Straightaway a forgetting wind
At first, she thinks he's one of them. This is terrifying, because all this time she'd been climbing trees with the belief that they couldn't climb up after her.
His teeth are all points, like piranhas and wolves and them, and what little she sees of his eyes are that telltale red giveaway of the turned. He sees her the moment she sees him, only two swaying branches away, and as she opens her mouth to cry in terror and despair, he hisses his first words to her.
She knows the turned can 'speak'—usually in one or two-word sentences—but the desperation in his face silences her despite her misgivings. Maka clings to her branch, crouched and tense, ready to spring into action. Her hand stays close to her side, where she keeps the long meat slicing knife at her hip. The man in the tree jerks his chin to the ground, and she sees what he's worried about.
The Old Crone has shown up. She hobbles about over the tree roots, walking slowly, looking where there is nothing to see. Maka recognizes her and frowns. Old Crone has been following her for weeks. She hasn't seen the turned in four days, which is the longest she's ever been able to escape her.
She's safe up in the tree. Old Crone, like all the turned, can't climb this high. Besides which, that one is blind—had been before she'd been bitten—and it is easy to outrun her. Maka has lost count how many times she has skirted around the zombie and casually jogged to escape.
To be truthful, it would be just as easy to slice the Crone's head off, but Maka has yet to be able to do it, despite all the others she has beheaded.
The branch sways gently in the wind. After so many months of climbing, only nailing her feet to the tree would make her steadier than she already is. She looks away to the bigger threat of the two, unsheathing her knife as she focuses once more on the stranger in her tree. Well—maybe it had been his tree first, but it is hers now, and she's not eager to share with someone who looks well on his way to turning.
"Who are you," she growls, voice scratchy with disuse, and watches him follow the gleam of her knife in the late afternoon sun. "What are you," she corrects.
His eyes bulge a little, but it's exasperation, not fear. "Would you shut up," he grits through his fearsome teeth. "It's gonna hear you."
He looks too big to be wedged on a branch that flexible. She is more suited, with her thin body and light limbs; Papa used to call her 'little sparrow'. This stranger, on the other hand, balances his weight completely differently. He's not like a bird, who perches gently, but a wiry bear, who makes the tree adjust to him. She wonders if he's made of steel; if he'd make a dent in the ground if she pushed him off his branch.
She raises an eyebrow at him, though her overgrown, matted bangs probably hide it from view. "She already hears me."
The stranger strings together an impressive array of curses that involve herself, her mother, and her mother's face, with the turned woman below added in for good measure. "You idiot," he says, searching the immediate area for more zombies. "It's gonna draw them to us!"
The knife droops in her hand a little. Turned people don't fear the turned. Maka sighs, looking back at Old Crone. She hadn't learned her name from before. The woman had insisted on calling her 'Gran'.
"She won't. She follows me around and just..." Maka trails off, idly swinging the point of her blade in the zombie's direction. Safe in the tree, they both watch as Old Crone sits at the base, settling in for the catatonic stasis that all of the turned fall into when there's nothing nearby to eat. She sits like a tiny boulder, her thinning, snow hair flitting in the breeze.
"Ma-ka," Old Crone chirps, and goes silent.
Maka studies her tree neighbor, gauging his reaction to the zombie's unnatural behavior. His eyes turn to her, bright, gleaming blood, and she can't stop herself from gripping her knife a little more tightly.
"What is 'ma-ka'?" he asks warily.
"Me," she admits. "What are you?"
He smiles, though it's more of a pained grimace. It's
then she notices the dark, filthy tie-down straps wrapped around his
chest, attaching him to the tree. "Soul," he says.
"I don't remember how many days ago it was," he tells her as he gratefully accepts some of her water. "The fever fucks things up sometimes. It happened the day it rained." Soul looks to her, asking silently for her to confirm how many days have passed.
She nods, remembering the long drizzle. She counts back, marking her days by Old Crone sightings. "Nine days, at least. Maybe ten." When that number sinks a little further in her mind, she stares at him. "How are you alive? Turning takes three days at most—"
"Tell me about it," he remarks, closing tired eyes. He looks uncomfortable, face somewhat gaunt, but he's warned her to not get too close, so she doesn't.
"Where were you bitten?"
He shifts a little, pulling his arm out of his coat sleeve. From wrist to elbow looks like a murder scene, but he pours a few drops of water over the old, caked blood, and rubs it. He reveals new skin surrounding black scabs.
She doesn't know what to think, and can only state the obvious. "It's healing," she breathes in wonder.
"Yeah," he says with a weak chuckle. "Seemed kinda weird. I'm not the only one, though. There've been reports of others."
Maka stares at him, trying to understand what he's saying. There are people who are resisting the strain? There are more people, people who speak and laugh and fear and— "Wait, reports? From where? Who is reporting? How are you—"
Soul gives her his first genuine smile, made savage by his teeth. "Twitter," he says with a smug expression, though his constant, feverish shivering kind of nulls the effect. "Well, a clone, since the original databases have been down for mo—"
She doesn't know whether to choke him or praise him. "You have a computer? That charges?"
"Phone. Solar charger."
The amount of deserted Radio Shacks and phone retail shops she has passed in the past four months hits her like a ton of dead bodies. Why hadn't she thought of that? "The internet exists," she says in shock.
"Yeah, kinda. I mean there's a lot of pricks on there but you can't exactly infect the—"
"Shut up! How many are there? Like you?"
Soul looks askance. "If you're right about the date, probably no one. Someone was one day behind me, but I don't remember how long ago that was. Could be dead by now." His body gives one violent shudder that rattles the leaves in the tree. "Phone's in my bag."
Maka climbs closer to his branch, but it's hard to keep her distance with no other nearby branches to cling to. "Careful," he warns, turning his face away and closing his eyes. "The wound's healing, but... don't know about me."
He's very still save the occasional shiver as she unlatches and unzips a heavily fortified pocket. The contents of the bag gleam at her in various shades of chrome and matte gray, a mother-lode of hoarded technology all tangled together. Gingerly, she pulls out a blood-stained smartphone that wears a case that could have been an armored truck in a past life.
"Watch the cable. I ran out of 'lectrical tape."
The phone is connected to a charging device that is securely fastened to his padded backpack. Multiple mini solar panels are attached to the bag, dark and searching for the sun, with delicate wires spliced to the charging cable. "You made this," she says.
"Yeeaah, apart from the whole half-zombie thing, I'm kind of a geek. Feel free to thank me anytime."
It takes Maka a moment to find the button on the phone to turn on the screen. Half a dozen posts all sporting #Resistance gleam at her. She blinks, realizing it's been a few weeks since she'd last read a language—she'd been keeping to the forests lately.
"That's the guy I've been talking to. Been trying to get to him and his group, but..."
Maka swipes her fingers across the screen. She doesn't understand how he's still getting cell service, but she's not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She silently reads the new updates, equal parts excited to see human life and confused because she doesn't understand what they are talking about.
"What's it say," Soul asks, and she relays as best she can, stumbling over acronyms, slang, and GPS coordinates. But one tweet she understands completely.
"Resisting. Going to At-Prometheus. All Resistance: thirty-six degrees, four minutes, fifty-five seconds north. One-fifteen degrees, seven minutes, twenty-nine seconds west. Going to Vegas, bitches."
His groan of anguish is pretty discouraging, but she asks anyway. "What's 'Prometheus'?" Because she knows the old stories —of men brought to life from clay, of a titan stealing fire for mankind—and she's not sure she wants to hear the answer.
He says, "A guy you see when your only other option is death."
She gives him her last can of tuna. She hates fish anyway.
As night falls, he explains to her how BlackStar and ShadowStag had broken into a cell service building, granted unlimited data plans, bypassed billing cut-offs, and lived off vending machine food. They and a small band of other survivors have been Jerry-rigging cell towers in the valley to generators and solar panels.
Soul had been planning to meet up and help as much as he could with his tech skills, but he'd been bitten on his way there. He'd tied himself up in the tree when he reached a point where he wasn't sure he was safe to be around, or coherent enough to protect himself from another ambush. His fever became so bad that he'd lost track of days. Then she'd shown up.
He vomits the tuna almost two hours later, falling into a shivering sleep. She doesn't try to get closer again; it's dangerous to climb trees in the dark. She listens to him moan through his dreams, the tree continuously shaking. She rests, but only a little at a time, because his moans kind of sound like the turned and sleeping in a shaking tree is hazardous at best.
