Probably should have made a note of this beforehand, but it kept slipping my mind: this story does contain slash, albeit very slow-moving slash (which is probably somewhat obvious by this point...ahah...) which takes second place to the plot. In addition, it is part of a larger series, in which there will be considerably more slash. There we go.
While I'm doing the author notes thing, a real quick thank you to Itsa Mia for reviewing! I very much appreciate it and hope you find this chapter as enjoyable as the first two!
They weren't talking anymore. They hadn't been talking for the past day. Lyle's mouth was dry and his tongue felt swollen and foreign in his mouth. Dry and soft and it stuck to his chapped lips when he'd slip it out, unconsciously, to try and moisten them. He thought, quite seriously, that he'd kill someone for water.
Mikah stumbled along at his left. Sometimes reaching out to grab his arm and other times leaving him behind to hurry on ahead. Lyle plodded unseeing and didn't think about anything. He was weak from thirst and hunger and the overuse of his power but for the most part he managed to stay on his feet.
The city was close now, he could feel it. Even without his power he could feel it. Like a living thing it seemed to strum the air, the waves drifting invisibly to him. Mikah was panting and every now and then he'd pick up the pace then stop just as quickly, pausing until Lyle had caught up to him. Then he'd take off again just as quickly.
Lyle listened to his footsteps and his breathing and used them to measure the distance to the city.
"It's so close," Mikah said. His voice was broken and cracked as the desert floor.
The sun was setting now, so it wasn't so bad. The heat, the burn of it was lessening. Lyle felt fingers circle his arm. "What do we do?" Mikah asked.
Lyle kept walking and Mikah kept pace beside him. It took a few tries, but after a while he was able to form words. They scratched his throat. "How far?"
"About a hundred feet. We're right here. Finally." Mikah's grip on his arm tightened.
"Is there a gate?" This was important, Lyle remembered, but after so long going without thinking, it was hard for his mind to catch back up.
"I…No, I don't think so. It's…all broken."
Lyle nodded. That was good. It was harder to sneak in through a gate. But that meant…
Lyle stopped in his tracks and Mikah obediently stopped with him. How the hell had they made it to Nest?
"Are you sure?" Lyle asked.
"Yes. Is something—"
"Come on." He started walking again, hurrying. Lyle didn't know how they had managed it—it was impossible—but now that they were here it hardly mattered. They needed water and food and a better healer than himself.
But he had never been to Nest.
Mikah helped him over the debris circling the outside edge of the city, guiding with patient hands. "Be on the lookout for people," Lyle warned him. All he had were rumors of Nest. Stories that had filtered over from the other tribes. Nest was the worst of the triad. Nest was full of human refuse, of disease. Nest was more junkyard than city.
But there was no Whipperin. They'd have to look out for the poachers, but here no one would be chasing them. Here they'd be safe.
"Describe it to me," Lyle said after a while. Rubble crunched under their feet and they made their way slowly. Mikah held onto him with both hands, leading.
"Only because we're on the edge."
"There's some buildings up ahead. And a, and a…terminal. A screen."
"There's a terminal?"
"No, it's too big. It's huge. Higher up than the buildings. Still a ways off," Mikah panted in between the words, drew in a shaky breath once he'd finished reporting.
"Stay away from it." Lyle wasn't sure what it meant just yet, but he knew that's where people were most likely to be. People they didn't need to be running into. "Nest is dangerous," he continued after a while, after both he and Mikah had had time to catch their breath. "Don't trust anyone. Hide as soon as you see people."
"You need a doctor," Mikah said.
"You need a doctor," Lyle countered.
They didn't speak for a while after that. Mikah got them over the worst of the rubble, to a bit of mostly flat ground. They walked until Lyle felt the sun suddenly cut off, until they were blessed with the shade of a building or ruin or some cast off part of the city. Then he suddenly couldn't stand anymore. He was walking and then he wasn't, his knees hitting the ground hard and jarring despite Mikah's hands grabbing for him. He fell forward onto his palms and hissed, feeling the wounds there scraped open by asphalt. Mikah was instantly at his side.
"Are you okay?"
