’d just torn up. All in one go, too. Didn’t even bother chewing much while he said “Don’t worry. Place is secure as it gets.”

Or at least that was what she thought he’d said. Couldn’t be so sure with his mouth full.

She watched him tear up another package, and at the sight of her staring at his mud caked fingers, Crane arched a heavy brow at her. He stopped his frantic chomping, froze mid-motion with his right cheek puffed out. It reminded her a little of the day when he’d eaten her peaches, right when he’d brought her that radio.

Yesterday. That was yesterday.

Except it felt like an eternity. And then some.

Zofia slipped her bottom lip between her teeth. If only he’d stayed away then. None of this would have happened. None. She gathered herself up on the crate, pulled her knees closer, and tried to derail her own thoughts by focusing on the discomfort she’d wrapped herself in.

She itched.

Fingers, wrists— her arms. Even her neck. She rubbed at the forearms, at the drying blood and cold sweat crusting her skin.

“You hungry?”

Crane’s voice drew her attention back up, at him alternating a conflicted frown between her and the bar of food in his hand.

“No,” she lied.

“Oh. Okay.” He glanced towards Rahim instead, who had started ogling them with his lips smacking at nothing. Crane’s jawline twitched before he broke the bar in half and chucked one piece towards the boy. A split second later the thing vanished between their respective teeth.

Great. She’d got herself trapped in a box with two starving animals.

One of which had started unclipping his satchel and holster. He moved a little stiffly as he did so, as if he couldn’t quite get his arms to bend as he wanted. Zofia toyed with the thought of asking him if he needed help. But before she could convince herself that it was a polite thing to do, he’d got them both off and laid them out side by side. His handgun received a brief inspection, which concluded with him ejecting the magazine to catch it in a cupped hand. He gave the thing a quick shake. Water splashed to the ground. Zofia didn’t know much about guns. Did the thing still work after having been submerged? It didn’t seem to bother him, at any rate. He swiped at the ground with his hand, clearing a patch of the sawdust that stuck to everything, and placed both weapon and magazine there.

Then he forgot about them in favour of yanking his shirt over his head.

Zofia looked away. Momentarily. When he got up on his knees, shuffling around the cart so he could lean halfway out of it, her eyes came back around, because clearly the last few hours had turned her mad and she’d lost her sense of decency.

The light caught him at an odd incline, turned his frame into a collection of sharp angles battered by misuse, and tarnished by sludge that had seeped through the fabric of his shirt.

Zofia slid off the crate. She abandoned her view on him from the side, tried to get away from an image of wiry muscle straining as he wrung water from the cloth. It reminded her a little too much about how she’d sat in Lena’s infirmary thinking of him.

Just when had she turned into an air headed schoolgirl out of touch with reality?

You’re too old for this, she chided herself as she nestled herself against the wall, her shoulder pushed up against the crate and her head tilting to find some resemblance of comfort.

She found none, but it’d have to do. Was just one night, after all. After that it’d be back to the solitary comforts of her mouldy couch. Solitary being what she looked forward to most. Away from Crane. From trouble.

He was trouble.

Said Trouble concluded strangling his shirt, while she kept shifting on her buttocks in an attempt to make them stop hurting on the hard ground, not really getting anywhere in her efforts. He tied the clothing into the handle on the inside of the cart, gave it a testing tug, and then sat himself right across of her, his legs stretching out to rudely introduce muddy shoes to her trouser leg. She tucked her knees up. That made sitting worse, but at least she could sink her chin between her legs.

And from the shelter of her arms propped up in front of her, Zofia found herself all set for a half hearted attempt at not looking at him.

The light still played tricks on her eyes, made him look like a hurried painting made of blocky, curt strokes. He’d been drawn in earthy colours. Weathered, tan tones made up his skin, mixing well with the smudges of mud, and the faint, dark shadow of coarse brown flicked against his chest. A thicker line of it collected between his abdominal muscles, until it narrowed even more and dove out of sight behind a belt buckle. Silver. The buckle was silver and flat, with rounded edges and a design she couldn’t make out.

Because she wasn’t really looking.

Out of place colours marked him just below his right ribcage, patches of blue and green the painter had left there by accident. Bruises. Cuts too, probably. Somewhere.

But really now, she wasn’t looking, so how was she supposed to know?

Zofia knocked her knees together and stared at those instead.

“Rahim?” Crane whispered, ruining her attempt at marvelling at all the dirt on her. “You already asleep, kid?”

She glanced right. He was. The boy had passed out on his end of the cart, his head lolling to the side, shoulders rising and falling steadily. All tuckered out. Like any good upcoming hero.

“Jade is going to be so pissed.” Crane again. Not talking to himself either, but at her as she sat there not looking at him and wondering why-ever people wanted to be heroes.

Heroes died young, didn’t they? Such was the design of things.

Zofia swallowed and blinked at nothing. Then she slid her legs down and turned to face him. There wasn’t anything else for her to do anyway. Aside of pretending she’d fallen asleep, too.

Now that would have worked.

Maybe it still would? Maybe she could just slide over sideways and start snoring.

Loudly.

Crane stared at her. Gone was the painting with all its sharp angles. Now all he seemed made of were heavy brows shadowing stern features.

Yes. Jade would be pissed, if that was the word he wanted to stick with.

What was she supposed to say to that?

“I’m sorry,” was what, apparently, and Crane’s head tilted to the side in answer. He frowned. Stared some more. Stared with quiet, light brown eyes that didn’t let her read a thing from them.

Come on, hero. Hate me. Judge me. Start telling me I fucked up. Please. Just stop looking at me like that.

With disappointment. Regret. Pity.

A tight knot formed somewhere between the base of her throat and her weary lungs.

“I should have—“

“You should sleep,” he cut in and turned to the side to grab at the shirt that had turned itself into makeshift rope he could pull the door shut with. “We’ll talk tomorrow, all right? Sort this all out. No point worrying about it now.”

She tried to swallow down the knot, but all she managed was to choke herself on it. He closed the door, cut the light from her world, and she held onto her unshed tears until sleep dragged her under.

* * *

Darkness fell, and Kyle was half asleep by the time he let his head fall back against the train cart wall— and then someone knocked the world awake, tore him away from arguing with Zofia about why she’d cleaned the blue from her cheek while he marched her towards Rais sitting on his throne of broken dreams.

“Rahim!”

Jade.

“What…” Kyle got his eyes open and sat up. His stomach cramped and someone had filled his head with a balloon. Right now the thing expanded rapidly, threatening to pop his eyes from their sockets or straight out crack his skull open.

Whine later. Work now.

He pushed himself up and groped through the dark for his shirt. His fingers felt swollen. Stiff. But they did as told anyway and he grabbed onto the damp cloth. Kyle pulled himself up along it and then swung the cart door open to reveal an agitated Jade and two more runners standing nervously by her respective sides. He didn’t know their names.

He didn’t know a lot of the names back at the Tower. Socialising hadn’t exactly made the cut on his daily schedule. So Bill and Ted would have to do for now. Since that fit so perfectly, with one sported a curly, short mop of light brown, and the other an untamed black shrubbery for hair. Close enough, at any rate.

Either way, they both looked a little out of place next to the lithe Scorpion, like they didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. While they shuffled their feet and looked uncertain about pretty much everything, she had focused murder in her eyes and was turning all of that right at him.

Ah shit.

Her jaw worked itself into a frenzy of quiet chewing and her throat bobbed up and down with whatever she was swallowing back down. And then the death stare swept past him and into the cart, where the kid had started groaning and cussing himself awake.

Rahim! ” She repeated herself and dove right under Kyle’s outstretched arm that still held onto the other side of the door. He didn’t quite trust himself with letting go of it. Likely he’d just fall face down out of the cart.

He scoffed at no one in particular.

That’d give the Tower something to talk about. Right after they’d gossiped themselves to death over last night.

Kyle followed Jade with a groggy turn of his head and watched her fuss over her kid brother. If fussing was to include raised and pointed words in Arabic. She shot them from her mouth too quick for him to catch most, but he heard hmar in there somewhere. Donkey. Idiot. Either or, Arabic had never been his strong suit even if he liked to think he’d hold his own if absolutely necessary.

Not today though. Today languages weren’t his thing.

“Hey, fellas—“ Kyle swung his legs out of the cart and sat himself on the edge of it. Bill and Ted nodded at him, probably relieved that someone had taken notice of them, while Jade kept berating her brother. The kid had started talking back at her now and her voice had taken on an edge Kyle didn’t like himself anywhere near.

So he let himself down onto the ground, eager to put distance between himself and the furious sisterly love being delivered in there.

Bill and Ted wandered off too, dutifully making themselves useful by keeping an eye out while the siblings worked things out, and Kyle took that moment to try and jog some blood back into his legs.

He turned on the spot, just in time to catch sight of a small figure slipping from the cart, her head bowed and shoulders pulled together to make herself as small as she possibly could.

Zofia’s eyes cut back towards Jade during her quiet retreat. Had she gotten a shade paler? A bit more gaunt, too?

Kyle frowned. And then he hissed in surprise as his left calf cramped.

“Fuck,” he squeezed through clenched teeth, earning himself a quizzical look from the Paper Tiger.

“Cramp,” he clarified when he caught her watching him hopping up and down on his left leg, her lips halfway parted with the You okay, mate? question remaining unsaid.

He figured she’d say mate, anyway. It would have fit her. Kind of.

She blinked and wandered off, her hands on her elbows and her eyes back on the ground, and Kyle caught himself missing the smudge of blue on her cheek. He’d noticed it gone when he’d found her playing that guitar in his room, back when Rahim had come busting in and she’d looked up at him with a guilty panic in her eyes. Such a damn shame, too. It had been cute on her.

He frowned.

Wow, Crane. Inappropriate much? Get your mind straight, you moron.

He set his legs down, moved on to rolling his shoulders and stretching his arms, and turned his thoughts away from blue smudges to the ghastly pale Jade jumping from the cart.

“He’s been bitten?” Her voice shook.  

Kyle nodded. Not really much else he could do. Stand here and nod. Like a good little idiot.

Her right hand flew to her mouth, clenched it there to stifle a cry. Or a curse. Or a whine. Or all of it wrapped in one desperate little sound that squeezed itself through her fingers.

She turned around, stared at Rahim trying to get himself from the cart without looking all stiff. He failed, but Kyle couldn’t blame him. The kid was in a world of pain. The bite on his leg was negligible. It had broken skin enough to get him bleeding, but the wound itself wouldn’t be an issue once Lena treated it to prevent any localised infection. His side, on the other hand, that had been torn up good, and it’d be difficult getting him back to the Tower. He couldn’t run. Could barely walk without support.  

“Jade,” Kyle said, drawing her attention back to him. “Let’s get him to the Tower. Lena needs to treat those wounds. He’ll be okay the—“

“He’s been bitten, Crane!” Her arm jabbed into the direction of her grimacing brother.

Crane let his arms fall to his side and took a slow step towards her. She stood her ground, threw an arm up as if to ward him off.

“We are running out of Antizin and my brother has been bitten ! He’s not going to be okay. If we don’t get Rais to give up more of those drugs he’ll be dead in.. in..” She wrung for words, struggle through the grief over a death that hadn’t happened.

Yet.

“We got the nest,” Kyle offered when she didn’t come up with a timeframe that suited her dread. “Rahim is right. It’ll be easier running for the drops at night now. Doable. If we’re lucky we don’t even need Rais.”

We? Where’d the we come from? He still needed Rais.

“That doesn’t matter. There are no more drops, Crane.”

He felt his spine stiffen. “What?”

“The GRE stopped the drops. The news feed went dead last night while you were out.” She took a shaky breath. “There. Is. No. More. Antizin.”

Kyle’s mind tripped itself over the words. Registered them slowly. Reluctantly.

“This has got to be a mistake, maybe there’s something wrong with the antennas.”

I told them I wouldn’t do it.

Was this his fault?

No. Had to be a technical issue. A wire loose somewhere. A bent receiver. A bird shitting in a dish. No way they’d stop the drops.

Even if that’d force his hand.

He thought of his last call with his handler. How she’d demanded he’d do whatever it takes, how she’d told him he didn’t have the luxury of choice. And there he’d been, insisting on burning bridges and swearing up and down he’d not turn himself into a human trafficker on their order.  

Lunatics, the fucking lot of them. Rais, the GRE— they were a match made in heaven.

Kiss and make up, you psychopaths and leave the rest of us out of this shit.  Thoughts of his handler and Rais having a go at each other curdled his stomach like sour milk and he worked up a disgusted grunt.

“I’ll look into it when we get back,” he added quickly. He’d fetch the satellite phone from his room. Find a cozy little spot somewhere, and educate the GRE on the finer points of keeping their Operatives alive. He needed the drugs too, after all. If they wanted their file, then they couldn’t afford cutting him off. Once he started salivating at the mouth and craving that other red meat, they might as well get chummy with Rais themselves.

Jade did her own thinking, her hoping that he was right. Her jaw flexed and she let her eyes wander the warehouse, as if it could offer her some level of reassurance that this would also turn out fine.

They caught on Zofia instead. For the first time since he’d pulled open the train cart door, Jade noticed the other woman standing off to the right. Quiet and good as invisible.

“Zofia…? What…” Her eyes cut to him. “What’s she doing here?”

Ah shit. Ah double fucking shit.

He glanced at the small and insignificant bit of human faced by a choice she’d made the night before. A stupid choice. But not a choice the Paper Tiger deserved to be shredded to pieces over.

Kyle swallowed.

He stared at Zofia. Pointedly. Shut-Up he meant to say, while his mind scrambled to come up with something that’d prevent the oncoming train wreck or impending shredding.

“She—“ helped me find Rahim.

“I helped Rahim.”

His mouth snapped shut and his stomach lined with a thin layer of Fuck. He’d not even gotten the first word of the lie out before she’d fashioned her own noose and wrapped it around her fragile neck.

Oh for fucks sake, Paper Tiger. This is not where you are brave.

“You did what? You— you helped him? You went through with this? This— this is your fault?”

Zofia blinked. Her shoulders twitched and her eyes flicked to him. Not asking for help, he noticed. Just looking at him. As if she’d haved like to say Yeah-Yeah, exactly that.

“Did you know about this too, Crane? Did everyone know my brother went out here to get himself killed?”

“No, Jade I had no idea. But this isn’t her—“

* * *

I helped Rahim.

I. Helped. Rahim.

Crane’s eyes had widened. Just a little. His mouth had moved too, and by how he’d looked at her, Zofia thought he’d been about to say something he might regret later.

So she’d interrupted him. He’d been doing that a lot to her, after all.

He deserved it.

She deserved it.

She deserved Jade flying at her, one quick step after the other, arms tightly tucked by her side and shoulders hunched forward like she was cutting through thick air. Zofia noticed how her feet carried her backwards, heard the gravel crunch under her ruined boots, felt the little stones dig into the soles. They’d got so thin.

You’ll need new shoes.

She’d got Jade’s brother killed. But she really needed new shoes.

The Scorpion was two meters from smiting her when Crane caught up and slid in between them.

“Woah—“ His right arm came up behind him, telling her to stay put, but she wasn’t going anywhere with a train cart stopping her retreat. She settled herself against it and stared at his mud caked back. He carried more bruises there, bunched up around his shoulder blades in dark reds and sickly greens. She blinked. He had a very straight, perfectly symmetrical, back. His spine divided it nicely, cut from between thick muscle at the top down towards his trousers, where it ended in a row of knobby bone.

“Jade,” Crane said. “Jade! ” he repeated, a little firmer this time. A hint of warning rode his words. He’d raised his left arm too, pointed it into the Scorpion’s direction, and Zofia thought he looked a little like he was trying to direct traffic, keep people from making a mess. All he missed was the bright yellow jacket and a bobby hat.

No, didn’t need the jacket. The hat would do.

Zofia’s stomach rolled with a confused and altogether miserable titter.

Jade tried to weave around Bobby-Crane. “This is her fault!”

He side-stepped, kept himself between them. “I’m the one who left the explosives at the Tower. He would have done it with or without her.”

“She should have known that this was suicide!”

She almost got past him, had herself caught against an arm and pushed back. Her hand did something then, and her shoulder too, and her leg— Zofia couldn’t quite see, but Crane grunted and strained and then he had her arms bent behind her back and walked her a few steps forward before releasing her with a firm forward push.

Jade turned again. She screamed at him in Arabic.

Rahim joined in, too.

His sister’s desperation almost droned out his voice, and maybe it was the meekness to it that finally got her to quiet down and stand with her slim, round shoulders heaving between ragged breaths.

“Look,” Crane offered. “Can we not do this here? You can shout at me all you want back at the Tower, but for now lets just get out of here, okay? There’s nothing we can do. Nothing will change what happened last night. Just— just be glad he’s alive. Okay?”

He turned his head, cast a look over his shoulder. Like he was saying Goes for the both of you. Be glad Rahim aint dead, or there’d be hell to pay.

* * *

’… and that she is, too.’  Kyle added in the privacy of his aching head as he looked back at the Paper Tiger squashing herself against a train cart.

“You’re right,” Jade said. Begrudgingly, he noted. Not really feeling it, but saying the words anyway.

“I—“ I am? Woah. Sweet. “Of course I am. Now let's get out of here.”

He left the preparation of that up to Bill and Ted and Jade, the latter who kept throwing pointed glowers at Zofia while helping her brother through the motions of getting himself ready to limp back to the Tower. She’d brought medical supplies, amongst them pain killers that dosed the kid enough to be able to function reasonably.

Smart woman.

Kyle happily stayed out of it all.

He got dressed instead and snapped his makeshift harness back in place. The damp, cold shirt managed to do the impossible and made him feel even more filthy than he’d already done before, and by the time they were ready to move, he’d started absentmindedly tugging on the fabric trying to separate the clammy sensation from his skin.

Shower. Food. Or Food. Shower. Fuck me, this sucks.

Judging by how Zofia had sunken in on herself as she stayed out of everyone’s collective way, Kyle figured he wasn’t the only one who thought the Suck had outlived its welcome. Bloody still from having dragged Rahim through the train yard and trying to keep him from bleeding out, she looked like she’d dunked most of herself in red sauce and then rolled around in sawdust.

And she’d slept in that. He winced.

Kyle joined her by the corner of one of the carts, a stone throw away from the group, and far enough from the nearest Biter corpse to surround herself with a suitable amount of nothing.

She raised her chin at his approach. Her eyes met his, briefly, and then found his shoulder where they settled and looked for ghosts. Least thats what it looked like, with that hounded tension in her features, following through from the tip of her nose to the soles of her feet.

“You can get a shower back at the Tower,” he offered. “You look like you need one.”

Wow. Crane. Wow.

She shrugged her little shoulders at that. “You really think I’ll come with you?”

“What? Why— why not?”

Because Jade wants to lynch her and she probably wouldn’t mind? Clue in, man.

Zofia threw him an empty look. A tired, blank stare out of weary, dull gray eyes. No. She really wouldn’t mind.

“But what about… the running water?” He set the words down in front of her, left them there like bait. Who could say no to one of the only places where they still had water pumps going in some of the units?

She didn’t bite, let her eyes fall to the gravel, abandoning the perch on his shoulder because now his shoes had come into fashion.

The Paper Tiger could, apparently.

“Your bow? You left it there.”

In his room, no less. Standing with the guitar she’d abandoned when she’d gone out to play with Rahim.

“Don’t need it. Almost out of arrows anyway.”

“I was going to help you with that.“

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

She said it to his fucking feet. Stated it to his toes, her voice steady with some renewed conviction.

Kyle’s stomach knitted at the top, tied itself shut after swallowing his heart, and left him standing there staring at the crown of her bowed head, the tussled up mouse brown hair on her matted and dirty.

“Please,” he tried and she just shook her head.

Please, because if you don’t come with me and I can’t figure out the Antizin situation, I might need you around so I can weigh your freedom against a few billion lives.

His fingers curled themselves into fists.

“Okay,” Kyle said, and quickly buried thoughts of scales tipping the wrong way under a mountain of guilt. “Just keep that radio close. Can you at least do that for me?”

Her head bobbed up and down, and from the warehouse entrance, Jade called for him.

* * *

She watched them go.

A dirty mist had settled over the slums, choking the alleyways and hiding the rooftops in a layer of murky yellow. It made it difficult to breathe.

Zofia exhaled. Or maybe she’d just got bad at breathing.

She turned away from the figures melting into the thick mists. One of them, a particular tall one, had hung back from the group. He'd stopped. Turned around. Like he’d expected her to change her mind.

She didn’t.

She’d go home. 

And she wouldn’t look back.

Chapter Text

(c) Techland

Siblings: Lighthouse


 An ocean spread out ahead of her, fell away from the cliff face she stood atop, and met the horizon blue on blue. Flawless, rich azure made up the skies, and a darker, rippling shade of it pushed forward against the shore. Its surface curled with gentle waves, their crowns forming an unsteady line from left to right, like swathes of a painter’s shaky white brush. Seagulls dove towards the water, blurs of white and grey cawing hungrily. Or squeaking. Or shrieking.

Zofia’s nose scrunched up. She didn’t remember what seagulls sounded like (which was ridiculous in itself, since they circled the slums in huge, white flocks), but she remembered the scent of salty air in her lungs. How it tasted against her tongue, how it felt clinging to her skin. Pure. A hint of seaweed and sun-kissed freedom.

Her toes curled into the soft grass by her feet and her eyes turned up, catching the tall, white tower of the lighthouse lording over the cliffs. She’d have liked to be up there. Sit perched where only the winds could reach her, with the world spinning away below.

Zofia frowned.

She flipped the postcard between her fingers, casting aside the motif of her dreamscape and looking at her shaky handwriting instead. The last two days hadn't fit on the back of the card, so she'd had to double down, and even that had barely been enough. Not like the smudged words made sense as she skimmed over them. The tail end of her hurt. The sequal to a story of Volatiles and buses, of seizures and infuriating Tourists — of the death of a man and her failure as a human being. Jealousy. Desperation. Idiocy. It stood as a testament to her inability to function around others that, at the end of the day, she’d make the wrong choice.

Oh, go ahead. Think it all over again, why don’t you. She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and started chewing. Heavy, tired eyes lifted away from the card and looked about the room, at her audience of quiet walls and dusty furniture. She’d considered cleaning when she’d come back. Had started to, had even forgotten how she was still dressed in blood, smearing her kitchen counter red.

Hello, she introduced herself to a world that didn’t care a lick about her. My name’s Zofia, and I’m a terrible person.

Her breath hitched in her throat. I run when I shouldn’t. I walk even if I know better, or think better, or just bloody guess better, and then I do it anyway - because for crying out loud why can’t I ever make the right call?

Why’d she have to keep her mouth shut when she should have been screaming? And blurt out the truth when a little bit of silence might have got her a long way?

Hey. Hey Jade. Yeah, I helped Rahim. I helped get your brother killed.

BAM — what a shocker. Look at Zofia with her bloody foot in her mouth.

Something clicked in her throat, popping a bubble of bile and leaving her swallowing her shortcomings like bitter little unpleasantries. Yeah. This here woman had perfected terrible decisions. She’d made it a bloody artform. And each and every time, her mistakes left her with less.

Zofia glanced down, at her swollen toes on the filthy carpet. This time that’d been an ill fitting pair of new shoes, daydreams of a far away lighthouse crowning the Harran cliffs, and a handful of candles to stand vigilant between her and a dark house. Stubby, thick candles. Halfway burnt candles. Stupid, flickering candles.

She groaned and tilted her head back.

Anger churned in the pit of her stomach, fed off the gaping hole beneath her heart that kept hurting. As if the comfort of the solitary confinement she’d chosen for herself had lost its… well… comforts.

Will you just stop it?

She shifted in her seat, felt the hard, scratchy surface of it beneath her, and hated it. Hated it a little less than she hated yesterday.

But yesterday is done with. Today is what matters. You’ve got food. You’ve got water. You’ve got Antizin and you’ve got life, so stop moping and hate on the couch instead.

It’d be enough, wouldn’t it? It’d do well. She turned the card, staring at the broken edges and the colours bleached by too much sun. No sense fretting. It wasn’t like she could sprout wings and fly right out of here; to land atop the stupid lighthouse and watch the world burn around her, rather than burning along with it.

Couldn’t do that, and couldn’t turn back time either.

Zofia gathered her knees up and knelt on the couch, turned herself around and pressed the postcard against the wall, right next to the other cards. Her hands quested for the hammer and the nail she’d prepared, and she’d barely got the second swing ready when her little house shook.

A rumble travelled through the slums, got the walls around her trembling, and had her dinner leftovers (canned beef and a bent spoon) bouncing about the table with the candles flickering wildly.

Yesterday forgotten, the couch abandoned, Zofia dove for the window by her door, yanked the curtains aside, and pressed her fingers against the warm glass to peer into the dying light of yet another fading day.

A second explosion followed the first.

Red billowed brightly in the distance. The not-far-enough-away sort of distance. Her lungs constricted. By the twin apartment towers. Crane. Crimson light bounced off the gray wall of the rightmost tower, danced across its flanks and winked back at her where it hit glass paned windows.

Two pillars of smoke started curling into the evening skies.

No.

She pushed herself away from the window, fell over the armrest of her couch and barely had time to squeeze up a startled yelp before she met the dirty carpet face first.

No.

Radio. Where was the bloody radio?

She pushed herself up, squinted through the gloom. Stupid candles. Candles were no good. Why’d her electricity have to go? And why’d she have to be so useless and unable to get it working again?

Crane would have known what to do. He’d have fixed it.

Her face burnt. Her neck flared with heat strangling her throat shut.

“Radio. Radio—” She found it, lying on the filthy kitchen counter.

Frequency already set. Just got to push the button... what button... what do I do—

Like she’d never seen a bloody radio before, or hadn’t used one lately. Like this thing she squeezed between her fingers was some marvel of technology she couldn’t wrap her head around. She’d made it back to the window by the time she remembered that she’d turned it off. Because no way she’d let Crane get a hold of her. No way she’d let him ruin her solitude. Or fix her lights.

Her thumb flicked it on and her ear caught it popping and hissing and snapping in her hands while she stared across the slums at the raging fires.

“Crane?”

The oncoming night came alive. POP—POP—POP

Fireworks. Had to be fireworks. Couldn’t be gunfire, because why would anyone— Oh god…

“Crane!”

It had taken only one day of solitude, a set of sixteen or so long hours, with nothing but her guilt for company, and her voice had turned to a hoarse croak. His name tasted odd on her tongue. Alien.

“What’s going on?”

Nothing.

“There’s fire. I heard the fire - I mean, I heard the - and there's... there's… Crane?”

Please say something.

He didn’t. The radio stuttered static at her. It cracked and popped and hissed, but wouldn’t let any words through.

Zofia slid to the left. Her hand landed on the key still lodged in the door. She turned it. Pushed.

One step. Two steps.

What are you doing.

She froze. Spun around. Flew right back through the door, yanking the thing shut behind her and letting it fall in its hinges with a loud crack.

Footfalls rushed by. Rushed over her. Over her roof, past her window, dark shades howling and shrieking and wanting blood. A sea of monsters came charging through the slums, and she’d almost let herself be swept along with them.

“Sh—Shit,” Zofia wheezed and twisted the key hard enough she thought she might break it.

“What do I do?”

She staggered away from the door, fled the window and its ugly curtains, and sat herself down by the kitchen table. Her shaking fingers kept pressing against the radio, but all that filled her ears was the frantic pounding of her heart.

“What do I fucking do?”

* * *

Night fell. Unrest carried itself through the hours, and the radio remained stoically silent. Zofia sat in the darkness, wishing she’d never seen a man fall from the skies, thinking he’d made it all worse, hoping he’d be okay.

* * *

She spent the next day holding herself hostage, watching thick smoke rise from beside the towers. Nothing you can do, she told herself as night fell.

When dawn broke, she woke to a knock at her door.

* * *

Suleiman's voice was impossible to clear from his mind, continuing even as Kyle gritted his teeth and tried to drown it out with three sharp knocks on the door of her borrowed porch.

“I’m not an unreasonable man, Crane—”

A psychopathic fucknut, maybe. A sadistic, cruel animal. But not unreasonable. Kyle prayed to a god he didn’t believe in that she wouldn’t answer his knock, and still the voice continued.

“Your friends will not be harmed, but I do expect a show of good faith if you want them returned. Some form of reassurance, if you will.”

A show of good faith.

He stared at his fist hovering by the red wood. The paint had started to flake off, clearing patches of brown beneath. His fingers clenched together, strained the leather of his gloved, right hand. Strained his heart, too. Crushed his will to breathe.

She didn’t deserve this.

CLICK

Kyle’s eyes cut to the lock, watching the door handle dip.

* * *

What do you want?”

Zofia snapped her teeth shut. Not exactly the words she’d had lined up, the ones bounding up and down on her tongue while she’d hurried to get the stupid, stubborn door open. What happened? Are you okay? Why are you looking at me like that?

Crane swallowed as he stood in her doorway, his shoulders blocked out a dull Harran morning with low hanging clouds drifting in from outside the Quarantine. He looked ready for everything. A sturdy looking linen shirt, thick grey over something black. It bulged below his left shoulder. Armed again, she guessed. Another side pack hugged itself tightly to him, and as a finishing touch to it all he carried a long knife thing strapped to his thigh. Machete. That's what they are called. Don’t go play stupid.

Her eyes caught on two silver rings dangling from his belt, right by his belt buckle.

Big rings. Interlocked by a chain. Handcuffs.

“Uh—” It was an entirely unflattering noise and it strangled itself halfway up her throat. Fear snatched at her, and just like that she wanted the door shut. Didn’t matter that she didn’t know why. All she knew was that she wanted him out. She pulled on the handle. His right arm snapped up, caught the door against his forearm. A small step forward and he’d crossed her threshold, a tight lipped frown pinning his lips together.

“I need your help,” Crane said.

* * *

The Paper Tiger fled back into her apartment. Fled, Kyle thought, being the perfect word for how she shied away from him and then promptly ran out of space within the tiny box of walled misery. Like she’d smelled his intention. Sniffed out his guilt and connected the dots to his very own Kyle Crane is going to hell colour book special.

She forgot the key during her retreat, left it stuck in the lock, blue ribbon and mangled yellow duck thing included. Kyle forgot to think. He closed the place up tight behind him, slid the key into his pocket, and placed himself between her and the only way out.

Zofia didn’t like that. Not one bit. Confusion turned into an ugly shade of terror, had her knock her hip into the table behind her. He thought she might go for the hatchet lying atop of it and come at him swinging, but instead she shrunk into the oversized black t-shirt she’d tented herself in, and watched him warily from afar.

Why is she not wearing any shoes?

Barefoot. Frightened. Cleaned up though, with her carpenter pants swapped out for something not soaked in blood, and her hair a spiky mop crowning her head.

Why are you doing this, Crane?

* * *

He walked over to her couch and planted himself on the squashed excuse for an armrest. His legs splayed out in front of him and his shoulders sagged. For a minute in which her heart beat too loudly and her knees forgot how to knee, he just sat there with his elbows on his thighs and his forehead resting on hands wrapped in what might have been prayer.

Zofia glanced at her door. Her barred door. She wanted to berate herself for being paranoid, for giving room to the fear that she’d raised so bloody diligently the past few months. But that look he’d given her, that hadn’t been the look of a man who’d come to ask her for directions again. Neither had it been the one of professional curiosity or concern or whatever the fuck else rode the man. It had been a guilty look, and far as she knew he hadn’t done a damn thing wrong. Like he’d been saying I’m sorry, before he went and did whatever had him looking like he’d drowned a puppy.

“What happened?” At least her voice wasn’t all over the place. It sounded almost steady. “Yesterday, I heard gunshots. Saw fire.”

Crane exhaled and looked at her. There it was again. That look. She hated it.

“Rais. He attacked the Tower.”

Zofia bristled. She’d guessed that much, but an inkling that a war had started a stone throw away from her was still different from being presented with the simple fact of it. Either way: Shit.

“Why?”

Crane appeared preoccupied. Or stalling, with his eyes up to nothing good as they mapped out her home. Canvassing it for her Antizin, maybe? Was that why he was here? Had Jade sent him saying he’d not need to show his face again unless he brought her all the Antizin in the world, and he’d gone off on his merry quest, because that’s what heroes did?

Left he looked, right he looked, until he turned his head and found her meagre wall of mementos. Five cards now. Five days.

“You like that lighthouse, huh?”

She frowned. Why’d his question make her feel like he’d just stepped on her toes? As if asking her whether she liked something, or didn’t, wasn’t a right he’d earned himself. Or that he should keep his nose out of it altogether - and bloody hell he’d been meant to stay out of her head, not have himself greeted with a glaring red banner waving about in her skull. Welcome back, Crane! it spelled out. Why don’t you stay a while and wreck us some more.

And fix my lights, can you do that?

He turned his head up, looked at her. Not waiting for an answer, she figured, not with that heavy frown dragging his features down.

She nodded anyway. Waited, too. He shifted his weight on the couch. Pinched her keys from his pocket. Put them down on the table. Still out of reach, but out there now.

Get up. Get the keys.

She didn’t.

He cleared his throat, a raspy sound that made her flinch. And when he started talking his voice kept itself to a slow, broken rhythm. A little hoarse. Crushed.  

* * *

Kyle didn’t look at her. Couldn’t even if he’d tried.

And he’d tried, oh he’d fucking tried. But every time his eyes came up she’d look away, and — Fuck, this isn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to figure this out. I was supposed to fix this.

He hadn’t, and so he strung words together that bought him a little more time, and told them to his hands folded between his knees. Because he couldn’t tell her. Not yet.

“Jade’s been working on something with Zere. You know Doctor Zere?” She probably didn’t. “Old man, wears a grubby lab coat all the time. He’s a big scatterbrain, can’t get my name right for shit. But he’s brilliant.” Pause. Breathe. Think. “Used to work out of a research centre back in Old Town. Or Sector Zero, whatever the fuck that place is called these days. He’s convinced he’s onto a cure, him and this Camden character, and Jade’s been helping them get samples for their research.”

Kyle raised his chin, chanced a look at the Paper Tiger still bunched up in her shirt, and found her watching him with her brows pulled up slightly in a minuscule display of curiosity.

“Camden?”

Good. That’s a good question. I can answer that.

“Another scientist, stuck in the Zero after the outbreak. Ever since I got the antenna towers online they’ve been at it like teenage girls. Inseparable at the radio.”

He tried on a smile. Her brow furrowed.

Ha-Ha, you’re hilarious Crane.

Kyle lifted a hand and slipped it against the back of his neck. “It’s my fault. I got the antennas back up and running. Because Rais asked me to, and because I figured it’d be good for everyone. You’d think so, right? Well fuck me, was I wrong.” His hand squeezed and he jutted his chin at the table by his knees, towards the radio he’d brought her. It lay between two candles. What was left of their waxy, red stumps anyway. “He’s tapped into everyone’s fucking calls.”

The cap on his pent up frustration slipped. His head dove between his arms and he stared at the floor by his feet. Where had he lost control of it all? When had it all gone up shit creek and where was that fucking paddle? Kyle’s chest squeezed a growl through his gritted teeth. He wanted to scream. At her. At her ridiculously tiny place. At her ugly ass floor.

Kyle took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“So of course he decides: Hey, if I can get my hands on this research, maybe I can buy my way out of here. Grabbed Zere right out from under all our noses. He got Jade, too.”

The canvas of his closed eyelids presented him with a perfect screen for living through last night again. Like he’d not had enough of that already.

“This can’t wait, Crane!” The Scorpion had rocked on the balls of her feet, her slender chin thrust up at him, not willing to take any of his shit while he’d tried to convince her that heading over to Sector Zero on her own would get her killed. “If you can’t get Rais to give us Antizin, this —” She’d thrust a satchel at him, and he’d caught it against his chest. “—might as well be all we’ve got.”

And off she’d gone, left him standing in the doorway to his room with most of Zere’s research in his hands and the words: Look, there might be something I should tell you. GRE, this. Rais that, etc… asking for permission to bust free. He couldn’t do that though. No. That’d violate his mission parameters. Those were important.

Had been important.

A bit more than five minutes later he’d cut himself shaving because the fucking Tower had rocked. Explosion. One, two — both slapping into the building’s flank from across the street. Windows shattered. People screamed. Kids cried. The whole shebang.

The rest of the night he’d spent outside Rais’ garrison, trying to find a way in.

He’d failed.

“What about your friends at the GRE? Can’t they help? There’s got to be something they can do. Like — like send in the cavalry. And don’t go telling me you’re the cavalry. That’s cheap and I might gag.”

Kyle blinked. Smart cookie. Had her head on the right way, asking the right questions, and directing him to the speech he’d arranged carefully in his head. Like leading a horse to water, really. So it could get shot.

“That brand of shit-wipes is a no go,” he said.

Good. By the script.

“They bailed on me.” Still good. “They stopped dropping Antizin, and they can’t help me.”

“Why?”

Kyle looked up. She wasn’t supposed to interrupt him from here on out. It ruined the rhythm.

“The Ministry. Harran’s Ministry of Defence stepped in two nights ago. They’re the ones that blockaded the supply drops. Cut us off from Antizin.”

Her brows bunched together, and Kyle tried to pick up where he’d left off. But some of the words had gotten turned around and he just wasn’t ready for that part of the script yet. Here was where he should have been telling her about the ramifications of the quarantine on the region, its wider impact on the global community, what it had done to the world only a week after it had all fallen apart, and—

He crumpled up the deliberate plotted string of words in his head and chucked them into the proverbial fire of his burning gut.

“I have,” Kyle turned his wrist up and squinted at his timepiece. “Thirty-five hours to get the GRE’s files.” His stomach wound itself in a tight knot. “Thirty-five hours before the Ministry starts sterilising Harran and we’re all dead.”

He looked at her. She’d stopped breathing. Her pale lips parted slightly, frozen where they pulled in air. Dirty gray eyes searched his, for once abandoning the ghosts on his shoulder, and stayed locked on him long enough to pry a piece of his soul free.

“You’re joking.”

God, she sounded British.

“No.”

“They can’t do that.” Her voice wobbled through the room. “They’d be killing hundreds of people.”

“Thousands, for all we know,” Kyle added. He straightened himself on her couch and swallowed thickly. Almost there. Almost done.

“Now you know what’s at stake. I swear, if I had a choice I wouldn’t—”

“Wait. Wait.” Zofia’s back stiffened and she slipped away from the table. Took a step towards him, bare feet padding quietly across the floor. She froze. Her fingers found the hem of her shirt, curled into it and balled themselves into loose fists.

“You’re not thinking I can get you inside, are you? I know… I know I offered, okay? But if Rais is waiting for you to try and help your friends, then you’re not getting anywhere near that place without getting yourself shot.” She paused. Her left cheek bulged out as she let her tongue run around in there. Her clean cheek missing its blue smudge. “It’d be suicide.”

Oh Paper Tiger. Tiny, fragile claws raked at him, and he could have sworn he’d caught a hint of concern in there. Kyle’s heart plummeted into the depths of his private hell.

He nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

She puffed up a bitter sigh from across the tiny room. “I appreciate the confidence, but—”

“I know you can get me inside.”

His heart beat loudly in his chest, drummed blood to his ears in a rush of white noise. Cold sweat turned his palms clammy and he took a moment to stare at his knuckles.

Okay, Kyle unlatched the cuffs from his belt. You’ve got a plan. Placed them gently on the table in front of him. In there. Somewhere. There’s a plan. Just have to find it.

“Rais wants the research, and I’m willing to cut a deal if that gets me the file. And gets Jade and Zere out of there. But he won’t talk unless I bring him some reassurance that I — I’ll behave.”

He looked at her.

Zofia stared at the cuffs on the table. Shellshocked and white as a sheet, with her eyes wide and unblinking. A faint, miserable noise rummaged around her chest.

Kyle stood. He glanced at his hands. He’d picked up the cuffs. When had he done that?

“I need to get in there. If.. if I don’t..” Jesus fuck, stop stammering. “If I don’t, the whole damn city will burn.”

He’d burn. Jade’d burn. Brecken. Rahim. Zere. Her — the barefooted Paper Tiger cornering herself in her dirty kitchen. She’d burn, too. He didn’t want that. So he planned to feed her to the wolves instead.

One step. Her hands went to the counter. Came up empty. A second step. She darted right. He moved into her path, swung his arm up to stop her from going for the hatchet on the table.

“I’m not asking.”

She whimpered. Ripped his heart in half.

“I can’t afford to.”

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Siblings: Parts


 She came in parts. Splintered. Fractured.

Zofia snatched at them as they swung by. She tried to pull them together: the large ones and the small ones, the heavy pieces that dragged her mind under, and the light ones that left her reeling for some measure of significance. They had to fit, she told herself. Had to let themselves be made whole.

Or maybe they’d never been. Maybe she’d been playing make-believe at being a sum of things. A neat stack of reason and thought, held together by the human condition and a purpose of sorts.

Because for now she came in parts, and one of them laughed at her, a hysterical, pitched howl twisting her gut and trapping itself in there.

Another part, the heaviest one, the unyielding one that made up most of her, that one reminded her how she’d seen them first. How the second time they’d found her, she’d had time. It told it to her frankly, placed the truth at her feet and asked her to pay attention. She’d not thought about it in a while. There’d been surviving to do. Running, hiding. Eating and drinking. Sleeping. For the longest time she’d confined the memories to the dark hours, to her nightmares and the thick molasses of things she’d like to forget but couldn’t.

There’d been four of them.

Four men marked by yellow, and they’d made their way down a narrow staircase. Shoulder to shoulder they’d marched, full of some purpose or the other. Tahir had walked at their helm, taller than the rest. Wider than them. His arms were too thick, his steps too long, but that made it easy to tell him apart from the others. That made it easy to hate him more than anyone.

He’d carried a baseball bat slung on his shoulder and ill intent in his step. He’d carried fear, too. Meant only for her.

The bat had been painted a bright yellow, she remembered. The colour  had drawn her eyes away from the cat she’d been stalking along the roof. A scrawny, scabby looking thing, with brown fur crusted in dirt. Zofia had an arrow notched and trained at the animal, had been ready to let it fly, when the yellow had caught her eyes.

She’d abandoned the hunt. Abandoned them. Fadil, Dalla — names forever etched into the heavy part of her that liked to drag her under. A husband and his wife, she remembered. They’d had two children. A pair of girls, drawn and thin but yet full of hope. She couldn’t remember their names, or if she’d ever asked.

There’d been time when they’d found her again. Enough to slip into the house, to warn the family. To tell them not to open the door when the monsters came knocking.

But she’d fled across the rooftops. Had hidden herself away in a bathtub reeking of her own piss, trying to close out the world with her arms wrapped around her head.

She came in parts, and the third part of her drove her forward, willed her to break through the cage closing in around her. It wanted to declare him a liar as he promised he’d look after her, that he wouldn’t leave her there, that he only needed a way in and she’d be okay.

His words meant nothing.

Nonsense was what they were, and she let them circle the drain in her head and flushed them from her mind. Files. Hope. Cure. Death. Everyone. She let them slip by. Didn’t want to listen. Didn’t need to listen.

Needed to get out.

But he was everywhere. Everything. The heat against her back as her legs came off the floor and he spun her away from the hatchet. The air, heavy with sweat and fear, each breath more of him, less of her. He was the pleading in her ear, and he was the part of her that needed her to remember.

She came in parts.

And he wanted her to remember she’d once been whole.

* * *

Don’t break her wrist.

Kyle yanked her around, twisted her arms behind her back, and hitched them up high against his chest. A perfectly executed restraining exercise. Textbook.

Watch that arm. Not too tight. God damn, stop —

Her head snapped back, bounced harmlessly off his collarbone, and Kyle’s gut curdled as he caught a whiff of fading, cheap soap hanging in the air between them. An image of her scrubbing at her matted hair and her bloodied clothing flicked through his mind, like the stutter of an old projector spooling the pictures by too fast and then too slow, until the roll of film caught on his conscience and unravelled.

What if she’d accepted his offer back at the train yard?

What if she’d come with him?

What if she’d been there when Rais had attacked them?

Would he have giftwrapped her right then and there?  

He didn’t want to think about that. Kyle swung her away from the hatchet when she wouldn’t stop pulling towards it. Her legs came up, kicked uselessly at the air, a spindly, wordless bundle of bird bones twisting in his grip.

The quick beat of her pulse drummed against his fingers, setting a frantic rhythm to her struggle. She turned rigid as a coil of iron. Arched and bent.

You’re going to dislocate her shoulders.

Any moment now they’d pop free, jump right out of their sockets with a sickening little PLOP . And he’d hear it. Perfectly fine. Much like her ragged breathing, how she gulped down air in irregular intervals.

In--in--out--in--out--in--in--in--out--out— Breathe, damn it…

Because she wouldn’t fucking say a word.

Kyle let his hands fall open, wrapped his arms around her torso instead, and pulled her against his front. A step to the left, a step forward— his eyes cut through the room, tried to find something, anything , he could work with.

Couch.

He walked her there. She knocked over a chair. THUMP. Caught a candle and some clutter with her foot, swiped it all off the coffee table. THUNK--THUNK , muffled little bumps as everything was scattered across the floor.

And she still didn’t say a thing.

Didn’t cry.

Didn’t scream.

The Paper Tiger remained perfectly mute in his grip, and left filling the room with words all up to him.

He had a lot to say. Had planned most of it in advance, even if he’d abandoned the script of it long ago. And it had all sounded so damn professional back then, before he’d actually had to open his mouth. Reasonable , almost. As if no one in their right mind could ever argue against any of it.

Had. Past tense. Now they were hollow words at best. Empty. Each promise already half cracked by a predesigned flaw; Him, the idiot who’d thought he’d had a plan.

Just how many times could he tell her that he’d get her out, that he’d be there, that she’d be fine— that it’d all work out? Laughable, pathetic lies, but he needed himself to believe them. Even if she didn’t.

Kyle carried her to the couch, made to drop her on it, because he couldn’t dump her on the dirty floor. That’d be disrespectful. But the room was too damn small, and he didn’t notice one of her legs snapping up and connecting with the wall before he could swivel her away from it.

She pushed. One quick forceful shove, and Kyle tilted sideways.

Watch it. Table.

He lost his balance. And there was the low furniture, catching his foot and sending him staggering to the side. The room went for a quick dive left, and Kyle angled himself to catch the fall on his shoulder, rather than Zofia. He hit the table. CRACK. Then the floor.

* * *

She’d never fought them. Not after they’d caught her, at any rate. Never struggled. Never said no. They’d told her what’d happen if she did. What had happened to those who hadn’t behaved.

They’d all gone to the Pit.

She’d not known what the Pit was then, but she’d not wanted to find out either, so she’d done the only thing that had made sense: She’d never fought them. Not once.

Jade; now she’d fight. She’d not just let them. She’d fight them tooth and nail and she’d take some of them with her before they’d send her on.

Jade’d fight.

Better than her, better than her vain struggle against Crane. Even if she’d made the world turn around on him and they both went down in a heap of heavy limbs and splintered wood.

Jade’d fight.

For a little while it didn’t matter if she came in parts that no longer fit. For a little while, she wanted to do what was right.

* * *

I won’t leave you there,” he repeated for the fucking hundredth time, his arms still locked around her, and his side reporting in on yet to be identified damages. Maybe he’d impaled himself on a fork, or some other dull piece of shitlery. Stabbed by proxy. Just his thing.

“I promise. I swear. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

He tilted his chin up, away from the tufts of her hair and the smell of soap and broken futures. He’d really done a number on the place. The coffee table was in ruins. The carpet dotted with red wax. Shit lay scattered everywhere, from a can to a fork (good), some candles and even the radio he’d brought her maybe an arm’s length from his nose.  

He blinked. Her keys had fallen too, and the mangled little duck thing sat in front of him, quietly staring at him with the stump of its neck.

Kyle exhaled and tightened his arms around the rapidly breathing bundle squashed against his chest. Her shoulders rose and fell in a broken rhythm, but she’d stopped struggling at least. Had stopped everything, really. Aside for breathing, which he found himself immensely grateful for.

Okay. What now?

He looked down. She’d curled her fingers into the sleeve of his shirt, white knuckles and all. Not trying to pry herself free though. Just — what? Holding on?

“I’ll let go, okay?” The words were out his mouth before he’d had time to think them over. They made no sense and they hadn’t been part of the script. But they felt right.

The top of her head bobbed, and Kyle lifted his arms apart. She slid out immediately, left him lying on the broken remains of the table, with the smashed bits of his conscience mixed into the wood. He rolled on his back and groaned at the ceiling with its cracked plaster and smoke stains.

“I can’t think of any other way.”

That came out of no-where, too. It also sounded pathetic, and Kyle cleared his throat from whatever was crawling along inside of it.

She’d gotten to her feet. Probably. Was walking around, her naked feet barely making any noise. Picked something up. The hatchet, most likely, and she’d be hefting it in her hands, ready to sink it into his skull. THUNK. Lights out. GG, no re.

And so what? He didn’t fucking care any more. He couldn’t do this. Didn’t know how.

Kyle squeezed his eyes shut and listened to her shuffling footsteps drawing closer. They’d gotten a bit louder.

“Tell me what to do,” she said.

He sat up and looked at her. She hadn’t gone to fetch the hatchet. She’d put on shoes. A pair of flakey blue running shoes, laced shut half heartedly with the string dragging on too long.

An invisible force squeezed her together, got her shoulders twitching and constricted her throat as she swallowed frantically. The handcuffs he’d brought hung from her curled, trembling fingers. Kyle blinked.

“Tell me,” she repeated, her voice an irregular stutter of notes. “What you need me to do.”

* * *

Don’t say a word. I’ll do all the talking—“

The cuffs had settled around her right wrist. Cold. Hard. Her hand had jerked back on instinct, even though she’d wanted to be brave. Wanted to just sit there. Let him talk. Let him do what he needed to do, whatever that might be. Even better yet, Zofia would have liked to observe it all from afar, perch herself on his shoulder maybe, watch him as he’d closed up the first ring. She’d have also liked to not shake like a tree branch ruffled by a gust of wind.

“I need to find out where he keeps the file—“

His touch had been warm. Gentle. He’d slid a finger between metal and skin, had lifted it to keep the cuffs from snapping on too tight. And he’d never stopped talking. It hadn’t made an awful lot of sense to her, but she’d tried to listen while he kept his head bowed and worked on the cuffs. She’d watched the crown of his head covered in short brown hair, the scar that sliced into it, and had stared at his busted up nose.

“Once we’re in—“

Eventually he’d turned his eyes to her, glanced at her with his brow creased in worry. He’d been lying. Grasping at some small chance of success in a plan so unpredictable, Zofia had wanted to laugh at him. A small laugh maybe. A sad little hacking sound that had sat waiting at the base of her throat.

It’d have come with tears, so she’d kept it to herself.

“… and I won’t leave without you.”

He’d placed a hand against the back of her head when he’d said that, had filled her ribcage with a heart beating louder than it had any right to. Much like back at the train yard, and much like back then she’d flinched away here too, but he’d curled his fingers into her hair and made her look at him. At the train yard he’d needed her to listen. Now he’d needed her to believe him.

She didn’t, but she’d nodded, and he’d let go of her and walked her to her end.

Zofia now stood in front of it.  

It didn’t look like much. Never had. A concrete duplex, tall and grey against the afternoon skies, which had long forgotten what it had been meant to be back when the world had been less of this , and more of what everyone had begun to misplace as the days turned themselves over.

Where it had once housed dozens of families within its two main buildings, it now served to hold the men and women who’d pledged themselves to the self proclaimed saviour of Harran.

A court yard hid out of sight behind its facade, the rows and rows upon windows barred with iron. That, Zofia remembered, was where they staged their raids. Almost every morning she’d watched them from the window of her third floor room, hands wrapped around the bars keeping her in, and her stomach aching for freedom.

“You okay?”

Her jaw clenched and she shook her head. Crane’s hand twitched, squeezed her elbow a little tighter.

“Stupid questions. Sorry,” he said and continued walking, his head on a constant swivel, not trusting the peace that surrounded the garrison, she guessed. Sometimes they’d cut to the front of the building, and his mouth would form a thin, grim line when they fell on the two tall yellow banners suspended from the roofs.

At least he’d grown to hate Rais’ mark, too.

That was nice of him. He could carry on hating on Rais alongside her. Much as he damn well pleased. Except — Zofia’s mouth dropped open, worked on a word that sounded a terrible lot like Stop.

Her legs sunk into the tarmac, each step harder than the previous one. With any luck the street might open up and swallow her, or she’d glitch through the ground and never be seen again. Lost in lala land. Lost somewhere. Anywhere.

No— No— No— this is not okay.

Zofia tried to lift her hands in front of her, to wipe at the cold sweat pooling against the collar of her shirt, but the cuffs weighted her arms down. As if he’d attached rocks to them and they’d decided to multiply while she wasn’t looking.

‘I want to go home.’

“I can’t do this,” she told the silver links around her wrists.

Crane’s grip tightened, his fingers pressing into her elbow. “You’re doing great.”

Zofia pulled in a lungful of humid air. It felt like breathing in water, filled her lungs to the brim with something heavy. Her heart barely managed to beat through the thick slush. THUMP it went. THUMP—THUMP , and then good as nothing for a too long while she tried to figure out why she’d agreed to this.

Let me go home. Please.

Her eyes watered and stung. She wasn’t supposed to come back here. Ever. Zofia tried herself at stopping, dug her heels in.

“I changed my mind,” she told the ground. Dirty ground. Bloody ground.

He kept walking.

“Did you hear me? I changed— I changed my mind. I don’t want to do this. I won’t.”

The ground didn’t listen and neither did he.

He was supposed to though. He was meant to tell her that it was okay. They’d just go back to her place. He’d fix her lights. Fix her table. And she’d make him bloody tea. Because this? She’d made a mistake, had picked the wrong door. A bad choice of words at a terrible time. He’d have to understand that. Had to.

The soles of her shoes slid across the tarmac.

“Please! I can’t. I swear.. I’ll do anything.. Please just don’t.. I can’t.. I messed up, okay? If you...”

Crane pulled her in front of him and placed his hands atop her shoulders.

“I swear, anything..”

 

* * *

For the longest time, Kyle’s mind had settled into a routine of keeping the world neatly categorised around him, dividing it into threads, inconveniences, and nothing to worry about. The routine had gotten them this far without trouble, even with Zofia’s inert steps slowing them down. She’d climbed alright, even followed him at a jog, but he’d had to work them through the slums at a snail’s pace anyway.

Then they’d drawn near enough to the garrison for him to close the cuffs and commit them to their charade, and now — now that they’d almost made it, she had to screw it all up by promising him the world if he’d just let her go.

His head reeled. His breathing. He kept pushing her, kept pushing himself, and neared the iron fence ringing the garrison with a world of misery in his gut.

“We can’t turn back,” he whispered and squeezed her small, pointy shoulders. “Look up. See those guns? They’ve been watching us since we got here. Now look around. Do you see any cover?”

Hint: There wasn’t any.

Truth be told, there wasn’t much at all happening out here. Rais had cleared the approach to his headquarters. Not a single broken down car anywhere in sight, and not a Biter either. Just a lot of dried blood. Kyle clicked his teeth together. He preferred not to add any of his own to the mix.

“If we turn around now, they’re going to open up. We’ll be dead before we hit the ground.”

She didn’t care. He’d not expected her to. So when she tried to break off to the right, he caught her around the waist. A short bend of the knee later, and he’d hefted her over his shoulder.

Wow, Crane. Primitive, much?

It worked though. Not only did it make him hate himself even more, something he’d not expected was possible, but it made her lose her mind, too. And ahead of them, Rais’ men kicked the walkway from their positions. It rattled towards the ground and presented him with an open invitation.

Come on in, the gesture said. You’re one of us now.

By the time he set her down again, Zofia had once more wrapped herself in perfect silence. Wide, unfocused gray eyes stared right through him as he tried to catch some measure of forgiveness in them. Failing that he’d settle for understanding. Or some fucking hate, at least. But there was nothing left in there. Nada.

A weak flush of exertion clung to her neck, and the sun had crowned her head with a line of red, but aside of that she’d turned white as a sheet. Blue lips. Unblinking stare. Not a shred of Tiger left on her.

“Come on,” he whispered and guided her through the entryway leading into the courtyard.

A simple metal gate blocked the passage at the end, and it greeted him with a simple: Welcome, Friend. Kyle frowned. They’d touched up the paint since he’d last been here. Made it all nice. Just for him and his walk of shame.

Aw shucks, you didn’t have to… His stomach rolled.

The gate rattled open in front of him and he pulled Zofia to a stop. She wove forward and then back, swinging like a broken pendulum, and let out a sharp exhale of air. As if she’d just woken from a dream, only to find herself walking into a nightmare.

One by the name of Tahir, their honour guard that swung the gate open for them and regarded them from way up there, wherever the fuck his neck ended and the blocky head started. The man was huge. He’d mistakenly been assembled from a barrel and some gorilla arms, and then squeezed it all into a sleeveless combat vest. Striped in yellow, of course. Douchebag.

Kyle caught himself holding on to Zofia a little tighter while his mind arranged a neat list of ways on how Tahir ought to go fuck himself.

“Rais has been expecting you,” the gorilla said, and jutted his pointed chin with the ugly ass beard towards the front door of the leftmost building. Then he looked at Zofia, kept his beady eyes fixed on her, and Kyle’s fingers squeezed her elbow. His knuckles itched to introduce themselves to Tahir’s nose. It’d make a neat POP , he imagined. Very satisfying. And then he’d get himself shot, because Tahir wasn’t the only one carrying, the whole fucking garrison did.

“Lead the way,” he told Tahir, and the man nodded before leading them deeper into the garrison.

Courtyard first. Kyle’s eyes cut left and right. Two men lounging at the back, sitting on a stack of crates by a white van. The same van, he remembered, as the one he’d chased through the slums two nights ago.

Windows all closed, curtains drawn. It all looked a little too peaceful for his liking, but he didn’t have much of a choice as Tahir kept them walking.

Inside next. Same defeated gloom of old overhead lamps. Same musky stink to the air, the one he’d hated the first time he’d stepped in here. It smelled of an old, weathered building that had been left to sit too long, where the tapestries had been layered atop each other too often, rather than swapped out.

They made it in three steps before he noticed how Zofia’s shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor, and how she’d started shaking against his side. She’d pushed herself into him.

As if that’d make any difference.

Tahir kept walking and so did they, and soon they’d made it through the main hall. Three guards. One placed by the double winged doors they were headed toward, two more hunched over a table with cards laid out atop of it. A woman sat perched on the armrest of the leftmost chair, her long, dark legs crossed beneath a too short, orange dress. She wore sandals. Bright, yellow sandals that clasped themselves to delicate ankles. She looked up briefly. Frowned. And when she saw Zofia her mouth tightened into a thin line and her jaw clenched.

Kyle blinked. Anger. That was anger there, and not at him, but at the girl he'd brought with him. 

Nevermind. Not important. No distractions.

Next up came Karim, sitting by his desk like any good majordomo would, dutifully organising all the wheels and cogs and what the shit not, so Rais could go sleep well at night.

Karim's eyes turned up to land on Kyle and his reluctant cargo. And out of all the looks he could have given him, Karim settled for disappointment. 

Great, even the scumbags think I’m trash.

Eventually Tahir led them through a double winged door, and Kyle was left with a few moments of taking stock of what he’d walked himself into. He’d counted on them taking his sidearm. They hadn’t, so there was that, but even with the comforting pressure of the 1911 still resting against his side, Kyle didn’t feel an awful lot more confident than before. It’d add a little bit of wiggle space to the amount of winging he’d have to do, but that was about it.

Still it wouldn’t hurt to map out the place as Tahir led the way, make out the turns and the rooms, see if he could catch a glimpse of the garrison’s inner workings, only to find himself met by a lot of closed doors and a quiet hallway.

* * *

He never stood a chance.

“Crane,” Rais greeted them.

Zofia heard the smooth, thick baritone voice take command of the room they’d been led into, and felt it grab a hold of her, too. It demanded her eyes to come up from the clean Persian rug they’d favoured before, and to meet the man standing surrounded by flicking electronic equipment, because anything else would have been rude.

He looked just like she’d remembered him, but so had Tahir, who now stood by his owner’s left. So had everyone and everything else, really. They weren’t things you scrubbed from your memory, instead they lingered. Settled.

Like Rais. He hadn’t changed a bit. Always with his hands folded behind his back when he turned to face you. Always with the clean suit trousers and the nice black shoes, too. And that matching suit jacket, the insides lined with wine red silk.

It hung open today, and while the world around her carried on with words and promises and an exchange she didn’t understand, Zofia stared at the intricate tattoo covering the man’s chest. There were blades and there were spirals and it all made her rather dizzy.

She exhaled, felt her feet shuffling backwards. ’Don’t want to be here.’ A hand tightened around her elbow. She stopped.

“I see you’ve brought a guest,” Rais said, like he’d just now noticed her. She’d be okay with him not noticing her. Ever. “Unexpected, I have to admit. But not unappreciated.”

