Over the five and a half years he’s been free and settled in one spot, Aiden’s had a total of twenty seven people locate and approach him, one after another, a handful of months apart, like a trail of ants following one after the other. They're all doggedly determined, disgustingly desperate, and Aiden hates every single one of them.
The latest one is all but banging his door down, hammering at it with both her fists and probably doing more damage to her hands that the actual wood. That thing has too many splinters to count.
He waits for another minute longer and sighs. She’s still not going anywhere. For the millionth time in this year alone, he curses Kellin and her desperate ideology that she can help every poor fool who needs to saving.
“Hey!” He can tell that she hasn’t spoken in days- there’s no need to when there’s no one stupid enough to be in the desert but yourself- and her voice cracks, tastes of the dirt she’s surrounded by. “Are you in there?”
Kellin’s bar is almost two days’ walk from his place, brimming with a spectrum of the travellers to the downright dirty; everyone in the desert is there at some point, whether they’re just passing through or searching for someone else. Everyone there knows everyone else- if you’re ever looking for anyone, The Dead Horse is the place people go to.
It’s on the very fringes of the tumble-down city, one of the few buildings left in the area that are left standing. His apartment is on the on the other end of the city, a four-wall prison that’s nothing but self-inflicted. The plaster is peeling and the rug is threadbare, but it’s his home now.
Aiden half wishes that he’d never stepped into the bar in the first place- or crawled, he guesses, considering the bar manager had to drag him into the back storage room and built him back up from a skeleton.
Okay, so maybe he owes Kellin quite a bit for that; keeping him hidden from the slavers when they came looking, stopping him from starving to death, found him a to camp out in for the rest of his life. He smuggles items out into the zones for her, or brings items back to her to trade and sell: food, weapons, illegal CDs and game boys. People long for creativity, for colour in the world, and sometimes the illegal fixes are the best ones.
So sometimes he does Kellin favours, just like he owes her, but this doesn’t mean he appreciates her sending strangers to his door every few weeks.
Aiden let out another sigh, and it felt so good that he did it again, letting all the air out of his lungs in one heavy, sickly breath. The banging continues. This girl is determined.
Each knock on the door is like another nail being driven into his coffin, and it’s seriously starting to make his head hurt. From the corner of the room, amidst the pile of discarded baked bean cans, his dog lifts his head and growls, glaring at the door before back up to Aiden.
Aiden shrugs at him, like ‘what do you want me to do this time?’ and turns from the door and into his kitchen area, fishing out a tin of chopped pineapple and picking out chunks with his fingers. He sits next to Pluto and offers him a piece. He snaps it out of Aiden’s fingers as Aiden slides down next to him.
The girl keeps knocking at the door. He’s going to throw his can of pineapple at her if she keeps this up.
“Hey! You in there?” she calls, and he scowls.
It takes another hour, the sound of scratching at his walls like starved rats, but she eventually leaves. He doesn’t move throughout the entire time- leaning back against the wall with his eyes closed, snatching back another few minutes of sleep.
She leaves, Aiden hasn’t seen her face and doesn’t care anyway.
Pluto’s walking with him the next week through the streets, kicking aside empty dustbins and newspapers shredded by the rain and time. Everything’s quiet, the air weighted down by concrete towers and litter.
There’s barely anyone left in this crumbling ruin of a city- buildings suspended in time and faded cement- surviving like cockroaches. Independent and insincere, each one looking out for themselves. The sky’s grey, a blanket of smothering cloud, and Aiden nods at the woman who scurries past him, a bandage wrapped tight around her knee underneath her dress.
Pluto growls again, and it takes a long moment for him to notice the scrawny figure stumbling down the street towards him.
She’s got an oversized jacket hanging off her shoulders, hair scraped back into a bird’s nest on top of her head, staring fixatedly at the piece of paper clenched in her fingers. She’s unsteady, and- Aiden realises as she hurries towards him- malnutritioned, her dark skin sallow and jet hair thin and dry.
The jacket isn’t anything particularly worth holding onto, if he’s honest with himself. Nothing more than a government-approved, grey, cotton thing that you could find anywhere back in the city. Draped over shop mannequins, hanging of the shoulders of the homeless as they would a scarecrow. He remembers them costing little more than a handful of food rations when he was a kid. The one the girl is wearing is only slightly different; the stiff collar softened by wear and rain, the cuffs fraying and pockets all but gone. It’s also far too thick and heavy or the zones; she’d be better throwing it away now.