As soon as the sky begins to brighten in the east, she gingerly flits over to his branch. His hair is caked with dried mud, or blood, or both, but she notes the roots of his hair are pale and white, like all the turned. She watches his chest rise and fall, and clings to this fact because the infected do not need their lungs when they go in stasis. Or ever. Carefully, she touches her grimy fingers to his sweat-slicked forehead.
A human. He's warm, but not frighteningly so. He could use more water, but she has none. She'll have to go back into the valley.
Red eyes open, but she realizes they aren't the same kind of red as Old Crone's sightless eyes had become. His sclera remain white instead of that deadened gray of the turned. It takes a breath for the man to focus on her face, but once he does, he startles, rearing back from her. The tree sways violently, his strap creaking against the bark.
His feet slip. His fever has wasted away his body, and the strap around his chest is too loose. He slides in the loop, which cinches under his armpits and catches on his backpack as he struggles to not fall from the tree. He kicks wildly at first but abruptly stills, focusing on staying attached to the strap and not falling through it further. Below him is Old Crone, staring sightlessly in his direction through little over twenty feet of empty air.
Quick and lithe, Maka climbs above him, praying her weight will not make the whole section of the tree collapse. She straddles a branch, trying to ignore the whining creak it makes under her, and reaches for the handle at the top of his backpack.
"Urrgh," she groans, "are you made of lead, seriously—"
Eventually, she steadies him enough that he can get his feet wedged and get back to relative safety. He looks ready to either collapse or burn the entire forest.
"Fuckin' hate heights." He gives her a warning look when she climbs over to him, but doesn't tell her to stay away. "Thanks."
Her hand still hovers near her hip in precaution. "Yeah. Sorry."
Below them, Old Crone chirps. "Ma-ka." The turned woman stands, rotating until the breeze pushes her feathery white hair forward, obscuring her face.
Like watching a weather-vane, Maka realizes it's time to leave. She looks at Soul. The plural comes out of her so easily. "We need to go. I'd been downwind of the mob, but it's changed. Now they'll know where we are."
Soul looks between Old Crone and her, conflicted. The hand of his left arm flexes, and she pictures the bite wound under his jacket sleeve. "I..."
"You'd be safe up here, but I have no food to leave with you." And though logic tells her this man is a dangerous liability, she doesn't think she can just abandon him.
He sighs, resigned. "It smells like rain," he quietly says.
Soul is wobbly on his legs, but more or less keeps up with her pace. He digs through his bag of gadgets and comes out with a GPS, pointing them to the coordinates of Prometheus. On the outskirts of the valley, they avoid the suburbs and give wide berths to any car-filled parking lots that give too many places for the turned to hide.
They stop to rest every few miles—he's weak and dehydrated, she's starving and running on too few hours of sleep—but once she sees Old Crone hobbling over the horizon, she knows it's time to move again.
She keeps one eye on her companion, partly to watch out for signs of aggression, partly to watch his safety. His fever continues to break, so he discards his jacket, shoving it into his bag and keeping to the shade as much as he can, sweat rolling under his bloodstained shirt. She's not faring much better—rain clouds lurk overhead but refuse to spill, making the air sweltering hot and humid on top of it. Sweat stings her eyes as it drips down her forehead.
His coordinates point them to the heart of Las Vegas, and the further into metropolis they go, the less comfortable she becomes. There are less trees to climb, less safe places to hide. While Soul cautiously inches toward a convenience store, Maka thoughtfully considers a stop light. She could probably shimmy up one, as long as it wasn't wet. She doubts Soul could, though, even if he weren't so fatigued.
Then again, as she watches him pull a crowbar out of his bag and signals her to keep watch, she notes that he still has some wiry muscle along his arms and chest. He gives a vending machine a few shattering swings.
Still, traffic lights aren't ideal fortresses. Maybe a nice, residential rooftop could do in a pinch, but there are nothing but office buildings and apartment complexes out here, and if there are stairs to the roof, there would be zombies on the roof.
Soul pulls out bottles of water and stuffs them into a canvas bag. He grabs a few other bottled drinks—the ones with the highest caffeine and sugar contents—and then begins to strip the machine for wires and electrical components.
She's too on-edge to sit placidly while he meticulously wraps cables into tidy loops. "Hurry up," she urges, impatient. "We need to get moving." She hasn't seen Old Crone waddling down the alleyway, but she feels that she should have by now, and that bodes worse. The streets are littered with scattered trash and bloodstains, and the buildings are closing in on her. "Soul—"
"I heard you the first time," he says, quickly shoving things into his backpack just as the sky begins to drizzle. When the water touches his face, he stills, instantly on alert; he'd been bitten when it was raining. Soul glances down the street they had come. "Where's your groupie?"
He's getting better at telling Old Crone time. Maka frowns, silently chastising herself for feeling worried about a zombie.
She shrugs. "Lead the way. I don't like it here," she murmurs. She takes the canvas bag filled with bottles and slings it across her chest, one hand never too far from her hip.
"What's with that one, anyway," he says after a while, turning down a street lined with palm trees that make her feel a little better. "It's still dangerous, right?"
"She attacked me the moment she turned." The drizzle only makes her sweaty body feel more disgusting. Her feet ache. Her heart aches. "She's slow, though."
Bluntly, he asks, "Why didn't you kill her?"
Heavy rain hisses down the avenue, catching up to them. "Because it was my fault."
She'd followed the screaming and met the old woman.
Even blind, she swung a mean skillet. Her grandson had been making the noises she heard on the television, so she crushed in his head. She'd almost crushed in Maka's, too.
It'd been one week after the outbreak, and the world had fallen into chaos. "Call me Gran," she said. Gran mourned her children, her family, but always smiled in Maka's general direction when they shared a meal. "'Maka'," Gran told her. "That's a neat name."
"My mother gave it to me," she replied.
Gran did not ask about Maka's mother, merely saying, "She gave you a wonderful gift, then."
She was blind, and Maka knew the old woman couldn't see her tears, but she seemed to know they were there, just the same.
Maka had left to search for food on the fourth day. When she came back, the old woman was dying. The turned one that had ripped open her throat lay in a heap on the floor, skillet embedded in its face. Maka was supposed to have protected her, had promised herself she wouldn't let it happen again, not ever, not for anything.
Borrowed knife in hand, Maka watched as Gran quickly turned, sightless eyes reddening, hair changing from silver to snow. When she opened her mouth, there were no fangs. She'd lost her teeth years ago.
“Ma-ka,” she said.
Soul starts shivering again just after noon. He pulls his jacket from his bag and zips himself in it. She thinks it probably fit him better before he'd been infected, but presently it seems to swallow him up with the excess leather. He doesn't say anything, but she watches him slowly hunch into himself, pressing through the rain, keeping his crowbar tightly in his hand.
He needs to eat something. So does she, for that matter. But there are no safe places to stop and raid—at least none she is comfortable with—and rain makes it difficult to hear anything coming for them.
They turn a corner and they recognize the surreal sound of a generator. They share a look, and Soul suddenly glances skyward, searching. He shambles further down the narrow alley and says, "If there's a generator, there's—"
And then he's tackled by a blur at the other end of the alley.
Maka hadn't known she could run so fast, but she's hurling through the shadows, sparrow-turned-hawk, flying into the next street with her knife in one hand and the heavy bag of drinks in the other. She swings the latter at the stinking blob in a business suit straining for Soul's neck. The zombie pitches to the side, and Soul angrily shouts as he introduces the hooked end of a crowbar to the turned man's face. The meeting creates a sickening splatter sound, but Maka refuses to dwell on it.
There are two others, one close enough to reach for her, and she carves him a new mouth with a slash of her knife. She kicks it back, toppling it before she crushes its neck with a well-practiced stomp. The third is a child, baby teeth gnashing like tiny razors, and Soul knocks its head off with a backhanded swing, like popping off a dandelion from its stalk.
His breathing is hoarse and ragged, and she carefully approaches him, ears straining for any other visitors.
"Soul. Are you bitten?"
It takes him a moment to answer.
"We need to get out of here," she gently says, though all the adrenaline in her blood tells her to scream.
Without another word, he shuffles through puddles towards the generator. She follows, eyes darting to every shadow in the wide courtyard they ended up in. A small fountain lay in the center, shattered concrete darkening in the rain. A false palm tree sits near the back of the area, rigged with cellular antennas. Underneath it, atop rickety, leggy scaffolding, is a generator shielded by stray sheet metal and plastic.
Maka climbs up the scaffolding at Soul's insistence. He's busy throwing up at the foot of the fake tree, eyes haunted by children. She gathers he hasn't killed nearly as many zombies as she has, much less the smaller ones. Her heart is already hardened against that kind of thing.