“Cut to the fucking chase,” Crane snapped, not sounding very happy, with his chest trying itself at a growl and his voice leaning against a sharp edge.

Zofia frowned. She couldn’t blame him. She wasn’t happy either. Not even a little.

“You wanted to talk. I’m here. Let’s talk.”

Cloth shifted somewhere by her side. It caused a bit of a commotion in front of them, had Tahir reach for a handgun and Rais lift a placating hand to stop him.

Then something flew across the room, chucked right towards Rais, who caught the bundle with a lazy swipe at the air.

“Here. This is what you wanted, right? The rest of Zere’s research. Fucking have it. Now where’s Jade? Where’s Zere?”

Rais turned the package in his hand before tossing it carelessly behind him into a pile of papers.

“Tell me—” He sounded like he pitied them and underlined the words with a sad shake of his head. “Whose lapdog are you right now, Crane? Brecken’s? Mine? The GRE’s? Or have you finally decided who you’ll be? To be a man and not someone’s trained monkey?”

Somewhere between lapdog and monkey, Crane’s fingers dug into her and his breathing hitched. Subtle enough, she thought. She just noticed because she’d pushed herself into him, tucked herself under his shoulder as if it’d offer her shelter of sorts.

“I have no fucking ide—” Or maybe he’d blow it all by sounding downright desperate when he opened his mouth.

“Don’t,” Rais lifted a warning hand. “Don’t insult me, Crane. You’re a terrible liar. This?” He jabbed a finger towards the package he’d discarded. “What will I find in there? Garbage data? Enough to keep me guessing you’ve brought me the right files? Did you think you’d win me over with it? Welcome you to my family? Let you go and finish your dirty mission?”

Rais cocked his head to the side. Next to him, Tahir took a step forward, and Zofia found herself pushed behind Crane.

“Not like it matters. You see, the GRE hasn’t been altogether truthful with you. They’ve promised you a resolution to this chaos, but what you are looking for are the plans to weaponize the virus. Oh come on now, don’t look so surprised. Did you really think they’d only send one man to retrieve a cure ?”

Boots knocked against the floor behind her. Zofia turned around, stared at the three men clustering outside the door. They carried rifles. Pointed them at her. She felt her back connect with Crane. He’d backed off. Or maybe she had. Now they stood in each other's way.

“Tahir,” Rais commanded. “Get the radio. After that, Crane— how would you like to be reunited with your Scorpion?”

He never really stood a chance. But he’d tried. She’d have liked to think it counted.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

The Pit


 

At one point during his rise to power, Suleiman had decided to devolve into the Roman era. He’d skipped the sandals and the togas, but his very own Colosseum?

Now that he’d had to have.

A spoiled, cruel child’s fancy, the plastic box with a mantis and spider in it, had turned into a wide arena sitting at the bottom of Rais’ unfinished skyscraper. It lay mostly barren, a landscape of rubble and dirt, interrupted by the jagged remains of what might have at some point turned into support struts meant to hold a ceiling up, and four large shipping containers.

He’d named it aptly; the Pit.

”Man needs entertainment, Crane.”

Man needed a fist to the throat, rather— but Kyle had been in no position to fight, his hands cuffed behind his back and his head still swimming from the rifle butt knocking against his temple earlier. The knock that had sent him flat on his back, and momentarily allowed him to forget just how badly he’d fucked up.

Standing down here though, his knees still uncertain about their general purpose, Kyle couldn’t help but reflect on his choices. How he’d fucked up. How he’d tried. Failed. How he still couldn’t for the life of him figure out what he should have done differently, which choice wouldn’t have ended with him being marched into an arena, with an audience of dirtied faces staring down at him, waiting for their entertainment to start.

They occupied the scaffolding wrapping itself around the inside of the skyscraper’s skeleton, clustered around one quarter of the structure. Men and women alike, all with a dash of yellow on them, leaned and stood and sat, some with their legs dangling from the edges, others half hanging over the metal struts fencing them in. A steady hum of voices droned outwards from the crowd, their chant of Rais-Rais-Rais breaking itself against unfinished walls.

It made it difficult to think, and what he needed now was a clear mind. Not one that kept going back to what he’d done. Not the one that wondered what would have happened if the GRE hadn’t lied to him, or if Rais hadn’t known about his involvement with these shitstains to begin with.

Kyle gritted his teeth.

They’d played him. He’d played him. Everyone had just fucking decided to have themselves a go at jerking him around, and Kyle found himself thoroughly done with it all.

White, hot anger churned in his gut, leaked into his chest and squeezed painfully.

Easy there. Focus. Don’t get—

His mouth misfired: “What the fuck is wrong with you!”

Gee, Crane.

Kyle jerked his head left, then right, at the two men flanking him, rifles hugged to their abdomens, but ready to snap up in the blink of an eye.

“All of you! Fuck.”

His throat hurt. He’d been shouting it sore, but no one cared to fucking listen, because they were too busy chanting. Rais. Rais. Rais. Rais, fucking Rais— and the man himself? He’d certainly not been paying any attention, had just stood there with his arms spread wide, and declared just how wrong Kyle had been, etc.

He’d get points for the speech though. The fucker knew how to talk, and he’d let his mouth run for an eternity up there on that stupid, walkway suspended above him. From up there he’d started emptying his basket of proverbial eggs, all aimed right at Kyle, who’d stood there flaunting ignorance of all the truths hurtling at his head.

And then, as if the day couldn’t have gotten any better, the madman had gone and published the GRE’s stolen files using Kyle’s satellite phone to break through the signal jams.

That had been when Kyle had started shouting, and he’d not stopped since. “You fucking madman! You’ve just condemned the whole city!” Or something of the likes, he’d forgotten.

If the Ministry would have needed any more reason to nuke Harran, Rais had given them just that, forced their hand if anything, with the threat of biological warfare sitting neatly contained within the Zone.

Correction.

Kyle had given Rais the means, the man had simply followed through on it.

Much like he’d handed him Zofia.  

His eye cut to the broken Paper Tiger, the withered twig standing next to Tahir, her hands still bound and eyes downcast. Barely breathing. Barely there. She’d given up, and he couldn’t blame her. Not one bit.

“Jesus…” Kyle muttered. “How can you do this?”

Rais lifted his right arm.

The crowd hushed, the chant snuffed out instantaneously. A heavy silence fell within the skeletal walls, and Kyle felt the hot anger fade to an icy dread of anticipation.

He’d not heard it before. The sickening, hollow THUMP—THUMP of fleshy things against metal. His head turned, eyes scanning for the source of the noise.

Shit.

So those shipping containers weren’t just fancy decoration dotting the landscape of rubble. They stood spaced out haphazardly, like beached whales rolled up against a gray shoreline. And every single one of them emitted the same, persistent knocks and grunts and— Fuck no…

What had he expected though? That Rais would ask him to tapdance? He’d have nailed that. Probably.

“Go on, Crane.”

His head whipped around, just in time to catch the madman lob a key at him, a sturdy thing attached to a heavy, flat piece of metal. He blinked at it. Next to him, the men with their rifles scampered off, left him standing by his own to climb a ladder out of the Pit. They pulled the ladder up after them.

“We’ve let the Scorpion wait long enough,” Rais continued. “She’s dying to see you again.”

Kyle’s breath lost itself somewhere between his throat and his lungs. He swallowed thickly, tried to get air down somehow. It coagulated in a thick paste, threatening to choke him. The pretty, tough image of Jade came leaking from his memory as he stooped forward to pick up the key. Another memory of her climbing up against him almost made him drop it again.

Warm and alive she’d been. Desperate, too. Overrun by something he’d not understood. Something desperate, a grasp for anything— anyone—alive, with a proper pulse and all that. He still didn’t get it. Maybe they should have talked about it.

They hadn’t.

The memory sat there, unbidden, because he really didn’t need it right now, and the key rested in his palm.

Yeah. They should have talked about it.

Kyle’s feet started moving, since he didn’t have a choice. None whatsoever. No way out, no matter where he looked, just a clear path forward, to the first container, the one with a bulgy padlock.

He exhaled stale air from his lungs.

“Jade?”

Not loud enough to carry anywhere but against the metal and bounce off harmlessly. Something knocked against the door in response anyway. Two frantic little thumps.

Kyle’s eyes cut across the ground, and without much thinking weighting him down anymore, he picked up a discarded, rusty piece of piping. Hollow, but sturdy. Good for swinging. It fit okay in his hand, and the key fit nicely into its lock. It made a nice little click, too. And then he flung the door open and stood back, one fist raised with pipe clutched in it.

“Jade—“

She came at him with wide eyes, a blur of dirt and dark hair. A throaty scream lodged in her throat, reverberating through her compact body, which slammed into his side and tried to carry itself further towards Rais.

Gagged.

They’d gagged her, strung a lump of cloth around her head and then wrapped it with duct tape, because why the fuck not. Her hands were bound in front of her, roped together. Drenched in blood.

Kyle grabbed her elbow, snatched her back, and while she fumed towards Rais, her nostrils flaring with each gulp of air, he dropped his pipe and started working the gag off of her.

“I am going to kill you!” were the first words out of her mouth, and up on the platform Rais laughed. The crowd cheered.

“I’m impressed, Scorpion. I suppose we are going to be skipping the entrance show and go straight to round two.”

Kyle dragged Jade back towards the container, ripped the key off the lock, and used the piece of metal it had come with to saw at the rope between her wrists.

“You’re hurt,” he said.

She shook her head. “Most of it isn’t mine. What are you doing here?”

“Rescuing you.”

She laughed. A bitter, pointless noise. “Thank you.”

He’d have liked to tell her the whole story, but some of it she caught wind of on her own as her eyes landed on Zofia. They cut back to him. Brows arched, eyes quizzically narrowed, but thankfully she didn’t question him. She’d do so later, he figured.

If we’ll have such a thing. Later.

And she’d hate him, because he’d earned it, but he’d accept that. Gladly. If it meant they’d all be alive to hate on him in equal measure, then Kyle figured he could live with sitting in the dog house for the rest of his life. Or get taken to the pound. Or out back to get shot.

Didn’t really matter.

The crowd thrummed around them, shaking up the air with a frenzy of claps and the sound of feet hitting metal. They wanted their fill, they wanted blood, and Kyle hoped they’d get carried away enough to rip the scaffolding off the walls.

Two muffled pops and both Kyle and Jade snapped their heads around.

The doors to a blue and a green container swung open, smoke curling away from them. They’d rigged them with explosives. Not enough to cause damage, but enough to blow them open.

What the fuck is this? Don’t you dickheads have anything better to spend your time on than rigging up your own gladiator arena shit?

Roused by the sudden noise, and drawn by the rising cheer of the crowd, the container’s contents came alive to shuffle-drag-shuffle-stagger its way into the light.

Biters. Kyle counted. Thirteen.

But when it rained it poured, and a flash of movement from within the group wrung a strained sigh from him. Biters weren’t that quick at lifting their knees, and they didn’t elbow their way through a crowd.

Virals.

Shit.

Three, the lot of them dressed in heavy clothing marked in yellow. Some of Rais’ men, the unlucky bastards that hadn’t made the cut to earn themselves Antizin. They detached from the pack, and then the crowd fell silent. The heavy hush returned.

“Jade I’m so—“

“Not now, Crane. I take left, you take right.”

He blinked. “Oh— Okay.”

Good enough plan. Better than his, at any rate.

The Virals reached them first, two on his side of the deal, one on hers. Kyle tightened the grip on the pipe. Felt the coarse, rusty metal grate at his skin. His stance slipped wider, his left heel planted firmly.

The first Viral came within reach, and Kyle caught it against the chin with an upwards arch of the pipe. It connected with a sickening crack of bone snapping. Blood spurted from the thing’s mouth where it bit into its tongue. Its feet went out under it and it hit the ground. Not dead, but stunned.

Next.

He sidestepped the second’s charge. Lifted his leg. Kicked at the Viral’s knee as it tried to flail right past him. It went down and Kyle followed it with the pipe grasped in both hands.

Go for the head. Always go for the head. God damn fucking B movie Zombies.

The serrated end of the pipe went through the Viral’s mouth and then kept going until Kyle felt the crunch of it connecting with the ground.

He withdrew. Spun around, still crouched, just in time for Viral number one to come at him. Kyle pushed himself forward, caught the charge against his shoulder, and with his lungs exhaling a bench press worthy groan of effort, lifted it off its feet.

Idiot. Risky.

He anticipated its teeth digging into his shoulder or neck, but before it could chomp down, Kyle managed to throw it backwards.

“Crane!” Jade. Not distressed, just a little under pressure.

“Busy here.” He followed the Viral. Lifted his boot. Curtains for you. Brought it down on what used to be a person’s head, snapping its spine and crushing the back of its head.

The Biters reached them three of his quick pulls of air later, a press of ambling bodies, clothing and flesh hanging on in tatters. They tripped over the dead Virals, ignorant to anything but the two healthy people with their backs up against each other, and their lungs working at capacity.

Kyle wondered if she had a plan for that, too.

* * *

Down there, at the bottom of the Pit, Crane and Jade fought for their lives. And up here, Zofia regretted hers.

She regretted never having gone out with Nick O’Reily in high school, because he’d been a lovely bloke, just not her type. She regretted Oliver. And Matt. The fights and the tears and all the broken promises.

She regretted not listening to her father on the matter, to him telling her: ”You’ve always had a bad taste in men, Zo. You and your mother, the both of you. Just what am I supposed to do with you?”

He’d been right, of course. She’d never picked them right. Never would, either.

At the rate things were going, Zofia figured, she’d never again be doing much of anything. Long overdue, truth be told. She’d just always assumed it’d— well it’d be not like this. She’d been wondering that a lot lately though. Thinking she’d expected things to end differently, but never quite figuring out what that different was meant to be.

Her eyes fell away from the spectacle below, found the metal grating by her feet. The crowd around them had started booing, disappointed by Crane and Jade retreating atop a container to catch their collective breaths. Or maybe, Zofia wondered, they’d decided to sit out the rest of their lives up there, while the remaining five Biters bumped against their refuge, their arms raised and fingers searching greedily.

At least they had company. Had each other, because that likely counted for something, even if it looked a little pathetic from up here. An island of bad fortunes in a sea of rot.

She studied the metal by her feet, the rust spots on it, the dirt and whatnot. Wiggled her toes. They hurt. A quiet sigh snuck between her breaths.

She regretted, above all, that she’d not called him before she’d flown into Harran, that she’d left the last words he’d traded with her to be: ”Won’t you just come home? I miss you.”

And she regretted not having talked to her mother for eleven years now, after she’d packed her things and made yet another terrible choice, because that was what she did.

Zofia frowned. Maybe she just regretted being a terrible daughter, hated herself for not loving her father enough and her mother not at all. Regretted not making it right.

The crowd erupted with whoops and cheers, their enthusiasm jolting through her as if she’d stepped on a live wire, and Zofia’s chin lifted on its own accord.

Two more Biters down.

Crane turned away from their broken bodies, his shoulders hunched forward and a bloodied makeshift weapon trading between his hands. Like he’d forgotten if he was right or left handed. Right, you buffoon. He’d not forgotten how to place his feet though, how to move with a calculated, smooth efficiency that made her wonder if anything rattled him. A blow to the head certainly hadn’t, and being about to die— that didn’t faze him much either. Or, she wondered with her heart latching onto her throat, did he still think there was a way out?

* * *

Three to go.

Refocus. Eyes front. Keep Red Shirt at your back.

Red Shirt being the slowest. Kyle had clipped his knee at the start, and now the lanky thing lurched in a semicircle, like a boat trying to steer with only one paddle. Donning the bright red T made it piss easy to spot him too, and so he fell to the bottom of the priority list.

Hawaii, on the other hand, was more trouble. Bulky, sturdy and butt fuck ugly with his pus and blood covered pink Hawaiian shirt. And a distinct lack of pants. Gross.

Jade caught Suit with a straight kick to the chest, sent it warbling skywards while it flopped around on its back, and then followed through with stab from her rebar spear.

Two to go.

Hawaii lunged at Kyle, got itself a chin full of rusty pipe, followed by a crack against the side of its skull, and still it staggered forward, a little disorientated maybe, but undeterred. Its hands came up, grasped at him with chubby, half gnawed off fingers, and Kyle dropped the pipe in favor of a terrible idea.

“Jesus. Will you just die already?”

He grabbed it by the top of its head— dry, cracked skin, oozing sticky fluids from sores covering the scalp —and folded Hawaii forward.

There was a little steam left in him. Just enough for a stubborn and strained grunt, and his knee to come snapping up to kick into Hawaii’s chin. POP-CRACK — knee or chin or both, Kyle didn’t care. Pain arched through his leg, but when he set it down it didn’t buckle. And Hawaii crumpled and lay still.

“Yeah. You— you fucking stay there.” He exhaled. His vision swam. His ears buzzed. “Fuck.”

Then his ears kept buzzing, and it took Kyle a moment to connect the noise to the crowd on their makeshift bleacher-scaffolding-things. The crowd. Cheering. Having a damn good time. While he had his hands grasping his knees, chest heaving for air and his lungs telling him they had enough.

Kyle clenched his jaw, turned his eyes up. Somewhere to his left, Jade stepped away from Red Shirt , now dead on the ground. Somewhere to his right, a portion of the crowd got to their feet. And up ahead, there stood Rais, his hands falling together in a slow clap.

If he’d had the strength left to stand, he’d have done just that. He’d have stood there, raised his— Ah shit. —now missing pipe, and bellowed at the top of his lungs, loud enough to put Russell Crowe to shame.

As it were he barely had enough left for a muted mutter of “Are you fucking entertained now you mother-fucking shitmuffins?”

“Impressive. For two dead heroes,” Rais proclaimed. Asshole didn’t even need to shout. His voice carried itself forward with laughable ease, hushing the crowd and sitting them back down. His right arm came up, and Kyle caught the glinting edge of a blade arching through the air. It clattered to the ground below the raised platform.

Couldn’t they just shoot him instead? Get this shit done with? Stop wasting each others time?

His eyes cut to Zofia, caught her looking at him, trading a quiet plea to see this all ended.

You’ve got the same idea, don’t you, Paper Tiger? I am so fucking sorry..

Kyle started towards the dropped blade.

“Where’s Zere?” He’d not had a chance to ask before, and now that Jade followed him with her light steps crunching softly on the ground, he thought he might as well get that out of the way, too.

“I don’t know,” she said. “They separated us. Crane— what do we do?”

He looked down. One machete. Decently sharp. He picked it up, hefted it in his hand.

Refocus.  His back stiffened. You can’t get out. Rethink. Adjust.

He didn’t need to get out. His eyes fall on target. On what mattered. What should have mattered from the start, but he’d been too blind to see. Blinded by lies. Blinded by him thinking he’d been doing the right thing.

“Do you believe in the whole cutting off a snake’s head thing?”

She barked up a string of words in Arabic, half of which he didn’t catch, the rest of which made him wince.

“Gee— you kiss your brother with that mouth?”

She puffed next to him. Maybe she smiled, too. He didn’t know, and he didn’t turn to look. Kyle kept his eyes on the target. Focused, drawing in whatever conviction he could from the last thing he’d like to do right.

The target didn’t like being the focus of his attention. She shuffled back and her head turned slightly.

Rais noticed. Of course he did. He followed Kyle’s stubborn stare, and glanced at the Paper Tiger.

Oh for—

He stepped towards her, landed a hand on the scruff of her neck, and pulled her into him.

Get your fucking hands off her! sat in Kyle’s throat, but he swallowed the words. Let them sit there. Fester. His fingers tightened painfully around the machete’s handle. He could use the anger. It helped.

Rais lowered his head, brought his lips close to her ears. They dripped words into them. Words that sent a spasm through her body, a violent twitch away from him, blocked by the hand clasped around her neck.

Kyle’s jaw bones complained. His teeth threatened to break. He wanted to climb up there. Hack the psychopath’s head off.

It’d be hard work. Worth it though. Totally.

Rais’ left hand gave a quick jab, but he wouldn’t let go of her, wouldn’t get his fucking face away from her.

“Crane—“ Jade again. Still not distressed, but getting there, an uncertain hush settling over her usual strong voice. It hitched a ride with the stutter of a motor coming alive, and the whirring of machinery.

His sharp focus lifted, and Kyle looked for the origin of the noise. Another shipping container, suspended from a construction crane swinging its long arm through the skies and towards them. Kyle blinked. Someone had painted a gift ribbon on the long side of the container, a hastily sprayed on piece of shitty art.

I’m not expecting a delivery. Fuck off, FedEx.

He exhaled a miserable chuckle and stared at the block of metal carried his way, how it swung up and down, since whoever operated the crane had no clue what they were doing. Any moment now it’d just snap free and plummet to the ground.

A tug on his arm persuaded him to step back, and when the magnetic clasps of the container released, Kyle realised how close he’d been standing to it. They might as well have painted a black X on the ground and he’d gone and sat on that, with his mind singing off, unwilling to deal with the absurdity of it all any longer.

The impact almost knocked him off his feet, sent the ground trembling and the crowd into a frenzy.

He heard it anyway. The POP of another muted explosion to his left somewhere.

And the POP right ahead.

Biters? No. Virals? No. The damned door flew off its hinges. Headed right for him.

“Move!” Jade. Again. Definitely distressed.

The door missed by an account of not enough , spun off one end as it knocked into the ground, and tumbled out of sight. Out of sight, because his eyes found the thing charging after it.

Kyle’s brain flailed for a reference point to connect the lumbering figure to, and eventually snatched ’Hulk.’ from a library of things giganteus and fugly.

The incredible— scratch that— The horrible Hulk came hurtling towards him, a wall of thick grey muscle, barely contained within the stretched remains of what might have been riot gear back when it had still fit. It bore a cracked helmet, the splintered visor coated in dirt. Beady eyes set on him, and a guttural roar hacked its way up through a gaping, yellow teethed mouth.

Kyle dove out of the way as arms easily the length of his legs swiped at the air. At right where he’d stood a second before. He landed with an unflattering Hurrgh, and his side flared with a fresh set of aches. Rubble digging deep, skin and muscle reminding him of all the scrapes and bruises he’d collected, which had yet to receive proper attention.

“Good luck, Crane!”

Rais’ voice cut through the deafening, blood thirsty cheers of the crowd, mixed into the frenzied, shrill shrieks of Virals— and the roar of a thing too fucking big to put proper words to.

He should have ignored the taunt. But once Kyle got his feet back under him, his eyes flicked past the hulking monstrosity as it stood huffing and turning its massive head.

And the madman pushed Zofia from the platform.

A quick, decisive shove. A shove that sent her right into the path of the raging Hulk.

* * *

She’d always loved flying. Falling. Plummeting. Air rushing past her ears. That knot of excitement coiling deep in her gut. How it ripped at her, demanded she’d grow wings, to spread them and to fly.

The hand at her back pushed.

Zofia’s left leg snapped forward, caught the edge of the platform. Leg muscles strained. The world pulled itself into a funnel in front of her. A trajectory, an arch to follow. Her feet lifted from the platform. The rest of her followed.

Four meters. Doable.

A flush of life. A fleeting touch. Nothing mattered but the moment between here and then, between her flight and the landing. Not the thing to her left, the thing she’d heard about, the thing whispered about by those who’d never been to the Pit, and boasted by those who had. She’d never believed in it. She’d have to now, but it could wait. It wasn’t quite that important.

Rais didn’t matter either. Or Tahir, or the crowd setting the Pit ablaze with their cheers. Not Jade. Not Crane.

She and the dive, they mattered, and so did the ground. Her legs did as they’d been taught on touching down, her head tucked itself in, and her shoulder caught the roll.

It hurt. It always did, but that too didn’t really matter.

The roll carried her on. Legs up. Arms to the— ‘Drat.’ Cuffs. She got her arms up anyway, balanced her rise best as she could, and staggered clumsily backwards. Just in time to see an ugly head turn her way, and to hear Crane’s voice butt through the buzz in her ears.

“Over here Hulk!”

Something bounced off the creature's helmet. It grunted.

“I’m fucking talking to you!”

The head snapped around.

“Zofia!” Jade this time, somehow managing not to sound shrill even as she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Watch out!” Movement on her right, quick and decisive.

Not the Hulk thing. Pay attention. Run.

Four Virals bore down at her, all clothed in yellow, fresh meat culled from Rais’ ranks. When they caught up with her— because she couldn’t bloody run with her hands tied in front of her— it was Jade that tackled the first one from its path. A blur of Scorpion came and went, and just as Zofia swung around a concrete pillar, she came within view again, a steel rod turning in her hands. It clipped the second Viral’s leg. Snapped into the third one’s temple. Came back around and sunk into the chest of the still stumbling first one.

Zofia would have liked to watch. Really, she’d have loved to. She figured she’d learn things. Learn them a little too late, as things so often bloody were, because she could have used them right about then, when the first Viral got back to its feet. Jade swam from her vision, a succession of quick movements darting between the figures surrounding her.

Zofia’s heart stuttered itself into the next gear. Her fingers felt damp and cold as they curled uselessly against air. Her wrists burnt. Her eyes did, too. They didn’t want to blink as she stared at the Viral sprinting at her, its wide eyed, bloodshot stare and bared teeth. It came at her and she sidestepped from its path. A frustrated shriek flew past her. Heavy, torn boots kicked up dust and debris as it turned. Another shriek. Another lunge. Zofia jumped back, ducked behind the concrete pillar. A rod of bent steel snagged her shirt. Tore it.

The Viral followed.

Biters were stupid. Biters were slow. Virals driven. Fast.

Her name snapped through the air somewhere.

It lunged at her again, and Zofia stood her ground. Because she didn’t have anywhere to go, and it didn’t really matter.

* * *

Zofia!”

You’re too far away. You’re too fucking far away. 

Too far away.

Too late.

Too slow.

Too damn everything.

Kyle saw her raise her hands in front of her. The Viral bit down.

* * *

She got her arms up. Her wrists apart. The Viral’s teeth snapped shut, closing on the chain, torn lips flapping and nonsense warbling from its throat.

There was a moment of distant clarity. A miles away sort of echo of her reality, reduced to the Viral and her— to what had, at one point, been a young man. Younger than her, not much taller than her, with thick black hair that hung in tatters, already beginning to fall out.

Time didn’t slow down around her. Her life didn’t come flashing in front of her eyes either, because all she saw was him. It. She felt the weight of him carrying her back, saw the cuff links digging into the sides of his—its—mouth. Tearing them up. Smelled his breath, vile and pungent - and she’d have liked to throw up. Please.

Zofia dug one heel in. That was clear as day, too. The pressure against her foot. Her knee shaking. She allowed her other leg to bend, to twist about with him and turn, and then turn again, some drunken dance in which her partner couldn’t keep his hands off her. They tore at her, ripped at her clothes, but that was out there, somewhere, where it didn’t matter.

She pushed, if a little shaky at first. Her spine flared with the effort. He—it—snapped at the links, kept digging the metal into its mouth. Blood welled, slick and warm where it smeared its head, smeared her wrists sliding up against its cheek and then its ear— and Zofia kept pushing.

She’d started screaming. She didn’t know when. Hadn’t been important then, just another echo off in the distance, her own voice separated from the rest of her, screaming back at it while it howled and chomped and gnawed.

She screamed when she heard bone crack, when it twitched violently and let its arms fall away around her. And she still screamed, hoarse and cracked and with her throat on fire, as she stepped away and left the thing suspended from the steel rod driven into its skull.

The world readjusted itself, snapped back in place. Too up close, no longer at a safe distance where she could let it be, and there were hands on her arm, dragging her along. Jade’s voice, too. Telling her to stop standing around.

* * *

Kyle almost had himself pancaked against the arena wall. A half-second lag on his behalf, a hitch in his thinking. A moment between Get to her and Get out of the way. Half a second. Likely even less. And then the massive shoulder rode past him and the ground bounced under his feet, and Kyle’s mouth tasted dirt. Behind him, concrete cracked. Hulk roared.

Positively angry.

Kyle spat a mirthless laugh at the ground by his nose and pushed himself back onto his feet before Hulk could smash itself a Crane.

His eyes landed on the back of the monstrosity, on the riot gear hanging from its massive shoulders, protective its spine and neck. That had ruined plan C, and Kyle had been forced to move on to plan D.

The worst of plans, the one that curled his fingers into shaky fists and set his nerves on fire. When’s the last time you had a good plan?

“Hey! Bruce Wanker!”

Hulk turned back around, tree trunk arms swinging wildly. If anything, it was an equal opportunities that thing, not discriminating who got pummelled. Walls. Pillars. Air. Cranes.

“Yeah, you!”

Kyle’s stomach folded itself neatly when Hulk followed the sound of his voice. The fucking thing had dented the wall, left a skull shaped imprint where its helmet had gone in. Cracks fanning out from the impact mark.

If plan D doesn’t work maybe we can batter ram our way out of here.

Another mirthless laugh, this one stringing Hulk along. It huffed. It bristled. It bulged and it groaned and fuck was it ugly. But Kyle kept it in front of him while he walked backwards, feet finding their way. He counted his steps. Let his eyes dart left and right only to make sure he was still on the right path. Forced them not to go where Jade was leading Zofia out of the way. He didn’t need the distraction.

One more glance back. A blue container stood behind him, doors open wide on one side, and a lot of darkness on the inside. Kyle’s navel tugged painfully in anticipation of failure, but then Hulk charged, ambling forward with its head low and an arm folded forward like he thought himself a quarterback. Did they even have football in Harran? Probably played soccer. Damn, he’d have liked to be around for the next super bowl.

Kyle dove out of the way. Last second. A split of one, really. He felt the air ripple around him, the drag of it, the moment in which he thought it’d pull him along. But there were doors to close. One half. SLAM. Second half. SLAM. The steel strut he’d found went through the handlebars, and he almost dropped it before it could slide through, his fingers shaking and his arms wanting to give way.

He got it through though. Got the latches snapped shut too, while Hulk bounced himself off the inside of the cart until it figured out what way he’d come and knocked himself into the doors.

They held, and the Pit turned to deathly silence.

This shit really worked? Fuck me. I’m ace. Woo--

* * *

If it hadn’t been for the container shuddering and shifting on the ground, and the occasional roar muffled by metal, Zofia thought she might have been able to hear a needle drop. Tension sat in the air, pressed down on them from where their audience sat in stunned silence. She looked back at them. Shuddered.

They ought to have been cheering. Clapping wildly. Hooting. Even if just a little.

Hinges whined, and her eyes turned to Rais.

No, of course they wouldn’t cheer. Their emperor hadn’t allowed them to. He’d raise his hands in warning, shushed them about as effectively as death might.

The platform lowered him and his men.

Rifles came up. Hands motioned them to approach, and Zofia did, and so did Jade— and Crane from way across, one hand tightly clutching a machete, the other balled into a fist.

They traded a look of sorts, the one Zofia broke because that was what she did. She exhaled, a drawn out release of air that didn’t know if it ought to have been heavy with relief, or if it should puff out was left of her life.

It settled on the latter when Tahir dragged her away from Jade (“Don’t you touch her—” “Shut up.”), and she wasn’t quite sure how the whole breathing back in thing worked. Not like it mattered.

She’d lived.

For a little while there, Zofia had thought she’d made a difference in something. That her efforts had been for something. Now it all rolled away ahead of her, bounding out of sight, tearing her thoughts along with it, leaving her standing here— no, kneeling— with hope dashed in front of her.

“Drop it,” Rais said.

Drop what? Metal hit the ground. Crane tossed the machete towards them. Rifles clicked. Cloth rustled. Leather creaked. And Zofia would have liked to fly again, instead of watching Crane and Jade lower themselves to their knees, their fingers interlacing behind their heads.

“You’ve led quite the spectacle, I’ll admit that. But you’ve put me on the spot now. You understand that, don’t you?”

Rais extended his hand. Tahir moved by her side. She heard metal click again, the sliding clack of a sidearm, and Tahir’s weapon traded hands.

“I have a crowd of people wanting for blood, and I can’t afford to disappoint them.”

“Fuck you, Rais…” Crane sounded tired. Even his insult had grown weary, all lopsided and barely biting.

She looked up. Caught him looking, too. Desperate. Sad.

Zofia swallowed a lump.

Why’d he have to goad him? Why couldn’t he just— just— say nothing, or maybe tell him he was sorry? Being sorry worked. Sometimes.

“Zofia?”

Her blood chilled, her skin prickled. Her name spoken by Rais shut down what she’d kept stubbornly running, killed a process here, then there, until she ran idle with his words buzzing through her skull.

Tahir lifted her by her elbow, dragged her a step forward. Dropped her back down.

“Be a star and tell me who dies.”

What?

“What the— What— Are you out of your fucking mind?” Crane. A little less tired now, a lot more desperate.

’I heard wrong.’

“Leave her out of this!”

Rais lifted his gun. Jabbed it pointedly at Crane.

“I’m waiting,” he said, calm and collected. Like he’d just asked her what she’d like for dinner. Menu A or Menu B. Side orders not included. Here, honey— why don’t you just pick?

“I—“ can’t. This is a joke.

“Zofia?”

“Don’t listen to him, Zofia.”

What? I can’t…

“Look at me, eyes up. Come on. Look at me.”

She did, found Crane staring at her with his brows hiking up. Not angry, not mad. Understanding sat in his them, a professional conviction that snatched at her and wouldn’t allow her to look away. But she had to. Had to look away.

“It’s okay,” he lied.

No. No it isn’t. It isn’t. What isn’t?

She blinked. Shook her head.

“Choose, or both die.”

“Look at me—“ Crane's voice softened. 

“—Is that what you want? It’s all the same to me.”

“No,” she wheezed.

“Hm?”

Her eyes flicked right. To Jade. Struggling. It took two men to keep her down, their hands heavy on her shoulders. Zofia didn’t understand what she was shouting. It sounded about as much gibberish as what Rais had said.

“Zofia. Lo— Look at me.”

Okay.

Her lungs squeezed out a wail. Her eyes ran back to Crane, sluggishly burning in their sockets, not seeing much of all any more through a sheet of dirty tears.

He smiled. A small smile. A bit of a rueful smile.

“It’s okay.”

He straightened himself a little. Adjusted his legs under him. Nodded at her.

“Him?” Rais said.

What? No.

The gun lowered itself to find Crane.

Zofia’s heart kicked in her chest.

“No!”

She’d got to her feet, if only briefly. Tahir’s boot connected with her shoulder. A hard knock. She bit down on her tongue. Tasted blood, but felt nothing. The Pit spun around her, Tahir standing on his head, Rais leaning at an angle as he stared down at her, a slight tilt of his head aligning him with her.

“No?”

The gun swivelled right. Found Jade.

Crane surged to his feet. His hands went to the machete on the ground. Rais pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Hard Reset


 “Wake up, Crane.”

He inhaled sharply, drew in cold, stale air. Mouldy. Damp. A hint of rust to it, lining the inside of his mouth and coating his throat. A rumble sat in the air, pressed against his ear, and it gave him a hint at time passing after he ignored the voice and its unkind demand. Unkind, because Kyle knew he didn’t want to do as it told him to. He had no idea why. Or maybe he knew damn well why.

His mind spooled up, his legs kicked under him, reported themselves in as still functional, if a little reluctant. The rest of him followed, raised flags where things weren’t as they were meant to be. A pounding head, shoulders strained at an odd angle, and a map of pain to lead him out from the terrible fog in his head. Wisps of memories flitted by, mangled images slotting themselves together piece by piece.

Yes. He’d known why he’d have liked to stay under: Jade.

Jade, and a tightly grasped machete in his hand. Jade, and the upwards swing aimed for Rais’ neck.

Jade, and the BANG. The one crack at the air. The sharp smell of spent gunpowder in his nostrils. The feel of the blade slicing into flesh, biting hard into a collarbone. Glancing off. Missing.

Kyle’s throat constricted. A squeeze of burning panic crept down to his heart, the dull echo of a nightmare he wanted to dismiss. Needed to dismiss, because he couldn’t have been late. He’d made it. He’d taken the head off the snake. Neat and clean. Taken Rais’ head off. Saved Jade.

He’d not lost her.

Tepid water splashed into his face, collected against his lips, and traveled in rivulets down his neck to gather in the fabric of his shirt. He let his tongue taste the stale water and opened his eyes, blinking the liquid from them.

Rais. Leaning into his field of vision, a blur of dark colours swimming in and out of focus as Kyle’s eyes burnt with stubborn grief.

“Are we awake?”

Fury kicked at his brain. White hot and pure, driving his heart into a wild staccato and a breathless roar through his teeth.

Jade. A pull of air as her lips parted. Raspy, wet. A jolt against the hard ground, perky shoulders twisting into the dirt while she bucked against her death. Her dirty fingers clawed for purchase against rock and earth, tried to hold on. Jade. Dying.

Rais stared at him, and Kyle lunged. A short lived, agonizing lunge ending with his shoulders trying to tell him an important detail to his situation, and his spine grating painfully against a hard edge. His head snapped back, frustration driving his skull into something solid. The knock jarred his teeth and sent a flurry of bright dots dancing in his vision, threatened to drag him back under.

Not an option though. Not any more, so he pulled in air, coughed as it went out, and there lay Jade again, back at the Pit, with the crowd’s cheers ringing in his ears. He’d felt the kick against his knee, the rifle butt against the back of his head. Had seen her lying there, eyes turned skywards, unbelieving and not wanting to accept death. Her lips had moved. Whispered for her brother. ”Rahim…”

Kyle’s lungs deflated. His throat clicked as he swallowed and he tried not to think of it, tried not to remember how Rais had stepped up to her. Placed a boot on her heaving chest.

How he’d shot her again. How she’d fallen so damn still. How she’d not ever be getting up again. How he’d never get to— to— to what? Kyle’s mind spun out from under him, careened off until it hit rock bottom, and lay there, beaten and defeated. Down here he didn’t know words. Didn’t know thinking, only confusion and disbelief, an endless string of questions lining the walls around him. How? Why? What time is it? Can we go home yet? Can we leave? Why am I still alive?

There were things down here. Memories sitting by idly, dusty and untouched for not long enough, because he didn’t like them very much. They slunk closer to him now, made themselves seen and heard without his say in it, and there was one that spoke the loudest. He remembered luck. Dumb, stupid luck. A bullet, ricocheting off a wall somewhere, lodged into his back. Missing his kidney by barely enough to be worth mentioning. The click of a jammed gun at the back of his head. A lucky fall that ended with broken ribs, not a broken spine as it should have.

Dumb, fucking luck.

He kept rolling them right, and he’d gotten so damn good at it, he’d gone and made a career out of it. And he’d thought One more job, this sounds like fun, because not many men could claim they’d helped save the world. After that? He’d not thought that far ahead, because he knew his luck might run out one day, and planning his own funeral had never appealed to him much.

It still didn’t. Even down here, at the bottom of that pit, that notion was ridiculous. So he climbed back up, let his mind turn over, sputtering to life like a drowning engine.

Fuck this.

Sometimes all it needed was a little reset, a flick of a switch. Turning that broken piece of shit named Crane on and off again. He let his teeth click together. Set his jaw.

“Always quick to lose your temper,” Rais said out there. “How very American of you.”

Asshole.

Kyle didn’t let the memory of Jade’s death shoulder its way through, not this time. He left it down there in the dark, where it fitted well with all the other things not meant to see the light of day, and he looked up, took stock.

First, he catalogued his surroundings, mapped the place out. Low ceiling. Flickering, dirty light. Water damage against the corners, creeping down to the floor. Empty, mostly, save for some buckets and boxes collecting in a corner and a tool cabinet and workbench up against the left wall. On the right, a door, bright light peering through it. Movement out there, a set of arms that looked awfully familiar. Tahir.

Second, he took another breath. Damp air. A bit too warm. Stale. His eyes flicked to the toolbox, then the workbench, and eventually to the floor by his outstretched legs. Dark, dried blood. Not his.

Fuck my life. Tortured to death in a basement. What the shit…

It took him only a few seconds to get worked up over pliers and hacksaws, and by then he’d tested his restraints— plastic cuffs keeping his wrists together, arms looped around a metal or concrete strut —and levelled his stare at Rais.

“But I give you that much, Crane. You’re a very tenacious man. We’d have worked well together.”

“Blow me,” Kyle croaked, sounding ridiculously much like he’d gargled razorblades. Or cried his eyes out while the school bully went out with his crush.

Rais stayed where he was, squatting on his heels just out of reach. He lifted a fat blade from behind his back, flicked it to allow the sharp edge a cut at the dirty light. Another machete. ‘Jesus, what is it with you and fucking machetes?’

“How’s your—“ A cough threatened to hack up his throat, so he settled for jutting his chin at Rais’ chest and his buttoned up suit jacket.

Rais shrugged, tugged at the collar of the jacket, allowing him a brief glimpse at bloody bandages. “You tried,” he mocked, and Kyle’s lips twitched into a grim, desperate smile.

“I’m going to kill you,” he promised. —while tied up. I am going to kill you while I can’t even fucking scratch an itch. I don’t know how, but you wait and see. I’ll figure something out.

His words earned themselves an irritated sigh. “Reconsider your threats. Why do you think you’re still alive? Because you’re less of a threat than the Scorpion? No, quite the contrary, Crane. You’re a thorn in my side, but you’re a potentially useful thorn, even if you’re prone to fester. So try to show a little respect in the face of the sacrifice she’s made in your stead and listen to what I have to say.”

“You fucking—“

The machete flicked up. Silenced him, because he hadn’t quite figured out the whole killing-Rais-with-hands-tied-behind-back thing yet.

“Profanity. A weak minded man’s weapon. Do yourself a favor and keep your mouth shut for a little while.” Rais stood, brushed the crinkles from his suit pants, and called for Tahir.

The door opened with a quiet whine, and in stepped the gorilla, with Zofia pushed in front of him.

Alive.

Kyle exhaled. Swallowed.

Whatever steady rhythm his mind had found tripped and threatened to stall. Of course he’d already buried her along with Jade. Hadn’t put it in words or images, hadn’t needed to. It’d been the natural progression of things, so he’d tossed a blanket stitched of guilt over her, and felt just a little grateful that he’d not seen her die.

Yet, here she stood. Alive. Or something akin to it, moving and breathing, with a gag in her mouth and hands bound together with duct tape. Puffy, red eyes sat in hollow sockets, and found him with a wide, fearful intensity. His mouth felt dry, and he worked his teeth against his tongue, chewed the futile I’m sorry back down, because what difference would it make. None. None whatsoever, and Kyle wished he’d not have been lucky, and that they’d both died in the Pit. Then he wouldn’t have to look at the clean lines her tears had cut through her dirty cheeks, or the ugly bruise forming just below her right eye. Or how she twitched and shifted uneasily, a steady nudge of reversed gravity trying to take her away from the man with his meaty hand on her elbow.

She deserved a fucking break. They deserved a fucking break.

“I’ve had a chat with your new friends,” Rais cut into the unsaid words hanging between Kyle and the Paper Tiger. He paced away, crossed his arms behind his back, the blade still grasped in one hand. While he talked, Kyle worked on getting his feet up under him, let his stiff knees push him up along the strut at his back until he could lean against it to keep himself from falling right back down.

“The Ministry of Defence. They’re very cooperative. Eager, almost. You should imagine their surprise at hearing what I’ve got to offer them. See, Crane, here’s the big difference between you and me. You don’t think. You obey. You do as you’re told, and when there’s no one around to draw you a map, you’re nothing but a rabid, stray dog that can’t see past its own nose.

They don’t want to destroy Harran, and if you’d stopped to consider the implications of it, you’d have realised just how much of a bargaining chip you had with Zere’s cure.”

Rais let one arm fall forward. The blade came along, swung close to Zofia. Her eyes snapped to Rais and a startled sound muffled itself against the gag, the mewling of a cat crushed underfoot.

“Leave her the fuck alone!”

Jesus Christ—

Rais let the blade fall away, but he didn’t turn as he spoke. “Look at you. Aimless. Without a purpose. Even when I’m not giving you another choice you’re deaf, Crane.”

“What’s there to listen to, asshole? What do you even still want from us? You won.”

“I have? No, there’s still a piece missing. Tell me where Zere’s research is. No run-arounds. No fakes. Tell me, and I’ll prove to you that I can be a generous man. I’ll let you sit out whatever time Harran has left. Alive. You can even have her back. If she’ll have you, of course.”

Kyle hacked up a short, miserable laugh. “I’m not going to tell you shi—“

“Let me rephrase,” Rais interrupted, still not looking at him, but facing Zofia, the slip of misery squashed against Tahir.

“Zofia, dear.” He let the sharp edge of the machette bite through the duct tape binding her small, shaking fists together. They raised almost immediately, formed a useless ward against him that he slapped away with the broad side of the blade. She whimpered, and when he pressed the metal against her cheek, Kyle thought the sound turned to that of a mind breaking down the middle in front of him.

“Would you be so kind and tell the hero of the Quarantine what to do? For your sake? So I don’t have to start cutting off pieces of you?” The blade slipped beneath the gag. He twisted it, let it ride against the fabric, and with one quick sawing motion cut it apart.

“Be a star and do as you’re told.”

Kyle remembered the words. Be a star and tell me who dies, they’d said then. He remembered that he’d wanted her to pick him. Because that had made sense then. It had to be him.

Likely, the Paper Tiger remembered too. But while they ate at him from the inside, a heavy fisted anger trying to knock its way free, Zofia found her claws. She sharpened them against whatever breathed life into her, and sunk her teeth into Rais’ forearm.

She surprised everyone.

Tahir, who pried her away a second later, and Rais, who let out a startled grunt. It also stirred a hint of pride in Kyle’s gut, a well of warmth, all whoops and cheers. At least until he caught the look in her eyes, the pale mask of desperation and grief sitting askew on the naked terror beneath it. Her rigid silence didn’t help, because she knew what he knew too: It’d just be a waste of breath. She’d made a mistake. Kyle’s pride turned to icy water, and he was left to watch.

Rais backhanded her, a sharp, quick blow against the side of her head. She tripped over her own feet, kicked her legs to try and get away from him as he followed, rode her shoulder almost halfway across the room before he caught up and grabbed her by a tuft of her hair.

“You disappoint me, Zofia. After what he’s done to you? After he’s sold you out to me so he can go save his friends? After he lied to you?”

She whimpered, an involuntary expression of pain, because having yourself dragged up by your hair must have fucking hurt, no matter how hard you tried to claw at the arm doing the dragging.

“Leave her out of this!” Kyle heard himself blurt out.

“I’ve always been honest with you,” Rais hissed against her ear. She turned her head. Spat at him.

“Very well,” Rais wiped at his face with the sleeve of his jacket, gave her a shove towards the wall. “If that’s how you want to play this, then I am happy to oblige.”

Oh shit, no—no—fuck—no—

Kyle’s breath froze halfway up his throat. His arms strained against his restraints, back arching away from the pillar, legs kicking. The ache in his joints reduced itself to a dull echo, a distant throb swimming through a mind desperate wanting for a way out. For a few steps. Four at the most.

She was four steps away and he couldn’t get to her.

Zofia’s hip knocked into the workbench. She coughed up a small noise barely making it through the rush of blood in his ears, or Rais and his constant chiding, the lecture to a child that hadn’t cleaned up after them.

Tahir moved in along with them, two dark figures crowding her against the bench, and Kyle’s thoughts limped along, his eyes burning, throat impossibly dry.

“What are you— fucking hell— stop! I left it at the Tower! Come on man, leave her alone—”

Rais tossed a look over his shoulder. His chin turned up, his lips parted in a snarl, rather than a smile, a dark, twisted thing sitting behind dark and twisted eyes.

“Thank you, Crane.”

Tahir grabbed her left arm. Thick hands squeezed her limb as he forced it out across the bench. She yelped.

“No— No—“ Zofia’s frame came alive, twitching and twisting, hip bucking, feet digging at the ground and head shaking frantically. “Please no— I’m sorry- I’m-sorry-sorryImsorry

Rais turned his attention back to her. Lifted his machete. Adjusted his grip on it, a slow, calculated motion.

“You want to hold still,” he said.

“What the fuck! Rais! Jesus fuck man, I told you where it is! Leave her alone! Come on! She’s done nothing— Rais! STOP! What the fuck are you doing— Jesus fucking Christ you god damn fucking lunatic—”

The machete hacked down once. Twice. Metal struck metal, two decisive, loud bangs that choked out Zofia’s pleading. She exhaled sharply, a startled puff of air, raspy and hollow.

“Oh god, Zofia…” Kyle’s word choked on fury and desperation, flaring only to shout after her as Tahir dragged her away from the bench. She staggered. Clutched at her bleeding hand, pressed it against her abdomen, a miserable, limping wail following her as she walked. Hand. She still had her hand.

Kyle’s eyes cut to the bench. He tasted bile in his mouth. Bile and copper, and he thought he was going to be sick. Fingers. She’d lost fingers, left behind three pale stubs of skin and bone.

“I’m going to kill you,” he vowed. “I’m going to tear your fucking throat out!

Rais ignored him. “Get her upstairs. Make sure she doesn’t bleed out, we might need her again.” Tahir simply nodded. And then he was gone, blocked out by Rais stepping into his field of vision, and took Zofia with him.

“Let me tell you what happens next, Crane.”

I’m going to kill you.

Rais tossed the machete across the room. It landed in a clatter on the workbench.

“You’ll stay here, and you’ll think about what you’ve done. In the meantime, I promise I won’t hurt her any more. She’ll be well taken care of, as long as you haven’t lied to me again. If you have, I’ll work my way up her delicate little arm. And you’ll get to watch. Do we have a deal?”

“You piece of shit—“ I promise, I am going to kill you.

“Great. I take that as a yes.”

* * *

Fucking do something. Anything. Fuck. God. Damnit.”

Kyle didn’t know long they’d been gone. It felt like forever, the class room sort of last-fifteen-minutes forever, every minute stretched into ten, every hour an eternity. All the hollering after Rais hadn’t helped, the promises for retribution, the begging to be given a chance to kick his teeth in. All he’d gotten was silence, and a head full of nightmares on what had waited for Zofia past that door.

Vivid nightmares of it wormed their way through his skull, detailed and visual. He didn’t need them. Didn’t want them.

Kyle stared at the door. He’d rather think of her strolling through any moment now, with a little smile on her lips, and a skip in her step— and not missing any of her fingers. His eyes twitched, wanted to cut back to the workbench. He didn’t let them.

“Shit,” he rasped, and let his knees fold under him, until he sat back down on the cold, hard ground. Though the moment he let his head fall to his chest, a persistent sting of frustration in his eyes, Kyle heard the door open. His chin came up.

Karim, all thick black hair, weak moustache and dirty leather jacket with a puffy collar of sheep fur.

“Great,” Kyle said. “Rais sending his doorman for me now?”

Christ on a crutch, are you trying to get yourself stabbed?

The answer to that was likely yes, since he’d gotten fed up with the alternative of sitting here and waiting for things to get worse.

“You’re a funny man, Al Capone.” Karim threw a quick look out the door, pulled it closed behind him, and hurried across the room, a knife ready to stab him already in one hand. “Ever considered stand-up comedy?”

“Gladly. Cut me loose and I’ll show you how hilarious I can be given the chance.” He let one leg kick at the dirt. ’Ha-Ha.’

“Sure, one moment—“ And Karim ducked behind the pillar.

“Wha—What?” Kyle jerked his head around, tried to follow the man with his eyes, and then he felt hands on his wrists, before a decisive yank downwards and a quick SNAP of plastic tearing, broke them free.

“What’s this supposed to be? You’re the good cop?” He stretched his arms forward, rubbed at his bloodied wrists, chaffed open because he’d been too stupid to quit trying, and tried to swim past the lightheaded feeling of What the fuck is going on? Karim, in the meantime, stood in front of him and offered him an outstretched hand.

Kyle hesitated long enough to get his leg kicked.

“Get up,” Karim insisted, and he snapped his hand around Karim’s wrist, letting himself be pulled up to his feet. A godsend, really, since he didn’t think his knees would have been up for that just yet. They creaked unpleasantly as he stretched his legs.

“Rais is insane,” Karim said, throwing his hat in for Captain Obvious 2015.

“No shit.”

“No, Crane. You don’t understand.“ Karim sighed, looked over his shoulder at the door. “You haven’t been here long enough. Haven’t seen what he’s done, for the Zone, for everyone. You have no idea how bad it was before he assembled his cleaning squads and had them start work on the roads, back when it was dog eat dog out there. But—“ He turned to him, flicked the knife up, hilt first.

Kyle’s mouth moved soundless, lips smacking together in confusion. He stared at the weapon. A simple, four inch folding knife, attached to a well worn plastic grip.

“I’m not here to debate morals. You need to warn Brecken, tell them Rais is getting ready to attack. He wants that cure, and once he has it, we’re all good as dead.”

“We—“ Kyle started, but Karim shook his head, and so he stopped. Maybe Rais was right and he should start listening. Give it a shot, at least.

“Hear me out. He’s struck a deal with the Ministry. I shouldn’t know about it, but here I am anyway. If he gets wind I overheard it all, I wouldn’t even make it to the Pit— Will you just take it?”

Kyle let his tongue click against the roof his mouth, tried to keep the wild parade of his thoughts in check, and to realign his reality with what was happening. There was hope there, somewhere, deep in his gut, all beat up and bloody, but not yet ready to fold. He took the knife, folded the blade in and pocketed it.

“He’s going to have them lift him out of here,” Karim continued. “The rest of us they’ll leave here to watch the bombs fall. Understand that I am not a big fan of turning into collateral damage. So if you want Harran, or anyone—“ He presented him with a radio, its buttons faded, the antenna clipped at the top. “— to have a fighting chance, then you need to get that cure before him. Hide it, take it to Camden, it’s all the same to me. Just don’t let him get it first.”

“You’re kidding, right? You can warn Brecken yourself,” Kyle snatched the radio from Karim, brandished it in front of him.

“And risk being found out? There is a small chance Brecken can hold the Tower. Rais might still need a doorman after that.”

“You sleazy fuck.”

“You’re welcome,” Karim threw his hands up by his head, frustration and a healthy amount of fear for his future evident on his face. “I didn’t expect any gratitude from you Crane, but at least get out of here and try not to get us all killed.”

“I can’t.”

“What?” Karim’s face blanched.

“Where’s he keeping Zere?” You promised.

“Zere is dead.”

“How?” You’re not leaving her here.

“I don’t know. They tried to get him to talk. He is… was an old man.”

Kyle’s fingers tightened around the radio. He didn’t like where his thoughts turned, the selfish ’This’ll make it easier.’ and the lack of remorse for calculating the risks of helping both of them. A thing to revisit later, but for now he had a promise to keep.

“Okay. Shit. What about Zofia? Where’s she?”

“Who?”

“You should know her.” The words came out a little curter than he’d wanted to, akin to an irritated snarl. Karim’s brows knotted. “I came in with her. She’s been here before.”

“Ah.” Karim frowned. “Sirota. Yes— yes I know her.”

At how Kyle’s eyes narrowed, Karim took a quick step back.

“I never touched her, Crane. She made waves when she escaped, had a few of the other women get ideas of their own. It wasn’t pretty, the whole thing. It’s why she’s not dead yet.”

Thank god…

“Rais isn’t going to let her off easy. But this is insane, Crane. If you go after her you won’t make it out of here. You’ll both die, and that’s it. I might as well just tie you back up.”

“Where is she?”

“Crane—“

He took a step forward, grabbed Karim by his dirty shirt. “Where,” he repeated, his voice rasping up his throat with frustration. “Is. She.”

“Alright— alright— Calm down. Tahir probably has her, but you are not going to make it up there without alerting the whole garrison.”

“I like challenges.”

“You’re insane.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. Now—“ Kyle released Karim, even if he’d have liked to shove him down on his ass and beat the shit out of him for having been here while she’d been kept here the first time, for not— He exhaled, reigned in the white hot anger in his chest. Not Karim’s fault. Not really.

“I— shit.” He ran a hand up his neck, collected all the stray ideas he could find, and fitted them together.

“I need you to head to the Tower. You’re right. If I don’t make it out of here, someone will need to tell Brecken what’s coming. He’ll know what to do, doesn’t need me for that. He’s been running the show for fucking long enough.”

“They’ll never trust me, Crane. They’ll shoot me the moment I set foot in there.”

Kyle lifted the radio. “I’ll call in ahead, tell them you’ve seen the light. They’ve taken on defectors before.”

Karim barked up a mirthless laugh. “You’ve lost it, Al Capone. Rais is monitoring every single call out there. Especially now that he’s got so much to lose. If he even just thinks you’ve gotten free he’ll shut this place down.”

“Well then, genius, you’ll just have to hope Brecken’s men don’t feel too strongly about you right now. Or that I make it out of here before you get to the Tower. Now tell me where she is, draw me a fucking map if you have to, and let’s get this done.”

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Tahir


 Through the parking garage—“

Which was a dark and cool place, the air nipping cold against his skin, bringing relief after a few hours spent in the damp torture chamber. Or closet. Or boiler room. Whatever the fuck it had once been before Rais had turned it into another messed up playroom. Kyle kept a wall to his right, and concrete beams and gutted cars to his left, moving through thick shadows cast by failing overhead lights.

”Should be empty,” Karim had reassured him. “I haven’t seen anyone on my way down. It gets quiet after a day at the Pit.”

Silence had taken a bite out of the room at that point, chewed up the moments stretching on, and Kyle had thought of Jade. Again. Bad idea. Terrible idea. Stupid.

Karim’s ”You’re never going to make it, Al Capone. And even if you do, getting back down here? Do yourself a favour and leave.” hadn’t helped either. It came back to taunt him now, put the reality of his situation out in front of him, laid it out neatly so he could calculate the odds of success versus those of failure. Too much to go wrong. Too little to go right.

“Get out while you can.” — “Shut up,” Kyle hissed at the memory. His life, his choice. Simple as that.

”Okay. It’s your funeral. Head for the door at the far end, take the stairs up. Three floors. No, I don’t know for sure if she’s there, but it’s the best I’ve got.”

A bridge he’d cross when he got there, but for now Karim had come through. No one came to stop him. His footsteps went unheard, much like the complaints of every inch of him, reminding him insistently of the abuse he’d received lately, and how it was about damn time for him to fall apart.

Not yet. Got a job to do, you lazy fuck.

After that there’d be another waiting, and then another and another— a never ending flood of shit pouring down his creek, but god damn was he going to get this one done and not worry about what lay around the bend.

The staircase required a key. Kyle fished Karim’s copy of it from his pocket, palmed it in a shaking hand. Of course he hesitated. He’d be a liar if he told himself he didn’t. He even missed the lock on the first try, and he knew he could turn back, pursue something less likely to kill him.

Yeah. Right.

The key slid home.

He twisted it— and his right hand spasmed, an involuntary twitch of his fingers, muscles straining and tensing, curling themselves against his joints and wanting to snap the bones in half. Kyle grunted with surprise, a pained and unflattering sound.

“No—“ He breathed. “Fuck no. Not now. You’ve got to be kiddi—“

Another one, a drag at his innards, quick and violent, and it knocked his shoulder into the door and almost made him lose his footing. His gut filled itself with boiling water.

Seizures are symptoms. You’re not turning. You’re not—  “Fuuck..”

His vision blurred, a murky yellow settling over his eyes, and he rubbed his forearm against them. A futile gesture, but he couldn’t help it, even if all it did was sting.

Get it together, man.

Easier said than done, but he managed to turn the key the rest of the way. His fingers relaxed, the burst faded into a thrumming ache, and his feet let themselves be willed forward. More cool air in here. Less of the motor oil and metal hanging in the air though, more musk and wet, mouldy wood. A staircase ended right in front of him and Kyle grabbed onto the railing, hauled himself forward and up the first few steps.

“Three floors. Go.”

The seizures came and went. They crashed like waves against him, or rather from him, spread from his core into the tips of his fingers. They cut his focus down too, sharpened senses he didn’t need, the ones that let him feel the grainy wood against his palm and the splinter riding into his skin. The ones he needed they dulled, turning his hearing and sight into a pulsing rush of colours and white noise.

A lull here and there let him wrestle himself back together, and by the time they gave him decent room to move (and breathe and think) he only had one more floor to go.

Doable. His eyes followed the next bend up, idly counting all the fucking steps. Yeah. Doable, even with his lungs in disagreement.

He had one foot up on a step when a scrape of wood and the whine of hinges snapped his attention away from the climb and to a door opening behind him.

“Dude?”

Kyle turned. ’Busted,’ his mind mocked, if a little sluggish, the thought rolling by slowly while he stared at the man holding on to the stairwell access door of floor number two.

Confused— hesitating. Giving him time.

Kyle ran the image through a practised filter, the one that picked up on what was important and what could be discarded or simply worked around.

Armed (very important).

Pistol at his hip, long knife on a bandolier strapped to his chest. Packet of cigarettes pinched in his hand, squashed against the doorframe (unimportant). A long sleeved, heavy jacket under a kevlar vest painted green. Yellow stripes. Bit shorter than him. Limbs a bit thicker— and he’d figured it out. Took him a second. Maybe two. Long enough. He dropped the cigarette pack. 

