Quick authors note:
Hi! Just so you know this is my NaNoWriMo attempt, and let me tell you that the beginning of this story is rough. I haven't edited it much beyond spelling and grammar (and I hope I caught everything!), so it's going to be messy. Sorry. But I'm really just looking for feedback on how to improve it, so don't be shy to leave some constructive criticism!
(also if you feel that the rating needs to be changed, message me and I will do so).
"Hey, Nathan, you find anything new out there?" Luke was lounging on his militaristically made bed, flipping through the pages of a book that Nathan knew he already had committed to memory.
"Eh, nope, not really." He drew out the last word before grinning mischievously, dumping his bag out onto his own bed on the opposite side of the room. Out spilled a couple of magazines and one book, the covers dirty and a bit torn in places.
"Holy crap, dude! Where did you get this stuff? I thought we already raided the library for books!"
"Tom was passing through again – let us have some because no one showed any interest in them when he went through the bigger city."
Luke practically stumbled over himself to grab the book. He dusted it off the best he could before collapsing back onto his bed. The cover was a dull yellow, with a white and grey border.
"It's too bad the title got ripped off," said Luke. "It would have been nice to have known what we were reading."
"It just means that we have to come up with our own title." Said Nathan, hiding a yawn behind his arm.
"I was thinking since, y'know, it's almost your birthday, that you might like to keep 'em for yourself."
"But… my birthday isn't until next week, Nathan!" Still, Luke couldn't help the wide smile that split across his face, showing his teeth. He could tell by the way the other boy's shoulders were shaking that he was holding back delighted laughter – something he always did when he was extremely happy.
"Think of it as an early gift." He said, sitting down on his bed and collecting the magazines in a pile. There wasn't much – it was only three magazines and a tattered book – but they hadn't been able to get their hands on anything new for the past month or so, with Tom always being out of any reading material.
Nathan himself was a slow reader, being taught how to read at a later age than Luke, who'd always tear right through books in a day or two. He said his parents had taught him when he was a toddler, and that he had always devoured any novel placed before him. If asked, Luke would say he loved to read because the worlds written down on paper were better than the one he lived in. He liked to disappear into imaginary places where there was no real threat to him, where there were always dashing heroes and beautiful women and where the villains were always beaten.
'If I was a better reader', thought Nathan, 'then I would be the same way too.'
Another round of yawns hit him, bursts going on for so long that it actually had Luke looking over at him with a bit of concern. He tried to smile to chase away his worry, but another yawn broke through it.
"Geeze, Nathan, how long have you been up?" he asked, setting the book down beside him. If Luke ever put a book down voluntarily, then you knew there was a problem.
"I'm fine, Luke. It's-" another yawn "-it's nothing, don't worry."
"Just answer me, Nathan. Please?" And out came the puppy eyes, Luke's number one secret weapon that never failed to break down the defenses of the toughest man. Including Marcus, but Nathan knew that he had a soft spot that was closer to the surface than he'd let anyone believe.
He broke quicker than he'd ever had before, but he blamed it on the almost bone-deep exhaustion coursing through his veins.
"About a day, give or take a couple of hours."
"Nathan! You can't do that! You'll destroy yourself from the inside out!" Luke stood up, walked the few paces it took to reach Nathan's bed, and ripped the magazines from his hands.
"You are going to sleep right now! It's almost one in the morning, I'm surprised you're not collapsing let alone awake!"
"I can't," said Nathan, "I have another shift at four-thirty. That's not enough time to really help, even if I do use it to sleep."
"Why are you back on shift?"
Nathan looked down at his feet, expression sheepish. "I wasn't sure when Tom was gonna come, so I switched with some of the guys so that I would be out when he came."
Luke deflated, all the angry energy seemingly seeping right out of his skin. He sat down beside Nathan and sighed, running a hand through his slightly-too-long hair.
"You know that you didn't have to do that," he said, nudging Nathan with his shoulder. Nathan sighed and looked over at Luke, a weary smile upon his lips.
"I know. But I wanted to do something special for your birthday this year. You're turning twenty five - that's a quarter of a century!"
Luke laughed and playfully shoved his roommate. Nathan retaliated with a well-placed elbow to the side, and suddenly they were in a wrestling match, rolling over each other on the floor and bumping into their beds. In the end there was no winner, the two of them laughing so much that they lost their breath in a matter of minutes. They collapsed on the floor side-by-side, chests heaving as they tried to draw breaths into their lungs.
Nathan looked over and saw his friend grinning like a loon, and when Luke looked over he started to smile as well.