The generator is loud and deafening, the fumes from its exhaust choking her. She doesn't like being deaf, and she hopes Soul will keep his eyes peeled between dry-heaves. In various ammo-caches and battered buckets, she finds energy bars, painkillers, bandages, and all manner of useful things. She takes half of everything, leaving behind a few sodas and a bottle of water.
Climbing back to the ground, she notices Soul is more or less over his episode, but when she steps closer and finds he actively keeps himself at a certain distance. His hand clenches, partially hidden by his jacket.
She tosses him a protein bar. He looks a little green as he examines it before shoving it in his pocket.
He does eventually start eating it as they head towards whomever it is the internet calls 'Prometheus', so he has some common sense left to him. Her hand stays locked around the handle of her knife, watching for any stray movement slinking across buildings or lurking behind windows.
"So," she says, in an effort to see if Soul is still capable of more than one or two-word sentences, and maybe for her to remember what it's like to have a conversation, "just what kind of guy is 'Pianoman'?"
The crowbar in his grip dips and sways a little bit. He chews, looking lost in his own head.
"Not sure I know, anymore.”
"Do you just like Billy Joel or...?"
With a scoff, he replies, "Well, that too. But yeah, I played. When I was a kid."
"You quit?" She watches the rain wash the mud from his colorless hair.
"Don't have much time for it now, you know?" he says, but she doesn't think that's an answer to what she's asking.
They run into another small group of the turned, and there aren't any children this time around, though Soul still looks half a step away from losing his protein bar after they're all taken care of.
He gives her a look under damp hair, surrounded by decapitation and crushed skulls. "If I don't remember my name anymore, you kill me," he informs her, but she knows it's truly a request.
She nods easily, like they are discussing what to raid from a grocery store. When her heart attempts to make itself known, she plays the adrenaline card and ignores it, like she always has.
They are forced through another alley as they approach the way-point on his GPS. She takes it on herself to scout ahead, because Soul's increasing fever paints him in shades of sickly gazelle, and he holds the crowbar like it has gradually become fifty pounds heavier. He's an easy target right now, and she doesn't enjoy leaving him behind her, but pushing him ahead like bait on a line feels worse.
It's just as well, because as she peeks her head out of the shadowy, wet alley, she spies a retro-looking 'Welcome to Paradise' sign out in the distance, surrounded by hundreds, hundreds of the turned in various states of stasis. The smell of old, decaying death teases her, and slowly, slowly, because abrupt movements draw their attention like hunting cats, Maka silently backs away.
She can't believe it, but she's actually shaking. She's never seen so many in a mob, so many blank, red eyes, so many rotting heads with hair like a bank of snow. Her pathetic slicing knife feels like useless plastic hanging on her hip. When Soul's bleary eyes (red, red, from between dripping avalanches of white) ask her silent questions, she shakes her head, or her body shakes it for her.
"We—" her voice cracks. She clears her throat. "We can't go that way. Not ever." Not for anything.
It takes him a minute to focus on what she's explaining on the GPS, telling him where it is impossible for the two of them to go. He blinks slowly, a full body shudder running through him like a reset button having been pressed somewhere in his brain.
"All of it?"
"All of it."
"Do I wanna know?"
He reroutes the GPS, backtracking to the west but still heading north, giving a wide berth for The Strip. He doesn't make it another three miles before he stops in the middle of the road.
His arms clench over himself, fingers digging into opposite sleeves. He's shuddering with pain or sickness or other. Prometheus is a man you go to when death is your only other option, he'd told her, but he hadn't added the implied 'if you can make it there'.
"Maka... I can't go with you."
Before he'd asked her to kill him in the event he forgets his name, she had already decided this would be the warning. This would be the sign she'd accept to cut him down and save herself.
He's like a little monster with that hunchback of a giant backpack on him, and she wonders how she had mistaken him for a steel-filled bear at the start. Knife in hand, she watches his eyes follow the stream of water trailing down the edge of her blade. It would be better to end it now, before the infection takes him. Before he becomes another Old Crone, she tells herself; another ghost to follow her around and remember her name for her.
But, like facing the Old Crone, she can't keep her knife pointed at him.
He sees her hesitation and she doesn't know if he looks disappointed or relieved. "Just... tie me to something and go." Soul coughs into his hand. Wipes it on his pants. "Take the... the thing and find Black Star—"
Maka grits her teeth and stalks forward to him. He sees her knife and holds his ground without complaint, looking away and awaiting death. She grabs one of his arms and pulls him back the way they came, hoping they don't run into the Old Crone in the process. She drags him, hears him stumble, but refuses to look back; he already looks like one of them, so there's no point in watching.
She remembers seeing a tree earlier; had noted its high branches for future reference because it is always important to know one's exits out of a shitstorm. Its limbs are a little too flexible for her liking, but the medium-sized shade tree on what used to be a busy street corner will have to do.
She points, and he shakily attempts to climb. Fails.
It's nerve-wracking to go up before him, to have her back turned to him after having seen his eyes dart to any and all sudden movement (and she without her knife in her grip), but she does it anyway. Maka turns around in a giant fork of intersecting branches and gives him a hand up. His palm is outrageously warm, and she knows she's too overwhelmed with worry over a man she hasn't even known a full day.
That worry may become her undoing, she realizes, as she's trying to balance while he's attempting to neither collapse nor freak out over heights, and they're too close in this slippery, wet tree. His mouth is inches from her shoulder, sickly heat radiating from his slouching body, and her heart stops as she watches his lips part a little wider, Soul's half-turned fangs peeking out. His breath washes over her shoulder like a furnace.
She doesn't scream. She says it in a terrified whisper. "Soul?"
He slaps a hand over his mouth, groaning. He twists, his opposite hand sliding from the central tree branch and colliding into her thigh, blindly grasping for support. The contents of his stomach splatter loudly on the pavement below: protein bar and other. Maka holds him steady, clinging to his backpack and jacket to keep him from hurling any more of himself out of the tree.
His body relaxes a little when he's done, though he's gasping for air like he's afraid his lungs will stop working. She's afraid of that, too.
"My bad," he says, shaking.
"Thanks for aiming it elsewhere," she replies, trying to not sound like her heart had been gripped by terror half a minute prior.
She gives him a moment to steady himself, but the passage of time only seems to weaken him further, so she hops across slippery branches and situates him. He looks reluctant to part with his backpack, but she thinks it's because it'd been keeping him warm. Soul holds his arms away, crossed over his side-turned face, mouth tightly shut as she wraps his tie-down strap around his chest and secures him to the sturdiest branch of the tree. "Tie it behind me," he murmurs, "so I can't undo it."
She doesn't tell him that the turned are too single-minded to be able to untie knots, but she does as he asks. His shivering makes fat drops of water slide off leaves from overhead.
At his behest, she tweets their coordinates and tags it with '#Resistance'. There are few updates, and only from other people announcing they've left the cell towers to meet up with Prometheus at BlackStar's command.
The rain lets up for a few minutes only to come down steadily once again. She does not want to sleep in the rain, in the valley, and a few blocks from The Strip and its enormous mob, so after she gives Soul some water, she eats an energy bar and washes it down with caffeine.
She refreshes the feed on Soul's phone and sees an update in reply to Pianoman.
@Pianoman u bastard ur still alive? get here ASAP. @Prometheus wants to xmn u #baller
Maka glances at Soul, who dozes with his head tilted on a branch. Her feet swing idly on her own limb, rainwater dripping down her legs. She hazards a reply.
@BlackStar Pianoman feverish and weak. Treed at coords. Enough su—
She jumps, barely keeping her voice in her throat. Peering down at the ground, she lifts up her dangling legs that are uncomfortably close over Old Crone's head. The zombie circles aimlessly around the tree a while before settling for a spot on the sidewalk, becoming her little boulder. The turned is heedless of the rainwater washing across the pavement.
Maka nearly drops the phone when Soul speaks. "I still don't understand your groupie," he rasps.
She pushes her soaked bangs out of her face, partially longing for the days she'd been alone and her heart didn't startle from anything.
"Neither do I," she replies. "I've covered myself in mud, soaked my clothes in death, done everything I could think of to change my scent, but she always finds me."
Old Crone can track her through rain, through twisting alleys, through winding forests. Soul doesn't bring up what kind of danger having such a companion poses, which is just as well, because she wouldn't be able to tell if he'd be lecturing about Old Crone or himself.
He says, "She's blind—maybe she can sense you better than most."
Maka regards the zombie, her hardened heart twisting a little in her chest.