The startled squint of Friend or Foe? evaporated and realisation set in, right as Kyle let out a frustrated grunt and snapped forward.

Rais’ thug didn’t move to attack. He took a jerky step back, towards the hallway, but Kyle had him by his bandolier before he’d even set his foot down, and a hand clamped on his mouth before he could scream.

At some point between that, the door falling shut again, and the thug knocking into the wall, Kyle had slid the knife from his pocket.

He didn’t recall the motion. Didn’t remember himself flipping the blade out. But it was there, a flash of steel driving up to lodge itself into the stunned man’s throat. Right where the adam's apple bobbed. Or might have bobbed. Had now stopped bobbing. 

Blood welled against Kyle’s fingers. Hot and wet. He smelled iron, life pouring out freely, and heard the frantic, wheezing and choking of a dying man wanting air. A set of startled, wide eyes looked about for reason to the whole situation, but found none. They found him, and they were a brilliant green.

Kyle looked away, focused on the door instead. Waited for it to open. Waited for the man to sink heavily against the wall and stop moving.

It didn’t take long until he wasn’t a man at all any more, just some clothes slapped onto something man-shaped, and a gun Kyle needed and a spare magazine that he needed just as much. His eyes cut to the door, still closed, then to the blood pooling on the stairs.

“Shit.”

A wet, sticky hand came up against his neck and a shiver raced down his spine, fastened around his gut where it squeezed, terribly cold and terribly to the point.

”Dude?

He snapped his eyes shut.

“Shit.”

Opened them again. Took a deep, shuddering breath, because there were questions lining themselves up in his head, the ones that started with Might or If and Maybe and reminded him he’d just killed a human being. Someone whose only crime may have been to fall in with the wrong fucking crowd, because this was a fucking disaster and what the fuck else had he been supposed to do?

Talk it over? Figure out if there was something decent in that man? Ask him if he’d ever gone raping and pillaging, or if he was the type to stay at home and peel potatoes?

“Shit,” Kyle echoed himself. He tucked away his guilt, along with the knife, and set his mind to a brief inspection of the sidearm. P99, fully loaded, 15 rounds all accounted for, 15 means to an end, and then some to spare.

He didn’t want to use them, didn’t want to need them, but he’d do it because that’s what he’d signed up for when he’d made that promise.

The end of his climb came with another seizure, a brief spell of excruciating pain. It had him see brilliant white laced with sickly green, and it ran his knee into a wall. But it passed and left him standing in an empty hallway.

Shit. When had he stepped out here?

He looked around, counted the doors on the left ("Apartment 309, that’s the one you want.” ), some ajar, most closed. Barred windows to the right, allowing in muted light through dirty covers. A few of them were cracked open, let in air that nipped at the curtains, along with Rais’ voice. Kyle stepped up to the first window and peered outside, his eyes flicking from the hall down into the staging area below.

You lucky motherfucker, he thought at himself, because down there stood a metric ton of bad news, men clustered together shoulder to shoulder, listening to their leader hold a speech of some sort that Kyle couldn’t make out from up here. They weren’t armed, not yet at any rate, and Kyle wagered Rais had started filling them in on his lies, feeding them the hatred they’d need to assault the Tower.

He turned away from the window. Walked two steps, and left his luck behind.

The door meant to hold Zofia wasn’t locked, but the spartan, two room unit past it couldn’t have been any emptier. In there, Kyle spent a moment kneeling on the floor, lungs gasping for air, one shaking arm outstretched with his fingers cramping against coarse wallpaper.

How’d he gotten down here? Another spasm. Right. That’s how.

This one was worse than the others, longer than them, and it left him breathless, with his mind racing between heartbeats, not settling on any thought, but always coming back to Get up and go—

Kyle pulled himself up along the wall. He picked up the gun he’d dropped and tucked it away. Didn’t need to lose it, that’d be embarrassing. Then he heard the steps outside, a careless, rhythm to the heavy footfalls, the hum of a voice passing by.

Another one of Rais’ thugs, heedless in his own home, and Kyle’s fingers were on the knife again, the gun a memory in the waistband of his jeans. He didn’t need to think for any of it, because thinking took time, and he didn’t have time, and he couldn’t afford to second guess himself, to regret things he’d not even done yet, just because he regretted those he had.

He caught up with the thug, snapped his foot against the inside of an unsuspecting knee. The thug staggered, and Kyle caught an arm, wrenched it up at the wrist, twisting the joints until they threatened to break. His knife found skin and the bloodied blade nicked at a wildly bobbing throat.

“Walk with me,” he said and he knew it came out half a rasp and half a growl. Didn’t matter though, because the thug complied, and they shuffled back into the room.

Kyle didn’t know if it was Zofia’s name that made him talk, or the mention of Tahir, or how he might have eluded that he’d castrate him if he’d not tell him where she was, and that he didn’t give a fuck if he really didn’t know. At around that point the thug pissed himself and then he talked, or he pissed himself while he talked, Kyle didn’t care much either way. He got what he wanted. Time to move on.

His forearms squeezed together, and a moment later there lay another body, this one still breathing, with a chance of not dying, and soaking in piss, rather than blood.

Kyle called the whole deal progress, nudged the door open, and followed instructions that made no sense in his head, but which his feet readily complied, because they knew where left was, and they knew how to quickly snap down steps and how to slide out into yet another hallway.

He’d forgotten how most of that worked. He’d forgotten his knife, too. But he didn’t go back to fetch it. When had he dropped it though?

Same layout down here, same flooring that squeaked against his shoes, and the same drab wallpaper and curtains. He got a nose full of sharp scents mixing in the air, weighted down by stale cigarette smoke. They curled the air in his nostrils and sprung names from his mind, complicated ones that he didn’t have the time to focus on, because a few more steps forward and his palm pushed down against a door handle and his shoulder knocked it open.

Tahir turned around first, faced the barrel of the sidearm bobbing restlessly, because he couldn’t keep his fucking arms steady. Kyle’s teeth snapped together and the weaving stopped, pointed at the wide gorilla chest with the thick gorilla arms and ugly gorilla face.

Tahir sneered at him, his eyes darting over Kyle’s shoulder at the door he snapped shut behind him, and then focusing on the muzzle staring him down.

He let the gun twitch to the right, a universal gesture for Move, shitnugget.

“Get away from her—“

Her. She. Zofia. His god damn misery. She sat on a bed, one of three, a broken piece of human on top of dirty white sheets. Her chin lifted at the sound of his voice.

Tahir complied, by one step or maybe two, and there was a screeching in his head, the sound of fingernails dragging themselves along a chalkboard. Kyle squinted through the noise, let the gun follow Tahir.

“Zofia. Come here.“

He inched into the room, an arm extended, wanting to drag her off the bed, because she wouldn’t move. Why wasn’t she moving? Move already, do something. Look at me— why don’t you look at me— Her eyes weren’t quite finding him, as if not even his shoulders were good enough any more, had fallen out of fashion somewhere between him betraying her and her dying.

“Come to me, please. I told you I’d come get you. Please, baby— come over here.”

Dilated pupils. Thin, pale lips. A slight, sickly blush against her neck. Kyle’s mind lurched through his skull, told him Drugged. They drugged her. before his stomach knotted painfully and another seizure ripped the ground away from under him.

He dropped the gun. Knocked his hip into a something sharp and heavy and wooden. Counter. That’s a counter. His ears buzzed and his lungs screamed for air.

“Rais won’t mind much if I break you,” Tahir said, and through the spasms of the seizure snapping him in half, Kyle felt the hint of a desperate chuckle reminding him of the day he’d dropped from the fucking sky wanting to do good. Tahir had been his welcome party back then. ”Break his legs and take him to Rais,” he’d said and Kyle wondered if that would have been a more ideal situation, all things considered.

The spasm faded, bled away, and Tahir reached him.

Kyle flung himself at him, dug his shoulder into his midriff, and they went down, heavy limbed and air hissing between clenched teeth. Sharp pain raced along his right side. A dull knock rapped against his mouth. He tasted blood. The floor turned itself upside down and then Kyle caught the ceiling above him, saw the glint of something flash down at him. His hands came up, wrapped around Tahir’s wrists, the muscles in his arms screaming at him to let go, even if that meant the knife pointed at him would slice right into his chest.

* * *

It didn’t hurt much. Not any more, not out there anyway, where everything had taken a step back. Even her fingers had stopped itching, and she knew that didn’t make any sense, because the ones that itched the worst? They weren’t really there any more. Not all of them anyway, and the thought made her look down at her hand, at the thick bandage ending a little too soon. She’d just been about to pick at the binding, because she wanted to make sure they were still there (They had to be), when the door flung open and Tahir got all worked up over a gun pointed at him.

Crane?

He looked at her, and then he told her to get up and come to him, and Zofia wanted to. But by the time she’d made up her mind on how to best go about sliding off the bed (Which was a challenge, because the bed was tall and she didn’t feel very steady), Tahir and he started wrestling on the floor.

And that wasn’t okay, she knew that, but she didn’t know what to do about it. Crane's in trouble, she told herself, and she nodded, ran a swollen tongue up against the dry insides of her mouth. Her heart agreed, drummed too loudly for her liking, and her feet met the ground, if a little unsteadily.

She looked around. The place was familiar. She’d been here before, been here a lot. It’s where some of the girls worked when they weren’t entertaining people, and it wasn’t such a bad place, she remembered. The beds were okay and there’d been running water and once in a while someone would stock the fridge with things that weren’t half bad and tasted nice when chilled. She wasn’t hungry though.

A gun lay a little off to her right. A short thing, with a stubby muzzle, all innocent looking from up here.

What would you do with a gun?

No idea (and she wasn’t ready for that anyway), because she’d never fired a real gun before, and she knew that spelled trouble and Crane already had enough of that with that knife point digging into him.

You’re useless, she told them both, picked up the nearest things her right hand could reach (they’d rolled into the kitchen, and there was a bottle, and bottles she could do) and swung it at Tahir’s head.

* * *

The tip of the knife dug down. It was a thin point of pressure, cold and hot at the same time, and impossibly painful, and it pierced through the sludge in his mind just as easily as it got through the thin shirt.

Kyle thought himself dead then, with a grim faced Tahir above him the last thing he’d ever see. Not the ideal outcome of things, all things considered, lying flat on his back with his murderer snarling down at him, eyes focused with a dark sort of fury that you needed when you were about to kill a man.

Not ideal at all— the knife sunk lower. He choked back a scream. THUNK.

Tahir’s weight lifted, shifted just enough to give him room to move, and the knife tilted away. Kyle’s elbow snapped home somewhere— throat or chin or nose, didn’t matter— and his knee connected, knocked the air from Tahir’s lungs. Movement teased him from the left, Zofia taking a sluggish step back, something dark clutched in her hand and a weave to all of her, a gentle rocking with a breeze he couldn’t feel.

Live now. Thank her later. Get the fuck up—

Halfway up and Tahir was on him again, with the knife slicing down. Kyle caught the arm, locked it to his side, and they were back to pushing and shoving, no grace to how both fought for every inch of ground. He lost that one.

Not his fault though, not much he could have done, because there wasn’t much left in him. His spine crashed into a hard edge and the pain almost folded his knees under him.

Nose. Break his nose.

Kyle’s forehead cracked into the bridge of said nose with a familiar, sickening POP. Tahir roared and staggered back, tearing his arm free. The knife— Don’t forget the knife. —came with it. A questing grab to his left— Eyes front. —yielded a handle, and Kyle pulled it forward to ward off Tahir’s next stab.

The knife glanced off against the frying pan— A.. you’ve got to be… —and Kyle flipped his makeshift weapon, went for a two handed swing that caught Tahir against his chin.

He reeled back. Kyle followed.

The knife came at him again. Once, then twice, until the frying pan snapped down, the edge catching Tahir’s wrist. A clatter— knife out of the picture— and Tahir roared, slammed himself forward so they both went staggering again, dancing through the kitchen like two drunk assholes ruining the party. They bounced off the fridge. Knocked into the counter again, bumped up against the oven, and there came the fridge again.

Kyle abandoned the frying pan, wrapped a hand against Tahir’s throat.

It wasn’t like he’d planned for any of it. There’d been no thought to the situation, no time wasted on a critical approach, just his hand on the fridge door handle and a yank and it was open. Light poured out. Cold came with it. He pushed Tahir’s head in, his fingers sliding off hot, sweaty skin.

And then he slammed the fridge door shut. Not once, because that wasn’t enough. Not twice, because that wasn’t being thorough. Three or four times maybe. Could have been five. Tahir stopped moving at some point, but Kyle didn’t stop, not until he couldn’t keep his arm up any more, and then Tahir slumped to the ground and there really wasn’t a lot of doubt left he’d stay there.

A gruesome clutch of cold clawed its way up Kyle’s stomach and into his throat, tasting much like bile. His hatred for the man frayed at the edges, and rapidly lost ground to something less absolute. No. No— this was a bad time to be sick.

Kyle turned away, a bit sluggish he had to admit, with his right arm hanging off on the side, exhausted and just generally finished. He’d have liked to be done with it all that point, but Zofia standing at the mouth of the kitchen, a thick bottle held tight in her right hand, reminded him that he had a bit more work to do.

She didn’t balk when he rushed up to her. Didn’t flinch when he curled a bloodied hand against her neck. She stood there, her chin coming up, and she blinked at him, the dull gray of her iris a thin line around her wide pupils. Not quite there, but alive. Not in one piece either. But alive.

“It was supposed to break,” she told him, and Kyle’s eyes flicked to the bottle. “They’re supposed to—“ Her voice hitched. “—break, no? Why didn’t it break? I’m sorry I did it wrong.”

“Wha—What?”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, crestfallen and sincere.

Is she serious? Of course she’s serious. She’s— oh god— A thin smile lifting his lips, came right along with a hollow, dull ache in his chest, and an itch by his heart that he didn’t know how to scratch.

“You did great.”

Kyle pulled her into him. He set his hand between her shoulder blades, left her knobby spine roll against his palm, and her breath catch in his shirt. Breathing and warm and very alive, and now all he had to do is make sure it stayed that way.

* * *

He had a very curious set of light brown eyes, and they squinted when he looked at her, like she’d done something wrong. She probably had, with how the bottle hadn’t shattered and stopped Tahir, but he insisted she’d done okay, and then the world shrunk together and made itself feel warm. It smelled of blood and sweat and sounded like a drum beating against her ear, and she was okay with that.

Then the world stiffened around her, got all rigid, and she heard it too, the call from outside: “Tahir?”

“I’m sorry—“ she started, and the world went back to cold and airy. She let go of the bottle and this time it did shatter, and Crane hissed “Shit—“. He pushed at her and then he moved, picked up the gun she’d not been ready for, and took two long strides towards the door. On the way there he swiped a pillow from a bed and Zofia wondered if he’d lost his mind, because what did he want a pillow for?

“Rais wants you down at the—“ Something-something-something she heard and the door opened, let in a man with a bright yellow headband stretched over his skull. A bit like the one she’d been wearing, but the colour was all wrong, and where had she left that thing again?

He saw her first, and then he saw Tahir, or so she figured, because his eyes went all wide and his hands went to his hip, dove for a weapon. He didn’t see Crane, not until it was too late, and then the pillow got squashed up against his chest.

POP-POP-POP. Three muffled snaps at the air.

Crane pulled him forward, tried to lower him to the ground, but then he folded in on himself, and the man he’d just shot hit the ground like a sack of grain, all heavy THUMP and not much else.

Zofia shuffled forward, through the shards of glass and the liquid pooling on the ground. Red. Not blood though, not here, the blood was everywhere else, around Crane, on Crane, and probably on her too.

“Fuck—no—stop—“ He wheezed in front of her, and Zofia knew what he went through, and she wondered if that meant she’d be dinner. But when Crane steadied himself he didn’t lunge at her to have himself a snack. He waved her over instead, said: “Come here—“ and grabbed her hand. Her right hand, her good hand, and he guided her around himself, placed her behind him and pushed her fingers against his shirt.

“You hold on here, okay? You hold on and you don’t let go unless I tell you to, and you follow me? Got it?”

She got it, but she didn’t understand, much like she didn’t understand the empty stare meeting her when she looked down, the one sitting under the bright yellow skullcap.

“Zofia?”

She nodded, echoed: “Hold on.” And then she did just that.

“Sweet. Let’s— let’s get out of here.”

He started moving. Slowly, because he couldn’t run with her attached to him, or with the gun raised at the ready, snapping around a corner here, and then a corner there. Once he told her to stop and to get down, and she did so, and he squashed her against a wall and she stopped breathing, because it felt like he did too. There were footsteps trudging past, and they trudged on, and then they went on again too.

The voices started when they reached a set of stairs.

They were frantic and they were loud, and Crane froze on the spot, stared down the steps. He ran a hand against his neck. Looked up. Looked down.

“Stay close,” he murmured and his feet started moving again, carried them downwards, towards the echo of men rushing up at them from the bottom.

“No—“ Zofia stopped, fingers falling away from his shirt and feet carrying her back where they’d come from. “Wrong way.” She remembered these stairs, and she knew they were the wrong ones. Everyone always took the stairs, which was stupid, since there were other ways down, you just had to stop being so damn stupid and do what everyone else did. Do your own thing. Find your own way. Start thinking out of the box, because it was a terrible box full of hurt.

An arm looped around her, pushed against her side, warm and hard, and she held onto it.

“We don’t have time to—“ Crane said somewhere above her right ear, his breath tickling against her cheek.

“I know where I’m going,” she interrupted him and made an effort to keep walking, but the arm wouldn’t let her. “Please.”

The pressure around her lifted. “Okay— okay,” he rambled, and Zofia made to flee again, this time with a man in tow that she didn’t want to leave behind, because he’d come back for her like he’d promised.

And that ought to count for something.

* * *

By the time he cracked the access grate open and Zofia climbed out of it first, Crane had stopped looking like Crane. A ghastly, pale sheen covered his face, and his breathing came in short, irregular gasps. He kept falling over, kept being useless, so she had to let him lean on her while she followed her own footsteps through the rain ditch, and then into the first pipe and then the second, moving from one flood channel to the next, wondering again if it ever rained enough here to really need them all.

“Brecken. I’ve got to warn Brecken,” he coughed up once, and then kept repeating it, and eventually she realised he kept trying to grab for something at his belt. There wasn’t anything there. When he caught on to that he let out a frustrated growl, and some energy returned to his steps, and for a while she didn’t have to prop him up and they made progress. It didn’t last of course, because why bloody well should it.

The first time he collapsed a Biter almost got him. But it followed her instead as she chucked a rock at its head, and then Crane was back on his feet. He got his hands on the thing’s skull. Knocked it into a wall. Then he swayed, a quiet Woaah— riding her ears, but she slipped under him before he could fall. And she kept shuffling them forward. Slow. But steady.

The second time he fell she made it through an open garage door before he sunk to the ground, a miserable, pained groan rummaging around in his chest.

He didn’t get up after that.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Heroes


 Waking up took time. And it hurt.

A steady pressure squeezed his chest, weighed down his limbs as if they’d been cast from concrete. His ears buzzed. Whined. Noise filtered through— voices— then not voices— the crack and wail of walls boiling and twisting, folding themselves to bury him alive.

Waking up was work, and by the time he came to, Kyle regretted having even tried.

He twitched and his spine flared with a sharp pang of regret. It started just above his ass and worked its way up to around shoulder height, where it gleefully beelined for his brain.

Jab

JAB-GRIND-JAB

Kyle flinched. Groaned.

Eyes not up to the task fluttered halfway open before he concluded someone had glued them shut. Thoroughly. With epoxy. He tried to lift his arm, rub the shit from his lids, but the motion got his neck spasming and his arm dropped. It angled itself perfectly and came down hard against the bridge of his nose.

THWACK

“Fuuck,“ he croaked, not at all happy with how speaking stung like shit too, his voice working its way up his throat one razor blade at a time. Cold tendrils snapped around the leaden hand still lying dead on his face a moment later, lifted it away, and Kyle's eyes finally cracked open. 

A familiar gray stare floated above him, wide and judging. The lips attached to the rest of the pale, thin face moved, and he caught Oaf and Stupid through the buzz between his ears. Both incredibly rude.

He felt like shit. Like— double shit. The embodiment of it. Couldn’t she like— be nice ?

As if she'd guessed, a glass of water materialised in front of him, liquid sloshing against the rim and drops riding down the side of it. 

Yeah. That was more like it. Good little Paper Tiger.

Kyle worked himself up into a sitting position, his muscles, bones and all the other broken shit he was made of whining at the effort. But he got his back against a cool wall, and water to his lips, both which he filed away as solid progress. The Paper Tiger seemed to think so too, and retreated back to a chair pulled up to his bedside, her hands diving into her lap and her eyes settling on his shoulder.

Business as usual.

Kyle drank slowly.

He’d have liked to kick his head back and pour it all right down his throat, but he knew he shouldn’t. Just like he knew why he was hurting. His limbs were reporting in on their recovery status, and his back ached, numb and sore from lying still too long. 

Spooling up his groggy mind and gritting his teeth against the pounding headache, Kyle ran a few more system checks and gave himself a moment to look around. Familiar bed. Familiar walls. Familiar everything. He was in his room at the Tower.

The Tower.

“Fuck.”

Headache forgotten and drink almost spilled, Kyle made to swing his legs off the bed. He needed to warn Brecken. Because shit, the Ministry wanted to destroy Harran— Rais was going to attack— and Jade— Jade was dead— and Zofia, she’d— his eyes snapped to her, to her hands in her lap, one of them thickly bandaged.

He didn’t make it very far. In fact, he barely managed a lopsided lean into Zofia’s general direction before the room decided to lift up to his right and turn itself over on its axis. 

She sat stock still. Watched him quietly, her eyes flitting restlessly between his shoulders and his stare, a quiet observer to him trying really hard not to throw up. Then her head jerked around and she looked over her shoulder. His door opened, allowed in Brecken, Lena in tow, and they rushed over. Sideways. Couldn't they just stand straight like normal people? 

“Christ, mate—“ Brecken's voice sounded hollow, as if he'd cupped a hollow can to his mouth, but at least he'd started righting himself up. Him and the whole room, really, although Kyle wasn't ready to trust it just yet. He stopped next to the Paper Tiger, braced a hand against the back of her chair, and Kyle noticed how the hand shook as it gripped on tight to the wood. “You were out of it good. How you feeling?”

Zofia’s frame stiffened, and her eyes went to him, a plea in them that he couldn’t quite sort, because all he could think of was Ministry-Research-Rais-Jade-Shit-Shit-Fuck.

His mouth opened and the words rasped out; “Wha— I— Brecken, I fucked up man. Rais he’ll—“

“We know.”

Ah.

Kyle let his mouth snap shut.

He knew. Of course he knew. Lena squeezed herself past Brecken, a stubborn scowl on her, and equally stubborn hands pushing him back until he stopped slowly sliding off the bed. A detail that had entirely escaped him until now. Two fingers pushed against his neck and she glanced at her watch.

“I’m fine,” he started, but she scoffed, grabbed his chin, flicked light across his eyes. Kyle squinted.

“You were unconscious for almost forty hours, Kyle. You’re not fine.”

Kyle. Great. I’m in trouble.

“Are you kidding me? Best sleep I had in a week. I feel great.” The words didn’t line up with his reality, and they both knew it, but what was she going to do?

“Kyle—“ Sound pissed, that was what.

“Lena.” Two could play the game.

Brecken chuckled, a short and easy noise that felt odd at the edge of his reeling mind, the one that tried to fit together the timeline of now and before, and combed his memory for the last moments before he’d blacked out. He couldn’t find them. All he turned up was the slice of light in front of him and Zofia. She’d had her hand tightly fastened around his wrist. Led him through a dark, damp service shaft. There’d been… weeds. Algae. Rot.

He looked past Lena at the Paper Tiger. She’d gotten up, gravitated away from Brecken, and sat herself on the futon by the end of the bed instead. Kyle frowned.

“Rahim had to drag her away from you.” Lena’s fingers snipped in front of his nose, drew his eyes back to her. “We weren’t sure how far you had gone already, if the Antizin would work any more, but she refused to leave the room. Kyle—“

Here we go. Lay it on me.

Hard edge to her voice. Brows narrowed. Lips pressed into a thin line. Her jaw twitched. The hand that had been idly sitting by his arm curled pointed fingers into his skin.

“What were you thinking ?” He flinched. “How could you—“

“Lena.” Brecken’s voice cut her off. He cupped his hands around her shoulders and drew her back, a gentle motion that lifted the pressure from Kyle’s arm, but did little to take the guilt away. That stayed right where it was, set alight by the words that hadn’t quite made it: How could you do this to her?

Lena let herself be guided away, her back settling against Brecken, and her shoulders slumping under his hands. All of her deflated, and Kyle caught on to her ashen, pale face, the disarray of her hair, and the smudged eyeliner. And the blood she wore, clinging to the sleeves of her scrubs and down along her front. Not fully dried.

Kyle didn’t feel up to it yet, but he asked anyway: “What happened?”

She let out a mirthless laugh, slipped out from under Brecken’s hands and walked over to join his god damn sin curled in on herself.

“Rais hit us.” Brecken grabbed the chair, sat in front of him. Poor bastard looked worse than he’d done after his failed night run all those many many years ago when Kyle had landed. The bandage (hopefully not the same) wrapped around his skull was a ragged mess of dirt and blood, and he sported a fresh bruise on his chin, along with a split lip.

“If your— uh— friend, Karim, hadn’t warned us we’d likely all be fucked by now. But he gave us enough time to set up, helped us keep them out the first day.”

Brecken’s head dipped, his chin headed for his chest.

“Today in the morning they come in through the roof. The sun’s not even up yet and they climb over the fucking crane and make it almost to the 18th floor before we push them back out.”

“We lost a lot of good people,” Lena murmured.

“Yeah. I’ve got to hand it to Karim though, he’s made himself useful, I’m not sure where we’d be if you hadn’t sent him over.”

A partial truth, but he didn’t feel like arguing the finer details.

Not like he’d be given time, with a sharp rap of knuckles against his door drawing everyone’s attention.

“You’re all very welcome,” Karim interjected, had heads turn his way, and met them all with a tight lipped, apologetic smile. Even he had piled on blood, along with years, his face haggard, eyes dark and tired.

Kyle couldn’t quite make himself feel sorry for him at this point, but given a little more time, he figured he could get there. Just not yet— for now he felt the weight of discomfort in his gut, and an urgency to get his legs out of the bed and moving.

Ministry. Fire.

Rais.

Jade.

None of which he could fix right now, but he could get his bladder to stop screaming. All he needed was a bathroom. Baby steps, etc. Giraffe sort of baby steps, wide and leaping ones, because there wasn’t any more time to waste.

Forty hours had been enough.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Karim added himself to the crowd in his room, giving it all a careful once over as he stepped inside. Even if he might have made himself useful, neither Brecken nor Lena seemed appreciative of his company. Mistrust leaked from the stiff turn of their shoulders.

“Never mind. I did mean to, because I am not sure if you noticed, but you are running out of night.”

Kyle glanced at Brecken, then at Lena, who both exchanged glances worth more than any words could have been. Brecken had a plan. Lena didn’t like it. And she didn’t have a say in it.

As if to confirm his suspicions, she shook her head. A slight, barely visible twitch of her neck. “You can’t.”

Brecken stared at her. “I have to.”

“The Tower needs you.”

“They have you.”

Kyle blinked. Okay.

An awkward silence settled in the room, the tell tale one that proclaimed: Here stand two people skirting around the subject of what needs who, or rather who needs who. Any longer and it’d split the whole fucking room in half. Kyle cleared his throat.

That got Brecken talking again, at least. “Karim says Rais will stop attacking if we get Zere’s research away from the Tower. And since they have us surrounded I’m going to take it out of here tonight. We’ll do what Jade—“ He paused. Took a deep breath. A shaky one, because of course he knew about Jade. Why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t the whole Tower know by now? “We’ll get the research to Camden.”

“Wha—” Kyle’s voice tripped. He tried again. “What? At night? Are you fucking insane? And how are you going to get—“

“I know someone who can get me across.”

“Christ, Brecken. Lena is right, you shouldn’t be going anywhere. These people need you. I— I’ll go, okay? I’ll do it. This is my fault.”

He’d kicked the ant’s nest, apparently, because the whole room came alive with voices, the stubborn sort, the one thick with guilt and relief, and muted humour shaken up by the threat of death.

“Mate, I’ve got to—“ “Kyle—“ “Way to go, Al Capone.”

The only one not adding her voice to the buzz was Zofia. She stayed where she was, quiet as a mouse, and when his eyes cut to her she didn’t look up. But he needed her to. He needed her to approve of this, to see her think It’s a start. You can make up for what you’ve done. She didn’t give him any of that. She got up. Tucked her left hand against her stomach. Walked. Walked right past Karim and out the door.

The rest of the room kept ranting.

“Oh, will you just shut up?”

They did and turned to look at him.

“How much time do I have before it gets light out?”

Karim shrugged. “Three hours, give or take.”

“Fuck me— okay. Brecken. Man, you’re great, but this is my gig.” He swung his legs from the bed, felt the world drag itself behind him slowly, tilting treacherously sideways, but at least it didn’t try to buck him off.

Lightheaded. Head still pounding. Legs on fire. Spine a stiff mess. ’This is going to be hilarious.’

Kyle sorted his priorities, lined them up in a neat row. Piss. Water. Food. Shower. Gear. His will to live made in on there too, even if he figured he might not need it out there.

“You’re insane.” Brecken offered him a hand. A desperate, relieved stare met him halfway, guilt edged into the corners of the frown. That was quite all right though. Nothing wrong with growing attached to being alive.

“He knows,” Karim added from the door and Kyle couldn’t help the grin on him as he snapped his hand closed around Brecken’s forearm to let himself be pulled to his feet.

* * *

Zofia remembered the gunfire.

More so, she remembered the screams. The cracks at the air, the thumps and bellows, a hurricane of noise that had swept down the halls. Twenty hours ago the Tower had been breached, and yet she thought it’d only been minutes since she’d stood behind the closed door of Crane’s room.

Someone (Maybe even him, because it’d fit, no?) had hung a sign from a hook on it. It read Bad dog— Keep Out. Zofia had stared at it, at the yellow triangle with the black letters and the silhouette of a squinting Doberman, and she’d tried to be scared. Terrified.

It hadn’t worked out. All she’d managed had been muted panic worming its way through her, half shuttered out by whatever Lena had given her to take the pain away.

“Bad dog,” she’d murmured, and then the noise had grown louder. Had crept closer. The sign had moved, had swung gentle on its hook, and Zofia had retreated from the door.

She’d climbed on Crane’s bed. Had sat by his legs, her knees pulled up to her chin, her eyes trained at the door.

There she’d waited.

For death, she remembered. She’d waited for death to come barge in, but it hadn’t. Brecken had been the one who’d eventually come through the door after the noise had died down. He’d been dressed in red splotches, his lip bleeding, and hadn’t looked friendly at all.

Zofia had curled up against the windowsill behind her, had felt Crane’s legs against her feet, and had wished he’d wake up.

Inconsiderate as he was, it had taken him almost twenty hours since then to open his eyes. In-between here and there he’d tried, she remembered that, too. Once she’d even thought he’d made it. He’d certainly given her a good scare, sitting up halfway, his arms trembling and his mouth working up a storm of gibberish.

Yeh— Turned out he couldn’t keep his gob shut even while asleep (or unconscious, whichever) and he made just as little sense as he did while awake.

”I’ll go, okay? I’ll do it. This is my fault.”

Zofia scoffed. It made no bloody sense, not a lick of it. You didn’t wake up after almost having yourself killed and then decided to give death another shot at you. There ought to have been some sort of waiting time enforced on the matter, a queue of sorts to consider. Sorry, Sir. Only one near death experience per week. Go on, have a seat over there and drink some fucking tea. Care for some biscuits with it?

The Tower had fallen eerily silent since the attack, with barely a soul out in the halls, and those who stood by dark corners were dark in their own right, carrying rifles and tired scowls.

Everyone else— everyone who didn’t know how to hold a gun —hid away, packed tightly together in their rooms, or cowered on the 18th floor, where Rais’ men had not been able to reach. They’d tried though, and as Zofia made her way down the staircase, she guessed they’d almost made it, too.

Dried blood decorated the steps. Since she didn’t want to step on it— Come on, you’ve walked over worse… —she had to direct her feet in an awkward pattern down the stairs. To her left and right the walls had been torn up, the plaster ripped into by rifle fire.

Yeah, they’d made bloody good progress before Brecken’s men had gotten the last of them.

The infirmary (or the morgue in the making as things so were) met her with the stench of blood and antiseptics, and the muffled, thick silence of those sitting by the edge of death. It wasn’t an absolute quiet, because that Zofia could have coped with. It was something much less comforting: A breath too weak, a rattle of lungs. The tired voice of a man hunched over a woman, her eyes open, but unseeing.

Zofia backed out of the room and waited outside.

Lena didn’t stay with Crane for very long. There was work to be done down here after all, with how people had gotten themselves shot and hacked to pieces as they’d fought to repel the attack. Her eyes landed on Zofia the moment she’d come down the stairs, and her steps faltered before she made her way over to stop in the threshold of her infirmary.

Unfortunately for Zofia, the look she was being graced with almost had her abandon the insanity brewing in her head. She wanted to scuttle out of sight, pull up a carpet somewhere and crawl under it, because obviously the whole idea she’d brewed up was drug induced. Couldn’t be she’d come up with it on her own, not without the laze to her thought, the hint of careless calm spreading like a thin sheet over her strained nerves.

Without it she’d never have decided, with perfectly clarity, that: “I’m going with him.”

Lena’s head snapped around, wide eyed and startled. Then her dark eyes narrowed and her arms folded in front of her, and now Zofia knew what it felt like having the nurse’s wrath all for herself.

Not pleasant, was how. Please don’t make me change my mind. I’ve decided. I can’t do this if you tell me not to. She set her jaw.

“Is everyone here mad ? Harris, Kyle— and you too? I thought at least you’d have some sense left.”

“He doesn’t know how to make it to Old Town.”

“He doesn’t need to. Harris knows someone with the Saviours. They’ll get him across.” Lena’s hand darted to her chest pocket, pinched a pack of cigarettes from it, and busied themselves with the routine of lighting one.

“I don’t like them,” Zofia said after a moment of watching her puff the thing alive. Once the tip of it glowed a gentle orange, Lena’s eyes went back to her. Or more precisely they zeroed in on her bandaged hand, with the splints and the tape and whatever else she’d put on there. Zofia covered it with her right and tried to think about how many regulations Lena broke with the fag between her lips and her unwashed, old scrubs.

“You don’t like anybody. ” Her words came with an unsteady tilt to them, a careful smile tucked half heartedly behind the frown, and Zofia felt herself judged against the lie.

“But I can’t change your mind, can I?”

A shake of her head, spine a little stiffer.

“And you didn’t come here because you wanted my opinion. Or to say goodbye.”

No. She shook her head again. Shame tickled at her throat.

Lena nodded, let her eyes squint at her bandaged hand while she took a long drag from her smoke. “I’ll see what I can spare.”

When they parted, Lena didn’t hug her. She let her hands rest against her elbows, gave them the softest of squeezes, kissed her cheek and said: “Good luck.”

* * *

Passably human again, Kyle thought wryly, eyes set on his reflection in the mirror. Back home the glass would have been fogged up, run white from a scalding hot shower. Here the water temperature climbed just enough for tepid, sitting on the uncomfortable edge of shit this is cold and lukewarm spittle.

He rotated his right shoulder. His swollen, angry-red-turning-to-green shoulder. Hurt. But worked. Him in a nutshell. His head was still prone to a throbbing ache if he turned it too quickly, and every step came with a price, but crawling back into bed and sticking a pillow on his face wasn’t an option.

“Amazing recovery there, Ace.”

Great. Even his pep talks had a case of the drowsy. Fan-fucking-tastic.

Kyle snatched up a fresh shirt and wrestled it over his head, tucking bruises and cuts out of sight, and went to gear himself up for one last good run.

He hadn’t expected Zofia in his room. Hadn’t expected a thing, truth be told, except the end of his very own green mile. Yet here she stood and on came the I’m sorry. I’m sorry—sorry, I’m so sorry. riding him hard and not letting up.

She hadn’t expected him either, turned around sharply at his approach, with her bow clutched in her right hand, and the poor remains of arrows poking out from behind her narrow back. A slim pack snuggled against her shoulder, the strap tightly snared to her torso.

Ha-Ha. Look at that Paper Tiger. She’s getting ready to— He blanched.

“What— No.”

She tilted her chin up at him. Tiny, blunted claws. Bristling just a little, with her jaw set awkwardly.

“No-No,” he repeated and moved past her, swiping a new gun holster from his bed to stick his head and shoulder through it. “You are not coming with me.”

“You’ll get lost out there.” First words she’d said to him since he’d woken up. First words to run his thoughts ashore in his head, beaching them neatly against Cape Useless.

“I can read a map.”

“It’s dark out.”

“Excuse me, who is the one hired by the GRE for his superior grasp on difficult tactical situations?” He jabbed at his chest once before picking up a grimy leather jacket and shrugging it on. It smelled of motor oil and sweat, and too much time spent in a wardrobe. Barely fit, too. But it was leather. Human teeth had shit on leather. “Me. I’ve got this. I’m trained for this. You go sit down and don’t move a muscle until I’m back.” And forgive me, please. Oh god please forgive me. He scooped up a fresh radio, clipped it to his belt.

“I can get you to Old Town.”

Why— why was she even arguing? Kyle turned. She’d walked up to him and now she stood swaying slightly two steps away, her eyes trying their hardest to meet his.

“You’re—“ Kyle frowned. His fingers decided to refuse proper protocol and fumbled while he tried to fit on a new earpiece. Wireless. Neat. Still a bitch to put on. “You’re hurt.”

Her throat bobbed. Not denying it, not fighting it, but not letting up either, and Kyle couldn’t grasp the reason to it, couldn’t understand why she wasn’t hiding under a bed somewhere. She had every fucking right to.

He looked at her hand. It moved out of sight, hid behind her back.

“I know Old Town,” she added to her list of things that she’d carried into his room and set herself to lay out in front of him. Next she’d start drawing him a chart on the wall: Five reasons why you should endanger her life. Click here to find out more.

Kyle’s heart itched and burnt, and he hated the moment he realised he didn’t really have a choice.

* * *

There was a shift to the scowl on him that told Zofia she’d won. Desperation and guilt nudged themselves from their throne, made reluctant room for closed eyes and a grasp at his nape, his lips forming a quiet “Okay,” and that settled things.

He had rules though, and she agreed to listen. Do as told. Stay close. Don’t question. Tell him if she hurt too much. Tell him if he asked her to do something she couldn’t. All things that sounded reasonable, and she nodded in silent agreement while her feet remained rooted to the same spot from which she’d told him just why he should let her walk herself to her death.

Once the formalities and protocols were out of the way, Crane armed himself in relative silence. Pistol under his jacket. Knife in a sheath on his thigh. A climbing pick with its handle wrapped in tape. Not for climbing.

“We’ll be traveling light,” he said, and evidently they would, because a satchel at his hip wasn’t about to hold much more than a spare clip for his gun, batteries and— well she hadn’t paid enough attention to see what else he’d stuffed in there. “And we’ll stop by your place, okay? We can do that, right?”

Zofia nodded. “I’ve got no key though. How are we going to get in?”

“With magic fingers.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.” Crane smiled at her, a small and pitiful twitch of his lips that came and went as quickly as one beat of her terrified heart.

It was odd. The whole thing. The deals she struck. How he not once mentioned the day things had gone awfully wrong. He didn’t bring up Jade. Didn’t mention Rais, or Tahir. Didn’t touch on the subject of her missing fingers, even if he looked at them whenever they came within view.

And Zofia was okay with that.

When they were ready to leave he propped the door open for her, and she ducked under his arm. After that, the first step came easy. The second one, not so much, and by the third Zofia regretted her decision. Not even out in the corridor yet, and she felt a terrible urge to pee.

“You can still back out.”

She frowned. Fantastic… now he’s reading your mind. That’s great. Seriously. God. Move, muppet. Steps number four and five were a disaster.

“I’m fine,” she lied and he huffed behind her, like he knew bloody well she was fibbing.

They’d made a plan on how the whole thing was going to go down. Or rather, he had and she’d nodded lamely, because he wasn’t terrible with plans. Even if— she gave her fingers a testing flex. Still gone. ’Drat…’ Well, maybe he was just that, but she hadn’t been able to think of an alternative and he’d had his mind set to it already anyway. It didn’t sound altogether horrible either, save for where they were going to be using the overcast night to cover their climb across a construction crane up on the roof, and then make their way down an unfinished building. An idea stolen right from Rais, with Rahim lending instructions on how to get to the ground floor without breaking his neck. Unless he slipped. Then all bets ‘d be off. She rather hoped he wouldn’t.

By step number fifteen or so, Zofia noticed the open doors in the halls. The curious faces. The confusion and hope in them, and the quiet words passed on to Crane as he walked behind her. He carried a fake smile, which came on and off depending on whether someone was looking, and turned sour as they climbed the stairs.

Brecken met them by the roof access door, Rahim standing by his side. The boy leaned heavily on a crutch, but tried very hard to straighten up on their approach, his eyes flicking between them before turning to Brecken in disbelief.

Zofia still didn’t know much about Harris Brecken, the Australian Parkour instructor who kept this sinking ship afloat, paddling on even while it had filled itself halfway up with water. He didn’t seem half bad though. Had come out himself after she’d bumbled into the Tower for the second time, and had followed her to where she’d left Crane locked up because he’d refused to get up, that lazy wanker.

Brecken shrugged at Rahim, and the boy’s eyes cut to Crane. Puffy eyes. Red eyes. He’d been crying. Mourning. Grieving. Barely coping, because he’d lost the last thing he’d loved.

Zofia’s throat clicked.

BANG

Jade.

BANG

Her feet messed up. Glitched. They stopped listening, and it took the warm pressure of a hand between her shoulder blades before they agreed to carry her on. Fingers curled lightly into her shirt. Tapped against her spine, told her to keep going, because she couldn’t turn back now, even if he’d said it’d be okay if she did.

She shot a look at Crane, and caught the tail end of a solemn shake of his head into Rahim’s direction. Don’t argue it, it said, and the boy’s jaw set.

“You sure about this?” Brecken offered Crane a neatly wrapped package of hope, documents and disks and whatnot taped together tightly inside a see through plastic cover.

“No,” Crane admitted and accepted the bundle. He held it out to her, with his chin nodding towards her pack.

Oh.

It took a bit of squeezing, but it fit. Terribly. Zofia felt the weight of it drag on her, as if it’d pull her right through the floor and through to the core of the earth. A few days ago she’d have been okay with that. Today?

She didn’t know. Not any more.

“Hats off to you, mate. And good luck, you’re gonna need it.”

They locked hands and their shoulders bumped, hell bent on giving off the perfect imitation of a man-hug if Zofia had never seen one, even if it looked a bit heavy on the defeated end of things. A goodbye of sorts. Without the words.

Then Rahim crushed her.

He flung himself around her and he squeezed and squeezed until she resorted to holding her breath, since no way could she still draw one with how tightly he had her wrapped up. “Please come back,” he said, and that hurt, because his sister hadn’t, and he hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.

“I—“

“Don’t worry, kid.” Crane spared her the need to lie. “I’ll have her back in no time. And then we’ll lock her up so she can’t leave again.”

The arms around her fell away and Zofia stepped back, found her right wrist circled with warmth as Crane wrapped a hand around it.

“Come on. Let’s go be heroes.”

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Bait


 Zofia dragged her hand from him as they stepped onto the roof and into the still night. Behind them the door settled into its hinges, quiet and gentle, as if it liked to say: I’m sorry for leaving you out here to die.

She didn't look back. There was a chance she'd have started knocking on it. Violently. THUMP THUMP THUMP. Come on guys, I was kidding. Let me back in.

Thump-Thump-Thump Her heart knocked about sufficiently on its own, no need to go banging fists on doors. It sounded strained though. Felt so too, labouring along dutifully despite all the shit she piled on it, even if it didn't seem to be sitting in the right place half the time she focused on it. So she tried not to think about it and turned her attention outwards, to the damn dark and all that came with it.

No wind, that's what she noticed first. Not a stir around her but whatever ghosts her mind conjured, and it conjured quite a lot of them. A nip at her clothing. A whisper at her neck. A chill climbing her arms, reminding her that night had only just begun its slow tilt towards dawn, and she shouldn't be out here.

This was wrong. So much of it was wrong.

Her wrist itched where he'd grabbed her, told her she wanted the warmth back. That was wrong, too.

She'd dragged her hand away, because that felt like the wrong thing to do. And she was made of wrong.

So it all just about fit.

***

Kyle looked across the wide gap between the buildings, the faint glint of light from the Tower nipping at the dark. Point of no return. Here. Now. Another flip of the coin, another roll of the dice. Another test of his luck.

Just another day at work.

He’d expected a breeze at this altitude, but the slums held their breath around them, and that bothered him. Some movement would have been nice, even if only so it’d stop being so damn sticky. At this rate he wouldn’t be surprised if the thick layer of clouds blotting out the stars and moon sunk atop of them and smothered the breath from their lungs. Just because.

Letting out an irritated sigh, he planted himself against the construction crane’s arm, interlaced his fingers, and offered the Paper Tiger about the only thing he seemed good for: A ladder to her undoing.

“Up and over,” he whispered, and Zofia stepped lightly into his hands, a kiss of her dirty shoes against his palms. “Stay low,” he added a moment later, and she did as told, kept her knees bent as she balanced across the crane’s neck. She didn’t let the drop to her left and right bother her, but Kyle wished he could have lit the way regardless.

But he didn’t want to risk it. Not up here. The dancing cone of a flashlight would have drawn attention from below and they didn’t need that. Needed it less than a clear view of where they put their feet. And that made things worse. A challenge already by day, the descent through the skeleton of concrete and steel turned into a painfully slow crawl. Inch by god damn inch. Down. Then up again. Up some more and then sideways, because fuck this vertical maze and its dead ends. Why hadn’t anyone invested in rappelling gear?

About ten minutes in he wondered if tying together every single bedsheet in the Tower might have been worth it.

Another five, and the Paper Tiger forgot about her injured left hand.

Kyle watched as she shimmied after him, her back sliding along a naked plaster wall and her feet shuffling slowly. A slight misstep— a bit of too far forward, and not enough weight on her heels —and she almost took a dive down six floors. Her left hand snapped up. Quick thinker, with a dead on grasp for a strut of steel, but she had no fingers to wrap around them, only a thickly bandaged fist.

He snatched her elbow, felt the sharp bone against his grip, and hauled her onto the ledge. A bundle of Zofia bumped into his chest and she latched onto his jacket, a short and frantic pull that tucked her under his arm.

“Easy there,” he told the mop of hair trying to tickle at his chin while he stared down into the slums falling away beyond them.

The occasional street light dotted the sea of blocky buildings and rubble, and a few brave windows winked with weak light. There’d been considerably more of it when he’d landed. Not near enough to pass as normal, naturally. The Zone had tried to stay functional, and there’d been efforts made to keep it doing just that, but even so it had quickly faded to a dark blob on the satellite images the world liked to stare at from the safety of their living rooms. He remembered doing just that too, and thinking This is fucked up, while resting his feet up on the armrest of his couch. To his surprise there’d still been plenty of lit buildings though, and most of the street lights had functioned too. Now though? Electricity was failing, grid by grid, and he could almost see a pattern from up here, how the pitch black hopped ever closer to the Tower.

Kyle frowned. Poor Alfie. The dude was fighting a rigged battle. All it’d take was a surge in the wrong place, or a fire— or even just a hungry rat. Then what’d keep the creepy crawlers out?

Not much, that was what, and Kyle felt his spine stiffen and arms tighten, which caused a stir against his side as Zofia huffed in protest and peeled herself away.

***

Crane stopped in front of her and that was just wrong, because they had places to be.

One moment he was moving, the next he turned himself into a wall at the bottom of a reluctant ramp made of a dislodged slab of ceiling. Or floor. Or whatever. It was busted anyway, much like the rest of the place around them. Not even finished, and the building crumbled more day by day, torn at by nature not giving much of a bloody damn about what it had been expected to become. Home. Shelter. Future. Now it liked to think itself a death trap, and damn was it trying to live up to the challenge..

Right now it presented them with a gap, a sheer drop down a floor and then some, with steel reinforcements spanning across like the bones on a fish. Dark on dark was all they both saw, faint outlines against lighter concrete, and he just bloody stood there, staring at it. Waiting. Thinking. Wasting night.

Zofia pressed her tongue to her teeth.

You can do this.

***

There was a nudge against his side, the tentative touch of her shoulder against his arm as she stepped up along the edge alongside him. Kyle glanced down and then she vanished, leapt right across to the first strut— and then the next and then the next— her arms spread wide and her footing not once off target. Once she touched down on the other end she threw a look over her shoulder, gave her chin a slight tilt, and Kyle wanted to believe she threw him a challenging little smile.

Wishful thinking of course, because when he looked a little closer it was all just tight lipped strain.

But damn.

She was injured. Malnourished (since he hadn’t had a chance to feed her properly with all the almost dying getting in the way). Scared. Very Zofia. Very— very what? What was she anyway? Or rather, what had she been back before she’d gotten herself caught up in this shit?

He’d asked himself that question before, somewhere in-between remembering how she’d flitted across the roofs to get him to Gazi, and him being too exhausted for extensive guesswork because he’d just hauled explosives through the slums with an overly energetic Jade.

Athlete?

She could have been one of the contestants at the games. Come to bring home a medal. Stayed to die.

Good a guess as any, even if a little of a cliche one. Maybe he’d remember to ask next time they weren’t sticking their necks out...

***

Their feet touched down on the pavement and Zofia held her breath.

The twin buildings had been built on a rise overlooking the downward slope of the land meeting the bay, and that side of it stood ringed by a hip-high wall meant to keep people from falling into the narrow alleys below. Shadow on shadow was all she could see, some sharper than the others, but it was enough.

She took a few tentative steps forward, and Crane followed close behind, both of them quiet, their nerves stretched thin and guts pinched uncomfortably. Waiting. Listening. Hearing nothing. Nothing that shouldn’t have been, at any rate. A distant murmur of water ahead of her, accompanied by a hint of salt and seaweed. And to the left and right the muted nightlife of the slums, bringing oily rot and stale smoke. The sickening mix rode the air much as it rode her ears, melting together into the familiar pulse of a dead Harran sitting at the edge of her senses.

But what she held her breath for didn’t come.

No Nightmares. Not a Volatile in sight. And Zofia thought it just as she heard him murmur behind her: “Way to go, kid…”

***

Rahim.

That crazy kid had done it. A couple of nights ago you couldn’t set a foot outside the Tower without a Volatile prowling by. He’d seen it and he’d heard it, had sat up on the edge of the roof and counted them from up there. And he’d heard the Runners talk about them, how you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of those ugly mofos. Now, as he stood and twiddled his thumbs, all he picked up was a halfhearted moan of a Biter somewhere down over the wall in front of them.

Rahim. He’d been right about the nest, and Kyle was of half a mind to scale right back up the building so he could give him a big fucking smooch on the cheek. That, and a beer. If he’d had one. Shit.

Later. He’d have to thank him later, because the Paper Tiger started moving and getting left behind wasn’t exactly what he’d had planned for tonight.

Getting shot at, that hadn’t been part of the plan either.

***

She’d not seen them, but Crane had, and he jerked her aside just as she caught sight of a black rifle barrel turning her way. With it came a lance of light, illuminating red brick and the shifting bodies of Biters standing with their heads tilted to the dark heavens.

Purple heavens now, kissed by the oncoming dawn waiting beyond the horizon. Almost day. Not quite yet… but getting there.

“Great,” Crane muttered.

He crowded her against the doorway behind them, an arm raised in an effort to ward her from the Biters drawn by the light. Their dragging steps would carry them right past, and somehow Zofia doubted they’d wander by without stopping for a snack. Which was unfortunate. Really bloody so, because she’d led them here and now they’d been caught— because she’d not been able to climb one stupid wall. A doorknob dug into her spine and Zofia shifted, earning herself a glance from Crane who barely fit behind the outcropping. His toes probably stuck out. His stupid big toes. They were gonna get them shot, but it'd have been her fault, not his, because he couldn't help having big feet.

“Did you see that?”

Zofia flinched at the sound of the voice. One of Rais’ men she figured, because who else would be holing up on the balcony of a rundown two story shack and sweeping the alley below with rifles.

“See what? Dude, turn that light off.”

“I swear, man. Right down there. Go check it out.”

“Are you nuts? I’m not going out there.”

“What if it’s one of Brecken’s?”

The light veered off. So did the Biters. They staggered, knocked their torn and rotting shoulders into a wall, all the while sliding and shuffling closer and closer, their ragged holes for mouths snapping at thin air.

“Why would one of Brecke— dude. Light!”

It died a moment too late.

***

Kyle’s hand was on his gun, fingers curling around the grip, but he knew it wasn’t going to do him any good. Not against rifles, or the goddamn dead end to their left. And then he heard the hacking snarl overhead, and the sound of clawed feet dragging across corrugated metal. The gun would do him even less good against that.

The Volatile leapt lazily along up there, a reeking shadow molded from thick muscle landing heavily at the edge of the roof. He didn’t know if the light had drawn it, or if it would have come up behind them sooner or later anyway. He didn’t know and he didn’t care— Kyle grabbed Zofia’s shirt and moved towards a burst of rifle fire, hauling her along.

***

Too loud.

They were too loud.

Gunfire cracked at the air and Crane headed right for it. With her trailing behind him, because why the bloody hell not? It was wrong, it was so damn wrong, but she did it anyway. Heart racing, shoulders twitching as she ducked with each shot echoing through the slums, Zofia followed him. She didn’t look up. Didn’t look left or right. She kept her eyes on his back and refused to think farther than his dirty jacket. Above them, death flung itself at the balcony, hitting the railing with its feet digging into the wall as it hauled itself up. More shots. Frantic, panicked shouts. She heard it all but she didn’t look up, because she knew the bullets wouldn’t stop it and she didn’t need to see what’d come next.

Once, Crane knocked a Biter aside, his shoulder lifting it from its path and leaving it sprawled on the ground, grasping and moaning and falling away behind her. By the time the gunfire cut out, he’d flicked up his climbing hook and he’d started waving her forward, hissing “What way?” while he turned on the spot, eyes scanning at the night alive with too much.

She froze. “I—“ Don’t know?

Not acceptable.

Not at all, because there were steps leading up to the right, and another path snaking its way deeper into the slums, and there were Biters behind them and in front of them— He sidestepped one of them as it lunged. His pick snapped home, cracked through the skull, the crunch of bone still turning her stomach because that wasn’t a noise you were supposed to get used to.

Zofia made up her mind, drew herself a map halfway good during the night, and pointed right. “Up.”

***

Up was good, if a little too much work for Kyle’s knees, but it got them out of the thick of the narrow alleys, and not a moment too soon. The gunfire and screams had drawn in what might have been half of the slums, which could have been a blessing if they’d not had to wade against the tide of Biters stumbling through the dark.

A road opened up in front of them and— being two responsible adults —they crossed it looking both ways. After all, Volatiles didn’t care if you were American or British, they’d get at you from the left just as quickly as the right.

The Paper Tiger led them in a diagonal, only stopping once while they waited for a hunchbacked nightmare to amble off into the opposite direction, and eventually came to a halt at a curve into the overpass they’d followed. Her bandaged fist came up, pointed eastwards. Down again.

Kyle moved up next to her. He recognised the layout from here, made out the landmarks he remembered from when he’d come looking for her, armed with a spare radio and false pretence. Back when he’d still told himself I got this all under control. You just watch me fix this.

He knocked that thought aside and glanced at Zofia instead. Sense of direction: Impeccable. Girl scout?

Probably. At some point. When she’d been even tinier than now. With pigtails. Yeah, she’d probably had pigtails, must have. Cute little things sticking off the side of her head with blue ribbons in them.

His flashlight clicked on.

Below them, shacks cozied up against the pillars holding the overpass up. They stood bleak and dark and a serious amount of too far away, and Kyle let a whistle slip through his teeth.

“Long way down,” he stated.

In response, Zofia’s fingers nudged at his wrist, guided the light further right until it hit a fallen power line post leaning at a sharp angle against the ledge. It had dented the safety railing and lodged itself firmly in place. Or so Kyle hoped, since she was already over it and had started balancing downwards, before he could line up the first three things he knew could go wrong.

***

She needed two hands. She needed two functional hands, with ten bloody fingers, and she needed none of them to hurt. But she only had one, and that wasn’t nearly enough when she tried to make the leap from the pole to the roof aligned poorly to the left. First she didn’t get her legs to give her enough reach. They were tired, even after a lengthy rest at the Tower. Tired and too bloody short.

So she missed.

Her right arm slammed against the ledge. Slipped. Brick tore at her clothing, ripped at her skin and for a moment she clung on and thought she’d had it all figured out. At least until she tried to pull herself up and was reminded of her broken hand. Wild agony erupted along her left side, dragging a pitched yelp from her lungs and bright white light into her eyes.

With her bad arm dangling uselessly by her side, and the fingers of her right reminding her they were not designed to carry her weight for overly too long, Zofia kicked frantically at the brick wall and signed herself up for the 2015 Darwin awards.

THUD and OOMPFH she heard next to her. “Hang on. I gotcha,“ followed a heartbeat later, and then he had her by the strap of her pack and by an arm, and hauled her up before she could claim her well deserved prize at the bottom of the drop.

“You okay?”

Crane didn’t let go immediately, not completely anyway. He placed her in front of him, where he subjected her to his professional curiosity with one hand clasped over her right shoulder.

“No,” she said. Because it hurt. It hurt— and then it hurt some more— and it wouldn’t stop hurting, because this wasn’t a scrape or a cut. This wasn’t going to go away and dull itself easily. Wasn’t going to get better. Not really.

“I’m not okay.” Her ears rang and she tasted blood where she’d clicked her teeth shut on her tongue. She also wanted to throw up, along with curling into a tight little ball under a rug somewhere. “But I had worse,” she squeezed up anyway. “Can we go?”

Her words threw off the professional study and his brows perked. That she could see it all quite clearly was a good sign, and a quick peek over his shoulder confirmed that it had taken them almost two hours to inch their way through the slums. A slice of sun raked at the skies.

“Worse?” Crane let out a huh, dropped his hand away, and took a step back.

“Open femur fracture,” she clarified before he could start asking, and tried to pit the sharp throb eating up her left arm against her memory. It didn’t work all too well, and she didn’t want to think about it either, so she shuffled past him and used the slice of pink light clawing at the overcast horizon to guide her home.

***

“How are we going to get in then?”

The Paper Tiger hovered by his side, her arms crossed against her chest and her head on a swivel. She tried to keep an eye on him, on the stairs leading up to her borrowed porch, and then on the rest of the world around her. Dunked in pale light, Harran had grown itself a milky, sluggish dawn moving slowly by, heavy mist warding the streets from a sun struggling with the concept of rising.

Even the Volatiles weren’t convinced about morning yet.

“Magic fingers,” he reminded her as he hunkered down by her front door. He hated that fucking plank of painted wood. It reminded him of the last time he’d been here. All those years ago, back when he’d still had an operational heart, not that lump of wheezing and whining coal.

Kyle clicked his teeth together and collected a set of lockpicks from his satchel. Not his own— those he’d lost and he mourned them dearly —but they’d do. The tension wrench went into the keyhole first, and his focus along with it.

“You mean you’re going to break in.”

He chose a pick and allowed it a quick, theatrical dance between his fingers before gently easing it atop the wrench. “Well—Duh.”

Oh great. Now you’re thirteen. Way to go, Crane...

“You GRE people all know how to burgle?”

She shuffled next to him. Close by, with her hip moving in an out of his peripheral vision. Here now. Gone then. He wanted to grab her by the belt and stop her from pacing, but somehow he doubted that’d fly.

“What? No—” The pick nudged the first pin up. Then the second. ’Easy.’ “I’m not GRE. I freelance.”

“Huhm. Like Blackwater?”

He grunted. “No. Think Expendables.” Pin three gave in. “Or A-Team. Yeah— yeah, that’s it. A-Team.” Number four fell to his charm, and the rest followed in kind.

“There, all done.” Kyle withdrew his tools. “See, I’m great to have around. You got any idea how expensive locksmiths are?”

He tried a soothing smile into her general direction, but she wasn’t looking. The mists pooling into the alleys held her attention, along with the dark shapes swimming through them. Swimming closer, in fact.

“Come on.” He nudged the door open. “After you.”

***

Inside things were just as they’d left them: Broken.

Ruined table. Chairs turned over. Clutter on the floor. Least no one else had come and robbed her while she’d been gone and had her fingers chopped off, because Zofia had found the Antizin right where she’d put it.

