Eighth in the dystopian!verse series.
It doesn't work that way, she knows. There are monsters under your bed, and no one to save you but yourself.
When: Post-Ground Zero
Singapore, she finds, is a wonderful little country, smaller than London and a lovely mix of city and suburb and races of all colours. They wind up here, weeks after Beijing. There are not many places for them to run, he tells her, not when Britannia and Americania are both after them. Eurasia will not back them but will not begrudge them asylum, and Eastasia is a mess of infighting.
Few countries have remained unscathed in the wake of the rise of megapowers. Singapore, along with Norway and Switzerland and Denmark, are among the smattering of independent nations that have carefully kept themselves neutral.
This tiny city-state is crowded and densely populated, and they lose themselves easily in the masses along the shopping district of Orchard Road. The scars of war are not so prominent here, and she feels self-conscious and wrong, like she does not belong amongst these innocents.
She wonders at the sheer numbers on the streets, and he informs her that there are no rations or curfews or population cleansings here. It is overwhelming, the freedom these people must have. She cannot remember what freedom tastes like. There are stories of a time before The Government, but no one can really recall what it was like. They tell these stories like myths and legends, fairytales spun to lure children into believing that better days can come again.
She wants to believe these stories, she really does, but the death and destruction and suffering and chaos she has seen are cruel slaps in the face. They are, she reasons, called stories for a reason. Stories are only ever half-truths, or prettied-up lies fed to wanting souls.
It rains later in the night, as the clocks approach twenty-one. They get a room in an obscure backpacker’s hostel somewhere in Chinatown, and she stays behind when he leaves to buy their dinner. She watches the rain splatter the grey-black pavement seven teetering floors below, and it makes her feel a little less uncomfortable in this good and untainted country. She presses her palm flat against the window pane, and it is cool and thin and real.
I need you to explain why you left me. His words haunt her, and the things she has done but cannot recall dance beyond the grasp of her memory, like fluttering ribbons or wisps of smoke. She dreams on most nights, she knows, more nightmares than anything else, but she can never remember them when she comes gasping-crawling back to consciousness. She wonders what it is that she dreams of, that makes her so terrified. She wonders if she really wants to know.
She doesn’t know why he is here, why he is still here. Sometimes, when he takes her hand or trails a caress down the curve of her back, she thinks his touch is so familiar, like the back of her hand or her face in the mirror, but then the feeling is gone, and he is a not-quite-stranger again. There is a persistent feeling that she has, that he will disappear without warning one day, and that she needs him far more than he will ever need her. She doesn’t know where these feelings come from.
The queen bed is soft when she settles down on it, and she strokes the cotton sheets under her hands. There are no wrinkles here, not in these sheets. The thought puzzles her. She toes off her shoes and tugs down her jeans, climbing under the covers. Her memory is a circle with too many dead ends, and sleep provides a quiet escape. She thinks of her nightmares, and dismisses them.
If you cannot remember, she thinks, then it cannot hurt you.
She will look back at this and laugh, but the laughter will not be happy.
She slides out of sleep when she hears the turning of the key in the door. Her skin is clammy with sweat, and her heart is beating much too fast. The claws of nightmares she suffered through slip away, but they leave lacerations in their wake. Her breaths are short. She doesn’t sit up, not yet, and she keeps her eyes closed.
It will not be the first time he sees her in a nightmare-induced panicked state, but it doesn’t mean she wants him to see her like this anymore than she can help. He is too careful with her, treading around her like a broken bird, or like a fragile porcelain doll. Sometimes she finds herself wishing he would break her a little, just so she can see what’s inside.
He enters the room, and she hears him speak in a hushed voice. He is on his comm device, speaking to someone she is sure she once knew. She wishes they had more in common, beyond their constant need for running and their perfecting the art of avoidance.
“Nothing. No, she doesn’t remember. Everything. She’s forgotten everything.” It does not surprise her, not really, to find that he is talking about her. It makes her curious, almost, to learn what he will say. It makes her want to laugh a little. Nothing. Everything. The paradoxes confuse her.
“No.” She jumps a little at this; his voice is angry and unwavering, biting and cold. She pities whoever it is on the end of the line. “Stay away. You’ve – you’ve done more than enough.” He runs a weary hand through his tousled hair.
“I don’t think she can ever forgive you for that. I know I can’t.”
She hears him toss the comm device into his duffel bag, and assumes that he must have cut the other side off. The need to know why is almost choking.
She sits up, and he freezes for a split-second before setting the food he had bought back on the tiny table in the corner.
“I got you chicken rice,” he says with a smile, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
She nods, and pads over to the table. “Who was that, on the line?”
She almost misses his flinch at her question. “You heard that?”
“I did. Who was it?” Something tells her that this knowledge is crucial.
He pauses, and a long moment passes before he answers. “Jack. His name is Jack.”
“Jack,” she repeats, and she rolls the single syllable around her tongue. She looks up at him, and his eyes are unreadable. “I knew him, before.”
He tugs her close to him, and buries his face in her hair. “Not anymore.”
She doesn’t think she imagines the feel of his pulse racing behind her hands.
Dreams of blood and death drag her from the depths of sleep at a quarter to four. She is curled into him, palm flat against his heart, legs entwined with his. She does not scream or cry or rail, not this time, but he is awake and aware all the same. She wonders how he does that.
She wonders if he sleeps at all. He closes his eyes and his breath slows down and he stops running for a bit, but she is sure that is not sleep, not really – that is more like forgetting. They are both experts at it.
“Are you alright?” His face is close to hers, and she can see the separate eyelashes that frame the windows to his soul. “Your face is a little red –”
Something he says triggers it, and she finds herself clutching her head as what feels like a thousand marching soldiers run through her mind. Her head is burning, burning like dying suns and little girls and woodcutters and forests-of-carmine, and she distantly hears someone screaming. She thinks it might be her. Images pour into her mind like dozens of shattered mirror shards reflecting a million different things at once, without order or coherence or logic or understanding, and she catches fragments of
Red – wolf – it’s – you’ll – perfectly safe – can be restored – rising – oh god – is she going to be – something’s wrong – what is – lord no – I’m – blood on her hands, why – sorry – don’t let her – bar the – so sorry – deadlock it, she mustn’t – this is – kill – canary – he will – find them, you have to – Thames – bad, you are – hurts – he will kill you for this – please don’t – why is this – help – you betrayed – help me
He is shaking her, and she thinks the edge she hears in his voice is panic. Her head is searing, like fire and brands and white-hot knives, and suddenly the scar on her torso is too. He holds her tight against his chest, and his solid presence is the only thing that keeps her tethered to reality amidst the pain and agony that ravages her mind.
It stops, eternities and lifetimes later, and her voice is hoarse when she speaks. “He was there. Jack. Jack was there, when they –”
He tilts her face up to meet his eyes. “When they what?”
She looks away, and stares up at the ceiling above them.