Chapter Five: Fresh Meat  

Freckles runs her nimble fingers through her tresses, gripping them at the roots as she sighs. She didn't want to see him today. She's been so good about steering clear of him, not going to Atonement, planning her schedule around his to avoid messy situations like the one which unfolded moments ago. Damn it, she had a perfectly good system!

A few booths up, she spots a familiar face. Freckles hasn't been this happy to see Meryl in weeks; she uses him as an excuse to make up the messy bed of her thoughts and pretend there isn't an infestation beneath the covers. She'll deal with her guilt, her pain, and her emptiness later. Right now, she's more than excited as she approaches her larger counterpart—until she notices who stands at his side, laughing as Meryl flashes a smirk. The man beside him is build like a house made of stock muscles, but it isn't his size that intimidates her; around the man's belt dangles decaying human hands. They range from a variety of different colors and sizes, but they're all freshly severed.

"What is he doing?" she mutters to herself. She stops on her toes. Meryl has made it very clear they are to avoid The Hands at all cost, so why is he talking to one of their thugs like they're chums? Shaking hands with him? "Come on, Meryl. You don't know where that hand's been…literally."

Meryl's eyes travel around the Bazaar lazily, and when he spots Freckles, his demeanor shifts from friendly to formal. He says something out of earshot and waves the burly man goodbye. With a sway of his bat onto his left shoulder, he's drawn to her like gravity until he's close enough to say, "Hey there, good lookin'.  You come to this Hell-hole often?"

All of her anger, her frustrations, her guilt takes a back burner to the relief she feels at hearing the sound of his voice. Freckles swings her arms around Meryl and captures him in a vicious hug. Yes, he's an asshole. Yes, he has no tact. Yes, he still makes her uneasy when he looks at her a certain way. But Meryl is comfort. He's familiar. He's home. The only home she's ever known since they found each other.

"Whoa." He grins down at her and pats her on the head. "Don't know what I did to deserve this, but I ain't complainin'."

"I saw Irish," she explains; it's all he needs to hear.

"Ah." Meryl swings his bat down to his side and leans it up against his leg. "You okay?"

"Thank you," she whispers, tears filling up the corners of her eyes as she ignores his question. She’s not entirely sure what she’s thankful for, adding as an afterthought, "for the clothes."

A smirk crawls up Meryl's lips, and he brushes a hand down her spine. "Thank you fer the jerky."

She cringes, eyes crawling up his strong, firm chest until they meet his amused stare. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have-"

"-Ah, don't you fret nothin'. I was bein' a shithead. You set me straight. S'why we're good for each other." The hand along her back fans out, spreading his fingers in a splay of gentle caresses while rubbing them up and down the tight muscles. "Hell, I dunno know what I'd do without ‘chu."

"Join up with The Hands?" she teases, figuring this is as good a time as any to ease it into the conversation. "I saw you with one of them."

"Come on, Frecks. You know me better than that." Meryl's face turns sober, but he still manages to shoot up a thick eyebrow and add, "Like I'd wanna be friends with some circle jerkin' mother fuckers like them, anyhow. Yer all the family I need." He takes a chance, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, his rough fingerpads grazing idly. She allows it.

For now.

"Then why were you with him?"

"You know The Hands. Always checkin' in to suck up."

Freckles leans her cheek on Meryl's chest and closes her eyes, inhaling the scent of medicinal soap mixed with his musky skin. "Promise."

"Frecks. You do this every time."

"Promise."

He chuckles, and his sternum vibrates against her jaw. "I promise I ain't never joinin' up with some pansy-ass gang like The Hands. Got it?"

He’d better not. The Hands have been trying to recruit him since his Kill Rank began to rival their own. This system: rating people on their danger level based on the amount of kills they've made…it's barbaric. And dangerous. It's because The Dandies reward individuals for Raging that groups like The Hands exist. It's a dangerous game, severing dismembered hands off Namaste's dead to reap the rewards and download them into their own system. And it's sick. What's worse is the way they keep the appendages as trophies for decoration. It's a reminder: don't fuck with us, or you're next on the list. They’re the reason most of The Spa's inhabitants live in poor conditions; having a fair amount of currency makes someone prime beef just right for the slaughter. If someone has credits, they don't flaunt it.

"I don't think we have nothin' to worry about anyways, Frecks. Look. Fresh meat just arrived."