Crane had reassured her that they’d get someone from the Tower to pick it all up once they’d cleared the slums, which hadn’t sat altogether right with her. When she’d frowned and stared at her stash, he’d stared right back. “They need it,” he’d said. You don’t get to keep it all, greedy little skunk — that’s what he’d probably meant.

Some, yes. Two vials each, and even those he picked from her hand and stuffed into the satchel on him.

Then he’d sat down on her couch, which he’d pushed in front of the door, and started tapping on his earpiece.

“Suleiman,” he said. A bit of silence followed and he cleared his throat.

“Rais. Looks like your plan went down the shitter.”

Zofia paced away from him, and following her was the burning grip of pain against her left arm. It sat on her shoulder now, throbbing with each beat of her heart, and she found it maddeningly difficult to focus. His words sounded a bit lopsided and they made less and less sense as he spoke on.

“I’ve got the cure right here with me.”

She leaned into the kitchen counter, her good hand reaching for a bottle of water standing with its half empty friends. A clumsy, one-handed twist, and she set it to her lips.

“Rais. I know you’re listening.”

She drank. Swallowed thickly. Swallowed some more because her heart wanted to beat the water back up her throat.

“I’ve got the cure,” he repeated. “So come get me. Give it your best fucking shot.”

And stop hurting my friends. Come hurt me instead.

He didn’t right out say that, but that was what it boiled down to, wasn’t it? He was bait. Hunched forward, elbows on knees and dark expression sort of bait, with his eyes hard and focused.

A raggedy fox staying ahead of baying hounds.

She shivered, ran her tongue against her teeth, and bit slowly down on the tip of it until it all tasted bitter with a hint of salt and bile.

“Rais—” Crane’s eyes flicked to her this time and her legs forgot how to leg. “— I’m going to make you pay.”

Zofia turned away from his stare, dumped the bottle on her rickety table, and dropped her pack alongside it. She tried not to listen as he kept repeating his message, the slight variations to it, the threats and the promises, all of it mingling together while she gave in and broke her promise to Lena.

It’ll be fine. Just one now. Or maybe two. Two is better. Then I’ll be more careful tomorrow.

Today she didn’t have a choice. Today he needed her of sound mind and somewhat sound arms, and she wasn’t going to be any of that with her left side slowly melting into useless sludge.

Opening the pill bottle proved to be a challenge though. If fact, she just about gave up by the time Crane appeared next to her.

Oh. She’d not even noticed how he’d stopped talking.

“Where’d you get that? Lena?” He took it from her. Carefully.

Zofia nodded, and her eyes followed the bottle as he shook it, the pills rattling merrily inside. Half full. Half empty.

“Vicodin.” He hummed.

Another nod, because she didn’t really know what to say. I can read, muppet? Please give them back. Please. I need this to stop hurting, like right about now so if you could please— He twisted the cap open and two pills landed in the palm of her hand. Not like she’d extended it or anything. Not like she’d started begging.

“You’ll be careful with that stuff, right?” Professional concern bore down at her, with all sorts of serious implications riding along with it.

One more nod and the pills went down dry, at least until he pushed the water bottle at her and she washed it all down with three quick gulps.

“Yeah,” Zofia mumbled, her right hand snatching the medication from him and shoving it back into the pack. “I’ll be careful. Thanks.”

“Right.” Didn’t sound like he believed her, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he didn’t stop to press the matter and she could appreciate that. “You ready to roll?”

The nods just kept coming, though this one she put a little more effort into. Her pack went back where it belonged, but when she went to fetch her bow he beat her to it and strapped it on himself without asking. Chances were they wouldn’t need it anyway— and if they did she couldn’t very well nock an arrow one handed. He took the arrows from her too, bound them tightly against the frame of the weapon, a neat bundle of wasted potential.

While Crane moved the couch out of the way, her eyes caught on the five postcards she’d pinned to the wall. Sorry little things, those. She hovered in front of them and thought back to the memories she’d tacked to their backs.

They went from left to right, starting with two panorama shots of the Old Town skyline. She’d left a whole lot of nonsense and panic on those, with the aftermath of having been evicted from her last home transformed into tiny, messy scrawls asking for someone to help her understand why. No one had bothered to explain.

Then came a cat with its tail raised high as it balanced atop a wall tipped with pink glass shards, and it reminded her of how she’d written Amir’s name onto it and asked someone to forgive her over and over again. No one had done that either.

She frowned and her eyes flicked down and left. One of a fountain, a beautiful thing, rimmed with gold and dripping regret into her heart. Omar. Rahim. Dead and not quite dead. Next to it hung a copper horse with a man sat atop of it, the sun glinting off them in shades of guilt and tears that wouldn’t come.

The last one?

She blinked at the Harran lighthouse. Proud and tall it stood, lording over its corner of the sea, a pillar of white set against azure skies. Zofia felt a flush of colour tickle at her neck. Too many words at the back of that. Way too many. She’d almost had to start on a second one.

Five cards. Five days. And how many had she missed now? Three? Four? Why was it people had to persistently mess up her attempt at keeping time? At keeping sane? At putting things into perspective, even if the words never quite fit the situation and looked flat and pointless once they’d sprung from the pen?

And why’d it feel like these five days had been the last good ones she’d ever remember? Not a pot of ice cream in her lap while London fell to half an inch of snow outside her windows? Not the puckered lips and crossed eyes of Nathan Fillion as she paused him mid ramble at just the right time?

Zofia frowned. Ice cream. Movies and such. Thing of the distant past. The stuff dreams were now made of, rather than— a back blocked her view and Crane stepped up to the wall, his head cocked to the side.

“You really like this thing, huh?” He tapped at the lighthouse. “There were a few of those at your old place.”

She remembered, because she’d caught him reading one of the cards. And she’d sort of wanted to put an arrow into him. Her stomach hiccuped.

“It’s pretty,” she managed and told her legs to start padding for the door. No sense loitering here with her memories sitting on a bloody wall. They might as well rot off.

Better just get this all over with.

“Muppet?” Crane sounded confused. Distracted.

Zofia’s heart thumped desperately in her chest as she turned around to find him looking at her over the edge of the lighthouse card he’d plucked from its nail.

“Limp Lettuce?”

'Good for nothing nutter. His bloody nose is—”  “—too big and I think he’s got dropped on his head as a baby because—“ '—no one ’s that spastic and wants to get themselves killed over nothing but some stupid cunt like you. Not if they don’t got brain damage already.'

She’d made it back to where he stood with her dignity held way out of reach, and Crane blinked down at her, his brow creased and lips turned down in a frown. ( 'I need to say thank you. But I don’t know howhowhow—' ).

“Well. Uhm. Well. Huh. I had no idea,” he murmured and she could hear a hint of something in his voice, a tilt of amusement that didn’t fit the situation. The sort of situation that called them back out into their own walled off version of purgatory, and had them climb right into hell. No, this wasn’t the time nor the place for the look he dropped on her, all snoopy and you-said-what-now-about-me? because bloody damn, he’d read on further hadn’t he? Had read about cartwheels. Stupid burning cartwheels.

Bollocks.

Crane folded the card. One neat bend right down the middle. It vanished into his pocket, which received a gentle pat, and then he went on and… didn’t do much. He walked past her, his shoulders bunching up, warming themselves to the prospect of heading back out, and legs jogging briefly on the spot when he stood in front of the door. All the while Zofia stared at the pocket. That bloody pocket at the back of his jeans, with bits of her inside, bits she’d have liked to keep on that wall because she’d been trying hard not to dwell on them. Her throat felt dry, a little sore even, with her heart up in it wrestling with the reality that it didn’t have any business being there at all.

“Good to go,” he said. “Whenever you’re done checking out my ass, anyway.”

Her eyes cut up.

He was grinning. A cheeky, wide sort of grin riding up into his thick beard (because it wasn’t a stubble any more, not after the last few days), and her mind lurched clumsily at the sight of it.

Much like back at the motel. Back when they’d almost got themselves eaten by a Volatile, had escaped death by the grace of old wiring still working even if it really shouldn’t. He’d been all jokes and smiles and infuriating nonchalance once the dust had started settling, and she’d wanted to scream at him. This wasn’t funny. None of this was. Not the fact that he’d pocketed her thoughts on him. Or the Quarantine. Or all of Harran. Being here. It wasn’t funny and she hated him for finding himself a reason to smile while all she wanted to do was cry.

Another luxury she didn’t get, because if she let the tears fall she feared they’d never stop.

“Muppet,” Zofia croaked and swallowed. Her hand came up and her fingers trembled as she tried to scrape heat from her cheeks and throat.

“Rawr.”

Had he just— had he— he had. His hand curled and the grin on him flared again, but then that moment dissipated too, went up in a puff of memory and a nod towards the door.

“Lead the way, Paper Tiger.”

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

That'll do.


 It wasn’t the trip through the sewers that got to her.

Not the damp, stuffy tunnels she scurried through, Crane hovering at her heels and the air curdling in her lungs. That wasn't a big bother at all. All she had to do was follow the marks she’d left. Easy, if a little less straightforward than she remembered, with all too many twists and turns through moss and algae covered passages, their walls slick to the touch. A little darker, too. Stubbornly so, even as daylight kept their company, clawing through open grates in the vaulted ceilings and sinking into the mists roiling around them.

These rays of light meant safety, Zofia knew. Straying from them would take them where the Nightmares slept, or whatever it was these things did during the day. Being a reasonable person, she’d never bothered to try and find out.

She had bothered mapping out this route though, because that had made sense. Back then, anyway. Back when filling her head with travel routes, the wink of white chalk marking the way, had been her.

Back when she’d had a purpose, one that came to her with ease.

No, it wasn’t the sewers that got to her.

It was the ascent up the flight of grubby, white stairs, corners littered with discarded wrapping paper and leaves having got themselves lost. It was the feel of cool stone against her hand, tiny bumps of the finely grained wall riding her skin.  

It was the blue metal door awaiting her at the top, generous patches of rust eating at it where the paint had started flaking off. At first it wouldn’t budge when she tried the handle and leaned her shoulder into it, but Crane added himself to the equation of human vs door and that settled it, got the thing open and her stumbling away from the waiting light and back down two steps.

It was Old Town that got her.

It was coming back to where it had all started.

* * *

 《《 Muted murmur filled the room. A mix of sleepy voices, equally sleepy music, and the ring and chime of cutlery sleepily attacking breakfast. The whole room hadn’t quite decided to wake yet, with only a handful of hotel guests up and about to prepare themselves for another day in Harran.

Except Jeremy.

Jeremy was an early bird.

Right this instance she hated him for it. A tad, at any rate.

“No— You said what? No, don’t let them. They signed. We can’t let— seriously— listen—“

Zofia yawned into her cup of tea and let her spoon stir up the sugar she’d piled into it. CLINK CLINK it said as it clicked against the porcelain, and across of her Jeremy kept ranting into his phone.

“So what? We can pull it off and they know it. They’re just trying to get us to drop the rates—“

CLINK CLINK the spoon continued, kicking up a private little whirlpool wreaking havoc within the confines of the cup. With a little imagination, she could see tiny boats struggling at the rim of it, capsizing even as their valiant captains fought to keep them afloat.

Men overboard! Men overboard— oh bloody hell I’m bored.

Grunting, Zofia let her eyes flick to the travel pamphlet lying next to her breakfast toast. Her very dry toast, its only redeeming quality an overabundance of butter smacked on top. Dry, much like this whole trip had been. Dry and hot and altogether meh.

It’s fine Zo! You can go do your thing today. You deserved a day off! Go on and do your sightseeing, I’ll see you in the evening! Go on and— oh wait, could you maybe— and then— never mind, you can always, like, buy some pictures.

Rather than scowling at the pamphlet and its pretty lighthouse on the cover, she hiked her eyes up to regard Jeremy with her best I-am-about-to-drop-dead-from-neglect-please-send-help stare. He didn’t seem to notice. Or care.

Jeremy being Jeremy, remained perfectly oblivious as he sat across of her, the phone pressed to his ear and one hand crawling through his long, blonde hair. Correction, almost white hair at this point. The Harran sun had done a number on him, and it hadn’t stopped there. It’d gone and tanned him, and now there was something Zofia couldn’t bloody stand, because while he turned all neat and adonis gold, she burnt. As if to make a point, her nose itched, a reminder that she’d forgotten sunscreen yesterday and would start shedding skin tonight.

Ack…

It wasn’t bloody fair.

He eventually caught her looking and shrugged. Nothing you need to worry about, the gesture said and she returned it with a quirked brow, because when the boss was getting all worked up, she knew she’d end up being next anyway. And worked up he was, his usual chipper voice rattled. Another client on the way out, most like. Story of their life, really.

Jeremy rolled his eyes, leaned away from her, and proceeded to almost eat his phone, his lips right up against it.

“Never mind. No— No, don’t do that. Just stall them. I’ll be home in two days. What? Yeah— we’re headed back early. Place is getting wonky.”

Zofia snorted. An understatement, that.

They’d seen a convoy of military trucks squeezing through the streets last night while having a go at a local lamb dish which’s name she’d forgotten. Wide wheeled and tall, they’d barely fit between the buildings, and they’d shed grim faces every other corner. If Zofia leaned a little closer to the window on her left, she could still see the two armed men standing by the hotel entrance up ahead. Rifles hugged to their chests, dark gazes set on the trickle of tourists and locals trotting up and down the street, the men hadn’t moved an inch. The look of it made her skin crawl, and not in the neat kind of way. No, Sir. It gave her the creeps, and Zofia wasn’t altogether partial to that feeling.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph—” The phone dropped on the table between them. It knocked into her cup. Spilled some tea. Wreaked havoc on her tiny imaginary ships. And it left Jeremy all agitated and rubbing at the bride of his nose while sighing profusely.

“Cloé says hi,” he stated dryly a moment later, as if that explained it all, and maybe it did.  

“Hi Cloé,” she offered, not quite ready to ask what was up. Today— today should have been a quiet day. A chance to unwind, to hitch a ride out of the city, and stretch her legs on a beach.  

She’d have none of that.

Neither of them would.

It started with a startled cry. With voices barking from the hotel entrance and rifles snapping up.

It started with a shot shattering the morning calm. With glass breaking. People screaming. With Jeremy forgetting his phone.

It started with a quiet day she’d never have, and the choice to hide in his hotel room while the world turned mad. 》》

* * *

Great. I can’t see shit.

Kyle shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun crouching atop a jagged skyline, inconsiderately blinding him the moment he’d opened the door. He squinted along the palm of his hand, scanned left and then right, expecting company but finding none.

Good enough.

She’d led him onto a landing overlooking an expanse of buildings huddled together densely below a morning sky ready to shed its pastel pinks and turning to brilliant blue. And fuck, if he applied a bit of forced ignorance to the crisis at hand, Kyle could almost enjoy Old Town as it sat arranged in front of him.

Almost.  

Gone was the disorder of the slums, replaced by an artful chaos of white arches, bulbous domes, walls of red brick and white stone, and roofs covered in glinting metal and terracotta shingles alike. The whole scene might have as well been plucked straight from the Paper Tiger’s walls, a postcard willed to life.

What’d she put at the back of that?

A little guilty and just a murmur of giddy, Kyle squeezed a quiet whistle through his teeth. He lowered his hand and stepped into the open, his filter quickly picking up the slack as he fed it frame by frame. The whistle died a miserable death.

Yes, Old Town was gorgeous.

And the fact of that, the picture perfect image of it soaking up the sun, old brick and intricate stonework parapets reminding him of centuries weathered… it made it all a little worse than it had to be. Harran had stood strong at some point. Tall. Proud. It had withstood wars and invasions, had shrugged off the press of time, and yet here it lay: Dead. Dying. Done.

Kyle sighed, dragged his eyes away, sorted idle thoughts to the back of his head, and turned to regard the Paper Tiger who’d gotten stuck halfway out the door.

Almost literally, judging by how she lingered with barely a toe sticking past the threshold and her arms hugged to her chest, like she was contemplating dragging herself back into the dark. Her jaw was set tight, her teeth grinding. Chewing on whatever thoughts had frozen her in place, he guessed, and not making much headway because they looked to be putting up a fight.

Okay, he really didn’t like that look on her. Not after he’d seen the startled mouth-half-open-eyes-wide stare of embarrassment she’d worn when he’d found the postcard at her hidey-hole.

The card he’d read, only to immediately regret doing so, all the while (naturally) reading on, because that was how he rolled. The thing hadn’t been any of his business, even if business had all been him. Him the muppet. Him the slackjawed oaf and gangly lout who made her feel funny. Him, who she didn’t know how to thank for being decent. Him the stupid Tourist. Capital T. Italic stupid.

Had she decided to take a swing at all that him, Kyle would have accepted his fate without protest. Well, okay. Maybe he’d have objected a little, depending on where she’d landed the blows.

But she hadn’t.

Instead, she’d blushed an adorable red. Colour had returned to her ashen skin, dusting her neck and cheeks, and that had been when he’d stopped reading. You’re a fucking monster, he’d reminded himself while looking at her had torn his insides to pieces and left him sick to his stomach.

A monster she’d voluntarily accompanied through the dark, even after all it had done to her.

Okay. Psychoanalyse later, Ace. She’s zoning out. Go get ‘em.

Kyle retraced his steps, placed his hands on his thighs, and leaned into her field of vision.

“Hey— you okay? You look like someone‘s walking over your grave.” With a shovel.

She’d written something about liking it when he smiled at her, so he let her have the best one he could come up with at short notice, and for a moment he thought it’d work. Until the Paper Tiger’s eyes met his, and promptly shredded his efforts in the air between them. Dull and gray, scraping at his nerves with pinpricks for pupils, and not quite here.

Kyle frowned.

“I’ll be fine,” she said and swallowed, her tongue darting over cracked lips and her throat working on swallowing whatever thoughts she’d been gnawing on with her teeth. “If I remember right, then.. then the science campus is—” Head cocked to the side, shoulders pinched, and a few breaths later, the compass behind her haunted eyes aligned itself and she nodded left. “ —this way.”

“Okay…”

Okay? Oh-fucking-kay?

Look at this shit! Look at her! Look at that sorry piece of human. High as a kite, and all you can think of is: Least her compass is still working. Least she still functions, or I’d be boned. Because that’s what you were worrying about you fucking shitbag. And this is what you got? OKAY?! She needs to dig a trench somewhere. Roll over. Do anything but this. What the hell, man? Make her stop.

Hesitating, because for once there wasn’t an immediate threat forcing his hand, Kyle caught her chin between his fingers. Her brows furrowed and she twitched, eyes darting unsteadily between his shoulders, until landing on his.

She’s losing it. The next time she’s not paying attention and a Zombie snags at her ankles, you might not be there to stomp that motherfucker’s skull in.

He squeezed. Gently.

GPS.

Compass.

Functional.

He felt the scarred skin of her bite mark against his thumb. Felt his own scar itch with sympathy.

Fucks sake Crane… She’s a person, not a tool.

“I’ve been thinking,” he started, which earned him a slight Really-now-have-you? curl of her lips. She even swatted his hand away.

That’s more like it.

“What’s to stop Rais from attacking Camden? We don’t know how secure this place is, right? So, how about we recruit some local talent, figure out what’s what before I go talk to him. Take it from there?”

“I don’t know anyone here.” Her eyes blinked and she rubbed at them with the back of her right hand. “Not any more, anyway.”

“Don’t worry. I got this.”

He did. He knew he did. This’d be easy. It’d work. Kyle dialled his radio to the frequency Brecken had recommended, tapped his earpiece, cleared his throat and hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.

“Troy? Troy— this is Crane. Anyone listening?”

Nothing. Well, wasn’t like people had nothing better to do than wait for his sorry ass to come beg for help, right?

Back to the Paper Tiger then. “And we’ll have to find a place to stash you.”

“Stash me?”

“Yeah— I’m gonna need you rested up, or we’ll—”

His earpiece crackled and he lifted a finger to stop Zofia from expressing protest.

“Crane?” The woman’s voice was faintly familiar, heard twice since he’d gotten the radio towers back online for Rais ( ’Dumbass.’ ), and Kyle admitted to a not small amount of relief on the sound of it.

“I didn’t expect to hear from you,” Troy continued.

“I didn’t either— listen, I’m in your neck of the woods now and I could really use some help.”

“You— you’re in the Zero?” Surprise. Excitement. A little bit of both worlds, and he thought he might have heard a smile in there. “Of course! Anything you need, where are you?”

“Honestly? No clue. Look, I’d like to meet up, discuss this in person. Stick our heads together, etc.. Where can I find you?”

“Easy enough— can you see two towers from where you are? One taller than the other?”

He could. They were hard to miss. A bit off to the left, sitting against a backdrop of blue on blue with the ocean meeting up with the skies. The left looked stubby, and he could make out scaffolding wrapped around them both. Deja vu… yet something else left unfinished. “Yeah, I can.”

“Great, that’s our loft. Everyone here is looking forward to meeting you.”

“What? You are?” He looked at the Paper Tiger, who didn’t share his curiosity in the slightest, but stared at the spires he’d indicated to her with a jab of a thumb. “When did I get popular?”

“When you stood up to Rais.”

“Ah.” His mouth tasted funny. His stomach turned.

“Word travels fast in the Zone, Crane. Come on. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

* * *

《《 “Zo?” Jeremy. Of course Jeremy. Sounding skittish and sounding scared, the sum of what they’d both been made of the last few days.

Her hands shook. Her all shook. She couldn’t even bloody get the hairband right. It kept going on the wrong way, kept hanging a little too far right and then a little too far left and then there was hair everywhere and oh god why couldn’t she get this sorted.

“We’ve got to go. Like, right about now.”

“Yeah—“ She pulled tighter. That’d do… that’d have to do… The band snapped. “Bollocks…”

“I’m not kidding.”

A hand on her arm, shaky fingers just like hers, and Jeremy pulled her up from the bed and dragged her from the room.

He carried nothing on him, because they’d told them that they couldn’t take a thing. No bags. No packs. She saw people with hats, so maybe hats were okay, and baby slings definitely, because there was a man with an infant strapped to his chest and he pushed his wife ahead of him as they filed up the stairs and onto the roof.

Up here it was all noise and wind. Both on account of the helicopter sitting at the centre, its blades going WHUP WHUP WHUP WHUP, chomping at the air as it sat ready to take them out. It should have been over then. Just like that they should have climbed in there and been gone, away from the last few days of impossible nightmares.

And just like that people started to push.

Subtle at first— with a shoulder bumping into her, and a chest knocking into her back. Jeremy did his best to keep himself behind her, since he was a little less easy to overlook, but that didn’t help. Not for long. The pressure built— and when they heard the first frantic scream bounding up the staircase it all turned to shit.

Someone fell. Then someone else fell. Then she fell, and then she was up again, and dragging Jeremy by his shirt. There were people around her that weren’t supposed to be people any more. They had blood on them. Blood on their chins. Dripping from their mouths.

The soldiers standing ringing the helicopter opened fire.

At some point Jeremy called out for her and she followed his voice. She wove out of the way of a woman. Ducked beneath the arm of a man, crazed and shrieking, his fingers brushing against her back. He kept going. Latched onto someone else. They went down in a tumble.

Something cracked into the ground by her feet. Her legs stung. More cracks, hollow THUNK THUNK to her right, so she ran left, away from the helicopter— which hung lopsided in the air as it lifted from the roof. There were people hanging from it. A handful of them. A least for a little while, because one by one they fell. One plummeted down by the edge of the roof. Kept plummeting. The others followed quickly.

Zofia should have died then.

But it wasn’t that far to the next roof. With Jeremy ahead, they jumped. Landed. Rolled. Ran.

For the first time in her life, she fled.

It wasn’t going to be the last. 》》

* * *

Zofia rubbed at her chin with the back of her hand.

So thirsty. Why is it so hot— can it stop being so hot.

Her mouth fell open and closed, lips smacking together, dry and puffy and all manners of urgh that she couldn’t put words to. From above, the sun had itself a good laugh at her expense, and all around her Old Town teemed with death.

It had gotten worse since she’d last been here. Couldn’t have gotten better. Never better. Always worse.

A familiar block ( Sporting goods, two pizza places, coffee shop, designer shoes, phone store and clothing boutique. ) had burnt to the ground at some point, leaving blackened stonework and dried ash behind, and she’d stood staring at the mess for a little too long, because Crane had started asking her if she was okay. Again.

Yeah. It had gotten a whole lot worse. More crowded too, if a little less frantic, since two months ago it had been a tossup between Biter and Viral at every turn. Now most of the buggers had turned dumb and slow, which wasn’t going to help any if you fell into the sea of gnashing teeth washing up against the buildings.

Her eyes wandered left, found the water bottle sitting on Crane’s belt, and then wandered up to find him standing very still as he stared down across the wide open square below. A familiar copper horse stood proud in the middle of it, front legs up and all that. Pretty. Way back when, anyway. Crane’s fingers drummed a nervous rhythm against the handle of his tiny climbing pick, and Zofia figured the poor man likely felt awfully inadequate faced with the sheer amount of dead bodies shuffling about idly. At least with his current choice of weapon.

“They had really good kebab down there,” she murmured, the blob that was her left hand coming up and waving at a tattered green sunroof above a group of patrons just as likely to eat the cook, as they were to gnaw on their fellow guests.

He looked at her, one brow perked. Mostly professional curiosity gathered her up in his eyes, at least until they dipped to her hand, and promptly had themselves spooked away.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take you out for dinner later,” he told their general vicinity.

Zofia blinked. “I’m not hungry.”

“Oh, you’ll be hungry. Come on.”

* * *

They were being watched on their approach, and Kyle didn’t like it. He didn’t know the Embers, and even with Brecken insisting that “They’re good people, mate.” the thought that up there stood a handful of strangers with their eyes on them rubbed him entirely the wrong way. Not like he had much of a choice. He needed her off the roofs, because with every minute that passed, she seemed a little less likely to make the next leap.

By the time they reached the spires, without getting shot at in the process, Kyle almost felt like he’d done something right. For once. Only a little further, even if climbing the things proved a bit of a chore, with the ascent taking them in a roundabout way up along the scaffolding. The makeshift ramps ranged from deathtrap to okay just don’t look down and you’ll be fine, violating every possible safety code known to man, but who cared these days, right? He tried not to as he kept one eye on where he set his feet, and the other on where Zofia put hers.

Once at the top, their reception was mild at best, their welcome party no more than a heavyset man guarding the only viable approach.

An armed man, Kyle noticed first. A friendly, smiling man, he recorded second. Not a hint of deceit anywhere in sight, with a gentle glint in his eyes and a relaxed slouch to his shoulders. Lazy, almost. Like he didn’t have much at all to care about. After giving them directions (steadily up, always up), he sat himself back down on a crate and went back to scanning the city with a pair of binoculars.

Lookout. Good. He’d hate to leave her with a group of disorganised scrubs who let every idiot in.

The setup by itself impressed Kyle, and once again reminded him how Need turned people creative. Inventive, really. It’s what allowed them to cobble together three floors suspended between the spires, and turn the hollow insides into living quarters. All fairly windy and fairly unsafe, but he couldn’t help admiring the crafty design.

He counted at least a dozen people as they kept moving from floor to floor, their curious faces tracking them, and hushed whispers following their steps. No one stopped them though, and so he kept climbing, until he found nothing but clear skies above him and a whole lot of oh shit we’re up high all around.

Good a place as any to take a breather, Kyle thought, and convinced his legs that it was a-okay to loiter about uselessly so he could get a good look at what they’d walked him into.

Up here there wasn’t enough of the second spire to go around for a full level, and he found himself standing on a rickety platform bolted together from construction scaffolding, doors and sheets of plywood. Railings were clearly for pussies, since there weren’t any to be seen, only a sheer drop right back down to the buildings huddled up to the tower’s base.

A pleasant breeze nipped at his neck though, teased him with the promise of relief if only he’d take off that stifling jacket. But that’d have to wait. For now he’d keep sweating— and being disgusting. Very disgusting, he noted as he gave his right shoulder a sniff.

Trying not to think too hard on the disaster that was his personal hygiene, Kyle raised his eyes to the flat sea spreading out in front of him, the distant shapes of land barely visible through a stubborn morning mist. Cityscapes to the left, tall skyscrapers lining the shores. Rolling hills to the right, concealed by milky clouds. Sort of in walking distance. Or paddling, maybe. Not worth it though. Even if not all of it had been affected by the outbreak, the Ministry hadn’t dared risk a spread. They’d quarantined it all, ringed Harran in sturdy walls, and on their maps they’d settled for drawing lines, lines that went from deep red, to hues of orange and eventually a hesitant green.

You’re fucked to You’ll probably be less fucked.

Smack in the middle was where he stood right now, right atop the slice of land where it had all started. Ground Zero. Zone 0. Or The Zero, as Troy had called it.

Definitely Bend over, you’re screwed.

“Hey!”

Kyle turned sharply, thoughts knocked back into order, and his legs and arms moving on their own accord. Noise. Find the origin. Put civilian behind you. Find threat. Assess threat— and realise it wasn’t any. Just an unarmed man in work slacks and a dirty blue shirt, a smile on his face as he waved at them from atop the last ramp.

“You must be Crane, come on up!”

American?  Fucking finally… He’d started feeling a little outnumbered.

* * *

The voice startled her, although it did so a little slowly, her nerves firing at a delay that bothered her less than it probably should. Yet Zofia inched away from it, and Crane moved in front of her, his arm raised. Not exactly snapping up, but hinting at being there should it be needed, and still very much clad in leather. Bloody hell, he must have been melting in that thing.

He lowered it a moment later, called up to the man standing at the crest of the ramp leading into the bell tower’s top level, and then marched right on. Zofia followed, at least until they reached the top, and Crane got all the formalities out of the way. Greetings. Introductions. Handshakes. She bristled. He was smiling all the way through, but it wasn’t honest. Too strained. Too professional. Michael, the man who’d greeted them, didn’t seem to notice, but neither did he want them to waste any time on him. Troy really wanted to talk to them.

“Stay here,” Crane told her, but Zofia didn’t hear and followed him into the dark innards of the tower. Dark and musty and very warm, the air stale and smelling of old wood, fresh paint, and a lot of sad details to life spent cooped up between narrow walls.

“You suck at instructions.” His gripe lacked conviction and his scowl could have used a little work, so Zofia thought Sorry, into his direction, which turned to a mumbled “Hrmph,” in her throat.

“One day, Paper Tiger. One day you’ll listen to me.” One more look at her and he went down a hatch, a creaky ladder protesting his weight.

Said ladder taunted her as she watched him descend, told her she shouldn’t even try because she couldn’t possibly do it. Crane seemed to think so too, because he reminded her she could sit down up there and he’d be right back.

Hell no…

Zofia wanted to prove them both wrong, inanimate ladder and curious brown eyes keeping locked on her until he jumped off at the bottom and vanished out of sight.

It took a lot of focus and it was a bit of a crawl, but as long as she’d tackle it one rickety rung at a time, she’d be fine. Slow. Steady. Don’t think too much.

Somewhere down below, she heard a chair creak, and picked up voices, all muffled by the heavy air and all the bloody dust getting sucked down her lungs.

“Glad you could make it,” one of them said. A man, young and enthusiastic. He introduced himself with “I’m Savvy. Pleasure to finally meet you,” and Zofia paused her descent in favour of an eye roll that took way more concentration than expected.

You’ve got a fan club now, Crane? And who calls themselves savvy? What’s he so savvy about?

Zofia hung on to a particular rung, face squashed so close to the wall she could make out the graining on the wood and see a spider the size of her pinky nail scurry into a crack.

Nevermind. Gotta climb. Climb. Come on girl, climb.

Her feet went on and her arms lagged a little behind, but she kept it up, while down behind her the famous Crane said: “And you must be Troy. Nice to finally put a face to the—“ and decided not to finish it, trailing off into a silence that made Zofia turn her head.

Lighting in here was terrible.

Place hadn’t been made for living, so the lights they’d mounted were nothing but naked bulbs suspended from wires stretched between the walls, along with two laptop screens lending their cold blue light to the mix. A few layers of rugs covered the floor and someone had gone and tried themselves at interior design Tetris, packing the small square area with as much stuff as they could possible fit. Makeshift tables fitted from crates and sheets of wood, boxes upon boxes and so much stuff she couldn’t count it even if she’d tried. Electronics, mostly. Radios, mobile phones, computers, cables…

And amidst that chaos crowded themselves three people, with her just about adding herself to the mix, though at this point Zofia thought it might have been packed enough already and maybe she should head back up again because clearly there wasn’t going to be enough oxygen down here— oh god her arm was tired she couldn’t possibly do that.

So she hung on for a little while longer.

In one corner sat a man, slouching comfortably in an office chair ( ’How’d they get all that stuff up here?’ ) and he was watching her with unabashed curiosity. Maybe man was stretching it, he didn’t look much older than Rahim, but there the similarities ended. For one his hair wasn’t a scruffy, black mess, but neatly shaven close to his skull, with a pencil thin mohawk cresting his skull.

Savvy, she figured. He came dressed in an oddly glossy black jacket and faded dark sweatpants, and judging by how he fit in with all the tech around him she figured he’d probably swapped out his name when the world had ended.

Because why not?

She could have done it too if she’d wanted.

Peering around Crane to watch her (halted) progress down the ladder, that must have been Troy, and maybe Troy had swapped out her name too, because Troys usually didn’t come woman sized, Zofia had thought.

Nevermind.

No wonder Crane had swallowed his tongue back there. Even if it hadn’t lasted long, because nothing seemed to shut that man up. He’d straightened out his tongue right quick and they’d gotten back to business while she’d still been watching the spider trying to find a crack to hide in. Camden this and Camden that she’d heard, and Rais can burn in hell, which everyone present seemed to agree on.

If she was to take a bet (and hanging from the ladder that was about the only thing she felt good for), it was her face that caught him flatfooted. She had a pretty one, matching a calm and steady voice, with smooth dark skin and a slow sort of smile on her that kept her lips slightly curled.

But she’d been made of wax, and for some reason or the other she’d squashed the right side of her face into the burning hot Harran sun and it had melted right off. Split skin, a ruin of tissue and flesh warped against her delicate cheekbones.

Zofia knew better than to stare, so she refocused on climbing, only to find her eyes drawn right back to it by the time she’d shuffled over the rug covered floor to stand next to Crane.

He introduced her while she gaped, and she felt ashamed for every second her eyes stayed on Troy, for noticing how she almost lost her right ear, and how she definitely missed one set of eyebrows and lashes. Or how the corner of her lips was a little broken, and how the scars carried on against her shoulders, gnarly, thick scars knotted beneath the straps of her top.

Troy didn’t seem to mind. She smiled. Slow and gentle. Honest. Caring. Knowing. As if just a look at her had told her all she needed, picked at what she’d been and what she’d never again be. As if she understood. Troy smiled, and Zofia thought it might have been the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Her owns lips twitched up along with it, left the dull ache that was all of her behind, and made it not matter much at all. For a little while, Zofia didn’t mind hurting.

* * *

Anything you need, turned out to be anything but, and Kyle found himself reminded that lately all his plans had sucked and now wasn’t about to be any different.

It started okay, even if the sight of Troy threw him a curveball that he barely managed to dodge.

Aside of the damage to her face, and the fallout creeping down her shoulder, the Ember’s leader was a spry little thing, and as Zofia approached she’d even tipped the rim of the cap she wore and smiled. So far so good, he’d thought, except then Troy’s eyes had narrowed briefly and the smile had faltered and his heart sank.

They were bitten, and she caught on to that. Both of them, he’d had to tell her, not only Zofia who wore her mark for everyone to see, and that changed things. Not by much, because he’d known from the start that he wouldn’t have been able to stay.

Rais wasn’t going to stop until he had the cure.

“I’m sorry,” Troy said and looked up at him. She meant it. She grieved the fact that there wasn’t a damned thing she could do aside of wishing them good luck and helping them from afar.

Right then and there Kyle wanted to blame her. Get angry, show her he meant business and she better fucking listen. Tell her to think about the greater good of things. Strongarm her. Get this shit done with.

“We can’t risk it, not without Antizin. I’ve got my people to worry about, and they wouldn’t feel safe having either of you here. And then there’s…”

Who was he kidding? He couldn’t.

“Rais. I-I get it,” he offered when guilt got her tongue. “Last thing I want to do is make you a target.”

“Thank you.” She sounded genuinely relieved, and Kyle tried to hold on to that.

You’re doing the right thing. Keep doing the right thing. Focus.

“Just promise me you’ll keep trying to get a line outside, okay? There’s no telling how long the Ministry will hold off. I need to talk to them.”

“You got it. Savvy has been having ideas on that, he’ll just have to cut down on his sleep for a while until he’s got it. Right?”

Savvy confirmed the whole deal with an enthusiastic “Of course,” and a swivel of his chair. He probably meant it. Probably.

“Great. Well— I’ve got a campus to visit. Been awhile since I’ve been to school, but it can’t be that bad, eh?” Kyle glanced to his right, at the quiet Paper Tiger whose only commitment to the conversation had been a quiet Hello, before she’d stopped staring at Troy and found a spot on the wall somewhere to her right more interesting. “I’ll be in touch.”

Of course he was disappointed by all of this.

Of course he’d have preferred to tell Zofia to stay here, make bestie with Troy (or however that worked), while he went off to track down Camden. Who, inconsiderably enough, had left his post according to Troy, fled the science center because Rais had been another fucking step ahead of them and sent his men after him.

Not a problem. A setback, but not a problem. He’d have coped.

But this? He didn’t want to head out there with her again. She slowed him down, for fucks sake.

Kyle cringed, vowed to flog himself for that thought later on, and tried to make up for it by offering to help Zofia up the ladder. Which she naturally refused, because god damn it that girl was even stubborn while high.

“Wait,” Troy called and appeared next to him, her chin tilted up towards the top of the ladder. “Michael!”

Oh wow, woman had a good set of lungs on her. That was one impressive bark.

“Yeah?” Feet shuffled and then a head appeared over the top of the ledge, promptly stopping Zofia’s ascent.

She seemed to contemplate the situation, head tilted up and looking at Michael, who’d hunkered down and extended his arm towards her. Then she kept climbing.

Oh, so that’s how this is, huh? Don’t let me help, but he’s cool, huh?

Next to him, Troy folded her arms. “That safe house you and Greg secured yesterday, is it all set?”

“Just about. The fuses blew on us when we tried to get the lights on, so we had to leave before we could inventory it. I’m headed back out soon as—” He paused as Zofia reached him and grabbed her by her good arm. “There you go, Ma’am.”

He heard her huff and then she vanished out of sight. Huffing some more, probably.

“Forget about it.” Troy tapped him on the shoulder. “Let Kyle have the spare fuses and tell him where to find the place. I want them to have it.”

Michael nodded down at them. Not a beat missed and not a hint of protest. “You got it, boss.”

Okay.

So it wasn’t going to be anything. But she gave them something, and from where he stood, one hand resting on the ladder, the other tapping at his thigh, Kyle figured something he could work with.

Something would have to do.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Priorities


 The cure. Capital C. What he’d been sent in to get (or so he'd thought— screw those lying shitbags), what had left him stranded here, his satellite phone lost, his morals bruised and battered, and his stomach aching for proper food.

The chance at a cure, and it was no more than a lightweight bundle in his hand. Lightweight hope. Slim Maybe wrapped in plastic.

He fucking hated it.

Hated how it was the only thing that mattered, and the only thing he could afford himself to think about.

Camden and Rais? Irrelevant details, both of them. Means to an end, if anything. The Ministry blockading Antizin drops and threatening to destroy Harran? Less irrelevant, but nothing he could do anything about, not as long as Rais had his only means of reaching anyone worth talking to— which put that fucker back up on the list of really damn important things to think about, right with the cure, and— Kyle squeezed his palms against his skull and ran his fingers through his grimy hair.

Not what I signed up for.

His hands slipped lower and scraped against his beard. Thing needed a trim. Desperately.

Come on, Crane. Head back into the game. You can do this. One thing at a time. Prioritise and Execute.

He groaned, opened eyes he’d not realised he’d closed, and blinked against the sun sitting high. Midday. Halfway to fuckery.

Enough stalling. Time to bust ass— 

“I don’t want to stay here.”

Kyle’s shoulder jerked at the sound of Zofia’s quiet mutter by his right, the reminder of yet another one of his priorities. One that he’d had to reorder and sort in somewhere at the bottom of his list. For the time being, anyway. He’d revisit it later.

“You’ll be fine,” he told her and she frowned. Or at least it looked liked what she’d intended. No way to be certain, since there wasn’t much going on on those thin lips that was worth mentioning. Just a lot of faint twitches and an incredibly tense jaw line.

“You’ve got nothing to worry about. No one knows you’re here.”

She hugged her arms to her chest. “Except Troy. And.. Michael.”

“They’re solid.” And you know that how?  “Not everyone’s out to get us.”

Another frown, this one with a bit of potential.

“And hey, if anything happens to me, and I don’t make it back, you’ll have the whole place all for yourself.” Kyle turned around, nodded his chin at their borrowed safe house.  “How’s that sound?”

They’d handed them the proverbial keys to a penthouse flat atop an old apartment building, complete with a rooftop balcony coastal view. Fancy. Also cramped, dusty and disorganised, along with a mess of bolted shut doors and windows keeping everyone and everything out.

Secure enough.

She’d be safe.

For a while.

“If I do come back though—” He glanced at her. “We’ll share.”

More frowns? Really? And how come this one was the one with the most conviction backing it?

“I don’t like sharing,” she mumbled.

Ow.

“Stab, stab— my bleeding heart. You’d leave me out there? Not come looking? Just give up on me that easy?”

“What?” Her eyes flicked to him, a hint of alarm lending them life. “No. That’s not what I meant.”

Kyle smiled. Because she liked those smiles, and the least he could do was give her that, considering he’d taken so much from her. “Good. I’m counting on your grumpy ass still being here.”

His sad little priority number 7 or so huffed quietly and he wondered if she’d gotten even shorter, or lost some more weight. Kyle doubted she had more than 110 pounds on her at this point, and with how rapidly he dragged her through hell, he figured she’d be a stick at best come next week.

Next week? Don’t think about it.

She’d not be here next week. He’d not be here then. They’d be out. Because he got this. Just needed to do the impossible.

“You should stay off the streets,” Zofia said while he stared at her, thoughts of her slowly wasting away or burning as bombs fell worming themselves into his head. Don’t.

Kyle nodded. “I’m not one for big crowds anyway.”

Another huff, like she didn’t believe him one bit, and the Paper Tiger wandered away from him, left him standing with his priorities all shot to hell.

* * *

It was a nice place.

Sort of.

Expensive at some point, Zofia figured, what with all the nice furniture, pretty carpets and cushions, and all that space. A wide living room attached to a kitchen. A bedroom. A bath. Not a bath room, no. Thing was decked in marble and the tub worked into it was big enough for four. It was also empty and the water didn’t work, because that had been the first thing she’d tried after Crane had left. Water.

It hadn’t even made that spluttering and groaning noise that pipes were meant to make when there wasn’t enough pressure in them. Had just done a whole lot of nothing while she’d sat at the edge of the tub and stared at the faucet.

“Okay,” she’d told it and gotten up, wandered back out, and ended up standing in the terrible sun on the balcony. She’d checked on a row of buckets Crane had set up for the night. To gather water, but it had only been a little while and the sun wasn’t about to start bleeding liquid into them. Then she’d walked up to the mess of wiring he’d busied himself with, the one hooking up to the UV lights Michael and his friends had fixed the day before. Crane had fussed over it for a while, tugging and plugging and pursing his lips, all the while muttering as if he knew what he was actually talking about. Then he’d said “It’ll do.” and gone inside.

She’d followed him. And now she followed the ghost of him walking in front of her.

Windows? Good enough, he’d declared.

Door to the balcony? Deadbolt, he liked that.

Door out into the hall? Good as nonexistent, buried behind a toppled over bookshelf and nailed shut with planks of wood. He’d liked that, too.

Then he’d dropped her bow and his jacket, handed her an energy bar, and while she’d chewed on that he’d started inventorying supplies left for them by the Embers. Not much, he proclaimed. But “It’ll do.”

He’d said that a lot. Had said it when he’d looked at the couch, too, and that’s what Zofia stood in front of now, wondering what It’d do for. It was plush and a little short, barely fitting the length of her, and covered in colourful cushions. They took up most of the space and she thought she wouldn’t find enough room between them, so she kept wandering.

A wide plasma screen. Useless. She caught a reflection in it, a familiar figure turned stranger, and when it didn’t look away, she did, her feet carrying her into the ransacked kitchen.

Crane’s shadow dissipated then, left her to tend to her own company. Left her fading along with it, until her shoulder brushed a wall and reminded her she had a body to mind. Broken and dull.

She drank water. Finished the rest of the stale food he’d left her with. Walked. Sat. She cracked the door open to the balcony and looked out across the rooftops. Wished to see a figure moving towards her. A familiar one, a tall one. Tall and not terrible. Her eyes wandered between the slowly shuffling silhouettes on the flat roofs around them, moving forward one step, backwards another, never making it very far, because they had nowhere to go.

Much like her.  

A touch of dread, faint but foul, slithered up her spine. Zofia shivered, snapped the door shut, and retreated back into the room.

Bedroom next.

Crane had opened it up with his magic fingers, and she thought she remembered him humming while he’d picked the lock, but now that she explored the room she wasn’t altogether certain if she’d only imagined that.

A queen sized bed. A dead fan on the ceiling, feathery trinkets hanging from it. Thick, heavy curtains and iron bars on the windows. He’d given the bars a testing rattle, nodded to himself, and then turned around to march out the door, only to find her stood in his way. So he’d placed his hands on her shoulders and moved her aside like one might move a lamp.

Rude.

Zofia hung onto that thought and carried it with her as she stuck her head into a musty smelling wardrobe to look for things that didn’t cling to her so stiffly as what she wore right now. Something that didn’t itch. Zofia did not like the itching. It bothered her. Distracted her. Made it difficult to think.

Whining, Zofia scratched at her thighs with her right hand, and the miserable sound of her own voice vanishing into the wardrobe only made things worse. Weak. Lopsided. Not right to her ears. Not her. It came filtered through strange and she didn’t know what to do about it.

How to fix it. Fix herself.

A flutter of alarm sat at the base of her heart, tried hard to remind her that she was meant to panic, rather than stand staring at the piles of clothes on the shelves in front of her. She tried to give in to the flighty jitter, but it didn’t stick, slunk away behind a thin veneer of reluctant calm, and so she sifted through trousers instead.

Way too big trousers. They bested her both vertically and horizontally by a good few sizes, as evident by how she’d need rope to keep the one she’d plucked out from sliding from her hip.

“Don’t have rope,” she told the wardrobe and dropped the jogging bottoms, abandoning them so she could rifle through the underwear drawer instead.

“Oh— oh well,” she mumbled and picked at the still somewhat neat piles of folded boxers— and god have mercy what was it with those briefs? Yellow and purple flowers? Pink dinosaurs? In case of emergency, pull down? She blinked. I’m big in Japan! Her lips twitched. Chicks dig me— with a grinning rooster at the front. She chuckled, and that sound didn’t quite connect either. Not her laughter. Someone else’s.

Cringing, Zofia pulled something simple and dark gray from the drawers, flung it over her shoulder, and stepped away with her head and heart slowly following her feet. If telt a bit like walking a foot away from herself, off center, with her eyes wet and hot in their sockets as they skimmed across the room.

Things were getting darker.

Her heart a little faster.

Zofia kicked her shoes off, watched them roll aside. Her trousers next. They caught on her hips. Tangled around her knees. She almost fell, knocked her head against a wall to steady herself.

Dry mouth. Hot throat. She swallowed.

That hurt.

The boxers went up. Slow. Wrong way? Why was the room sliding by?

Ears shrill.

Ground close.

Ground here.

Oh.

* * *

Harran breathed colour. Reds, greens. Gold and copper. Palm trees lined cobbled streets, leaves turning with the breeze, and clearly folks didn’t need tumble dryers, because they just hung their laundry wherever. And then they forget it there. Because Zombies.

Kyle ducked under a line of pants and shirts, brushing a bright red T aside with the back of his hand.

Kidsize. All of it.  Hasn’t been worth looting. Not enough kids left to need it.

The thought soured the scenery in front of him, even if said scenery tried to put up a fight, all wide monster of a white building with pretty window arches and vines creeping up along its facades.

Harran University, said the plating by the roof, and SAFE proclaimed four plywood sheets tacked to the stone railing of the balcony facing him. Less welcoming looked the armed man standing by the door, or the rifle he levelled at him as Kyle approached. Not sighting him, but very much bringing the point across.

Kyle lifted his arms to his side and turned the palms of his hands out. Pinpricks of phantom pain peppered his chest, and he threw a brief look left and right, straight down into the crowded street below him. The plank he walked on creaked.

This fucking sucks.

“I’m not here to cause any trouble,” he called across, still walking. Slowly. One step after the other. CREAK

The guard didn’t open fire, but he did give him the evil eye, right from under a beat up, green helmet that might or might not have been meant for football at some point.

“What do you want?”

“I’m here to see Camden—” That got the hand on the rifle a little worked up. “— Troy called ahead.” The hand relaxed, and Kyle went for the door.

First thing in, and he had himself hit by a wall of chilled air.

What the hell? They’ve got AC?

It was bliss stepping from stuffy air into the lack of such, his lungs drawing in something else than heat, and the sheen of sweat on his neck adding to the cool. So what if it made his shirt chafe. This was heaven, and he already knew he’d hate leaving it. Kyle tugged on his shirt, letting in some more of that delicious cool air, and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom.

Dimmed light filtered in through panes of coloured glass windows and a single, vaulted skylight, leaving dust dancing in the air in front of him. Place smelled like old things, wet paper, and too many people, some of it which made sense now that he made out the rows of bookshelves lining the walls. A library. Neat. Well stocked and drop dead gorgeous, decorated with delicate mosaic patterns where heavy dark wood didn’t reach, and what might have been comfortable study tables at some point arranged at the bottom floor in front of him. Most people were gathered in the study pit below, and quite a few of them tracked him as he made his way across the walkway and down a winding stairwell— none looking pleased to see him.

Great. Smile, Crane. Gotta make a decent first impression.

It didn’t work.

* * *

You’re Doctor Camden?”

“Guilty.” Kyle had a hand presented to him, and the grip behind it was firm. Assertive. Certain. It matched the hard set of eyes seizing him up. Suspicion. Flat out mistrust. Vicious intelligence too though, even if it did a fair job trying to hide behind a deeply lined face. The Doctor sported a thick beard, lightly salted with age, and wore well worn, sturdy lab gear. The sort you’d expect hanging from a professional in a viral research lab. Which this wasn’t.

“I’m sorry for the reception. But we’ve been having increasing difficulties with Rais, and it’s putting people on edge.”

“I hear you, Doctor.”

“Camden will do.”

“Camden. Right.” The hand finally let go and Camden started walking, led him out from the study pit and into a backroom filled with supplies and a poor excuse for a highschool chemistry lab in one corner.

Kyle frowned.

“You look disappointed,” Camden said, eyes crinkling lightly with the hint of a smile. 

Damn it, Crane. Head in the game.

“No. Try pensive. Look— I came here sort of hoping you’d be able to do some magic. This isn’t exactly what I’d had in mind.”

Harran's last hope shrugged.  “I wouldn’t have been of much use in the lab. Rais attacked it a few hours after Zere mentioned he’d be sending Miss Aldemir with the research, and I barely made it out alive, which is more than what I can say about my assistants.”

Great. Foot, meet mouth.

“I’m sorry.”

“And I’m sorry about Zere and Miss Aldemir, Mister Crane—”

“Kyle.”

Camden nodded and smiled faintly.

“Rais is more of a threat than you might think. I’ve worked with him before, and up until now have had nothing but respect for the man.” He gestured for Kyle to follow and closed the door behind them. “Dedicated. Fiercely intelligent. Charismatic. But the outbreak changed him. Not altogether surprising, come to think of it.”

“You’re GRE?”

Camden’s eyes cut up. “Ah.” With the You too? unsaid. 

“Yeah.” Kyle sighed. “Looks like we’ve got mutual friends.” The sarcasm must have come through this time, because Camden’s nod looked morose enough. “So what happened to Suleiman? Did he just— like— crack?”

“Not at first. He’s kept things together better than the rest of us for a good long while. But then the Outbreak got his brother. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t right. He blamed the GRE, of course, and after that it was only a matter of time before he turned on the rest of us.”

“You’ve been here since the start?”

“First ones in, to be precise. Zere and me were part of a research team meant to assist in finding a cure, but we were never expected to stay. If ever we thought things were about to get out of hand, Suleiman and Ghoreyshi were to exfiltrate us. Naturally things did go wrong. Spectacularly. As you can see.” A sweeping gesture of his arms, not stopping within the walls of the room, but broad enough to encompass what was left of Harran.

“Ghoreyshi— Amir?”

A nod.

“Ah shit..” Ah fucking double shit. 

“I’ve heard what happened.” Camden extended a hand, palm up, and Kyle stared at it blankly, momentarily thrown by what he’d learnt. Amir. GRE. Amir. Dead. Because he’d botched his fucking landing. Had Amir lived…

“The research, Kyle?”

“Yeah— Sorry.” A distracted fumble later, and Camden carried off all that hope and misery Kyle had lugged across Harran, and Zere and Jade had give their lives for.

“This will take some time. And as much as I’d like to chat…”

* * *

Kyle found himself back in the chilled study room, met by the same chilled stares, and thought he much rather preferred the welcome he’d gotten with the Embers.

Since the books were less inclined to give him dirty looks he decided to strike up a conversation with a hardcover instead. Never too late to go back to school, right? He placed his index finger against the bridge of one and pulled it out, leaning to the side to peer at the cover. Arabic. Okay. Maybe not. Book by book he moved sideways along the shelf, pausing only once he hit an English title: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, which he tucked under his arm.

It accompanied him to a window, where he sat and stretched his legs out, his back resting against the warm glass and the rest of him enjoying the cool air. He struck a wobbly truce with his need to work, and began flicking through the book. Each turn of a page felt strange against his fingertips. Normal. Everyday. Not very Harran.

The words weren’t much better. Nonsensical and disconnect, like they weren’t really made for each other and should really stop bothering trying to form sentences. But he tried. For a while, anyway.

Kyle sighed, snatched at his neck with one hand, and gave his wristwatch a quick glance. Ten minutes and counting.. Just how long did it take to save the world with a CHEM C3000? Somewhere between forever and an eternity?

His right leg kicked.

No, it wasn’t like he was an impatient person. He just wasn’t very good at being patient.. Those were two entirely different things.

Totally. God. What am I doing?

Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches and Whatnot didn’t help much, and neither did the itch at the seat of his jeans and the twisting ball of apprehension in his gut, tightly packed together from all his priorities squeezed into one.

Kyle grunted, went to scratch that bothersome itch, since the rest he couldn’t do a thing about, and in the process of it found a folded piece of paper, pretty white lighthouse and all. He turned it between his fingers, spread it flat, and placed it on the book in his lap.

The Paper Tiger had tiny handwriting. Tiny, but steady. Easy to read.

Muppet, she’d started with. Careful, with the pen pressing down hard, bolding the letters.

He’s a muppet. A limp lettuce. A good for nothing nutter. Can’t even land on his feet, how useless is that?

“Well, excuse me..” Kyle tapped at the postcard, tried to feel irritated by her jab, but found himself reading on instead.

His bloody nose is too big, ( He rubbed at it with the bridge of his hand) and I think he’s got dropped on his head as a baby because no one’s that spastic and wants to get themselves killed over nothing but some stupid cunt like you.

He’d not understood what she’d meant. Not at first. It had taken a little longer for things to click, that her line of I need to say thank you. But I don’t know howhowhow— had been her hurting. Terribly. Hurting because she’d not understood why he’d not left her behind in the tunnel back when she’d led him to Gazi’s. Or why he’d not abandoned her at the motel. Why he’d come get her and Rahim when they’d gone off to be remarkable idiots. As if the thought of anyone being a decent human being confused her.

Kyle frowned.

She’d run out of space quickly on the card, had squashed words together tightly to fit more on there, had dropped full sentences in favor of simple words, and hadn’t made a lot of sense. There were bits about how she wanted to be less her whenever he looked at her. How he wasn’t painted yellow. How he wasn’t them. How she liked his smile, which was why she couldn’t tell him about Amir (he’d figured that out already Oh you sad little thing..) or how sorry she was for getting Rahim bit. She really liked his smiles though. Liked him, it seemed. Liked looking at him when he wasn’t looking at her, and apparently that was a terrible thing and she ought to just forget about it, because Jade.

He flinched.

Eventually she’d hit the last corner and the ink had gotten blotchy, and he stared at the :T the sum of all her words, and felt his heart twinge. Not very elaborate. Not exactly poetry.

Kyle folded the card. Pocketed it again.

He liked it.

* * *

“This is astonishing.”

Camden sounded a good deal more enthusiastic now that he’d gotten to play with his chemistry set. Almost chipper. He looked the part too, eyes alight with curiosity, rather than glum mistrust, and Kyle tried his best to get onboard that particular hype train.

“So it’ll work?” He hovered by his side and understood absolutely nothing of the numbers and words scribbled on bits of paper and a whiteboard on the wall.

“What?” Camden let out a mirthless laugh. “No. Not like this, it won’t. It’s got a future though, which is more than I can say for any of our previous efforts.”

Crash-Boom-Bang, there went the train. Derailed. Turned over. Blown to fucking pieces.

“What do you mean it won’t? I thought—”

Go ahead, sound all whiny, why don’t you.

“I’m not writing it off, but there’s very little I can do from here.” Camden paced away from his work area and shrugged off his lab coat.

“Okay, then we get you back to the lab.”

A wry grin partially hidden behind Camden’s thick beard met Kyle’s argument halfway and cut him off.

“Even if you manage to take it back from Rais, the lab is ruined. Electricity is spotty, supplies are low. I wouldn’t be able to finish the research, let alone synthesize a cure. What we need is to get this—” He jabbed a hand at the mess of notes and the carefully placed samples. “—out of Harran and into a proper research center. Are you still in touch with your handler?”

Kyle grasped at his neck. “No. Rais took my satellite phone.”

“I see. Shame.”

“Shit.” The hand squeezed harder and he was of half a mind to start tearing at his hair.

“Something you’re not telling me?”

“The Ministry. They’ve been talking about sterilizing the whole damn city, and I don’t know how long they’ll sit on their thumbs before they starts dropping bombs.”

“Risky, but I expected as much. We’ve considered an orbital strike as a contingency plan, even if it’s liable to faults.”

“Faults?” Kyle flinched. His voice had gone tripped on the word.

“You’re never guaranteed to destroy everything, and it could just as much spread the virus as eradicate it. But with this you should be able to convince them otherwise. ”

“Great. I guess I shouldn’t have burned those bridges with Rais after all.”

“There’s always an alternative. I suggest we don’t talk to Rais, or the GRE for that matter. It’s the Ministry you want. ”

“Right.”

“Right,” Camden echoed, smiling into his general direction. “For the time being I’d like to hang on to this, see what I can do. If you don’t mind.”

Kyle’s stomach twisted and his eyes went to the door. But Camden reassured him that people here liked Rais just as little as he did (a stretch, but he’d let it slide) and that they’d be willing to put up a fight.

The research ought to be safe, he insisted, and Kyle reluctantly agreed. Chances were he’d just sit his ass down on it anyway, and crush humanity's last hope between his butt cheeks.

* * *

 

Heading back got him lost.

Twice.

Locating the University had been easy enough, especially with the Paper Tiger’s instructions, but finding one apartment balcony amongst a god damn sea of them? Not so much. He did run into it eventually, more out of chance than knowing where he was going, and hauled himself up over the railing.

Shrugging off the pack he’d filled with supplies he’d talked out of Camden before heading back out into the shitty heat, Kyle stepped up to the balcony door and rapped his knuckles against it. It felt like the polite thing to do.

When no one came to answer, he tried the handle. It gave way. What? Kyle’s jaw set and he nudged the door open.

“Zofi—”

On the floor. Head tilted at an uncomfortable angle. Legs and arms limp. Not moving. Not breathing.

He dropped his pack. Dropped his heart. And ran for priority one.











Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Room for Two


 At eight years old, Kyle had been handed a tiny, copper furred rabbit, its stubby ears flicked back in fright, and he’d called it Thumper and loved it for a day. The Morning after it had turned up motionless in its cage, stiff and cold under the soft touch of silken fur. He’d cried like a baby and refused to name the second rabbit his mother brought a few hours later.

At eighteen he’d stepped into a room so quiet, the sound of his boots grinding the loose chips of plaster by his feet had run his heart from his chest, and shaken the grip on his rifle as he’d swept the drab, gray walls. Amidst the stifling silence he found a boy, mouth agape, but quiet. Eyes wide open. Dulled by death. Blood still warm. Blood still pooling, seeping from where shrapnel had rent him open.

At eighteen, Kyle had learned to compartmentalize. He’d thrown up, his gut wrenching painfully, and eyes burning— and then he’d wrapped the boy in a veil of guilt and tried to forget.

