The Girl in Red and the Grey Guardian
from IMMUNE | a Game of Thrones AU | written in collaboration with rog
One shot, every five days. In the future, that is the measure of salvation, the breadth of respite. (Simple, really.) The tip of a syringe, a pinch of the skin. It is a lesson that everyone knows, as elementary as the alphabet:
Every five days. Or burn.
The world is dying, and everyone in it.
There are parts of it that are already dead, huge swaths of the population who contracted the disease early on, who spread it too quickly and, when everything was said and done, who had no means to combat it. The cities fell first, then the outskirts, and then the rest of the world followed. As quick as anything, the great civilizations collapsed, as if the very strands of humanity that twined them together had suddenly, in one irrevocable moment, come undone. An exhalation, a spent breath – followed by nothing but silence. Some say there are places and people who go untouched, hidden away in the far, isolated places of the world, clinging to their gods and their remoteness as if it were an inoculation. But those stories are lies and those that tell them are liars and the hope they look to inspire is a poison - sweet and insidious and delusional.
The disease is in the water and in the air. It’s in the food (what’s left of it) and on every surface that’s ever been touched by skin or breath.
There is no escaping it. There is no cure.
No one is immune.
(Trust no one.
That was the last lesson the woman had taught her before she had died, her red hair having dulled to a flat rusty brown, clumps of it coming loose from the scalp, brittle and calcified, her body withered from the inside by the fever that would ultimately burn her into nothing. A husk, the girl had thought as fingers — no, bone, bone upon skin, no meat — curled around her wrist.
Yes, a husk — not enough flesh to warrant any other label — but a husk that had once loved her well. It was painful to think of the woman as anything but a scrap, a cast-off of a life now abandoned, detritus and nothing more. Words like mother and father and sister and brother were barbs, worked deep under the girl’s skin and irretrievable; they tore at her whenever she thought them, so she hadn’t, just stared with her pale blue eyes and repeated over and over in her mind, husk, husk, husk.
“You must remember.“ The woman’s voice had been thick with mucus – the color of river mud, she’d wretched her weight in it just the night before. The girl had had a name then and the woman had called her by it as her eyes closed, closed to never open again. “My little wolf. Trust no one, mm? Only him. He’s sworn to look after you and the salvation you carry.” Then the woman had sighed, as if to say it’s over, though the last words she ever spoke were:
Daybreak brings with it that rosy sunlight of golden hour; slipping through the bombed-out canyons of concrete and steel, stealing down empty alleyways that fail to scuttle with even the hurrying of rats; the light paints the husk of the city skyline more warm and more beautiful than it aught to be. But even then that warmth — both fleeting and illusionary — is brief and stretched thin, like the haze of a passing fog: there and then gone again so quickly, you scarcely remember it was there at all.
The silence, like golden hour, like all things in the world these days, can only last for so long. When it leaves, it takes the stillness along with it as gunfire shatters the chill morning air — distant and sharp like a stuttered rupture of cracked lightning. It reaches the girl and her guardian at a distance and it’s a good sign, an early morning blessing. What it means is that nobody’s looking for them, or if they are, they’re looking in the wrong place. It buys them a couple hours, maybe even more if they’re lucky; depends on how many of the windows have eyes in this part of the city, how many people are scurried away in the cracks and the crevices with their ears pressed to the wall. This neighborhood is a barren landscape of grey on grey — gunmetal to plantinum wash — and the girl with her red hair is impossible to ignore. (It’s a wonder he hasn’t shorn her bare by now.)
At the sound she stirs, slowly at first, her nerve endings becoming aware of her surroundings at a even crawl from heel to fingertip; like a series of florescent bulbs flicked on in a long corridor or drives spinning to life in some complicated machine. Her biology is different than his or anyone else’s. Hers is unique. Singular.
(There is no one like her; there is only her. And that’s why the girl must live.)
Drawing herself up onto her knees, she looks for him (he’s always near). And when she finds him with her clear, shining eyes, the girl doesn’t bother to rise, just crawls over to him across the cracked and seamed floor, hands reaching for him, searching for his throat and his forehead, searching for the fever he never tells her about but that she can sense nevertheless. Like blood in the water, like a scent on the air.
(There is no one like her; there is only her. And this is the how and the why.)
The girl does not answer his greeting, not with words or with voice, only with her eyes and the pausing of her hands — one now on either side of his face, gauging the heat of his skin beneath the stubble of his cheeks. Hi. Hi. She forms the words silently as if testing their shape in her mouth, as if pretending to taste the sound that never comes. Whether the girl is mute or silent by choice is a question that circumstance has not yet answered for the man; it’s an answer that perhaps will never come, though by the time everything is said and done there will be much cause for moaning and weeping on all sides.
She touches his mouth — hi — and then his chin — hi — and then settles back onto her haunches, staring at him accusingly from underneath her thicket of unruly red hair. Her understanding of his vaccinations is rudimentary at best, never having known the needle herself, but when the fever burns in him, it burns in her as well — not as pain or weakness but as irritation. You’re dying, you’re dying, is what her gaze tells him whenever he gets the shakes and the shits and can do nothing but bundle himself in what meager blankets they have and ride the sweats out until the next shot. On nights like those, she lays her small white hands on him, rummages through his pockets and his things until she finds those precious syringes. Take, take, says her touch every time as she urges the needle between his fingers; but he never does, he always waits.
He’ll burn soon. She knows.
The girl shakes her head; the man answers.
Which means it’s time to go.
Five days since his last injection, another two before he’ll dose again.
It’s less a vaccination as it is a temporary reprieve, one that gets harder and harder to find as the supplies run thin and the survivors run desperate. Rumors have spread of the rich still held up in the south, stockpiling the stuff by the crateful, but the man knows the reek of propaganda when he smells it, so he ignores it and continues to steer them onward, towards the north.
(He’ll do it, even as he burns, because he’d promised. He’d promised her and the last word she ever spoke had been his name and how could he ever begin to repay such a debt.)
The sickness in him is only an ember now, but the girl beside him knows how well time fans that slow smoldering sufferance into a fire that does nothing but consume. It’s a flame that will never touch her body, but which she’s seen in other people — people who are now nothing but soot and ash, their corpses doused and set alight to prevent the rot from inspiring other, less deadly sicknesses. As they pick their way over wrecked street curbs and empty lanes of ruptured asphalt, the girl is aware of others watching them from above. Tucked away in abandoned apartments at the tops of all the buildings, they’re not unlike roosting birds in the canopy of the great urban forest. Only instead of birdsong calling to her, telling her the whos and the wheres and how many, it’s the fever she hears, clear and bright as any whistle.
(This one will die soon, this one will burn slow; this one is a baby. All of them, suffering.)
The girl lifts her face towards the sky as they walk, her free hand raised to cast a grey shadow over her eyes. She hopes to catch a glimpse of one of the strangers silhouetted behind bullet-struck glass, but she never does, only finds torn curtains swaying at a distance or the slats of blinds flickering shut after a moment’s pause. Proof of life is more extrapolation than direct observation these days. (They steer clear the companions, just as the companions wish to steer clear of them; only the gunfire follows after.)
For her, the sickness wears only one face, and that face is his. All of the ghosts that once pursued her have been long since burned from her memory, in effigy.
Her hand is small and fits perfectly into his, her skin cool as a riverstone (a comfort). There are days when she is reluctant, when she kicks at the dirt with her feet and tries to drag him away from the path, back down south.
(Stop burning, stop burning.)
Today she is quiet, docile and attentive. A flock of birds fly overhead and the girl stops to watch them disappear between the buildings. Wondering the entire time what it is they see, wondering if they’ll outlive them all.