AN: I really wanted to stick another scene in at the end, but it's too long as it is anyway. UGH.

Review returns are back on. Well, they were never really off. Old habits die hard.

Also, anybody have any songs that'd fit this story? XD I'm just recycling the same old bands, don't mind me…


Meaningless Again

Chapter 9: Disoriented

"Crowds and torches fill the air. Surprise, you're chosen, now finish it."—"Revenge" by Chevelle


[Olson]

I'm trying to be realistic, here. I'm trying to be rational. It's hard to be rational when there's blood in your mouth, and your sides ache from coughing, but it's better to be rational than to be crazed about it. If you're crazed about it, you'll overthink everything, and then you'll do something really stupid that makes things worse. I'm being rational. I'm going to die. That's a rational thought.

Death is rational. People make such a big deal out of it, but death is rational. It's a simple enough process. Your heart stops beating; your lungs stop breathing, and your body decays to nothing. There's nothing irrational about death.

I lick my lips and take another shallow breath. There's nothing wrong. It's a simple process, and I'm ready. Fear is irrational, death is rational, and pain is an illusion.

My lungs seize up again, and another wave of coughing leaves me shaking and breathless. A thin stream of blood slips past my lips. The floor is slippery under my cheek, but I don't really care. I don't want to move. It hurts too much. But I'm not scared, I'm being rational, and pain is an allusion.

It's sort of a sharp, broken feeling in my lungs whenever I inhale, and a shooting pain when I cough. Maybe it isn't so bad, and maybe I'm just imagining it, but lying alone in this room, on the freezing floor, there's nothing to distract me. The only sounds are my rasping breaths, and the footsteps outside the room. It's noisy outside, but in here, I might as well be buried.

They've gotten what they wanted. They aren't coming back.

I wonder why they won't take me to a work camp. I guess I'm too sick to work.

Your arms are numb from carrying the bricks, but they won't let you rest, because they don't actually need you alive, and they don't want you alive. You're half Lutten, and you're illegitimate, so you're not supposed to live.

I wish somebody was here, so I wouldn't be alone. The room is bare, the bucket in the corner unused. They haven't fed me. That's fine, and I don't think I'd keep anything down, but my lips are cracked and my throat is dry. I want water. I want out.

How much longer do I have?


[Jep]

There's a long silence after he says it. I'm trying to organize my thoughts, and he's waiting for my reaction. At some point, the storm outside had died down without my noticing. Now it's clear, silent—the only sound is the wind rushing past.

"But you said you were Devin's brother," I say.

"No. We're just friends. He helped me break him out, so I just told Olson that he was. It was easier that way. Devin wasn't exactly happy, but he went along with it."

Of course they're related—I'd seen the similarities, myself. Nye's calmer, though, and larger, with blond hair. His eyes don't shift around so much, and he pushes his shoulders back, instead of hunching them forward.

"So Olson doesn't know? Why didn't you tell him?"

He purses his lips. "I don't think he even remembers he had a brother. How do you tell somebody that?"

"You just tell them? I mean, isn't that something he'd like to know?"

He runs a hand through his dark blond hair. "Well... yeah, I guess. So anyway. Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Of course I am."

For the next hour or so, he talks over the plan he has. The idea definitely isn't foolproof. In fact, it's pretty risky, and I don't know how well it'll work in practice. I don't say anything, though. I've already committed to it, and it's not like I've got any better ideas.

"So then, how many people do we have?" I ask.

"Well, counting you and me, there's eight."

Eight? Is he insane? "And that's enough?"

He grins, and the tips of his teeth glint in the lantern light. "I told you we were a few short."

000

Well, two people don't show up.

"Maybe they're running late," Nye says.

Nobody says anything. The six of us huddle in a semi-circle, backs to the wind. Now I wish I'd gotten my heavy coat before running away. Stupid. Actually, this whole mess might be the worst idea in a long series of bad, stupid ideas. My heart jerks away in my chest, and my palms are sweaty and tingly. We're about to break a criminal out of a center. The concept seems so foreign and impossible. What the fuck was I thinking? I can't do this.

"Nye, I don't think they're coming," the guy next to me says. He's pale and tall, with a scratchy voice. His name's Joan. He stinks of mildew.

"Well, shit."

So it's just the six of us: Nye, Joan, Newt, Kane, Rilen and I. None of them are well-built or athletic-looking. They're all stick-thin and shifty-eyed, with unwashed hair and unshaven faces. Kane has a big, creepy beard; Newt's hair hangs down past his cheekbones.

We don't look suspicious at all.

"What're we going to do?"

We look at each other, and then back down at the fat bag Nye brought. The sun lingers at the horizon behind us.

