Chapter Fourteen: Unraveled Bonds
The first thing she notices when it's over is how warm her hands feel slickened in someone else's blood. Taking a life is never easy, but it's even worse when there's no one around to share the burden. Meryl isn't here to comfort her as she picks herself up off the floor, releasing a shaky sigh. It isn't just her hands—her forearms, her chest, her lap are all soaked in crimson. Her eyes trail down to the human husk at her feet. Intestines litter the floor like tinsel unwound from a Christmas tree. How long has she spent pulling them out of her victim? She can still hear his screams echoing in the back of her mind like elevator music. But they're only memories; he'll never scream again.
"Jesus Christ," Freckles whispers, reaching down to retrieve her dagger. She wipes the sides along her pant legs, knowing it won't take away the horrors it's done—no. The dagger is just a tool. She was the one to do all of this. Carefully, she crouches down and searches the man's dull eyes. For the life of her, she can't recall his name, though she knows she's seen him in the Bazaar countless times. He even gave Freckles an orange once out of the kindness of his heart. And this is how she repaid him? This world is so fucked up…
She knows she should feel horrified, but her transgressions leave her feeling numb. Six long years and she finally understands how Meryl shuts it off. Meryl. What would he say he if he saw her like this? Would he even be phased? These last two weeks have been difficult without him, but it's even worse when she comes down from a Rage and knows he isn't there to support her. Sometimes she thinks it would be easier if he was, but then she remembers the rip in her heart, much like the fissure in Justine. Sometimes there isn't a goddamn thing someone can do about the damage done. Sometimes it seems unrepairable.
The thought sickens her, and before she knows it, she's vomiting onto her boots.
Clack, clack, clack. Footsteps advance in her direction, and Freckles rubs her hand down her shirt, wiping the blood away to better grip on her weapon. She's ready for battle when a familiar frame steps into view.
"Seriously, you have to quit stalking me."
"Peter," Freckles exaggerates a sigh and points her blade at him accusingly. "What if I had hurled this blade at you?"
He smirks. "Then you would have been stupid because it's the only weapon you have." As he comes closer, he begins to take in the full picture of Freckles, marinated in blood, with her victim behind her. He slows his pace, growing somber at the sight. "I see you've...been busy. - Sorry. Bad joke."
Her hand shakes as she lowers her blade, tucking her lower lip between her teeth to stop it from quivering. She wonders if the copper taste on her tongue is her own blood, but she'd rather not dwell on it.
"Still," he tries again, "it's good to see you're...you."
"Yeah, same to you."
"Want to get out of here?" Peter offers out his hand, a faint smile tracing his lips. "I hear Netty is serving baked beans in the cafeteria."
"Netty?" It dawns on her. "Diggs. He named the cafeteria Dandy, didn't he?" She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, declining the offer. "I don't think I could hold anything down, anyway." Glancing at the dead body, her stomach flips. Freckles rushes over to the corner to puke again, this time stomach acid. As she struggles to breathe, she feels her hair being smoothed out of her face. Peter stands next to her, holding her black tresses back until there's nothing left in her stomach.
"Easy now," he soothes.
Wiping her mouth with her hand, she mumbles, "I'm fine."
"I know you are." Peter guides her upright and reaches down to the hem of his gray shirt, using the bottom to dab Freckles' chin. As his fingers dust her skin, her pulse elevates. The longer he cares for her, the more she feels put on display; his eyes scan over the curves of her lips and the shape of her chin. Embarrassment should be her first instinct, because she's just finished hurling her breakfast all over the floor, but all she can muster is a faint thought about the stubble on his chin and the gentleness of his presence. A dimple creases his left cheek as he smiles gently. "Come on. There's something I want to show you."
"If it's a dead body, I think I've met my quota," she replies offhand.
"Look who decided to try out her sense of humor," Peter chides. "You're lucky - it isn't that at all. It's something I've been trying out." Without a second thought, he slides his hand into hers and begins to guide her down the hall. Freckles’s entire body lights up like a flame at his touch, but she chooses not to comment on it. If she does, he might stop touching her, and...well, she likes it. A lot.
"Where are we going?"
"Just a little further." Peter checks the adjacent hallways before moving her on a path with two dead bodies, freshly killed. Both are missing their left hands. "These weren't here a few minutes ago," he whispers, coming to a halt. His hand grips hers tighter, weaving his fingers between hers.
