Ash and Cinder | chapter 2
Posted May 14th, 2018 by Zelda
in a perpetual predicament
A/N: Yes, this took 10 years to get posted. Yes, I'm sorry. Yes, I'll try to keep up with posting in the future.
Uh, I don't really know what else to say. Short A/N today, I guess. Thanks so much for reading, CC is greatly appreciated!!
The song for this chapter is My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark by Fall Out Boy.
The second the door shuts, Maverick jumps up easily and dusts off his baggy sweatpants. He pauses to wave and smile at someone across the room, then turns to me.
"Someone just made a brand new enemy," he says, leaning his hip against the edge of the table. He crosses his arms and tilts his head as if assessing something. Maybe he's replaying the scene, who knows, there's always too much going on inside his head. Or so he claims.
"Yeah." I scoff, "I'm really scared."
"You're gonna be sorry for that later," he warns, shifting his weight off the table, "They'll figure out Pasty hasn't got powers and then they'll be all over you."
There's Mave for you, always three steps ahead of everyone else. I bite back a groan as I realize my mistake.
He's right, this is going to come back to haunt me. I give him a dirty look, shooting the messenger and all that, and push my glasses back up my face again. His response is to stare right back.
"And you didn't bother to warn me?" I snap.
"You need to learn to think ahead, man. I'm not always gonna be around to stop you, especially not with the way I perform in the dome," he replies.
What a pile of crap. I've dueled him before and I ended up with a face full of dirt, and he doesn't show up with bruised or broken body parts half as often as the other experiments at this table. There's not a chance in hell he's getting beat down enough to catch the attention of the white coats.
"Not beat up much, no, but not doing what the 'coats want either," he says, clicking his tongue reproachfully. He catches his slip-up a moment before me and frowns to himself.
"I thought I told you to stay out of my head," I say irritably. What just happened with that guard has set me on edge and I'm in no mood for Mave to be poking around in my mind. The only comfort I can take from this is that I probably won't end up in as much trouble as I feared at first. Maverick's a lot of things, but he's not careless and he's not stupid. He wouldn't let me dive headfirst into something that would get me killed, or effect Elle badly. The consequences of snapping that chain, however unpleasant, will be survivable.
I stand, taking the empty food tray with me. All around us, other experiments do the same. Breakfast is nearly over according to the electric clock bolted to the wall, high out of reach. It's one of the only clocks in the compound, making the cafeteria the only place where time exists as it should.
I start towards the tray drop-off station. When Mave follows me, so does the rest of the table.
He's popular in the compound, charismatic, friendly, and a bit of a legend. That means he always has a posse of experiments with him. The roster changes every now and then when someone dies or gets shut up in infirm. I don't learn their names like I used to, there's no point. I find it irritating at times, but he's the closest thing to a friend I have in this place, so I keep my impatience under wraps.
"I thought you liked these guys. I'm hurt, Trick." He presses a hand to his chest mockingly. I ditch the tray. A blond guy I vaguely recognize stashes his tray after mine but doesn't move to leave. He's with Maverick. I glance around at the Kinetics and Enhanceds standing around the tray drop-off station, seven in total. I'm sure if I tried I would remember at least some of their names. I've met them all before.
I shake my head and move toward the exit. Mave follows at my side. "Stop listening in on my thoughts," I warn him again.
Mave's a bit of an oddity; not an Enhanced and not truly a Kinetic. He was meant to be telekinetic, but instead he ended up telepathic, and annoying. We have an agreement worked out where he doesn't root around in my brain and I don't drop-kick him to Mars. Clearly we need a refresher on that agreement.
"Hey." He holds his hands up in the universal sign for surrender. "You weren't exactly being quiet. I can only block out so much."
"Right," I mutter, shouldering open the steel door. The chilly, early-spring air gusts in, raising goosebumps on my tan forearms. Patches of half-melted snow dot the paved yard, to one side of the cafeteria are the cell blocks, six in total, each its own rectangular beige building, weak sunlight bounces off the roofs of the buildings. I start towards the infirmary, or rather, the laboratory built into the far side of the infirmary. I'm scheduled for dueling today.
"You coming out to the court later?" he pesters me. He must have a free afternoon. Older experiments get breaks in their schedules every week or so. The white coats found that it improved our performance. I, however, do not have an empty slot anywhere today.
"Nah, I'm busy."