She gave you a wonderful gift.
"How did you get your name?" she quietly asks Soul, but gets no reply. Worried, she looks at his face, hand darting for her knife. She finds him asleep again. Relief dribbles down her spine with the rain.
She returns to the phone.
Enough supplies for two days, can't take him to @Prometheus alone. Any help wanted.
She's buzzing with caffeine, and every rattling breath Soul breathes in puts her more on edge. There's a reply from BlackStar almost immediately, but she doesn't find it until an hour after the fact, wanting preserve the battery life of the phone.
@Pianoman who dis? Pianoman turning?
@BlackStar Survivor. Accidental partners. Not sure. The walkers find him alive enough to attack.
The next reply, which she doesn't wait a freaking hour for, is a set of coordinates.
Safe. Near u. Get there. Will send help.
She wishes fever pills had been at the generator cache. Maka uses a rain-soaked bandage to wipe grime from his face. He sleeps most of the night, murmuring.
At dawn, he tells her she looks like shit.
Maka grimaces. "Good morning."
"Not like you looked great to start with, but damn. Did you sleep at all?"
"I took Mountain Dew as my mistress," she says blandly. "How're you feeling?"
'Like hell' is what his face tells her, but he says, "Like my name is still mine. Hand me somethin' to eat, I'm starving. I'll throw stuff at you if anything shows up."
She can't process this all at once, and stares blankly at him.
"Go to sleep, idiot."
One side of his mouth twitches upwards. A kind smirk of sorts.
She glowers. "Don't call me an idiot."
"Whatever, gimme my phone before you pass out."
When she starts awake, the rain has stopped. The city is still echoing with the loud clang of a crowbar hitting pavement. Her heart dances querulously in her chest while the Old Crone below boots up like an outdated Macintosh. Maka glares death and carving knives at her tree captive.
"My bad," Soul grits through his teeth, hand still outstretched in the direction of his fallen weapon.
"How did you live this long?" she snarls, eyes adjusting to the afternoon light. She's still too fuzzy from sleep, ears straining for any sound of The Strip mob.
Soul shrugs helplessly. "Man, I'm a geek. I'm more amazed than you are—what are you doing?"
Maka carefully swings behind him and starts undoing the strap behind his back. "We have to go. That thing was louder than any scream—"
"—and we need to go now, before the Welcome to Paradise committee finds us."
Soul twists his head to snarl over his shoulder, "Then just leave me here! You really are an idiot—I don't even get why you stayed in the first place!"
"Shut up." Her fingers fumble in her hurry to undo the strap.
His voice holds a desperate truth that he seems unwilling to let out. "You keep saying 'us' and 'we' but you know you can't afford that."
When evening comes in a few hours, it will be two days since she has met him. At the base of the tree, Old Crone begins staring into the abyss with blank red eyes and grayed sclera.
Her limit has always been four days—with Papa, with Gran.
"Maybe third time's the charm," she says, and sets him free. She ignores the burning look on his face and digs through his bag for the GPS, shoving it into his hands. "The new coordinates. You saw them, right?"
"I saw them. You should've just killed me."
He juggles the phone in one hand and the GPS in the other, plugging in the numbers. He gives her the GPS when he's done. She holds his gaze, looking into his eyes that are still framed in white instead of gray. "Let's go," she says, deliberate.
Soul looks torn between the dread of turning on her and the fear of being alone, and Maka decides that as long as he still possesses some inkling of the latter, she can not abandon him, because she has that fear too, encased in layers of stone.
She waits for Old Crone to wander around the tree while she dashes to an opposite limb, dropping to the ground at a distance. She lures the turned away while Soul skids his way out, shakily landing on the sidewalk and picking up his weapon. Maka jogs around the Old Crone, bypassing her to catch up with Soul and follow the way-point to BlackStar's safe haven.
She doesn't like this.
The sky is clearing, sunset blood painting a partly cloudy sky in the west. They're running out of daylight. They're walking with the wind, blowing their scent in the same direction they're heading. The fucking coordinates from a random person she's never met is taking them towards The Strip.
"Are you sure?"
"He said it was safe."
"I know what he said, I can read."
"When was the last time he checked—"
He doesn't interrupt her, but rather stops at a parking meter, body still as glass. His eyes peer through a broken shop window.
Maka shuts up. She wets her lips, unsheathing her knife. She watches his eyes dart too quickly, pupils slowly dilating like a hunting cat.
Very quietly, he says, "We should keep moving," and slowly takes a step forward, eyes not leaving the darkness of the ransacked shop.
The hand on her knife is shaking, as if the blade itself is unsure who its target should be. Her ears strain for movement as she smoothly walks forward, making her motion as fluid as possible. She is a bird, gliding, gliding, silent as an owl in flight. Her hand is sweaty on the knife handle. It's the beginning of day three, she tells herself. Nothing will happen today.
A family of turned tourists crawls out of the broken window, oblivious to the shards of glass.
She and Soul work in silence, because screams and shouts only draw more zombies. As she deals with the husband, she tries not to over-analyze how her partner has no issue going after the children first, how his attention snaps to their quicker movements, how, overnight, he has become eerily efficient at avoiding their fangs.
The wife of the family is large, and Maka's little knife isn't enough to behead her in one swing. Soul finishes off what she can't with a wrenching pull of the hooked end of his crowbar. Maka sidesteps the falling body, knife still poised to strike if need be. Soul flings gore off his weapon and takes a carefully measured step back from her.
"Let's keep going," he murmurs, sweat dripping off his nose.
He doesn't waste their time by throwing up again, and the practical side of her wonders why she's somewhat disheartened about it. She hasn't thrown up after fighting in months, and she's still human.
...But she wonders about that, too. What is 'ma-ka'? Does she know?
Her heart whispers something, but she ignores it.
The Las Vegas freeway comes into view. It's a creamy colored bridge stretching for miles, seated atop thick pillars. Silent as a tomb, it stands like a solemn monument to the spectacular crash and burn of mankind. The GPS points them to a spot just on the other side, nestled near a small tangle of on and off ramps. The darkening twilight makes shadows under the bridge come to life.
Familiar outlines of famous casinos do not ease her heart. She sees the Stratosphere hotel in the distance, the blackened walls of the burned Trump tower, and the shape of old Treasure Island. They are all neighbors of The Strip, and had probably been densely populated when the outbreak hit. All of it will be teeming with walkers.
Soul's fever has broken again, his jacket crammed into his backpack. Black blood splatter paints the side of his neck and jaw, slowly dripping with his sweat. His coordinates bring them to a library surrounded by a sea of empty parking lot, landscaped trees, and gravel as a grass substitute. Across the street is a gentleman's club, broken windows like empty sockets.
They stand in front of the entrance of the squat library. She doesn't disguise her displeasure.
"This is his idea of safe?" If left to her own devices, she would never touch this place. There's only one way in, no back door, and there are windows every fifteen feet around the building.
Even Soul sounds kind of skeptical. "He wouldn't steer us wrong," he slowly says, keeping his crowbar out and ready as he inches towards the front door.
Maka balks, shaking her head, not liking the open area or the feeling of walking into a slaughterhouse. "Soul, when we go in there, the Crone will catch up. She'll be right here, blocking us in—"
He looks over his shoulder, confused. "The who?"
"The C— the groupie."
Soul gives her a look she can't interpret. "You're just gonna have to kill it, then."
You or her, she almost asks, but she has a feeling he would just say 'both'. It-she and It-eventually.
He finds the key to the door up high, nestled in a hollow of the concrete building. At her dubious look, he says, "Any place BlackStar has called 'safe' is a place his group's been." He unlocks the door.
Maka turns around, watching the street as Soul creeps inside. "I think I need to have a talk with this guy about the meaning of 'safe'," she mutters. She hears him zip open his bag and dig around, all his techie-junk clattering together. He pulls out a flashlight.
"Get in and shut the door."
When she locks it, the deadbolt sliding home is reminiscent of either comforting security or the snap of handcuffs—she's yet to decide.
The library smells like a library. Dust, paper, ink, age— it is so refreshing that Maka is forced to stop and breathe in the musty, stuffy building. It's been awhile since she's smelled a place that didn't reek of death and decay. Even in the forest, the wind had carried the stench of the undead, but in here it only smells of antiquated humanity.
Still, they carefully search, stealthily checking between bookshelves and desks for any catatonic surprises. Every shelf is another dose of adrenaline. Maka's eyes look everywhere but where Soul's flashlight shines, body tensing at book carts and step stools and chairs. The shelves seem to tilt, ready to close over her like heavy jaws.