Freckles untucks her head out of Meryl's chest and follows his gaze over towards the elevators in blue-ribbon view from where they stand. Like new inmates to a prison, a fresh shipment of newly arrived 'recruits' step through the double doors of the elevator, followed by four Dandies. She knows they're new by the bright yellow jumpsuits they wear. Every individual in The Spa has worn those suits at their arrival; it's The Spa's way of saying 'new humans,' 'fresh for the kill,' 'get ready to pick the strong from the weak'. They will wear their uniforms until the end of their first trip down to Namaste. If they survive their first encounter, they'll be issued the common blue jeans and grey shirt combo most of The Spa wears.

A sinking feeling weighs down her stomach as she thinks back to her arrival here. She remembers the terror she felt stepping through those elevators the first time, so she knows the fear in their hearts. But, she reminds herself, they've been on the outside far longer than she has. These humans… they're strong. Must be, if they've avoided the Dandies' grip for this long. She shouldn't judge them until they are rated on the Kill Rank. If they make it that far…

"What'dya reckon? Five of 'em make it?" asks Meryl, putting an arm over her shoulder as he swings his bat into the crook of his neck.

Freckles looks out at the twenty-some-odd new inhabitants and ponders his educated guess. "Past their visit to Namaste?"

"Oh, yer colder than me, sweet stuff. I give 'em till the end of the month, at least." His  eyes trail over the packed group. Most of them look malnourished - though there is a plumper man in the back with a beard as fluffy as Father Christmas. His size must be an advantage for him. There's a woman with gangly arms and burns over the right side of her face. No, she'll never make it. Maybe out there, on her own, but with so many Ragers tucked away in one establishment, she'll be the first to go. The tallest newcomer of the group catches Freckles’s eye next. His face is calm; pensive. He doesn't appear afraid like the rest of them. His brown eyes search not the Bazaar, but back toward the elevators, scanning the closed doors with interest.

A Dandy with long, silver hair and missing eyes pokes the guy in the back with a fire iron. The lanky male grumbles,  turning his attention back around in time to spot an eagerly excited man as he calls out, "Ah, right on schedule! Right on schedule! Hello, newest patrons of The Spa!" He waves his hands around excitedly as he approaches the group. "First, the formalities, yes? I'm Greg Diggle, but most everyone here calls me Diggs. It is such a great opportunity to meet every single one of you, even if it may only be for a short time." He glances behind the huddled crowd and smiles cordially to the silver-haired Dandy. "I've got it from here. Thank you, Pokie."

"Why does he do that?" Freckles mutters under her breath to Meryl.

"Huh?"

"Name the Dandies."

"Fer the same reason I gave ol' Justine her name," replies Meryl, looking fondly to his bat. "Comfort, ain't it?"

Comfort. Yes. But she can't help but think Diggs gets a sick sense of pleasure out of it, too. It's his rebellion against the status quo.

"No disrespect, but why the Hell should we care who you are?" sneers the burned woman, crossing her arms over her chest.

Diggs smirks, enunciating his pointed features. "I'm the tour guide, of course. We’re sure to have a raging good time getting to know one another…" He pauses, waiting for a reaction. There is none. "Oh, come on! These are the jokes, people! Really, now…" He grumbles, checking the sports watch on his wrist. Its face is cracked, but he doesn't seem to mind. It gets the job done, and that's what counts. "Is this everyone?"

A small woman with ginger hair shakes her head. "Two started raging before we got to the elevator shaft…They…" She glances back at the Dandies behind them. "They didn't make it." It's obvious the woman is trying hard not to cry. "I…My brother..."

Diggs reaches out and places a firm hand on her shoulder. For a moment, Freckles thinks he's going to surprise them all and offer comfort, but he says, instead, "Never you mind him, now. He's better off than all of us—I mean, he'll never have to try the soup! Disgusting..." Freckles smacks her palm over her forehead as Diggs tries a sincere smile. "Right. On we go." He releases her shoulder and waves a hand. "Follow me, please! Lots to cover, and if you Rage during my presentation, you'll have to do this all over again. Assuming you survive Namaste…"

"I'm starvin' - how's about we grab a bite?" asks Meryl, leaning over so that his breath tickles Freckles's ear.  It's not a pleasant feeling, but it isn't terrible, either. She nods her head, and he guides her down another aisle of the Bazaar, this one lined with food stations. There's a cafeteria one floor up, served at a flat rate of five credits, though the food there is frozen and bland most days. Here in the cooking nook, patrons purchase ingredients from the cafeteria and create their own culinary concoctions. If she squints her eyes just right, she can imagine it looks like food, too. The smells…oh, the smells are worth living for. Cooked vegetables from the greenhouse on the roof make Freckles’s mouth salivate. Fruit infused waters are offered at ten credits a piece. This is her favorite part of the Bazaar. She hopes that one day she might find a job here so she can sample the delicacies. Her name is on the list of potential applicants to fill a time slot, but she's yet to get an offer of employment. Most everyone is afraid of Meryl, and the idea of splitting up the killer duo makes vendors think twice about hiring either.