He’d never managed.

He never would.

But he’d put him aside.

Kyle wasn’t ready to do that with her. To let her ashen face sink into the Try not to think about it of his memory. Let the clammy, pasty feel of her skin cradled in his hands be all she’d ever be from here on out.

“No— No— No—” His fingers found her throat. Searched. Fumbled. Slipped. Felt a reluctant beat, second guessing itself with each awkward shudder—

“I am going to give you so much shit if you die, do you fucking hear?”

—Shy. Weak.

“Don’t. Don’t die, okay?”

He leaned over her, and her lips kissed his ear. Dry and cold and—

“Breathe. Please. It’s good for you.. come on.. come on..”

—tickling him with a gentle puff of air. Not very convincing, and he couldn’t risk moving yet, had to hold her steady with his hand cradling her head, and his heart in his throat.

“Okay— Okay— you keep that up. In and out. Easy as pie. Easy. See, you’ve got this. ShitShitShit.”

He sat up, let his eyes cut across the room, and his mind rap off the how to the why of her lying still, with life barely bound to her. Heatstroke— No. Skin too cold, and he checked again, palm ghosting against her forehead. Warmish. Not hot. Seizure— No blood on her, mouth clean and dry. Overdose? His stomach lurched.

No. Her eyelids felt stiff as he pried them open, and even if her pupils barely flinched against the light, they looked halfway to normal, and that was halfway to good.

Septic shock— Blood poisoning— Kyle groaned and missed Lena with a fierce sort of need born out of inadequacy. He flicked his thumb against her wrist, brushed the tangled, dirty mess of the bandages coming loose, and tried to feel reassured when he didn’t see any discolouration creeping along her veins.

It didn’t stick.

He knew broken, and most of the time what had gone and done the breaking, because when you worked on your own, it was you who did the breaking and getting yourself broke.

That was easy.

This though?

This sad, tiny bit of human that was her? This awkward, tangled mess mostly made of thin, white legs poking out of a pair of oversized boxers valiantly clinging to her hips?

Kyle’s thoughts snagged. Slowed. Tripped out of his panic and into a deceptive lull, where things were made of simple things like Exhaustion and She’ll be okay and Maybe you should pull those things up a little, dude.

“Okay.”

She had strong legs, all muscle and sinews and not much else. Made for running. Or by running. A combination of the two. They were battered, knees knobby and blue and red, and her right thigh home to a thick line of scar tissue.

“Shit, you were right,” he said, and carefully tugged the band of her new choice of legwear above her hipbone, rather than halfway down. “This must have hurt like a bitch. Now—” Exhaling, Kyle hooked an arm into the crook of her knees and pulled her head against his shoulder. “—Let’s get you up, lazybones.”

One quick heave and she came off the floor, much easier than he’d remembered form when he’d found her seizing in the hotel room.

“What you have been carrying around in your pant pockets? Rocks? Pair of steel marbles? Because girl, you’ve got a bigger set than most dudes I know.” She barely fit on the couch. “And I know dudes—” He slung a few pillows to the floor.  “A lot of dudes—” Settled her in, and she only tried to roll off once. Which he found inconsiderate.  “Because I’m one and dudes know dudes—” Pillow. Head. Did she just twitch? No. Of course not. “Jesus fuck, Crane. You’re an absolute trainwreck. Sit your stupid ass down.”

He did, right across of her, a squished pillow under him and his spine bumping the coffee table, since he couldn’t let go of her wrist. Had to make sure her heart kept beating.

Had to make sure he didn’t have to put her aside.

* * *

Zofia dreamt of candy wrappers made of doves. Or doves of candy wrappers? Bollocks, why’d they have to be so complicated? They sat on her wrist, colourful beaks pecking at her skin, and rustled their tin foil feathers, all cracks and pops and smelling of ash and old mud.

One of them, bless its beady, black eyes, cooed. And then bit off her hand.

She yelped and she fell, rusty wings tearing on the way down, and no one telling her she’d packed the wrong bag.

After that she fell a little more, until a hard carpet gracefully stopped the world and ended her with a mouthful of dust and grime.

“Fa ee—”

Words eluding her, Zofia settled for a wheezing cough as she pushed herself to her knees, and blinked a pair of uncooperative eyes. Dry and scratchy and barely worth the name.

Obviously not dead, she pulled herself up with a shaking right arm, painfully aware that her left had turned itself into a blob of rusty nails, and looked for the first thing— No, the second thing, because she really, really needed a loo— that popped into her head.

Crane.

“Oh hell no.”

With her voice back in working order (or at least making a decent effort at it) and no one around to hear, she staggered through the gloom, and went in search of her humanity.

* * *

He’d left her with a note. She tried to ignore it.

That lasted until she’d sorted out the general state of emergency that was her overall everything.

Pills first, one quick tilt of the head and a whole bottle of tepid, stale water. Wash next, shivering and bristling, because the rag she used was scratchy and she felt naked. Which made sense, all the lack of things considered. Hard to do though, she had to admit, since she couldn’t reach places she’d like to with only one hand and so she spent a few minutes cursing to make herself feel better. Clothes right after, this time without fainting, and then she sat down and picked up the sheet of paper while her feet carried her from room to room.

First thing she noticed was that he used more sideways smiley and doodles than a fourteen year old. She tilted her head. Then tilted the paper.

Eat >:/ he insisted, and she mumbled “Yes mom,” tried her hardest not to think of it all as horribly cute, and read of him having gone to talk to Troy ‘cause If you want to get things done... But by the time he’d drawn up two little pills with smiles on them, and a third with a big ugly frown (and then crossed it out for good measure), Zofia’s lips tickled. And when she reached the end, with his atrocious scribble for a signature and the lopsided heart tacked to it? Well, she figured she ought to eat…  feed all those retarded butterflies limping around in her stomach.  

He’d also left her with a radio, which she should, quote Call him on, maybe unquote, if she as much as felt dizzy. Which she didn’t. Not the calling part, and not the dizzy part, because she felt okay.

Not stellar. Not even fine. Okay.

Her head had aligned itself with her shoulders, and her thoughts had stopped being problematic, sat almost still when she tried thinking, pretending themselves at clear headedness.

No more giving her runarounds. No more muddling themselves with dulled fear.

For the first time in days, Zofia thought there was hope for her yet— least until Crane bumped the door open and caught her awkwardly trying to pull back her bow.

“I thought we moved past that,” he said and she might have had a heart attack.

His hands came up, a halfhearted mimicry of the first time he’d seen her, even if all she aimed at him right now was a sorry excuse of an imaginary arrow, along with a handful of scattered thoughts. They dove for cover, slithered under the carpet, and left her standing with her ears feeling uncomfortably warm.

Zofia lowered the bow. She fought the urge to chuck it. “I just wanted to see if I can still draw.” Which she couldn’t. Not really.

Crane nodded and propped the door open, letting in sunlight and a faint gust of wind, before he dumped his pack and gear in the kitchen. He’d found a new crowbar, she noticed, and that went back to the door, where he hung it from its neck from a nail.

Okay. This is where you ask him how things went. She tightened her grip around the bow. The alloy squeaked.

“Feeling any bett— ”

“Camden?”  

His eyes cut to her and his shoulders deflated slightly, a short lived sigh she’d likely not been meant to see dragging them down.

Oh boy… Good news didn’t do that. Good news would have gotten him dancing through the bloody door. If he danced. How was she supposed to know if he did? Her brain limped.

“Don’t worry about Camden.” He crossed the distance to her. Grabbed her bow, and she let him have it, because she didn’t want to argue with that stare. “Are you feeling better?”

“I’m sorry—”

He blinked and stood a little straighter. “What for?”

“Fainting. I didn’t.. I mean. That’s not like me. I don’t faint.”

Oh god, was he smiling?

He’s smiling.

A stupid flash of teeth, and Zofia considered kicking him in the shin and blaming it on brain damage from oxygen deprival. Or whatever happened when you passed out from being dense as a bloody brick.

“You’re fine,” he declared and nodded towards the couch. “Sit.”

Zofia glanced at the bloody thing she’d spent more time on than she’d rightfully wanted to, and tried herself at being stubborn. “Why?”

A whole lot of good that did her.

She sat and he joined her, didn’t even bother warning her when he plopped down, his rude shoulder getting cozy with hers, and smelling of sweat and ash and intrigue. He brought bandages, and when she tried to slide out of the way, he clicked his tongue and grabbed her damaged hand.

“Hold still,” Crane warned. I’m not as good at this as Lena.”

He wasn’t.

Which she didn’t really mind.

* * *

She really hates your guts, Crane.

By the time the afternoon flirted with the idea of passing, the Paper Tiger had said about seven words to him, leaving him to do all the talking while she spared the occasional huff and hovered just out of his line of sight.

He’d tried luring her with food once (“Seriously, you’ve got to eat more.” ) and that had only worked as long as the MRE had lasted, and then she’d left him sitting on the couch by his lonesome, legs propped on the table, arms spread, and a dead TV in front of him.

This sucks. She’s alive. But this sucks. 

Not like he blamed her or anything, or had thought she might have- maybe- potentially- in some likelihood- forgiven him. But it stung, and he didn’t know what to do about that particular scratch at his insides, so he spent a few hours resting.

Whereas resting quickly had him running circles in his head, got the idle engine in there crankily turning over itself, and forced him back onto his feet. The penthouse wiring needed a little work. Supplies needed inventorying. Twice. He reinforced the bedroom window. Adhered to proper gun maintenance. Asked her if she ever fired one, and earned himself a slow shake of the head. Prepped her a nest outside, which she promptly filled, and watched her for a short while.

She looked a little less Paper and a bit more Zofia out there, Kyle noticed, and with a hint of hope decided he’d try again.

* * *

“Scoot?”

Zofia had learned her lesson.

Scoot meant I’m-about-to-sit-my-ass-down-where-you-are, much like he’d demonstrated come midday when she hadn’t moved fast enough. To spare herself the touch of his shoulder, she slid to the right and towards the end of the mattress. Far as she possibly could without toppling off.

He’d placed that thing well. Right by the edge of the balcony, just about his leg length away from the wooden railing, and an overturned table for a backrest. Admittedly, he’d not placed it with much grace, had groaned and moaned and had made all sorts of noises as he he’d lugged it out from the apartment, but he’d insisted, because it’d be nice he’d said and they deserved a little of that.

A little of nice and a little of quiet.

Zofia had to squint against the sun to look at him, since the bloody thing had the audacity to slip lower on the horizon and get into her eyes, and what she saw didn’t make much sense at first.

Her brow pinched. Huh?

He’d changed. His jeans were gone, replaced by a pair of grey sweatpants, and he’d thrown an oversized t-shirt that proclaimed him to be in shape, since round was a shape.

Well, that at least explained why he’d taken so bloody long while she’d sat out here on her blissful lonesome, with nothing but the gentle wind for company and the low murmuring of Old Town’s ocean side to soothe her. All the moaning and groaning and hacking and shrieking was confined to the streets below (especially once he’d gotten done with the mattress), and she liked being alone.

Not— alone alone. Not lonely. Zofia frowned, because none of that made a lick of sense. She’d hated it when he’d not left her side long enough to let her get a blink or two in since he’d come back— and yet she’d ached when he’d been gone?

I need therapy.

When she’d made plenty of room for the hero of the bloody Quarantine (because after that welcome at the Loft the Tourist had earned himself a new name), Crane flopped down with an infuriatingly happy sigh, accompanied by the thwmph of his backside hitting the mattress.

“Look what I found,” he proclaimed and Zofia found herself shaken from her thoughts and faced with a bottle of wine and a bottle of whiskey, their necks suspended between his fingers. He wagged them once, then twice, before tucking them into his folded legs.

No glasses anywhere in sight, just the bottles and a lazy grin on his lips, and she began to suspect the worst. He shifted, reached a hand behind his back, and returned with a corkscrew.

“Want any?” He tapped a finger against the wine and whiskey PING-PLINK-PLINK-PING. “There’s a mini bar hidden in the bedroom, but I wasn’t sure what you prefer.”

Crane looked at her. Waited. Waited a little more. Waited while she tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t think of much aside of Yes or No, and oh god why was she so terrible at this?

This human thing. This talking thing.

Her eyes flicked to the bottles and then at him, and she noticed what else he’d done while he’d left her alone. He’d cleaned up. Had washed his face and his neck, shed all that grime he’d collected while he’d done anything but sitting still. Even if he’d insisted it was time to do just that: Nothing.

Maybe he was bipolar.

That’d explain some things.

She sniffed. He smelled different, too. Cologne— and not the cheap sort. Rich and heady and sharp, and Zofia decided she hated him for it. Partly because she liked it, but mostly because it reminded her of how she smelled like fading fabric softener from the clothes she’d slapped on, and that really wasn’t much of a thing to smell like.

“You’re a wine girl,” he eventually decided and proceeded with prying the cork free. “You’re a wine and late night rom-con girl.”

She scoffed, but didn’t disagree, and Crane’s eyes cut to her as he worked on the cork, a small smile turning his lips up.

Just what have you got to smile about? Is this funny? Am I funny?

After a while he presented her with the bottle, but when she reached for it, his right brow arched dangerously close to Young-Lady-Now-You-Listen-To-Me-Or-Else and the smile vanished.

“Couple of sips only. You’re on meds.”

Zofia nodded. Sure. Whatever.

The wine tasted tart and a little earthy, and it reminded her of things she’d thought she’d forgotten. Things that involved comfortable couches and the chatter of friends around her, or the patter of rain against her windows and the pop and crackle of her fireplace. Human things, which didn’t fit her any more. Like pjs you outgrew. You just had to chuck them at some point, no point in trying to squeeze your big tush into them any more.

Crane swiped the bottle from her after sip number four, and took a long gulp himself. Then another and another and another, and then he set it down between them and turned his attention to the rest of the treasures he’d turned up.

Zofia tried not to pay too much attention to him, tried to focus on the water instead, the brilliant sheet of blue with seagulls diving at it and the sun dancing off it, but it was hard work.

The sound of paper turning finally broke her resolve, and she looked. He’d found a comic book.

“TinTin?”

Crane nodded, but didn’t look up from the pages.

“It’s French,” she stated lamely once she realised she couldn’t read the cover.

Oui.

“You read French?”

”Lis, parlé, écris. Je peux passer du coq-à-l'âne comme un chef.”

“What?”

”C'est un truc fantastique avec les filles.” He lifted his eyes to her. ”Ça n'a pas l'air de marcher sur toi par contre?

“You’re an ass.”

Je suis au courant.

A rueful smile later, Crane returned to follow the adventures of a Belgian detective and his scruffy little white dog, and Zofia sat in her bubble of silence.

Eventually that passed too, and he got on his feet to wander back indoors. Which was good. Right? Right. Zofia watched him go, like she’d watched him go before, and wondered what he’d get up to while she had another go at the wine. She shook the bottle. He’d been busy, about two-thirds were already gone.

When Crane returned, he sat himself cross legged next to her. Facing her. A package of playing cards landed on the mattress.

“Come on. Let’s play.”

“I can’t play cards.”

“You— you what?” He sounded genuinely shocked, and he looked it too, with his mouth a little slack and eyes wide.

“Never played.”

“You’re shitting me.”

Zofia shook her head.

“Well,” he rubbed at his neck. “I guess that makes this my solemn duty to teach you. Unless you’d rather do something else.”

“Like what?”

“Use your imagination, Paper Tiger.”

Her jaw set, because she didn’t like the budding smile on him. Or because she liked it too much. These two tended to have more in common with every passing day.

Therapy. Definately therapy.

“Cards it is,” he said and waved at her with two fingers.

Zofia begrudgingly turned to face him him, and he introduced her to the world of Texas Holdem.

Which, really now, was almost comically American of him.

Once the rules were out of the way, and her first two rounds horribly lost, Crane decided on quizzing her: “So what does Zofia do for fun at home?”

She shrugged.

“Okay. Let me rephrase.” He reached for the wine. “What do you miss? I miss barbecues and I miss my TV. It’s fucking barbecue season and I’m stuck here. And cold beers. Man, I’d probably kill someone for a cold beer.” The bottle turned up empty, and he tipped it over, left it rolling away from them and come to a spinning halt by the edge of the roof.

She watched it. Would it hit a Biter if it fell? Would the Biter care? When had it stopped being rude to piss off a building like Crane had done a couple minutes before?

“I miss pizza,” Zofia eventually admitted to, her eyes back on her cards and thoughts of him standing facing away from her on the other end of the balcony while he tinkled kicked from her mind. They looked useless. The cards.

How many points is that? Can I? No.. huh… She looked at him. He’d started staring at her over the rim of his own cards, and for a second though she thought his eyebrows wiggled. No. No way.

“Just Pizza?”

“I miss my ride.”

“Whatcha got?”

“A—“ Zofia frowned and placed the cards down. “A—“

“No, no.. What car?”

“I—“ Her heart skipped forward. What… Why did it have to do that? Why was he asking her those questions?

“I don’t have a car. I’ve got a bike.”

She spread out her cards. That ought to be a good hand, no? Her eyes went up to Crane as if to find some sort of validation, but all she caught was his lips tugged this way and that, as if they were trying to figure out how smiling worked.

It looked ridiculous, and her stomach promptly filled with clumps of warmth.

“That’s very environmental of you,” he said and flicked his wrist to present her with his cards. “Oh boy, looks like I’m winning. What we playing for again?”

“I— no— not a bicycle, a— And how do I know you’re not just making this up?”

“Because I wouldn’t.”

“You would, too.”

“Ouch,” he grunted and gathered up the cards to mix them again. He did that well, she had to admit, his hands moving quickly as he shuffled them, without a single one escaping. Zofia sighed and shifted on the mattress. Her eyes darted right and out across the rooftops, towards the sea, its surface alight with gentle shades of red.

She breathed in.

Breathed out.

Blinked— and caught a silly, wayward thought nipping at her. It slipping through the cracks of months spent balancing her sanity against Harran, wove right past the maelstrom of a reality that wanted her dead, and presented itself in three, simple words: This is nice.

Quiet. Safety. Comfort.

The words arranged themselves in front of her, and even if they were all misleading, a false front for misery, she decided that they were okay for now.

Hell, she could get used to this, to the hint of a lightheaded buzz and the aftertaste of wine on her tongue, and the smell of cologne just out of reach. Because any closer and she’d forget the whole human thing again.

“Go on,” Crane butted into her thoughts, tore her eyes back to him. He stared at her. A fresh set of cards lay at the ready. “You don’t have a bicycle. You have a—?”

“Ducati.”

His right brow rocked itself skywards. “A Ducati,” he repeated, and his eyes took a hike, went up along her shoulders and then along the rest of her, like he couldn’t quite fit her on one and was trying real hard to align the image in his head.  

“What?”

“Give me a sec, I’m trying to process this. You. Flying down a highway. On a crotch rocket.” A smile ran itself ashore in his half assedly trimmed stubble. “Anything else I should know?”

Zofia frowned.

“Like— you never told me how you ended up here.”

“You never asked.”

“Point.”

She picked up her cards, spread the hand out in her fingers, and scowled at the confusing mix of colours and numbers, and the stupid, stoic scowl of a king.

“So?”

Her eyes went back to him, noted the expectations staring back. “Business,” she muttered.

“Dooiiing— what exactly?”

None of yours?

“My boss thought he could pick up contacts at the games. Recruitment drive, I suppose.”

He kept staring, and Zofia could have sworn the air around her had started heating up more than the evening sun warranted. “Recruiting— athletes?”

“For stuntwork, yeah.”

“Cool,” Crane nodded, the bob of his head carrying a triumphant spring to it, like he’d just uncovered some great secret. “So, you work with stuntmen, that’s pretty neat.”

“No. I do them.”

This time it was his left eyebrow that went up, and Zofia’s lungs went ahead and collapsed.

“I do stunts,” she squeezed up from behind the cover of her cards. The king on them had started rolling his eyes.

“Oh shit.” Crane sat up straight, his head tilted slightly.  “Not a wine and rom-com girl then at all, are you?”

She shook her head. “No, no I guess not.”

“I can work with that,” he insisted, and swooped up the whiskey bottle, opening it with a quick twist of the cap and offering her with the first sip. Again.

She took it, bounced the word gentleman off him as she looked on, but realized it wouldn’t stick. Not really, anyway. It slid off his stubbly cheek, bounced away from his hard shoulders, and didn’t want anything to do with the loose set of slacks. But she tried and pushed it back up, because it sort of fit, even if it hung off in tatters.

The whiskey was decent at least, if a little on the soft end of things, with barely a tickle as it went down. But she wasn’t allowed much. One sip and he reclaimed it.

Zofia picked up her cards and kept losing.

* * *

“I don’t miss bills,” Crane said. “And parking. Shit. I don’t miss parking. Or two AM booty calls, this man has to get some sleep.”

“Two AM booty calls,” she echoed, and watched his head bob in a solemn sort of nod, a Woe be me, what am I going to do? nod that kicked up a spark in her gut.

“I’m popular.”

“You’re making it up.”

His lips turned down, and his eyes snatched at her, if a little slowly. “Yeah, okay. I am.”

They’d long moved on to the things they were better off without, and Zofia knew more about him after twenty minutes of passing a bottle of whiskey between them, than she’d done after all the almost dying together of the last few days.

He had a dog, a German Shepard. Titus. A best friend named Sebastian, who he called The Viking and when said Viking had gotten hitched with a girl named Julia, Crane had been his best man. A little after that, Crane had almost gotten married too, but the Viking had caught the bride to be with another and snitched like best friends were expected to. So he’d done the only reasonable thing: Came home after his deployment, stayed for a night, and snuck out the next morning with her stones in his pockets so he could sell them again and buy himself an Xbox and a dog.

Best decision of his life, Crane proclaimed with a wistful, honest smile on him.

She knew all of that, because he missed it all. But he didn’t care much for his brother, who he’d not told her the name of, and yeah— parking, that seemed to have come right from the devil, because he kept bringing it up.

It was the drink, Zofia figured. He’d made progress with the whiskey mostly by himself, and it had done something she’d never thought possible on the man. Slowed him down and tangled up his mind. At least a little.

He paused between his words, no longer articulated himself with his hands just as much, and he’d even stopped fidgeting on the spot. A lazy slouch pulled his shoulders down a little and his stares her way had lost the sharp, professional focus. Now he looked, rather than— she frowned. What? Studying? Judging? Calculating?

Just looking, a lazy blink here and there, and goofy smile at his own jokes, which were getting worse by the minute.

He couldn’t mix cards for shit any more either, and had abandoned their game in favour of demonstrating magic tricks. Which, all things considered, ended badly— and soon he sent cards flicking through the air, where they were quickly picked up by a breeze and tumbled towards the roof’s edge. Neither of them bothered chasing after them. They watched them go instead, and when she turned her eyes to him they’d already landed back on her.

Looking.

“You’ve had enough to drink,” Zofia told him. She had too, judging by how her legs felt warm and heavy, and her head lighter than it should, pain meds and all taken into consideration.

“Why?”

“Because you’ll have a hangover tomorrow, and you’ll be no good out there.”

“It’s Saturday,” he insisted, if insisting came stitched together from misery and a stubborn huff. “I’m having a weekend. I deserve a weekend.”

Truth, she figured, and looked at the radio lying on the ground next to him, his earpiece curled atop of it. Never far out of reach. Never off. He had every right to stop, even if just for a day, because far as she knew he’d not had a chance to since he’d landed. Passing out didn’t really count, though in hindsight it had likely saved his life.

“Sorry, but..” She felt a bit like a colossal ass for thinking about bursting his bubble, but she had to. “It’s Tuesday.”

“N-no. How would you even fucking know.”

“Yes. Look—“ Zofia reached for his hand, caught his fingers between hers, and pulled it towards her. With her left hand she went for the watch stubbornly (and likely permanently at this point) attached to him, her good fingers turning the dial up. It was a grubby thing, the band held together with tape, and the glass on it scratched and chipped. Still worked though.

She tapped at it. “Tuesday.”

Crane didn’t reply. Didn’t say a thing, actually. He’d gone so bloody quiet, Zofia hesitated before she looked up his arm.

He’d dropped his eyes to her hand. Blinked at it. His lips moved, and her throat felt suddenly very dry. She retreated, drew her hands back, and his eyes followed, stayed glued to bandages he’d put there today.

“I’m sorry.” The words came out throaty. Sore. They scratched themselves up his throat, and she flinched at the sound.

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” His eyes came up. Met her. A hard edge sat in them, cutting desperately through the bleary calm. “Don’t apologise for what I did to you? This—“ He reached for her, slower than he would have any other day, clumsily, with his hand almost sliding off her wrist as he lifted it up. “—is my fault. Okay? It’s my fault, and I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry I don’t know if there’s words for it. Jesus fuck, I’m—“

“Stop.”

He groaned. His tongue darted across his lips, his mouth worked quietly, and she could see more words ready to spill.

“Please. Don’t. I’m okay. I wanted to go. I chose to go.”

You came back. You promised, and you came back.

“I—“ He blinked and shed the hardness to his stare, returned it to something less biting that refocused on her after he let himself think over whatever he’d been about to say.

The fingers around her wrist tightened slightly.

“Shit. I want to kiss you.”

What?

Zofia’s throat clicked. Heat snatched at her. Harsh and quick, with an icy edge to it that slipped down her gut and whispered of things wrong and right and what she owed.  

“You— Bloody hell, Crane— I swear—“

“I won’t.”

He frowned and let go of her hand, left it falling away and her reeling for breath, fighting against the weight pressing in on her. The weight of what she owed.

“I won’t,” Crane repeated and gathered himself, grabbed clumsily for the table’s edge. “I’m drunk. I can’t— can’t kiss you while I’m drunk.”

* * *

The table didn’t like him.

Didn’t like him one bit. It tilted when he tried to pull himself up, teamed up with the I want to kiss you— on repeat in his head, and knocked him back to his knees. Maybe he ought to roll over. And not get up again. That’d solve things.

You fucking idiot— fucking smooth. You sad piece of shit, Crane. What’s wrong with you? 

Kyle winced. His mind spooled itself up like a snapped tape, flapping uselessly as it whizzed by, trailing smoke and misery, because what he’d left sitting there across of him was a disaster and he had no clue how to fix it.

Startled and wide eyed, a cat dumped into a cold tub of water sort of look on her, the Paper Tiger sat very still. If she had bigger ears, she’d probably have flattened them against her head and hissed at him. Right before clawing his face off. As she had every right to.

I want to kiss you? Fuck. Tact, Crane. Tact.

Tact.

Tact wasn’t staring at her, but he did it anyway, because he needed to figure out what to say. Look, I’m sorry. I get a bit raunchy when I’m drunk— The fading light caught her oddly from the side, slipped off her slim frame to deepen the hollow of her throat. I was just kidding. It sharpen the edges of her collarbone, too. Kidding. Seriously, I was kidding. She swallowed, one slow bob of her throat, and shivered, her right hand ghosting against her arm.

Shit. You’re pretty.

Thin, pale lips— not full and red and inviting —parted slightly with words on them that she ended up not saying because his stupid ass wasn’t worth the breath. A nose on the longer end of things, the tip awkwardly sloped, and she rubbed at it with her wrist and frowned, turned away from him with her brows pinched, and those things hadn’t seen a trim in a decent amount of forever— but she was still damn pretty.

Walked pretty as well, if a little stiff, all straight lines and no bullshit, with barely a sway in her hips (they were nice hips though). He liked it when she talked, too. She did that pretty.. prettily? All odd little I’s and a smokey sort of lilt to it. Shame she didn’t do more of it.

Kyle sighed, worked his eyes away from her, and she kissed him.

His brain revved. Once. Twice. Stalled— like a teenager learning to drive stick, and he tasted wine and whiskey and her, a clumsy off centre press of her lips against his, cold and dry and the best thing he’d felt his entire life.

Her warm, bony weight pressed into him and she muffled the “Mwha?” he tried to get up his throat before he’d forget how words worked. Left him sitting askew in his own mind, much like he leaned awkwardly with her clinging to him, afraid if he moved she’d fall off.

He didn’t want her to fall off.

Didn’t want her to let go.

A knee dug into his thigh. An elbow rapped his ribs. She trembled. Shifted. Looped an arm around his neck, climbing— reaching— one roll of her hips away from tearing a whine from his throat.

Kyle swept his hands along her side. Down— Up again, just a little, an inch— two— her shirt bunching against his fingers, a touch of skin burning him. Okay— Enough. But he slipped a hand under the fabric, ran it against her back, her knobby spine pressed into his palm. Alive. Alive— with her heart thudding against his chest. No longer shy— alive. He fell into the kiss, the whole stuttering mess of it, her lips landing between pulls for air, a touch of his tongue reeling her back in when she hovered with barely a breath between them.

Stop-Stop-Stop...

Wood creaked. Slid across hard ground, the table edging away. Kyle’s arm went up, found nothing to brace himself against and— “Shit—” He came up for air, broke the kiss, and she hummed— a throaty, cracked sound.

Stop-Stop— But he held on to her instead, wrapped a hand around her neck as she reclaimed his lips. Hesitated. One beat. Two. His fingers danced across her back. Snagged on the hard edge of her hipbone. Stayed there. Gripped a little tighter— matched the rhythm she built. Slow. Faltering. Each shift a heady, addictive rush that he didn’t want to do without.

Ohgodstopher—

His fingers threaded through her hair— soft hair, smelling of old feathers and dust —his thumb hooked below her ear and his lips hitched lower. Found her chin. Her throat. Murmured words against it he couldn’t quite make sense of himself— and traced an irregular path up again. Tasted her lips. Tasted sunkissed skin.

Tasted tears.  

* * *

“Stop—”

Zofia’s world turned her away. It pushed. Discarded her. It left her climbing after him, desperatly reaching. Failing. Her arms wrung to her side, trapped and squirming and why wouldn't he have her? He denied her the only thing she had to offer. Denied her what she owed him. 

“Hey— Hey— Here— Look— “

She didn’t want to. Couldn’t, because his voice leaned against a rasp. Disappointed. Unhappy. And that was her fault. She couldn’t even get the most simple of things right. Too broken. Defective. Too her. 

“Look at me.”

He kept asking her to. Begged her to, and she wheezed “I’m sorry,” which didn’t get very far because her breathing glitched, failed on the exhale, ran foul on the inhale, and turned into a painful hiccup. A sob followed. A gasp for air. Another sob.

“Come here.”

He wrapped himself around her, but not like she’d wanted to, not like she’d thought he’d appreciate, because he’d been nothing but kind to her and she’d been nothing, and why wouldn’t he let her?

“I’m sorry,” she tried again.

“Sssh.” A whisper of warm air against her ear.  “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

He gathered her up. “You’re okay.” Squeezed. Held on. He didn't mind her face pressed into his shirt. Or the tears falling. Didn't mind the months of her falling apart, piece by piece- the torn sum of what she'd come to be.  

He held on to her, and she shattered.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Peat and Ash


 

Waking came quick.

Had to, because she couldn’t afford being slow about it, even if at first all there was, was pitch black nothing stapled together from shadows alone, and an itch of noise against her ears. Grunting. Grinding. Growling and yapping, and Zofia tried to run. But the dark disagreed, snapped itself firmly around her legs, tied her ankles together, and left her heart kicking and panic raking at her lungs. 

Her knees caught on cloth, her good hand grasped blindly for anything at all— and she remembered waking peacefully, courted the idea of it, the faraway and long past tradition of not finding yourself wishing you hadn't woken at all. Because it hurt. Literally, this time around, with the top of her had cracking into a hard wall. Much harder than her head, which was quite something, and if she hadn’t bit down on her lips she might have yelped.

That’d have been bad too, much like waking slowly, because Harran came with rules: Be quick, be quiet, and always know where you are.

She failed one of them, and she failed it quite spectacularly.

“They won’t get in,” the dark told her, an unfamiliar rasp to its voice. Not from between her legs, where it still clung tight to her. But close. By her left. Her shoulder tucked itself away from it, her breathing hitched, and Zofia felt her skin prickle with a hint of warmth that wasn’t hers. It came borrowed, and she didn’t remember having asked for it.  

THUMP CLATTER the night replied from the roof, and her innards twisted, cold and wet, wished they could melt away because that stuttering yowl out there was about to rip its way straight for them and scoop them out of her, whether she'd like to or not. Might as well spare it the trouble. Be polite.

“You’re safe,” contradicted the dark, and with the words came the soft protest of bed springs. The covers she’d tangled her legs in (of course they were just covers, what else would they have been?) moved, tucking her aside a little and tightening around her hip where they’d snagged during her hasty retreat into the direction of wall.

Obviously not pleased, the dark huffed at her, informed her she was a Sheet-hogger, and tried itself at unravelling her. About the moment it pressed in close, all warm peat and ash, with a hint of OhGod, Zofia remembered it had a name.  

Then she remembered a lot more. Not enough, no. Not nearly enough, because how the hell had she gotten here and oh god why had she kissed him, tried to— almost had— would have— a pitched whine rung her skull, looped wildly, and then made it halfway up her throat.

Shame burnt hot against her heart. Too hot, and too heavy, and she couldn’t breathe through it, had to drag air past it with effort, and barely any made it through.

“Relax,” Crane said, because she’d started pulling at the sheets, tore at everything, her elbows up and knocking into him, and oh god she needed to get out of here. Needed air. Needed room. Needed anything but here. This. Him.

A hand landed on her shoulder and she withered, shied from the touch with an involuntary spasm dragging her to the mattress.

After that, he let her go.

Her guts roiled. She swallowed. Hard. Tried to keep her stomach in, but it wouldn’t listen, kept crawling back up every time she forced it down. She made it out the bedroom door at least, even though he’d closed it and she’d almost flattened her nose on the wood. Made it into the cold glow of UV light trickling through the cracks of boarded up windows, sickly, blue rays catching on the carpet and against her bare feet.

Oh god I’m going to throw up. Ohgodohgod.

Her legs carried her to the balcony door, not quite catching on with how terrible of an idea that was. Not right away, at any rate.  ’No-No-No,’ she told them and pivoted away, her hand falling from the doorknob (locked, it had been locked and she didn’t know where the key was— he’d locked her in here, she didn’t know how to get out— how was she supposed to get out?), and stumbled into the kitchen. She swept the counter, knocked things off that she couldn’t put names to, because she didn’t have the time to focus on irrelevant little details like that, and because they weren’t buckets. 

The one she found was stout and rusty, and something rattled inside of it as she pulled it away with shaking fingers and carried it off— off to somewhere— anywhere— where? Three steps and she retched. Tripped. Her knees connected with the floor, hard and sharp, and she bucked with every heave, her eyes squeezed shut, and hot tears biting at her cheeks.

Mid-heave number two, she remembered a little more. She'd buried herself into him. Snatched for air against his chest, pulled in the scent of fading cologne and peaty ash. He’d said a lot. Talked the whole time and not once shut up, thrown himself into a loop of nonsensical words whispered against her ear. Soft and without meaning to them.

Promises wrapped in lies.

By heave number three she noticed the warmth at her back. Borrowed again. Not needed. Not wanted. Desperately both. It travelled along her spine, tentative and kind, his palm not once lifting while she folded forward time and time again, wondering if she'd snap in half at some point, and if he'd bother piecing her back together. Maybe that'd be best. Maybe he'd get right what she'd tried and gotten very wrong. Or maybe she'd end up inside out. 

Heave number irrelevant (because she'd lost count), and Zofia leaned into the hand cupped around her quaking shoulder. For want of two hands to keep herself steady, she told herself. For want of strength to even try. Not the warmth flush against her side.

“Tough girl can’t hold her liquor, huh?”

His words rumbled in his chest, and he muffled them in her hair with his lips ghosting against her skull. Even so she felt the smile they carried, and Zofia entertained the thought of laughing, because this was ridiculous. She was ridiculous. Him, too. For thinking it was the drink. Or for knowing it wasn’t, and wanting her to know he did, but that he wouldn’t press it, because any excuse was better than the truth.

Instead, her back snapped forward and she lost the fight against another violent heave, even though there wasn’t anything left to hack up through her burning throat. Not like there had been from the start, save for her dignity, maybe.

Which, right at this point, she went and spent in its entirety. And Crane stayed with her. 

Hours passed. Days. Weeks. A whole bloody universe got done and big banged itself, and once that settled he got up, left her with her aching joints for company, and her head light and empty. Bit like her stomach, really, except that wasn’t rapidly filling itself with What were you thinking? Do you ever think? No, you don’t. Shouldn’t ever have opened that door for him. Should have never gone to the Tower. Should have never—

Wincing, Zofia pushed the bucket away from her. Just a little. Didn’t want to risk it, because you never bloody knew, and she’d embarrassed herself enough, thank you very much.

Why did you kiss him? Ohgohdwhy.

“Here—“ Crane tapped against her shoulder, right when her hips itched with the memory of his hands on them, and she considered going for the bucket again. Him being him, he caught on to that, and pulled it into her direction. Thankfully, she kept that particular memory down.

“You okay?”

Zofia sat back. More of him there, all heated skin and not much else on his torso, since apparently he’d ditched the oversized shirt. More peaty ash this time, too. She tried to shift away from all of that with altogether poor results.

“I’m sorry,” for an answer didn’t cut it. He squeezed her arm and repeated himself, more insistent this time, with a little more professional expectation, and less warmth and patience.

She nodded. The hand stopped squeezing and hiked down her arm. Not far though, just enough to rest in the crook of her elbow and press the bone into his palm.

Naturally, Zofia couldn’t keep her tongue from wagging on, and when she started with: “I shouldn’t have—“ he shut her up with a bottle of water and a piece of gum, both which she accepted somewhat reluctantly because she couldn’t tell him how much of an idiot she’d been last night with her mouth full.

The gum was nice though. Minty.

So she sat in her patch of misery and chewed, and for a while he didn’t say a thing and didn’t move. Words hung in the air around them, dancing about wildly, and not quite settling, even when he eventually stood and took the bucket with him.

When he returned he offered her a hand. She took it, let him pull her up, and only stopped breathing once when he flicked his fingers through her hair before he left her standing in the room so she could make up her own mind if she’d go to follow him back into the bedroom.

She didn’t.

She couldn’t.

Her jaw set, Zofia reclaimed the couch.

* * *

What remained of the night she spent listening to her heart limping from moment to moment, and Harran’s lively chatters past the walls of what constituted to home for the time being. Sleep wouldn’t come, and peace wouldn’t either, no matter her efforts. She tossed and turned, hugged a pillow to her chest, and counted terribly rotten sheep, none of which got her any closer to kick the unease from her chest.

At the crack of dawn, right about when she’d settled to staring at the ceiling and marvelling how clean and white it was, she heard Crane’s radio click alive. Once— twice— CLACK BUZZ CLACK— until a muffled “What the shit..” silenced it, quickly followed by a much more civil: “What’s up, Troy?”

Zofia sat up straight. Swallowed. She should get up, no? Do something. Anything. Make tea, maybe. Were there any teabags? Her eyes flicked to the kitchen cabinets. Did he even like tea? How was she supposed to get the water boiling? He probably didn’t like tea anyway. Coffee then, and she cringed, since coffee was a sin by itself. 

“I’ll be right there,“ he said and then went right back to cussing his way out the door. Halfway to dressed, she noticed, with his shirt still grasped in his hand, and all the way to dishevelled, one leg in his jeans and the other fighting the prospect of getting shoved in there too. Lopsided and clumsy was what he embodied while he battled his trousers, all the while hopping on one leg into the kitchen, and she liked to pretend her attention didn’t have itself snagged by a stupid grinning rooster before his belt snapped shut.

Or the glimpse of ink she’d not seen before. Dice, from what she gathered after the three— four— five— seconds of staring at it, because she couldn’t believe her eyes. A pair of them, sat on the lower end between his navel and hip. Too low. Way too low.

Did that man have no self respect?

“What?” He pulled his old shirt over his head, covered up the edge of the ink, and looked at her with the wrong end of his professional curiosity. The one with a faint smile attached to it.

“You have a tat,” Zofia stated lamely and his head cocked to the side.

“Two, actually.” Crane snatched at his shirt, and being the helpful and forthcoming person he was, pulled it back up slightly. Then he hitched his trousers downward to show her more of the dice, and she regretted having said anything. Sort of.

No. He did not have any self respect whatsoever, that was a given, and little to no shame to boot.

“For luck,” he clarified before he tucked the shirt back where it belonged. That made eight his lucky number, she figured, and wrung a stale breath from her lungs while he came to sit at the edge of the coffee table.

Great. Zofia worked her teeth against her cheek and watched him sitting with his back to her, hunched forward so he could pull on his shoes, and she wondered if this was where one tried to make conversation. Talk. Yammer on. 

Did you sleep fine?  

She sniffed. No. 

What about: Nice weather out, no?  Except she hadn't looked out yet, so it might be raining cats and dogs for all she knew.

Going off to get yourself murdered? My, that's exciting. Wish I could come, lend you a hand. But I'm a little short on that, see.

Sure. That'd work, except “Do you get lucky a lot?” was what eventually made the light of day.

Crane froze and then his shoulders twitched, one quick, amused puff of air for a laugh. Well contained and well mannered, but a laugh was a laugh was a laugh.

“Not all the time.” The lingering, pointed sideways glance he threw her knocked something over. Something that ought to have been holding her heart steady.

“I walked right into that one,” she admitted, her mouth dry and a tinge of heat on her neck, because really?

“You did,” he said and turned to face her properly. “How’s the hand?”

Jittery nerves still doing all sorts of jittering, despite him marching right past her blunder, Zofia glanced into her lap and flexed what was left of her digits. Three stubs, one perfectly sore index finger, and a scabby thumb. She winced. Yeah. Just a little short on one hand.

“Same.” Hurting. Useless, and she kept her eyes on the bandages, left him to finish fixing his shoes. Or whatever he was still doing there on the table. Being quiet. Being obnoxiously close by. Looking.

“Troy said they’ve made some progress, and they've got something she wants me to see,” he told the top of her head. “You’ll be okay on your own, right?”

She nodded.

“I don’t need to tell you to—“

“Radio if anything happens. Eat. No, no— I’ll be fine. I’ve been just fine on my own before.” He hummed in reply to that. Or cleared his throat. Or coughed. Made a noise, anyway, which didn’t sound very convinced.

Another testing flex of her digits, and she thought her thumb felt less stiff today. Usable, almost. Still reluctant to excessively thumb properly, but maybe with a little practice she could ease it back into it.

“Do me a favour?”

Zofia lifted her chin and caught him holding the postcard he’d nicked from her wall, brandishing it between two fingers.

“Find somewhere to pin that while I’m gone?”

Instinct— and shame —had her grab for the card, but he clicked his tongue and flicked his wrist back, ending her snatch with a lot of empty air.

“Don’t trash it,” he warned, plucked the words right from her head.   

Zofia stared at him, her lips set in a thin line, and hoped that’d tell him she wasn’t pleased with him getting cosy in there. Not any more than he’d already had, anyway.

“Okay, I won’t,” she lied and held out her hand and added, “Think we’ll be here much longer?” Here being an ambitious statement. This couch. This room. Old Town. Harran.

“No.” His eyes went to the door and his lips twitched down.

Two liars then, flinging false hope at each other with not a care in the world. Or maybe just a touch too much— whatever way you’d like to look at it. Least they were both consistent.

“We’ll be out of here soon. But until then might as well... I don’t know... make this place more homely. So—” Eyes back to her. Card too, apparently, and this time she was allowed to reach for it, even if he held onto it when she gave it a testing tug. “Don’t. Trash. It.”

Zofia nodded, and when she pulled on the card, the rest of him followed. Too close. Too quick. Too determined. He didn’t give her the time she needed to make up her mind, to pick sides. Follow her defective instincts, the please don’t howling from her heart? Or stay, give in to the tiny slice of her that was sick and tired of it all?

Up in the air about the whole thing, Zofia let him decide for her, since he’d gotten good at that already. His fingers curled lightly against her neck, and the warm weight of his hand persuaded her to stay.

A few stuttering heartbeats was all he’d wanted anyway, and he took them quietly, stole them with the touch of his lips against her forehead, no words to the crime, or an attempt at more.

Here now, gone then, not worth the effort to bolt, and when he stood he traded her the card, left it pinched between her fingers, looking a whole lot like her heart.

Worn, tattered and read.

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Beats by Minute


The camera jostled, its picture bouncing in the flickering confines of the laptop screen. Grade A Blair Witch quality, all inclusive with the hurried thuds of footsteps and a clamour of voices talking over each other. Frantic. Scared. But all he saw was a press of bodies, shoulders back and necks, and the picture trying to work its way through. It pushed and it shoved, with a sharp CLICK-ZAP-CLICK-ZAP-CLICK of cameras lighting up around it setting a stuttering tune.

People insisted off screen: “Sir? Sir!” — “ .. statement for the .. ” — “ .. what will this mean for .. ” — “ Sir, can you confirm.. ” — “ .. deny .. ” — “ .. last survivors?

With a final sweep, the view broke out from the crowd and landed on a sad excuse for a podium, where it caught a tall, wide shouldered man in dress uniform staring into the sea of reporters in front of him. His skin was pallid, and a sheen of sweat on his forehead reflected the onslaught of light. CLICK CLICK, the flashes kept going. He squinted.

Kyle recognised him. Colonel Taner. Head of the Ministry of Defence, and he plucked what he knew of the man from memory. Military turned politician. Reluctant at first when the GRE had taken over the quarantine efforts of Harran. Furious, when they’d taken over the city as time dragged on.

We can confirm— ” he started, only to be interrupted by the screen hitching, a shower of static dancing from top to bottom.

“Sorry,” Savvy grumbled. “The transmission got sketchy there, but it’ll be back in a moment.”

When the picture settled again, Taner’s audience had fallen silent. “ — for the past three days the local Harran forces have done their utmost to comb the quarantined zones for survivors. ” He paused, eyes downcast, a frown sitting beneath a thick, black beard that leaned heavily toward dishevelled and ill tended. The rest of the man didn’t look much better, with haggard cheeks and a uniform that should have sat a little straighter on his shoulders. Almost like he’d been losing sleep. “Given the results—” Another pause. Hesitation. A flick of remorse, or maybe just a glitch in the picture. “ —given we couldn’t find anyone, we’ve greenlit a cleanse, and will be carrying out a series of airstrikes to prevent this disaster from spreading. Once the operation is completed, we’re confident that the infection will be contained.

A horribly mismatched chorus of voices strained the laptop speakers and Kyle winced. Questions flooded the podium, laced with anger and frustration.

“There’s more—“ The top of Savvy’s head darted in, and his fingers snapped against the keyboard, just as Kyle had wanted to pick the fucking thing up and smash it to pieces against the nearest wall.

More, it turned out, didn’t help with that particular urge. If anything it made it worse.

The shaky, grainy feed from before was replaced by a clearer picture, banners in red and blue scrolling by at the top and bottom. The newsreels failed to mention anything that wasn’t related to the quarantine, much like what he’d grown used to before his deployment. Hardly anything else had seemed newsworthy back then, not with the world having been tipped off balance by a threat it couldn’t quite wrap its collective heads around.

Dates scrolled by. The When to the Who followed after, important names of those involved in an attempt to contain it all. Estimations of the known body count. Numbers of infected relocated after they’d been evacuated. Guestimations on the virus. Blame. More blame. Then some more blame, and of course the new tagline, the one Rais had made possible when he’d released the files to the public.

The GRE: Saviour or Villain?

Why the fuck that was even up for debate Kyle couldn’t quite fathom.

Squeezed between the reels huddled a family of four. Father, mother and two kids. Just missing the dog and the picket fence, with a SUV parked out front. Their clothing was just the right amount of dirty, and their eyes just the right sort of wide. All four of them had simple dust masks strapped to their heads, the white filters cupped around their mouths, and Kyle’s stomach twisted with a hopeless kind of disgust.

”The Ersoy family hid for weeks, and they’d given up all hope, until local Harran military found them in their family home in the heart of the once proud city. The last survivors pulled from Harran, and not a moment too soon, with a joint effort to cleanse the infection being launched within the next twenty-four hours.

“In light of recent events of the GRE being incriminated with evidence that would indicate a plan to weaponize the highly contagious virus, officials see the containment situation as too risky. We—”

Kyle’s hand snapped forward. And whatever sad little speck of hope had tried to cling on in him, that snapped too.  

“Shit,” he told the dusty and stuffy— god damn too stuffy and crowded and couldn’t everyone just give him some fucking space? — room, not feeling overly like stringing more words together.

His head spun. His ears buzzed. And his chest burnt with desperate, white hot anger that quickly ate him from the inside out.

Breathe, he reminded himself and did just that. In through his nose, one long drag at the air. Out through his mouth. Work that air. There you go. God fucking damnit shit what the fucking hell…

“Okay,” he tried again. More words this time. Less anger. “Looks like Rais couldn’t stall them any more. Jesus. We’ve got to do something right about fucking now or we’re all dead.”

“It doesn’t matter how often I watch this—” Troy started pacing behind him, her steps knocking against the wooden floor, and when Kyle turned to look at her she had her fingers interlaced behind her head and was staring into a whole lot of nothing. “I still can’t believe they’d do this. They can’t.”

“Yeah— yeah they can. And they will.”

“How?” She turned to him, a collected panic seated in her eyes. Not out of her mind, no. Troy still looked steady, and he couldn’t help but admire her for it. Then again, she’d had a few hours to digest the news. For all he knew she might have flipped her shit right after she’d seen the message the first time, and what he saw now was the aftermath of a meltdown. The proverbial nuclear winter after her world had gone up in flames.

Much like they would.

Soon.

She looked at him. Then Savvy. Then back at him. “How can they— they’ll be killing— I— how can the world let them do this?” Disbelief hitched a ride in her voice.

Kyle shrugged. “Easy. People are scared, have been for too long, but there’s no enemy to fight. No one to declare war on. No one to lock up. So they’ll try and make the problem go away.”

“But to believe there’s no one left?”

“They’ll question it. Eventually. For the time being though, they’ll buy it. They have to. Helps everyone sleep at night.”

“Guys.” Both turned to Savvy, who’d drawn the closed laptop across the table to him and had started drumming his fingers on the case. His eyes cut between them, and Kyle noticed the faintest hint of a smile on him. Irritation nipped at his gut and he tried to keep the The fuck you grinning about? under lid.

“So we shit on their sleep,” he said eventually, and Kyle frowned at how casually the young man let his desk chair sway left and right.

“What you mean?”

“If we show them that the Ministry is lying, will the bombs still drop?”

Kyle’s mouth opened. Closed. He swallowed. A dry and rough sensation, because doubt, fear and desperation never went down smooth, and neither did neatly torn up hope. He glanced at Troy, at her furrowed brows.

“You found a way to crack the radio block?” Her question jolted Kyle.

“Yes Ma’am.” Savvy sounded all manners of pleased, and Kyle almost choked on that last chunk of hope making its way down his throat. Then he looked straight at him, repeated the question of Will this save our life? and it took Kyle quite a bit of effort not to hug the dude.

“No— We get a message out, there won’t be any bombs. And we might just get out of here. How much time do we have left?”

* * *

Barely any, it turned out.

* * *

Kyle had set out to the Ember’s loft with an eager sort of reluctance, a heavy sky above him that promised rain as soon as the time was at its most inconvenient, and a hard night clinging on. Both to him (Shouldn’t have drank that much. ) and the world, its sun struggling with the concept of pushing through thick clouds, leaving Old Town sitting in a lingering, dirty twilight.

Now, two hours further into the day, the rain still held out on him, but his reluctance had turned to determination. Even if his mind hadn’t quite gotten the memo and kept prowling off track. Kept looping back to what — who— he’d left behind, halfway in the game at best, and that was the sort of thing that got a man killed. He needed focus. Needed a reset to flush last night from his system. The good (dry, cold lips— bucking hips), the bad (choked sobs— tears warming his shirt), and the ugly (a cry in her sleep— night terrors twisting her next to him).

She’d had two of them. Hadn’t waken once. But they’d woken him quick, and he’d stared on helplessly, because gently shaking her shoulder hadn’t done any good.

Then a pack of Volatiles had gotten themselves irritated by the UV lights outside, had made a racket on their roof, and then— well— then.

Yeah. Focus. There was shit to do, and Kyle wondered why he’d pulled the short straw on this one too. Could have been the volunteering.

”Are you certain?” Troy had asked and he’d bobbed his and said: ”Absolutely.”

Of course he’d volunteered. Because why not? If you wanted things done right, you ought to do them yourself, even if that meant it left you stumbling down the mouth of a horrible, horrible time to come.

Kyle snatched the half open metal gate and slammed it shut, felt his bones vibrate along the jolt of the impact. Bodies fell into it. Faces pressed through them. Teeth clicked. His own fucking fan club clawed for him through the bars, and they kept clawing even as he threw the locking bolt down and turned his back to them.

A flick of his middle finger ought to tell them what he thought about them. Something-something suck on this. Not very tasteful, but fuck was he tired of Zombies. Flashlight up and steps slow, his back itching with anticipation as the gate kept rattling, Kyle made his way down into the foul gloom. No surprises. Good. Just a lot of cold stone, and an overwhelming stench of rot and dried river muck.

The door at the bottom of the stairs proclaimed itself off limits to anyone not working for the Harran water-something-or-the-other, and Kyle pretended he was ten and sneaking into places he wasn’t meant to be after he got done with the lock. It needed a bit of coaxing, a little Come on baby, open for me and Jesus, you’re stubborn, but it eventually gave in and allowed him into the damp chill of yet another branch of the Harran underbelly.

“Okay,” he murmured, his light cutting left and right, catching on slimy walls and reflecting off dirty water trickling down the centre channel. “Through the drain tunnels. To the dam. Down the dam. Up antenna. Save the world.”

Five— six— eight Biters stirred. Two tripped over their own feet as they turned clumsily into direction. Another three went like dominos after, snagging on their fallen buddies and hitting the ground with wet, meaty smacks.

“Easy. I’ve got this.”

Heart in his throat, legs a bit heavier than he liked to admit, Kyle turned left and followed the map Savvy and Troy had prepared. The Biters he ignored. He’d just have to walk faster.

They were crafty those Embers. While most people survived, at best counting water and food, and thinking about tomorrow, the Embers were set to do more. Wanting out, Troy and Savvy had spent lives gathering intel. Literally, he’d been told. They’d hoarded equipment, collected maps, scavenged for blueprints, and never given up. All under Rais’ watchful eyes crawling through Old Town and tarnishing it with their ugly marks.

What they didn’t have though was a copy machine, and so Kyle had been given a few minutes to memorise the blueprints they’d used to plot a route for him while he’d still been blissfully sleeping, unaware that his luck had run out and the clock had tolled eleven.

And down here things looked a little different than up in the loft. No clean blue lines and neatly marked junctions. Certainly no convenient You are here.

Least it was still close enough to the surface to keep the Volatiles out. Light clawed its way through grates in the vaulted ceiling, and yet he half expected a set of yellow eyes to wink back at him every time his light lanced past a particular thick patch of shadows.

“Easy,” he repeated and kept walking. Arguably a bit faster than before.

It took him ten minutes until he reached his first obstacle: A man made barricade rising two-thirds from floor to ceiling. Solid wood, most of it, with a few sheets of corrugated metal tacked on where they’d found some to spare. Kyle stopped in front of it, his chin tilted up, and frowned.

Staying inside buildings hadn’t done Harran’s citizens much good, not at first, at any rate. They’d been overrun quickly once people started turning within the confined walls. So people had fled to higher ground. Or, present structure standing proof, tried their luck below ground. Not a bad idea—

He unhooked his crowbar, walked up to the barrier, and gave it three raps. “Hey! Anyone home?”

—but not ideal either. No one called back down to offer him a cold beer. 

“Okay. Right. Sure. Still got this.”

It took him four tries before he managed enough momentum to catch an edge and haul himself up, and then he almost landed back on his ass thanks to the plank his right hand had snatched breaking off.

“Fatso,” he muttered at himself and heaved himself up and over, right into an abandoned lookout nest, discarded blanket and cigarette butts included.

They’d skimped on stairs, and he climbed a rickety ladder down into a wide, cavernous space around thick pillars of solid concrete. Water storage, if he was to guess. His eyes cut left, then right. Probably. Some sort of gigantic storm drain, with a series of pipes easily as wide as he was tall lining the walls left and right.

They were all grated shut, cloth draped over the bars, keeping creepers and drafts out. Kyle held his flashlight high and one hand ready by his hip, fingers tapping a steady rhythm against the crowbar. The whole place looked almost nice. Homely. Least until his filter put together the pieces while he walked. It slotted them in place one after the other, and presented him with a few likely scenarios. None of them sported a happy ending.

A good amount of people had tried to hide here. Three, maybe four families worth, and they’d made the best of what they’d had.

Mattresses lay on plastic covering, pushed up in clusters around the thick pillars in the middle. Clothes hung from strings, catching his light and filtering it in muted colours against the dark and warping shadows into living, dancing things scampering across the walls while he slowly walked through the cavern.

Kyle frowned. Supply crates. Some GRE. Most empty. They’d even had two portable generators and had hooked them to a spiderweb of wires affixed to the ceiling. A handful of industrial lamps hung from them. Dead.

But still no bodies.

A few of the crates had been dragged into the center and fashioned into crude tables with a handful of rickety chairs to go with them. Most of those lay turned over, discarded in a hurry. No time to stand up slowly. No time to waste, because whatever had happened here, it had happened fast.

They’d left half eaten food behind. Had abandoned candles where they’d slept, which was evident by a patch of blackened concrete and a half burnt mattress, along with the sad remains of plastic toys in various stages between melted to a sludge, and halfway scorched.

Kyle’s stomach bunched in on itself and squeezed. They’d had kids in here. Trapped below a high ceiling. Thick walls ringing them. Knowing nothing but perpetual darkness, or at least a stubborn gloom that turned night into day and day to night.

“Maybe they got out…” he told himself, his light cutting in a slow circle. “No bodies. Yeah. They got out.”

All except one.

Kyle found him leaning with his back to the wall next to a drain blocked off by leftover furniture and wood planks. A terrible rush job, and he figured this had been where trouble had come from.

“Shit, man—“ He lowered himself to his haunches, face grim, and let his light settle on the man with half of his head missing, a shotgun propped against what was left of his chin. “—why’d you stay?”

Another look to the right, and this time Kyle heard it, a whisper of an answer to his voice. Or, rather, a wheezing inhale of air. The barrier jolted.

Kyle swallowed. “Right. Poor fucker…”

It didn’t matter if whoever was behind that wall had once been family, or if he’d stayed behind because family came first, and any second of a head start counted when you ran from death. Maybe he’d been bitten and known it spelled the end. Decided those he loved deserve at least a chance.

Didn’t matter. Not really, and Kyle hated himself because the next thing he did was pry off the cold fingers still grasped around the shotgun, and lift the weapon from the dead hands.

A Remington 870. Pump action. Loaded. He flipped the weapon, ejected the shells one by one, all whooping two of them. Back in they went, and a quick rifling through the dead man’s pockets yielded five loose shells and a box of cigarettes. He tossed the cigarettes, loaded two shells, chambered a fifth, and pocketed the remaining two spares.

Five shots to a firearm not ideal for his version of the apocalypse, but this here beggar wasn’t about to be picky. Kyle slung the carriage strap around his neck and got to his feet.

He left the panting, hissing and rattling barrier behind, and went to the grate covering the drain next to it. This one would lead him right to where he had to go. If he remembered right. All he needed was to turn the damn valve so he could pop the fucking thing open. The loudly squealing, terrible stubborn valve that needed a cranking with his crowbar because it gave him more grief than the gate back at the Bites Motel had.

Almost done, and he heard the kid.

It started quiet, with a shy sob ending in a faint wail riding along the last screech of old, neglected metal grooves.

Easy to miss.

Impossible to ignore.

“Shit.”

Kyle abandoned the grate and followed the choked whimpers, hard at work not to think about how it had gotten trapped behind that door he approached. How it had hid there ever since the place had been deserted, for however long that was. Scared. Lonely. With the last bit of human it’d heard having been the shotgun going off.

Yeah. Hard at work trying not to, and horribly failing on that end, because god damn, Harran fucking sucked.

Leaning his shoulder into the door and testing the handle ('Open.’ ), he tried himself at a soothing: “Hey— I’m coming in. You’ll be okay—”

It sobbed a little louder, and the door decided to get stuck in its frame.

“Shhh. It’ll be okay,” Kyle said through the slowly widening crack, while his mind went on a hike to What next land. No way he could spare the time to bring a kid back to the loft. Maybe he’d give it some food and water and then— then what? Leave it again? Abandon it?

He’d have to. But he’d call Troy. Have someone come through and pick him or her up. Yeah. That’d work—

The door came open after a insistent shove and Kyle stepped inside.

And the thing opened its small, round mouth, blackened lips pulled down over exposed gums. Kyle’s sanity caught on it. Tripped. Froze.

Child-sized.

Child-like.