"Well, we can't go back now."

"Man, I got out of bed for this."

"I came out of hiding for this."

"I—"

"Of course we're still doing it," Nye says, bending down to unfasten the bag. "Everybody grab a mask and some tape."

They charge the bag, and then they get into a fight over the tape, because there's only one roll. I'd already put my tape on, and my mask is in my pocket. I didn't want to put the tape on—it made me feel like a criminal—but Nye told me I had to.

"I can't tear it off!"

"Fucking hell, just give it here."

"It's sticking to my fingers!"

Nye steps around the three of them to get back to the bag. He pulls out two objects and tries to hand them to me.

"What are they?"

"Just take them."

One is an old-fashioned watch, with a wide leather band. The other is hard, and wrapped in cloth, about half the length of my forearm.

"The watch is so you know when to pull out. The knife... well."

Yeah. I take them both in my hands. The watch doesn't quite fit around my wrist—it falls to my elbow when I lift my hand. I stuff the knife in my pocket.

"Your mask."

Right. I pull it out and stare at it. He sees my expression and takes it from me, wraps it around my eyes, and ties it in a knot at the back of my head. His hand are shaking. His face is calm. He gives me a nod, then turns away to tie his own on.

The knife presses into my thigh.

"Anybody else need the tape?" Rilen asks.

This is real.

"Okay, guys," Nye says. "Listen. The two of you will walk up to the guards at the front, and Jep, Newt, Joan, and I will take out the ones at the back. Don't get captured, just make enough of a fuss to raise suspicion. It's not a great plan, but it'll work if we're careful."

Everybody nods. In my head, I'm several blocks away, walking down the street in the dark. I can't do this. All the breath has left my lungs.

"Everybody go it? What are you going to say?"

"I'll ask if I can talk to a prisoner. We can improvise from there," Kane says.

"Okay. Try to keep it going for ten minutes. When you're done, meet back here if you can."

They nod again. Rilen turns away first; the others two follow. Their footsteps crunch away, leaving the four of us in silence. Newt watches me through his bangs. His breath forms a white cloud with every exhale. Eventually, he asks, "Why is he here?"

"I'm a friend of Olson's."

"We needed the people," Nye says.

Newt shrugs.

"So I think we'll split up. Jep, you should come with me, and Newt and Joan can go a separate way. I want to make sure Jep actually knows how to use that knife."

My hand brushes past the thing in my pocket.

"Okay? The boys will draw attention to the front of the building. Then, there'll be less hanging around our side when we go in. It shouldn't be too hard. The guards are there to keep people in—they've never had to keep people out. We'll have about ten minutes, than you get the hell out, whether or not you find him."

They're all staring at me, so I nod again.

"Everybody ready? We should probably go now." He pushes past me, and we all follow close. I'm sweating, even though it's freezing out here. The center is only a couple blocks down-just a short walk in the icy wind. I want the walk to last forever. As long as we're still walking, we aren't there yet, and it hasn't started. As soon as we get there, it's too late.

Nye walks in front. He's shorter than the others, but unlike Olson, you don't notice it. Joan walks right behind him. I'm in the back, dragging my heels and trying to take as long as I can.

The knife presses against my thigh with every step. Nye turns abruptly at the end of the next block. We have to come at it from the back, otherwise the guards at the front will see us. There are only two guards at the back entrance. We have to take them out to get inside.

Nye stops us soon. They're just around the corner. He gestures for us to lean in, and when we do, the combined smell of Newt and Joan almost knocks me out.

"Okay. Jep and I will take the one on the left. Get up close before you go. Okay?" he whispers.

This is it.

I make eye contact with Nye. He studies me carefully for a second. Then he stuffs his hands in his pockets and turns the corner, and there's nothing I can do but follow.

It's a pretty big building. The side of it spans almost half a block, just an unbroken expanse of wood siding, no windows or anything. Two guards sit at the door, one on each side, in stocky chairs. One slumps back, staring at the cloudy sky, and the other leans forward, elbows on his knees. It's only a few steps before they see us.

Nye sets a slow, casual pace. My throat is closing up.

"Hey!"

He keeps going, and we follow.

"Hey! What are you doing here?"

"I've got a question," Nye says. "Can I ask you? I mean, you aren't busy or something." His voice is too loud and too high. Their hands go straight to their batons.

"Stay back. What do you want? There's no need to come any closer."

"But I want to ask you something, face-to-face. Is that too much?"

They look at each other, frozen, like they weren't trained on how to react to this. "Stay back," the other one says, without much authority.

