Edan screamed, his back arching against the dusty wall of the old subway tunnel. His vision blurred as the cloth was pressed to his abdomen, as the medicine mingled with his overflowing blood. Heat raced along his spine, only for a wave of ice to follow.
Another shriek pressed at the base of his throat, one he couldn't hold in. It echoed down the damp tunnel, so loud some subconscious part of his brain instantly regretted it. Wished he hadn't screamed, wished he'd held it in, for fear someone would hear and their position would be compromised.
Kneeling in front of him, her fingers sticky with his blood, Arra's lips were pressed tightly together. "I know. I know, but it needs to be bandaged. Just hold on."
Through the pain, the wavering lines of it that obscured his vision, he met her frightened brown eyes. Trying for a smile that no doubt only surfaced as a grimace, he grunted, "You're unnaturally good at this."
Arra flinched, tearing her gaze away and fixating it instead on the bandages she held. Scabbing cuts crisscrossed over her knuckles and the back of her hand. Edan's teeth clenched; no doubt she'd broken the glass in the abandoned hospital to get them with her bare hand.
"I wanted to be a nurse once," Arra whispered. "Before all this."
Before all this. Before the virus spread, blossoming in ugly yellow spots on your skin, stealing your mind, killing you in less than a week. Before the fires raged and the stores were ransacked. Before the only place that was safe from the sick was underground, where the disease couldn't spread in the darkness and the dampness. Before the world turned to chaos. Before it became a free for all, control lost. Trust gone. Before you shot before you saw who you were shooting at.
That was what had happened to Edan- he'd gathered that much. All he remembered was a blurry figure in the shadows of the old subway tunnel. Then the shot.
Arra found him after, and she'd stayed by his side ever since. Three days had passed since Edan awoke in his world, his universe, of pain. Only three, yet, somehow, it felt longer. Like a lifetime, except in that lifetime, he'd learned nothing about her, and she'd learned everything about him.
Edan watched her now as she worked, strands of brown hair cascading into her eyes. She nudged them away with the back of her hand, smearing the faintest bit of his blood on her forehead.
Tilting back on her heels, she decided, "I need you to sit up. Can you do that?"
"No problem," he replied through gritted teeth, though the moment he tried to, a strangled cry escaped him. Falling back against the stone, sweat beading on his brow, he dug his fingers into the loose gravel bits that littered the grimy floor. "Scratch that. Maybe a bit of a problem."
"Hilarious." The corner of Arra's mouth twitched upward.
He took it as a good sign, and as she gently began wrapping his abdomen, he added, "You know, I've been wondering why you just didn't leave me when you saw me. Anyone else would have- I could have had the virus."
Her brows quirked, but she didn't raise her head. Just wound the bandages. One over the other. Silent.
"So I came to a conclusion as to why you didn't," he continued.
"Do tell," she said dryly.
Edan flashed a winning smile. "My dashing good looks." When she didn't reply, he tentatively pressed, "Unless, of course, it was something else."
With a yank that made him wince, Arra wiped her hands on her tattered jeans. Pushing herself to her feet, she announced, "All done."
Pivoting sharply on her heel, she crossed to the other side of the tunnel, slumping down against the wall. She busied herself with breaking open a can of beans with a sharp rock, then dumping them into the dented pot above the small fire she'd carefully constructed. Edan watched her, the flames dancing across her soot-streaked face, one hand still resting on the bandage she'd so carefully wrapped around him.
Four days earlier...
Arra's fingers wrapped around the knife strapped to her waist, the curved handle fitting perfectly in her sweaty palm. She'd lifted it off a rotting corpse in the alleyway near Suzanne's diner, along with some other things. Good pickings. Ones so good she was surprised they hadn't already been looted until she saw the yellow spots on the cadaver's aged skin.
Enough to keep most people away, save the various gangs that now ruled the city. But they didn't keep Arra away. She knew that the virus died with the host. It was only a danger when they were living.
So she'd taken the knife, simple and dark red, along with a backpack. It had contained a coil of rope, three cans of expired tomatoes, a loaded gun, and half a pack of matches. One of the backpack straps was busted, so she loaded the items into her own, leaving the bag behind.
Arra had strapped the knife to her belt but left the gun in her bag. No one would attack her for a knife- it wasn't worth the risk. But the gun... The gun others would kill for. Weapons were hard to come by, with the gangs hoarding them all.
Arra might have been scared of them, the gangs, with their muscular men and women, tattooed and pierced. Gun-toating, load-mouthed, if she didn't know what they really were. Just as scared as the rest of them, but they hid it in their dog-like packs.
Arra, on the other hand, dealt with the fear alone.
After the body, she'd scored something else in an abandoned hospital. Medical supplies. Bandages. She'd punched the glass open with her fist, the deal too good to pass up.