Tiny, sharp shoulders poking from sickly skin tinted an inky blue. Thin arms grasping at air. One hand clutched around something red— jerky motions of Pick me up Pickmeuppickmeup.

Its head turned to him.

It screamed.

Kyle’s hands flew to his ears. His knees folded. His vision blurred, turned to storm of red and white. Hard pressure sat against the side of his head. Pushed in. Threatened to squeeze his skull together. Pop it like a melon in a vice.

It stopped. Briefly. Drew in more air, sucking it all in through a short, fragile neck, and Kyle lunged for it. Another wail slammed into him. He staggered. Got the shotgun up. Flicked the butt of it forward. Cracked wood into the thing’s head. Once, then twice, because it wouldn’t fucking stop screaming, and his brain felt ready to melt right out of his ears.

By the time it fell silent, Kyle couldn’t hear a thing. He felt the pressure lift, felt his bones stop shaking, but aside of that all he heard was a persistent, shrill ring and the quick beat of his heart working hard to keep up. Working too hard, and he groaned, turned away from the crumpled figure with its god fucking pj’s folded into its meat. Firetrucks. It was wearing firetrucks. Why the fuck was it wearing firetrucks and what the fucking fuck was it?

His mouth moved but he couldn’t hear himself curse through the bells chiming between his ears. As if he’d gone to the range without ear production, or gotten off the phone with the almost-to-be-mother in law right after that night. He couldn’t hear the rattle of the barrier either. Saw it though. Saw it collapse. First the bottom gave. Then the middle, and Kyle staggered out the door. Turned left— no— right— no— left, and bolted for the grate.

It came open. Quiet. Real quiet. Real hard too, and by the time he’d slipped through and pulled it shut, four Virals were snapping their teeth at him, wild and angry yellow eyes raking at him like their hands wanted to.

One more flick of his middle finger, and Kyle let the beat of his heart set the tune to his steps rushing along the pipe.

Fucking Harran…

* * *

Halfway down the rickety metal stairs clinging to the side of the dam, Kyle got his rain. Hard and wet and too god damn warm.

Another quarter, and he felt the platform he stood on shift. Two more beats of his heart, and something gave. His footing came out under him first, and then the railing he went for dislodged. He fell. Ass over teakettle, arms flailing at thin air, until the ground met him with a hard FFWOOMPFH and left him sprawled on his back. Gasping, his chest labouring to draw in air, Kyle ached for something else than the thick splash of rain on his skin. Something else than the noise rolling past him, his ears still unwilling to cope. His fingers had come away bloody when he’d checked them earlier, and for a moment there Kyle had admitted to a paralysing spell of fear.

Deaf. He didn’t want to be deaf. Couldn’t be deaf, because that’d defeat the whole purpose of living. What good was he if he couldn’t fucking hear. The thought of Zofia  and how she still owed him a song, had come a bit out of nowhere. And then he’d remembered she likely wasn’t about to play again any time soon anyway. 

He'd gotten her fingers cut off, after all. 

Kyle blinked into the rain. Watched it fall in sheets, a blur against the dark skies. Somewhere up to the right a hint of red and white bore through the thick air. The antenna tower.

Get up, you lazy fuck.

He still had work to do. Groaning, he sat. Wincing, he pushed himself to his feet. Cursing, he went on, the shotgun knocking hard against his chest, its carriage strap digging into his neck.

“Let’s go...”

* * *

They shut the thing off after the Quarantine started, but you should be able to get it back up and running. Check the power station and control room at the base.” Savvy hadn’t stopped fiddling with the piece of electronic magic he wanted Kyle to carry to the top of the antenna. His very own skeleton key, he’d bragged. Or battering ram, rather. Something to punch right through the jamming signals.

”What if the grid is down?”

”There— should be a backup generator.”

”Should be?”

”If there isn’t, then we’re screwed. Was a real pleasure, Crane.”

* * *

The door to the control room wouldn’t open. Kyle lodged the crowbar against the lock. Leaned into it. Slipped in the mud, his shoulder rapping against a bleak cement wall. “Open— for fucks sake— open the fuck up—“

Shadows crouched in close, moving with the shift of light struggling in the gloom. He turned. Counted four Biters. Tall ones. Heavy ones. They wore padded, orange jumpsuits. Construction workers, done with all their constructing, much like the hundreds, if not thousands, who’d called Harran their temporary home as it bloomed in the wake of the games. Migrant workers chasing hope. Finding the polar opposite.

Kyle stepped away from the door, abandoned his crowbar lodged in it. The shotgun came up. Safety off. He pumped the slide.

“Sorry, guys.”

After shot number two rocked into his shoulder, he thought being deaf might have its advantages.

* * *

There’d been more workers crammed into the lift cage, and they’d spilled out the moment the doors rattled open. Hungry and stiff as they’d been, he’d led them on an agonisingly slow chase around the control building, and skulked past them.

When the lift started moving, it bounced, and Kyle braced himself with his knees slightly bent while he stared at the ground shrink away below him. “Please hold. Please hold,” he muttered.

Above him, strained wires thrummed as they dragged him upwards. That he could hear that was a start. That they sounded about ready to snap, not so much.

* * *

At the top, Kyle’s ears picked up strong wind currents whistling through the metal skeleton of the antenna. They dragged on him when he stepped out. Chilled the water on him. Brought both relief and unsteady footing. Not done yet though. Not far enough up. Just a little more. Where little to more was fucking relative, because he’d left the mountains below him already, and a little might as well have him tickle clouds.

Refusing to look around, let alone down, he ducked into the centre of the antenna, and found the ladder neatly secured in crescent shaped metal case. Padlocked.

Kyle sighed. His crowbar bit into the lock, and he figured he ought to marry the damned thing when they were done.

He started climbing.

* * *

More wind up there, and Kyle allowed himself a moment to catch his breath. The air tasted fresh. Clean. Incredibly clean and oh-shit-high-up. He wrapped his fingers around a strut and leaned forward, looked out across the foaming sea churning against the shores as it ate its way inland between the peninsulas.

All of Harran lay out around him. Its mountains ringing the sloped coastlines worked into the ocean. Rolling hills and pockets of suburbs grasping for them. The Infamy bridge connecting the slums to Old Town. Looking tiny. Insignificant. A line of matchsticks hanging across dark water.

Kyle glanced straight down, past his feet and at the narrow band of land boxed in between jagged cliffs. Hard to think what waited down there wasn’t just a kid’s construction site toy set, unfinished road and tunnels included, with a few trucks thrown in for good measure and ants for Zombies that he couldn’t even make out from up here.

Groaning (because damn, he’d have to go back down there), Kyle rubbed at his neck, tried to wipe away the itch of sweat and water trickling down his skin. The whole trip back was going to massively suck, wasn’t it?

Probably. But nevermin—

A lone jet shot across the skies.

Its rasping roar bit into his ears. Dug in deep. Kyle didn’t look up, didn’t search for the plane. He found the panel Savvy had instructed him to work with. Popped it open. Ripped the satchel from his side, and hastily unwrapped the electronic board he’d been given, not once questioning the purpose of it, or the how. Communications hadn’t ever been his jam.

Fingers shaking from exhaustion and his nerves jolting along the storm his heart drummed up, Kyle flipped the frame holding a single, neat board of circuits and chips in place. He ripped it out. Replaced it with a matching one in size, but no-where near as neat, with its surface marked by the telltale signs of handcraft.

A blip of light on it turned green. ”Green means you’re good,” Savvy’s voice reminded him, and Kyle snapped around.

He saw the plane shaped dots approach from the horizon. Heard them rumble close. His radio clicked on. His breath caught in his throat. Wouldn’t let words form, not until he made it.

“Anyone who can hear me, please listen—“ he started. Pleaded. Hoped that this wasn’t it, that he’d not wasted too much time. That he’d made it. That this thing worked— that someone heard him.

“My name is Kyle Crane, and I’m sending this message from inside the Quarantine. Colonel Taner and the Ministry, they’ve lied to you. There are still people inside the walls, and if you let them firebomb Harran you’ll be responsible for the death of thousands! Please— you have to—“

The antenna shook. Red bloomed in the rain. Billowed outwards, angry and violent, as the first drop ripped into a cluster of skyscrapers to his left.

“God fucking damnit! STOP!"

A formation of six jets roared back at him, swung in an arch through the skies, their engines spitting viciously at the air. The grating at his feet trembled. He staggered, caught himself against the railing. Behind him, he heard the lift cable snap, a sharp metallic TWANG, followed by metal bending and screaming as it plummeted downwards.

Another explosion rocked Harran. Further right— too far right. Old Town.

“No-No-No-No!" 

The third one— didn’t come. With a flick of their wings, the jets broke away, their trajectory sending them away from Harran.

Spared them, after they’d ripped right into them, and he could see the smoke coiling against the rain already. Saw the fires fight the water. Winning, for now, greedy and fresh.

Kyle pushed against the railing, as if pressing himself close to the drop in front of him would help him pinpoint the impact location better. He flicked through this radio frequencies while his eyes tracked the fire. Tried to figure out where was where, if the flames sat right on top of Zofia. Right where he’d left her.

When he found her frequency, the one he’d told her never to change, she didn’t answer his choked call.

Not immediately anyway, because who in their right mind just sat waiting to answer his stupid calls?

“Are we okay now?” she asked, her voice hollow and distant. Hopeful though, and alive. Not screaming and burning and dying because he’d been too late. He’d done it. Made it in time.

Gotten lucky.

Kyle’s knees gave way and he sat, leaned his back against the antenna structure. Held his breath. Counted the beats in his chest. Willed them to slow. To settle. To drum him up something else than the frantic rhythm to their almost death.

“Crane?”

“Yeah,” he coughed into the radio. His heart itched. “Yeah. We’ll be fine.”

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Heads or Tails


The card with its stupid lighthouse on it hadn’t moved in front of her. It hadn’t gone up in a puff of smoke like she’d willed it to, hadn’t started smouldering at the edges or turned itself into confetti. It lay there, and it stared at her, accused her with its fading colours of a crime she hadn’t yet committed.

So she glowered back at it and waited, with her legs crossed and hands rested on her knees.

Zofia waited, and she hated it.

Her eyes flicked to the door. It had started raining.

* * *

She piled waiting onto the stack of everything else she loathed, right alongside the radio she kept picking up, her thumb hovering by the transmit button. Hovering, but never quite connecting, because what’d she say?

“Hello, Crane.” She walked across the room, stopped in the kitchen. “Will you be home by dinner?” Her eyes went to the MRE’s he’d stacked into a corner. A big haul it was, and she wondered what he’d used to pay for it. She picked up one. Looked at it. Tossed it back and sighed. “We’ve got— chicken things and an atrocity for meatballs. Tastes like stale fart.”

Zofia dropped the radio on the counter and padded to the door. The rain had gotten bad. Wind whipped across the balcony, and she’d had to weigh down the buckets and bowls with bricks to keep them from being blown off.

Least they’d have a lot of water.

Unless the skies started raining bombs.

They’d not be needing any water then.

A frustrated groan bubbled up her throat, and Zofia went to find refuge with a pair of pills, washed down with sour rain and thoughts of sour ends.

* * *

Shameful.

That’s what this whole deal was. Shameful and horrible, and she hated that she couldn’t do this proper, that she couldn’t keep her grip on the bow steady with her left arm ruled by a dull ache. Every beat of her heart sent a stupid throb along the length of it, and any moment now she’d have to let go.

Her right wasn’t off much better. Sore muscles, ready to seize, an equally angry shoulder, all set to fall right off, and her eyes— Zofia blinked, tried to squeeze the blur out of them.

Shameful, yes.

But distracting, and a distraction was what she needed, even if it made her feel horrible about herself and reminded her how she’d been reduced to a helpless victim hurting the day away while the world poured misery from the skies.

She exhaled. Slowly. Released the old arrow she’d nocked.

THUNK

It sunk into the wall and the room trembled, shifted around her as an irregular, stuttering thunder rumbled outside. The shot had missed the dinner plate she’d propped up on the cupboard by a good inch, and wobbled its shaft as if to mock her.

“Drat.”

And then the world knocked her off her feet.

A clumsy stagger carried her backwards and she rapped her legs against the low table. Sat down hard. Yelped. Her tailbone flared with a shock of brilliant pain, and that was just downright embarrassing. She ought to know how to fall.

Frustrated, she let the moment settle. Not for long though. Just long enough to realise this hadn’t been lightning striking close. The rain and wind drumming and howling against the walls had come without the bluster of thunder, had just been very wet and loud.

Zofia pushed herself to her feet and ran for the door. In the wall, the arrow bobbed madly, shaking along with the trembling building. The key turned quick and the world outside met her with a sheet of hard rain and a burning city.

Planes shot by overhead and she looked up, tracked them by the trails they dragged through the grey skies. Her throat seized up. Her legs rooted themselves against the tiles. And she wondered if it’d be quick once they covered Old Town in fiery death.

They didn’t.

Instead the planes carried on, and she looked back across the city, at the red smouldering between buildings to the East. It was a warm, out of place glow. A speck of colour where there shouldn’t be one, steadily rising against the skies and creeping through the streets.

Higher. She had to get up higher. Had to see.

Zofia whipped around. Picked up speed. With a quick hop up against the railing, and a stubborn push of her legs, Zofia leapt for the roof’s edge. She slammed into it hard, all elbows and arms and the bow snapping against her side.

Clumsy.

Useless.

Shameful.

Her feet kicked against the slippery wall and she squeezed a stubborn groan through clenched teeth, but she kept at it until she had one leg over the edge and then the other— until she stood and stared out across Old Town’s irregular landscape of rising and falling buildings.  

Higher, but not near high enough, because all she saw from the flat roof was the same dark red boiling in the rain. Thick black smoke had started curling up alongside it.

She tried to place the area, pin it on the map in her head, but all she found in there was a disarray of thoughts tripping each other. Every single one of them tried to get the final word in, and they almost drowned out her name: “Zofia!”

Startled, she looked around. Saw more red in the distance, out across the channel, hard at work against the base of a cluster of skyscrapers. But no one to call out for her.

“—answer—please—no—”

There it was again. Familiar, if a little metallic, trapped in a tin can bouncing down some stairs.

Crane.

She hit the balcony with a pained grunt and hurried back through the door, followed his voice squeezing itself through the radio, cracked and frantic. She’d left him— no, the radio —on the table, and by the time she’d scooped it up and pressed it against her ear, she’d forgotten what she’d wanted to say.

“Are we okay now?”

Well, that’d do. It was a valid enough question, even if her quickly thumping heart wanted to ask Are you okay?

He didn’t reply. And she couldn’t even hear him breathe, only heard more of the rain out there, or maybe that was just a rush of static, because in-between when he’d called for her and when she’d gotten there, he’d died.

Obviously.

“Crane?”

“Yeah,” he choked through the radio. “Yeah. We’ll be fine.”

Zofia’s eyes flicked back to the sheen of red roiling in the distance, blurred by the heavily falling rain. She pushed the door shut. Retreated into the room. Her arm came up and swiped at her hair, a hopelessly drenched shirt sleeve trying itself at rubbing water from her head.

Crane’s voice brought the radio back to her ear. “You okay? Are you far enough away from the blast?”

“I think so. I can see the fire from here, but there’s a river in-between, and the rain— the rain will get it. It’ll douse it, no? It won’t spread?”

“Not far,” he said and she heard him inhale sharply. A quick intake of ouch. Metal clanked about and Zofia closed her eyes. Listened. When he spoke again, he sounded strained. “But keep an eye on it. Can you do that?”

“Uh-huh.” She wandered further away from the door, dripped water onto the carpet. Left soggy footprints where she stepped.

And then he went and promised her life, because he was so bloody full of himself and thought she’d fall for it. Again.

‘Fool me once…’

“Good. Okay. Great. Now listen up. I’m going to get us out of here. So you sit tight and wait for me, okay?”

“Uh-huh,” she repeated. Lame. Quiet. A sorry excuse for hope kicked against her heart, then stopped, because it couldn’t be bothered keeping up appearances.

‘Fool me twice...’

“Oh, no reason to sound so damn excited. It’s not like I’m about to save your life or anything.”

Her teeth clicked shut, and Zofia huffed at the radio, tied her tongue up in her mouth, and couldn’t figure out how to tell him that she couldn’t believe him, because this hadn’t ever been meant to end well.

That she couldn’t fathom it, or think of it as anything else but an empty promise.

“Hey—” Professional again, the hint of playful offence gone from his voice. “I’m not leaving you here, so you better be ready to move when I get back. Understood?”

Zofia nodded. Then added the most convincing “Yes,” she could manage. It took effort, dragging it past the doubt and misgivings she couldn’t shake, and to offer it to the radio clicking off a moment later.

And it took effort to breathe when she realised the line had gone dead. That she’d have to wait. Sit tight.

Well, bugger that. No bloody way.

* * *

When the door opened to let the storm carry Crane inside, Zofia had just about paced a furrow through the floor and made it to the next apartment below.

He’s back. He’s— Upset? Or just miserable, drooping wet with his hair on the fritz, short beard dripping water from his chin, and clothes stuck to his frame in a drenched mess. A shotgun hung from his front. That was new.

It fit him though.

His eyes landed on her the moment he’d stepped past the threshold, darted up alongside her and made her abandon the next round of walking in circles through the living room. Frozen on the spot, Zofia said, “Hi,” because that felt like the most appropriate word to use considering he’d come back.

Like he’d said he would. Maybe she ought to start believing him. Stop doubting. But there were things you didn’t do in Harran, and getting your hopes up was one of them. It just got you hurt when life went to have a good laugh at your expense.

Crane smiled. A short lived twitch of his lips, both ends curling up, then dropping back down because he glanced at his wristwatch and that ruined his mood. Whatever mood that might have been.

“You good to go?” He indicated for her, a quick wave of his hand, and the motion drew her forward. One step— two steps— three— and her heart wasn’t in it. The tired thing stayed tethered to doubt crouched being her, and mocked her from back there.

Are you really about to fall for this?

Crane’s eyes took another tour of her and then cut right past her to the kitchen corner.

“We need to get back to the slums,” he said, and hurried inside with the wind howling at his heels.

See. There’s always a catch.

“Why?”

He ripped the cupboards open, dug for the Antizin he’d stashed there. “I managed to book us a flight out of here. Two tickets. Coach. They can’t set down in the 0 though. The blast knocked out the hospital.”

All four vials vanished into his pack and he turned back around, walked right up to her. Stopped a step from running her over.

“It was the only building both high enough and with a heli pad.”

“But there’s not enough time. We won’t make it before nightfa—”

“We have to. So, you ready to go?”

No. She nodded.

“Okay, sweet. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“What about the others?” Lena. Rahim. Jade— no, not her. Not her, because if there’d have been one person to deserve being saved it’d have been her. So naturally she’d had to die.

Half a step was what he managed before she’d dropped that question. Crane didn’t frown or pout or let on that he thought about them too. He looked at her instead and he smiled, his hand patting at the pack snug against his side.

“They’ll be fine. If we get the cure out of here, all this shit can be fixed.”

He believed it. For once, Zofia thought, he actually bought his own bloody lies. So she figured she might as well do the same. Maybe he was right. Maybe this would be it, and maybe she wasn’t going to die here. Maybe she’d get home. Maybe—

“Hey, you didn’t trash it, did you?”

Zofia frowned. “What?”

“The postcard, you didn’t—”

And maybe he was still a muppet.

Her jaw set and her arm came up as she jabbed her thumb at the fridge. She’d found a few magnets. Stupid things with stupid faces on them, and she’d arranged them in a frown. One eye held the card in place.

* * *

The Paper Tiger had been right. He’d been too slow on his way back.

They reached the sewers and they ran out of time.

* * *

Water washed hard past her feet. It snagged at her ankles and pulled her right leg out from under her. Zofia staggered forward. Fell. Because clearly somewhere between here and then she’d forgotten all about walking. Crane’s hand caught her arm. Pulled her up and onwards, every one of his steps accounting for two of hers as she tried to keep up against the torrent of rainwater around them.

Her teeth chattered and she was cold, her muscles burning with an unfamiliar stiffness and her toes aching in soggy shoes.

“This sucks,” she told the black water rushing by and the hand settled around her bicep. It squeezed, and up in the almost perfect darkness, Crane coughed up a miserable chuckle.

His torch wasn’t doing well in here, and hers fared even worse, its beam flickering unsteadily from where he’d taped it to her shoulder.

The shadows were too thick, and the sheets of water pouring from the drains overhead washed their lights right out of the air. She barely recognised the place, and every step had her second guessing where she led him. Comfortably wide tunnels with decent room to move had reduced themselves to narrow pathways snug against cold walls, and what had once been relative silence was now a constant, disorientating murmur of water. It was hard to tell left from right— to spot the white arrows winking back meekly when their torches found them.

She swallowed hard, her eyes searching the dark.

Why’d she thought this’d work?

Why’d she let him fool her again?

And she’d believed it for a bit. Really had. For a while, Zofia had thought he might have been onto something, because he’d been so bloody confident about it all, and who was she to argue? Or what choice had she had anyway?

None, really.

She could have told him to go on his own. Leave her out of this. Leave her here. She could have stayed with everyone else abandoned behind tall, thick walls. Forgotten by a world that seemed to have grown weary of them. Weary of her.  

No. She’d gone right with, bow strapped to her (“You should leave that here…” — “It makes me feel better.” — “Fine.”), and they’d made good time across the Old Town roofs. After all, she wasn’t just some stupid Tourist reading his map upside down.  

He’d called Troy on his way out, and she’d wished them luck. Then he’d called Brecken and Lena. They’d done the same. And maybe they’d all meant it.

Yeah.

She’d almost thought it’d work.

It didn’t, and she should have bloody known.

* * *

Kyle mistook it for a Biter first. One that hadn’t gotten swept off its feet and washed down the drain channels like flotsam made of flopping meat. But his flashlight grazed it as it lurched through a curtain of dirty rainwater, swept over gnarly muscles and broken skin. Hunched forward. Long arms. Jaw half open, a scratchy, out of tune breath sucking in air.

Volatile.

A fucking Volatile.

It saw them. Set yellow eyes on them. Stuttered and wailed. Ripped the air around his ears. Liquified his spine.

And Kyle got to work.

He pushed Zofia aside, turned her into a blur of light dancing away to the right. Out of sight. Not out of mind. The Volatile ignored her. Went for the bigger target, the one with more meat on it. Its jaws fell open and teeth that might have been human at some point flew at him, right along with a set of crooked claws.

Kyle had teeth too.

The 12 gauge type.

He snapped the shotgun to his shoulder. Didn’t bother aiming, because centre of mass was headed right fucking for him. Kyle squeezed the trigger. Deafened himself. And then he ran.

You’d have thought a direct hit (almost perfect), would have killed it. If not that, then maybe stopped it— disabled it— crippled it.

It did jack all. The Volatile was thrown off course and it went down hard, its mass almost knocking into Kyle’s feet and throwing him like a bowling pin. And then it got back up. Didn’t miss a fucking beat as it flipped itself onto its legs and sprinted after them.

* * *

Deja vu.

She’d led him through a tunnel once, and they’d almost gotten eaten then. Now she led him through another, and Zofia wondered if she’d be dessert.

“Go-Go-Gogogo—“ He insisted, but she would have gonegonegonegonegone anyway, legs pumping under her (slipping, almost slipping— too much rain, too much mud and bits of people), and the useless light sharpening shadows and doing not much else.

Behind them, the Volatile hacked up a hungry yowl.

Around them, the walls echoed the noise. Then they kept yowling and wailing, each cry pitched differently as more of nightmares joined the call to the hunt.

* * *

Great job, man. Great job. Woke up the whole family, you fuckwit.

And the family was hungry. Above them, night sat at the edge of falling, the day limping out of its path, and that had brought them out. Right when Kyle had dragged the Paper Tiger through the twilight of storm drains and sewers.

Almost out. Almost safe. Almost with their feet off the ground, Harran falling away below them, the soothing THUDTHUDTHUDTHUD of chopper blades carrying them off. Almost ready to close his eyes and feel Titus’ fur bunching between his fingers, and Seb’s chiding: “I told you this was a stupid fucking idea, now have a beer.”

Almost.

Kyle gritted his teeth. His eyes cut up, past Zofia, and found dusk flirting with the notion of one final goodbye. A hint of light winked at him.

His last Hail Mary.

“Up the duct!”

She heard him. And maybe she saw the idea of light flowing in with the rain through the gutter shaft. Maybe she saw the ladder on it. Maybe she didn’t. Either or, she could have kept running, what with death tearing after him. But she didn’t. And Kyle loved her for it.

The Tiger turned below the duct. Quick and smooth. She tucked her shoulders in. Looked at him. Wide eyed focus snapped to him, and he loved her for that too. No way she’d make the leap on her own. She knew that. So she waited until he caught up, waited those two agonising drum rolls for heart beats, and stepped on the barrel of the shotgun.

Kyle lifted her.

Her legs went up, ankles and all, and he would have liked to climb after her. But he couldn’t.

Not yet. Not ever, probably, but he’d cross that bridge whenever he got there. If it hadn’t burnt up.

He turned and the Volatile crashed into him.

Its claws caught on the shotgun and Kyle pushed back. Monster and man growled at each other, the Volatile’s jaws snapping for his throat, catching air. He didn’t need such a good look at it. Didn’t want to, no sir, fuck no. Leathery, gray skin clung tight to its bald head. Ripped around its cheeks, revealed thick sinew and muscle, raw flesh with bone sticking out. And of course he counted the teeth. Because it had too fucking many of them. Thirty-two-man teeth and then some, the bottom of its jaw cleft in half and having grown sharp fangs ready to shred him to bits.

Kyle didn’t feel like getting shredded.

“Fuck— you— ugly— piece—” His right arm dipped down. The Volatile tore past. Something on him flared with sharp pain. His side or his front, he couldn’t be too sure. “—of shit.”

Shotgun up. Finger on the trigger— it settled in hard against his shoulder. A shriek and the Volatile kept coming. Kyle caught its chin against the wooden butt. Or one chin anyway. Some chin. It staggered. One step and its back hunched. An arm raked at him. He slid back, felt his shirt tear. Heard it stutter up frustration before it lunged again. Right for him. Kyle jammed the shotgun forward, into wide open jaws. The Volatile bit down on metal. He squeezed the trigger.

Once.

Twice.

Empty.

It kept coming, didn’t quite catch on quick enough how the back of its head had come apart, and slammed into him. Kyle was knocked off his feet, onto hard, wet ground. His skull cracked against concrete. The air whooshed from his lungs. He coughed and he wheezed, but he wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway.

His arms protesting how he’d gone out of his way to batter them, Kyle rolled the Volatile off him and struggled with getting his legs back under him. He slipped twice. Almost managed to trip the third time too, but the wet smack of heavy footfalls headed his way from both ends of the tunnel convinced him that now wasn’t the time for rolling in the muck.

* * *

The ladder bounced in her grasp and Zofia wished she’d been born a mouse or some other insignificant rodent. Because then she’d have slipped through the bloody metal grates, rather than being trapped in a cold, wet blender of sorts. Her cheek and shoulder were squashed against the unyielding lid while the blades below turned. Bones shaking, teeth chattering, she slipped her fingers through the gaps. Water washed over them. Over her. Down her chin, into her shirt. Torrents of it, dirty and cold. 

Again the ladder rattled and she wanted to scream, because Crane was dead and now she’d get eaten from the feet up.

When it grabbed for her leg, she kicked. And when it blinded her with burst of bright light and grunted at her, she almost kicked again.

Then it crept up along the ladder, all manners of crowding her with heavy arms to her left and her right, and a rapidly rising and falling chest.

Oh.

He’d lived, but he’d put on some red, the water hard at work washing it from his front where both layers of his shirts had been rent open.

“You’re bleeding,” she told him. Just in case he hadn’t noticed.

He huffed at her, flashed her a wobbly smile, and then the shaft he’d sent her up into filled itself with mostly him and very little of anything else. Zofia slipped down, shifted on the ladder to give him room to keep climbing, one clumsy, apologetic reach after the other. Until they hung huddled together at the top, her lodged in sideways with her shoulder catching on his chest, and him with one arm of his steadying himself behind her back. The other started working on the gutter grate.

Below them, death plodded past, one monster at a time. Her chin dipped, and she looked past Crane’s straining front, the bloody mess of his shirt, and their ticket to safety tucked away in the slim pack. One Volatile stopped where she could see it. Snuffed at air. Turned its flayed head left and right.

Stutter-stutter-stutter it went. Where are you? Where did you go? I’m hungry, so come out and play.

Don’t look up oh god please don’t look up.

A hand slipped against her hip. Squeezed. Zofia almost squeaked.

“Sorry,” Crane murmured, but didn’t let go, least not until the thing lumbered on. And even then it took another few heartbeats and a pointed look his way before the warmth lifted.

“Hang on, I’ll have this open in a second.”

He braced his back against the wall, lifted the crowbar up and slid the pointed end into a groove. The lot of him tensed, his arms shaking and his jaw set tight, and Zofia found herself feeling about as useful as a bloody hand break on a canoe. All she was good for was watching, her eyes flicking up, then down, unable to decide if it’d be better if she’d see death coming, or if she’d rather keep looking at him to wonder when he’d run out of steam.

When the gutter cover jumped and his arms snapped down, he laughed. A breathless, triumphant and short lived noise, but it curled around her heart anyway. There it squeezed a little, wrecked her chest. She breathed out. Breathed in. Watched him push the grate open and climb past her, and she didn’t move until he crouched by the edge and offered her a hand.

Zofia blinked at his dirty fingers. At the scabs and the blood clinging to them. At the sincere hope looking down at her. A piece of her, one she’d figured broken beyond repair, stammered its approval.

She climbed a little higher, snapped her hand around his wrist.

And tried very hard not to hope.

* * *

The first places to go had been hospitals and clinics.

Some unfortunate S.O.B up the chain of command had decided that containment was a brilliant idea. That you could strap raving people to tables. Prod them with needles. Fix them. But that had gone straight to hell real quick, wrapped in a neatly arranged gift basket full of freshly turned Virals.

Kyle knew all of that since he’d skimmed the reports. The bits and pieces they’d thrown together for his reading pleasure, while he’d lounged in a briefing room with a cup of shit coffee for company.

Those places had also been the first people had tried to ransack when everything had fallen to pieces. Tried and failed, mostly. He knew that because Lena had told him about the clinic. And because she might have hinted that it’d be nice if he could go take a looksie.

Maybe later, had been the conclusion and he’d gone off to chase his own tail for a few days instead, cocksure that he wouldn't need to get back to that promise.

Later had come and gone, and Kyle found himself with the pleasure of approaching the slum’s hospital, a modestly reluctant Paper Tiger attached to his left.

“We’re never going to get up there,” she told him. Again.

“Has anyone ever told you that you suck at pep talks? Like, really. You’re shit at them.”

Her hip bumped into his and Kyle looked down, at how tightly she clutched her bow with her good hand and how water dripped down the lot of her in rivulets. Every shiver of her made him only want to move faster, find some place warm and dry.

She looked up, her dull gray eyes searching the night skies and frowning at them. Or him. Or everything. His jab she studiously ignored.

“Come on.” He nodded towards the building sitting in the dark in front of them, its walls draped in thick sheets of orange plastic stamped with hazmat symbols declaring the place unfit for entry.

He agreed with that assessment and hung right, went on until he found what he was looking for: A fire escape.

Just one more climb.

* * *

It was a shitty climb and it didn’t get them all the way. The last two levels were missing in action, with only its hinges still attached to the side of the building. Kyle went for the nearest window and knocked the glass in with two jabs of his crowbar, before he swept at the sharp shards at the bottom until it looked passable.

His light found chaos inside, a hallway made of bloody floors, dusty walls, and overturned gurneys. But nothing came to investigate the shattering glass, and after he felt confident enough nothing would , he climbed inside and helped Zofia out of the rain after him.

“I told you we’d make it,” he said while he let them both carry water through the hallway. His eyes cut left and right. Closed doors. Every single one of them covered in hazard tape. One of them rattled in its hinges, the wet, gurgling groans of Biters slipping through the cracks. He hoped it’d hold. “We’re almost there. The helipad is on the other end, but once we’re on the roof we should be good.”

“I didn’t see a helicopter.”

“They’re waiting for signal flares. I pop them and then we wait for fifteen minutes—” They reached the staircase door and Kyle nudged it open, his crowbar at the ready and light cutting at the dark. Left, clear. Or rather, a pile of furniture blocking off the stairwell. Right, clear. Up? Hopefully too. “—and then it’s pizza five times a week.”

She padded after him. Quiet like a mouse, or a particularly shy tiger following at his heels. One floor up and he checked if she was still there.

“What’ll be the first thing you do when you’re out?”

His question got her attention and she looked at him, squinting against the light he’d trained on her, and Kyle let the flashlight dip lower until it caught on her muddy pants.

“I—” She frowned. “Don’t know?”

“Guess that’s fair. You’ll have time to think it over for a while anyway. They’ll quarantine us first.”

“Ah—”

“Yeah. Sorry. You’ll be stuck with me for a bit longer.”

The Paper Tiger’s brows furrowed and she looked at him. Stared. It didn’t last, faded right when he thought it was getting good. But when her eyes went to dance to his shoulder again, and her feet started carrying her past him, Kyle thought he saw a smile on her lips. Small and lightweight. But damn, did he love it and—

A loud clatter snapped both of them around and Kyle drew her up behind him. She didn’t protest.

“Shit,” he breathed. It had come from down below, and he waited for the telltale sound of feet smacking against the steps. When all he heard was their own quiet breathing, and the rain pelting at the walls around them, Kyle felt his grip on his crowbar tighten, even as his fingers itched for his sidearm.

“Jumping at shadows,” he murmured to himself, turned, and guided her up the stairs with his arm looped around her back.

At the top, Kyle paused only long enough for the hollow echoes of their footfalls to fade, and when nothing followed them, he tested the door handle. It moved freely and the door came open with a quiet click.

He swallowed and stepped out, Zofia following close behind.

The first shot greeting them went wide.

Number two clipped the door where she’d stood a beat earlier, and Kyle heard the bullet ricochet with a hollow, metallic TWANG before more of them whizzed by overhead. They impacted into the concrete behind them. Showered them in finely grained dust and peppered their backs with sharp shrapnel.

Zofia whined under him, a quiet, confused tilt of her voice that had him want to apologise for having dragged her off her feet and pushed her against the wet ground.

Right after a You’re welcome and the “What the fuck now!

Not like he had to wait long to get his answer. It came when the gunfire died down and echoed across the roof, declaring tonight to have gone appropriately tits up.

“Crane!” Rais called. “How inconsiderate of you to keep me waiting.”

Of course. Of fucking course.

Kyle hissed “Stay low,” at Zofia and went for his sidearm, his eyes scanning the roof for their attackers. He heard one before he saw him. Behind them— heavy boots pounding up the stairs.

A trap.

This shit had been a trap, and he’d walked right into it with his pants around his fucking ankles.  

Somewhere off in the distance, the rhythmic WHUP-WHUP-WHUP of rotor blades had itself a good laugh, and Kyle wanted to stomp his feet and throw a tantrum, because this shit wasn’t fair.

“Come on out,” Rais taunted. “We have a lot to discuss. Parting gifts to exchange.”

Kyle’s eyes cut across the roof again. He flung his flashlight away, let its beam spin wildly through the night, and the motion drew another sharp staccato of gunfire. Muzzle flash. Close by. To the left. From between heavy, stocky shapes of equipment left behind after failed evacuation attempts. The whole damn roof was cluttered with junk, piled between ventilation ducts, metal walkways and heating structures.

A bit of a labyrinth.

A lot of cover.

He tapped Zofia’s shoulder. “Right. Behind the pallets. Go. Now! ” The moment she scrambled to her feet, he rose to his, sent three shots down into the general direction of the muzzle flashes. They returned fire, but they returned it blindly, and he bolted after her and slid the rest of the way when the potshots turned more purposeful.

Up again— one hand against her back, the other pulling him forward. Behind them, the roof access door flung open. Bright light cut towards where he’d just crouched, a moment after he’d hauled himself and her around the next corner.

More shots ripped into their cover. Splintered wood. Dragged a few startled cries from her throat.

“Fuck-Fuck-Fuck.” Kyle chanced a sweep of the roof, caught the blur of red smoke fighting the rain towards the other end. The helipad— Rais had called the chopper.

“This doesn’t have to end in blood, Crane.”

He swallowed thickly. Glanced at Zofia.

“Hand me the cure, and you’re both free to go. Run back to Brecken, for all I care, it’s all the same to me. But you’re not getting out of here, and I’ll tell you why. Because you’ll never have a thought of your own, you’ll keep dancing to whatever whistle blows the loudest. The GRE. Your friends at the Tower. The Ministry. It’s time to stop pretending you’re more than what you’re made to be and do as you’re told.”

“Oh would you just shut the fuck up?

Kyle let the anger sit at the base of his throat, took a deep breath, and snapped his pack free.

“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” Rais continued. Light danced across the roof. Guessed where they might be. “But you’re about as predictable as you are profane, Crane.”

Next to him, Zofia stiffened when he slipped the strap of his pack around her neck.

“What are you doing?” Her whisper barely carried through the rain.

“I want you to get to the pad.”

“Are you— are you mad?”

“Yes. Yes I am. But I need you to do this for me. Can you trust me?”

“N—No. No I can’t, you’re—”

He snatched her chin and made her look at him, even though he really couldn’t spare the time to get his eyes off the roof. Off of Rais and his men— three? Maybe three. Hopefully three. No more, because then they’d both be fucked. More than they were already, and Kyle had gotten tired of getting fucked.

“I promised you I’d get you out of here. So I want you to keep your head down and get to that pad while I keep them busy. Okay? Your ride is almost here, and you’re not missing it.”

“You’re not staying.”

Kyle swallowed. He wanted to lie to her, tell her No, I’m not. I’ll be right behind you. Wanted to be just that, because he’d have liked to get home. Live to regret. To hate. To love. Maybe. He drew her into him instead of lying, pressed a hurried kiss against her brow, and whispered “Go.”

It came up hoarse. Pathetic. Kyle figured he’d regret it in a while.

But he’d promised.

No way he’d back down from it now.

* * *

Zofia liked to believe she would have argued if he’d given her the chance. Properly argued. Properly told him he was being a muppet, and muppets weren’t meant to make decisions because they were terrible at it.

Crane didn’t give her a choice. He ripped the bits off her that she’d begun to think she’d missed, and he sent her off with the chatter of his gun. One loud POP after the other while she ran.

And she ran, because she was good at that. Had perfected it. She stayed low like he said she should. Waited whenever silence fell, and listened to Crane make his stand.

He bellowed insults at Rais. Nonsensical ones. Terrible ones.

And Zofia listened, wanting nothing more but for Crane to keep talking, because with every word he said he wasn’t dead.

“You’ve upset a lot of people,” Rais called back at some point. Behind her now, just by a little. Ahead, a tall meshed fence cordoned off the the rest of the roof, and Zofia knew she’d have to get past it. “A lot of very powerful people. Don’t be surprised that they don’t want you leaving Harran.”

“Give me a fucking break! You’re telling me they’ll let you out? Because you’re such a fucking prodigy?”

“Politics. Simple as that. I’m the one that exposed the GRE. You’re the one that came to bring home their plans.”

Further behind her still, and another step closer to the fence. She saw the helicopter now, a heavy blob nearing fast, a wide swath of light dripping through the night in front of it.

“You’ve dug your own grave, Crane. And I am going to enjoy putting you into it.”

More shots. A cry of pain. Not Crane— not Crane— couldn’t be Crane, and Zofia almost turned around. Almost hurried back where she’d left him, until a hard, sharp wind reminded her she’d been told not to.

The helicopter sat down, its deafening thrum calling her closer. So she kept going, inched forward.

A look left and she saw one Rais’ men standing by the only entrance. He stared down the roof, a rifle lifted against his shoulder. More gunfire barked from back where she’d left Crane, and the man with his swathes of yellow stepped forward, towards the noise. He didn’t look left. Didn’t look right. Didn’t see her stand and dash across the concrete roof, her feet hitting the ground hard as she sprinted through the rain. She slipped in behind him, her heart in her throat, and then right back down in her stomach, snapping back and forth on a rubber band of dread.

Another cry of pain.

Not Crane.

She reached the helicopter. It was big. Bigger than she thought it’d be. Painted dark gray. Loud. So loud. Zofia skidded to a halt. There were people in there. Of course there were. Three of them reached for her as they shouted for her to Get on!, their gloved hands frantically waving, and their helmetted hands bobbing wildly.

At some point she’d started shouting too. She cried to them that she had the cure, but that they ought to help. ‘Help. Please. Help.’

“Help him! You’ve got to help him!”

They didn’t listen.

Behind her, Rais snapped: “Get her!

Sparks lit the night around her. The helicopter whined, and a hand had her by the elbow and dragged her inside.  

Go-Go-Go!” one of them barked. The world lurched sideways. Then up. 

* * *

Good little Tiger, Kyle thought.

And he meant it. Even if the helicopter dipped away without him, leaving him with rain to fuck up his vision, and four shots to his name.

Granted, it could have gone worse.

He’d gotten two of Rais’ men. One because he’d strapped a light on his rifle, sparing him the need to squint and aim, the other because he’d looked at Zofia as she’d run and took a moment too long to turn and line up a shot.

Two down, two to go.

Two down, and thoroughly pinched in.

He’d had to follow her a little. Get himself closer to the pad, so they couldn’t go after her. Make himself a threat by sheer proximity, and maybe get to the rifle one of Rais’ flunkies had dropped. But that hadn’t worked out, and now he crouched behind a stocky crate with a whole lot of nothing at his back, and Rais with his last man bearing down at him from the sides.

And then things did get worse, because someone had loaded his dice while he’d not been looking and ended him with a row of snake eyes. The gunfire and helicopter had gotten the slum’s attention, and he heard them trying to find a way up the side of the building. Once they did it wouldn’t matter if he’d gotten his hands on that rifle. It’d be useless in an argument against all that death wanting for him.

Kept your promise though. Yeah. Small blessings.

He caught movement on his right. The goon ducking between cover. Flanking him, and Kyle wasted two shots. The third clipped meat. The fourth had his target stagger and fall to not get up again.

All out.

Not down though, not yet, and Kyle plotted a path back to the door, because if he made it back into the hospital he might stand a chance. Plotted it, started it, and froze when he stepped into a beam of light.

“I should have killed you at the Pit,” Rais snarled from behind the rifle, his lips pulled back from perfect white teeth. His finger rested on the trigger.

Kyle’s jaw set.

He’d run out of luck. Called it wrong. He’d piled on his mistakes and there he was now, staring down the barrel of every decision he’d ever made.

Shit.

Game over.

Rais pulled the trigger, and the night came pouring in around him.

* * *

Zofia found herself ready. Whatever way it had wanted to go, she’d been ready for it. But he’d messed it up. She should have known. Should have known the moment he’d fallen from the sky and knocked Harran off its feet, that he’d be trouble.

The infuriating sort. Intimidating. Well mannered, and anything but. Persistent.

He’d gone out of his way to mean a little too much, and a little too soon, and even though she tried real hard to believe otherwise, he’d made himself worth it.

Worth falling again. Worth catching the concrete roof against her shoulder. Worth living for, even if it’d kill her.

It didn’t make much sense, but at least she was ready.  

Ready to draw her arm back, her fingers kissing her cheek. Ready to squint against the rain, let the air puff out her nose. Slow. Steady.

Ready to let go.

* * *

Rais missed. His arm jerked aside and the hail of bullets cracked into the ground. Kyle exhaled. Tried to catch up with not being in agony. He stared at the arrow lodged into Rais’ arm. Heard the man scream. Saw him bring the rifle back up. Aim at him— no— her .

* * *

She’d gotten the shot wrong. Sort of. Zofia nocked another arrow. Brought the bow up and drew back. Rais turned towards her.

Oh. Dead now.

Crane flew by, knocked his shoulder into Rais and they went down in the rain. A tangle of hate, limb over limb, frustration and pain, and blind fury.

Blind to the night, and blind to their audience clawing its way over the edge of the roof. Zofia let the arrow fly. It sent the first Volatile falling back. Not because she had hurt it, but because death abides by physics too, even if it howled loudly while it did so.

She’d not have enough arrows for the rest.

Crane got up. So did Rais. They went for each other's throats.

* * *

Kyle!”

His name. Somewhere. Out there. Past the heavy anger. Past the fist driving into him and winding him. Past his knee snapping into a gut and returning the favour.

Again— “Kyle! We need to go!” He weaved out of the way of a quick jab. Aimed his own at Rais’ wounded arm. The blow went wide, because the fucker was slippery, and they traded places, their feet shifting and sliding across the wet ground.

* * *

The second one heaved itself onto the roof and Zofia’s arrow sunk into it. Not like it cared. It didn’t give a toss, just shook itself and declared itself king of the hill with an ear rending yowl.

* * *

Rais drew a knife. Sharp looking, long bladed. He swung at him and Kyle recoiled with a finger’s width to spare. The blade cut past and he stepped into the attack. Didn’t see the knife flip, not until it came back around and caught on his arm.

Kyle felt it bite. Saw a flash of brilliant white when it nicked bone.

He found the arrow. Yanked it out. Heard Rais scream. Heard himself answer with short, hoarse rasps. One shove and they went down. “This is for Jade you fucking asshole.” One desperate leap and Kyle was on him. Had him by the wheezing throat. Squeezed. "For Zere—" He drew his arm back. Let it fall. Once, twice— every strike finding Rais. Every connecting blow jarring his shoulder. Biting his knuckles. Every rise and fall one step closer to the end.

Except there were hands on him now. Urgently tugging and pulling, and Kyle wanted to snap at her. He wanted to tell her she’d earned it. Tell her he needed this because she needed it.

Rais owed her that much.

But Kyle owed her more.

* * *

The Volatile plowed through the rain. Headed right for them.

Zofia dragged on his arm until he stood, and then he was the one doing the pulling, because his legs were longer and he’d always run faster. The night howled around them. Kept howling when they reached the door. Slammed into it when he pulled it shut behind them. Continued to do so, claws raking against metal, heavy bodies bending the frame if the screech of metal was anything to go by.

Because she couldn’t see. Couldn’t see a bloody thing in the pitch black, and they ran-staggered-fell down the stairs, shoulders bumping against each other, nothing but feet and arms and hurried breathing.

They hit an open door. Found the dark hall they’d come in through. Found the window and she knew she’d cut herself when she climbed through, felt glass biting into her. But she kept going. Kept going until the howls faded, and the world stopped trying to wash her away.

* * *

It was a small room and it was dark. But it was dry and his shin found a bed ( ”Fuck.” ) and his hands found blankets which he dragged around the shivering mess that had come back to save his life.

* * *

Zofia didn’t want to let go of her bow when he asked her to, and he had to pry her fingers off it before he tossed it to the floor. It landed with a clank and she twitched, and that made him jolt too. They’d stretched a life wire of nerves between them. Fragile. Thin. Ready to snap as they expected something, anything,  to catch up with them and finish what the night had started.

They waited until the slums calmed, the ripple of noise dying away slowly. And then they waited a little more, just to be certain, and Zofia tried herself at counting the rushed beat of his heart against her ear, the slight irregularity to it, as if it hadn’t been built for all of this and was ready to give in.

Eventually, even that unruffled itself, fell into an even rhythm that drew her in closer, let her head lean in under his chin and her fingers curl into his grimy, wet shirt.

He smelled of wet, peaty ash and too much blood. She was okay with that.

“You’re insane,” he said after an eternity passed and she’d begun to think they’d both forgotten how to speak. His voice rumbled up his chest. Took a bite from her heart. “Why did you come back?”

Because you’ve come back for me.

Because you’d have died.

Because I got scared and didn’t know what to do.

She opened her mouth. Closed it. Tried again. None of it seemed true enough and none of it seemed to make enough sense, so she settled for, “I don’t know.”

He squeezed her closer, his arms heavy around her, and puffed warm, senseless words against her ear.

Called her crazy. Stubborn. Berated her that she should have listened. That she was shit with instructions. How he ought to be mad. How she was a tough little tiger. And how he loved it.

 


 

 

EPILOGUE

The storm raged on until daybreak.

It left Harran flooded. Rumpled. Lifted roofs from their homes. Started fires. Extinguished them. Then started them right back up, because why not. It warped roads, mudslides washing away abandoned cars and rubble, or simply tearing the asphalt aside.

Come late afternoon, Kyle barely recognised the slums as he made his way back to the hospital. What had been a basin of shanties standing side by side, now lay flat and scattered. And where Runners had built makeshift pathways across rickety roofs he found barely a foothold left.

The air was thick. Heavy. It went down his lungs wet and rotten. He wrapped a piece of cloth around his mouth. It didn’t help much.

At the top of the stairs, he found the roof access door warped in its frame. For a while he stood and looked at it, the bulging dents where the nightmares had tried to get through, and the jagged holes ripped into it by assault rifle fire. He was amazed that it had held.

His crowbar lay right where he’d dropped it. Kyle scooped it up. Gave it a testing spin in his hand. Fought the urge to kiss it, and instead gave it a testing spin by his side. Whoosh-whoosh it went as he walked, metal cutting air, and his eyes swept the roof.

Shell casings littered the ground. Dried blood retold last night’s ruin.

He found four bodies. Three men, right where he’d dropped them. And a Volatile. Dead.

Kyle swallowed.

He didn’t find Rais.  

* * *

“Oh man— this thing is high,” Rahim complained.

Because complaining was a thing he did, as Zofia had come to accept, and she figured at one point or the other she’d get used to it. She caught her weight on her arm, felt the metal strut bite into the crook of her elbow, and peered down at the huffing boy.

He stared back at her, a bit wide eyed and with his face a little pale, and even though she tried, she couldn’t keep the smile off her lips.

“You can go back down if you’d like.”

Her eyes flicked that way, right past him, and then right around him.

Down was about three quarters of the climb, even if it’d go relatively fast with the rope they’d affixed to the antenna tower’s outside structure. Couldn’t risk anyone falling off. It’d be a shame. A mighty shame. Or so Crane had said a week ago and then went off with a ton of rope on his back to go play hero again.

Muppet.

“No- No, I’m good. Thing is just getting heavy, you know?”

Thing being the pack he was lugging up, though he had no one but himself to blame, considering she’d offered to carry half. But that wouldn’t ever bloody happen, because man pride. Impressive, really. Rahim still flinched when he stretched and let his hand fly to his side when he thought no one to be watching. He'd healed. But not quite fully. 

“Uh huh,” Zofia hummed, turned around, and kept climbing, though not before she’d looked out across Harran again, the whole of it laid out under the bright midday sky.

She liked it up here. Liked the air. How clean it was. How she could drag it all right into her lungs without having to worry about regretting so a moment later and coughing it all up again.

A few minutes later the top greeted her with a slow smile curling inside a half-arsedly trimmed stubble, and a hand with wiggling fingers on it.

“Hey,” Crane said as he balanced on the balls of his feet and watched her from his perch.

“Hi,” she offered back, and then he had her by the wrist and pulled her up the rest of the way. The moment she had her feet under her in the straightest of manners one could muster at around five hundred meters up, he went and patted his hands down her sides, as if she’d found herself in dire need of dusting off.

Zofia slapped his hands down, collected the lopsided grin he threw her way, and wandered off so he could go help the grumbling Rahim.

The hero of the quarantine had kept busy.

He’d built a neat nest up here, even managed to line the railing with planks of wood to offer a little shelter from the wind where he’d laid out two sleeping bags and a few rolls of blankets. Cozy, almost. Still a bit fresh once night fell, something she’d had to find out the hard way.

Equipment lay stacked and secured. Electronics, mostly. Bits and pieces Savvy had thrown together ever since that day he’d punched right through the jamming signals and saved Harran from being burnt to cinders.

It didn’t take much to think back to that, or the night that had followed. An idle moment here. A passing lull, or stray thought. Eventually, the shadow of regret would swish its tail and reminder her what she’d done.

What she’d lost. Given up.

Zofia settled her arms against the railing, listened to the chatter behind her, and looked out across the peninsula. The quarantine looked back at her. Swish, went the regret. She drew in a shaky breath. Let her eyes drift to the far right, where a slice of Harran prodded outwards into the sea.

Swish.

A fumble of her good fingers found her binoculars. She squinted through them, at the pillar of white standing atop the edge of jagged, grey cliffs.

Swish, it went again, this time bringing along a sickly, cold touch of faint dread. Rais. Still out there, somewhere. Alive. Probably. She slipped her bottom lip between her teeth and chewed, tried to think of anything but. 

Even from all the way over here the lighthouse looked pretty, and while Rahim and Crane made a racket behind her, their voices carrying a hint of excitement, she dreamed herself across the water.

Swish.

Least until the binoculars were lifted from her hand, leaving her to blink at the tiny speck in the distance. Warmth snuck against her side. Started drumming. Tap-taptaptaptaptaptap-taptap— The intro to La Grange, as she’d found out when her patience had finally run out and she’d asked him.

Which she really didn’t mind. The tail swishing, growling slice of her slunk off.

“Go on,” Crane said. “Everything’s set.”

The tapping stopped. Her chin came up and she frowned unhappily at him.

“You should do it. Or Rahim. I’m really not—“

“It was your idea,” Rahim called from behind her, and when she turned he held a radio in one hand, and a piece of paper in the other.

“Yeah,” Crane agreed and she swallowed thickly, tried to get the knot that had started forming at the base of her throat to go back where it belonged. Wherever that might have been. Maybe it ought to go play with the regret. They could go build themselves a miserable little fort.

He stepped away from her and sat, resting his back against the boards he’d fitted to the railing, and stretched his long legs out.

“You’ve got this,” he said from down there, and she collected that smile too, carried it right along with her as she walked up to Rahim and grasped the radio in her right hand.

She squeezed. Heard the thing click and murmur a hint at static at her.  

Another look at him and his brows hiked up. Maybe she should have practiced this…

“Hey— Hello.” Her voice tripped on the first word. Fell flat on the second. But she kept going. “This is Zofia Sirota—”

“And Rahim Aldemir,” he blurted from the sidelines, quickly adding: “You are listening to Rrraadio Harrrrran!” because why the bloody hell not?

She scoffed at him, muttered: “You sure you don’t want to do this?” only for him to step away, but not before he left her with the piece of paper.

“Okay,” she continued. “To anyone listening— I— we— we’re broadcasting from the Harran Quarantine, and for the next hour we’ll read you a list of names.

"Survivors.

"To those of you who’ve lost someone in the Zone, don’t forget about us. Don’t abandon us.

"To those trapped in here, don’t lose hope.”

Zofia looked at the list squeezed between her thumb and index finger. It was almost full, the names written in tiny, tidy script. Still a lot of space. Still a lot of room to fill, and still a lot of names to find.

Her eyes cut to Crane and she swallowed again.

She’d never liked speaking in front of an audience, let alone the whole world.

But the hero of the quarantine seemed to think it’d be fine. He nodded at her and he smiled, a gentle, reassuring curl of his lips. Not his professional one, not the practiced and easy one, but the one he’d fitted on for her.

Taking one more deep breath, Zofia started reading.

And her world listened on.

 

Chapter Text

 

Prelude

 

Dying Light (c) Techland - Cover based on official artwork 

 

They remembered.

He remembered, felt the ebb and flow of who he’d once been wash against what he’d become. They. Them. A lack of individuality. Of anything but the white hot hatred churning within, insistent in its press outward. They— two, not one —screamed much louder than the echo of his name, or the concept of cloth whispering by skin, and the heady rush of his first shot of something tart and sharp.

It’s the end of the world, bro. Bottoms up.

Names.

They’d forgotten those. Much like they’d left behind speech, traded it for an idea of thought roiling between them, dark and slick and oh so angry. 

Their hearts beat with the anger, THUD-THUD inside wide chests heaving with rattling, slow breaths. There'd been a time when breathing had come difficult. Before now. Before then. He'd wheezed and gasped and Forgot your inhaler again? Shit, you're useless. 

Not any more. 

But they remembered. Sometimes better. Sometimes worse. Day and night. Night and day, the toll of bells tearing at the last filaments of their reason. 

The bells were new. Recent. They'd lost the wide open fields, given them up for packed walls and the constant hum of a city that'd forgotten its name too. Here they had insides again, halls and rooms, and stairs to climb. Ways around. Ways through. Outside, the night sat chock full of beasts like them and yet not. 

It was only fair if they opened up the world for them. Cracked the cages around the meat. Made the place home. 

“Did you hear that?”

Prey. Prey still spoke, fitted noise together in a neat string of words, but said so much more with the slight hitch in its voice. The tremble. The cracks under something steadfast.

Fear.  

They’d known fear, he remembered that. More than anything, he felt like it had been the last thing he’d had before he’d forgotten the notion of himself, and that made him furious, so he hacked at the dark with a frustrated growl and earned himself a chiding for their impatience. A notion of it. A snap and a snarl bubbling between hunger and need. 

“Shit— there’s something in here!”

Feet thumped across hard floor.

"Check the lights- They're off- Why are the lights off-" 

Voices stitched themselves together, ripped at the air around them, shrill and hollow. Man and woman, and at some point that had meant something.

You're staying home for prom? You're a loser.

It didn't any more. Wouldn't again.

Chairs toppled.

They remembered chairs. Remembered doors too, and one banged shut at the end of a dark and narrow hall, a single piece of wood that gave way as they slammed into it, and rewarded them with the sharp scent of terror.

“Get out! Getthekidsandgo !”

Their heads cocked towards the noise, and they knew this’d be easy. This’d be quick, because they remembered family.

And how easy it was to destroy.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

PART 1: Ain't No Rest for the Wicked

The man they called—


Today he’d thought to be the day. The Ah, right! This’ll be perfect. Great job, Crane— sort of day.

It wasn’t.

Kyle grunted, jerked his hand away from the sharp edge of the arrow point he’d fitted into its groove, and stuck his finger into his mouth.

“Shit,” he muttered, muffled and bloody, and thoroughly disappointed.

With life, mostly, and the season out there, all rot and gnashing teeth. And himself, because what sort of fucking idiot couldn’t think of a single answer to: What to get for her birthday?

This one bonehead right there, he decided, with his chest hefting in a sigh, and turned back to the halfway finished arrow already itching for a fight. His eyes cut left, skipped past the pile of eleven more makeshift murder-sticks neatly arranged on the desk, and found the thrown back curtains above a crumpled nest made of a mattress and too many pillows. Harran’s blue sky had started weeping reds and pinks and purples again, and with the colours went Kyle’s hope he’d figure shit out today.

Tomorrow. Maybe.

He grimaced, kept sulking like a three year old with his finger in his mouth, until the radio that had fused with him sometime in the past two months clicked. It promptly reminded him he’d hit puberty a long while ago, eventually graduated, and then landed his miserable ass in hell.

The click came with a familiar pinch to his chest, a perfectly rehearsed Oh-shit-what-now in prelude to him moving his hand towards it, and waiting for the: ”Crane—“ we’ve got trouble. “—can you come to the rec room?”

Rahim. Quiet. Whispering, really, and adding “Please,” as if he’d had a choice. Kyle’s brow hiked up, right along with his curiosity.

“Can it wait ’till I’m done wi—“

“No, it really really can’t.”

CLACK

“Sure. Not like I've got anything better to do. Really. It's fine. I'm good. God damn,” he told the dead line, flicked the arrow onto the desk, and peeled himself out of the creaky office chair with its five wheeled legs, of which only one still occasionally tried itself at rolling.

Past the threshold to his room, Kyle found the Tower’s evening rush hour spill through the halls. Dinner time done. And missed, his stomach reminded him with a woeful rumble. Couldn't help it though, he'd had more important things to do, like having his head stuck up his ass trying to figure out what man gave woman for getting a year older, and still being alive to grump about it.

Despite life trying its best at killing her.

”When’s your birthday?” He’d asked her about two weeks and a couple of squashed days ago, and Zofia had stared at him, all wide eyed disbelief and a stiffness to her that might have come from the hundred-fifty or so meters of night between her feet and the ground.

”Bloody hell, Crane. Timing!”

”What?”

A lot of thin air had sat between them at that point, along with a sheer drop that’d have ended atop the abandoned traffic jam piled on the Infamy bridge. Shattered glass had winked back at them from down there, reflecting a full moon hanging over Harran.

She’d scoffed, and gotten back to work, hunched over with her legs straddling one of the mounts holding the bridge’s UV lights. Removing the bulbs had been hard work, he remembered. They’d been heavy and screwed in tight. But the failed Firewall once meant to keep the Infected in (right before they’d had to blow it) didn’t need them any more.

The Tower did.

So who better to go climb the fucking thing than him and his stubborn GPS?

She’d not given up that particular secret that night, so he’d asked Lena when they’d gotten back.

“Why?” Oh god, that look she’d given him.

“Fucking hell, can’t a guy try to be nice?”

Lena had squinted at him. Smiled. Had rummaged through the record sheets she had everyone fill out after their first trip to her clinic, and he’d watched with his feet shifting under him. Neat little things, those cards. With irrelevant details like blood type, intolerances, bitten or not, and if so, when’d she last gotten her shot? And then there was that treasure of date of birth.

