AN: Hey, thanks to everyone who has reviewed thus far. It's very much appreciated :) Please, continue to review; I need all of the help I can get haha. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad criticism, I wanna hear it. Something's better than nothing.
Sorry for not really replying to reviews. I've loved all of the ones I've gotten so far. They were all very flattering and made me do a happy dance ^.^ In response to the two people who said this reminded them of Fallout and Metro: Last Light, I actually got the original idea/motivation for this story from Metro: 2033. This was quite a while ago. I wrote the beginnings of this story for English class; it began as only the first few paragraphs. It wasn't until recently (and by that I mean nearly a year ago :/ ) that I got the idea to go off of that and turn it into something more.
Also, I'm so very sorry for not updating until now. The thing was, I was working on a chapter that's a few after this one, and I started thinking that maybe I wanted to change some detail that is mentioned in the chapter. While I was being indecisive with that, I was also getting lazy by not writing for a while because I was in summer vacation mode. I don't feel very motivated in the summer, I guess haha. I'm back in school, so I'm in a more active mindset now. Maybe I'll update more often? Sorry if I just lied to you all again.
Chapter 2 - Ain't No Rest for the Wicked
When Nikoli pulls himself together, we move to sit around the bonfire. We sit on opposite sides, keeping the fire in between us. I feel slightly awkward now, after seeing him break down like that. I've only really known one man in my life and, while he was very open with his opinions, he never let his grief show around me. I feel like that's a private matter and there I was, only moments ago, comforting this stranger in the midst of it. I'm just relieved that it's over now.
My awkwardness is soon forgotten, though, as weariness sets in again. I sit cross-legged in front of the fire, propping myself up with my hands on the ground behind me. As I stare into the flames, I feel my eyelids droop. My breathing is just starting to deepen when Nikoli breaks the silence.
"Hey… umm… thanks… for saving me today," he says uncertainly.
I'm broken out of the spell by the sound of his voice. My head was lolling before, but now I force it back up so I can glance in his direction. "Hmmm? Oh, yeah, no problem. Don't worry about it, kid." I shift slightly so I can wave a hand lazily in the air.
He snorts. "'Kid'? I'm older than you, if you can't recall."
I cluck my tongue. "Ah, but you forget. I'm the more experienced one here. Because of that, I am the 'guardian' and you are the 'kid' here," I state logically. I have been, up until this moment, supporting my weight with only one arm. Now, said arm gives out on me and I land on my back.
I hear the crunch of snow as Nikoli makes his way over to me. He plops down on the ground by my side and peers down at me. "Yes, it does appear that you can take care of me right now," he observes sarcastically.
My eyes drift close. "Hey, give me a break. I can only do so much in one day, you know."
"I'll try not to get into too much trouble too soon, then."
"That'd be much appreciated. Thank you."
"So… what happened to you today?" The question is tentative and hesitant, like he's unsure of whether or not he wants to hear my answer.
I open my eyes slowly to look at him, nonplussed. Why would he ask the question like that? It was innocent enough… I hedge carefully, "I'm sure nothing I did was any more exciting than what happened to you."
"Yes, but…" he falters. I scrutinize him as he shifts uneasily. He glances at me and then straightens his back. With a deep breath, he continues, "You say you saw my… friend," his eyes scrunch as he makes a face at the word, "and I was wondering what happened to him, to be more precise."
"Ah." I feel my face smooth out as my confusion clears. "Well…" I pause. I'm not exactly sure how much to tell him. I don't know how close they were or if this news will be upsetting to him. I shake my head and plunge on—if this upsets him, I'll just have to deal with it. "He was killed by a mutant wolf in a tunnel leading to the city."
He nods, satisfied. "So… he did ditch me, then," he murmurs to himself.
I frown. "We can't tell that, exactly, now can we?" I point out gently. "There was literally only a door separating us when he died. He might have thought help was through the tunnel."
He shakes his head with a dark chuckle. "No, he was always such a coward to begin with. It's not at all surprising. I say 'good riddance.'"
I send him a disapproving look as I move into a sitting position. "I'm sure it's pretty hard to get help with a wolf chasing you down. Don't judge him too harshly."