Then she sees the writing on a wall. She points; he shines the light. An array of discarded ink-jet cartridges litter the floor, the word 'Exit' smeared on the wall. An arrow points at the ceiling, and a signature melded with a five-pointed star notarizes the message.
"Black? Star. Pfft," Soul scoffs.
The beam shines on the ceiling, revealing a pull string for an attic door. The light shudders violently for a moment, Soul's breath jaggedly escaping him. She can hear him loudly swallow, hear his left hand tightly clench the plastic flashlight in pain or sickness or other.
As eager as she is to check out their means of future escape, Maka says, "Let's finish clearing this place." He leads on.
She doesn't like it—all the places for the dead to hide, all the windows, the low, low, low ceiling—it feels like a cage. But they find no one. The only surprises they stumble over are miraculous and mystifying.
"...I think this is soap," she mutters in disbelief.
Soul finds long tapered candles, lighting one with a cigarette lighter he digs out of his gadget-filled treasure bag. He lights several more with the wick of the first. Flames dance. In an open corner of the building, the closest windows are pinned with dark sheets and ratty flags. The makeshift drapes ease her, somewhat, glad that the candlelight won't be shining out the glass like advertising a human buffet.
Among the safe haven's cache, they find cans of unlabeled food, a bottle of ibuprofen that's filled with a rainbow of pills that aren't ibuprofen with a paper roughly cataloging each color, miscellaneous first aid supplies, a shotgun with the better part of a box of slugs, and a patchwork quilt that makes her heart waver with thoughts of Gran. Plus the soap.
Regarding the gun, Soul asks, "You ever shoot before?"
Maka grimaces. "Uh-uh. You?"
"In... video games?" he tentatively offers. They share an equally skeptical glance. "Best not shoot it unless we have to. We'd attract everything for miles."
Looking once more upon the cache, she notices it: "There's no water." Her hand grips the canvas bag slung over her shoulder, feeling the contents she has already memorized. They have two and a half bottles left from Soul's vending machine raid, and those are just rainwater she had funneled into bottles they'd already emptied.
Soul shivers in silence a moment, his eyebrows furrowed and stark in flickering firelight. He turns to the small restroom they'd already scanned for bodies. Maka follows, pessimistic. "City water hasn't been pumping in months," she reminds him, but follows with one of the candles anyway.
The restroom is cramped, not meant for more than one person at a time. "I have a feeling," he says, and invites her in with a wave, though he attempts to stay as far away from her as possible at the same time.
They reverently face the toilet.
It's an absurd looking thing to her now, like being in the presence of an ancient and enigmatic altar of civilizations long past, though it has only been a little less than five months since the outbreak. Maka has been relieving herself by trees, at walls and bushes and freshly dug holes; the toilet is alien to her.
Soul presses the handle with a grimy finger. It flushes, which is to be expected with old water having been in the tank since before the utilities had failed.
"We probably should've saved that," she says angrily as it flows down the drain.
Then, the toilet refills. The two of them stand in utter silence as it finishes. Slowly, as if she is afraid she is dreaming, Maka reaches for one of the twin knobs atop the small bathroom sink wedged up against the wall. She twists. The room echoes with loud gurgling and groaning before rusty orange liquid dribbles out the faucet.
"No. Way," she blurts, watching the water slowly run clear. She turns it off. Turns it back on. "H-how—"
Soul makes a collection of noises that have no meaning before saying, "It's... It's gotta be well water or something. Only a few older places still have them..."
"Do you think it's safe?"
"One way to find out," and he sticks his face under the spout, taking a big gulp. Shocked, Maka's mouth hangs open, unable to speak. He wipes his mouth with the inside of his shirt collar. "Gotta be a well. Tastes like ours, before they switched us to city water. Kinda mineral-y, ow Jesus WHAT—"
She slaps the back of his head again. "Don't do that!" she screeches. "What if it's poisoned?! What if it's infected?!"
He dodges her fist, trying to keep his distance in the cramped room. "Maka, I'm already infected, I'm prolly gonna die anyway—"
"Don't do that again! Not ever! Not for anything!"
"The fuck, stop hitting me," he snarls, exasperated. "It only makes sense, damn it—outta the two of us, I'm the least likely to make it to Prome—"
"You have to live," she insists, shaking in anger.
"...Don't particularly disagree with that statement, but let's be honest, here."
Her eyes burn; she feels childish. She'd been in the woods for months, and three days with this idiot already has her fearing being alone again. She'd been lost, in the woods. She'd lost herself in the woods.
"There could be an answer in you," she says, desperate to give him a reason to not gamble his life just because he's nine of ten steps closer to death than she is. "No one has lived this long infected, right?"
Something in his face seems to dull and harden, and she looks away, eyes downcast and permanently attached to her stained boots and his ragged sneakers. In her peripheral she sees his left hand stretch forward, hesitating, maybe almost reaching for her, but ultimately passing her by, turning off the sink.
"Fiiiine, I won't do anymore taste tests," he sighs, playing his part of the boy being lectured by his mother. His hands burn as he gently grasps her shoulders, maneuvering around her to exit the room. He touches her as little as possible, palms quickly removed from her the second he can escape. "If I forget my name, though," he says on the way out.
"I'll kill you. I promise," she says to her shoes.
She's a little bird lost in the woods.
After a debate over the benefits of smelling like a dead body versus being able to wipe one's mouth without fear of cross contamination via zombie guts, Maka relents and tries to freshen up in the bathroom. A teasing comment of 'I didn't realize those weren't freckles' may have prompted her to angrily slam the bathroom door.
She's reluctant to wash all the grime off herself; that smell is camouflage. She supposes her very not-white-anymore tank and threadbare pants are filthy enough to take care of that in the future, though, and the idea of letting her skin breathe something other than twenty layers of apocalypse is hard to pass up.
Her hair is a challenge in itself. Her head doesn't quite fit all the way in the basin, and to be honest one bar of soap will never be enough. She gets through one rinse and calls it a day.
She finds a musty wash rag in the cupboard under the sink and, apart from the soap and bandages, it may be the cleanest thing she's touched in a long time. Several minutes of vigorous smearing and scrubbing later, and she unearths her face in the mirror. It's so gaunt and tanned and severe-looking that she doesn't recognize it as hers. With some contacts, a dye job, and fake fangs, she could pass off as a walker with little difference.
When she comes out, feeling strange with scrubbed skin under rank clothing, Soul is huddled under the quilt and tied to two legs of a formidable office desk. His eyes are darting too much for her liking, but he gives her a weary smile when he sees her (though he sees her much more easily in the half-dark than a normal person ought).
"My mistake," he says, teeth rattling together. "You do have a few freckles."
She shifts her weight, double-checking the familiar pull of a knife hanging at her hip without moving her hand to hover over it. "I'm starting to think you're into bondage," she deadpans.
He claps under the quilt, the sound muffled. "Was that a joke? I think it was. I'm proud." He grins, fangs gleaming. "As for bondage—I'm into it if you're into it.”
She hopes his hunter's eyes don't see her vicious blush. "Ah, I see delusions accompany the fever."
"You clean up good, what can I say." He's still trying to make up for the original freckles comment, and Maka scoffs, watching his shuddering body jostle the candle on top of the desk.
"...Can I get you anything?" she asks, determined to not sound sad or fearful for him (or of him).
Soul rests his head on the side panel of the desk. "I'd do anything for a pizza."
She leaves and returns with his backpack and two unmarked cans. She sits on the floor across from him, digging around his gadgets for a can opener. "Which flavor would you like? 'Anonymous', or 'question mark'?"
"Anons are usually trolls. Gimme the punctuation."
He gets canned pears in heavy syrup. She gets Spaghetti O's. "I've always been bad at gambling," he says, sipping the syrup and trying not to choke on it.
She doesn't really mean it, but says, "We can switch halfway..."
"No-no, keep your rigged anonymous shenanigans," he insists. "Besides, I'll prolly puke in an hour. That's just a waste of s'gettios." The inside of the quilt lights up, the glow from his phone illuminating his face as he looks at the screen. "Well, I got bad news and questionable news."
Maka picks salty noodles from between her teeth with her tongue. "Okay."
"I'm about... eighty percent sure the update about us gettin' here went out. I'm positive the cell towers went down before I could see any replies. At least the ones around here, anyway."
"Eighty percent," Maka echoes, mentally weighing their options.
"Like I said, though: I suck at gambling," he says, setting down the can of pears with a sour face. It's not even halfway empty.
