A/N: None of this would be possible without two special ladies: Vivian Tsai and Amanda Post. Not only do they edit, they keep me honest and tell me when I'm slacking. Vivian, thank you for developing this story with me. Amanda, thank you for joining the team and encouraging me to continue.
To my mom, who always told me I could do better. She was right.
Chapter One: Flesh and Blood
She's killed. Again.
Freckles flexes her glistening, crimson hands in the light of the swaying pendant lamp above her head. Her heart slams like a metronome within her chest, steadily beating with the pain in her heart. She wipes her bloody palms down the length of her jeans as if the gesture will somehow absolve her of all guilt. To her left, she hears the sickening sound of wood crunching against something squishy and yet... firm. She turns her face towards the noise, meeting Meryl's withering gaze.
His hands grip his favorite bit of wood: a Louisville Slugger from his past life. His eyes are empty, void of all life as he rears his shoulders, bringing up the bat with the pull of his hands before he jerks his arms forward, smashing it into the skull of the body twitching below him. The crunch fills Freckles’s ears again, and she closes her eyes, wincing. She can still see Meryl's scarlet soaked chest heaving up and down in time with her heartbeat. Up and down. Loud and soft. She's afraid to look again to confirm if the blood belongs to the corpse or from his own injuries.
How much guilt can her heart take before it gives out entirely? How many more times would they be forced to subject themselves to live this horror, day after day? The purpose she once felt has been replaced with a hollowness. Her bloodlust dries up like water in a summer's sweltering heat, as it does every time she is thrown from the Rage.
Over and over again, Meryl sends his bat bashing into the busted head of his victim, but he shows no remorse for his actions. Only resolve to destroy the body. Only the need to continue until his arms give out.
"Meryl," she whispers, eyes fading in between focus and blurs as sleep threatens to take her. "Meryl, stop."
His eyes flicker over to her, pupils blown to the nines, eyes glazed in hypnotic impulse. He hasn't come down yet, and Freckles seizes with fear; she realizes her mistake in breaking his concentration, and she raises her hands, slowly, palms out.
"Whoa there, big boy." She eyes the six-foot-two athlete as he raises the bat above his head. His breathing slows, and like a fire being doused with water, awareness flickers behind those forest-green eyes. Meryl's body begins to quake under the weight of the physical pain he's forced to endure as he comes down from his adrenaline high. The bat drops behind him. Plink. His arms fall to his sides, and he releases a shaky breath.
"Freckles…" He gives an unassuming laugh. "Holy shit."
Despite the terrifying situation they find themselves in, having been thrown into Namaste with a dead body in their presence, they both burst out laughing—not because they're happy, but because of the relief that fills their cores when it dawns on them: they're still alive.
Freckles wipes at the tears spilling down her cheeks using the back of her bloodied knuckles. When did she start crying? As the salt of her tears mixes with the scraped skin on the back of her hand, she winces. Meryl notices; his wolfish eyes light up in alpha starlight, and he hops over the body to come to her aid as if he were jumping over a puddle instead of a lifeless human being. He falls to his knees in front of her, grasping her wrists to bring her digits to his eye line. Meryl licks his lips, agitating the broken seam of skin along his rounded cupid's bow. "Hey," he says to her, "You alright?"
Her eyes trail over to the bashed-in head and then back to Meryl. "Yeah." She nods. "Alright." It's difficult for her to form complex sentences at the moment. Her mouth hasn't caught up to her brain, which shifts from one image to the next. She can see, in her mind's eye, the reconstructed face of their victim before she was just a pile of brains, bones, and blood. The woman was pretty, with brown eyes and jet-black hair that fell in curls down her back. It's hard to see that now as her scalp shimmers in coagulated ruby. "You?"
He rubs the stubble of his strong jaw, a smile playing across his face. Meryl's southern drawl pulls strong as he replies, "Never been better, Frecks." Lips brush against her knuckles, as do the needle points of his scruff, and she winces unexpectedly. His eyes fill with apologies as he pulls her into his vice-like arms. "Still kickin'."
"Out," she reminds him, though her hands climb up the spine of his back and rest beneath his shoulder blades. This is home to her, wrapped in Meryl's vice-like hug. It's the only form of kindness she's known in the last six years, and she never wants to forget it. More tears find their way down her cheeks, but she welcomes them as her memories pang her heart. "Need… out…"
"Leave that to me," he assures her, his breath ghosting the shell of her ear. Releasing her, he pushes up to stand and offers his hand down to her. "Get up, little'n. We best be movin' on."