"Why are you defending him? You didn't even know him," he counters me, exasperated. He points at his chest and continues emphatically, "I knew him, and that's exactly how he was. He was always running away at the first sign of trouble. I guess this time he chose the wrong direction to run."
I look away with my lips pursed, slightly unsettled. Something about the way Nikoli described the Victim doesn't sit right with me. I try to shake the feeling off, but it only continues to gnaw away in the back of my mind. I'm momentarily distracted by Nikoli a moment later.
"You said that you were nearby when he died. Did the wolf attack you, too?"
I reply reluctantly, "Yeah."
When I don't offer any more details, he prods me. "How'd you get away?"
"I… didn't. I had to kill it."
A low whistle escapes from behind Nikoli's mask. "That's amazing."
I scowl at him. "It's most certainly not amazing. It almost killed me! It was only by sheer dumb luck that I was able to stab it in between the eyes!"
"Really?" Admiration colors his tone. "Wow."
I narrow my eyes him, unsure of whether to be further angered by his inattentiveness or diverted by his boyish wonder. I decide that the latter is the better option and retort, "Hey, be careful. Don't try to wrap your mind around too much now; you might hurt yourself."
He glowers at me. "If I wasn't so dependent on your protection, I'd have to kill you."
I furrow my eyebrows. I can't tell if he's serious or not… "I might be tired right now, but I could still take you on," I warn him before lying down and closing my eyes again.
He sighs. "I suppose you're right."
"No supposing there. You know I'm right."
He huffs crossly. After a moment, I feel something touch my injured ear. I jump away as if I've been electrocuted.
Nikoli is the only other living thing here in the clearing and is currently gazing at me with undisguised amusement. "Jumpy much?"
I sneer, "Better jumpy than shell-shocked."
He rolls his eyes and reaches towards me. I pull away. He sighs again, annoyed, and reassures me impatiently, "I'm not going to hurt you; just get over here."
I reluctantly approach him. As I take my place next to him again, he gingerly grasps my mask to turn my head to the side. "Hmm… they sure got you, huh?" he comments, inspecting my ear.
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess so."
He hums in agreement. "You need to get this patched up before you sleep. You know that, right?"
I sigh heavily. "Yeah, yeah. I know. I thought I was the one taking care of you, not the other way around."
I can see a twinkle in his eyes and I just know that he's grinning. "Yeah. I guess that means I'm not the kid after all."
I smirk. "You wish. Gotta earn it first, kid."
"I think I've earned it well enough, thank you very—hey, what are you doing?!" he exclaims as I begin unzipping my top coat.
"Patching up my ear." I send him a look as I unzip a second coat and then rifle through the many layers of shirts I have on until I reach the innermost layer: a thin cotton t-shirt. I rip off a strip of it and then zip my coats back up.
"You don't have gauze or anything like that in your backpack?" he asks, confused, as he grabs my bag to search through its contents.
I snatch it back. "No, I don't, or I wouldn't be using my shirt, now would I?"
He throws his hands up in the air. "I don't know how you work! For all I know, you eat glass and drink spirits instead of water." I look at him like he's crazy, which—for all I know—he very well could be. "What?"
I raise an eyebrow at him. "I'm not a demon," I enunciate slowly, just for him. I rummage through my bag until I find the jerky. "See?" I ask, brandishing it as I would a knife. "I eat this… and I drink…" I trail off as I search through the bag some more. "This." I hold up a water bottle triumphantly.
He scoffs, unmoved. "That could be a different kind of spirits as far as I can tell."
I almost have the urge to chuckle as I toss him the bottle. "There, try it. You'll be able to tell if it's liquor, souls, or just plain water right away." He sends a distrustful glance my way. "Hey, if I was trying to kill you, I would have done it already. I wouldn't have rescued you, now would I? I would have let the cannibals do it and saved myself the trouble."
Seeing my point, he cautiously takes a swig of the water. I add thoughtfully, "Unless I wanted to eat you myself." He starts choking on the drink and I can't help but chuckle at him now. He regains his composure a moment later and clears his throat, glowering at me. I merely shrug with a mischievous smirk tugging at my lips.
"Ugh, I don't know which I'd rather deal with: those cannibals or you," he mutters.