Lyle didn't know so he shook his head. He was so tired. His arms gave out and he fell forward, expelling a rough puff of air. His cheek hit the ground and he lay there until Mikah pulled him up, rolling him over onto his lap and they just sat there like that. Mikah digging his fingers into Lyle's shoulders and Lyle fighting to stay conscious. It took a long time but finally Lyle drug the words from where they had gotten tangled in his tongue. "We need to get inside."
Mikah nodded, or Lyle imagined he nodded and then he was slipping his arms under Lyle's armpits and lifting. It was awkward and clumsy and the kid stumbled more than once trying to get them to their feet. "Can you walk?" he asked.
Lyle wasn't sure but he nodded anyway and Mikah shifted them into the usual form, half-dragging Lyle to the closest building.
Lyle was conscious for maybe the first five minutes. He listened to Mikah struggling for breath, struggling not to loose his footing, struggling to carry Lyle's weight and his own and then suddenly he felt lighter and lighter, like he was being lifted, until he felt nothing at all.
Lyle was talking to his grandmother, which was funny because his grandmother was dead. That, and he had never met her. But they were talking like they'd known each other forever and when she smiled he knew it was like when his mother smiled, edged with crazy. She was telling him she had water for him and that was suddenly important somehow but he kept telling her to leave. Leave, leave, he said. They need you. Who's going to read the stars if you're not there?
She smiled her kind beautiful insane smile and told him she had water.
Then he was awake and choking.
Lyle gasped for breath, coughing, and it burned his throat. Somewhere he could hear someone mumbling, someone apologizing.
"Mikah," he wheezed.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"What did you—" but he knew anyway. His face and neck and shirt were wet.
"I'm sorry I was just trying…I-I thought it would help. I'm sorry, I didn't know!" and he kept on and on until Lyle held out his hands and the kid pushed the curved scrap of tin or metal into them.
Lyle brought it to his lips, hands shaking makeshift bowl all the way, and tipped it. It tasted like the metal that held it but it was water and it filled his mouth like heaven and he couldn't stop himself from swallowing it all.
"It was caught up on the roof," Mikah said. "It must have rained recently."
Lyle was already falling back asleep, he could feel his mind slipping away, but he fought it, handed the bowl back to Mikah. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Some building. I got us to the second floor. There were beds up here."
Lyle realized as he said it that there were indeed beds. He was laying on one.
"I haven't seen anyone," Mikah continued. "You've been asleep over an hour."
Lyle nodded, or thought he nodded. He lay back down and felt a pillow catch his head. A real pillow. He smiled lazily.
"Don't worry," Mikah said. "You can go back to sleep, and I'll keep watch. Don't worry."
Sometimes Lyle thought he was awake. He'd hear Mikah moving around, hear him say something, in a whisper so as not to wake him. One time he thought he heard it raining. Then he thought he heard gunshots but it was only a dream and he knew it was a dream because he woke up and Mikah was there and told him that's what it had been. Only a dream.
But after that he couldn't tell. He was asleep and he was awake and he was dreaming. Sometimes he was sick and Mikah would bring him water and other times he would retch, turning on his side and spitting acid and stale rainwater on the floor. Other times it was like his whole body was on fire but he couldn't even move so he'd scream, or try to scream, but maybe that was a dream too because Mikah never came to him with the water he begged for.
Then he'd dream again and know it was a dream or maybe it was real but wherever he was it was black and black and he was always blind.
Then suddenly there were voices.
"—think we give a fuck?"
"Skinny little shit, we oughta break your fucking face for that."
"Please just leave."
"You hear that?" There was laughter too, mean and broken. Lyle struggled to turn towards it, fighting to focus. This was important. It was important suddenly, to be awake, to move.
"Looks like we woke your friend."
"Good thing, too. He was gonna miss us break you."
"I'm warning you."
"Warning? Warning? You're fucking serious, aren't you? Little shit. You think you gonna hurt us?"
More laughter. It hurt but Lyle was pushing himself up. Got so far as to prop himself up on his elbows. "Mikah, what—"
"What you gonna do, boy? Gonna beat us up? I'd like to see you do it."
"Look at him. Gonna piss himself he's so scared."
There was a shuffle and a thud and it was silent except for that laughter and Lyle knew, he knew they had Mikah pressed to the wall. There were two of them. The shorter, fatter one had Mikah against the wall the other one had been watching him, his face all screwed up like something feral. Like a dog. And then Lyle was blind again and forcing his legs off the mattress and his feet hit the floor and then
The laughter stopped. Lyle heard something wet.