Handy.

“You’re trying pretty hard,” she’d said.

“She’s hard work.”

Lena had turned to him, a sheet pinched between her fingers, and the smile had broken in half a little. And then he’d found out the Paper Tiger was much younger on paper than he’d have guessed. November 19, 1989.

“Thanks, Lena. I owe you one.”

“You owe me plenty.”

Truth.

Out in the hall, the memory of dizzying heights and things owed behind him, a flock of kids flapped by Kyle.

Two women followed them, dragged in the wake of childish ignorance, barely able to keep up. One looked up to him and slowed, offering him a smile. His autopilot flicked on, gave her a nod and a smile in return, and picked her out from the jumbled mess of faces he’d started stockpiling.

“Kate,” he said in greeting once he’d found her. Kind— Sweet— Loves kids— Been with the Tower since the start— Runs the daycare/orphanage. They’d talked twice. About toy swords and laundry.

Her friend came without a name. But when she slung an arm around Kate's shoulder as if to hurry her along (and then they left while giggling— why where they giggling?) he noted the dirty red band of cloth strapped to her wrist.

Kyle’s left arm itched in response, a phantom scrape of teeth against flesh and bone. He wore red too these days, a torn up bandana looped around his elbow, telling the Tower He’s bit. Him and the other fifty-seven people amongst the one-hundred-and-then-some survivors packed into five floors of shared misery.

Karim’s idea. Not the packing, but the dash of colour.

Brecken had argued at first. Lena flat out refused. And Kyle remembered not knowing what to think, had said ”I look shit in red,” and let Karim rock the boat he’d climbed into after he’d betrayed Rais.

A day and a half later, right about lunch time, a quiet soul had gone to take a nap, and forgotten to mentioned she’d missed her Antizin shot. She’d woken up, ripped two men open, and then run herself into Kyle’s axe.

No one had argued after that. Carrying red seemed like a small price to pay for the Tower’s hospitality. Even if it was wearing a little thin, came with three armed men to each floor.

The rifles they carried had been seized from Rais’ garrison, along with some of said men. Spoils of a war that had never come to pass. It had flared briefly, a bloody conflict that cost both sides, and then tapered off as the self proclaimed emperor had vanished at the night of the Storm.

Karim had helped. Waltzed right in there with him and made full use of the chaos left behind after the garrison had lost its leaders. There’d been enough confusion to not get them shot right away, and they’d left with a dozen men who Karim swore up and down were Decent people who didn’t want to die, Al Capone.

Fair enough.

No one else had wanted to come. None of the women either, and Kyle hadn’t known how to put words to his disbelief and the white hot anger he'd felt at that.  

Fair enough.

From there on out the garrison had reduced itself to a shadow of the legacy Rais had left behind. Still a pain in the ass. Still full of people stalking the slums with nothing but trouble on their mind. But disorganised. Fractured. Hungry too though, and there lay competition the Tower didn’t need.

Kyle rubbed at his neck, squeezed at strained muscles with weary fingers, and put a little spring into his steps at the urge of his stomach getting tired of neglect. The rec room had snacks, and he could do with one of those.

Almost there, and he heard the throaty thrum of guitar notes spill into the hall, a stuttering rhythm to them that came with a clap of a hand against wood to make up for the lack of drums.

Along with a voice that choked his heart halfway up his throat.

She’d never sung around him. Not once. She’d hummed a few times, mostly when she’d thought him elsewhere, and then glared at him whenever he’d turned up anyway. But the Paper Tiger hadn’t ever sung for him.

Let alone about him, a shitty rhyme strung together between out of tune notes plucked from an old guitar in dire need of new strings.

And Kyle hadn’t ever heard anything more beautiful.

— saw the Tower’s back breakin’,” she sung from around the corner, her accent butchered by how she tried to sound anything but British.

He saw the Tower lament.

And he saw Rais takin'

Every dollar and leavin' five cents.

One more step and he popped his head into the room. Careful. Slow. Not a twitch too fast, because that’d spook her, if there’d ever been a moment when he wanted Zofia to believe he’d taken a hike off that cliff she often sent him on, then this was it.

So he said: ‘You can't do that to my people!

You can't crush them under your heel.’

And Crane strapped on his gear,

Any protests he wouldn’t hear,

For him this wasn’t just any chore,

Stood up to the Man and he gave him what for.

She sat perched on the coffee table in the centre of the refitted unit, surrounded by a handful of onlookers, her eyes turned to her hands on the guitar, knees bouncing with the rhythm to the borrowed song she’d fitted her own words to.

Rahim, cross legged in front of her, nodded along, his head bobbing to the rhythm, while Karim leaned back into the couch, arms spread wide and a shaggy smile under his moustache. The rest of her audience he couldn’t put names to. Or maybe he could have if he’d tried, and not had himself focused so narrowly on the Paper Tiger and her secret audition.

Our love for him now ain't hard to explain— ” she went, and Kyle’s heart boxed against his ribcage, right before calling it quits and forgetting a few beats.

The Hero of Harran, the man they call Crane—

And he ruined it. Ruined it so fucking hard, because here stood a man who couldn’t fucking keep his mouth shut and had to huff up a chuckle.

Startled, Zofia’s eyes cut to him standing in the doorway, and promptly snapped her hand down on the strings, choking them out with a sad TWANG.

She flushed a pretty red. Always had. No matter the beating she got from the sun, there was always a bit of room for more. Dirty splotches of red dusted her cheeks, and her ears flared a little, earlobes and all.

His cover blown, Kyle let himself into the room the rest of the way, thumbs hooked into his belt and a decent try at a disarming smile.

“I always figured myself more of a Mal, ” he said, catching her fingers curling against the strings, and her left hand strangling the guitar's neck. It was a sad strangle, what with her thumb and index finger trying real hard, and a couple of stubs twitching against the wood. 

That she’d had to take her gloves off for playing came on as a slow realisation, and Kyle felt unsteady warmth collect in his chest. She hated taking off her gloves.

“Hell no, you aren’t. Mal’s got class. Dresses well too.”

“Hey, I dress just fine.”

“He’s also got a proper sense of humour. And I’m doubting you’ve ever been paid a penny to talk pretty.”

Point.

“Ow—” Kyle tucked his shoulders up. “— stab, stab my bleeding heart. Get Lena, I might drop dead.”

She scoffed, hugged the guitar a little closer to herself, and threw Rahim a glance when he clapped his hands on his knees. Excited as ever, with the hurt Harran had put on him well tucked away in green eyes that still smiled. Sometimes, anyway, whenever he set aside what he’d lost.

When Karim pushed himself up from the couch, Zofia’s weight shifted on the table, a subtle roll of her shoulder and a flick of her eyes to how he struggled to get to his feet.

”I don’t trust him, ” she’d told Kyle right at the start of her life at the Tower, and he couldn’t ever blame her, hadn’t even thought about arguing, because that way lay a whole lot of empty words not getting anything done. But she tolerated him. Let him try, and try he did, pulling more than enough weight in the Tower to convince Kyle the man had a better heart than most.

“I was just about to fetch you, Al Capone. Brecken wants to see us.”

Of course. This isn’t where today ends. Why should it? Fuck my life.

“Okay. Sure.” He nodded to Zofia, lifted a hand to shovel an imaginary fork to his lips, and then mouthed Hungry into her direction, before following Karim back into the hallway. One step out and his stomach tried to dig its way though him, a miserable whine for protest and then a kick at the rest of his innards.

“Rahim wants her to play and sing on his radio,” Karim said, filling the slow walk up cluttered stairs with something else than idle thought of MREs, canned beans and/or none of the above.

“And she said Hell, no?”

A nod, and a grab for the railing, accompanied by a strained wheeze that dragged itself along as Karim kept climbing.

Pneumonia; Another one of the Tower’s tenants, paying exactly zero in rent, and snuggled up tight next to malnutrition and whatever flavour of the week illness sent Lena up the roof.

Silence followed them the rest of the way. Up steps smudged with colour and molten wax where candles had shrunk to glum stubs, and along a carpet that might have been red at one point, but had long given up and turned a dirty brown. Wherever they walked, crayon scribbles decorated the walls, all in perfect kid-height. Rainbow coloured stick figures, memories of dogs with tags on them ( I hope you’re doing okay out there, Titus… ), and blocky cars with corkscrew tails for exhaust smoke.

“You got any idea what this is about?”

Karim shrugged. “No, but it can’t be that tragic, or he’d have radioed us both up instead of making me walk.”

“Well, Lena said you needed to get a bit of exercise…”

“Ha-Ha, very funny.”

“I know.”

It wasn’t until they reached the double winged doors to the Tower’s headquarters, that Kyle admitted to his unease. Stepping through felt like cracking open a budget version of Pandora's box filled with bad news and terrible ideas. Granted, today might be different. Today might be that day after all, or a variation of it.

Kyle Crane gets a break and everyone gets to live, he thought with a wry little grin, which met Brecken and Lena out on the balcony of their spacious apartment unit.

Heading up the Tower’s operations came with perks, even if they’d turned most of their place into a glorified requisition room, crowding the walls and corners with boxes lugged up from below.

So, what’s it this time? Kyle lined a pair of dice up in his head. Rolled them, heard the click and clack of them scatter across the pane of his rotten luck and asked: “Good news?”

They rolled to a stop when Brecken turned, leaving Lena out in the fading light, the glint of a smoke dancing between her fingers, and came up okay, because bad news didn’t get Brecken smiling.

“I’m not holding my breath, but we’ve got word that we’ll see a supply drop two days from now. They’ve radioed in coordinates—“ Brecken stopped at the wide dinner table repurposed to hold a map of Harran. The choice of figures on it meant to represent safe zones, nests, and other hotspots. A far cry from professional, and always reminding Kyle of an oversized monopoly board.

Got the job done though.

Brecken tapped a finger next to a crooked plastic flag that might or might not have once been attached to a toy car.

“Most of what we’ve requested,” he said, while Kyle drew a line between there and here. Here being a literal set of pieces right out of a monopoly box: Two yellow hotels. Not far. Flat ground though, which meant drift was less likely to get the drop damaged, but left it vulnerable to attention. Infected or otherwise. Still manageable, and he started plotting a route across roofs and ruined roads that he’d gotten way more familiar with than he’d ever be comfortable with.

“—and there’ll be Antizin coming with it.”

Antizin was good news.

No, Antizin was great news, because who wanted to start drawing straws, or weigh the worth of one human against the other once the stores ran dry? And they’d started looking pretty damn damp, what with the GRE having gone to shit, and no one ready to pony up for the absolute failings of the human condition outside the walls of Harran.

“Hello Crane,” said the radio on the table, jostling his mind back to the board.

It sat next to a miniature Eiffel tower made of cast iron. Someone had broken off the top on it at one point, and Kyle still wondered what the French had done to deserve that.

“‘sup Troy. How’s the air over there?”

“Stinks. You and Zofia holding up alright?”

You looking after her? Was what she meant, and Kyle offered the radio a lopsided smirk.

“We’re good. So—“ He turned his attention back to Brecken. “You need me to get a group together and head out there tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Sure, no prob— Wait. What?”

Brecken nodded at Karim, who cleared his throat from a cough not quite wanting to happen, and knocked at his chest with a fist. “My job this time. I’ve got a few boys who’ll make the run just fine. We’ve got something a bit more delicate for you.”

“Delicate? Me?”

The radio laughed. “Not how I would have put it. Crane, do you remember the bunker we talked about when you were last here?”

His dice rolled again, rattling happily with the promise of two sixes.

“Err— yeah? Did you manage to get inside? Please tell me you—”

“Not quite.“

Said dice rolled right off the edge of his hope and slunk under a rug.

“Ah.”

“Good as though. We’ve located a group of survivors who claim they’ve got the keycard and code, and are willing to trade them for a supply of Antizin. A dozen vials.”

“They’ve got Bitten? Why not just bring them across, get them settled in at the Tower?”

Kyle frowned, looked to Brecken, who shrugged once and said: “Fine by us, mate.”

One floor down, Alfie probably tossed in his bed (if he’d gone to sleep yet, Kyle still hadn’t figured out if the man ever slept), and grew a couple more gray hairs. But the bunker would be worth it, even if it meant squeezing a little tighter somewhere.

“Either or,” Troy’s voice clipped through the radio. “It’s more likely they’ll listen to you bring that up. You’ve been across more often than anyone else.”

You, meaning them. Him and his purring GPS with claws made of paper, and Kyle felt his stomach shrink into a weary, cold knot.

I’ll go. She stays.”

Karim snorted. “Sure thing, Al Capone.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means—“

“Mate, that’s not up to us. It’s her choice,” Brecken interrupted and scooped up the radio. “Crane, that bunker sounds like a bloody gold mine, but do you think it’s worth the risk?”

“You mean between getting mauled in the sewers, getting shot at by the Rais fanboys, or stepping on a loose shingle and breaking my fucking neck? Absolutely. I’ll be off at first light.”

“Great. Troy will fill you in on the rest face to face.”

“Looking forward to it,” she said. “Good night, everyone.”

“Good luck,” Brecken concluded, a reminder of words stuck together by Jade an eternity ago, words she’d broadcasted across the slums to her runners and scouts, and whoever had liked to listen come nightfall.

Kyle wondered if anyone remembered who’d coined the phrase, or if they carried her memory on in ignorance.

The radio clicked off.

“I’ll hit the sack then—“ And he’d hit it hard and hungry, probably, with anticipation of tomorrow tugging on his navel, but sleep was sleep.

“Wait.” Brecken set the radio down in its charging station, and waved him along with a quick twist of his palm, directing Kyle to the balcony where Lena had wandered off to stand by the railing, flicking ash and embers into the breeze.

Lena looked like she’d gotten stuffed into a tumble drier, the thing set to extra crisp and then tossed down a mountainside for good measure. A mess of black hair, now visibly gray at the temples, sunken eyes that met his with a hint of warmth buried under a day of never ending work.

Back in the unit, a door fell shut. Karim having gone ahead and scurried off to bed. Lucky bastard…

“Kyle, you need to talk to Zofia.” Lena’s voice barely put up a fight against the breeze, but it caught him on the spot anyway. Straight to the point, as quick and sure as a slap to the face.

“Why? What’s up?”

He looked between them standing side by side, and felt put on the spot for a crime he’d either forgotten about, or had yet to commit. Both equally likely at this point.

“Lena caught her flogging meds.”

Kyle blinked, stared blankly at Brecken, and missed home and proper American English. Fiercely. Miserably.  “Flogging?”

“Stole. A bottle of OxyContin went missing from the infirmary today.” Lena flicked her cigarette butt into the falling night, and he watched the ember dance out of sight, felt cold and hot with what they’d put in front of him.

A torn little Paper Tiger slipped through a crack in a door somewhere in his head, swiped poison from a shelf, and then slunk off to play with his guilt.

“You sure it was her?”

Please say no.

“Yes.”

Kyle swept his hand against the back of his neck, ran his palm over his skull, and scrubbed his fingers across stinging eyes on the way back down.

“God fucking damnit. Okay. I’ll talk to her. Fuck.”

The shitty dice he left where they were.

* * *

He found her back in the unit that spelled home, the cluttered, dusty room with its dirty windows and flaking wallpaper, and an overhead fan with clothes draped over long dead blades.

A cone of white light glared at him from the desk, casting sharp shadows dancing around him as he walked in unannounced.

Zofia looked haggard in the unkind light. Skin, muscle and bone, all sticking out of a too large jacket in muddy green, the sleeves bunched up over her elbows. A gift from Karim. One of many, each accepted with a smouldering reluctance, and most then passed on to someone else. Of those she’d kept he remembered a hatchet (one of a matching set), a pair of sturdy shoes, and the damn jacket she’d practically started living in from the get go.

Which, now that it stood in the way of him and his mission, had altogether too many pockets.

Right. I got this.

Her eyes flicked to him as she leaned the guitar against the wall, and her right brow twitched up, asking Am I in trouble? without the need to open her mouth, since he’d clearly come in with his heart bleeding its intent right from his sleeve.

Great job, Crane.

He smiled.

And Zofia fled.

Or tried to anyway, got her mind set to a quick and decisive march past him and out into the rest of the unit. Pad-pad-pad her socks-only-because-why’d-you-drag-dirt-in-here-feet went, and Kyle hooked his ankle into the door behind him to push it closed.

It thumped shut, and she froze, jaw working quietly and eyes set on him. Still dull and gray— and still unsteady, darting left and right when he tried to hold them for longer than a few beats, not quite ever settling.

But better.

A little.

Sighing, he stepped forward, wrapped his arms around her, and felt her shoulders jump as he pulled her into a hug. Her nose dug into his chest, and he counted the ridges of her spine as he swept a hand up along it.

“What are you doing,” she mumbled against his shirt, and a half hearted push with pointy elbows told him she wasn’t altogether sold on having herself squashed into him.

Shoulda’ washed up.

Kyle turned his chin down, let his lips fall against her tousled, mousy brown hair. Smelled dusty old feathers and a hint of something earthy and sweet tickle down his throat.

“I’m just saying goodbye. Making sure you know I loved you more than any a thing in the ‘verse, before I go off to be a big damn hero and get my classy, sassy ass killed for—”

A foot stepped on his toes. Surprisingly hard too, considering the lack of shoes.

“Where to?”

“Old Town,” he said. His hand found the base of her neck, settled around it. Felt her back straighten at the touch, and how she shifted closer when he pressed his fingers down, gently working them into stiff cords of muscle.

“Not without me, you aren’t.”

“Hrrmh—” Kyle looked down at her small form tucked into him. Wondered if she’d carry the Oxy on her. Figured that, yeah, she would. Couldn’t let a prize like that go.

“Want me to go get the chain of command? The one I’m about to—”

Crane, ” she muttered, clearly not impressed by his ability to recite Firefly, and he sulked into her hair, because he’d been lining up a whole script of quotes for her.

So he settled for a different diversion, worked a little harder on her neck. Found knots that needed loosening. Knobby bone to trace. Heard her spine pop as she stretched against his chest, and felt her puff out a meek sigh of waning protest that came with a jolt of heat zipping down his spine.

Definitely got this.

A firm drag of his thumb tilted her head, trapped a muted sound in her throat. A Mh that muddled his mind, and made him reconsider the mission priority. Briefly, because he was a professional, and professionals didn’t get distracted.

He masked the questing of his free hand with steady strokes against the base of her skull, all the way until he found the first pocket by her hip. Slipped in, met nothing but crumbs and scraps of paper. Hiked up and a little to the left, snatched a zipper and pulled it— nothing in there either. Climbed a little more. Dove in through the front. Traced her ribs, idly counting— one, two, three— because there ought to be pockets on the inside too. The tips of his fingers crawled upwards, the back of his hand whispering against the jacket's inside lining, a slow and careful trek. Pockets. Somewhere

Her teeth clicked shut around his shirt, caught skin along with cloth.

“Yaoow!”

“Hands,” she hummed, her voice flirting with the notion of not really minding. Sleepy. A little husky, and Kyle found I got this tilting dangerous off target.

“So— you’re biting now?”

She huffed. Tried to pull away. Got a leg tangled around his when he took a step forward, following her. Caught herself on his belt, a shy gesture that tugged him her way. Rapped her hip against him— maybe to push him back, or to pull the sigh saying want-need-please from him.

Never knew with her.

But that was fine.

They passed the futon with a basket full of clothes sitting on it. Washed and dried and ready to get muddied again. Passed two stacks of books on the floor, paper thin entertainment coming with weary eyes and a sore voice, because apparently she liked it when he read to her.

Reached the bed, the thing that wasn’t quite his any more, because she’d not been able to sleep cooped up with the others, and then hadn’t liked the bed roll in his room much either. The bed itself had lost its legs and frame. He’d tossed them out, had dragged in a mattress big enough for two, and she’d hoarded pillows until he’d feared she might evict him.

She hadn’t.

Well.

She had. Once. Entirely his fault.

There were rules to follow. Protocols. And no shoes was one of them, so Kyle worked his off blindly, kept his eyes on the bundle at his front. One of her hands hid under his shirt, had gotten lost in there somewhere and seemed to have trouble deciding if it wanted to tickle him or latch on.

Still got this, he thought, let himself fall sideways, and Zofia breathed out sharply. A frantic snatch at him and she clung on tight, until they landed in a tangle of rustling cloth, right atop a shoulder that had forgotten at some point what not sore might have meant.

He turned the world sideways for her. Pulled her away, even if it he’d rather not, and then stopped minding when he caught a soft intake of air by her lips, because he’d set some rules too, and one let him kiss her whenever he wanted.

She tasted of a hint of mint, and of all manners of things he’d die to have, and made it difficult to remember what he’d so carefully planned.

Fingers tightened against his side. Legs snuck around his. Warmth pressed in as close as she could, and he went off target by a mile with his hand sliding into the too tight back pocket of her jeans.

No OxyContin, his brain whined.

Got to make sure, he insisted. Squeezed. Earned another nip of her teeth. Hesitant. Gentle, with a hint of let’s play tugging at his bottom lip. Tugging at his resolve too, and driving his hip forward.

“You’d think,” he murmured against her mouth. “Biting would be out of fashion.”

Zofia’s lips curled into a smile, and he followed it, traced it until the kiss hitched lower, to the hollow of throat. Cracked his eyes open while he wandered.

Yeah, she blushed pretty. But she’d flushed an even nicer shade of red now, a dark hue pooling against her neck that told him this was okay. For now, anyway. He swept the jacket aside, worked it off one shoulder. Careful. Slow, with enough room for her to bolt if she chose to, and listened for the hitch in her breathing that might tell him Too much.

Instead, he heard a rattle. Kyle’s heart stopped drumming hard against his throat, and he re-aligned his mission priority, chased the sound with fingers he’d have rather put to use elsewhere.

She caught on. Of course she did, and he loved her for it, for the hiss against his ear and the “Wanker.” when he pulled the bottle free and leaned away from her.

“Oh, you’ve got no idea,” Kyle told her, the white bottle of pills held between them. He shook it and she swallowed, her throat working quietly, and her gray eyes fixated on what she’d just lost.

Needing it.

Not getting it.

When she looked back at him, he saw the I’m sorry, before he heard it, her whisper cracked and worn.

He didn’t know what to say. It’s okay? Another lie, stacked atop the ones that had gotten him here?

You’ll be fine?

Zofia’s chin fell to her chest and she sat up, shoulders drooping and arms awkwardly bent around her knees.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, and Kyle’s eyes found the stumps of her fingers. Healed, but badly so, since she’d not had the luxury of resting them.

He swallowed, forced down a cold knot, wiggled himself across the bed towards her, and tried to wrap an arm around her. Zofia slipped from it. Got up. Paced away from the bed, her hands scrubbing at the sides of her head.

“I can’t help that it hurts,” she murmured, stopped by the desk and gave the lamp a flick to direct the light up to the ceiling. Shadows sprang from the overhead fan, dark and ugly claws, a bit like the ones trying to tear him up from the inside.

When she came back and flopped down next to him, her hands twitched, fingers curling around a gray package she’d swiped from the desk.

An MRE, as it turned out. Chicken-something-or-the-other, because he couldn’t be bothered reading. Started opening it up. Watched her glance at the Oxy he tossed into the laundry basket. Watched her shoulders sag, and had his heart stepped on by just how far out of his depth he was with that broken piece of human curling up next to him while he ate.

Trusting him.

Patiently waiting for him to fuck up again.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Routine


The egg slipped through her fingers.

It cracked with a soft POP of its pretty white shell shattering, leaked dirty yellow against her feet. Looked a little odd. Thin veins marred the yolk, dark and ugly, shuddering with the beat of a tiny heart.

Zofia sighed. Tried again: Grasp for the basket woven from bones. Pick another egg from it, all shiny and white and perfect. Hold it tight. Not too tight, or it’d break.

It fell too.

POP

Yellow again. The crunch of shells underfoot. A useless hand made of two sticks hanging from her arm. She’d need more for this to work.

“Give them back.”

Zofia looked down at the cat curled against her chest. Warm and heavy. So heavy that she’d never wake. Its claws latched onto her, sunk deep beneath her skin. They’d grown roots probably, made themselves a part of her.

The cat purred. It gnawed. Wiggled its tiny, pink nose while it chewed on her missing fingers.

“Give them back,” she repeated.

The cat puffed up. Got heavier. Filled her mouth with dry, scratchy fur. Then it mewled and it huffed, and— ”Fuck.“

Oh.

Zofia woke. In a manner of speaking anyway, with the cat now off her chest and not an egg in sight anywhere. But around her the world was still dark and muddy and loud and not making much sense. She turned and shifted under covers snug around her shoulders, searching for the noise. Muffled curses and the thumping of feet. A suggestion of light was all she had to work with, barely masking thick, fuzzy shadows crowding in from the walls in which moved an oddly skewed Crane.

One legged. Very sideways, with an arm propped against a wall, the other pulling up a pair of trousers. A shirt dangled from his— teeth?

She blinked, watched him battle his clothing in relative silence, as if he’d been trying to sneak from the room. Which he’d probably been.

Why, asked her groggy mind. And then she remembered Harran. Bit by bit, sliding in slow and steady and rotten.

Not like she’d forgotten. That was hard to do.

But at the cusp of waking things liked to blur a little. Brought phantom thoughts. Memories. Things like a familiar bedroom, walls freshly painted— please don’t touch. The sound of cars rumbling past shuttered windows in need of a cleaning. A perfectly arranged nightstand with her phone on it, and she sometimes reached for that still, blindly groping for eMails and news feeds and /r/aww.  

Mostly she’d find empty air instead. Or a big nose and scratchy cheek, along with a huff and a startled grunt. A Wha-Ouch-Gad-Fa— and fingers dancing over her in an open declaration of war.

Reality going: Hi, Good Morning. Harran happened and that’s your heart in your throat, and that’s your missing digits— and why’d you give up freedom under that hard rain?

No. She’d definitely not forgotten. Just hadn’t actively gone looking for it when she’d opened her eyes. Except here it stood— leaned— almost fell — tall and a bit haggard, all wiry muscle stretched over sharp bone. More angles. More shadows. Deeper ones, more profound ones, letting her count the bottom row of his ribs where a flat stomach tucked itself under it.

He got one leg covered.

Nice going, she thought and smirked. Those pockets weren’t supposed to point forward, but he kept hiking the thing up. Covered his left leg too, hid away the tattoo that sat below his knee. A much bigger one than the set of dice on his pelvis, this one made of exposed wire and thick titanium for bone. ”Come with me if you want to live,” he’d said when he’d shown it to her, all gruff fake accent and a twinkle in his fucking eyes.

Very cliché.

Very immature.

Very Crane.

It took him a moment of confused fumbling before it clicked and he figured he’d been putting the trousers on the wrong way. Shoulders sagging, and a “God damnit—” squeezing through his teeth, he kicked them off and started over.

How on earth are you still alive?

Out there, past the Tower’s sheltering doors, Crane was surefooted and nimble. Inside? Gawky and mostly made of thumbs. Big and inconsiderate thumbs that liked being places they hadn’t exactly been invited to. She twitched. Curled in on herself, and thought she kind of liked them anyway. The thumbs and him. Both attached to each other.

This time around his dressing efforts were a little more methodical, and the trousers went up without a hitch. They were a sad pair of muddy brown cargo bottoms, well worn and well broken, with patches of cheer attached to them where he’d fixed tears using bits of orange fabric. A week ago the things had fit him just fine. Now they barely clung to his hipbone, and every step he took in search of his belt in the dark, he had to tug them back up.

At the desk No. Under it? No. Behind him? By the bed?

His eyes landed on her, and Zofia shrunk a little further back into the pillow. Crane stopped in his tracks, raked a hand through his short cropped hair, and offered her a rueful little smile that came with a slight tilt of his head.

“Like what you’re seeing?”

Muppet.

Zofia scoffed, turned onto her back to glare at the ceiling. “What time is it?”

“Half past five, sun will be up in an hour. Abouts.”

“Okay—“ She sat. A bit too quick, because the world dragged itself along with a jerky lurch and sent her head spinning.

“I’m getting up—” Her palms pressed against her eyes, squeezed the fatigue from them. “I’m up.” Kind of. Sort of, with her legs all wobbly when she snuck them out from under the blanket.

He clicked on the desk lamp and she shivered in the sudden glare, felt a little exposed in an oversized pair of boxers and her arms and shoulders poking from a simple shirt.

“You don’t have to come with me.”

Ha.

Zofia chose to ignore him. She’d run out of variations to I do, I’m not staying here. Don’t make me, long ago. Had stopped arguing for the sake of it. But he always tried, sometimes harder than others, sometimes just to make a show of caring.

A routine, really. One of many.

“Rahim could probably use some help with the station.”

“Mhm—“ She padded over to the laundry basket, heard him follow close behind, the snap of leather on cloth as he pulled his belt on tickling at her ears.

“You’d get the room for yourself.”

They didn’t bother folding clothes these days, or sorting them by size or colour or body part they fit on. Kept them in a messy pile, and she dug through it, searching for the OxyContin as much as for something suitable to wear in the off-season Harran weather.

Her hands dove through folds and dug and dug, but all she found were buttons and fabric, no comforting bottle with a bit of peace in it. Zofia’s throat clicked with a strained swallow. Then another. A cold, hard edged knot wormed itself through her.

Sudden. Unbidden. Frustration married to anger, tightly tethered to the man stopping by her side with all his good intentions boxed away in a head made of dumb brick.

Choking down the simmering anger, she thought of yesterday.

Of her fingers sticky with guilt. Of her wanting to scream Give it back while he’d looked on. Quiet. Brows slightly pinched. Lips set. Not frowning. Not smiling. Just there, and she’d have preferred if he’d said something. Gotten mad maybe. Shouted What were you fucking thinking? Lena’s been nothing but good to you, and what do you do? You turn into a thieving shithead!

Zofia’s hand fastened around a shirt, pulled it from the mess, her mind still sitting in the past.

Ungrateful piece of— I can’t believe I fucking trusted you— You’re a god-damn disgrace— Do you ever think?

None of that.

He’d tucked her against him later. Had folded a hand around hers, and held on with a wordless intensity. She’d cried for a while. Shame and guilt and want all demanding a piece of her. And when sleep had come, it’d brought worn out dreams smelling of peat and ash.

Difficult to hate on him after that.

Not so difficult to turn it inwards. Where it belonged.

She exhaled, pushed her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and gave the shirt a hard flick. The fabric snapped at the air.

By her side, Crane remained oblivious. He looked down at her while his belt buckle clicked together, and kept trying: “The only downside would be you’d miss out on all my great jokes.”

“Tempting. But I’m coming with.”

She bunched the shirt together, added a change of underwear, picked up her trousers and gloves, and carried it all to the door.

He grunted. Defeat accepted. Moving on— and she went to carefully pad from the room. The rest of the flat was where Runners plotted their routes, and in an hour or two it’d be busy with Ayo on the radio keeping tabs on them. Now it lay empty and quiet. She snuck a peek around the corners first anyway, and then slid into the bathroom to the left, closing the door behind her.

A swipe at the wall switch, and harsh overhead light filled the room. The glare bounced off buckets of water surrounding her, and made her wish the dirty mirror over the sink had broken.

Zofia squinted at her reflection, at her shoulders that ought to have been rounder, and her nose and ears and cheeks looking like they’d grown flaky scales. She rubbed at her hair, at her scratchy scalp, and she hated it all.

Much like she hated the cold washcloth, scraping over skin that wanted a shower or a bath— anything but this. But there hadn’t been showers since the Storm, since the water mains had started acting up, and anyone brave enough to mess with a tap in the Tower would bring Alfie busting in your door, a pipe at the ready to beat you silly.

Her trousers came up, got belted shut tight to dig into her hip, and like clockwork the door opened after a brief knock that never waited for a Come in.

Crane slunk through, his shirt still hanging from one shoulder, closed the door shut behind him with a flick of his heel, and joined her for their morning routine. A bit of quiet shoulder to shoulder care with the mirror looking on.

Brush teeth, because it had only been like forever, and yet they hadn’t found a dentist. A plastic surgeon, yes. A podiatrist too. But no bloody dentist, since all of those were out there with their perfect chompers tearing into their fellow man.

Zofia’s eyes flicked to Crane. “What’s the plan then?”

He blinked at her, his toothbrush dangling from his lips, and made an effort at squeezing words through: “Dhroy fhinks sche go—”

“What?”

“—wone thek.”

Mutter-mutter he went and  bent forward to rinse his mouth.

“Troy,” he repeated. “Thinks she got the location to the bunker keys.”

“The fallout thing?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

He faced her, tapped her shoulder lightly, and she turned with the touch, away from him, her eyes on grimy bathroom tiles that probably hadn’t been much cleaner before either.

“Oh?” Crane echoed from behind her. “That’s it?”

“Well—” Warm knuckles tickled her sides, his fingers slipping under her shirt. “We don’t know what’s in there, even if you get the key, no? So where’s the sense in getting all excited over it before the fact. Maybe it’s empty. Or flooded. It’s probably flooded.”

He pulled the shirt up, paused once her arms were in the air and he’d dragged it halfway past her head. She puffed at the cloth.

“Oh ye of little faith.” The shirt went the rest of the day, flew past her to the floor, and she stood a little straighter with her arms crossed in front of her.

“Anything supposed to withstand a nuclear blast isn’t going to be flooded. You can trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Totally.”

“Uh-huh—”

A glance left to the mirror showed a quiet, professional sort of smile on him while he took to inspecting her back, in particular a set of three day old stitches that stung uncomfortably when his thumb flicked by close to them.

More routine.

She’d learned a lot about the ins and outs of wound care since Crane had pulled her into his morning/evening/and-in-between rituals, mostly on account of him flinching and Ouching and generally being a whiny little bitch.

”Stop whinging,” she’d told him once, and he’d looked at her with a toothy grin and said: ”Never.” because apparently it made her laugh, and since his jokes didn’t, his misery would have to do. Or something of the likes, her memory was a bit hazy on the details.

“All good,” he eventually said, and another look at the mirror showed him staring. No longer professional, if a little rueful still, with one hand lightly resting by her hip. She scoffed, grasped for her fresh shirt, and earned herself a wink over her shoulder.

Brief. Without intent. Playful. And enough to get her glitching. One hiccup for a heartbeat— a jolt of warmth from the inside out— and a knot of hurt wanting to unfurl, but catching on her spine and bruising instead.

The hand fell away when her shoulders came up, and he nodded towards the door.

“I’m hungry. Famished. Could eat two of you,” he said, dispelling the moment with about as much practice as he ran himself tired in her head.

“What’s new?”

She tied her red wristband, pulled on her glove, tucked fingers that weren’t fingers any more out of sight, and followed him to continue their morning ritual of get up— wash up— eat up—

Except today would come a little different. It’d come with an end; a loss.

Zofia saw that end coming after she’d sat down with her ration. She watched it approach with Crane, his hand on a small cardboard box. A plain box, her name scribbled at the bottom, and TEA written at the front.

He shook it.

It rattled faintly, so bloody faintly, and her heart sank when he popped it open and picked out a single bag. Denial had gotten her to forget they’d been running low.

“Oh man, this is rough.” Crane said. “You’ll have to drink coffee like the rest of us.”

He let the teabag dangle from its string. It swung in and out, never close enough for her to grab for it, and Zofia half expected it to snap off and fall to the grimy floor.

Didn’t matter. She’d drink it anyway.

“I’d rather not.”

He plopped down next to her, the chair under him giving a protesting creak, and tossed the box onto the table. Tired eyes turned to it— two more pairs of Runners looking to beat the sun as it got ready to rise —before they went back to minding their own breakfast.

Zofia frowned at Crane, her palm held open, asked Would you mind? with wiggling fingers.

“Better make it last then,” he told her and dropped the bag right into her mug.

It bled real quick. Reds and browns clouding up the hot water, and Zofia watched it while he did what she couldn’t: Be friendly. Socialise. Be a person.

“Where you guys headed?” He cracked his breakfast open with a stab of a knife. Baked beans in tomato sauce. Cold. Fine dining reserved for those headed out, a perk granted if you were ready to risk your life.

“The elementary school and then down to the Fisher bay,” said one of the Runners.

Nate? Nial? N— N— something. A brother to someone she remembered. Him bit, the brother not. So he went out. Wasn’t like he had much more to lose.

“So the fishery is secure again? Good job guys.” Crane started shoveling food into his mouth between words.

“Almost,” joined in Runner number two, and she figured she should probably know their names, but drew a whole lot of blanks on the matter.  

Zofia flicked her fork around. Stirred the bag. Stabbed it. Watched it bleed a little more. Felt Crane’s leg find hers from the left, a flush line of warmth that drew her attention away from nameless men with a readiness to die for those who couldn’t.

And her reluctance to bother with who they were.

“What about you two?”

She glanced up, met the stares levelled at them. The expectation. The hope. Here sat Kyle Crane, the bloody hero of the Quarantine, the Zone’s very own vigilante who’d torn down Rais and spat in the face of the GRE.

He’d cost them a lot. But he’d given them more.

By his side sat the girl who’d once belong to Rais’. The one who’d gotten away.

The Poor thing.

The She doesn’t talk much does she?

The Come on, smile a little.

The How did you get away? How’d you get bitten? You’re lucky, you know that?

Zofia looked back down to her tea, tried to dispel the words and curiosity. Bloody hell.  

“Old Town,” Crane told them, his voice a little muffled. Talking with his mouth full. Again.

Stiff silence settled across them. Feet shuffled nervously, and the room held its breath.

Eventually, one of them whistled through his teeth, a sharp and startling noise. “You better be careful out there. There’s some freaky stories coming from the Zero lately.”

Crane shrugged. She could tell, because his arm bumped into her.

“Like— like you’ve got Nightmares walking right through UV light. Talking Nightmares, and they’re like kidnapping people. That sort of shit,” another one added.

“Bull,” muttered Nate/Nial/N-something.

“No, I swear—“ and they went on and on, with the mention of lizard people thrown in at some point that made her wonder if she ought to laugh or cry. Instead, Zofia ducked her head and mourned what was left of her tea.

It didn’t last.

Back at the flat, and in the room that had at some point gone from his to theirs, Zofia admitted to a hard pull against her left hand, and an itch that wouldn’t go no matter how hard she rolled her fist into the palm of her other hand.

“You okay?” Crane watched her like a bloody hawk with every step she took, and she figured he didn’t buy the nod or the shrug or her moving on to gather up her gear.

She just needed, and it wasn’t like she expected him to understand.

And that’s quite alright.

Had to be.

Shoes. Jacket. Bow. The quiver he helped her attach to her thigh— not because she couldn’t get it fixed herself, but he seemed to have a thing for fiddling with the straps around her leg. Least until she shoved at his stupid forehead with her palm and he sat down with an amused grunt.

She got fresh arrows too, and while she picked them from the desk her eyes skipped to the cork board on the wall. Polaroids and postcards looked back at her, memories with bits of her at the back. There hadn’t been enough room on it for them all, so she’d started stacking them neatly on the desk. Amidst a woeful chaos, what with Crane’s handiwork from last night still cluttering it: Duct tape for fletchings, pieces of it rolled up or sticking to the table. Wood shavings where he’d worked on the shafts.

“What are those?” Zofia flicked a finger against a plastic cup with a handful of sharp edged metal pieces lining the bottom. He’d used those for arrowheads, she figured.  

“My key collection,” Crane said and came up next to her, adjusting his shoulder holster with his sidearm tucked into it. “Kristov helped me shave off the tips. They’re wicked sharp, be careful.”

“Oh.” That explained his insistent pocketing of every spare key he could find during their scavenging lately. “And I thought you were just being… you.”

He adjusted his earpiece. Wiggled the radio clipped to his belt. “Incredibly resourceful, charming and handsome?”

“Stop. Please. I’m going to gag.”

A huff and a quick sweep of his hand over her head. She flinched. Smirked.

“Fine, don’t appreciate me, I’ll cope. Somehow. Now come on, grumpy— sun’s coming up.”

Zofia nodded, accepted the hatchet he held out to her, and slid it into the loop on her trousers. It was a shorter twin to the one he carried, their handles a sturdy alloy painted green, and their blades already well worn and often times sharpened.

On the way from the room, Crane ducked aside to scoop up the last of his gear: the same battered crowbar he’d gone out of his way to fetch from the roof where she’d given up her life.

It looked about as dented and scratched up as she felt, and she’d like to think the thing and her had a thing or two in common. Him, for one. Except while the crowbar went with Crane to to infirmary to pick up Antizin, and return her ugly sin, Zofia shuffled her feet idly by the elevator.

And when he’d turned the first corner, she dug out a pair of pills and swallowed them dry.

She had routines too. He couldn’t take them all.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Intermission: Kid.


 

A makeshift shack had grown at the base of the Tower’s roof antenna, and it was a sorry thing. Made of three rickety walls and a slanted roof, it stood tacked together by an equal measures of hope and old fashioned bolts.

Inside, sat a man who ought to have been a boy still.

He’d surrounded himself with posters that might have been loud and brash once, full of fat colour and wild inspiration. They’d faded now. Lost their voices to the sun, and that made him look a little out of place amongst them. His thick trousers in dark blue were kept up by a wide belt, and a paled, purple shirt peeked out from under something painfully orange. Gaudy and long limbed described him best, with a thick mop of black curls that lay flattened by a pair of well worn earphones. Written across the bridge of them was his name:  Rahim Aldemir.

Eighteen years. Bitten. But not yet ready to give up on what life owed him.

* * *

“Good morning Harran!”

Rahim spun the chair under him. He yanked the microphone along, mouthed Swoosh while his feet dragged through the air, and landed his heels on an overturned bucket with a THWUMP of boots on plastic.

“I bet you’ve missed me last night, but don’t worry, we have a whole day ahead of us, and I have a feeling it will be a good one.”

His eyes skipped across the Tower’s roof, to the backdrop of a sleepy Harran, and a little further to where his voice wasn’t going to carry. Which was their loss, really.

A flick of his gaze right, and he caught a group of pigeons landing by the ledge, their wings flapping noisily. They hopped on tiny pink feet, cooed at the morning like it was all theirs to have, and then took right off again as he hurled a pebble at them.  

“For those of you who’re still counting, and we know who you are, it’s the fourteenth of November.”

He tracked the flock of birds, knowing damn well they’d be back. But he’d be ready. Because no one, absolutely no one, shat on the roof on his watch.

“A clear skies day, with perfect weather for a trip down to the beach. If you have a beach. And even if you don’t, you still have a good seven hours of daylight left to waste anyway. As always: go and make them count.”

His mouth snapped shut, and Harran hummed its response through the heavy headphones over his ears. It spoke in POPs and SNAPS and soft static riding an idle waveband. For a little while at least, and Rahim counted as he waited for the city to rouse to his call. And they’d always rouse, because there was jack all else to do. Not like they could tune in to another station, no. This was his gig and his gig alone.

Or so he liked to tell himself.

One… Two… Three… Four… and CLACK.

Morning Tower.

The school came on first. Today it brought memories of tall lockers, the stink of kid feet, and thoughts of sneaking out because he couldn’t be arsed with math. He’d never done it, of course. Jade would have skinned him alive if she’d found out he’d cut class.

He grimaced.

Sabah al-khyr!” said the Zero, dragged him out of primary school, and right to where things had gone to shit: University.

Rahim’s future had waited for him in there somewhere. But he’d dropped out. Not on purpose, mind you. The Zombies’ fault. Entirely. Never-mind that he’d been a semester away from flunking, and hadn’t ever figured out how to break that news to Jade.

At the end he’d not had to.

Another grimace. A squeeze at his insides. And Harran continued reporting in.

How are you, Tower? ” Bites Motel.

How’s it going, Rahim? ” The Ember’s loft and Savvy with his mouth full of something.

One by one the hubs of safe zones strewn across the Quarantine let themselves be heard, told the world they were still there. Still alive. Still waiting for this all to end. Patient out of necessity more than anything else.

He counted them, ticked off boxes on a sheet of paper resting on his thigh. All but three by the time the line got quiet, and he told himself that didn’t mean a thing. Not everyone bothered. Some preferred to listen, and so he marked their location with a tentative question mark. And hoped he wouldn’t have to strike them off later.

The pigeons came back. Settled a little to the right, and Rahim dug in his trousers for another pebble. He threw it at them. Off they went.

“Ayo, you’re up. Who do we have out today?”

CLACK the radio went again, and down below Ayo most likely stood hunched over his map, a microphone by his lips as he went over who they’d sent out to try themselves at not dying.

There were supplies that needed carrying to the school. A couple of helping hands were headed to the fishery, ready to finish the last few week’s work to secure the place after the Storm had washed down their fences.

They needed the fish, so that’d be worth it.

He loaded more work on one of the teams, sent them on a detour to check on an electrical station that had gotten spotty last night. Someone ought to take a look, he said, and told them to get in touch with Alfie once they arrived there.

While Ayo issued orders, Rahim emptied a few CDs from his pack onto the table. He shuffled them. Stacked them. Eyed the beat up receiver with all its wires crawling from the table and back towards the antenna.

And every word from Ayo made his feet itch. He sniffed, rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, and waited out the thumping in his chest. The one that said: What are you doing sitting up here? There are people risking their lives out there, and you’re  hiding at the top of the Tower like a fucking coward.

Where it was nice. Quiet. Safe.

Where the worst that could happen was slipping on a patch of pigeon shit.

It wasn’t even like he couldn’t help. He could. Totally. He was a fine Runner. An excellent one, and everyone knew that. He’d been training the others since the start, had helped Brecken from day one.

They’d trusted him enough with that, and they’d trusted him with out there too.

For a while, anyway. Until that day, and up until now Rahim still thought what had happened wasn’t his fault. Fucking honest. Shit happened. Wasn’t like anyone had died, okay? ( Not this time. ) It’d just been embarrassing, and then Crane had shown up, dragged him back to the Tower, and grounded him.

Who the fuck did he think he was? Rahim had already gone through an older sister. So the last thing he needed was someone trying to fill those shoes.

Rahim picked a disk from his stack. Spun it idly on the table.

Like Crane hadn’t ever gone out there for no other reason than to impress someone.

Right?

Okay, maybe he hadn’t.

And fine, so he probably hadn’t had to lock himself into a broken down car for half a day either. Especially not with half grid six’s Biters taking turns at squashing their melting faces against the windows. Not his proudest moment to date, but damn. Grounded for it? That was just unfair. 

Sunlight caught on the disk spinning under his finger. Winked merrily back at the skies.

If Crane would let him, then Rahim knew he’d do fine. More than that. He’d run circles around the others, and he’d love every second of it. Better than he loved sitting here, with warmth crawling into the shack, and a whole city waiting for him to dispel the silence. He frowned. Flicked the disk a little harder so it spun on its own for a few turns.

Him out there— who’d run the radio then?

Ayo? He didn’t know shit about music. Zofia? Rahim smirked.

She’d been terrible at it. A good first effort, and then a disaster for a second, ending with Crane having told her: You suck. Not a beat missed, and she’d thrown an empty sardine can at him. The thing had bounced off Crane’s head, covered him in oil, and Rahim had heard Zofia laugh for the first time since he’d met her.

That had been… weird.

Nice. But weird.

A bit later, they’d both looked at him, and he’d gone and blurted out that he’d love to give running Radio Harran a shot himself.

Turned out it was fun. A whole lot of it.

The disk fell over. Wobbled.

Turned out it also made him feel a bit like a coward.

Hey— Rahim. You up for taking requests yet, kid?

Crane. From out there, somewhere. Feet on the ground (or anywhere but), and on a mission that no one had bothered telling him anything about.

Kid. Fucking douche.

Wobble-wobble-wobble, the disk kept going, and Rahim clapped a hand down on it.

“Always.”

His hand went off to flip through the disks, found one that had K.C. written on it with black marker pen, and slotted it into the receiver.

Sweet. How about some Sympathy for the Devil?”

“Again?” Zofia. Hovering close by, her voice piggy backing with his.

Shush.”

Okay, so maybe Crane wasn’t that bad.

And maybe it was good to hear them both, to know they were out there and not in any immediate danger. It was when the chatter stopped that Rahim would feel his stomach grow heavy and line itself with numbing cold he couldn’t put words to.

Silence meant they couldn’t listen. Meant trouble. Danger. Potentially death.

He didn’t want them dead.

“Be careful out there,” he told them. To be fair, the message was meant for everyone who’d stepped foot past their frail excuse for safety, and unlike some, Rahim didn’t care much about the why. Might be it was an act of selfless kindness- do what others couldn't. Help someone who needed it. Or maybe it was a selfish wish for something they missed. A craving that the Tower's storage shelves couldn't fulfil. Or they were just being foolish. It didn’t really matter. You went out there, you deserved every bit of Good luck and please come back.

But especially those two, okay?

So what if he hadn’t asked for a brother to pick up where Jade had left off. Didn’t mean he hated it.

Not really.

He left them with the Rolling Stones, peeled the headphones off, and stood to stretch his legs.

A short trip around the antenna would do, he figured. Right through the makeshift garden that smelled of sad greens, equally depressed spices, and a bit of damp earth. Half of the roof had been repurposed to grow them food, never-mind that it barely made a dent these days, because too many hungry people.

Sometimes he thought the whole damn Quarantine had come live with them. And damn had it gotten cramped.

Amidst the somewhat orderly arrangements of buckets and relocated bathtubs, sat a sleepy Tower dweller with his eyes on the lookout for any birds wanting to share in the green. She carried a broom, and the thing gave a half hearted lift in greeting as he wandered by.

Up here, with the slums an ugly, dirty sprawl of ruins around them, Rahim always thought himself oddly teetering on the edge of yesterday and today. He remembered before. Before the nest, back when he’d gone out there thinking he could make a difference. He’d found out he could, but that there’d been a price to pay.  

He remembered a bit too much beer, too. Some evening before he’d gone out to spend lives that hadn’t been his to spend. He’d lost his footing. Almost fallen off. And Crane had grabbed him, and they’d laughed because Shit how much did you have to drink, kid?

If he’d fallen.

If he’d died there.

Would Omar still had gone out with the explosives?

Would Jade have still been with Zere in his trailer when Rais had attacked them?

If-if-if-if—

He spotted more pigeons. Stomped into their direction until they scattered. Sighed and swung back around, the ifs and the whens hot on his heels until he returned to his shack.

It was occupied this time though, with Karim in his chair, the earphones pressed to one side of his head.

“Hey kid,” he greeted him, and Rahim bristled.

Kid. Aways kid. Get out of my fucking chair.

So he glowered back. “Can I like, do something for you?”

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, you can. How would you like helping me with the drop tomorrow?”

Karim coughed. A short, hacking sound, and dropped the headphones back to the table. His next breath came with a wheeze, and Rahim felt a shred of guilt for having wanted to snap at him.

“The one with the meds and Antizin?”

The drop. The one that had gotten even Lena to look a little excited when she’d heard about it. Which was a feat, since that woman hardly ever looked anything but tired these days. She’d clapped her hands in front of her, issued a prayer to about anyone or anything that’d bother to listen, and everyone else in the room had sort of just smiled a little.

Not a big surprise though, what with everything running low. Especially Antizin and antibiotics. The latter thanks to a wave of pneumonia sweeping through the Tower, wandering from room to room, no matter how many paper masks people strapped to their mouths.

“That’s the one. Ayo sent two of my men off to an overnight mission, and I lost one of my spare Runners to a broken wrist. See where this is going?”

Rahim found himself standing a lot straighter than he had a moment before.

“You want me to go?”

“You’d be running with Neil, Esher and Sahil. Only—“ Another cough, and Rahim stepped up to him, a You okay? ready to go. “—if you’re fine with giving this up for a day, anyway.” A generous gesture indicated the sad collection of equipment piled on the table.

“Fuck yeah, I am.”

“Language, kid.” But he caught the slight smile. “And you have to swear you’ll be careful. Otherwise Al Capone will have my hide when he’s back. I’m fond of my hide, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Sure. Whatever. I know how this works. This won’t be my first run.”

“It’ll be your first without Crane and Zofia.”

“I can do this. I won’t let you down.”

“Excellent. So say, want some company up here? Lena told me to get fresh air. Now it could be she was trying to send me on a walk out there to get rid of me, but I prefer to think she likes me.”

Rahim scoffed. “She does. And sure, stick around. We can run an inventory with the hubs while you’re here.”

“Sounds great.”

“Okay. Awesome. Stay there, I’ll go fetch another chair.”

“Thanks, kid.”

Flinching, Rahim turned away. And he tried hard not to jog. That’d just make him look to excited.

And fuck, was he excited.

* * *

Beneath the timeless spires of a once proud city, lay the damp confines of weathered rock and gently dripping water. Darkness choked the day from them. Turned light to an easily dismissed afterthought.

A thing wanted. Out of reach.  

Inside these narrow passages, surrounded by lichen coating the walls, and the stink of blood in the air, waited what ought to still have been a boy.

He clung to tatters of a life he did not want to forget.  

But he knew that, come nightfall, he would.

And come nightfall, they’d hunt.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Back the way they'd come.


 Outside meant vigilance.

Outside meant stink, and Zofia about had enough of both.

She scraped her fingers down her neck. Tried to rub the sheen of filth off. But it was no good. Her nails bit deep and the itch spread, like needles pricking at her skin. Dirty nails. Chipped nails. 

Bugger…

She smacked dry lips together. Flicked her tongue out and over them. Tasted grime. Dust. Tasted the cloth bunched against her mouth, salty and sweaty and sour, and how on earth was it so heavy ?

It rode the bridge of her nose, a sharp line that wiggled when she moved her head. Worse still was the knot she'd tied at the back of her head. It'd leave a bald patch, she figured. Rub the hair right off. 

Her hands slipped higher. Clawed at her jawline under the mask. Picked at scabs and dirt. Moved on to the madly itching lobes of her ears. Her scalp. Her oily hair. She kept having at the itch, but the itch didn’t give a damn.

So she sat. Planted her rear on the edge of the squat building’s roof, and tried to focus on the whole Keeping an eye out thing that Crane had left her with.

Which was fine.

Really.

It was.

She could keep an eye out. Easy as pie that. Blinkers wide open. Ears ready. Everything ready.

Even if her eyelids felt heavy. Her breathing like a chore. Her heart a little done.

Truth be bloody told, she felt a bit like the slums looked. Beaten and scattered and ready to be taken out with the rest of the rubbish.

Zofia sighed, a mournful puff of air that caught itself on her mask.

Below, and a little further ahead, lay the slanted remains of a road. It leaned treacherously sideways, the tarmac cracked and broken into jagged chunks. Wide furrows had opened up underneath, ran downhill where the earth had been chewed away by water.

And everything was covered in a layer of clingy litter.

Not like the slums had ever been pretty or clean. There'd always been a sad disorder to it. A lack of care. Poverty did that, since folks didn't give much of a toss that their bins were overflowing if they were too busy worrying about whether or not they'd eat tomorrow. Least there'd still been bins though. Now, after the Storm had swept through, the slums were no more than a thinly spread dump. Used to be most of the rubbish stayed put where people left it. Now it was everywhere; a carpet of plastic, paper, and god knew what scattered wherever one looked.

And amidst it all you had the Biters. Rats too. And seagulls. But mostly Biters, those bloody things that simply refused to fall apart.  

Months later and they shambled on and on and on. Haggard and thin, looking a bit like mummies draped in loose, torn clothing. Still oozing though. Still with yellow eyes turning in their sockets, hungrily searching for something to sink their teeth into.

Like that seagull that had been pecking at a set of ankles. Peck-peck it went, right before it got itself tangled between three Biters on the way up, its wings catching on their chests.

Fingers clamped down. It squawked once. Twice. Then it didn’t squawk no more, and Zofia flinched.

It took the sound of boots snapping down on the roof behind her to draw her eyes away from ruined mouths tearing at a feathery meal. They found a pair of dirty trousers instead. They closed in on her, them and the silver belt buckle crowning them, a ribbon of red cloth dangling from it. 

Crane thumped down next to her, let one leg hang off the roof, and tucked the other up against his chest. He tapped at his earpiece, cleared his throat and went: “Hey— Rahim," like he'd just called up a friend over brunch and was about to ask him if they'd be meeting later today for some- some- GTbloodyA or whatnot.

She glanced up at him. His voice was muffled under his own mask. The black thing with the line of yellow rubber ducks on it. Because whoever had said Kyle Crane had grown up? The ducks marched right over his stupid big nose. And they waddled when he spoke. She kind of liked them.

“You up for taking requests yet, kid?”

Over the top of his mask, Crane’s light brown eyes roamed the scenery much like she’d done before. Until they cut to her, and his lips did something under the cloth that made one of the ducks hike a little higher. Definitely kind of liked them. 

“Sweet,” he said and bobbed his head. “How about some Sympathy for the Devil?

Didn't mean she always had to like him though. Zofia snorted. “Again?”

His brows shot up. “Shush.”

“You’re about as imaginative as a rock.”

"Duck you," he said and leaned towards her.

She lifted her hand, caught his shoulder in her palm, the whole warm and heavy lot of it. His weight came with the quick beats of drums whispering from his earpiece. They stayed close by, him and his music, and for a while they sat in silence. Watched expired men and women, who hadn’t gotten around to dying yet, shuffle amongst the rest of Harran’s rubbish.

And despite one of their friends having just been eaten, the seagulls kept coming. Pecked at the dirt. Pecked at the Biters. Peck-peck-peck, like they didn’t have a care in the bloody world.

Zofia frowned. “What if the virus hops to birds?”

“Huh?”

“Viruses mutate, right? If it ends up infecting birds? If they turn to carriers, then there’s nothing stopping it from spreading.”

Crane huffed. “The strain isn’t compatible with avians.”

“How would you know?”

“That’s what they said before they decided on the quarantine.” He got to his feet. Held a hand out for her, his dirty fingers waving her along. She accepted it and let herself be pulled up. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered with the wall.”

“But viruses adapt, no?”

Another grunt, and she followed close behind as he jumped off the low building to land lightly on his feet. His hatchet came free from its sheath. Mean and ready. Just in case.

“They were pretty confident it wouldn’t,” he said up ahead while he circled past a group of Biters, sliding down the sharp incline of the washed away road, and bee-lining for the tunnel that’d swallow them and take them to the sewers.

Zofia would have liked to buy it, and she’d been trying real hard for a while now. But every time she saw a bird, the sticky gears in her head started turning. They’d done very little turning before, had been focused solely on the task of keeping her alive. Since the Tower though, since the day she’d decided to stay, that mind had been given respite. Had got some room to breathe and to think, and she didn’t much like what it came up with.

Did her family know she was alive? Had they ever heard the broadcast they’d gotten out before the world had shunted them off again?

Were there more planes patiently waiting on an airstrip somewhere, bombs hanging from their bellies? Ready to burn them at a minute’s notice?

They were wild thoughts, all of them. And whenever she allowed herself a little rest, or when the haze of a pair of pills wore off, they’d come around to bother her.

It was exhausting.

Zofia’s eyes flicked to the seagulls. “Do you think their feathers would fall off?”

“Wh—what?” Crane stopped. Cast a look over his shoulder.

“People’s hair comes out when they turn," she clarified. "So if a bird—“

She looked at him. And him at her— and you didn’t do that. You never took your eyes off Harran. That’s what got you killed.

It lay buried under colourful plastic and mud. Didn’t make a noise. Didn’t move. Because since the Storm it wasn’t what you could see that was a threat, but what had got its legs swept out from under it, and had then decided to lie still.

Her foot set down in front of it. Right by its snapping jaw and grasping hands. Fingers curled around her ankle. Raked up and dug into her trousers. Teeth sunk into her shoe— and Zofia had her balance thrown. 

She went down sideways. Landed heavily on her bow, the frame biting down hard. A cloud of dust shook free from the ground, and Zofia wheezed. Colours swam in front of her. Words too, and she realised she’d landed face first in a SciFi magazine. It was crumpled and faded, and she choked down a laugh when she recognised Daryl Dixon with his crossbow propped on his shoulders.

Then the Biter hauled itself upwards by her leg.

Oh. Getting eaten.

And she didn’t have feathers to get stuck in its teeth. She'd go down a lot smoother. 

Zofia flipped onto her back. Snapped her chin down to see broken fingers clawing for her knees, and yellowed teeth chomping for her ankles. It still had hair. A few tufts worth, black and curly and sticking out from folds of sticky meat. A single eye set on her, and it made her think of bloody egg yolk.

Zofia’s stomach knotted. Her heart thumped wearily, the sort of beat that said: Not again.

“Bugger—“ Her heel rapped against the Biter’s forehead. Caught on skin. Peeled some of it off, a flap of red and yellow sliding across bone. It kept coming, all wet, greedy gurgles and that one hungry eye.

And somewhere off in the distance, with blue skies above and the stink of Harran all around, feet thumped towards her.

* * *

One moment she’d been talking about birds. The next she’d gone down in the trash, and his heart got all up in his throat.

Shit.

Kyle ran.

Shit-shit-shit.