"You were probably better off with those cannibals." I take the water from him to pour some of it on my ear before carefully wrapping my ear with the strip of my shirt. I yawn after I'm done and stretch out on the ground.
He does the same. "Well, this spot seems as good as any. Actually kind of comfy."
I glance over at him. "I thought I saw a rock over there."
I hear the snow crackle as he wriggles a little, feeling it out. "Hmm, so there is." I can hear him shift, presumably to move away from the rock.
I shrug. "You can't be too picky in a place like this."
"Nope. Goodnight, don't let the corpses bite."
He sure got over his qualms about the dead bodies fast… "Oh, I won't. I'll send them your way first."
I'm not able to fall asleep for the longest time, despite my fatigue. For a while, I entertain myself by pondering the reason for this. One of my first thoughts is that I have company now and am naturally reluctant to let my guard down long enough sleep. Every time this idea floats to the surface of my mind, I quickly shoot it down. Nikoli really isn't of much concern to me. He obviously isn't a threat
to me and, even though he will have the opportunity to kill me in my sleep, he just doesn't strike me as the type. So what can possibly be keeping me awake even when I'm so tired?
As sleep finally overcomes me, the reason soon makes itself apparent. Faces I've been trying to forget rush forth to the forefront of my mind. A woman with raven hair and kind emerald eyes… A man with an infectious grin and dark brown eyes alight with a mischievous twinkle… A small child with a mass of curls atop his head and that adorable little pout twisting his lips…
At first, the faces bring about bittersweet memories. They dredge up recollections of times long ago in which I could pretend that everything was alright and just enjoy the moment with these people. I recall moments in which the high-pitched laughter of a child would bounce off of the hollow trees and ring out through the frozen air. I remember that there once was a time when I would rest by a fire and be lulled to sleep by a woman's sweet-as-honey voice reading children's stories to me. I remember looking into the innocent face of a young boy and basking in the undeserved adoration exuded from his all-too-familiar eyes.
As I'm pulled deeper and deeper into sleep, however, other—more depressing and heart-wrenching—memories and faces emerge. The scent of charred skin… The hiss of acid eating away fabric… Glittering snow stained ruby red… Gaping wounds splitting eerily pale skin… Glazed eyes staring unseeingly up at the milky clouds… Icy blue irises crazed by a fervid hunger… Pain… pain everywhere… A baby's shrill cries slowly subsiding into nothingness… And despair, despair is always present to taint them all.
These images keep me gagged and paralyzed within the most frigid and shadowy recesses of my mind. With the passing of each memory, the bruising grip of sleep lets up slightly, just enough so that I can struggle towards consciousness and get a brief glimpse of it before being dragged back down into the darkness for the next torturous bout.
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of torment, I'm able to emerge from my troubled slumber, trembling and boneless. I remain stationary on my back, not trusting myself enough to sit up. I stare up at the still-dark sky and idly wonder how long I was asleep. It doesn't matter much; I'll be tired in any case. Nightmare-riddled dreams don't do much in the way of recuperation.
With a shaking hand, I pull back my mask to wipe my brow. Noticing the moisture there, I check the rest of my face, as well. When I'm done, I replace my mask and let my hand fall down again to my side. Thank God, it's only sweat. No crying tonight.
I cautiously attempt to sit up and succeed. Not heartened at all by this achievement, I cradle my head in my hands. I can't believe how stupid I was, not even thinking before about it being the anniversary. Of course, I can't sleep tonight. Last year was very much the same, every horrible memory coming back to haunt me in my dreams. I don't know what my mind is hoping to accomplish by this. I already antagonize myself enough during the day with my hurtful thoughts; couldn't I just lay off myself long enough to get a decent night's sleep?
Hearing a shuffling sound nearby, I jump and glance around myself. My eyes land on Nikoli, rolling over to face me with his eyes closed. He's still asleep, apparently. Thank God. I don't really want to deal with him right now. I need to pull myself together first.
I take off one of my gloves to inattentively finger the makeshift bandage on my ear. I touch the sticky dampness and know that the blood has soaked right through it. My face screws up in displeasure and I remove the rag, sighing as I repeat the ritual from last night. The fire is still alight, though it has been reduced to at least a fifth of what it was before. I discard the old bandage into the flames. I don't want to attract predators with the scent of my blood.