"Fuck, oh fuck. What did you do? You shit, what did you do?"
Something heavy hit the floor. Heavy and wet and something else hit the far wall.
"Mikah?" Lyle gripped the mattress so hard his fingers ached. He needed his power, he needed it. Something was wrong and he had felt it and his power had leaked out and he had seen but now he needed it and he couldn't, he couldn't…
"What the fuck. Stay away from me! Oh shit oh god."
Lyle felt it coming to him delayed. The death of the other man. It was a sick feeling, it was always a sick feeling when someone died. He couldn't reach his power.
Footsteps and begging and then silence and Lyle felt it right away this time, when the second man died.
He was panting. His breaths were frightened in the silent room but he struggled to listen beyond them. He had forgotten, he was so stupid and he had forgotten. Mikah had killed two men before. Just like this. In some terrible way Lyle couldn't see but could only feel Mikah had killed two men. Then two men more.
Stuttering and apologies and it's only a dream but he killed like something inhuman and Lyle had forgotten it.
"Lyle?" and then, "Oh…Oh god." And Lyle heard the very distinct sound of Mikah being sick, puking all over whatever he had done that Lyle couldn't see.
Lyle's mind raced and he wanted to use his power like he had never wanted anything before in his life but instead he sat on the edge of the bed and waited until Mikah had finished. "Are you okay?" he asked the silence and almost hoped nothing would answer.
"I don't…I-I'm sorry. They were going to…"
"We should leave," Lyle said. There would be more of them soon enough. He didn't want Mikah to touch him but when the boy offered him his shoulder Lyle took it and tried to ignore the smell of blood and the way his feet stuck to the floor.
This new room wasn't as nice as the last. There were no beds and it smelled like it was rotting. Lyle sat in a corner with his back propped against the wall and catalogued all the different ways his body was screaming at him that it was in pain. Mikah was gone, off to look for food or water or maybe to keep watch. He had told Lyle before he'd left but the words hadn't stuck with him. Lyle listed the burn in his hands, the sick in his stomach, the way his skin seemed too tight and when he'd move it'd pull and he'd feel it ripping open in places it had been burnt dry. His knees were a dull pain in comparison and he'd shift them every now and then, just to make sure they still hurt.
He couldn't really remember having ever felt so bad. Even when he had been one of Whipperin's experiments. At least then he'd been too drugged to feel what they were doing to him. Lyle curled his fingers and the scab reforming on his palm started to pull open. He leaned his head back against the wall and sighed.
He didn't have any guarantee that Mikah wouldn't kill him. The thought should have made him more nervous than it did, he realized, but with or without his power, Lyle knew to trust his instincts. He didn't feel threatened by Mikah. Terrified of him, sure, but even then it was a buried feeling, something that hovered at the edge of his mind and only surfaced when he thought too much about the ease with which the boy could kill.
It was the same as his first reading, when he saw Mikah as human and inhuman. Machine, Lyle remembered. He also remembered the kid had been at Whipperin's hands for some time, eight years at least, if his hunch was correct. No wonder, then, that there was such a duality to him. Whipperin could have been reforming him into anything.
But that, Lyle reminded himself, hardly mattered now. One way or the other he needed Mikah, was pretty damn dependent on him. He needed some kind of healer, the both of them did. And food. Food was pretty important, too.
Lyle sighed again. He had never felt quite so blind as he did now. Even back in Central he'd at least known his way around the city, now, without his power, he didn't even have that. And Mikah was just as unknown as everything else. It was a helpless, pathetic feeling and it made him want to squirm, or hit something. Instead he bent his legs until he was sitting cross-legged. His knees protested and Lyle huffed impatiently at the pain.
He idly sought out his power, feeling a sickness wash over him almost instantly. He'd only get worse if he kept at it like this, he knew that. He weighed his options and eventually let it go. He'd hold out as long as he could, he decided. Depend on Mikah just a little longer. The kid had proven himself so far. So he could crush Lyle in his bare hands. Douglas could've too, Lyle remembered. Long as he stayed on his good side, he should be fine. That had always worked with Douglas.