Freckles extends her arm ,finding the comfort of his thick hand in hers as he tugs her to stand. Though he is nearly twenty years her senior, his physique far outshines hers. Where he is all shoulders, thick legs, and bulky arms, she stands only to his forearm, built of wiry stuff made for fitting into tight drains and climbing trees. His sun-kissed skin compliments his rustic, brown hair. Her raven tresses throw off the paleness of her body so that she glows in the moonlight. They're polar opposites in nearly every way but for the color of their eyes. It's what makes others think they are father and daughter, or brother and sister, despite the obvious differences. Freckles never lets the assumptions under her skin; if anything, it's flattering. She knows Meryl is more her family than most biological ones are to each other. After all, it was him to lend her the name she goes by now.
"Thirsty…" she manages to add, though the thought of anything going down her throat triggers her gag reflex as Meryl retrieves his bloodied bat and rests it against his shoulder.
"Let's find the exit."
They both begin towards the oxidized, dent-ridden door leading out into the maze of chaos nicknamed 'Namaste.' In Hindu, its greeting means, 'The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.' This Hellish pit has ironically been given the nickname, as those who greet each other in its clutches usually meet with weapons and bloodlust, all thanks to one little microscopic virus: Wormwood. Able to cause violent, uncontrollable outbursts, it's a force of its own magnitude that somehow found a way into the veins of every human on Earth. Sometimes it's quick. Other times, it slowly builds inside the nervous system until - boom.
The Rage sets in.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones could be eating Christmas dinner one moment and stabbing out their lover's eyes with a carving knife the next. No one's rage can be preempted, no matter how hard one could try to look for a pattern. But when it hits, it hits hard and doesn't relent until the body's adrenaline can counteract the Rage. In other words, the quicker they give in, the quicker the release.
Most humans blackout during their bloodlust, but Freckles and Meryl are not them. They are amongst a select few, who, while under Wormwood's influence, remember every detail in spectacular glory. Though they have no control over themselves as they slash and hack and dice, they are prisoners in their own minds; their eyes the windows from which they scream silently within, slamming themselves against the bars, begging not to slit someone else's throat.
It's for this fact that Freckles cries nearly every time she comes down from her furious high. Meryl used to shake—never cry. Cryin's fer women and children, he used to say. But even his quaking legs and arms eventually faded, until she was sure the hostage within him had given up completely. Although lately, there hasn't been a flicker of self-resentment in his eyes. When questioned about it, he's chalked it up to learning how to hide his emotions easier. But he hasn't been able to convince his best friend. Even now, staring at the back of his crew-cut head, she can't sense an ounce of abjection.
The room they stand in could have once been a classroom, she notes. Desks litter the open space, some on their sides, others upside down. There's a blackboard near the front where someone has written No Rest For The Wicked in blood. It's dry and flaking, so Freckles knows it hasn't been recent. She can't help but agree with the sentiment, unable to remember the last time she slept a full night. But she can remember every person she's ever killed.
"Meryl," she croaks, her voice dry and raspy. He turns back to her, eyes filled with concern. Guilt floods her for causing him to feel this way; she averts her eyes while she rubs one hand down the length of her arm. Her body aches, and her knees wobble. Agitated with herself for not having a sure footing, she mutters, "I don't… have a weapon."
His face softens, and he searches the room until he finds a lead pipe, rusted from years of abandonment. Offering it out, he tries a timid smile, but Meryl is not a timid man, so the smile looks more like a battle-ready grimace. Freckles doesn't care. It's the thought that counts.
"Welcome." He turns back around and approaches the metal door, hand gripping tighter on his bat. From the other side comes a snarl, followed a gurgling sound; his hand, poised for the handle, falters. "Maybe we stay here a while?"
They move quietly, barring the door with desks and debris. When Meryl is satisfied, he ushers Freckles over to the window across the room. They both take a seat on the windowsill, and Freckles wipes away the dirt across the pane to get a bearing for time. St. Louis cries out in the darkness, weeping for its empty streets. Perhaps that's just Freckles. She can hardly stand to see the city she once loved no more than ruins overcome by nature, mirroring the human race.
"I hate it here."
"I know you do." He reaches over and places a hand on her shoulder, the pad of his thumb tracing over the smooth skin. "But we've got each other, and that's gotta stand for somethin', right?"
It's all they've ever had—each other. Freckles nods her head. "Of course." She isn't one for words. It isn't that she's timid; rather, Freckles doesn't have much time for them. Her mind is always thinking, always plotting, always struggling to stay one step ahead of the game. Life—that's the game. Like when she was a kid playing 'Mouse Trap', she anticipates a Rager's actions in Namaste down to a T, refusing to give in or give up. Being barred behind the door is just a setback, for now.