Her eyes graze over the pastry station, but she tries not to let it show how much she craves one. They're seventy-five credits—that's more than three knives combined, and she just can't justify paying such a lavish price, even if they're the most mouthwatering things she's ever laid eyes on. When Meryl was first bumped up in the ranks, he bought her one for her birthday. That was three years ago. She can still imagine the tangy sweetness on her tongue, and the way it crumbled when she took her first bite.

One day, before she dies, she'd like to try one again—just to see if it's how she remembers it. Maybe this next birthday she'll splurge, though it isn't safe with spies from The Hands continuously on watch. Anyone would be willing to rat one another out if it meant the heat stays off the back of their necks.

The corner of Freckles’s lip twitches, and her heart beats faster as they purchase bottles of water infused with cucumber. Meryl waves his hand, offers his credits, and buys four bottles in all, tucking two into his baggy pant pockets. She waits until they're out of earshot from the vendor before she gives him an incredulous glare and whispers, "I could have split that with you."

"Nah, my treat. Shithead, remember?"

She balls her fist and whacks in him in the arm. He smiles as if it tickles. "Seriously, Meryl. You'll draw attention to us."

He glances down at her hand, noticing the nervous twitch. "Alright there, Frecks?" His eyes flicker up to the elevator station momentarily and then back to her.

Freckles stares down at her hand, where her fingers take turns with small spasms. No. It's too soon. Isn't it? "Just hungry," she says, pulling her hand back down to her side. "I don't think I've eaten since yesterday."

"Right…" He nods skeptically but doesn't question it. "Drink. Yer gonna need the water."

She grabs up a bottle, twists off the cap, and chugs half of it down in one go. The bits of diced up cucumber spill into her mouth, and she chews them with reverence. When she comes up for air, she tilts the bottle back upright and wipes her mouth with the back of her arm. It's heaven sealed in plastic: tasty, refreshing heaven. But even heaven can't hold back the tingles of heat that skitter down her spine in pulsonic waves. Heaven can't prevent the small spasm in her left eye—the sudden brightness of the room. Every fractal of light glistens in crystal perfect clarity, like a chandelier reflecting sun-beams.

The water slips from her hand and falls to the ground.

"Goddamit!"

It takes her a moment to realize she's the one who's shouted. Vendors and paying customers freeze in their tracks, turning their attentions on Freckles. Shit. They don't think she's Raging, do they? Is she?

"Ain't nothin' to see here, folks!" shouts Meryl, brandishing his bat outwards and spinning in a slow circle. "Yeh just mosey on along, now, nice and simple."

Freckles reaches out and grasps his arm, legs trembling. "Elevator. Elevator, now."

When a Rage comes on, an individual is supposed to escort themselves to the elevator and send themselves down into the bowels of Namaste. It's a system that works and keeps everyone safe. But sometimes, individuals aren't so lucky, and the crowd steps in. If someone even so much suspects another is Raging, they have full liberties to beat the person to death to 'keep the peace.' But Freckles isn't worried about someone attacking her—not with Meryl strapped to her side like a loaded gun begging to be set off. She's fearful of what she'll do to someone, should she Rage in public. While Freckles is small, she is stealth incarnate and can out maneuver Meryl quickly. He won't be able to catch her before the beast inside of her lashes out.

Meryl slips his fingers between hers and grasps tightly, bat still pointed out at the crowd, warning them to stay their distance. The aisle parts like the Red Sea; Meryl is Moses, and Justine is his staff. Though where he takes Freckles is no promised land—only death, destruction, and detriment. There's a tightening in her chest as she shakes her head, trying to jerk out of his grasp. "No! Let me go! I don't want to! I don't!" Over and over again, she screams, curses, and kicks at him, but he shows not an ounce of anything but determination as he weaves her through the aisles in search of the pathway which will lead them to the elevators. "Meryl!" Freckles can feel her teeth gnashed together as she snarls his name. "Let me go, damn it! You asshole!" She beats her free fist into his arm mercilessly. "I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you! Let me go!"

He chuckles, rolling his eyes while peering back at her, smirking. "Ah, gotta love the quiet ones. Always are feisty, in the end." Freckles throws out her boot and lands the toe in his ankle, making him wince. "Damn it, Frecks! Cut it out! I'm tryin' to help you!"