The streets were mostly empty, just as all open places above ground proved to be. The only people who littered the city were the dead ones, and the handful who were scavaging, same as her.
A shout caused her to pause her quick gait, ducking behind a dumpster. The bags within had been slit open, the garbage rotting in the evening sun. Flies that had turned their noses up at the bodies crawled over the putrid stank, wings buzzing.
Crouching, Arra peered around the dumpster. Two men stood in the alley, one apparently caught in the act of breaking and entering. Not a severe crime- not a crime in the least, anymore- except that someone had lived within the bottom level of the building.
He was disheveled, toting a rifle. Jerking it at the other man, he yelled something Arra couldn't catch. The second man dropped the rock he'd used to bust the window, holding his hands up in defense.
The first man didn't give him a chance to finish, aiming the gun at his head. Arra looked away when he shot, pressing her forehead to the chipping metal, plugging her ears with her fingers. She stayed there, hidden until she was sure the man with the rifle was gone. Only then did she shakily rise to her feet, the rifle shot still echoing around her. Averting her gaze from the man lying in his own blood, she hurried away, her quickened pace turning into a jog.
He wasn't worth looting. Not when the rifle-toting man remained. That was his kill. He got the goods.
Reaching the entrance to the subway just as the sun began to set overhead, collapsed concrete and street signs formed an all but impenetrable barrier inside. She moved toward a tilted stop sign. The red paint was faded, chipping off as she slid it to the left. Behind it lay a gap just large enough for her skinny frame to slide through.
Weaseling through, Arra popped out on the other side. Adjusting the stop sign back in place, she faced the dank, darkness of the tunnels. She switched on her flashlight, the small device humming in her palm. As the light beam cascaded over them, rats skittered around her feet, their scraggly bodies as thin and underfed as her.
Sliding her free thumb beneath her backpack strap, she faced the winding, concrete tunnel. Her camp lay within. Her sanctuary. The last secure place, it seemed, in the world.
Edan awoke to Arra, softly shaking him awake. Before he was fully conscious, she pressed the rim of a bowl to his lips. Broth slipped into his mouth then, cold, tasteless, and no doubt leftover from the beans, but he guzzled it greedily.
Arra yanked the bowl away, the smallest splatter landing on his chest. "Not so fast," she chided. "You'll make yourself sick."
"Aren't I already am?" he rebutted, but when she handed him the bowl, he drank it slower all the same. His fingers knocked together, clattering against the worn plastic.
Arra took the bowl away when he was done, heading back to her small fire. She crouched, her back to him.
Edan glanced down at his abdomen. The bandage had been soaked through with blood, and it only grew damper as he shifted. Yet, with a groan, he staggered first to his knees, then to his feet. Stumbling across the subway tunnel, his dragging footsteps drew Arra's attention when he was a few feet from her.
She paled when she saw him, a hand wrapped around his stomach. Hurrying to him, she slid an arm around him, guiding him toward the nearest wall. Her camp was hastily constructed; despite the three days that had passed, he got the feeling she hadn't been in the area of the tunnel long.
Easing him to the ground, she bit her limp as he slumped forward. His breath escaped in gasps from his short trek, every pore leaking sweat.
Arra dabbed at his forehead with her sleeve. "What were you thinking?"
"Was cold," Edan muttered, though that was anything but the truth. He felt as if he'd hiked through a desert at midday, with the sun beating down on him. The fire didn't help, more of a torture than a comfort. "Looked warmer over here."
Arra opened her mouth, no doubt about to retort with some witty response by the gleam in her eye, but her words faltered as she glimpsed his abdomen. "You're bleeding again. Idiot."
His mind was muddled, from the heat or overbearing agony, he didn't know. Nonetheless, he tried for a sarcastic comment. Anything to take the worried look off her face. The only thing that surfaced was, "I try."
She scooted closer, once again tending to him. It seemed to be the only thing she did. Tended to him, made him eat, made him sleep. In return, he teased her. Got her to smile when he was lucky. An unfair return, he knew, but it was all he had. All he knew, really. He tried to make the best of the worst. He tried to distract from the inevitable.
"You would have made a good nurse," he murmured, his head lolled to one side. Fighting to stay conscious. "Your hands don't even shake."
Softly, she finished with his wound. A small smile was evident on her lips, and she raised her head to look at him. "Thank you."
It was then Edan noticed how close she was. Close enough that suddenly, despite his muddled mind, he knew it wasn't only the fire flushing his cheeks. Making his mouth dry. The pain from the wound faded. Vanished, even, replaced by the sudden realization that her fingers still lingered on his arm. That her breath warmed his face, but it wasn't as stale as he knew his own to be. If anything, it was sweet. Reminded him of summer, of days spent with his younger brother in the treehouse, of his friends at the lake. Reminded him of before.
