Author: that's-a-Secret PM
The world has forgotten how to breathe, and Rhea wants to fix that. But when she meets a boy with a bullet wound through his heart, she learns that the task won't be as simple as she had thought. (steampunk/fantasy)Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Tragedy - Chapters: 12 - Words: 27,512 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 04-26-13 - Published: 01-01-13 - id: 3088097
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The sun rose on the Ash Fields, and it was a laborious process. For the first half hour the early rays tried to spread across the sky and clothe dawn with baby blue and pink rose, but something deep and hungry swallowed all the light. Then the sun dragged himself over the horizon, to shed his own much stronger light, but a veil hung over his visage, and dust and ash diffused his golden beams into angry red spears. Slowly, painfully, the sun climbed higher, to try to rise above the layer of smog over the ground, to try to offer all of himself to the world – but just when he thought himself free, black clouds rolled beneath him, and his light was snuffed out like a candle in the dust.
Rhea stumbled, blinking at the day that was not much brighter than the night. Well, this was disappointing. This world's sun was exactly the same as that of her own world. In her books it was usually brighter.
Her knees and palms smarted where they were cut, while her feet were sore from walking in her night slippers. The surface of her skin felt dry, her eyes and throat parched. She blinked again, in a vain attempt to keep her vision clear, and glanced at the figure behind her.
He looked like a human to her. All the limbs were in the right places, he walked on two legs, he wasn't doing anything especially weird. Perhaps he was a little odd for a human; he was wiry and thin, muscles stretched taught over sharp bones, his already dark skin was darkened further with soot, his black eyes smoldered and his black hair sprawled rebelliously to his neck. He didn't wear anything besides a battered pair of pants and a cloth belt to keep his knife in. There was a vivid white scar on the front of his chest that was hard to see through the soot, but if he moved his arms just right, and the light fell at just the right angle, she could see the thumb-sized patch of knotted tissue shimmer like silver. His face seemed old, always scowling, and creased here and there with ancient lines; yet he was only a head taller than Rhea, several inches shorter than all the other teens she had seen.
He was just a boy. A caustic, wary boy in desperate need of new clothes and a bath. And who happened to be poking her back with an old hunting knife.
"Why were you here, anyways?" Rhea asked him. Her throat rattled uncomfortably when she spoke. She almost asked him about the issue of his humanity, but it seemed like a sensitive topic, and she wasn't quite ready for that yet.
The stranger glanced at her. "I'm here because you're taking me somewhere I want to go."
"But what about before? Why were you here, before you found me? I saw fire."
He pressed his lips together and gazed fixedly at the sun. Rhea could just barely make it out through the clouds – an orange smear.
"It's okay if it's a secret," she added hurriedly. "I was just curious. Because I'm not from around here, you know, and I don't know anything about you, and I want to be friends."
He gave her a long, scrutinizing stare. "You're misunderstanding something, human. I am not your friend."
"I know. But I want to be your friend. Where I come from, I didn't have any friends at all until I said 'Hello' to Adam, and I told him my name, and he told me his, and then we talked about my mom and we were friends after that. Or I think we were. I mean, he didn't throw stuff at me anymore. That means we're friends, right?"
The stranger scoffed. "You think I care?"
Rhea didn't. She looked down, purposely dragging her feet more than necessary to kick up bigger clouds of ash. Her pretty white gown was fast becoming chalky grey from the waist down, and thousands of hard little grains bit into the soles of her feet.
"I'm thirsty," she finally said.
She waited a few seconds before glancing over her shoulder. His face was as tight with bitter boredom as it always was.
"Are you thirsty?" she asked.
He made no response.
"Well, are you?" she asked again.
"No," he ground out between his teeth.
"Well, then, are you tired?"
"So when will you feel thirsty or tired?"
"Human." He stared at her with no small measure of disgust. "What do you want?"
Rhea abandoned her wheedling and simply fidgeted with her dress, embarrassed. "I'm thirsty and tired," she explained.
"Well too bad. Keep moving."
The knife pressed harder, and he raised an eyebrow.
But the knife wasn't very sharp. "Can we take a break? Please? May I have some water?"
"I don't have water," he hissed. "In case you haven't noticed. And no, there's no time for a break. The sun's up already. There's only an hour or two before we'll have to hide."
"Hide?" She perked up immediately. "Hide from what?"
"Oh! The bad kind or the good kind?" It depended on who the main character of the book was, but usually soldiers meant it was time to run away.
He rolled one shoulder back, a restrained, contemplative shrug, and pushed her onward with the knife. Rhea decided that it was probably the bad kind.
They walked in silence for another few seconds before she tried again.
"Can we please take a break? It hurts."
She was looking over her shoulder right then – so she saw. Something flashing across his face. Black eyes widening.
A knee rammed into the small of her back, forcing her to stumble forward. For a moment all the air was knocked out of her lungs. The strike hadn't even been hard enough to leave a bruise, but it stung, and she had never been struck outright like this before. The other kids had never dared to come closer to her than two feet.
"What!?" she gasped. "How could you do that!?"
The stranger pulled his matted hair back from his face with his hand. His glare branded her like hot iron. There was an accusation in it, and some unspeakable hatred, rooted deep.
"It hurts?" he growled.
"Yes, it does. And now my back hurts too," she added miserably, "and I'm tired, and I'm thirsty, and – ow!"
The stranger had kicked her back with his bare foot, and this one was harder; it would definitely bruise. Her lungs rattled uncomfortably.
"It hurts, she says." He seemed to chew the words in his mouth first, tearing them to pieces, before spitting them out into the polluted air. "It hurts. As if she would know the meaning of pain. As if she would know anything. Let her feel what pain feels like, and she'll know that this is nothing, she'll know…"
But Rhea couldn't hear him anymore; she was doubled over, coughing. Something had gone wrong. She rubbed her eyes – they were burning from all manner of aggravations now – and sank down to her knees. The scabs from when she had tripped in the night cracked, and fresh blood plastered her cotton dress to her skin.
Above her, she was aware of the stranger growing quiet and shifting slightly, watching her. She managed to control her dry coughs for a few seconds.
"I'm thirsty…" she wheezed in explanation. The words choked on what felt like sandpaper and a lump of burning coal in her throat. She started coughing again.
The ash whispered in a gust of hot, smoky wind. When she looked up again, the stranger was gone.
Alone. Alone again, just like that. What had she said wrong? Rhea stared at the place where the stranger had stood, blinking until her eyes weren't misty anymore. Well, at least she could rest now. Maybe the stranger would be back.
The coughs had subsided, mostly, though her small chest would shudder with another bout of them every few minutes. She tucked her legs in and wrapped her arms around them, rested her chin on the parts of her knees that didn't hurt. She had been leading them towards the sunrise. But the sunrise had been so small and dreary that she felt it didn't make a difference whether it happened or not at all. Looking at the sun made her feel drained, somehow. Like she was being sad for its sake.
The sun was probably the saddest of them all, she decided – hanging so high and lonely like that.
In the long, oppressive silence, Rhea started to doze, only kept awake by the burning in her throat and a faint tugging in her stomach. When had she last eaten again? She thought of last night's dinner, steaming hot rice and pork and corn, and before she could summon Sylvia Summers' courage once more, she found herself wishing fervently that she was back in her dining chair, with her mother and the servants and the butler, and eating a dinner without a care in the world. Rhea's eyes drooped low.