"I can take over for you tomorrow, you know." Luke said when he finally had gotten his breath back.
He looked over in surprised silence, eyes wide.
"You don't have to do that."
"Think of it as my thank you for going through all this trouble for my birthday."
A smile spread over Nathan's face, so slowly that he didn't realize that it was happening until he felt the strain in his lips.
"Has any told you that you're amazing, Luke?"
"Only every single day of my life, Nathan. Now up, I've got shift in a few hours. Unfortunately you'll have to take my own at six-thirty, but at least it means a little bit more sleep for you."
"I owe you one for this."
"No you don't. I'm repaying you for your kindness. Seriously, though, shut up and get to sleep."
"Whatever you say, captain!" Nathan almost didn't bother with changing into his sleeping wear, but he decided that it wasn't that much effort and he would rather not dirty his clothes anymore than possible. Shucking off his shirt, he tossed it so that it would land on his roommate's head, before slipping on a tank top. He did the same with his pants, though Luke caught them instead and threw it and his shirt back at him. Nathan barely had time to duck before the ball of clothing hit the wall where his head used to be.
"'Night, Luke," he said, shutting off the main lights. The only source of light in the room now was that of the table-lamp, sitting on the other side of the room.
"Goodnight, Nathan. See you later in the morning." Luke tucked himself into bed before flipping the switch to turn off the lamp, leaving the room in almost total darkness.
"See you in the morning."
They both fell asleep with smiles on their faces.
There was an all-consuming fire, tearing away at the walls and floor around him. Flames licked at his clothes and heat kissed his skin, and when fire met flesh it blackened with terrible screech of pain. Heat and light and pain were what waited in each direction, no safe route to escape what was rapidly becoming his grave. Wooden beams burnt through their core fell from the ceiling, nearly falling on top of him, creating another level of added danger to the already hopeless situation.
He stumbled against a wall clear of debris, shirtsleeve pulled tight across his mouth to stop himself from inhaling anymore smoke.
Shakily he jerked his head towards the source of the noise. In the corner of his eyes darkness began to creep in, curling around the edge of his vision like snakes.
Pushing off the wall he stumbled forward, moving further into the flames. A large crack rang out from above him as he reached the center of the room. In his minds eye he could almost see the fiery beam falling from above, set to strike him down and keep him there. His eyes closed and he brace for the impact of his doom –
only to wake up on the floor of his room, looking up into the face of one seriously pissed-off Marcus Atley. At the corner of the room the table lamp flickered, the light dim and barely illuminating the space, but it still managed to cast sinister shadows across the mans already dark face.
Nathan blinked up at him, the haze from sleep not quite dissipated.
"Marcus…?" he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and rising onto his elbow. He hid a yawn behind his hand before looking up into his friends face again. Marcus did not look impressed.
"What the hell man? You were supposed to be up like fifteen minutes ago! It's our turn for morning shift, and I swear if we catch shit for being late I'm putting all the blame on your ass!"
"Sorry dude, I just had a rough night's sleep. Guess I must have slept through the bell." He reached out to grab the older mans hand, groaning as him arm muscles tightened when he was pulled up. Stretching, he sighed happily as all the knots in his back came undone with a small crack.
"That's disgusting dude. You know I hate that sound." Marcus shivered uneasily, even though the room was stuffy and warm. "It sounds too much like-"
"Like bones snapping when a Beast gets ahold of one of us. I know, Marky, you've told me a dozen times."
"And you should know then, boy, that I have an extreme dislike for those who call me Marky."
"Boy? Dude, you're like three years older than me!"
"Yeah, and that's three years more of experience dealing with this shit." Marcus nudged the stack of clothes piled on the floor with his feet. "Now put these on and meet me in the common room. I swear if you're not down there in five minutes you're not gonna like the shitstorm that comes down upon you."
"I hear you, I hear you. Geeze, give me a break already." Nathan bent and grabbed the pile before throwing it onto his bed.
Marcus turned to leave, but he paused before he left the room. He glanced back at Nathan, and if one looked close enough they could see concern shining behind his dark eyes.
"You sure you're okay, man?" he kept his voice low, and if Nathan didn't already know the question was coming he would have missed it.
He grinned at Marcus with what he hoped was a reassuring expression.
"It was just another nightmare, man. Nothing to worry about."
Marcus nodded before looking down the hallway.
"If you ever want to talk about it…"
"I'll go to you, yeah Marc, I know."
He nodded before taking off down the hall. Just before turning the corner he yelled:
"You have three minutes, Natalie!"