"Ah, okay." He falls silent. When I look back to see why, he has a sort of squinty expression on. That's his mind-reading face.
"Dude!" I flick his ear, snapping him out of his trance. "Get out of my head, that's creepy."
A smirk crosses his face, he chuckles. "I'm incorrigible, you can't stop me."
Incorrigible. I shove my hands in my pockets. That's one word for it.
"So, d'you want me to check in on Elle for you?" he asks, dropping his voice to a whisper.
I nod gratefully. "Yeah." The whitecoats have packed a lot into my schedule, I don't think they intend to let me see my sister today, and Maverick is the only other person I trust around her.
We reach the lab, and roughly half of Maverick's group breaks off to join me at the door. Maverick raises a hand in farewell and turns about to go to wherever he has to go.
We stand outside the locked outer door, shivering as the cold bites through the thin fabric of our matching uniforms.
Another two or three experiments arrive, all escorted by two guards each. The rule is that you have to be escorted by guards unless you've proven yourself trustworthy enough to get where you're supposed to be without making a break for freedom. Though I'm not sure who would be stupid enough to try running. The fence surrounding the compound is ten feet high and electrified, with barbed wire entwined through the links to discourage electrokinetics. Guards are stationed every eight feet around the perimeter, armed day and night with semi-automatic rifles.
Only one person has ever successfully escaped the compound, and that was ages ago, before even I was brought here. Needless to say, security has been tightened since then.
After fifteen minutes of standing and freezing outside the locked laboratory, the door creaks open and a redcoat lumbers out. He is followed by a white coat wielding a clipboard.
"Make a line!" the redcoat snaps, and, like good experiments, we do as we're instructed. I try not to look at the people on my left and right. I don't want to familiarize myself in any way with them, especially since I'm going to be dueling one of them today.
The white coat strolls down the line, asking each experiment's name, and making notes on her clipboard. "Name?" she asks the tall guy on my left. He's the blond from earlier, a part of Maverick's group.
Damn, I'm familiarizing myself. I try to block out his response, but it's too late.
I dig my fingernails into my palm. I hope I'm not dueling him today. Knowing their names makes fighting them worse. Not that it's pleasant to begin with. It's harder to pretend that they aren't people when I have a name to put to the face. It's why I stopped learning anything about anyone except, reluctantly, Maverick.
Her beady eyes skim the paper for my name. She finds it. Her pencil scratches a mark beside it and she moves on. This time I manage to ignore the interaction between her and the experiment to my right. The white coat makes it to the end of the line, and signals that she's done with a flick of her hand. She retreats back into the lab, leaving the guards to deal with us.
When she's gone, we're frisked for any weapons we may have, which I find pointless. We're pretty much living weapons ourselves.
The guards don't seem to share my point of view.
We are all processed and led inside the heavy metal doors. There's a short hall that ends in a split off. Chastin, a dark-haired woman, and I, are all shunted down the left hall. Everyone else peels away to the right.
We trudge down a corridor that stinks of ethanol. The clinical scent fails to completely mask the coppery flavor of blood in the air. A redcoat walks ahead of the group, and another looms behind us. Dark stains spot the grey tile from years and years of the aftermaths of duels crossing this floor. The redcoat behind me sidesteps the stains, but nobody else bothers. Our footsteps echo off the dull walls, the only sound to break up the silence.
Lining the right side of the final stretch of the hallway is a row of windowless steel doors, each with a black patch for a doorknob and a giant metal pinwheel set in the middle. Three of the six door are open, the rooms beyond them are hidden in the dark, not that they would have been much to look at in the light.
We each step obediently over the slight ledges and into the concrete cells, waiting silently for the redcoats to slam the doors and spin the locks into place. At the click and scrape of the deadbolts, I'm plunged into momentary darkness. It takes the span of two deep breaths for the red emergency lights to flicker to life.
The cell is four paces by four paces, its ceiling is lost somewhere in the shadows. It's made entirely of smooth-faced concrete, and it is totally empty. These cells, of all the places in this awful compound, are my least favourite. I don't pace and search around the cell like I used to. There is nothing in this cell, nothing in any of the waiting cells, to find and I hate it. But discomfort isn't something I have the luxury of indulging in right now, I have a duel coming up and if I want to survive I have to prepare.
