So much, in that one word. How could two tiny syllables hold so much weight?
I shouldered the pack, trying to mentally smooth the tremors from my legs. I could do this. I could do this. Okay, deep breath. There we g-
"I say, 'Are you rea-"
"I heard you," I snapped. Yuri looked at me coldly, then turned back to his messenger back. I swallowed, even though my mouth was dry, and took a few more breaths in the interest of composure.
He grunted, hefted his bag from the table and left the room. Alone. I was alone, and it seemed easier then for me to breath. I put the bag on the floor, leaning slowly in an attempt to move without irritating my already sore muscles. I looked at the tattered backpack. I felt confident that I could carry it. The question was, how far?
I had meant to ask Yuri where, exactly, we were. But each time I worked up the courage to open my mouth, he'd seem so stony and uncaring that I quickly balked, backed away, and stayed silent. I couldn't figure him out. To be honest, I wasn't sure I wanted to. He was such a strange mix of ruthlessness and seeming idealism that I couldn't see him as a whole, sane person. Just fragments, pieces that didn't quite fit together.
Speaking of the devil, Yuri came back into the room, carrying a heavy black radio. He held it out to me, and without thinking I flinched away from him.
I very nearly said 'no'. Heat flushed through my insides, and I felt something squeezing my heart, crushing it in my chest. I was suddenly sure that I hadn't had anything to drink in weeks.
"Take this," He repeated. Commanded.
I feebly took the radio. Stared at it, mute and uncomprehending. I looked up at him with big, wide, blinking eyes. What now?
"Frequency you gave to me is set. Press button. Speak, girl."
I nodded slowly, the bones of my spine creaking with the movements. Swallowed again, wondered where all the dryness in my mouth was coming from.
"I'm scared," I blurted.
Yuri didn't comfort me, but at least he didn't laugh. He merely stood, watching me, one eyebrow raised ever-so-slightly.
"Okay, fine." I murmured. Then I depressed the button.
Static met my greeting. Then silence, a particularly loud crackle, and a male voice. Completely unfamiliar. I felt at least a little relieved. Of course it wasn't going to be Quinn right off the bat.
"Name and outpost."
The static returned. I held down the button, smothering it.
"Erm. This is Lilian Dean Ralston." I said, eyes roving the ceiling. "And I'm not really sure where the hell I am right now."
It took twenty minutes of conversation that traveled in pointless circles, another ten minutes spent in argument, and fifteen minutes of stony silence before I heard Quinn's voice.
In short, he was cool as a river rock; didn't show a single card in his hand by way of vocal inflection. I should have expected nothing less, but the fear that he would laugh at my request, or flat out ignore it--and me--had been filling me with almost paralysis inducing fear.
Instead, he listened quietly as I explained what was going on. I grew impatient and weary with the telling, and by the end I felt so defeated and tired that Yuri took the radio and continued, in broken English, to lay out the logistics.
It took a lot of convincing. At first he thought I was under duress, that Yuri, this wild card, was trying to draw him out by using me as bait. But after I explained, in a normal tone and at length, that he was not, in fact, pressing a gun to my temple, Quinn finally agreed to an initial meeting at Forsa Central Park. But no promise of armed back up. In fact, the icy, barely congenial edge to his voice implied that he was very, very suspicious.
Yuri took the radio from my hands and found a place for it in his bag.
"That went a lot better than I thought." I touched my cheeks, patted them. "Wow! Not a single tear! Remarkable," I finished dryly.
Yuri left the room again, and all I could do was shake my head. I missed people laughing at my lame jokes. I really did.
I picked up the backpack and (gingerly) slung it over one shoulder.
I went into the kitchen, paying attention to my surroundings for the first time. It looked as though Della had tried to clean the place up, though it still smelled of dust and the faint odor of rotten food. It was dated and grim, just like every other building in Forsa.
"We are leaving in five minutes," Yuri said, just as he entered the room and then went through another door. I shook my head, wondering if I was dreaming.
