The medical bay was an exercise in ugly. Stainless steel and molded hydrocarbon held sway, but the usual doctor's office white had been replaced with standard-issue beige. An antiseptic perfume filled the air, but it didn't hide the old smells of fear, sweat, and the anticipation of pain. Everything was rounded off and filed down, all the syringes and sharps tucked out of sight, but it was what it was. Might as well put flowers in a gun barrel.
"You know the drill Mercy: strip," Cross said.
"Not even going to buy me dinner first?" The machine gunner smirked, kicked off her boots, and shucked her fatigues. Cross half-smiled, but the light-skinned Latin woman's characteristic blush was nowhere to be seen. She was in nurse mode, and almost nothing shook her when she had her focus.
"Let's see what the scales have to say first, shall we?" Cross pulled a concealed lever, and a weight pad slid out of the wall, a display flickering at normal eye level. When Mercy stepped up, the screen pressed uncomfortably against her breasts.
"Are you sure this thing doesn't extend any farther?" she asked.
The nurse shook her head, and her short, neat bangs swayed. "Just hold your breath and wait for the beep, Mercy," Cross told her. "It will all be over in a moment."
"I've heard that one before." Mercy sighed, squared her shoulders, and did as she was told. Just as her left thigh began to tremble, the red light switched off, and the scale beeped. Mercy got down, displaying significantly less grace than she'd gotten up with, and sat down hard on the examination chair.
Cross tapped a few keys and plugged her hand screen into the mechanism. In a moment, the tablet held Mercy's vitals. Judging from Cross's frown, they weren't good. "You've put on six more pounds since your last examination." Cross kept her voice neutral and flicked her finger over the screen. "Core percentage has increased by two percent. Mercy, we talked about this."
"I listened." Mercy dug her thumb into the lightning-strike scar that ran up her left thigh and terminated at her hip. It hurt, and it was an ugly, snarling strip of skin that looked like teeth trying to hold her flesh together from the inside. "I'm following the workout regimen you gave me. I cut my off-duty drinking. What more do you want from me?"
"I want you back in fighting condition, Mercy," Cross said.
"I am in fighting condition," Mercy growled. "If you need convincing, I can do that."
A heartbeat later, I am gasping myself awake. My limbs flail, scrambling the mounds of blankets tangled around my feet, and it takes me a moment to calm down.
I lie there for a moment, sweat gluing strands of hair to my face, and try to make sense of my surroundings.
I am in my new room, painted teal and purple with accents of black. Window behind me, black shades drawn. TV in the middle of the room, closet door closed. I'm awake.
I feel a little more grounded, and my heartbeat gently fades back to its normal rhythms. I sigh heavily and swing my feet out from under the blankets; the floor is firm and steady under my feet, and the dream feeling fades a little more.
I shuffle through the dark hallways to the bathroom, where I wash my face with icy water. Then, I lean over the sink and stare at my reflection.
I hate this ritual, but I've kept it up ever since Richie Valenz called me a fat bitch in sixth grade. Richie Valenz was later found locked in a Dumpster, his arm broken and his eye blackened. I knew it was Blaise, but neither of us ever spoke of the incident.
My face could be pretty if my cheeks weren't so round. I do everything I can with my make-up to hollow out the spaces beneath my cheekbones, to give angles to the softness of my features. My eyes are bright and blue, my lashes thick. My nose is finely arched and regal, one of Blaise's favorite features.
But that's as far as it goes for beauty. From the neck down, I am fat with a huge ass and pudgy limbs. It would be nice if I had some curves, but I don't even have that. I'd rather be a thick hourglass than the shapeless result of one too many cupcakes. My only true assets are my breasts, which are large and supple. But they sometimes make my back hurt, so even my blessing is a curse in disguise.
Tears brim in my eyes. Angrily, I swipe them away with the back of my hand, gritting my teeth against the pain. This ritual is for therapy, not pity.
Margellian squinted, trying to make out any sign of motion in the blackened village below. She couldn't tell much about the place because of the distance, her eyes no longer as sharp as they'd been when she was younger. She turned to regard her companion, Corynteea. "What do you see? Anyone alive?"
Her companion rose in the stirrups to get a better view, shading her eyes with her hand. "No. I don't see anyone moving down there at all," the younger woman replied. Her bay mare shifted uneasily, chewing the bit in her mouth. Margellian's own horse sidestepped, head tossing. Neither horse liked the scent of smoke the wind carried to them from the ruins.
Her companion's black hair was tightly bound into a braid adorned with the feathers of several birds: hawk, eagle, falcon. It was as much a mark of what she was as the rust-red falcon embroidered in mid-swoop on her grey tunic. From thigh to knee, her shapely legs were bare of anything but the kiss of the sun. Sun-faded tattoos on her arms and face marked her as someone apart from normal people. Only those with mystical totems, or the innate power to command a certain element, wore such extensive designs.
She loved Corynteea's tattoos, the swirls and myriad raptors worked into a clever mix of artistic design and functional imagery over her nut-brown skin. Slender and not very tall, Corynteea was the exact opposite of Margellian, who stood a head taller than her tallest companion and weighed more than both of them combined. She hated her great size, and often suspected her horse did, too, though her bonded said she was beautiful.
The ache came back with the power of a lightning strike, and she forced the hurt down, refused to deal with it because she couldn't change it. None of them could, and that was what hurt the worst. Death was final. Irrevocable.
They walked through the city's narrow, clay-brick streets by the light of thief-lamps and the sinking moon. Mirsagh detoured to knock on the door of a bakery. Its ovens were already hot, and she spoke quietly to a kitchen boy who seemed to know her. He brought them fresh bread and sweet rolls. The sugar helped clear Cat's head, though she was still exhausted.
"When the sun is up, we'll stop," Mirsagh said. "I'd like to get as far as possible while it's still cool."
"I don't know how you talk me into these things." Being around Mirsagh brought the past rushing back—including the younger, less confident version of herself. I dare you to climb on the weaving machine! Mirsagh would say, and somehow there she'd be, dragging her bulky, unathletic body up the loom's support frame while the rows of other orphan girls stopped their work to watch with their mouths open in shock. Sneak out with me, Mirsagh would say, and somehow she could never say no; no matter how tired she was from the day's labor, she'd break curfew with her friend, leaving the other girls sleeping in exhausted heaps beneath their thin, scratchy blankets. And yet, somehow, she was the one who always got caught, and Mirsagh was the one who got away.
Cat, kiss me...
It was hard to stop looking at Mirsagh, cataloging all the changes since Cat had last seen her. As a girl, Mirsagh had been compactly built, wiry and hard. She'd filled out since then; she had a female wrestler's build, with heavy hips and thighs and breasts, a layer of fat over solid muscle. As opposed to Cat's figure, which was more like a layer of fat over more fat.
Mirsagh hadn't asked if Cat was physically up to a trek through the wasteland. The unspoken confidence was flattering, unless it meant that Mirsagh just didn't care. Cat couldn't decide if she wished she'd been asked or not.
Just because I'm not graceful and thin doesn't mean I can't keep up with you, she could have said. I always could, you know; don't you remember that? I was a step behind, but never more than a step.
But she knew the words wouldn't have come. They never did.