in a perpetual predicament
A/N: Warning; Zyair makes an ass of himself. I've never cringed this much while writing before in my life.
On the flip side, there's some squishiness that I find kinda nice, but i'm not sure if I want to keep it?
Thanks for reading :)
Barrack 077 is blanketed in loaded silence. It's as if we're afraid to take the smallest breath.
Acid is one of our own, and he's about to be subjected to the worst torture the goverment doles out. Zaya is taking it the hardest, she's still awake when exhaustion overtakes me, dragging me down into the twisted claws of dreamland.
Water, everywhere water. Glacial cold, I'm already sinking above my head. Panicked, I kick and thrash, but to no avail. The weight on my legs drags me down. I stare into the murky depths below me, searching for the things weighing me down so I can free myself. A thick rope is knotted around either of my ankles. Attached to the other end of the rope, handing like deadweight by their necks, are Mina and Mama.
Painstakingly slow, Mina lifts her head to stare up at me. Her eyes are all black. Her mouth parts, stretches open slowly, and the keeps stretching past what an human should be able to stretch her mouth. A dull pop echoes underwater as her jaw comes unhinged. All I can do is watch in horror as her little-girl face distorts beyond recognition. Just like last time.
"You." Her childish voice echoes in the frigid black water. I choke back the urge to scream and clamp my hands over my ears and squeeze my eyes shut.
"You let us burn."
It's as if there's nothing at all to block the sound, not water, not flesh. She could be shouting right in my ear for all the good trying to block her out is doing.
"You should have been home with us."
I jolt awake, grasping my bare chest. I stifle the cry rising in the back of my throat and suck in a calming breath past clenched teeth. When my heart stops thundering quite so loudly, I take a moment to make sure I haven't woken anyone. I'm lying flat on my back, so I just turn my head to face out into the room.
Zaya is awake. She sits on her bad, twisting, knotting, and unknotting her crimson sash. Her glassy eyes stare at the ceiling unwaveringly.
Below me, Mercer snores softly. I bounce between options, now that I'm awake. I could close my eyes and pretend to be asleep, since actually sleeping is out of the question after that nightmare, or I could see if Zaya is up for a conversation. She looks like she would rather remain alone.
I'm about to settle on option number one, when she tips her head to look at me.
"I know you're awake, you don't have to pretend." She whispers. I guess that solves that problem.
"You stopped screaming."
"Oh." I'm glad it's dark, the shadows hide the heat creeping up my neck.
"Do you want to talk about the dream?" She offers, weaving the silky fabric of the sash over and under each of her fingers.
"It was a nightmare, that's all." I dismiss it, not wanting to relive that horror so soon. I sit up, letting the blanket slide free of my shoulders. It's unbelievably hot in the barracks, as per usual.
For a minute or so we each sit on our respective bunks, staring idly at the floor. Zaya sighs quietly, drawing my attention back to her. Wordlessly, she shifts over and pats the empty space beside her in unspoken invitation.
I slither down the ladder and crosse the room. My bare feet slap the sanded stone floor. The floor is frigid, despite the muggy temperature of the room. I climb the short ladder to her bunk and settle down beside her. My legs dangle off the edge of the steel frame, her knees are tucked up like a sheild from the rest of the world.
"I'm worried about Acid." She confesses. Her knuckles are white around the sash.
"We'll get him back." I assure her. Jihad agrred to a rescue mission the moment he heard about Acid's capture. "The Stiffs can't do anything to him without us knowing, except rough him up a bit, but that's nothing he can't handle."
"You think so?" She asks in a tight voice.
Her knees relax marginally. A beam of weak yellowy light leaking through the razor thin gap in the door frame illuminates her ankle. Her skin is dark, like watered-down Hiller's, and there's a mark there. A splotchy, blue-purple bruis rings her ankle.
"What's this?" I lean to get a better view. "You never said you hurt your ankle."
"I didn't hurt my ankle, that's old."
"It looks painful." The bruise doesn't appear to be inflammed, but it does look tender to the touch. She did a lot of running today, I don't recall her limping at all. When she doesn't respond, I glance over to see that she's focused on fidgeting with her sash. "Should you be walking on that?" I ask, concerned. In response, she stretches her leg out, the brings it closer so she can reach it with the sash. The end of the sash now has a loop knotted into it, which she fits neatly over her bruised ankle.