But Freckles can't simply cut it out. She's mad. So mad. Fuck the world. Fuck Meryl. Fuck everyone. Can't they feel it too? This suffocating tension in their chests? It can't just be her. They must feel it. It's painful, like a boulder being thrust into her sternum. All of the tension builds up in her arms and legs. She has to release it. She has to.

Like a toddler throwing a hissy fit, she screams as she thrashes about. Her nails are bitten down to the quick, but it doesn't stop her from attempting to draw Meryl's blood as she savagely digs them into his biceps—weapon. She needs a weapon. Something to bash that obnoxiously thick skull of his wide open—Wait, no. No, that's wrong!—God, does he have any idea how maddening it is being dragged around?

Her eyes land on his bat, and she makes a split second decision—she jerks his arm as far back as it will go before thrusting her foot into his ribcage. He snarls, and his grip on the bat loosens just enough. Freckles steals the moment—and the bat. Her fingers tangle around the grip, and she rushes forward, away from Meryl, for half a moment before a firm hand grabs her around the middle and jerks her back. She hits the solid foundation of his chest. Fuck. No, no, no! She's so close… so…

"Quit fightin' it," he whispers into her ear as he yanks the bat from her hand. "You know it just makes it worse. Let it go, darlin'. Just let it go. I'm here. I gotchu. Let it go."

The lids of her eyes close, and the wave overcomes her like a baptismal hurricane. When they snap back open, she's lost all control. Her arms thrash, her legs kick, but she no longer commands them. Freckles is a prisoner inside of her own mind, forced to watch through her eyes like a movie screen. She can see the stricken faces of the crowd—can even register Irish's stare somewhere off in the distance, but she's so far gone he might as well be a continent away.

There's an instinct in her to kill everyone in here—everyone, that is, except for Meryl. Loyalty lies hidden under all of the anger and torment. Loyalty that runs thicker than the Wormwood pumping through her system. But the newcomers who turn the corner—oh, they're just ripe for the picking.

She can already follow her carnal mind's plotting when her hands reach back and dig their fingers into Meryl's face. For the second time, he shouts and releases her, but she won't let him catch her this time. She dives forward and tackles a woman to the ground—one of the newbies in her bright yellow uniform.

Die. She has to die. Has to—NO! She inwardly shouts. STOP IT!—But no amount of inner screaming can sate the bloodlust. Her fingers dig into the woman's scalp as she screams.

Smack.

"Freckles!"

Smack!

"Get off her!"

Crack!

She can see the crimson. Smell the copper. Her arms ache, but she continues to slam the stranger's face over and over again into the floor in precise, mechanical movements. She sees the Dandies moving through the crowd. Knows her Rage is out of control. Still, she continues her heartless assault. She feels Meryl's hands around her waist as she's pried up and lifted off the woman only to be thrown over his shoulder. His bat is still extended at the crowd—even at the Dandies. "I got her!" he shouts, threat in his strained voice. "Nobody even think about touchin' her! I got her!" Though Freckles beats against his back, he never lets her go. Not as he swings his bat, one armed, into a Dandy's skull, knocking it over. Not as he whacks a limb off of another while it swipes at the both of them with a switchblade. He barrels through like the tank he is and heads towards the elevator.

She watches in slow motion through the parted crowd as Diggs crouches down over Freckle's latest victim, checking for a pulse. The blood pools around her face as she lays motionless, face down.

Outwardly, Freckles is screaming. Cursing. Clawing at Meryl's back within an inch of his sanity.

Inside, she cries. Abhors herself. Wishes she could take it all back. She didn't use words, or sticks, or stones, and yet... not only has she broken that poor woman, but she's shattered her own spirit as well. Wormwood wins again. Another victim. Another nightmare to keep her up at night. She's relieved when Meryl tosses her into the elevator shaft and guards the door, ruthlessly brandishing his bat to keep her safe as the elevator doors begin to shut.

At the last moment, he turns his head back towards her and smirks, tossing his prized baseball bat in through the last bit of open door, directly at Freckle's feet. "Give 'em Hell, darlin'. And don't go losin' Justine on me. I expect her back."

Meryl! She wants to reach out, to hold him and tell him she's sorry for putting him in a position like this. She's sorry she didn't go straight to the elevator. She's so, so sorry. But, instead, she runs at the elevator doors just as they close, smacking her hands onto the metal, beating her fists against its frame. It's too late to say sorry, but she couldn't if she wanted to.

Ding. The mechanical gears begin to turn, and the elevator begins its descent down to Namaste.