Then again, Douglas had been predictable. With Mikah, Lyle wasn't quite sure what he was dealing with. He was dreading it, but he'd have to try and draw it out of the kid, whatever he could.
That decided, Lyle allowed the haze of sleep building at the corners of his mind to close in and take him.
They changed buildings again once Lyle was able to walk. They had to keep moving, he knew. Testing out the city, getting closer to the center. He had told Mikah what to look for and the kid had come through again. He had found them what used to be a hotel, from what Lyle could tell from Mikah's descriptions. The entire right side of the thing was collapsed, but enough of it remained to offer them shelter. They moved at night, so Mikah could find the fires easier.
"There's three of them out front, another in the doorway. They see us."
"Good, look as pathetic as you can," Lyle advised. He remembered when he had escaped Whipperin, his first time on the run in Central. He remembered the homeless and the strays, runaways like himself. They gathered in groups around the outskirts of the city, grouping so they had a better chance of fending off or escaping the hounds Whipperin would send after them. Lyle had figured it would be no different here. With that memory came what Teddy had told him, what seemed like years ago. You weren't a threat or a target as long as you looked worse off than they did. He pictured how he and Mikah must look. In rags, hobbling along, red-blistered by the sun and bleeding. Not like they'd have anything worth killing them to steal.
"Don't talk to them," he advised again, keeping his voice low. "Just walk straight inside like you've been there before. They say anything, I'll answer."
Mikah did as he was told. No one said anything to them, but Lyle could feel their eyes.
Once inside Mikah paused and Lyle had to urge him on. "The stairs," he whispered. He could walk on his own for the most part, but it helped in looking pathetic if Mikah was dragging him. So he leaned heavy on the kid's shoulder and they worked their way up the stairs slowly. On the third floor landing Lyle motioned for Mikah to stop and he drew them aside.
"There are rooms," he said. Mikah didn't say anything so Lyle continued. "Go and check which ones are empty." The third floor should be safe enough, Lyle reasoned. They were close enough to an exit and not far enough off the ground that jumping out a window would kill them, at least not if they landed right. But they were still far enough from the first floor that, should some poacher come in after a stray, they'd hear it long before he would reach their floor.
Mikah muttered a quick affirmative and left him there on the landing. Lyle held out his hands and made slow steps forward until his fingers brushed a wall. He put his back to it, facing out towards the hallway, and waited, listening to Mikah's footsteps. It was only a few minutes before he heard the change and the footsteps were getting louder and coming back towards him.
"There are people in both rooms on the end. All the others are empty except for one more in the middle."
"We'll take the second one down from the stairs. Make sure it has a window." As soon as he was finished speaking, Lyle felt fingers circle his wrist and tug lightly, leading him towards the room. Mikah paused, just briefly in the doorway, to check for a window Lyle presumed, and then he continued in, leaving Lyle to stand in the middle as he shut the door behind them.
"There's a bed," Mikah said. He didn't make a move from the door. Just stood there, waiting for Lyle's instructions. He had been doing much the same since he'd killed the two men: not speaking unless he had been asked a question, staying as far away from Lyle as he could, standing quiet and still and at a distance.
"It's probably disgusting," Lyle mumbled, but he made for it anyway, feeling in front of him with outstretched fingers. Right before his legs bumped the edge, a tug on the back of his shirt stopped him.
"It's just a mattress," Mikah clarified, standing at an arm's length from him. "It's stained, but I think they're…I don't think they're recent."
Lyle didn't think he could be filthier than he already was and sat down. He dropped his hands to his sides and leaned back across the mattress. It smelled terrible, but he smelled terrible too, so he figured that was okay.
"Now we wait," he said.
"I don't think…I mean, you still need a doctor and…"
"Someone'll come to us," Lyle said. "Someone will come to check us out and we'll ask them."
"There are those people down the hall. I could—"
"You won't get anything out of them that way. You can't get information from these people unless you have something they want. We have to wait until there's someone curious enough about us that they'll answer our questions in turn."
Mikah was silent after that and Lyle decided now was as good a time as any and scooted over. "You can sit down," he said.
Mikah hesitated so Lyle patted the empty space next to him. As soon as it was obvious it was less of a suggestion and more a request, Mikah moved, and the mattress dipped under his weight. He had sat as far away from Lyle as he could, which was perfectly fine with Lyle; he wasn't exactly comfortable with the situation, either.