"When I was a baby, my parents sold me to a traffiker in exchange for their freeedom." She begins. She stretches her leg out again, this time leaving her knee bent enough to give the sash some slack. She tugs the sash and the loop cinches shut. "The traffiker tied one end of a red sash around my ankle, and tied the other end to a big wooden pole so I couldn't wander off. Then he left me there. He wouldn't let anyone else come near me, he fed me once every day, and when I got to big for diapers he untied the sash from the pole every evening and walked me like a dog on a leash to the toilets. He never untied my ankle. I didn't even know it was possible to untie my end, so as I grew and the sash didn't, it dug into my ankle and it left a bruise, and I guess the bruise had been there for so long that by the time I got the sash off, my skin had given up on healing. Now I have a permanent mark there, it doesn't hurt, it's just there." She reaches forward and unloops the sash from around her ankle. Her story leaves me speechless momentarily.
I had no idea there were even human traffikers in New Southern East. Who would they traffik to except the shorthanded rich folk?
"I'm sorry, I had no idea..." I press my palm to my cheek, resting my elbow on my hip, and face her.
"It's alright. It's over now, there's no reason to dwell on it." She coils the sash in her lap.
Maybe it's the fact that she won't meet my gaze, or how tense her shoulders are-- as if a great burden is stacked on them, whatever it is, it makes me think that she's not telling the whole truth when she says it's all over. You don't recover from that much abuse easily.
I choose to let the matter be for now, if she's lying about things being fine then she probably doesn't want to talk about it.
"How did you meet Acid?" I ask, attempting to steer the subject to fonder memories. She hums thoughtfully, folding her hands over her sash.
"I must've been about ten, and he was fourteen. We ran into each other on the streets of Bangladesh, we were both mostly dead but we helped each other out and escaped across the border to NSE." A soft smile flutters over her lips at the memory. Bangladesh, that would explain the traffiking. Bangladesh is one of the few pre-war countries that remained unchanged. Russia never made it far enough down India to sink it's claws into the tiny country nestled there, and that tiny country refused to be absorbed into NSE despite it's failing economy and danger-rife streets. Hailing from Bangladesh would also explain why both Acid and Zaya look vaguely outsider-ish.
"You've been together a long time then." I comment. I'm surprised to feel a brush of something...bitter? No, not quite. It warms my sternum uncomfortably.
"Yeah." She muses. Her head lists to the side. "Not, you know, in a relationship. That would be weird. Ibn's family, he and Raleigh and Jihad are all the family I have."
Ibn? I forget for a moment that Acids real name is Ibn.
"What are Mercer and I? Tooth cleaner cubes?" I tease jokingly. She punches my shoulder lightly.
"Maybe someday, Z, maybe someday."
The strange burning sensation cools off as quickly as it came. I wonder what it was.
"Are you tired?" She asks. A telltale heaviness clings to her words.
"No," The nightmare is yet too fresh in my memory for sleep. "but I can go if you want. You should get some rest."
She shakes her head. It is a puzzle to interpret what she means by that. No, she doesn't want to sleep? No, she doesn't want me to leave?
"You don't have to go." She murmurs, her eyelids half-closed, "In fact, if you don't mind, I'd really rather not be alone." As she's saying this she leans to the side. Her head rests on my bare shoulder. I tilt my head to catch a glimpse of her. Her eyelids flutter against the weight of exhaustion, her cheek is cool against my skin, and her hair is out of it's usual high ponytail and tumbling in a fine mess over her face and down her back.
"I don't mind." I breath. Already her breathing is growing more and more even. Gently, being careful not to jostle her too much, I reach over and tug the blanket up to cover her. She makes a sleepy, slurred noise of appreciation. Not long after, tiredness overtakes her. I settle in to ponder away what is left of the night.
Mercer is the first to wake.
He tweaks my big toe as he passes by on his way to the door, jerking me out of my dozing state.
"Hm?" I rub the sleep from my eyes. "How're you feeling?" I slur.
"Better." He shrugs lopsidedly, favoring his bandaged arm.
"You should try that sleeping thing more often, it fixes a lot of problems." I say, only half joking. He sighs.
"Because you got so much sleep last night?" He waves a hand at Zaya.
"One night of sleep depriation is a lot different from years of it." I argue as I extricate myself from Zaya. I lay her down, positioning a pillow under her head. She stirs, but doesn't wake. On the way down the ladder my foot slips and I skid ungracefully to the floor. Mercer smirks.
"Is it now?"
"Oh, shut up."
"D'you want breakfast?"
Breakfast in the base is served from 5 to 9 a.m. The men and women who serve it should be named saints solely for being up early enough to cook food for all these people.
"Breakfast sounds great." My stomach growls. Mercer's eyebrow arches.
"Shirt on first. Pretty sure they have rules about that."
Momentarily confused, I glance down. My torso is bare, I have no shirt on. It's so warm in this barracks that I'd actually forgotten I wasn't fully dressed.
A thought dawns on me. I hold up a finger, looking up at Mercer.
"Nothing happened." I say pointedly. He rolls his eyes.
"Wasn't thinking that." He gives his head a slow shake, like he can't believe that I just had to specify that.