Duels are vicious, brutal battles between two or more experiments. The white coats pitch us against each other in a fighting dome and take notes while we beat each other bloody. I'm one of the best fighters they have, possibly the best, not that it's something I'm proud of. I have to be the best, I'm forced into it. If I don't perform well in the dome, or if I break a rule, or if, for any reason, the white coats think I've failed, they take it out on Elle.
I shut my eyes and squeeze anxiety-ridden thoughts out of my head. I have to concentrate. I have to get ready. I take one step forward so that I'm standing in the middle of the room and begin.
My arms dangle at my sides, my breaths come in deep, easy inhales and I force my body to relax. I stare at the red-washed wall ahead of me and unfocus my eyes, though that doesn't make much of a difference in here. Everything looks exactly the same. But ritual aids fast response, and unfocused eyes are part of this self-developed ritual.
Then, I shrug out of my skin. Not literally, fortunately for everyone, my enhancement does not include transforming into a bloody, squishy nightmare creature. I mean, I let the part of me that cares, that would hesitate to crack someone's skull open, the part that stops me from becoming a total monster, slough away. It always takes a few moments, but it's easier than it once was. It's easier than it should be. Sometimes I wonder how many times a person can lose himself before he stops being able to find the missing pieces.
A gust of air hits me from behind, disrupting my concentration. My vision snaps back so fast my eyes ache briefly and I wince. The door has been opened. It's too soon I'm not ready yet, I spent too much time worrying about Elle. Now if I go into the dome and have to face someone I know, I might not be able to fight them. The redcoat beckons with a single finger, and I hesitate for a half-second. But I know better than to resist, I go willingly and try to scrape the last of me out of my brain as we walk.
We pass the other waiting cells and I'm distracted by the notion that I might be duelling Chastin. It's him or the woman, or both. I hope it's not both, there aren't many ways this day could get worse, but spending hours in the dome is one of them. The distraction lasts too long, and suddenly I'm being shoved passed the door that leads into the dome, still not entirely ready for the duel. The instant the door bangs shut behind me, I slip into a defensive stance, reflexes taking over while my mind is playing catch-up.
I scan the dome, searching for my opponent. It's a rectangular concrete basin, with a half-spherical web of aluminum bars anchored over top of it to act as a roof. Some of the bars are newer than others. Duelling Experiments frequently get smashed into, or through, the dome. It's not pretty when they do.
My eyes land on my opponent. The whitecoats almost always put me in last, giving whoever duels me the opportunity to set up an ambush. This time doesn't seem to be any different, until I recognize the other person.
This has to be a mistake, there's no way.
Standing on the opposite end of the dome, huddled with his back to the wall, is Pasty. His handcuffs are gone, and his eyes are so wide that from this distance all I can see are two white circles. Nervous sweat plasters his white-blond hair to his head and gripped in both hands he has a rubber training knife, too blunt to slice skin but a usable weapon regardless.
Confused, I look up past the dome to the huddle of white coats.
They're kidding, right?
"I can't fight him!" I shout, waving a hand at Pasty. "He doesn't have powers, it's not fair." Not fair, and more importantly, not sensical.
Pasty's face flushes a deep magenta, but the white coats remain in stony silence. I turn my stare back to Pasty. He couldn't hurt a fly, the training knife wobbles in his shaky hands. And they want me to fight him? Why? This won't give them feedback on either of us. It will just be me beating up a helpless opponent, and...as I'm puzzling, the answer comes to me.
This is my punishment for breaking Pasty's shackles. They figured it out faster than I thought they would.
I let my defensive stance slip and stride across the dome towards Pasty. My moment of hesitation is over now that I understand what the white coats want. My movement seems to break Pasty out of his terrified trance. He scuttles forward, but not to fight. In the back of my mind, a part of me wishes that he would pass out from fear so I don't have to hit him, but it is a very small part.
About three steps away, Pasty reads my hard expression, and realizes that I'm not coming over to have a nice chat. He skids to a halt, his eyes going impossibly wider. I draw back my arm, turning my entire torso with it out of trained habit.
"Hendrix, please—" he starts to beg. My fist collides with his jaw with enough force to send him flying a few feet. He lands, ragdoll limp, and I hope that's the end of it. I hope he's knocked out, or at least that he's smart enough to pretend to be.
Then Pasty groans with the force of a dying moose and pushes himself up on shaky arms. With an internal sigh, I walk over to him and raise my leg to kick him. The white coats won't let the battle finish until one of us is unconscious, or too wounded to keep duelling.
This time when Pasty collapses, he stays down.
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