She brings him the bathroom's trash bin an hour later. He groans when he's done. "S'the worst pizza I've ever had twice."
"Sorry. I left my Italian half at home," she says, wiping the wet rag on his face while he's too tired to warn her to stay away.
"You're half Italian?"
"No, not even close." She doesn't have a home anymore, either.
"I swear to God, either I'm hallucinating or you're getting funny."
His fever doesn't break again. Dawn shines through the uncovered windows while Soul fitfully sleeps. When awake, he has only two modes: mostly lucid and smart-assed, or twitchy and grave as death. Throughout the day, he blearily stares at the text inside books she has brought him, or ties useless knots in various cables from his bag.
That evening, he claims to feel well enough to attempt his hand at using some soap, and Maka keeps her distance, knife in hand, as he unties himself and holes up in the bathroom. In there, he's coughing, coughing, retching and coughing, and she waits outside the closed door, staring at the gleam of sunset and candlelight on her blade. It's the start of day four.
The coughing stops. Her heart stops.
If I don't remember my name—
A long silence.
"Speaking," comes his hoarse voice from the other side, raw from the abuse.
She breathes. She's so relieved she can't speak for a moment. "Do you... need help?"
"I'm cool," he says, voice cracking. "Don't—don't come in here. Please."
The world swims around her, thick and smothering. She thinks she's going to be sick.
Don't open the door, little sparrow, not for anything.
Maka bites her lip in silence.
She hears the sink running for a bit. Hears him spit. Hears his shoes skid on cheap linoleum as he sits on the floor. "Still there?"
"Yeah," she forces out.
Legs wobbly, she kneels, stabbing the blade of her knife in the carpet. She faces the door, conversing with the wood. "I don't have much to talk about."
He rasps, "What is 'Maka'," voice like the crinkling of dried husks and snake skin.
"It's the name my mother gave me," she says. "I don't know what it means. I don't know if it means anything."
And words begin to fall from her, slowly, in orange rusted water, clearing to flow from a deep well she hasn't seen the bottom of, divulging ancient civilizations from the age of Not Quite Five Months Ago. She's Maka Albarn, twenty-five, newly moved to Nevada. She likes track and field, drum and bass, mac and cheese, and cats. She practically used to live in libraries like this one, studying for Sociology. She escaped in books—books about myths, legends, animals, people. Strong people, normal people, cowardly people. She's killed twenty-seven men, nineteen women, twelve children. The numbers never go away, even though they were already dead, because she's accustomed to collecting data about people.
She has no siblings. She hasn't seen her mother in years. Her dying father committed suicide to keep himself from coming back to life. He used to call her 'little sparrow'. She's yet to keep anyone safe for more than four days.
"I've never been on a date," she says, grasping for anything else to say.
"With your shitty taste in—" he coughs for several seconds, "—in music, I'm not surprised."
"Screw you," she says, though it doesn't cover the warble in her voice.
"Don't think it'll help much, but if you're offering..."
Maka puts her face into her knees with a groan.
"I can't believe you're older than me," he mumbles.
Of all the things for him to pick out of her ramble, that fact had been the furthest from her worries. "How old are you?"
She hadn't given much thought about his age beforehand—the turned features of his face made it hard to judge to begin with. She'd only been fixated on the fact that he breathes. Then, it hits her.
"Wait, how old did you think I was?"
He has another coughing fit, but only half of it sounds legitimate. "Jailbait," he says between hacks.
She does not understand why she's blushing. She growls in frustration. "It's my chest, isn't it," she murmurs, defeated. "There's practically nothing there."
"No," he says, "they're there, trust me."
During her moment of stunned silence, she hears the door lock.
"You son of a—"
"Look, when you jump around in the trees, they just kinda... bounce, you know?"
Curse his zombie eyes! "Soul..." she hisses.
"Speaking. Can't kill me," he gasps before he retches.
On day four, the Old Crone knocks at a flag-covered window, chirping. No one dies. No one comes for them.
They run out of food on day six. It would have been day five, but Soul had stopped eating anything save fever reduction pills and sips of water. Mostly, he sleeps, too exhausted to do anything as his body tries to battle infection.
Every few hours, he manages a short conversation. Today, he tries to talk her into leaving him.
"The old co-ords are still there. You could make it, easy," he says.
She ignores him. She will not abandon him. "I'll be back soon. Wait for me."
He shakes his head, mouth carved into a nauseated, deep-set frown. "Be careful,” he snarls helplessly.
Maka follows BlackStar's exit sign, cautiously climbing up the attic ladder and shimmying through layers of musty, itchy insulation. In the roof, she finds another one of those obnoxious star insignias. She pushes a handle and opens a tightly-sealed hatch door.
Outside, it's late morning, the air already warm and dry. She follows arrows across the flat roof, hopping to an outstretched branch of a tree that's barely more than a sapling, nearly earning a black eye from a flexible limb. Old Crone hears the noise and stands out of her boulder pose, hobbling in Maka's direction.
Maka heads west, back under the freeway and as opposite from The Strip as she can get. Without someone holding her back, she can dart in shadows, scrape her hands and legs on palm trees to survey the area, or break into a run at a moment's notice. But without Soul to watch her back, checking abandoned buildings is slow and nerve-wracking.
She perches on top of the overturned trailer of an eighteen-wheeler strewn across a crack-ridden street. She's the vulture watching for scraps and predators and competition. She has hit the mother-lode: a family run automotive shop-turned-grocery store, complete with rotted produce sitting in scattered baskets and crates inside wide-open garage bays. There may be canned goods in the main building. Maybe preserves or pickled vegetables in hand-packed mason jars. At the very least, there's an unopened vending machine in the far corner of the garage.
She wears Soul's jacket because, by virtue of the bite wound he'd taken, it smells like infection and death more than the rest of their clothing combined. She has watched the shop for fifteen minutes, the tops of her washed ears beginning to burn in the sun. Normally, this kind of waiting is overkill—Old Crone will be upon her soon—but she thinks she'd heard an unusual sound earlier, and being cautious keeps a person alive.
She hears nothing else, though. Maka decides to make a quick raid, hit the vending machine on the way out, and get back to the library. Silently, she hangs off the edge of the trailer and drops down. She glides into the cool shadow of a garage bay, knife at the ready. Wilted, browned vegetables and fruits perfume the air with the faint sweetness of rich decomposition.
Pausing next to a broken window, she watches for any movement in the interior of the main building. She sheaths her knife and gingerly climbs through the frame, Soul's leather jacket protecting her hands from thick, reinforced shards of glass. She hides against a wall, taking inventory of everything in view on the three squat shelves of cans and jars.
She catalogs which items have the most value, not seeing flavors or meals but protein or mineral or energy. Deciding on how much she can safely carry, she drifts forward, collecting everything and quietly storing it in her canvas bag.
Mindful of the glass jars, she climbs back through the window. When she turns around, she's face to face with a gun.
A growling voice rolls across her skin. "Hand over the bag, you scrawny fuck— Oh. You have tits."
Her body trembles. A man with dirty blonde hair, scraggly chin beard, and bored blue eyes gives her a once-over. A survivor? He is tall, built like a truck, and she can't comprehend how someone can still have so much muscle mass. Why would he threaten to kill another breather?
"Th-there's a bunch left in there still—"
"And you delivered," the man sneers, pointing the gun from her forehead to under her chin. "Appreciated." His free hand slides the strap of the canvas bag off her shoulder. Maka doesn't move, praying the knife trapped between her hip and the broken window remains hidden. "I'll be takin' the jacket, as well."
What kind of luck is it, she wonders, to be robbed during the apocalypse? "You wouldn't shoot that here, you'd draw every zombie on the block," she hisses, watching her armor be stolen. She understands the muscle mass, now. Bullies are well-fed.
"It's got a silencer, slut." He jabs her jaw, forcing her face upward. "You're kinda cute, in that biker gang crazy bitch sorta way." His mouth parts in a lecherous smile. Maka restrains the urge to projectile vomit. "How old are you anyway? Eighteen? ...Seventeen?"
Her hand inches towards her knife, glowering at this dipshit who'd somehow lived to see the end of the world. She's never considered attacking an uninfected person until now, and she's not sure how that blank reply of apathy from her conscience defines her as a person.
"Sixteen?" he fishes, his teeth gleaming like broken glass, deadly and full of promise. "Shit. S'not many of us left, you know," he murmurs, one hand creeping near her waist. "And, all considering, you're awfully clean."