"Are you hungry? 'Cause I'm hungry." I change the subject as I grab a shirt and tug it over my head. Mercer chuckles, a rare ocurance considering how early it must be. Real sleep does him wonders.
"You're cheerful." I comment as we head out the door.
We enter the mess hall, the lunch-gentleman smiles as he passes us each a bowl of beige mush. Mercer flashes a quick smile back. We set our bowls on the nearest table and slide into the plastic chairs. Practically no one is in the mess hall. The absence of people makes for a nice reprieve. Now that I've begun to see the members of the rebellion with more regularity, their blips flare brighter and headaches lurk at every corner.
Mercer leaves briefly to retrieve a cup of Hiller's. He comes back with two paper containers of the steaming liquid and nudges one across the table to me. I take it and swirl the cup, watching the brown liquid eddy at the lip of the cup. The color reminds me of iodine, though the shades are vastly different.
"Earth to Zyair." Mercer snaps his fingers. I glance away from the whirling Hiller's to catch whatever he wants. "Did you hear anything I just said?" A look of mild exasperation lights his face.
"Right, drink up, spaceboy."
I bring the cup to my lips, the HIller's laps at my teeth, burning hot. The bitter flavour brings to mind a memory. Without taking a sip, I set the Hiller's down and push it reluctantly at Mercer.
"I'm not supposed to have this, remember." I flick the lip of the paper cup. Liquid sloshes onto the tabletop. The whole purpose of Hiller's is that it wakes you up, the chemicals in it give your system a shot of energy. Mercer purses his lips as he remembers. Hiller's work really really well on me. Mama banned me from having it. Her face flashes in my mind's eye, accompanied by a tightness that clings to my throat and chest with a concrete grip. I blink away the sudden burning behind my eyes. On compulsion, I snatch up the cup and slug back the Hiller's. The cup empties in two gulps. The liquid cuts a piercing hot path from my tongue to my stomach. The heat slices free the tightness and I inhale deeply, letting my lungs expand as much as possible.
Mercer is staring at me, his hand is tapping his mouht and his eyebrows are drawn together over the bridge of his nose. I shrug, and dig into my cooling bowl of mush.
By the time Isaiah and Raleigh show up the Hiller's has worked it's way into my blood stream.
"Well hi there, how was your sleep? Not your sleep, I know your's sucked." I gesture dismissively to Zaya, "But Raleigh, tell me how your's went, have any weird dreams?"
"What is wrong with him?" Raleigh looks to Mercer for answers. At this point I've been chattering nonstop to him for...a while.
"Caffiene." He groans at the same time that I say, "Nothing."
He runs his hands down his face and sighs.
"I let him have Hiller's and I shouldn't have." He explains in his I-regret-everything voice. He frowns at me. Did I say that out loud? "Yes, you did."
"Oh, alright. What's the Egyptian sun god?"
"Ra." Raleigh answers for him, "The Roman one is Helios."
"What about Greek?"
"Mesopotamia doesn't have a sun god."
"Oh." I drum my fingers on the tabletop. My knee bounces. Mercer's forehead has migrated to the table.
Bored, I start humminh tunelessly. More rebels are entering the mess hall, my map is getting brighter, soon it'll be way too bright for my brain, which of course means i'll get a headach, so I should enjoy this headache-free time while I can. I do so by staring at people. Jedediah strolls in. I wave cheerfully at him, he narrows his eyes at me, but otherwise ignores me.
"Hey, Zyair, we should wrestle." Raleigh challenges, licking a final bit of breakfast much from her spoon. A wicked grin plays on her lips.
"Not right now." Zaya cuts in. Her fire-eyes are burning brighter than ever.
"You have pretty eyes."
Mercer lifts his head slightly from the table, presumably to observe my blundering. For a heartbeat Zaya is silent, then she says,
"Thank you," and returns to her mush. I'm not sure she realizes how startling her fire is to other people.
"No, really. Your eyes are amazing, ok? You know that, right?" I lean towards her to make sure she's paying attention. She casts me a strange look.
"I do now." She says. Satisfied, I rock back and address Raleigh.
"So we'll wrestle later?"
That wicked grin returns to her face.
"After we've spoke to Jihad, ok? We're planning how we're getting Acid back." Zaya reminds her. Raleigh sobers up immediately.
"Wouldn't dream of missing it." She says in earnest. My stomach flips at the genuine worry plastered over her features. Acid is like an older brother to Raleigh. Him being captured weighs heavily on her young mind.
"Hey, don't worry." I pipe up, wagging my finger between Raleigh and Zaya. "Don't either of you worry. We'll get Acid back soon."
"That's the plan." Zaya intones. Nobody looks particularly cheered-up, so I try a different approach.