Della came into the room, and I felt my throat hitch. Her dark hair was ruffled, eyes circled with blue bruises. She was wearing Ralphy's jacket, and I knew then that there was absolutely nothing I could say to her to make this okay. The breath stilled in my lungs as I watched her walk by me, eyes down.
Della seemed to accept this silence. She picked up her bag and went into The Room one last time.
I had never felt so alone.
I wondered if he was still alive. It was a thought that cornered me, closed up my throat and made my anxiety levels soar every time the image of his face intruded on my thoughts. But it was also such a rush, just thinking about being close to him again. Seeing him looking at me, breathing the same air. If only he would live.
Hot tears slid down my cheeks, and I hastily scrubbed them away. I wanted so badly to sit down and cry, to cling to the memory of him. In the back of my mind, I knew it would be easier to give him up as dead. It would be so much less painful to accept the death of Aidan Matheson and simply move on.
No. No no no no no.
He would live. And if he didn't...maybe I wouldn't eit-
"It is time."
My thoughts fragmented, floating away like broken leaves on a current. Yuri, with a disinterested Della, stood by the door. I took a breath.
It was dusk. The heat of the day, which acted more or less as a zombie ward, was slowly succumbing to the cool darkness of night.
They would be coming soon. I hadn't seen one in weeks, and the thought of an encounter was making me shake like a sheaf of paper. I was comforted, in a fashion, by Yuri trotting through the darkness before me. However, the steady sound of his footfalls didn't keep me from glancing over my shoulder, or scanning the lengthening shadows every few seconds.
I gripped my gun tighter, mentally clutching at the sensation of the grip biting into my palm. It was grounding me, tying me to reality in a way I desperately needed . I had to be here, right now, 100 percent. Concentrate, I admonished myself. You've done this before. Just concentrate!
Della screamed, and I wheeled around so quickly I lost my balance. I righted myself, panting, saw as Yuri lunged forward, yanking the poor girl back. She stumbled, falling into me. I yelped as her elbow connected with my broken hand.
In the alley to our right, a zombie was trying his damnest to scramble over a pile of jagged refuse. His snarling, slobbering shrieks were punctuated with the clack of his broken teeth as he snapped at us. One eye was a stream of ooze, and the smell that radiated at us.
"Back!" Yuri barked.
Without realizing it, I had drawn my gun, was holding it up in the direction of the creature, albeit with an alarmingly shaky arm.
Yuri took a step forward, and I caught myself before grabbing his jacket.
"Lower weapon!" He ordered, glancing sharply at me.
"What?" I gasped, eyes darting from him to the zombie, which was continuing to thrash and--
I looked more closely, noticing for the first time that it wasn't making any progress. It threw its arms around wildly, clawing at the air with both straight and horrendously crooked fingers.
"It has no legs." Yuri said simply. He unsheathed a knife, silent as a whisper, and took two more deliberate steps forward. I watched in complete horror as he approached the creature and jammed the knife into its forehead.
Yuri turned sharply on his heel, no emotion on his features. The feeling of horror did not abate. If anything, I felt more scared.
I shied away from him as he stepped out of the alley and past me, but he didn't noticed. I looked at Della, who for the first time seemed to be feeling something. We shared a brief look of fear before she closed off, moving past me to walk behind Yuri, who was still striding forward. As if this didn't mean anything to him.
I stared at the zombie, crumpled among the piles of rusted, mangled metal and great big bags of garbage. I stared at the place where its legs used to be.
And then I walked away.
We developed a system for the long walk.
Anytime there was a single zombie, Della and I hid behind something. A car, a doorway, a dumpster. Each time, Yuri would kill it. After the sixth or seventh one, I stopped watching. I plugged my ears. The sounds of moaning, the cracking of the creatures skull, the occasional grunt from the mercenary--I couldn't handle it. I had to block it out. I focused on Della as she crouched beside me, regarding the darkness. She looked at the ground, or her shoe. But never at me. Never at the creatures. Never at Yuri. She was just...not there. Eventually I couldn't look at her anymore.