One step. Two steps. Three steps. Almost there, and it was halfway up her leg. Two more steps out, and she wrenched a shoe into its open jaw. Her whole frame shook with the effort of keeping it at bay, and any moment now it’d— Kyle reached her. Flipped the hatchet over, blunt side forward (Don’t hit her leg. ) and THWACK connected it with its skull. The Biter jerked sideways. Gnashed its teeth. Hacked up a hungry protest, and tried to lunge for her again.

“Oh no you fucking don’t.”

Kyle got between them. Planted his knee on its spine, and with one quick swing let the hatchet bite into its skull.

It hadn’t taken long— a couple of frantic seconds between It’s all good to God damnit, and to him shooting a glance at Zofia with her back still in the dirt.

“We okay?” He tore the hatchet free. Flicked meat and brain from it, and wiped it against the dirty rags on the dead Biter.

Zofia nodded. But she wasn’t getting up. Her right hand was latched round the hilt of her own weapon still in its sheath, and her throat bobbed with a round of forced swallows.

“I had it,” she said eventually and propped herself up on her elbows. Her eyes went anywhere but to him though, and only stopped darting about once they caught on something behind him.

He shot a look that way too. More Biters. Naturally. Curious about what all that racket had been about. And hungry.

Up and at ‘em, Crane.

Or up and away, rather.

“I know you did,” he lied as he stood, hooked a hand into her elbow, and hauled her up and towards the tunnel entrance. She grunted in protest, but didn’t try to yank herself free. He was thankful for that.

Because he’d seen her dead on the ground there. Torn up and bleeding out. And right now, this was what he needed; the sharp bone against his palm, and the brush of her hip as he tucked her in closer. He needed her to be okay. And he needed her to stop thinking him stupid. Blind. Because this wasn’t her: this sluggishness and carelessness, the getting surprised by a Biter. Even if it had been fairly well hidden under all that trash.

Kyle clicked his flashlight on the moment they stepped past the threshold of shadow, and hers followed suit.

No. This wasn’t her.

Where are you hiding them, Paper Tiger?

Do I need to frisk you again?

He grimaced, let the light dance across the hoods and dented roofs of cars staring at them with their headlights dead and listless. It was cool in here. Damp. Smelled of rot (like every-fucking-where-else), but with a hint of moss and oil.

And it was clear. No movement. Nothing bounding for the light, and he followed the path they’d carved weeks ago. Step by step. Ears straining for sound. Eyes burning with focus.

You’re going to get yourself killed, pumpkin.

You’re going to get us killed.

He’d let go of her elbow. And she’d attached herself to his heels, followed quietly, but diligently, her light covering where his wouldn’t reach. Watching his back. Keeping them safe.

Kyle gritted his teeth.

You need to talk to her. You need to sit her the fuck down and you need to talk to her.

He tugged his mask down. Took a deep breath of the lightly chilled air.

Fix it. This is your fault, after all.

That she’d gotten hurt. That she was still stuck in Harran. All his doing.

But not now. Not here. Now he needed his focus on the walls narrowing around them. The tunnel making way for a side passage, its door locked and him bringing the key. No time for talking down here, just for slowly creeping forward, his fingers flexing around the shaft of his hatchet.

He thought about it though. Kept coming back to it, his mind shifting gears between what lay in front of him, and what he could have done different.

They’d divided the sewer into sections. Bite sized portions of tunnels blocked off by iron grates, chained shut and padlocked.

Karim’s idea— again. Man was full of them.

A Zombie sluice, Kyle had suggested they’d name it. Which, back then, had earned him a round of frowns, along with a distinctly annoyed groan from Zofia (who’d flopped on her back on the table she’d sat on, and covered her eyes). Rahim had liked it though. So: Yay me?

Theoretically, the sluice system should make the sewers safe to cross, or a safe as anything could get these days. Theoretically. In reality they’d lost three couriers two weeks in.

The first had found a stray Biter, and hadn’t been able to find his way back out. Two more had followed a day later. They’d locked a grate behind them, boxed themselves in neatly, and then run into courier number one.

He’d torn them to shreds.

Kyle liked to think he knew better. And he fucking hated surprises.

Each time they reached a grate, he rapped his crowbar against it, and then he waited. Counted to ten. Spent those ten seconds glancing at Zofia while she let her light lance through the murky tunnel they would be heading through. She stared after the beam, her own mask still sitting on the bridge of her nose. The skin by the edge was red. Sore. Heavy, dark circles ringed her eyes, and she carried smears of dirt on her cheek and forehead.

He could have been stricter. Kept a closer eye on her.

Kyle nudged another grate open. She closed it up behind them. And they went on.

Or he could have tried harder. Been better at listening to her, the unsaid hurt behind her eyes, because she never fucking talked.

”I’m fine.”

”It’s okay.”

”I didn’t really want to leave Harran anyway.”

And that was what it boiled down to: How he should have done better.

Two more sluices later— one of which had been dislodged from the wall, making it useless and earning itself a note in the back of his head reading: Repair —and they stepped back into the light. A storm drain. The walls steep. Slick with algae and moss. Graffiti winked out from under patches of green, leftovers from days when young idiots had still been allowed to be just that. Young and idiotic and bored.

The storm drain wasn’t ever empty, and Kyle felt his shoulders drag down at the sight of two Biters loitering in their path. Fuckers never watched their steps and kept tripping down the ledges.

“I’ve got this,” he told himself. And her, a splayed hand indicating she should stay back.

Two Biters weren’t a threat. Hadn’t been in a long while. But they were still work, needed a bit of attention of the final sort. They turned towards him as he approached. Sluggish. Moany. Kyle hefted the hatchet up, set his feet down carefully.

“‘sup,” he called. Got their attention. Circled to the left, putting one of them between him and his shorter friend.

Warghl, the taller one replied, showing a blackened tongue flop between rotting teeth. Chances were the thing couldn’t even bite any more— or that its teeth would get stuck on the way out.

He flinched.

It extended skinny arms. Lurched at him. And Kyle met it halfway, stepping around it with his feet dragging through mud and refuse. He batted an arm away that followed him. Snapped the axe against the side of its head. It dug in deep, and he hated the sound of bone giving way under the sharp edge, even if he should have probably gotten used to it by now.

Kyle yanked the axe free as the Biter slumped down, and made for the next one.

Biter number two… stared at him. Its shoulders jerked. It started hacking up air. Like it was about to throw up, each heave a sharp and throaty sound that made the hair at the back of his neck stand at very rapt attention.

This is different.

“Crane—“ Zofia. Close by. Sounding worried, and he couldn’t have that. So he shook off the hesitation and swung for its head.

The Biter reacted.

It squeezed air from its throat in a stuttering imitation of a hungry shriek. And it moved too fast. No almost-dead-already-give-me-a-second shuffle. No easily telegraphed swing of its arms. It flung itself at him. Grabbed at him. Hard fingers locked around his his wrist. Putrid breath slammed into his lungs. And it grasped and it pushed.

Kyle gave it a few inches. He fell back one step until his foot found firm purchase, and with a twist of his hip and a snap of his elbow against the Biter’s head, sent it staggering away.

It didn’t let go of his wrist though. Dug nails into his skin. And even if the thing wasn’t as tall as the first, it had momentum, and a rotten weight that almost tore him off his feet.

They wobbled like a pair of drunkards. Made it a few uneasy steps. Bumped knees and growls. One hungry, the other a little desperate.

Kyle boxed his fist into its throat. Felt something pop under his knuckles. It wheezed. The Infected needed air, but with human stripped from them, they’d also stopped giving much of a fuck. It’d suffocate eventually. Eventually being about as helpful as a— a— Ah fuck it.

The Biter/Viral/Piece-of-shit-Zombie lunged again. Kyle caught it under its chin. Squeezed his fingers around leathery, slick skin. Pushed. Teeth clicked for him. Looking much better tended than the other one’s. Looking almost pointy.

Okay. Okay. This is going to shit.

"A little help here—"

Halfway through his words and the Biter's head bounced forward. Bone crunched. The whistle of it sucking air through a crushed windpipe stopped. And then its legs gave out, and it let go of his wrist.

Kyle let it fall. The thing hit the mud face first, Zofia’s axe buried into the back of its head.

“What the bloody hell was that?” She paced through the ankle deep water, each step a wet splash.

Kyle allowed himself a deep breath. Then another, just to make sure his voice was on the level. “Fucked if I know.”

“It’s not fresh,” she added and went down to pry her axe free. It wiggled in the skull, and when it came loose she almost sat down. But the Paper Tiger, with her claws all out to help his sorry ass, regained her balance. “So what gives?”

“Don’t look at me.”

“I’m not,” she corrected him, because she really wasn’t. She cleaned her hatchet. Fumbled to get it back into its sheath, and Kyle smirked.

This was more like it. More her. A bit flippant, since putting up with him was obviously a chore, and with the resigned slouch gone from her shoulders.

“You’re probably right.” He left the dead behind, and they continued their trek through the storm drain. Not much further to go now.

“About what?” Slurp-splash-slurp her steps followed him.

“The virus. Adapting. Mutating, whatever.”

“That’d mean it may not be a one time thing, and you should probably call it in. Runners in the slums aren’t taking a lone Biter serious. Present company standing evidence to that.”

Kyle scoffed, but nodded. “Point.” He thumbed the frequency dial on his radio, clicked it on. “Brecken? Lena? We have a problem.”

* * *

The bloody muppet had almost gone and died, and Zofia resented him for it. The sort of resentment that came with a frantic hammering in her chest, because she’d rather see him live to be horrible another day.

With the thumping of her heart came a spell of clarity. A lack of drifting thoughts and quiet murmurs of What ifs. Just her and the now and the next step through the dark. Three more sections to go. Damp and dark and hopefully empty. A little later, and Old Town waited for them at the top of a flight of familiar stairs, greeted them with its roofs baking in the midday sun. The thing had dialled up the heat while they’d been creeping about underground.

Uncomfortably so for mid November.

Crane glared at it. Muttered something about Norway, undid the zipper at the front of his jacket, and they went off to follow a well trodden path across a highway made of shingles, wood and layers of crumbling brick.

Old Town had, for the most part, weathered the Storm well enough. Its buildings had strong walls. Its roofs were actual roofs , and its drainage system had kept most of the water out of the streets.

They’d lost electricity in two districts. Another had burnt down halfway, claimed by the fire started by the stray bomb that had come with the Storm.

The downside?

Still as many Biters as before, if not more, with the streets below certain death no matter the time of day.

So they stayed up on their rickety highway between the clear blue skies and roads no longer fit for the living.

By the time they’d climbed the criss crossing walkways up the Ember’s loft, Zofia had thrown her jacket open too. She welcomed the hint of fresh air against her collarbone, and felt generally okay with being able to breathe Old Town air without cloth over her mouth.

She liked it so much, in fact, that when Crane offered to help her up the last ramp leading into the shade of Troy’s command tower, Zofia waved him off. He frowned and his jaw set, but he didn’t protest. Just cast a quick look around, his eyes cutting between the people calling the Loft their home.

Suspicious. Protective. As if someone might steal her while he wasn't looking. Sweet. A little silly. But sweet.

“I’ll be back soon—“ And with that he climbed the ramp and dropped out of sight through a curtain of recently affixed tapestry covering the entrance.

There were eyes on her. Curious ones. Interesting by proxy, since she’d arrived with Kyle Crane, and now there was a man whose name held weight in the Quarantine.

They left her alone though, and no one tried to nick her either.  

Which was good .

Zofia wandered to the edge of the platform, shrugged off her bow harness, and sat with her legs dangling from the edge. With the battered, blue thing laid out across her lap, and her fingers idly closing and opening around its frame, she stared out across the rooftops. And past that, towards the dark azure of the ocean straddling Old Town, and the distant outcropping of land.

More precisely, she looked for the lighthouse up on there. The proud and faraway thing with all that blue it had to lord over.

Her throat worked down a swallow. Scratchy. Dry, and she dug water from her pack, the cap coming off quick and the liquid tepid on her tongue.

And she counted in her head.

Thirteen more pills. That’s what she had. Her fingers twitched. Wanted to fish them out. Count them again. Pop two into her mouth, and wait for the quiet they brought. Dream herself across that stretch of blue maybe. Right atop the lighthouse.

Almost did too, but the familiar beat of Crane’s steps to her right, convinced her otherwise. He'd probably throw them off the platform if he knew she had them.

She flinched. And you’d go after them. Play fetch. Like a good little dog.

“You ready to roll, lazybones?”

Zofia looked at him, at the careful smile on him, and the professional curiosity bearing down on her. Like he knew.

“Don’t you want to take a break?”

“Not yet— we have to get to the South end of town, and I’d like to get there before nightfall.”

“South. That’s where the markets are.”

A shrug.

She frowned. “There’s not a lot of roofs there. Just a lot of tents, if they’re even still standing. It’ll be hard to get around.”

He came up to her. All dirty trousers and belt buckle again. His hand extended. “You can stay. I’m sure Troy won’t mind the company.”

Zofia scoffed, snapped her thumb and index finger awkwardly around his wrist, and he pulled her to her feet.

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

* * *

She’d thought it’d take longer to reach the far South corner of Old Town, but with the ocean drawing nearer came a lightly salted breeze that helped her focus.

And it felt good to move. To not think of anything but where to put her feet down next. To follow the relative straight line she’d plotted with Old Town’s architecture lending itself to easy navigation, moving from one spire to the next, hanging right at a dome there, and skirting the bleak blocks of modern apartment blocks.

She’d even learned to ignore the fading pleas for help. The tattered cloth hanging from windows, torn off by the wind. Or the letters painted to walls. Bleached by the sun, and sometimes washed clear by rain.

Help

We need food.

Stay out. Infected inside.

Or that’s what she thought they said, since more than half were written in Arabic script. Despite Crane’s efforts to teach her, she’d proven herself altogether shoddy at comprehending the lettering. It was pretty though. Maybe even more so because she had no idea what they said.

Troy had given Crane an address, and marked the general area where their contact was meant to be. That Zofia recognised the name of the place, and remembered exactly where to look, helped. Because even with an address and a map, Old Town was a bitch to navigate with all its narrow and winding alleys, and its absolute refusal to think in straight lines.

Their destination was a restaurant. The Sunset Yard, and she'd eaten fried fish there. Exactly four days before hell had come to pay Harran a visit. And then stayed, because why the fuck not. Nestled in a cluster of ancient buildings, each repurposed to serve a modern purpose, the place sat on the second floor. At the back, Zofia remembered, it had a wide terrace. On the third floor above it, was club. And below a tourist centre where she’d bought a stack of postcards, their backs already stamped and ready to go.

Half of them had actually made it into the mail. She doubted they'd ever left Harran though.

Now, months later, the building had lost most of its charm. It had shed the flower pots that had clung to its window sills. Had grown ugly shutters made of plain wood. And getting in meant balancing on a few crudely nailed together planks stretching from a neighbouring building and ending them on the fortified balcony.

Crane went over first. He stalked the length of it, his shoulders deceptively relaxed, but the jacket open wide enough to allow him to draw the handgun snugly sitting below his shoulder.

Then he waved her over, and the first thing she noticed on the other end were the heavy duty UV lights affixed to the walls. That, and the lack of outdoor furniture, and the overabundance of buckets. She also found the flower pots, though instead of flowers they held meek tomatoes, beans and drooping salad.

She looked at him and he shrugged. Then he nodded towards the door (which she swore used to be glass, not two metal wings), and stepped up to it.

He raised a hand to knock. Was one step out when one side of the door flew open.

Kyle froze, the muzzle of a rifle levelled at his chest. Carried by an arm wrapped in dirty yellow.

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Something familiar.


 First time he’d gotten shot, Kyle had been careless. The sort of careless where you didn’t check your fucking corners, and that shit had stung.  He’d whined like a little bitch until the medevac had pulled him out.

Second time around, he’d landed flat on his back on a frozen patch of ground. And while sleet had cut at his face, he’d bled his life into dirty snow.

He’d almost died that day.

But Kyle Crane was an ornery bastard. Stubborn. Persistent. Not okay with dying, because there’d been a few good years yet waiting to be lived, and so he’d done just that. He’d lain around like a lazy bum for a little while, shivered with death's icy fingers wrapped tight around him, and then he'd made it through.

Fast forward a couple of years— good years, real good years, You had a sweet run, dude — and he was stood with his mouth hanging half open, fingers an inch away from his sidearm, and an AR-15 going: ’sup, where you want it, genius? into his direction.

Kyle snapped his teeth shut.

Half a step back, half another to the right— Get between civilian and hostile. —hands thrown outward, fingers far away as fucking possible from anything resembling a weapon.

Eyes on the threat. Filter getting right to work.

Male. Fifty, pushing sixty. Steady aim. Safety disengaged. Fingers by trigger. Hard grip. Good stance. Military?

He wore a thick jacket. Glaring yellow on faded blue.

Rais-Rais-Rais-Rais, a shitty alarm in his head went. Kyle snoozed it.

Make eye contact. Say something not stupid. Like: “Oh—woah—Sir—I’m—sorry—wrong—door—”

The rifle jerked. Focused, dollar-bill green eyes flicked to him, and a thin mouth set in a crooked snarl. Deep lines creased his Harran-tanned face, and a thick, dark brown beard had long ago started collecting gray.

“Don’t fucking move,” Kyle got told, and he did as instructed. Even if he’d have really liked to do anything but.

“You too. You touch that bow I’m going to put a round into him.”

American. Texas.

Kyle’s lips turned down.

Come on, countryman. Love me.

“Scott,” a second voice came from the relative darkness behind the door. Female. Relatively annoyed. “That might be our Antizin you’re threatening.”

A shadow moved behind Scott's shoulder, but the rifle stayed where it was.

Scott’s cheeks puffed out. A shaggy eyebrow tried itself at an arch. “You one of Brecken’s?”

Kyle’s spine dipped itself into burning ice. “You one of Rais’ fanboys?”

The set of shaggy eyebrows furrowed.

“No.” Sufficiently insulted by the suggestion, he noted. Good.

“Then—“ Kyle gave a quick bob of his head towards Zofia behind him. “—yeah. We are. Now could you do me a solid and put that thing down?”

Scott’s finger twitched away from the trigger, and he thumbed the safety back on. The rifle lowered, tucked close to his chest, ready to flick back up at a heartbeat's notice. Definitely military.

“I’m sorry for the reception,” the woman from before added and pushed the door open the rest of the way. “Let’s try this again.”

She stepped outside, a hand already extended. Another American, though her accent was harder to place. Midwest? Feels like home already.

“Meghan. And you’re—?”

Staring, as it turned out.

“Crane,” he said. Added: “Kyle,” while he shook her hand, and wanted to tell his filter to shut the fuck up. It rattled it all off anyway: firm grip, judging you already, easily as tall as you— and dude, that’s not where her eyes are.

A short sleeved red shirt— the sort that'd get you spotted from a mile away —sat tight around her torso, contrasting her dark skin. Told a story of steel wire arms, and came with a ridiculously wide neckline. Very u-shaped. Very round. Totally round.

Lots of round.

Snap- went a drive belt in his brain somewhere. Stalled that particular engine of coherent thought, and if he hadn't looked up to find her easy smile, Kyle wondered if the next thing he'd felt would have been an arrow lodged in the back of his neck.

One with Muppet written across the shaft of it.

He focused on what else his filter had piled up. Things of more relevance. Like the Beretta M9 by her hip. That would have been important, what with the latch popped open on the holster. Ready to draw. Or how, before bothering to look at the rest of him, she'd looked at his piece first, a familiar and tense flick to her eyes.

The rest of her wasn't any less interesting than the clean glint of her weapon was, and he catalogued that too. Started with the jagged, hooked scar on her lower lip. Moved on to the high, sharp cheekbones, and a strong chin tilted slightly downwards in a friendly, almost inviting gesture. A far cry from her initial mistrust, as if he'd said something that shed her doubt. She wore her hair tied back firmly, thick black locks tamed and flattened.

And she studied him in turn, a set of keen, dark eyes that held onto an expressive sort of intelligence. They crinkled at the edges. Laugh lines.

Meghan’s grip tightened. Shook a bit harder. “They’ve sent the Kyle Crane? The one who stopped the bombs? Most of them, anyway?” She shot a look at Scott, who huffed and turned around, wandering back into the shade beyond the door.

“Ehm—” Kyle frowned. “Does everyone know?”

Behind him, Zofia snorted.

"Savvy,” Meghan clarified. "He likes to boast."

"Ah.“

Handshake done, Kyle waved a hand by his side, and Zofia drew up next to him.

“Haven’t you got used to that by now? You’re bloody famous,” she said, her fingers flexing around the bow. Nervous. A little rattled, but finding her footing with how she clung to her bow, drawing strength from the beaten, blue frame. That piece of familiarity, a part of the Build-your-own-Zofia-set. Assembly required. Handle with care. 

Meghan's brow tilted. "And you're the girl from the radio.”

Up Zofia’s shoulders went. Quick and Whatever, her eyes already keeping themselves busy by studying the plaster on the wall. Okay. A lot of assembly required, and please don't spook.

She also didn't share his enthusiasm from round things, which probably wasn't making this any easier on her. Flap-Flap, the drive belt to the shit engine in his head went, and bits and pieces went flying. Total engine failure imminent.

“Where are my manners, come on in,” Meghan continued, drifting back a few steps and indicating the restaurant with a sweeping motion. Yeah. Manners. That was a thing. “And nevermind Scott. We've had marauders at our doorstep a week ago, and he's still a little jumpy.”

"Totally understandable. So— you've got the keycard?" About those manners…

She cocked her head at him. “Not even halfway inside, and straight to business? Did you bring the Antizin we asked for?"

He nodded. “How many Bitten do you have here?”

Kyle's eyes adjusted to the gloom, and found themselves pleasantly surprised.

Here was nice. Tidy, almost, and Kyle cataloged it with a quick sweep.

Main dining hall— mostly empty— hardly any furniture left, like they’d cleared it out for a night of dancing. Windows boarded up neatly. Not a rush job, with even gaps left between them that let golden rays glance off the clean, tiled floors.

Counter on the right, taps and all. The shelves behind it still held a few bottles of booze, but most had been filled with stacks of carefully sorted supplies. A swinging door behind the counter led into the Sunset yard’s kitchen. It was held open by rope.

Stairs— sharp right, the sign saying Employee’s only, having been repurposed to spell Everyone only, Lock the door!

Roof access, Kyle guessed. Made note of it, and moved on.

On the other end of the wide hall stood another double winged door, one half swung open. Three clusters of tables parked in front of it, one occupied by two men with their eyes turned to the newcomers. Locals, Kyle guessed by their skin colour and the thick mops of black hair. Playing cards lay between them, temporarily forgotten in favour of throwing Kyle suspicious glances.

A third man sat at the bar/counter/supply bench, a book in front of him, and his head bowed as he read. Short, crew cut hair. Red. Pale skin under a short sleeved shirt. A tattoo on his biceps, the tip of a knife and claws of an eagle ripping past it, with the bottom half of the American flag showing before it tucked itself into his shirt.

Kyle's heart let out a hesitant whoop. But the drive belt set itself right again, and gears started turning, a lot of questions rolling by.

Who'd lost two soldiers?

“Four,” Meghan clarified, and when his eyes cut to her, she’d put on a smile that made him think she’d been watching him take stock of things. And approving of his vigilance.

“And how many people altogether?”

“We’re eleven—“ She jutted her chin towards Red at the bar. “Daxton, say hi.”

“Hi,” Daxton offered, but kept his eyes on the book. Must have been one hell of a read.

“He’s our medic. Down there—“ Her right hand went up, gestured to the tables. “—that’s Akif and Yeter.”

Kyle nodded, though he’d gone off thinking logistics already. He’d expected a smaller group, maybe five or six, but getting that many people across Old Town and through the sewers at the same time?

“Okay. That’s still doable,” he finished his staggering line of thought. “We’ll have to do two trips, maybe camp out at a buffer zone by the pass, but I can make this work within a day.”

“Make what work?” Meghan’s head cocked slightly.

He jabbed a thumb at Zofia.

“We’re here to help you guys across and to get you set up at the Tower. There aren’t going to be any more Antizin drops in Old Town, so your best bet is—"

"No,” Meghan cut him off. Quick and efficient. “Let me be perfectly clear, we are not leaving.”

"Bu— But why? You have a much better chance if you—“

He’d have liked to finish that sentence. Properly, not to end up with it tapering off as he caught a wizened, old woman shuffle through the door at the far end. She looked the part of a picture perfect Harran grandma, colourful headscarf and baby in her arms included.

Baby.

Small human, Kyle’s mind offered. Being abso-fucking-lutely useless as always. Tiny-tiny-mini-human, it added with a screech.

The baby made a noise. A soft, blubbering baby noise, because it was a baby, and that was what babies did.

Oh.

“Yahsi and Riley.” Meghan gestured to the pair, which sat with the two men, one of who immediately turned his attention to the wiggling bundle in Yahsi's arms. “She’s two months old, so you can see why we haven’t— and won’t —relocate. Between those two, the chances of us making it across are slim at best, and we’re not leaving them here. What we’d rather have is that you share the bunker with us once we’ve cracked it open.”

She moved to stand in front of him. Kyle frowned straight ahead, because yeah, she was as tall as him. Crap.

“Does that sound fair? I mean, it’s what you’ve come for, right? You want that thing open, and we’re more than happy to help you with that. But once that’s done, we’ll share.

Meghan folded her arms, and Kyle ended himself blindsided by the contrasting red of her shirt over dark skin. Again. The neckline had collected a little sweat. Gotten a little soaked. Grglgah— Eyes are up there. Jesus Christ, Crane. You’re not fifteen, and this isn’t Mrs. Turner from English in her ridiculous yellow dress. Get your shit together.

His right hand went to rub at the back of his neck. Squeezed. “Not leaving. Got it. Share, got that too. I’m not going to argue, but I’ll need to talk to Brecken and let him know we’re adjusting the game plan.”

“Outstanding." BAM— the smile was back. "How about we get started then?”

With a nod to Scott, Meghan and her grim faced friend moved off to the counter, and it didn’t take them long to lay out a set of well worn gear. A kevlar vest— a long sleeved jacket— a machete with a mean edge to it. Freshly sharpened.

“Now? I thought we’d wait until tomorrow at least. There's no telling what we’ll find in there, and I’m not keen on getting stuck down there for a night.”

Meghan shrugged on the kevlar vest, which Kyle attributed to talk about marauders, and which reminded him that he had none of that luxury.

And then it clicked that it wasn't Scott getting geared up, but her. He blinked. Who'd misplaced three soldiers?

“We need two keycards to get in there. I have one. The second one is with a group of locals who’ve holed up about five klicks from here. ”

Great, he thought. Complications. I fucking hate complications.

“You forgot to mention that.”

She shrugged.

“It didn’t seem relevant. They were supposed to join us yesterday.” Scott handed her the machete, and she slid it into a sheath at her thigh. “Since they haven’t, and we’re unable to raise them on the radio, I thought we should go take a look, what do you think?”

“Wait a sec. Without both cards—?”

“We’re not getting in, and we’ve wasted your time, yes. But let’s not be fatalistic.”

The jacket went on last, and Kyle found himself faced with a woman that looked ready for about anything. And, if he was about to be honest, as if she could wipe the fucking floor with him if he wasn’t careful.

Which he was fine with— sort of? Coughing, Kyle threw a look over his shoulder.

Zofia shifted on the spot, her small shoulders up and pulled back, eyes going this way and that. Waiting for him to make the important calls, because he was so damn smart. Kyle grimaced. Lately, it had been real shit being him.

He turned his wrist up, wiped a thumb over the dirt glass of his watch. “You sure you don’t want to wait until tomorrow? Cutting it damn close to nightfall.”

“I’m sure,” Meghan said, right before she nodded towards Zofia. “And I’d suggest that your friend stays here, she looks tired.”

The smile still sat on her lips, honest and well meaning.

No fucking way.

Kyle couldn’t leave her here. Wouldn’t. Not with people he knew jackshit about, people he couldn’t trust. His eyes cut to Scott. Then on to Daxton, before they snapped to the two at the back of the room.

His throat swelled shut, the No, he wanted to bark back at her lodged sideways in there.

Zofia beat him to it: “Sounds great.”

What?

He stared at her.

“I’ll be fine,“ she said before he could protest. Dull eyes met his. Tired eyes, but there was something in there that went beyond exhaustion. Something private, and just a little guilty.

“She’ll be in good hands here. Promise.” Meghan again, this time with a curious tilt to her voice, which promptly got chucked out as she barked “Collin!” for the whole fucking Quarantine to hear. “Get your lazy ass down here!”

Kyle had to fight the urge to snap off a salute and square himself up, feeling his suspicions about her being military sufficiently confirmed. Either that, or she was a multiple times single mom. And pray to God her kids hadn’t been in Harran.

“Ma’am,“ the reply came down the stairs a moment later, followed by the sound of a door closing, and feet thumping their way. They came attached to a skinny, young man tucked into oversized pants, and a glaring pink shirt someone had vomited colour all over.

Kyle’s filter tripped. Late teens? Early twenties? Long, blond hair, tied in a bushy mess with a purple band keeping it from falling into his eyes. From the looks of it, the boy had about as much chance of growing a beard as Kyle had of growing a pair of tits.

Collin walked lazily down the last two steps, a slouching sort of leap of someone who might have considered moving an optional exercise. As he drew near, Kyle noted the patch of scarred skin by his right elbow: a bite mark.

One of the four.

“Zofia here—“ Meghan gestured to her, “—is staying with us for a while. Go on, show her around, and have Phoebie cook her something.”

Right about then, Zofia seemed to scent the oncoming threat of social interaction, and being Zofia (bless her), she faced that train with brittle, papery claws.

“No, it’s fine, I’ve got rations,” she tried, only to be shot down.

“We insist," Meghan, the proverbial train in this exercise, said. "We owe you much more than that. It's the least we can do for the suppressants.”

Collin nodded at the sidelines. “Sure thing, Boss.” He offered Zofia a smile, one about as lazy as the slouch in his shoulders.

She swallowed, her mouth twisting faintly, and a nod coming with a brief pinch of her brows. Determination in the face of something she feared she'd regret later— a look he knew well enough. Had been on the receiving end of more often than he wanted to count.

But this was good. Right?

This was her stepping out from under his shadow.

She glanced at him. Looked away.

His gut pinched. What are you up to, sneaky little skunk?

“Meg,” Scott interrupted his musings, effectively pulling the handbrake on them with the tell-tale click of armament being handled.

He looked that way, and found an M4 changing hands.

A suppressed M4.

Are you shitting me?

Kyle hoped his mouth wasn’t watering, because damn, she had a silenced M4?

Not fucking fair.

And maybe he did start drooling, because next thing he knew, Meghan chuckled and extended the rifle into his direction. Offering it.

“Tell you what,” she said. “You trust us with your friend, I might as well trust you with mine.”

Scott started to complain, but she clicked her tongue and he shut right up. Might as well have cracked a whip. There might have even been the smell of burn in the air.  

Kyle smirked, and gingerly accepted the rifle. So what if he murmured “Come to papa, baby…” under his breath. This was awesome. Sure, they had rifles back at the Tower, but they all came with names attached to them, ownership claimed by those who stood their feet sore in hallways. Hoping to never have to use them.

He quirked a brow at her as his hand hovers by the bolt release. She nodded, a silent Go ahead, which he followed through with eagerly and went through the motions. Bolt back. Check the chamber. Each sliding clack music to his ears. Giddy and about to start bouncing on the balls of his feet with delight.

“Emergencies only,” she clarified. “We don’t have a lot of ammunition, and it’s too loud still to risk without good reason. But if we’re sufficiently fucked, then please. Be my guest.”

“Yes ma’am,” he responded without thinking.

Zofia snorted, and he turned to her with a guilty grin on him.

“Come on, admit it, this is a little awesome.” He secured the rifle with the strap over his neck, tucked it against his side, and motioned for her to follow as he stepped away from the group. Though he did keep one hand on the side of it, because damn this felt nice.

She trailed him, and Meghan left them to it, as if she’d gotten the hint. The one of: We need a moment, because I'm not sure I can do this.

Voice low, he planted himself in front of her, kept the group at his back. “Are you absolutely sure?”

A nod. A twitch of her fingers. Elbows real close, with her arms crossed over her chest, and one hand loosely curled around a pocket.

“I’d only slow you down,” she started and now he was the one clicking his tongue to shush her.

“Bullshit.”

“No— she’s right, Crane. We’ve been at this since daybreak, and I’m bloody beat.” Her eyes cut to the tips of her shoes. “My feet hurt,” she added. “My back’s on fire. I’m hungry.” Up her eyes went again. “Want me to keep going? Because I’ve got a list that’s a mile long.”

A hollow sort of plea sat in the look she gave him, and Kyle shook his head. Instead of arguing, he gently hooked a finger into a strap of her pack, and with a careful motion pulled it from her shoulder. She hissed when it came off, and flinched when it hit the floor with a thud.

“Let me see.” He turned her around, peeled the jacket from her back. Her shirt clung to her, dark and wet down along her spine, soaked in sweat. And blood.

“Stitches must have opened.” Kyle sighed. “Fuck, I don’t like this. I don’t like leaving you here.”

“I’ll be fine,” she repeated. Third time now. Paper Tiger must really mean it. “They seem like good people.”

“No one’s good people according to you. Except Lena and me.”

She scoffed. “Lena, yeah. And Rahim, most of the time.”

“Ow. Stab-stab.”

He smiled at her as she turned. Put effort into it. And maybe, if she hadn’t been too busy glancing at the jacket he held on to still, she’d have smiled back.

Sighing, Kyle went for the pocket she’d held her hand over earlier, and found what he’d hoped he wouldn’t. Pills squirrelled away in a small plastic bag, tied shut at the top with a rubber band.

His heart got kicked. Hard. It whined miserably.

At first, he kept his mouth shut. Stared at her. Got stared back at. Her mouth twisted. Slanted in a sharp line. But she didn’t ask for them back.

“You take any today?”

A nod.

“How many?”

“Two.”

“Christ on a crutch, Zofia— what the hell?”

Her eyes fell away from his, landed on his shoulder, and he thought that terrible, rending feeling in his chest meant he was about to drop dead.

“We’re going to talk when I’m back,” he warned, his voice scratching up his throat in a miserable rasp. Or a growl. Shit, he hadn't just growled, had he?

Another nod. Oh for fucks sake, Crane. Tact. Tact. Don’t be a bully.

“Hey—“ He tried to grab for her chin. Make her look at him. Kiss her, maybe, because she looked like she needed that, but when his fingers glanced off her skin, she flinched away.

She hadn’t done that in a while.

“I’m just worried, okay?”

A shrug this time, and Kyle’s throat felt thick and hot and shit, what the fuck do I do?

Go do what he’d come for, that was what, and get himself wrecked once that was done.

One thing at a time, mission priority and what have you. Put her a little to the back. For a short while.

“Keep the radio on. Keep it close. Anything at all happen—“

Back to nodding again, and Kyle’s heart started chewing on his ribcage, every bite a touch of ice.

“Okay,” he murmured and left her there to find Meghan ready— and very much pretending that she hadn’t seen or heard a thing.

“Ready to move out?”

“Yeah.” He tightened the grip on the rifle. Tried to take a bit of comfort into something familiar. “Let’s roll.”

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Out of Order


 “Nice bow,” Collin said, and Zofia wondered if it’d be okay to fling said bow aside to distract him, and bound after Crane screaming I changed my mind!

No.

Bloody hell. Relax.

She swallowed. Hefted the pack from the ground. Tucked one shoulder under it, the strap digging in where it had likely left a furrow at this point. Her back smarted. Stung. Felt sticky of all things, warm and gooey where she'd bled, and a bit chilly where sweat had started drying.

Ick.

Bounding after Crane, she figured, that'd take effort her sore legs weren't in agreement with. It'd be ridiculous too.

She was being ridiculous, and she was very much not okay. Not okay with Crane gone— not okay with being left with strangers— not okay with her pills out the bloody door.

Her eyes flicked to Collin, who pulled a long fingered hand through hair bleached by the Harran sun. Pale blue eyes, way too big for his narrow face, wandered away from her bow, paused briefly on her hatchet, and then zig zagged their way back up.

“Ta,” she said, remembering that being human came with an obligation to open your gob once in awhile. Even if you'd just clenched it up real tight, teeth clamped together hard enough to hurt.

“Boss wants you to have some food, so let’s do that. I’ll show you around later, sound good?”

Zofia nodded. Followed. Slowly, because the first step felt a bit like pulling her foot out of ankle deep mud. And the second snared barbed wire around her heart. She cast a look over her shoulder, to the door that had spat out Crane, and the tall, burly man named Scott sitting by it with his rifle on his lap.

You’re okay. You’re okay. This is okay.

Except with every step she followed Collin, eyes turned to her. And maybe the walls closed in. And the ceiling came down. An inch for every moment she wasn't looking.

You’re okay.

She focused on Collin, at how he stood a head taller than her, and how he came made of skin and bone, with a neck so thin it might snap any moment. Fall right off from a set of sharp, thin shoulders.

There was a slouch to him though, a lazy kind of roll that made him look like he didn’t have a care in the world as he led her to the kitchen.

Almost like he was fine. Okay. Like Harran wasn’t a thing, that it wasn't waiting for him past those walls.

Some people adjusted better than others. Rolled with the punches. Kept going and then some. Lena, for one. Brecken. Even Crane, though she'd seen the cracks on him, the ones that showed when the lights died, when the Tower wrapped itself in a hush. The moments in which the I got this, gave way to something much less certain.

They'd gotten more frequent lately.

Zofia trailed Collin into the kitchen, and with her first step through she caught a whiff of food. Not the prepacked, hardly heated MRE sort, or the cold can worked open to be eaten while huddle in a corner, legs tucked in under her. This smelled nice. Edible. Of spices and of grease. Fresh almost, and her stomach decided it was both delighted by the scent of it, and horribly disgusted.

She heard the soft clack of knives falling in a steady rhythm, and the muted chatter of two more of the group's members standing behind one of the long steel counters running the length of the room. They looked up. The knives stopped clicking, and the conversation died.

Zofia slowed. This isn't awkward at all.

Collin's arm came up, pointed lazily towards the leftmost woman. Short. Pretty. Thick brown hair, and a pair of glasses on her, which she nudged up with a gentle push of her knuckles.

"Phoebie," he introduced her. "Riley’s mom.”

Next to her stood a girl maybe his age, her features decidedly Asian, and her smile decidedly friendly, all smiles and dimples and whatnot.

“Hey Phoeb. Boss wants us to feed our guest, do you have any leftovers?”

“Sure. You allergic to anything, hun?”

Zofia’s feet tripped over the words, like she’d slid them across the floor at her and she’d run right into them.

“Uh— no.”

“Great. Go on and have a seat—“ she gestured with a hand clutching a knife, indicating a small table off to the side. “—I’ll fix you something.”

She padded over as instructed, pulled a chair up and around to where she’d sit with her back to appliances, the kitchen laid out in front of her. Her pack landed between her feet, and the bow over her knees. Everything within easy reach, like the paranoid kitten Crane liked to call her on occasion.

Muppet.

Muppet with a point, but a muppet either way. One that wasn't here right now, and Zofia's stomach twisted with the knowledge of that— and the smell of food thick in her nose. She turned her eyes to her watch. Frowned. A whole lot of no time had passed since he’d stepped out that door. It felt a lot longer.

Collin dropped his lanky frame into the chair opposite of her, and just when he'd got halfway comfortable, the girl peeled away from Phoebie and joined them, hands wringing in front of her.

“Hey Jin,” Collin mumbled, right before he lifted himself back up, and aforementioned Jin thumped into his chair instead.  

Getting awfully crowded here.

Jin thrust a hand across the table, flat and straight and demanding to be shook, with a wide and pearly grin at the other end of it.

And this is why we don’t do parties.

Zofia glanced at the hand. Then back up. Tracked Collin as he moved off to the side and perched himself on what had once been a fryer, but probably hadn’t seen a fry for long enough to have forgotten its purpose. It was clean though. Shiny almost, much like the rest of the place.

“Hi, you’re from the Tower, yeah?” Jin had a light voice. Up-beat. Carefree, and a glint of the same stared at her from out of dark brown eyes.

Cornered, Zofia gave in to the whole hand shaking ordeal, though she forgot about manners halfway there, and winced when her grubby glove and dirty fingernails met what might have been Harran’s cleanest hand.

“Yeah,” she added to the short lived squeeze, and promptly pulled her right glove off when that was out of the way. The left stayed where it was, because no need to show off her stubs. She wiped at her trousers. More dirt.

“What’s it like over there?”

Blink.

Stare.

Think.

Zofia glitched past words that were meant to form sentences, thought about the itch in her palm instead. The sweat and the grime. Her throat closed up, and she thought that maybe, just maybe, she ought to dangle a sign from her mouth, one that proclaimed her to be Out of Order, since this clearly wasn't going to work.

“Uhm— it’s a lot like here, I suppose. More people though.” And a lot more of a mess. Though she didn’t say that out loud, since that’d feel like shitting on your own carpet.

“Didn’t it get attacked by Rais?" — Oh boy. —  "That must have been terrible, I'd have been so freaked out. Sometimes we get troubles with marauders, that's what Meg calls them. They mostly leave us alone though.”

Zofia’s jaw clenched. A sharp, ragged pain jolted up her left arm. She smelled gunpowder. Blood— and she nodded, right along a long exhale, because what was she supposed to say?  

“Meg said she met Rais once, can you believe that? Freaky, right?”

“Jin,” Collin called from to the right. Zofia’s shoulder twitched. “Lay off. Maybe don’t talk about that when she’s about to eat.”

The bright smile on Jin wavered, made room for a brief frown as she glanced at Collin. Her brows furrowed, and her round cheeks puffed out. Her mouth fell open, and she started on an “I—“, when Zofia had herself rescued by the food she'd been told to have.

“There you go, hun." Phoebie placed a bowl in front of her. "Don’t look too close and it’ll be fine.”

A bowl. Not a small one either. A proper, tall thing that reminded her of a late night cereal 'snack' bouncing on her lap. Her stomach pinched painfully, said: This is too much, because the thing was filled to the brim with watery stew. Filled. To the brim. Stew. Zofia’s mouth watered, and she nudged aside thoughts of Rais, focused on the only thing real important for now: Getting stuffed and full and not hungry.

“I’m done for tonight here,” Phoebie said, swung a kitchen towel over her shoulder like she was the neighbour’s mum. As if Zofia had come over for a visit and would probably end up ringing home to ask if she could stay the night. “You kids play nice, you hear?”

They did.

Sort of.

Collin sat quietly nearby, and Jin went on to remind her a little of Rahim. The chatty end of him, at any rate. After bite number three— was that a soggy carrot? I love soggy carrots — Zofia knew that Jin Hnu-something-or-the-other was born and raised in South Carolina, had three brothers, one sister, and she'd love to teach English one day. Future tense. Not past. Very bloody optimistic. Which was why she'd come to Harran on an exchange program, and she really loved Harran, and loved meeting new people, and hey— did Zofia know that a meteor had come down right before this all had started?  

Collin grunted at the suggestion of the virus having come from outer space. Rolled his eyes, which Zofia caught with a quick glance over her shoulder. Quick, because she couldn't well abandon her meal. Someone else might steal it if she didn't keep at it.

The conversation— in all its one sided glory —turned elsewhere.

“Phoebie is a teacher at the University,” Jin continued. Probably after she’d sucked in enough air for the next half hour. “I had her in English. Collin and Eren had her too, we were in the same class— oh, you have to meet Eren, he’s amazing. He’s really smart and really crafty, like, he’s McGyver levels of crafty. You know McGyver?"

Nod. Smile awkwardly with spoon in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Or don't chew, no time.

"They shared a dorm, and when they quarantined us, we ended up sort of washing out of there with Phoebie. Then Meg, Scott, and Daxton found us, and brought us here. No one else wanted us, ‘cause Phoebie was all pregnant. That’s messed up, right?”

Zofia nodded again. And frowned right after, because she’d just had the last spoon. The thing went back into the bowl. Clicked and scraped and scraped some more,  and she considered sticking her face in too. Start licking.

Bloody manners be damned. She didn’t though, just tilted the thing slightly and considered it.

Hell no.

“Anyway, we’ve been here ever since, and I think this is like the best place to be, right? Have you talked to anyone else yet?”

Zofia shook her head. Felt a little sick. Felt very sick a moment after, her stomach turning when it decided she'd eaten too fast and ought to regret every last bite.

Sitting up straight, her breathing shallow, Zofia tried to re-focus, and latched on to Jin's rambling. Else she might have thrown up, and that'd be poor form at its best.

“Okay, so there’s Yahsi—“

—who apparently was like everyone’s grandmother, and no one had wanted her either, since she was like super old. And Akif, he was creepy, because he was super Muslim, and didn’t like Meg, but he was a nice guy otherwise. Around that point in the monologue, Collin sighed and knocked his feet into the side of the fryer, shoe on metal giving a hollow thump.

It didn't slow Jin.

Scott and Daxton— “Have you seen Daxton? He’s like super hot, right?” — had been with Meg from the start. Daxton was a medic, and Scott was like a super soldier who could, quote, punch holes through walls, unquote. And then of course there was Yeter, who was totally in love with Phoeb, and Riley was probably gonna call him dad or something.

Oh, and Collin.

Hi, Collin.

Behind her, Zofia heard him slide off the fryer. And when his shoes hit the ground, she realised she'd heard his name before. Jin, too. Yeter. Phoebie. They all rang a bell, albeit a quiet and a little reluctant one. All but three, and Zofia's brows furrowed, because that was just a little odd.

"You done here?" Collin asked. What— her or me? She opened her hand, let the spoon she'd been grasping tight fall to the table, and nodded. "Cool. I'll show you the rest of the place."

Zofia hefted up her pack, climbed to her feet, and trailed Collin with her stomach sloshing about unhappily. And the bells still going, because why the bloody hell do they sound so familiar?

Because she'd read them. Out loud. On the radio, back when it'd been all about a sheet of paper and a list of names spelling out hope. Survivors.  

“Yeah, Jin does that to people." The bells got knocked over. Tumbled from her ears, and Zofia turned to Collin. He was giving her an apologetic look. "She just... goes. Anyway, want to see the roof? I think you want to see the roof, you look like a roof person.”

"What does a roof person look like?"

Collin smirked. "Like the walls spook her and she does this—" He scratched at his elbows. Fidgeted. "—but I might be wrong."

He led her up a narrow flight of stairs, away from heads turning her way when they'd stepped back out into the main room. The door at the top was locked, and while he fiddled with the key, she cleared her throat and tried to be polite. Because he'd been, and you ought to return favours like that. Chit-chat. Smalltalk.

“What did you study?”

Click, the door went and opened. “Medicine. Neuroscience, to be precise. Harran has— had— a real good research faculty.”

“That's— that's impressive.”

“Relatively useless though,” he mumbled, and they were met by the skies having caught fire as day met dusk in a final, stubborn stand.

The air didn't stink, and it was quiet up here. Sheltered. A little cramped, maybe— with a meshed iron fence crowding it all in —and certainly very colourful. She ducked underneath clothes hanging from rope strung over their heads. Trousers, shirts, and skirts alike. They smelled nice. Of fabric softener and a gentle breeze— and of a bit of lavender, a scent that hung thick in the air.

They were growing it up here, she noticed. Right along with a whole lot of other greens, all of which looked much more verdant and healthy than the sad, drooping sprouts from downstairs. Wooden poles were evenly spaced out between them, CDs dangling off strings around them. Meant to keep birds at bay, she guessed. Smart.

"Should have gone for internal medicine instead," Collin said. "Or surgery." He led her around the roof access, past plants and water collectors alike, until they reached the far corner. "Hindsight and twenty-twenty, right?"

The corner greeted them with a musical chime, with dings and clicks that spun in the air at their approach. Colour flashed at her, reflected the fading sun. Wind chimes. Lots of them, all hanging off the stretchers and ribs of a gigantic parasol draped over a good portion of the roof.

Collin dipped under it, and folded his lanky frame into one of the three lawn chairs tucked into its shade. Zofia, roof person or not, hovered for a little while, stood with her feet rooted to the spot, and her eyes skipping left and right.

Nice place, she should have said. Instead, she glanced at the radio at her hip. Thought about Crane. Thought about him out there. Not alone, and that was good, but out there— and out there wasn't.

Wasn't good.

"Meg knows what she's doing." Collin had his head tilted into his neck. His blond hair lost against gravity and hung off in messy strands. "Your friend will be fine."

She shifted on the spot, tightened her grip on her pack. "It's that obvious?"

"Eh, I'm a people person." The smile again. Lazy. Carefree, and very I'm harmless. "I know things."

So she pulled the pack and herself under the parasol and sat, even if she didn't quite unravel herself like he had. But the chair was comfortable. The air not full of rot. And the click of the chimes led her easily through the silence of Harran.

For a little while, they sat in silence. She leaned forward, placed her bow on the ground. Peered down through the wire mesh into the streets below. Looked up, along the barbs woven into the fence. It all looked so— what? Perfectly done? Meticulously crafted?

"Want any?"

Any, as it turned out, was a fat, unevenly rolled fag that Collin had pinched from a pocket. A lighter bounced on his knee.

“I don’t smoke,” she said. Even with death in her veins already, she didn't much see the need to start now.

He shrugged. Nodded. Lit it up with long fingers following a practiced routine, and puffed it alive between his lips.

Puff. Puff.

Puff— and Zofia smelled it on the air. Not tobacco. Much more green than that, the oddly sideways scent of closed dorm doors and pub back exits. She'd never. Hadn't ever a lot of things, really. She glanced at Collin, her brows hiking up carefully and her shoulder tilting his way. Curious now. Because she hadn't a lot of things, but a lot of things had changed. 

"Where'd you get that?"

He inhaled, and on the exhale said, “I grow it.”

“Seriously?”

"Totes. Trade some. Keep the rest. Everyone needs a hobby, right? Here's mine."

Zofia watched him from her bubble of uncertainty, a meekly labouring heart butting against the base of her throat.

He looked at her in turn. Curious, light blue eyes mustered her from behind thin wisps of smoke. The tip of the joint bobbed. Smoldered a pretty orange.

Puff.

"You sure you don't want any?" A long eyebrow arched, like he was challenging her. Daring her.  "No offense, but you look like you need it."

I don't. Why would I.

"People person, remember?"

She squeezed the pack between her legs. Considered the tightness to her chest. The thump of her heart. The rush of noise pressed to her ears, and the frequent glances at her watch and the radio and why'd he have to take the pills from her and why hadn't she gone with him—

Collin leaned across the gap between the chairs, and she picked his offer from his fingers. Slowly. Carefully.

Then she stared at it. Looked at him. His eyes lit up with a childish sort of slyness to them when she got the joint between her lips. And he chuckled when her first puff ended in a miserable cough.

"Slow down," he said, and the second drag worked a little better, even if her mouth twisted and her eyes watered. By number three he said "Nothing to it, see?" and after the fourth he took it back from her, because "Woah— slow down. We're not going anywhere."

Somehow she figured she ought to have been. Going somewhere. Anywhere. Not here. Maybe home. Past the walls.

Away from being tired.

* * *

Kyle was beginning to feel it now. The burn in his calves. The sting in his eyes, and the spasms down his arms, right into exhausted fingers. The whole Dude, what the fuck?  Why are we still up?

Up and about, with silence tracking him beneath a sky turning to a shitty shade of dark. The groaning, twisting hush of a dead city all around him. A bit like a house settling. Morphing wood. Rumbling pipes, and the click of windows loosely bouncing against frames.  

A house of horrors. Home sweet fucking home.

Meghan had led him at a brisk pace, didn't give him much of a chance to stop and start asking the important questions. Like, What are three US soldiers doing in Harran? and Why didn't you get pulled out? Or maybe 'sup? Come here often?

Here, to the edge of that roof, hand on the hilt of her machete and a steely stare levelled at just another broken home in a sea of them. It stood very quiet. Windows boarded up, like any other. Right in front of them, with an extra two floors to climb. Apartments, probably. Big ones, with fancy balconies and pretty outside walls.

"Aren't you at all worried that your friends might be dead?"

Her eyes turned to him, slow and careful. They flicked along his face, and he felt judged again, though he wasn't quite sure against what exactly.

"They're not friends. But I don't see how, their place is a fortress. Biters won't get in, and they're not worth the trouble for marauders to get raided."

"So why haven't we gone in yet?"

Her lips twisted and she sighed. "Because your suspicion is contagious. It's too quiet."

"Sorry." He nodded towards the ladders across of them, suspended above a fire escape that had been unceremoniously detached a little ways down. Far enough up to keep the Biters from getting to it. "I'm done waiting though. This the way up?"

"Yeah."

"Sweet—" It took him two long steps of picking up speed, and Kyle was across, slammed into the side of the building with an Ooompfh and the rattle of the ladder under him.

Up top, the roof was— a roof. A typical post-outbreak Harran roof, and he registered it all with an almost bored routine. Buckets. More buckets. Clothes hung high. Winking shards on the ground—

—roof access door halfway open. Lopsided. Hinges damaged. Kyle's steps slowed. Glass crunched underfoot. He brought the rifle up, a light kiss of the stock against his shoulder.

"Damn." Meghan circled by on the right. "Someone smashed their UV lights. Who does that?"

"Assholes," Kyle offered, being real diplomatic about this whole deal. He jabbed a finger along the rifle, kept the sights trained at the door. "Get that for me?"

It opened with a shitty, loud scrape against the ground, and past it loomed thick darkness.

CLICK and the light on the rifle came on, a thin beam guiding him down a flight of stairs. A proper light, part of the whole package, not a maglight slapped on with some duct tape. He loved the fucking thing. So damn much, in fact, he wondered if Meghan would mind if he'd smooch it and called it Betty.

Past the threshold, and the smell hit him. Blood.

Fresh.

His climb down the stairs was slow. One careful step at a time. Right foot. Left foot. A flex of his fingers around the rifle. Eyes burning some more, because Zofia was right. They'd been at this all day.

The first body lay at the bottom of the stairs. Male. Torn out neck. One leg twisted the wrong way. Torso awkwardly bent. Blood still drying. Number two was down to the left, leaning with its chin resting against its chest against a door.

They turned right.

Kyle's stomach settled with a heavy calm, and he found an anchor down the sight of the rifle. A steady in and out of his breath as he followed a narrow hall, Meghan's steps close behind. She'd turned into a faint itch on his shoulder, and a twitch of strained muscle down his side. An awkward mix of Someone's behind you and Someone's got your back.

Body number three waited in front of the door at the end of the hall. Broken. Messy. Cloth and meat and bone, and a thick pool of blood underneath. Kyle tried not to step into it, to avoid the carpet with its wet sheen.

"Damn— Damn—" Meghan looped under her breath, but didn't seem overly bothered by the death at her feet otherwise.

I told you so, sat idle at the tip of his tongue, but that'd be poor fucking taste. And probably get you killed. Bam, murdered for giving the lady lip. What a way to go.

The living area came up next. Turned upside down in its entirety: table upended, chairs scattered, blankets and pillows every-fucking-where. And food and toys and all the things that told him there'd been a family in here.

Families were messy. He hated finding families.

A fourth body lay flat on its stomach. Male again. Older than the others, with hair that had been white at some point, but had been dyed red. Crusted. Clumped. The head was on wrong. Too sideways. He'd dropped a sawed off shotgun, was still grasping for it in death, his fingers maybe an inch away from the stock.

“What happened here?” Meghan’s voice was steady and collected, but he thought he heard a slight tremble in it. Uncertainty which she wasn't showing when she let her light cut to the dead man. Or when she hunkered down by him and started frisking him.

You go, girl. Don't waste any time.

"No idea," he said. Because this looked wrong.  

"Marauders knocked out the lights?" Her eyes cut up to him. "Let in Volatiles?"

Kyle tucked his shoulder up, rubbed his nose into it to scratch an itch. "And leave the food here? The shotty? Doesn't add up. So— uh— this your not-friend?"

“Yeah. He used to work for the Ministry." She rolled him over. Started on his front pockets. "But they left him here when he refused to bail without his family. The stiff at the front was his son. Had two kids, real adorable little shits, and a wife who's—" Meghan paused, flicked something from a pocket. She wiped it on her pants, got to her feet, and brandished the white plastic card into his direction. "Got it. So, where are they?"

“Huh?”

“The wife. Kids.”

Kyle frowned, turned on the spot. “Maybe they got out?” Please tell me they got out.

"Possibly. Ready to move out?"

"Yes Ma'am."

She snorted at the response and flashed him a toothy smile. Bright and honest, and all manners of out of place with all that death around them. But it was there. Lingered. Threw his anchor a little, scrambled his focus. He lowered the rifle, let his grip relax.

Meghan lifted a finger to point at the weapon. "You serve?"

"Yeah," Kyle squared his shoulders a little. "75th."

"Rangers?"

Kyle nodded his way back into the hallway.

"Damn. You'll fit right in."

He stepped over the corpse. Past the soggy carpet. Headed for the light, with Meghan keeping step. "And you—"

"160th."

"Fuck me. All three of you?"

A sharp nod. "All three of us."

"Who'd you piss off to get deployed in Harra—" She cut him off with a quick wave of her hand, and Kyle's teeth clicked shut.

"Hear that, Crane?"

He gathered his focus back together. Anchored it down at the tip of the rifle. Listened. And heard it: soft, rhythmic thumping against wood.

"I do, Ma'am."

"Go check it out?"

He glanced at her. Smirked. "That an order?"

"A question, really. Could be the kids."

"Or an Infected."

"Which is why you've got this." She patted Betty on the way past him, steadily drawn to the thumping sound.

It led them past the staircase, to the body slumped by a wobbling door. Kyle stepped over its extended legs, rolled his shoulders, and pushed the rifle hard against his shoulder.

Ready, the flick of his eyes to her said, and Meghan began counting: "Three—" She grabbed the corpse by his arm, started pulling. "Two—" The corpse slid free and she went for the door handle. Didn't bother with the One.

It slid open with a soft creak.

And spat out small, begging fingers. Small, padding feet. Small, upturned heads. A pair of them. About hip-sized.

No. Dear fucking god— no—

They were bloody. Fingers caked in red, like they'd been in the strawberry jelly. Mouths smeared with it. Messy. Gunky. Their eyes flashed yellow. Wide and greedy—

TWAHMP. The M4 knocked against his shoulder once. Loud still. Louder in the confined space, rattling his bones and shaking his heart free from that shit tether that'd been carrying it for way too fucking long.

TWAHMP.

The first small body jerked with the meaty thump of bullets meeting flesh. It staggered. Fell. Kyle readjusted. Took a sliding step back. Squeezed the trigger three more times. TWAHMP-thud-TWAHMP-thud-TWAHMP-thuD.

Small, hip-sized thing number two jerked backwards. Toppled— and he brought the muzzle back to the first one as it tried to claw its way for his feet.

TWAHMP.

Kyle swallowed. Swallowed again. Couldn't, with his throat swollen shut, barely any air getting through.

Kids.

Meghan moved past him. Stepped around the bodies and into the room, her machete tightly grasped in one hand.

Fuck. Man. You shot two kids.

Hadn't hesitated. Hadn't paused to think. But should have. A second maybe. Half of one. Because who the fuck— He shifted gears. His mind revved hard. Whined and spluttered: Who locks their kids away when they were just bitten?

The answer came with Meghan bolting into the hall, the back of her hand covering her mouth. And because Kyle Crane is a fucking idiot, he had to go take a look himself.

He let his filter take the brunt of the damage, and it'd probably need more than a good clean after. There was a woman in the room. She sat next to a toilet bowl— because this was a bathroom, a grimy and tiny one with a shower booth and low hanging sink. She was dead. Very dead. Recently. The blood still wet. An overwhelming stench of piss and shit clung to the air. Made his eyes water. Made his lungs refuse working orders for a little while, at least until he hitched the mask back over his nose.

It didn't help.

Her head had rolled back. Her mouth hung open. And the rest of her was open too. Stomach and chest and all.

Small footprints led away from her. Bloody ones.

Kyle's eyes cut up. Hands. Her hands— They were bound over her head. Tied to a heater.

He stepped back. The hallway tilted on its axis. Wanted to turn him on his head, throw him off his feet. A hard ringing filled his head, and Kyle drew the door shut on it. On them. It caught on a set of small feet halfway there, and he couldn't— wouldn't— had to get back.

The world set itself straight under him. Rickety at first, every step a little precautions. Knees weak. Stomach probably weaker. But it all held together, and when he looked towards Meghan, he found her with her hands planted against the wall, her head hanging between her shoulders. The machete dangled from a strap from her wrist, swung like a deadly pendulum left and right and left and right.

Kyle clapped a hand on on the shoulder on the way past. Squeezed. Didn't say shit, because there wasn't shit to say.

And then he tried not to think too much.

That'd come later.

 

Chapter Text

Dying Light (c) Techland

Knock Knock


She hung from the fence, fingers hooked into the thin metal mesh, and