Lyle gave him time to relax, or at least wind down enough that he wasn't sitting there all stiff and frozen. "It'll be a while before I can use my power again," Lyle said.
He felt the kid tense again as soon as he'd opened his mouth, but Mikah seemed to relax once it was apparent the subject of their discussion wasn't going to be him. "I-I know."
"There's not going to be anywhere safe for us here, but we're better off than back in Central."
"I know that, too," Mikah whispered.
"You can't trust anyone, do you understand? No one here is actually going to help us. No one will help you no matter where you are."
After that Mikah was quiet for a while, and Lyle waited, hoping he'd piece it together the way he wanted him to. "You're helping me," Mikah said, and Lyle smiled.
"We're helping each other," Lyle corrected. People were less likely to kill you, if they thought you were worth something to them. "Without my power I'm just dead weight. You should know that." Lyle let the smile play at his lips a bit longer. He felt suddenly sick again, a different kind of sick. This could very well backfire and then he really wouldn't be anything more than just dead weight.
"You're helping me," Mikah said again, his voice steady and growing louder.
Lyle had to be sure. "It'll be harder for you, with me here." Pretend you're giving him a way out.
"I couldn't…" he faltered, inhaled deeply, "I couldn't do it by myself. I…wouldn't know what to do, without you."
Again like a kid, Lyle thought. He almost felt bad for doubting him. But there was still something there he wasn't seeing, something he wouldn't be able to see until he could use his power again.
"Mikah," he said, "are you going to tell me what happened?" Then he waited, all but drifting off to sleep in the time it took Mikah to make up his mind.
"You're going to think I'm crazy."
That certainly wasn't what Lyle was expecting. "Probably not," he said, thinking of his tribe. Lyle knew crazy; he knew what crazy felt like. It was like trying to read the desert; all distorted. He had never once gotten that feeling from Mikah.
Mikah took a deep breath. He opened his mouth a few times but all he got out were a few stuttered syllables, nothing much Lyle could make sense of. "I'm like you," he said at last, words all rushed together.
Again, catching Lyle off guard. He wasn't even sure what to say to that, so he waited, only making an encouraging noise to urge the kid to continue.
"I-It's not a power. Not really. But I'm not… I'm not like them. People. Other people," he froze up again, and again Lyle waited. "It's not…really me that does it."
It took him a while, but Lyle eventually got what he meant. Does it. Kills people. "You can't control it?" It wasn't uncommon in some of the other tribes, for people to be unable to control their powers. It was almost a legend, the story of a Hannoc woman near-driving the entire tribe insane with her visions.
"Yes. No, I mean… It's not, it's not like when you use your power. It's not me."
"I don't understand."
"I could never do something like that by myself. It's, I know it's crazy, but there's someone else who does it. Who…Who killed them."
It did sound crazy, Lyle thought. "Who then?" he asked. He wasn't sure he could deal with it, if the kid was crazy. Maybe it just wasn't something you could explain in words. Lyle understood that, too. His power was one of those things. Maybe that was why the kid had taken it so well in the first place, if he had this thing to keep all hidden.
"I'm not sure," Mikah said, and Lyle could tell he was lying, but he didn't press it. "I just call him Ghost."
"Does he talk to you?"
Again, Mikah grew silent. That meant the answer was yes, Lyle figured. That would sound even crazier, admitting to something like that.
"Okay," he said instead. "I'll believe you."
"What?" Lyle couldn't help it, he laughed. The kid had just sounded so incredulous.
"I believe you," he said again. "I really don't have any reason not to, do I? And you believed me about my power. It's only fair."
"You don't think I'm crazy?"
"You haven't given me any reason to think so before this," Lyle said. "Being crazy isn't something you can just hide like that," which wasn't entirely true, Lyle knew from experience, but he wasn't about to tell the kid that.
"I…" Mikah started, faltered, tried again, "Thank you."
Lyle nodded and they fell back into silence. It would explain a lot, Lyle thought, if what the kid was saying was true. He had felt it all along, a kind of duality to Mikah. Maybe that was what Whipperin had done to him. Maybe that's who Ghost was. It would explain why he hadn't wanted to say anything more about it.
Lyle sighed and closed his eyes. He could leave it at that for now.