I continue to stare into the fire, wondering what I should do now. I certainly don't want to close my eyes again. I'd rather avoid another one of those sessions, thank you very much.
I settle for taking a stick protruding from one side of the blaze and shoving the glowing tip into the icy ground to put it out. When the sizzling sound ceases, I pull it out and use the burnt end to draw unfamiliar designs onto the hardened surface of the snow. I stare absently into the glistening plane as line after line is drawn.
"So you couldn't sleep either, huh?" a voice pipes up out of nowhere.
I jump again, my arm flailing and, in the confusion, I accidently fling the stick somewhere to my right. I hear a clack combined with a surprised yelp and I realize that I must have hit Nikoli. Well, that's what he gets for startling me like that.
I turn to see Nikoli waving the stick accusingly at me. "You know, there are much more efficient ways of killing someone than beating him with a stick. I would think that a person such as yourself would know better than that."
I shrug noncommittally. "Maybe I wasn't trying to kill you. Maybe I was only trying to teach a certain someone that he should think twice before sneaking up on me like that." Despite the lightness of my words, my tone rings out hollowly.
There's silence for a moment before he replies slowly, "I was right here the whole time. I don't think that qualifies as 'sneaking up on you'."
I feel one corner of my mouth quirk upwards slightly and I let out a humorless chuckle. "So… why couldn't you sleep?" I ask abruptly, more for the sake of appearances than out of actual curiosity.
"Oh, you know. It's kind of hard to sleep when someone nearby keeps tossing and turning and making all kinds of ruckus of that sort. What about you?"
"Sorry," I apologize sheepishly. I didn't realize that I make so much noise when I have nightmares.
We sit in silence, both of us contemplatively listening to the soft crackling of the fire. After a few heartbeats, Nikoli prompts, "So…?"
I glance over at him, distracted. "Hmmm?"
"So why can't you sleep?"
"Ah." I pause, debating on whether or not to tell him. I eventually reply, "You know what they say: 'There ain't no rest for the wicked.'" I shrug tiredly, murmuring, "I suppose it applies, to even me."
"They say that?"
I nod vaguely. "Someone said it, anyway, and now I am. Seems appropriate enough."
"Are you a wicked person, Pandora?"
I look at him with my lips pursed. "Are you?" I shoot back at him.
He chuckles a little. "I guess so. But so is everyone, at least a little, in his or her own way. Nobody's perfect." He pauses before continuing hesitantly, "If you're feeling guilty about anything that's happened today, there's no need. You did the best you could." Somehow, I get the feeling that he's not talking about the cannibals.
I sigh. "Thanks, but it's not only today I'm feeling guilty about," I mumble, half to myself. I turn back again to stare into the glowing embers at the edges of the fire. As I lose myself in thought, I find my fingers lightly skimming the sensitive skin of my neck, running over the scar I find there. I can't help but recall how I received that scar, and I remove my fingers from my jugular to rub at my temple. You don't need to be thinking about that right now. You know what it does to you.
I feel the cold beginning to set into my aching fingers and I remember that my glove is still on the ground, where I left it. As I jerk the glove back on, I sense Nikoli looking over my shoulder before he asks in an oddly strangled tone, "Who is that?"
I glance down at my drawing, wondering what he's talking about. I realize that my charcoal outlines form a face, one that causes my stomach to twist sickeningly. How did I make it so realistic? Even the eyes are almost perfect, so eerily pale and icy, just as I remember them…
"He's just someone I met before… a long time ago," I am finally able to choke out. I'm going for casual but my tone falls flat. I rub my gloved hands over it roughly, effectively erasing the artwork from existence. There, all better now, I reassure myself unconvincingly.
A thought occurs to me. "Do you know him?" I ask.
I peer over at Nikoli in time to see a pained look flashing in his eyes. He turns away without looking at me and says in a strained voice, "I think we both should try to get some sleep. Please don't keep me up again." With that, he lies down on his side and settles into tense stillness.
I slowly mimic his position, pensively keeping my eyes on him. As my lids gradually close of their own accord, one thought plays itself repeatedly inside my head: How does Nikoli know that man?