Before all this.
The firelight warmed her skin, but it didn't put the light in her eyes. Some part of Edan, some ridiculous part, hoped that he had. The same part that made him lean closer, than made his eyes slide shut, but not from the exhaustion. From something else, entirely. From something he never thought he'd know, not after everything that had happened.
Before all this.
And then, a centimeter from him, Arra pulled away. Abruptly. Shaking her head.
"No. No. I won't."
"No what?" Edan asked. "No, because I'm shot? No, because I might have the virus? I hate to break it to you, but if I did, you'd probably have it by now. We'd both be dying, not just-" He broke off at Arra's startled gaze.
"Not just you?" she whispered. Miserably, he nodded. Pressing her lips into a straight line, Arra shoved herself away, falling hard against the wall a few feet away. "Don't talk like that," she seethed. "You aren't dying."
All his mirth, the cascade of emotions he'd felt only seconds before, seeped away. Left behind was a coldness, a bitterness, but it wasn't directed toward her. It would never be directed toward her. It was toward himself. For only finding Arra after he'd been shot. For discovering possibly the best thing he had left, and discovering it too late. For being as stupid as he had been to go looting in that camp. But he'd been starving. Desperate. And he'd paid the price for it.
"Edan, you won't die," Arra insisted.
Every inch of him wanted to argue otherwise. To say the truth they'd both known all along, but only he'd voiced. But she looked so scared. So terrified, so he forced a grin.
"Alright. You're the nurse. You tell me."
Three days earlier...
The journey to Arra's camp was long; her camp was concealed deep within the tunnels. She wouldn't have made the journey out of it had it not been crucial. The last of her food supply had dried up the day before.
She'd been careless with it, eating through it all. Not bothering to save some should she not find more food. And while she had, it still didn't erase her foolishness. Next time, she promised herself. They'll be food leftover when I venture out next time.
Passing the faded movie poster plastered to the wall, her step quicked involuntarily. She was close.
Only a turn remained until her camp when she paused, a noise ricocheting throughout the tunnel. Her heart quickened. Perhaps it was only the rats. Perhaps they'd knocked something over, searching for food.
Except she'd been gone from the camp for two days now. They would've figured out nothing was there.
Something else clattered to the stone floor, and Arra fumbled for her knife. At the last second, she changed her mind, instead sliding her backpack off her shoulders. The gun would be more effective. Farther range. Easier to hit.
Momentarily, a side of her wondered where the thoughts had come from. Wondered just exactly what she had become.
The sound of footsteps shook her from her thoughts. Arra gripped the gun, cocking it. Slowly, she eased herself forehead, tentatively placing each foot on the ground. Creeping around the corner.
The flash of movement, of a leather jacket and brown hair, digging through her campsite, was all she needed to see. Before she was fully conscious of it, Arra shot.
The bullet struck him down lower than she'd aimed for, lodging itself in his abdomen. He collapsed with a grunt onto the ground. Someone would have heard, the gunshot echoing around her. Someone would have heard, and they'd come.
Sprinting to her camp, sifted through by the assaulter, Arra's fingers flew as she packed up. Stuffed clothing and various items into bags. Taking only what she needed; the rest she could recover elsewhere.
Reaching to pack up her meager water supply, her fingers brushed the body's arm. It was then she fully glimpsed her target for the first time.
Arra froze, the breath knocked from her lungs. It was a boy, no older than herself. And he was still alive. Breathing, although shallowly. Blood soaking through the wound. His eyes were closed, clearly unconscious. Cleary taken by surprise.
Every inch of her begged her to leave him lying there. To save herself. But her hands wouldn't stop shaking. Her adrenaline began to fade, replaced with horror. She'd done that. She'd shot him.
"No," she whispered. "No, no, no." Crouching, she peeled back his ripped shirt, assessing the damage. He stirred, face contorting in pain, and she heard herself murmur, "It's alright. I won't leave you. You won't die."
Arra watched him carefully from her place against the wall, nodding firmly. Once. Twice. As if convincing herself.
"You won't die, Edan," she repeated. "I won't let you."
Now it was his turn to smile softly. "Thank you."
Scooting closer, Arra took his hand. Her palms were worn, the skin thick in some places, softer than velvet on others. Lacing their fingers together, she hesitated for a moment. Then, ever so gently, she lay her head on his shoulder.
Edan tensed, fearful she'd pull away. When it became clear she wasn't going to however, he relaxed, leaning his head on top of hers. Closing his eyes. Slipping off into sleep, where a world waited. Where he and Arra had met under different circumstances. Where they didn't sit in a subway tunnel, fighting each day for their lives. Where it was different, except for this moment. This beautiful moment.
Before all this.