If this is the result, she's never touching soap again. She shudders, revolted, when his fingers trace up her side, thumb brushing over her breast. He leans in close, towering over her, the barrel of his pistol digging meaningfully into her jaw. "You gonna scream?" he warns, breath hot in her ear.
"No," she grits out. But you will. Her hand closes over the knife’s handle.
"Kinda disappointing, actually," he says, pulling the gun away so he can replace it with his mouth.
She doesn’t scream. The two bullets sound fake, muffled and whispering through the silencer to lodge into the Old Crone's face. The survivor is snarling, gun still pointed at the turned old woman crumpling to the rotted tomatoes and celery, and Maka reaches out, heart shrieking, a sparrow-turned-falcon that cries over this unjust hell, this city of death, and takes her one talon and stabs him under the armpit.
He howls. Her internal timer begins now, ducking behind him and striking again inside one of his thighs. Shots fire wildly, ricocheting off the metal of the garage. She gets one good stab that she hopes is in the general vicinity of a kidney and gets an elbow slammed to the side of her head in return. She crashes back through the broken window.
As she topples, the image of a gun barrel flashes in her vision, and she hears the ghost noise of a bullet being fired. Something touches her shoulder—a lukewarm caress that gently plows through her skin and leaves muted lava in its wake. In the next instant, she's groaning on the floor with broken jars of pickles and jelly, and she thinks she's been shot. The entire left side of her back is heating, igniting, aflame with pain. She looks at the window she'd fallen through, blood painting thick, fang-like shards.
She's running out of time. She can't find her knife, but she sees the gun held around the side of the window and pointing blindly into the building. She rolls, mason jars shattering between whispers of bullets. Maka blinks away thundering pain that threatens to black out her vision, and she sees the knife at the base of a shelf. She reaches out with a foot to drag it closer.
"FUCK, what—you cunt what did you—urrgh!"
She'd aimed for arteries, is what, but she’s suddenly fixated with the blade of her knife, the red blood of the survivor thinly spread over the dark stains beneath it, and realizes she may have done something much worse than murder as she listens to the teeth-gnashing screams of her attacker.
Pain vibrates down her spine, and her back feels wet, but she doesn't want to see if she's dripping blood just yet, doesn't want to think of the kind of target that will paint on her, doesn't want to think of a bird whose wing is slowly being ripped away. The timer ticks down, her thudding heart measuring the seconds until a potential horde of undead would moan its way into the garage bays. She stands, wobbling from a wave of painful sensory overload, and listens. The garage echoes with the quieting grunts and snarls of the survivor, or the had-been-survivor, as he either bleeds to death or goes into shock from stab wounds.
Maka nearly falls through the window trying to climb back through it. Glass scrapes her hands, but they're paper cuts to whatever her back is sporting.
The survivor is curled up on the floor, hair slowly turning white, pale eyes darkening to red. A wheezing snarl bubbles up his throat as his teeth begin to turn, angry words on the verge of forming. Maka finds the canvas bag. Gingerly picks it up. Tries to get the coat off the floor but the thought of that much movement forces her to reconsider. Leaves it. And to hell with the vending machine.
She cuts across the thick cords of muscle in the survivor’s neck on her way out, eyes watering when she steps over Gran's body and sees the peaceful look on her face.
She gave you a wonderful gift, she'd said, but Maka wonders what it is. She has just killed a man twice.
Does that make him number twenty-eight or twenty-nine? Her heart whispers, will Soul be thirty?
She wishes she hadn't heard.
The inside of her left boot squelches with every step. There's a walker tailing her—she's a block ahead of it, the freeway bridge finally arching overhead, but the walker is gaining. Lucky that it's not a child. Lucky that it's the only one.
Unlucky that she's bleeding into her shoe, half the jars in the canvas bag shattered and leaking, and her hand so weak that it can barely hang on to her knife. Could she take out the zombie in one blow? Maybe. Not really. She should drop the bag and go. She should forget it and kill herself now.
She is too stubborn. She sees the library, and beyond it stands the proud sign of the gentleman's club. Maka's never been so happy to see something so gaudy in her life.
If she makes it through the library door, will another zombie be waiting for her? Will she be the last one once again? No—one thing at a time: a walker is following her, and she is too injured to defend herself because she is an idiot who hadn't stolen pedo-survivor's gun.
Her head's getting fuzzy, her limbs tingling and numb. It's mid-afternoon, the sun stretching a wobbly, undead shadow at her feet, but she can’t be sure if it’s the walkers or hers. She stumbles across gravel, hobbling her way to Safe, get there, just fucking get there, hash-tag-baller, get there before she becomes the bird shot from the sky, still as a boulder, like an Old Crone replacement who only knows one name.
"Soul!" she screams, but to what end, she doesn't know—he's probably dead or dead, or if he's not he's throwing up or thinking up cheesier one-liners to make her blush or making a nuclear bomb out of vending machine parts and ink-jet cartridges, that fucking nerd, please don't be dead— "SOUL!"
And then a bomb goes off. It deafens her, ears ringing with an explosive whip-crack of sound, the shadow following her melting away.
"I waited," a rasping voice says from the library's roof. Soul props the shotgun at his feet and leans heavily on it, looking on step nine-and-a-half of ten on the stairway to death. "That was... really fucking loud. Hurry up."
He hasn't unlocked the door, so she reaches up for the key, stretching her back and reigniting what had become the mindless throb of her wound, pain shrieking to her toes. She doesn't remember walking in or where her bag of re-stolen-stolen goods has gone. She's just standing next to the attic stairs, teetering, watching Soul catch his breath halfway down.
"I lost your jacket," she says, because it's the only thing she can think of.
In the next moment, he's standing before her, the ladder back in the ceiling. She peers at it, BlackStar's giant arrow pointing skyward, where stars go. "You were limping,” he says. “Where are you hurt? Oh my shit that's blood—"
In the next moment, she's in the bathroom, watching candlelight playing on the shapes of an open bottle of not-ibuprofen spilled in the basin. She leans on the sink and tries to breathe as glass is pried from her skin. She catches a glimpse of him in the mirror looking stricken and other, desperate to help her and desperate to not trip over her on the last step to death. Hunting-cat eyes dilated like empty-socket windows examine the blood oozing down her back. She's topless. How did that happen?
His lips are tightly pressed together. "There's... no—" His burning hands shake against her. "No needle, but—" He keeps stopping mid-sentence, shuddering, and she can't focus long enough to piece it all the fragments together. He does something with first aid tape and floss that forces her skin back together, and slowly covers that with gauze and more tape. He must have a thing for tape. Tape and bondage. She's topless, how did that happen?
Time blinks forward again and she's on the bathroom floor, head resting against sink cabinetry. She feels better sitting down, or maybe that's the numb cotton of narcotics slinking through her chest. Her legs are smashed strangely in the small space, smearing old blood everywhere. Oh, look, her shirt. Not-white and very-red in a puddle next to the toilet altar.
Warm breath fans across her neck. A hand is on her shoulder, fingers flexing, trembling. Half her wound is still uncovered, but there's no sounds of tape being peeled and torn to finish the job.
There's no answer—no 'speaking', no 'that's me', no 'you can thank me later'. Harsh breathing becomes more so, like lungs riddled with tumors and tar, like lungs giving up the ghost.
"Maka," he says, his nails clenching painfully into her shoulder. The bathroom reverberates with his strangled efforts at sucking in air, and what little of his voice escapes she thinks sounds a bit like weeping.
Maka's hand inches for her hip, a big 30 stamped into her mind in the worst of tallies, but her arm is rubbery and drugged and bloodless. Her fingers fumble for a knife that isn't there. With a nervous glance, she sees it under the shredded gore of her tank top. She reaches, eyes closing, picturing his mouth parting with those piranha-wolf-other fangs peeking out, descending on the still-exposed portion of her wound. Her left hand nudges her shirt off the blade handle.
"Soul," she shakily tries. Kill him, kill him, kill him, she tells her arm, but it doesn't obey.
One jagged breath is sucked into his mouth, his other hand skimming up around to hold her by the throat. Like reading aloud a language he can pronounce but no longer understands, he hisses, "There's something in you."
Warmth touches her, tastes her.
He screams. She's painfully shoved against the cabinet. For a long moment, she reels. The knife is in her hand. Soul is missing.
Soul is screaming.
His voice echos through the library, howls that have no meaning to her save 'I am dying'. Maka stands, gasping, shivering, wired. She hasn't been bitten—it's his last favor to her. She moves the knife from her left hand to her right and follows his calls for her to fulfill a promise.