When there were more than two zombies, all three of us ran and hid behind something. Yuri never explained why, simply expected us to follow his instructions. I figured he didn't want to attract attention by using firepower to kill them, and anymore than one creature was too risky to kill by hand.
We had been walking for hours. Around the third time we had to run, I started throwing up. I passed out at one point, I was pretty sure. Woke up against a building, with Yuri shaking my shoulders and hissing into my face, his broken teeth white flashes in the dark. He shoved a pill down my throat, splashed water into my mouth and face, and then yanked me to my feet to stumble a few more miles.
I thought, deliriously, that I was going to die. That this was a march to the sea, Yuri the piper leading us forward. Lambs to the slaughter. Della appeared equally taxed, shuffling forward as exhaustion pulled her shoulders toward the earth.
A sign snapped me from my fugue. It was green, flaked and pitted with rust. I stopped moving, squinting at it.
An idiot's grin spread across my face.
"Central park!" I exhaled. Yuri grabbed my arm and ushered me forward.
Almost there. Almost fucking there.
After a few more minutes, I saw the gate. A high brick wall spread out on either side of it, going further than I could see. Dark, towering trees looked like dark stains on an already pitch black sky. I burbled in delight, and quickened my pace.
As we drew nearer, feet pounding the pavement, I saw there was a problem. A stone archway had, at one time, spanned the length of the gate. Now it was a colossal pile of rubble, interwoven with the mangled iron fragments of the gate.
"No!" I moaned, still stumbling forward. My whole body ached, cried for rest. Muscles burning, I felt as though my shins were going to blister apart. "No! How are we---no! Oh my God!"
I slapped up against the wall, craning my head to look up. The face of the wall was smooth, and at least fifth teen feet tall.
I wheeled around, staring at Yuri, panting. I could hardly make out his shape in the dark.
"Why," I gasped, trying to catch my breath. "Why woul...would you t-take us here? It's--we can't. Can't get in!"
Yuri grabbed my upper arm, pulled me toward him and put a hand over my mouth to stop my blubbering.
"You will see. Now be silent, girl."
I breathed against his hand, tasting the salt of his sweat. Once he was sure I was quiet, he let go of me, and I leaned heavily against the wall.
Yuri pulled that self-same radio from his bag. After a few moments of presumably fiddling with the frequency, I heard the crinkle of static. The words were gibberish to me. Yuri was speaking Russian. Or Chinese. Maybe English. I couldn't tell. I realized he stopped talking long after he stopped talking.
After a few moments I heard a rustling sound. Shocked, my head whipped around in the darkness, searching for the source. Della was beside me. Yuri was standing a few feet away. No one had moved.
I was about to say something when I heard it again. It was muffled, distant...
The other side of the wall! Someone was moving around over there. I turned to Yuri, looking for a clue as to whether or not he knew what it was. He was staring at the top of the wall, lifting up his hands.
Something slapped up against the side of the wall, and Yuri flung his arms around until he caught it. I pushed myself off the wall, lurched toward him.
A rope ladder. I clenched my eyes shut, opened them. Yes, it was still there. Still a rope ladder.
Yuri reached for Della first, pulled her towards the rope. She put her hands on it dutifully, clambered up awkwardly, swinging back and forth until even her shoes disappeared into the darkness above my head.
It was my turn next, and I realized very quickly that I wasn't going to be able to do this.
My broken hand was too weak to hold the rope. A small whine circled around my lungs, trapped.
"What is problem?" Yuri hissed into my ear. "Go!"
I didn't want to try explaining it to him. I felt too tired, too numb to care if he knew. I could make it. I just had to compensate with my other hand.
The first few rungs were easier than I thought. I used my left elbow, feeling the rope cut into my underarm. I didn't care. My movements were wide, clumsy, and exaggerated. I struggled up a few more feet before the rope started shaking more violently. I looked down, saw only darkness, and simply assumed the Yuri had started his ascent.