"Let's keep going," she offers. Peters nods, reluctant. They step over the bodies and listen for signs of life. When they're sure it's safe, they continue on, turning left at the end of the hall. The lights strobe above their heads as if to warn them of unseeable danger. At the end of the hall, where the path comes to a fork, something is sketched in bright yellow —an arrow, pointing to their left.
"I've been putting these up all over Namaste." He rummages through his pockets and reveals something small and equally as yellow—chalk. "To help people find a safe way out."
"That's amazing," Freckles gasps, plucking the stick from his hand and giving it a once over. "Where'd you find this?"
"A man named 'Big Blue'? I don't know, exactly. Diggs said he could get just about anything, so I bartered off some things in exchange for a few sticks. Keep it." He grins. "You know Namaste better than I do, anyway. Together, we could save a few more lives."
Her arms wrap around his torso quicker than he can blink. Freckles clings tight to him and fights off the overwhelming urge to cry. "I feel like an idiot. Why didn't I ever think of this?"
"Because you didn't have any chalk?" Peter offers up, encompassing her with an embrace of his own. "It's not that impressive."
"Yes, it is."
"Okay, maybe a little. -We should keep going."
"Wouldn't want to keep ‘Netty’ waiting."
As the pair pull apart, Freckles notices a small red tint to Peter's cheeks. Is he blushing? "It's hot in here…" he mutters, fanning out his shirt. She can't hide the subtle smirk that graces her lips as she eases past him and takes point, following the direction of the arrow.
Namaste is unusually quiet today; it makes the trip toward the elevators more of a stroll than a fear-induced green mile. Each corner gets a mark, right or left in accordance to their route.
"No Irish today?" she asks on impulse.
"Didn't sync up," Peter replies, swinging his arms in lazy circles. "I suppose I...owe you an apology."
Freckles stops. "For what?"
"When you said bonding was real, I didn't believe you."
"And now you do?"
He shrugs. "There's been multiple times where I've found myself coming down from a Rage, standing at Irish's side. We don't try to kill each other."
"In other words, you've bonded." Freckles raises a curious eyebrow. "You trust him."
"Yeah. He reminds me a lot of my sister."
"Sister? You said you had a brother—" she cuts herself off when the distinct sound of footsteps catch her ears. Her hand goes to her dagger. "Did you hear that?"
"Hard to miss…" he whispers back, moving to stand in front of her. Freckles grabs him by the hand and yanks him back to her.
"I'm the one with the weapon, remember? You're not going to fight someone off with your monkish proverbs and good looks."
"You think I'm good looking?" Peter smirks.
Before Freckles can tell him to lay off the ego, someone turns the corner and steps under the light. A familiar silhouette flickers.
"I see you been busy," Meryl says, tapping Justine along the wall over a freshly marked yellow arrow. Freckles lowers her blade, but Peter tightens his hold on her hand clasped in his as if to silently beg her otherwise. Meryl's eyes trail down to their joined fingers. "Really busy, I'm guessin'."
Freckles immediately pulls their hands apart. "What are you doing down here?"
"Dumb question, ain't it? What's anyone doin' down here?"
"But you're heading the wrong way to get out," Peter challenges, nudging to the marked wall.
Meryl acts like Peter doesn't exist, only staring at Freckles. "How you been?"
"Fine." She crosses her arms. "You?"
"Good enough," he replies. "New place treatin' you nice?"
She's never felt so out of sync trying to hold a conversation with him. It's like grasping for bubbles in the water—every time she thinks she has one, it bursts, just like her perfect image of him. He feels like a stranger now. How can two weeks feel like two years?
Meryl swings Justine out between them, pointing out the fissure in her infrastructure. His eyes light up, if only a little bit, at the subject of conversation. "Big Blue says he might be able to get some wood putty. If he can, ol' Justine's gonna make a full recovery-"
"-Hey," Peter whispers, placing a hand on Freckles's arm. Meryl's eyes follow, and if looks could kill, Peter would be six feet under without even a casket to keep him company. But the younger man remains unaware as he continues, "Look at his arm." Slowly, Freckles trails her eyes down Meryl's bulky frame to the arm that grips Justine. Small twitches ripple through his forearm, flexing his sculpted muscles.
"Ain't no one talkin' to you, dickhead!" Meryl snaps, pointing Justine eye level at Peter's skull. "Where the Hell do you get off buttin' into people's conversations like yer somethin' worth mentionin'?"