"Shut up!" Nathan laughed, shutting the door tightly against the frame. He grinned and leant against the cheap wood, before letting the smile slide off his face. In the silence of the room he sighed and sagged, closing his eyes as he took deep breaths. He let the stillness of the room press down upon him before turning to where the fresh clothing lay. Smiling, he promised to thank Luke for this thoughtfulness when he saw him again.
Shucking off his tank top and sweat pants he tugged on the dull red shirt and knee-length khaki shorts. Quickly grabbing his messenger bag, he ran to the common room as if the devil himself was nipping at his heels.
Nathan saw Marcus with his arms crossed and foot tapping on the floor. He skidded to a stop in front of him just as he saw the beginnings of a smirk appear on his friends face.
"Damn, Nate, you have perfect timing – if only you could do this all the time." The worst shit-eating grin spread across his face.
"Lucky for us, Jamie and Luke haven't come back from their watch yet. And until they do, we can just sit here and relax for once."
"That is the best news I've heard in weeks." Nathan, finally catching his breath, gave his own grin in return. He slid down the wall to sit on the carpeted floor, legs uncurling to splay across the ground.
"Uh, you don't get the luxury of laziness, Natalie. Go get me a water bottle from the kitchen and then you can sit to all your hearts content."
He sent a glare up from where he was sprawled on the carpet. But nonetheless, he got up from where he had just begun to settle. His knees cracked as he stood, and he took a little bit of pleasure as Marcus cringed, before he moved out of the common room.
The kitchen, a couple of hallways down from where he was, was cold and stocked with so many canned goods that at times you couldn't see the countertops. But in recent weeks food had been slow to come in – with the only safe shipping hours during high noon – and not many drivers were still working, especially for free. For that matter, most canneries have shut down all across the country. But they had word of a truck that had made it with most of the supplies intact pulling through town in the next couple days or so, and when it arrived they should be set for the next month or so.
Thankfully, though, the still-working fridge was always stocked with bottles of water and, in some lucky cases, beer. Grabbing two bottles, one for Marcus and one for himself, he wound his way back through the halls.
Tossing a bottle over to his friend, Nathan twisted open the top of his own before taking a drink.
"Thanks, Nate! You must've grabbed the ones at the back, didn't you?" Marcus sighed after he gulped down nearly half of his water.
"Ah, nice and cold. Good job, kid!"
He rolled his eyes and took another sip from his bottle, dropping down onto the only couch in the room, a dirty, grey, threadbare piece of scrap salvaged from the junkyard. The original couch and accompanying armchair that had been there previously had been disassembled for parts, the pillows and cushions going towards building makeshift beds while the springs had been taken for scrap metal and spare parts.
The two settled into easy conversation, which as the minutes passed turned into their usual banter. But as the minutes ticked by and Jamie and Luke, the last two on shift, did not return, they began to grow uneasy. No one before had stayed so long past their set switch over time – in fact, sometimes groups showed up early just to get some food and shuteye.
"They're probably getting some alone time together, if you know what I mean." Said Marcus when Nathan asked.
"Do you know how long there's been a betting pool for the two of 'em? If they held out until September next week, I could've won." He chuckled, tossing his empty water bottle into the air and catching it as it fell.
Nathan looked down at the almost finished bottle in his hands and took a deep, shaky breath. No matter what Marcus said he could feel something was wrong, a sense deep in his stomach. He had tried to play it off as anxiety but he knew that this feeling was different. In a not-so-good way. However, he knew Marcus likely had the same idea that he did, and so Nathan decided to give him this peace.
"How come I didn't know about this dude? I would have totally put something down!"
The two glanced at each other and locked eyes, before Marcus grinned mischievously.
"You don't even own two things to rub together, Nate! There's no way you could have bet anything!"
Nathan mock-glared at his friend.
"I'll have you know, Marc, that I managed to find some magazines and books on my last scout of the city."
This peaked Marcus' interest, but just as he was about to inquire as to where he had found them, the door opened. Immediately the two stood up to face it, but it wasn't Jamie and Luke returning.
Instead they saw the serious face of Elijah Yu, and if one thing was a given, thought Nathan as he glanced over to Marc, was that a serious captain never meant good news.
"Atley, Pierce." Said Elijah from the entranceway.
Shit, last names. That meant really bad news. And seeing as how they had been waiting for Jamie and Luke who had never come in, it absolutely had to do with those two.
"Can you please join me in the front office?" Elijah motioned for them to follow before he turned and walked away. Marcus moved immediately, as tense as a coiled spring. Nathan hung back, managing his dread before following.
If Nathan knew exactly what the events of this day would bring, he would likely have never stepped through the doorway.