I clenched the rope under my arm again, reaching my right hand above my head to grab the next rung. A violent shudder in the rope made me lose my balance, and I fumbled wildly for a grip before I felt myself peeling away from the wall.
I felt like I was falling through space. The next time I blinked, all I saw was yellow. Yellow lights, sparks, little cleavers of bright harsh yellow. Pain exploded in my head, my back, my ankle. I moaned, the sound filling the cavern of my skull.
For a few moments I could do nothing but struggle for air. I opened my eyes, saw little pinpricks of light. Stars.
"Can you move?"
I blinked, trying to figure out which star was speaking to me.
Yes, of course I could....well, I wasn't sure if I could move. I tried it out, felt my toes wriggle, my fingers, even my nose.
"Mm," I managed in response. Hands slid under my shoulders. I must have landed on my pack, because those hands slid in between it and me, pulling me off of the ground. The world spun, and I threw up a thin stream of water.
I choked for air, the hands still urging me to make progress. To stand up.
I stood up, looked the hands in the face.
Yuri was urging me forward, and I felt so surprised because there was something in his eyes I had never seen before. Something like...fear. I felt like laughing. He was scared! It was almost absurd--
A scream tore through the night, and it seemed as though a cloud bank lifted from my mind.
The scream was followed by many more. Gurgles, shrieks, and cries of hunger. My heart started racing, because they sounded so close.
I cranked my head around, despite the pain the sudden motion cause, and looked with growing horrors into the blanket of inky darkness. I could hear them, but I couldn't see them. My terror increased ten-fold. Suddenly I whacked up against something, felt the fibers of the rope scrape against my face.
"Go first, Lillian Dean Ralston. I will wait until you reach the top this time." Yuri let go of me, and suddenly he was gone.
I wobbled, clung to the rope. A sudden pop of gunfire cleaved the air, making me jump. I almost cried out, but instead let the fear propel me forward. I scrambled up the rope, forcing both hands to hold equal weight. The pain was overwhelming, choking the breath from my lungs. I pushed forward anyway, gritting my teeth, ignoring the burn of my arms and legs.
When I got to top, it took every ounce of control I had not to topple of the edge. I spared a glance at the ground, saw the chalky white light of gunfire, before slipping my legs over the side.
"Yuri!" I shouted, hoarse. Then I started climbing down, with jerky movements. When I had gone a few feet, I started to slide. Someone caught me before I hit the ground, but I closed my eyes anyway. But not without getting one last glimpse of the stars.
"Good morning, Lily."
I opened my eyes, tried to blink away the blur obscuring my vision. My whole body was throbbing, a headache raging like a caged, thrashing beast.
Startling gray eyes bore into me, and I felt safe. Safer than I had in day and days and days.
"Hi," I said, voice crackling.
Quinn held my right hand in both of his warm ones. He smiled sadly, then brushed a strand of hair from my eyes. We were in some kind of tent, with white walls that flickered with lantern light.
He nodded, rubbing soft circles into my temple. The movement was comforting.
I could scarcely believe that he was in front of me. His presence meant the world to me. It was a confirmation that I was succeeding. That maybe this would work. Maybe this nightmare would end.
Quinn was a friend among enemies. He was really the only person I had. His presence invigorated me.
I sat up slowly, Quinn's hand on the small of my back.
"Where are we?" I said quietly.
"Central park," he answered. His voice was still strong. Smooth and crisp, like lightening. His long brown pony tale shined demurely in the soft light. "I arrived here about two hours before you did. There are men here, Lily. I presume they're with that...friend of yours."
I smiled a little.
"Yuri's definitely not my friend." I said. Then felt a pang of worry.
"Did he make it? Over the wall?"
Quinn nodded, handing me an uncapped bottle of water. I sipped it experimentally, hoping it would help abate the nausea roiling around in my stomach.
"He's okay. They carried you back here. I insisted that you rest under my guard."
"Thank you," I said, turning to him. I was surprised when my forehead connected with his shoulder. He pulled me into a hug, and I felt myself go slack. The water bottle rolled out of my hand, onto the floor.