Nye squares up with one; Joan stands in front of the other. Me and Newt end up behind them. I'm reaching into my pocket, fumbling for a good grip on my knife, and hoping it isn't too obvious what I'm doing. The guards are too focused on Nye to notice.

"What do you want?" the one in front of him asks. His eyes are locked on Nye's face, and then they drift down to his neck, where the tape covers his ID. He grasps his baton, but Nye already has his knife out. The guard barely manages to deflect the first stab.

His partner doesn't get his baton out in time. Joan grabs him by the hair and drives the blade deep into his neck. It isn't the clean stabbing motion I'd imagined; it's a sawing, grinding, twisting motion, and the blood is thick and dark.

Nye gets his hand over the other guard's mouth before the scream can make it out. Instead, there's a muffled grunting sound that escapes. Nye's other hand is held away with the baton. He squeezes his fingers into the man's face, but he's struggling madly, and Nye can't hold him for long.

"Jep!" he yells. "Jep!"

Oh god, I can't…

I take a couple steps forward. Newt appears at Nye's shoulder and stabs at the man's side. He won't go down. I get my knife out and circle around to his back.

"Jep! Get him!"

I bury the knife in his back. It's like cutting through meat—a steak, maybe. Oh my god. He jerks free of Nye's grasp, and his elbow crashes into my face.

I taste blood. My vision flashes red. I fall back on my butt, stunned, hands clutching my nose. Something's going on, but my hearing cuts out.

Somebody shakes my shoulder. Hands pry mine away from my face, and somebody grabs my chin.

"Jep?"

"It's not broken; he's fine."

"Jep? Hey. You're fine."

They're standing around me. There's blood trodden through the snow and covering all of us. I can taste it in my mouth, all warm and sticky. My nose throbs like crazy.

I reach up and prod at it.

"You okay? He got you pretty good. We thought he broke your nose, but it's just bleeding. Nice job! We got them!"

Their bodies lie a few feet away. Are they really dead?

"Hey. We've got to keep going. Here's your knife." He shoves it into my hands and yanks me to my feet. "You good?"

I nod, dazed. Did I kill him? How much of this blood is mine?

"Okay. Focus. We don't have time."

"I got the keys!"

Newt pops up with a cluster of keys and starts shoving them into the door.

"Did you hit your head?" Nye grabs my chin again and stares at me. My ears are still ringing a little. "Here." He pulls a spare mask out of his pocket and wipes at the blood.

"We're in." Newt's unlocked the door, but he doesn't open it yet. He turns to look at Nye through his bangs.

"Okay. Joan and Newt, take the first right, we'll take the first left. Get out after five minutes. Jep, what time is it?"

"Three-oh-two," I say, and spit out a bit of blood.

"Okay. You need to be out by three-oh-seven. Everybody good? Then, let's go." He grabs my arms and pulls me through the door.

I'm surprised when the inside isn't anything special—just a long hallway with doorways down either side. It's dark, and completely silent.

"Stinks in here," Newt says. I can't smell it—my nose is all blocked up and gummy.

Nye goes to the left and looks through the tiny window in the door. What are we looking for? How do we know what rooms are what?

Then I realize that they're cells.

"Are they all filled with people?" I ask.

Nye shushes me and won't answer. We make our way down the hallway, looking through each window as we pass. The first couple are empty. In the next, I see a blonde girl curled up in the corner, with blood smudged across the walls. A heavyset man is in the next one, and he looks fine, but he's sprawled out facedown, and a fly buzzes about his neck.

What is this place?

"This is where they take them before they go to a camp," Nye whispers. "This is what's at the back of every check center."

It's disgusting. I keep seeing feces smeared into the floor, and blood everywhere. The captives are in varying states of injury and malnutrition.

"Olson's here?"

Nye holds a finger to his lips, but answers anyway. "If he's alive, he's here somewhere."

What if we don't find him?

We reach the end of the first hallway before we hear footsteps. I look around, but there's no place to hide. I turn to Nye. He has his knife out, and he's creeping forward. I cover my mouth with both hands. Not again, not this again.

It's fast, this time. The guard turns the corner and Nye's right there, waiting for him. He springs forward and punches him in the gut. Then he grabs the larger man by the shoulder and stabs him in the chest.

The knife makes a soft thunk as it hits home. I squeeze my eyes shut.

When I open them, Nye has dragged the body against a doorway. He smiles, but it's more of a wince. "They don't expect people in here, see. Nobody tries to break in."

The man is wearing a molded white mask. It's easier to look at his body when you can't see his face.

Newt and Joan are already making their way down the right side.

"Let's go. We don't have much time."