Peter backs up a few spaces, dumbfounded. "Look, you're showing obvious signs of Raging. I'm only trying to-"
"-Shut up!" Meryl's face flares red in resentment, and he takes a daunting step forward. "I know exactly what yer tryin' to do. You think yer better than me, that it? You come in here with yer fancy words and yer holier-than-thou attitude, tryin' to weasel in on a good thing-"
"-Cut it out!" Freckles shouts, pushing Justine out of Peter's face and taking a step between the men. "Meryl, this is the Rage talking!"
"Nah, it ain't, Frecks. It's me. I'm so sick of the bullshit he's feedin' you every goddamn day!"
"Or what?" Meryl turns his full attention on Freckles, left eyelid spasming. "You don't get to tell me what to do, get me? We ain't together anymore, so why the Hell should I watch my mouth 'round you?"
Freckles is utterly gobsmacked by his words, but it's Peter who voices what's in her mind.
"You weren't 'together' in the first place!"
A cold, unnerving smirk crosses Meryl's twitching face. "You 'member what I promised, Sweet Pete? 'Bout exchangin' some real words?" Both of his hands sit on the hilt of the bat, ready to take a first swing. Freckles instinctively grabs the bat, overlapping his beefy hands with her tiny ones.
"Don't," he warns. "I don't wanna hurt ‘chu."
"Hurt me?" Her eyebrows scrunch together. "You'd never do that."
"Nah, but you'd hurt me, wouldn't you?" Meryl snaps, wrenching his hands out of hers before leaning against the wall as his breath begins to come in pants. Freckles stumbles backwards, falling against Peter's chest. "It's one thing, you movin' out. It's a whole other thing to go screwin' someone behind my back."
"Screwing? Peter's a friend-"
"-I'm yer friend!" Meryl swings his bat into the wall, breaking through the flimsy sheetrock. "All I done fer you…"
"Freckles, we have to get out of here."
"Oh, now she's Freckles to you?" Justine whizzes through the air, missing the pair by inches. Freckles's mouth hangs open in disbelief—he actually took a swing at her.
"Meryl, please," she says, holding her hands up to halt him. "You have to stop fighting it. I'm here." Her left hand touches his shoulder; it's shaking.
"What the Hell are you doing?" Peter asks, backing up further.
"He won't hurt me. We're bonded." She watches Meryl's pupils as they dilate completely, staring wondrously at her hand. And then, with a sudden force, he pushes her off of him and growls. His hands quake as he commands the bat again, this time swinging it into the wall beside her face—a last ditch effort to keep his Rage in check.
Peter grabs Freckles by the hand and jerks her around Meryl, toward the arrow. "That's our cue!"
"Wait, we can't just leave him-"
"Arrrgh!" Justine smacks into the wall again and again, widening an already monstrous hole.
"Don't be idiotic," Peter says over his shoulder as they turn the corner, "He's not Meryl right now. He's Raging." They come to another split hallway. "Which way?"
Smack. Smack! SMACK! Meryl swings Justine against the walls, steadily getting closer.
"But we're bonded," Freckles insists. "I've always been able to-"
"-Maybe now isn't the best time for this?" Peter jerks them to the right, down a darker hallway, presumably for cover. They take refuge in the covert lighting, struggling to catch their breaths. Freckles clings to Peter's arm, her heart stammering away inside her chest.
"Oh, God…" The realization strikes her hard. "Meryl and I aren't bonded anymore."
"You don't know that," Peter offers, keeping his voice low to avoid attention. "He hit the wall - not you."
There's a woman’s high pitched cackle at the other end of the hall, drawing their focus. Freckles strains to see, but she can sense another presence at the end of the hallway. She blindly holds out her dagger, ready for an attack. But then another sound hits her ears; the sound of a blade being driven into a body—over and over again. Freckles recognizes it because she's produced the sound on more occasions than she will ever admit.
"She has someone," she whispers to Peter. "She's distracted. If we back up now, she won't notice we're here."
Together, they fumble their way back into the light, taking their time and looking for signs of Meryl. He might not be there, but his presence was made known; holes riddle the walls.
"What do we do?" she whispers, running a hand beside one of the craters.
"We've got to keep going - find an exit-"
Someone screams—Peter takes off running without a second thought. Freckles is close on his heels. Damn it. Now isn't the time to play the hero! she inwardly scolds.
Thunk. Something hits the floor in front of them. No, not a something. A someone. Blood dribbles down the man's chin. It's the pudgy man brought in with Peter's group. He's survived this long? Freckles is impressed.
But all of those surface thoughts fade away as Meryl steps into view, his teeth gnashed together while drawing his bat up over his head. Peter makes to step in front of him, but Freckles knows it will be the end of Peter if he does. She makes a decision—Peter's life or the pudgy man she doesn't know.