"At least none of the Stiffs will hurt him." I say. Raleigh's gaze flcikers from her mostly empty bowl to me, a light akin to hope shines in her irises. "He'll scare them all away." I complete the joke by tracing a line down my face in the shape of Acid's scar. Oddly, the joke doesn't have it's intended effect.
"Z..."Mercer starts to say something but I cut him off.
"Because of his face, get it?" I re-trace the line. Suddenly Raleigh's bowl is upside-down on my head and she's storming out the mess hall door. "Bad joke?" I wonder, staring after her.
"The hell is wrong with you?" Zaya snaps. Her jaw is clenched, she has to hiss her accusation through a barrier of teeth. Her fists are balled too, and her arms tremble. I shrug.
"It was just a joke, it was supposed to be funny." I argue. They must be more upset about Acid than I thought. Maybe that joke wasn't the most appropriate, but it wasn't that bad. Or was it? No, it shouldn't have been.
"Do you find picking on others' appearance amusing?" Zaya demands. Her knuckles go white. Mercer rises from his seat, snatching the bowl from my head. I'd forgotten about that.
"Not generally, but, I mean in this case, I though--"
"Oh, you did, did you?" Zaya's lip curls back in a snarl, "Well you thought wrong."
Mercer drags me from my seat before an answer can form on my tongue. He leads me away from the table, mutter profuse apologies to Zaya. Why is he apologizing. Good grief, it was a joke. Rebels stare as we exit.
"Where are we going?" I prod Mercer. His grip on my wrist is a tad too tight for comfort. "Shouldn't we be getting to Jihad's office? We have a meeting." I remind him. A quick check of the map confirms that he's taking me in the opposite direction of Jihad's office. Perhaps he's lost?
"You're going the wrong way." I tug at his arm. "We need to go back that direction." I jab a finger behind us.
"I know where I'm going." He mutters, even though he clearly doesn't.
"Oh?" He invites an explanation. Actually it sounds more like a grunt, but I treat it like an invitation.
"You don't have a map to reference." I rap my skull with my knuckles, "How can you know where you're going?"
"Call it intuition."
"That's not really a solid form of navigation." I point out. He's going to get us lost. He only sighs for about the billionth time, and keeps his gri on my arm firm.
We end up at the familiar curtain of the washrooms. Someone beaded long strands and strung them from the top of the door frame to act as a more aesthetic covering. The beads clatter when Mercer shoves me inside. The room is empty. A row of sinks covers one wall, and on the other side is a row of toilet stalls. At the end of either row is a ricket shower stall. The scent of bleach and lemons clings to everything.
"Why are we here?" I turn to Mercer, puzzled. I don't need to use the washroom. I suppose he might, but he didn't need to drag me along for that, he's capapble of using the bathroom on his own. Is he worried about something? No, nothing to worry about. Except Acid. And the guns. Acid and the guns.
"You are taking a shower." He directs me to a shower stall.
"No, i'm not." I try to side-step away, he anticipates this and mirrors the motion to cut me off.
"You have breakfast in your hair." He pinches a clump to prove his point.
He grimaces, "Shower, now." His tone leaves no room for arguement. I narrow my eyes at him. He endures my glare with a sort of disinterested patience. At last, my own patience runs out. Still glaring, I rip open the shower stall door like a petulant child, and lock myself in. There's nowhere to place the clothes I shed, so I toss them menacingly over the partition.
"I hope you realize the level of hate i'm harbouring at the moment." I call.
"I hate water."
"Showers are water getting splashed all over you." I wheedle in a pathetic attempt to get out of this horror.
"No, really?" Mercer lays the sarcasm on heavy. I scowl at his feet under the partition.
"You're a terrible friend."
Grumbling to myself, I reach for the nozzle. A headache strikes, full force, in the span of time it takes for my fingers to close around the cold metal. The abruptness of it throws me off balance. I press my forehead to the plastic-covered wall, dizzy. Since the blips of the mess hall are too faded to be a hazard, this headache must mean that the HIller's is running it's course. The dizziness alleviates. I flick the shower on, and brace for the disgusting feeling of water on my skin.
It takes a bit of time and elbow-grease to remove all the sticky, half-solidified mush from my hair. In that time, the headache runs its course, and my mind clears considerably. I flip the shower off. A towel has been draped over the partition. I take it and begin to dry off. Mercer's fet at visible over by the sinks. His black sneakers tap an absent rhythm.
"Mercer?" My voice is small and taut.
"Yeah?" He sounds tired, almost resigned. He probably think i'm still overly-hyped-up on Hiller's.
"I've made a horrible mistake." I groan. There's a pause before he answers.
I bang my head softly on the wooden partition.
Me and my big mouth.
See more stories by spook