"Freckles." Meryl scoots closer to her, trailing his thick, large fingers down her arm to rest atop her hand, his breath in her ear. "While I got you here, might as well tell you-"
She doesn't give him a chance. "Don't." Her hand slips out of his and into her lap as she stares forward, pensive. She knows what comes next. It happens nearly every time they're alone together since it happened (which isn't often). Meryl, sensing her discord for his advances, settles on keeping his hand rested on the sill between them. But his lips lean in closer, ghosting her earlobe.
"Why you gotta fight it all the damn time? It ain't like it's nothin' new." But while Meryl talks a big game, he doesn't do much else besides invade her personal bubble. "You know you feel somethin'. We both do."
Freckles closes her eyes, and she sighs. "Just 'cause we kissed," she says, "Doesn't mean-."
"-Could mean…" he whispers, "Should mean, I mean. Is it the age thing? 'Cause I reckon it don't make much of a difference now that the world's gone to Hell in a handbasket, darlin'."
Freckles stands, one of her hands gripping tight around the pipe as she says, "Enough resting. We should get going." She doesn't want to upset him, and this conversation is taking a turn for the worse.
"We're barely restin'. Come on. Pull the broom out of yer ass and sit down."
"How about you shove one up yours, Meryl, and lay off for five minutes?" she snaps, instantly regretting it. His cold, emerald eyes glare back at her. Meryl has been nothing but her confidant for years, tending to her every need: whenever, wherever. If it wasn't for him, she wouldn't be alive. Yes, three weeks ago, they did kiss. Mildly. She hadn't meant for it to happen—but it did, and she wonders what it all means. She never kissed a man in that way before him. She isn't sure if it was that way then, or some deep-rooted issues of intimacy brought on by Wormwood's attack on the whole fucking world. Freckles hasn't slipped up since, but he hasn't been one to let it go.
"You want me to lay off?" he jeers, his beefy form rising to stand, towering above her like a wave tempted to crash against her—though out of anger or lust, she isn't sure. "Fine. Have it yer way, Frecks." Meryl swings his bat up and leans it against his shoulder before he stalks to the other side of the room and begins to move the desks.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm gettin' outta here. Ain't it obvious?"
"Stop!" Freckles gasps as the screeching of a desk pierces her eardrum. "Meryl! Cut it out! You're going to draw them to us!"
"Like I fuckin' care," he mumbles, tossing a chair out of the way. "Better get yer swingin' arm ready." With a final pitch of furniture, he readies his bat and unbolts the door.
It swings open.
The hallway looms in darkness; dim lights strobe every few seconds as a fluorescent bulb flickers over head. Between them, Meryl and Freckles exchange anxious glances.
Her breath hitches as she notices movement between the pulsing lights. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? She thinks she spots something on the table; the light flickers, then it's on the ground. It's quick—quicker than she's prepared for. Shit-
The bat swings mid-air and connects with a resounding crack! A boy, no older than fifteen and holding a carving knife, collapses at his feet, head gushing with blood. Meryl wastes no time in stepping over his twitching form and motions his head in the direction of the hall. "You comin' or what?"
Anxiously, Freckles gathers up her courage and reaches down, plucking the still warm knife from the twitching boy's fingers. "Sorry," she mutters, eyes connecting with his. Whether he can actually see her or not is anyone's guess. She leaps over the body, knife in one hand and the pipe in the other, and nods her head. "Ready." Meryl rolls his eyes, and together they step out into the hallway.
There's a few Ragers to their right, stabbing into the stomach of a girl not much older than Freckles with hair as red as her blood. She's still alive, choking on her own fluids as five boys, similar to the one Meryl just put down, carve into her, sniggering. Freckles flinches and instinctively reaches for Meryl's arm. He smirks, allowing her to take it. "Don't go gettin' soft on me," he says, his voice barely above a whisper. They're careful as they step backward, away from the Ragers, trying their best not to turn their backs. Everyone knows if a back is turned they become fair game to those behind them. Freckles turns, though, to check the direction they’re headed. It's a technique they've mastered: watching cautiously from all fronts. It's how they've survived this long.
When they are down and around the corner of the hall, Meryl gives a relieved sigh and pulls Freckles to him, her back pressed against his chest. "Hoohah. That was somethin', wasn't it?"
"Something," she mumbles back quietly, heart slamming in her chest. That girl was still alive. They should have done something, even if it meant taking on that pack of Raging misfits.
As if sensing her thoughts, Meryl hugs her to him and kisses her hair. "Nothin' we coulda done, Frecks. You know that."
A tear slips down her cheek. "Yeah," she nods, allowing herself to close her eyes momentarily. It's a mistake, because she can now see the face of the woman they killed a few short moments ago, screaming at her to stop. "Meryl?"
"Let's go home."
"'Ain't no better words I ever heard you say, babycakes."