Once outside the bathroom, she freezes amidst dancing candle flames and darkening daylight. A cacophony of moans comes from every direction, thumps and thuds knocking on all the windows. Terror constricts her, stifling and suffocating.
Her scream, the gunshot, whatever, had called in The Strip. They come for the buffet, the slaughterhouse, and sing a chorus for one of their own who shrieks between two bookshelves of classic literature.
She sinks deeper into the arms of painkillers, welcoming stone to grow around her heart as she leans on shelving to get to Soul. He's retching again, spitting a dark plague on the floor as he huddles against a window, tangled in black sheets.
Maka's knife is a simple slicing knife, borrowed indefinitely from Gran. It's narrow, but long as her forearm, with a straight-edged gleam honed from hours of sharpening with one of Soul's many miscellaneous survival gadgets. The point watches his throat as Maka waits for him to stop breathing and turn. He must turn. He must turn on her.
Soon, he stops howling and vomiting. All around them, the crowd cries for blood. His breath quietens until she can't hear it anymore.
If I don't remember my name—
She will not cry; she isn’t the hunting falcon this time. She is only a sparrow missing a wing.
His head of snowy hair turns to her, red eyes dilated and reflecting light. She makes the point of the knife slowly dance, and his eyes follow.
His mouth opens.
A violent shudder crashes through her. She's hallucinating. She imagined it. "Soul," she insists, voice wavering, knife moving closer to his neck in threat.
She can’t find her breath when he slowly sits up on his knees, hands held up in surrender.
Maka violently shakes her head, refusing this. She trembles, reaching low, knife touching his bared throat. It comes out like a sob. "Soul."
His chin moves in the barest of nods, wary of cutting himself. His chest moves as he breathes. "Soul Evans, twenty-two. P-Pianoman. You found me in a tree and saved me. You saved me at—" he swallows nervously, twitching at the sounds of the mob banging on the window behind him, "—at the, uh, fountain. It was broken. You saved me a million times. You—you're Maka Albarn. You can fly in trees. You're tiny and you're scary as hell sometimes and you're sarcastic and you like books and Spaghettios and cats and you never wanna admit you're lonely."
It's the start of day seven. She's known him for a week and realizes he, consequently, has known her for a week as well. Her knife falls away from him, tears bubbling out her eyes.
"...Also, you're topless right now."
The blade sticks into the carpet and she crumples to her knees, sobbing. His hands are hesitant at first, but then sure, gently grasping her arms.
"I didn't— I didn't infect you, did I?" he asks.
She shakes her head, but it's a lie. He's stolen fire and brought the clay of her heart to life.
"I'm gonna cut it," he tells her. She lays on her good side, thin gauze wrapped around her breasts. He folds a tiny pair of scissors out of the most ridiculous Swiss-army knockoff she's ever seen, and slowly cuts off handfuls of the tangled mass that is her hair. He's worried the length of it will infect her wound. She thinks it's already inflamed enough that it's probably a moot point, but it'll be nice to get her hair off the back of her sweating neck awhile.
She's feverish. She doesn't think it's the virus, but it's an infection nonetheless. Soul's been trying to keep the gash clean, but their supplies are limited. They're out of fever pills, too.
They're not quite out of food yet, but with his staggering appetite, it won't be long. Soul's wrists still look thin and brittle, but his face is beginning to fill in and he looks much more lively, even with the sleepless bags under his eyes. He hasn't puked in two days.
"How are you feeling," she asks as he chops another hunk of her hair away. He's agitated from answering this question every three hours, but he obliges her.
"I haven't felt like this since before I was bit," he says. The day before, he'd cut himself on the edge of a stripped wire and his blood had bled red. "Worry about yourself," he grumbles.
She's cold. He gives her the quilt, but doesn't let it rest on her back. It smells like sweat and half-turned geek. It puts her to sleep.
Most of the banging outside the library has ceased, the mob having slipped into stasis and now camping out until the inevitable grand opening. It'll be soon, she knows, but she tries not to think about it.
They'd been told help would be sent, but bitterness fills her mouth. The others were probably no better than that survivor who'd done this to her—the one who killed Old Crone, whom Maka had killed in turn. This is probably some kind of justice, she thinks, for her turning on a breather to avenge a zombie.
At least Soul is okay. Her killing spree of men will end at twenty-eight-slash-nine, and her life-saving tally will go up one for reasons she still does not understand. It's day four since he'd called her out on her loneliness. She's dying.
"You're dying," he whispers, fingers clenching against the carpet. "I have to do something."
She groans. “No. Once you leave here, there won't be a way back in. There's hundreds out there."
"I was thinking I'd go to a tower. See if I can get it back online."
No, she doesn't say, you're thinking about drawing them away. "Soul, you'll have to jump into a tree."
He grimaces. "Yeah, that crossed my mind."
"You're afraid of heights."
"Yes, genius, that did not leave with the infection."
"They're not like Old Crone, they're faster."
"I've been bit once, it wasn't so bad."
She growls, frustrated.
"Look, I'll tie you to the desk if I gotta. I'm going."
Maka closes her eyes, willing away the sting that threatens them. Since he'd held her as she cried, her heart has been more obnoxious and emotional than ever. It burns relentlessly. "You're not. You drop crowbars," she argues.
His hand is cool on her cheek; he's the normal one and she's the one on fire this time. "If I don't go, you'll die," he says, and they're back to square one of this argument.
She glares at him, head pounding. "You leave and both of us die."
Soul shakes his head. "I can't sit here and let it happen." He moves her shortened hair out of her face. "I'll find them. I'll bring Prometheus to you. Wait for me."
He draws it from her unwilling throat. "I'll wait," she murmurs.
He smiles that half-smile, the friendly smirk, and stands, hitching his backpack on his shoulder. "I'll take you on a date when I get back," he says, pulling down the attic ladder.
Maka blinks, shell-shocked. "Not until you play me a song," she blurts. She blames the fever. At his confused look, she adds, "Pianoman."
"It's 'sing us a song', nerd," he scoffs.
"I don't think I wanna hear you sing."
"You're such a troll." He climbs. "It's a deal," he calls, his feet disappearing into the ceiling. "I won't forget."
Maka hears the hatch open and close, his footsteps creaking across the roof. This is how he'd felt, she realizes, dread pooling in her throat. Like this, but in reverse.
To the library, to the myths of courageous and cowardly people, to the legends of normal men she whispers, "Be careful."
She opens a jar of raspberry preserves and it looks so much like the crushed-in skull of Gran's grandchild that it only makes her throw up. She aches everywhere, her pulse so quick and loud in her ears that she's tempted to rip out her own throat for silence. If it's not her heart driving her mad, it's the Old Crone in the bathroom, chirping, seeing Maka's tears with blind eyes, bashing her skull open to the heart of the matter.
He isn't coming back. She is going to die alone.
This is how it had been, for him. For days. For weeks. She can't comprehend it. He must truly be made of steel—she won't last another day. She's so tired of shivering, sore from tensing every muscle in her body for hours. It sounds like her bones are creaking under the stress, or maybe that's the glass under the strain of the walkers that hadn't followed Soul. Maybe it's the trees, talking to her, claiming her as theirs to use as she had used them.
She wishes they would just burn her to ash so her breather-heart would stop screaming. Because it screams, constantly, never again whispering. It demands she remember her father, the 'big sparrow', the face he'd erased for her sake. It demands she remember Gran, her grandmother of four days and five months, her ghost of always, heartlessly reminding her that she's a person named 'Maka'.
It screams for herself, of the bird with one wing she has become, burned in the stolen fire. Maka Albarn: biker gang crazy bitch; Maka Albarn: tree-climbing idiot-murderer with a shitty taste in music; Maka Albarn: lonely.
She hears a dull pop, and she thinks it’s the sound of her sanity turning just like everything else. There's bright light searing into her eyes, and she is @Prometheus, punished by the gods for putting life into what was supposed to die. The gods are angry. They demand blood. Hers, heating and cooling, over and over, tempering like a carving knife to stab under arms and in kidneys. Blood to pay for her crimes, to write in red ink the stories of the courageous, craven, average lonely girl and her deeds.
Don't scream, they say as they write in her blood. Maka Albarn, twenty-five, measurements: 28-slash-9 degrees, 19 minutes, 12 seconds nowhere. The Crone chirps her name as witness. Gran takes her hands, dips them in ink, and holds them for all to see the red.
She can sense you better than most.
Don't scream. Not ever. Not for anything. Because your mother gave you a wonderful gift, the Crone says, spreading Maka's hands across Las Vegas: City of Death, smearing it with a glaze of red over black.
There's something in you.