We turn to the left and hurry down. Every time I see dark hair, a feeling rises in my gut, but it's never him. It's never him. I keep waiting to see another guard, but there aren't any more. Are they all dealing with our friends at the front? Maybe there weren't too many to start with.

We reach the end of another hallway and turn again.

How big is this place? It's already been three minutes. God, we'll never find him.

"We have to go faster," Nye says.

I nod, and try to swallow the lump in my throat.

The next cell is empty. There's a young boy in the next one, but his hair's too light. Where is he? And what's the probability that we even find him? I don't get why Nye's so strict about the time, either. He's ahead of me, walking fast, the bag still slung over his shoulder. What's the point of this, anyway?

I hear voices from behind us and freeze.

"Hey! Over here! Let's go!" Somebody yells.

Nye turns around, his face pale. Oh God. I turn, too, and pull out my knife. They're coming. I can hear heavy footsteps. How did they see us? We're screwed. Nye comes to stand beside me, and we stare down the hall. The footsteps come closer.

A guard appears. We flinch, but he keeps running past our hallway. Two more go past. The sound of their feet fade away.

"What was that?" I whisper.

"They must've seen Newt and Joan. Shit. We need to go."

"But what about Olson?"

"Jep, we need to go."

"We can't just leave him in here. He'll die, or—"

He grabs my arm, hard. "I know. But we can't do anything. Okay? Now stop talking. I need to do something."

"What do—"

"Just watch the door, okay?" He kneels and unzips the bag. I keep my head turned down the hallway, but I watch him as he fiddles with something in the bag. His hands are shaking. "Shit," he mumbles.

"What is it?"

"Nothing." He hesitates, then shakes his head and zips the bag shut. "Follow me. We need to be fast."

Going back is easier than coming. We only hear footsteps once, and they're going in the opposite direction. Nye jogs out in front of my the whole time, his bag bouncing on his back. Why'd he bring it in, anyway? I don't know what the point of this was. There was no way we could've found him before we had to go. What a waste.

We get to the door. Nye pushes it open, then nods to me. It's pitch dark outside—then moon's hidden behind all the clouds, and not a single star shines through. We push through the door and let it drift shut behind us.

Back to reality. I'd thought that if got back out, we'd have him with us, but here I am again. The disappointment weighs heavy in my chest. I clench my jaw as hard as I can to push it away.

"Hey," Nye says, and his voice sounds so much quieter outside, in the open. "Come on."

I want to go back in there and find him. I should've tried harder. We could've tried harder.


[Olson]

Pounding at the door.

At first I think it isn't real, but the banging gets louder, and the door begins to shake. I cover my head with my arms and hold still. Why did they have to pick my door to bang on, anyway? The noises stop for a moment, and turn into these massive thuds, like some idiot is throwing himself at my door.

Fuck off.

I cough and heave into the floor, but when I open my eyes again, the crashing hasn't gone away. What are they trying to do? Did they lose their key, or what? I curl into a tighter ball.

The door bursts open. I cringe and close my eyes.

Silence.

"Olson? Is that you?"

The voice is familiar, but I don't place the speaker. Footsteps come closer. A hand brushes my back.

"Are you okay?"

I let the hands pull me upright. My chest burns, and I clutch at his arms, because my shaking legs won't hold me. "Ow. Stop." His shirt smells like mildew. Is it one of Nye's asshole friends?

"I'm going to get you out of here," he says. It's either Joan or Teeg. But Teeg got captured, didn't he?

"Joan?" I ask.

His hand squeezes my shoulder. Joan it is, then. He slips an arm under my legs and lifts me up. I squirm around to get comfortable, and end up with my face buried into his stinking jacket. He's warm, though, and his grip is firm. I don't know how or why he's here, but I'm glad he is.

I grab his shirt in one hand and slip back out of consciousness.

000

"Hold still," somebody's saying.

I'm shirtless, and somebody's hand is pressing down on my chest, and I want to scream, but I can't get the breath.

"You're hurting him!"

Jep? I open my eyes, but everything blurs together. A hand grabs my cheek.

"I need to see if the ribs are broken. I don't know where the blood is coming from."

I claw at the hand on my chest, but it won't let off.

"Do you think he punctured something? Is he going to be okay?"

"Calm the fuck down, or I'll bash your face in."

"Stop," I mumble.

"Olson? Hey, can you hear me?"

Hands cup my face. I squint up, and Jep's leaning over me, his nose swollen and purple. "Hey. Olson?"

The hand presses harder. My vision swims and then fades.


"Me, I'd let the panic ride, and pin it on the wall… identifying pride is the saddest of the chores. Those burning eyes indeed define a churning of the soul. Feels better to be lost, but haven't felt that choice for so long."—"Revenge" by Chevelle