She swings her blade in front of Peter's face, stopping him. "No."
Blood splatters the wall.
"Come on." She grabs his hand and guides him around Meryl as the behemoth takes another good swing into the stranger's skull.
"What…what did you just do?" Peter gasps, stumbling on his feet because he can't help from looking back and gawking at the bloodbath.
"It was you or him."
"No - you can't just chalk it up to that!" Peter shouts, ripping his hand out of hers. "Damn it! We could have saved that guy!"
"And at what cost? You saying I should have attacked Meryl instead?" she keeps her brisk pace, refusing to look back at him.
"We could have subdued him-"
"Ha! That's rich! The man is a tank. We'd both have been dead before we hit the ground."
"You sacrificed that man!"
"I did!" she shouts back. As they round another corner, the elevator comes into view. Freckles hastily makes an arrow on the wall and swipes at her cheeks to rid herself of fresh tears. "And I'd do it again, Peter."
They approach the elevator. Peter waves his hand in front of the scanner and passes the Dandy on guard. His brows furrow in contemplation, perhaps with a mix of frustration. Either way, he refuses to look at Freckles as he steps onto the lift. It's Freckles's turn to pass the Dandy, but it holds out its lance, blocking her path.
"What the fuck?" she gapes, baffled. "Let me through. I'm not Raging."
The Dandy simply turns its dead eyes on her as if to challenge.
"Seriously, let me through!"
THUNK. THUNK. THUNK. She turns around and sees Meryl, soaked in fresh blood and tapping his bat along the wall. As his eyes fall on Freckles, he snarls.
"Shit." She turns back to the Dandy. "Let me on the fucking lift, shithead!"
She glances past the rotten arm to Peter, who braces against the doors to keep them from shutting. "You need to calm down!" he says, "Your adrenaline! It thinks you're Raging!"
"I can't calm down!" she screams back, terror filling her core. Meryl tap, tap, taps his bat along the wall, "Shit…shit, shit shit!" She hastily makes a decision - she grabs the Dandy's lance and begins wrestling it. "Peter! Keep that door open!"
The Dandy is stronger than it looks; it swings Freckles up against the wall, pressing the pole against her neck. It leans forward, wheezing and rattling. Its teeth clack together, perhaps to frighten her. Freckles doesn't care. She needs to get out. With the last of her strength, she drives her dagger under the Dandy's ribs and twists; it's enough leverage to kick off the wall and shove the Dandy back.
Peter darts out of the way at the last moment as Freckles releases a desperate battle cry, knocking the Dandy off balance and shoving it into the elevator. Its head slams against the wall with a bang. The Dandy hardly seems phased as it gnashes its teeth together and knocks Freckles away. It raises the lance, preparing to drive it into her—Peter jerks the dagger out of its chest and whacks the blade into its neck.
The Dandy's head rolls to the floor, and the body slumps forward, pinning Freckles against the wall just as the door dings shut.
"God...get it off of me!" The stench coming off the Dandy's body is enough to make her want to hurl. She holds her breath, trying to move the body off her. Its hand brushes against the scanner.
"What?" Peter peers over the Dandy's shoulder and down at the screen. Meryl beats against the elevator door with his bat, vibrating the lift.
"Peter!" Freckles whimpers. "Get it off!"
"Oh, right. Sorry." Quickly, he pries the body off of her, letting it topple to the floor. He checks her over immediately. "You okay?" He doesn't wait for an answer, instead turning his eyes to the scanner. Freckles turns her head to see what has his attention.
"Is that…?" she asks.
"Floor five." Peter nods his head. "Holy shit…" Without thinking, he moves to touch the screen.
"No," Freckles grabs his hand before he can. "Don't even think about it."
"Are you kidding? You're not even a bit curious?" He stares at the screen as if it's Christmas morning. "This is floor five."
"Exactly. Floor five. No humans have access to that floor."
"Until now," he smirks.
"We can't pass this up."
"We just killed a Dandy!"
Bang! Bang! Bang! Meryl's bat slams against the door.
"So?" Peter shrugs. "It was already dead, wasn't it? - Come on, please. When will we ever get this opportunity again? I'll tell you: never." His eyes melt into two pools of—puppy dog eyes, her mother used to call it. And damn it, they are certainly working.
Giving a sigh, she says, "We don't know a thing about what's below. What if it isn't-" Peter pushes the button. "-safe?"
The elevator dings and churns as it begins its descent down.