"I'm so, so sorry, Lily." Quinn murmured into my ear. He held me tightly, and I clung to him.
I started to cry.
The dawn was a long time coming. It was pink and orange, a tinge of red at the very center of the horizon. I watched as the last stars blinked out overhead.
"How are you feeling?"
I held the blanket tighter against me, against the nippy chill of the air.
"Okay," I said. Della was looking out at the horizon. She had a cut on her cheek, dried blood fanning out like a curtain under the wound. I watched as she took a bite of her protein bar.
"Are you nervous?"
I looked back at the line of trees, as the bright red orb started to grow.
"No. Max will come. I told him I had both of them."
She chewed a few times, swallowed.
"You told him you had Quinn too?"
I nodded, listening to the sound of Yuri's men rustling around in their tents.
"I figured it would get him here faster."
I looked behind us, at the small cluster of tents. A whole group of mercenaries, living here in central park among the overgrown trees and the birds.
I'd never heard so many birds.
More men would be coming, from all over the city. More of Yuri's men. More of Quinn's.
And Max. Max was coming, with an army.
I took a sip of water, the sun encroaching on the shadows at my feet. Pushing them back, until I felt a warmth on the tip of my nose. I closed my eyes, ignoring the gradual breakdown of my body, the pain in all of me.
"I don't blame you," Della said. She took another bite, her eyes dry. "I do, but I also don't. Mostly don't. I just wish I could have told him."
"He told me he loved you."
Della dropped the wrapper on the ground, rubbed her hands on her jeans, and stood up.
"He never told me." She said, walking away.
I sat alone on the hill, watching the sun come up. There were three gates to the park. The one we had come through, or over rather, was the west gate, and closest one to us. The one to the south was also blocked. The east gate was clear; left open, so to speak.
It's were Max was coming to meet me, to--as far as he understood--to trade Aidan for Max and Ralphy. But really, this was war the war for Forsa was going to start. The war for Diamond Province.
I sat watching the sun climb over the gate, for the dawn of the last day.
I watched for Aidan.
A/N: Annnnnnd cut.
Goddamn. Phew. That took me forever. Sorry about that.
This chapter came along pretty smoothly. It's getting us there, at any rate. I wanted to really convey how broken and beaten down this whole ordeal is getting our poor Lily, and also illustrate existing relationships with the other characters, namely Della and the ever enigmatic Yuri. Feel free to comment on whether or not this works for you. I'd love to here what you think, either about this chapter or the story in general.
Expect to (finally) see Aidan in the next chapter! I'm thinking one or two more chapters. And, possibly, a sequel. I'm not giving away much outside of that, detail wise, but just know that I have some ideas percolating up in the ole' brain pan.
Wanted to clear some things up, because I know how I wrote this is a little confusing. Not updating for months at a time definitely doesn't help. :(
Yuri is a mercenary. Not much is known outside of that, except that he has an obvious interest in Aidan. You'll find out why at the end of story. (Just wanted to throw that out there so it doesn't seem like an arbitrary thing I pulled out of my arse. haha) He has been dogging Lilly and Aidan for most of the story, they just weren't aware. He captured Aidan at Darko, trussed him up, and locked him in one of the underground rooms. Lily rescued him, and in the process she and Aidan beat him pretty badly, then locked him in a room and made their getaway. Lily left the key to the door in his shoe, so he wouldn't be trapped and starve to death.
Hope that helps! If not, send me a pm or leave comments in a review if you have any questions. I'd be happy to answer them. :)
As always, thank you so much, my dear readers. Just seeing that reader-logger-ticker-thing go up makes it all worth while. To those lovely people who read and review, thank you from the bottom of my heart: If Jesus Rode a Dinosaur, RandomActs, Cybernetic, Sunshine Pipeline, JZP, Natta, Velvety Cheerio, and BasementDwellerExtroadinaire. Again, thankyou. I send you all mental hugs!
Hope you all have a good weekend! Consider this a V-day gift, brooding and morose though it may be.