Pluto snarls when she walks past him, all razor-sharp fangs and bared gums, but she doesn’t glance their way.
Aiden watches as she continues down the pavement and turns towards his apartment door. He doesn’t come back for hours, purposely, and when he does, the girl’s gone again.
The frantic knocking at his door jolts him out of the fog of sleep and into the icy fringes of dawn. This time, he’s given in, and the banging continues as he stumbles off the worn sofa, kicking his sheets into a limp, dirty pile, and opens the door. Not too wide, of course, but just a crack, just enough to make out the girl who’s ruined his peace and quiet for the third week in a row.
The girl at the threshold- well. She’s got dark eyes ringed with red, dirt clawing at her cheeks. A long nose and arching eyebrows, she’s a head or so smaller than Aiden, with a long scar running down her left cheek. It’s narrow and sharp, something inflicted with a knife blade. It’s not old- a few months at most, only just healed- and he wonders how she got it.
She blinks up at him with wide eyes, the dim grey light only serving to make her look even gaunter, more like some strange inhuman changeling with wild hair and tired eyes.
He narrows his eyes and tightens his grip on the doorframe. “Who’s asking?”
The girl drags in a breath. “Sorry- sorry-“ she stumbles over her own words like her sentences are filled plagued with potholes. “I’m Emilie, and I need… they said that you can help me?”
“Nah,” Aiden says, and goes to shut the door, but the girl, Emilie, manages to force her foot into the gap before he can.
“Please, it’s important. I need your help.”
He shrugs and tries to close the door again. It’s not going to move. “Everyone does. I don’t care.”
Emilie drags her bottom lip in between her teeth and chews on it thoughtfully. She looks confused. “What do you mean? I don’t think- why wouldn’t you care? It’s my… my best friend’s in danger.”
“I still don’t care.” The girl’s tired, weak, desperate, but he’s not letting her in.
He lets her in.
Emilie has a best friend. He’s imprisoned inside the photograph- the image creased and bloated from water damage- looking just as scrawny and sickly as Emilie herself looks, as everyone in the zones and cities looks now.
He’s living on the outskirts of zone four. The one city left living, the one with the drugs and the grey clothes and the laws that you can’t ever break is zone one. The further out you go, the worse the world becomes.
Aiden thinks that it’s ridiculous (and completely and utterly stupid) that Emilie still refers to her friend in the present tense. Her friend (and Emilie won’t mention his name, nor what happened to him- “It was the slavers,” she says carefully, tongue flicking over each word, “it’s always-always the slavers, that’s what Kellin says.”) has been gone for months now. Still alive, presumably, but only because Emilie clings to the hope that he’s still alive. That her friend’s corpse isn’t rotting in a ditch or hole out in the desert somewhere.
They’re sitting across each other, the plastic table nothing but a sticky thing with foldable legs and mould lurking in one corner. Pluto is sitting one his feet, his ears perked and eyes fixed on Emilie’s legs. She froze the moment she saw him- a wild hound reaching Aiden’s waist, all legs and lean muscle, wiry fur thrown up into every direction, fangs hanging over his lips.
Pluto’s been with Aiden for years now. A slaver’s hound and an escaped slave- the greatest companions.
Hope is foolish and only pushes aside pain, leaves it brewing until later when the naivety gives out. Emilie seems to have this unwavering idea that life- any ragged scrap of life- is better than death.
But Aiden’s been clinging the one clinging to that one piece of life left to live, and he knows the truth.
She pushes the photo further across the table towards him. “Please,” she whispers. “Kellin says you’ve been through this. She says you’d be the best one to talk to.”
Aiden hasn’t touched the image. The boy’s smiling, a small nose, strawberry blonde hair. He’s not thin but he’s not large either. The photo wasn’t taken much after leaving city; if he’d been in the desert any longer than a week or so, Aiden would have recognised it in the sleepless eyes and chapped lips. The desert ages you fast.
“If you think that being a slave equates to knowing everything about the slave trade, you’re an idiot.” The girl winces. “The only thing I know is that he’s gone and you’ve lost him, but you’re not going to get him back.
He stands and says “I’ll walk you out,” because Emilie is clearly incapable of taking a hint, and she flinches away the moment he pushes his chair away. She licks her lips.
“Please. I can’t do this alone anymore. It’s too hard.”
‘Life is hard. We’re all alone’ Aiden wants to say, but he finds himself pausing, choking out “fine. Okay. I- okay.” and he doesn’t know why.