Dmitri's father always told him that he was the worst baby ever. He was a crier from birth, and although the wet nurse said he would get better as the years went on...well.
The moment he was dropped off at the nursery, he wailed.
The moment he was deposited from his parents' arms into another's, he wailed.
The moment he saw Nikolai Roman's face, in that tiny, dirty nursery, he wailed—and Nikolai Roman wailed back.
(Their parents had a collective panic attack and promptly re-collected their children. Maybe it wasn't time yet.)
They met, properly, on a quiet Monday, back when their quaint little village was still quaint and far more peaceful than it was now. Dmitri was six and lonely, and Nikolai was the one who brought him out of his shell by sheer stupidity.
"Honey, if you keep locking yourself up in your room like that every time Mommy and Daddy have friends over, you're going to be a very lonely boy." Dmitri wiggled further into his blanket burrow and frowned, clutching his picture book tighter. His mother knocked lightly on the door again and Dmitri whined.
"I don't want to talk to the neighbors! That boy is so loud!"
"Dmitri, you're being rude—"
"No!" A sigh. Dmitri flipped the page, nodding proudly to himself in victory when he heard the sound of his mother's footsteps fading away.
The victory was short-lived.
A few minutes later, a much lighter knock sounded on his bedroom door. Dmitri waited silently for a bit, and when it came again he tossed his stuffed bear at the wood. "Go away!"
"Your mum told me that you need a friend." The voice was soft and a little hesitant; Dmitri almost wanted to open the door just to see if it was actually a girl that was speaking. Almost. He reminded himself of the fact that his neighbor was very much a boy, and very much an annoying kid who refused to stop talking and let him read, already.
"But you seem lonely." That, Dmitri wouldn't tolerate (he was lonely by choice).
"No—" Dmitri slammed his book shut, "I—" threw his covers off, "don't!" and swung his legs over the side of his bed only to find that the door was already hanging open. A boy with messy brown curls stood at the entrance, grinning brightly.
"Hi! My name's Nikolai Roman, and I'm gonna be your friend!"
And that, as they say, was where it all began.
[The Medusa- a deadly virus that has spread throughout all of Ussra in only two months. Thousands have died; not even the secluded villages of the forests have escaped its influence, despite their best efforts to close off free markets and through-roads. Scientists are still searching for a cause...]
Early morning fog whispered at Dmitri's feet.
Another pebble dropped into the river, another failed skip. He shrugged his shoulders, half at himself, half at the statues across the river. They stared silently back, judging. He threw again.
"'Mitri!" Dmitri turned to see Niko skidding down the slope toward him.
"Hey, Niko." He dropped the next rock straight into the water and stood up. Inclined his head. "You're late."
Niko stumbled to a stop, face confused, almost dismayed, and clothes disheveled. He'd clearly been looking for Dmitri for a while. "What do you mean? I—but you said—it's only," Niko looked at his watch, then looked back up, "only..?”
He must have seen something in his face, then, because his eyes flattened out in an instant. "'Mitri."
Dmitri held his ground and stared back at him in feigned indignation. "What?"
An owl hooted from somewhere in the trees.
Niko lunged forward with fingers outstretched, and Dmitri shrieked and fell backwards into the river with a splash. He emerged wheezing, laughing, gasping with Niko's fingers viciously digging at his sides, the both of them drenched and freezing in the cold morning air. "Oh my god stop I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"
Niko was laughing too, even as he refused to let up. "You liar! I bet you knew I was looking all over, didn't you, I can't believe you hid down here; of course I wouldn't be able to—"
"It's not even 7 yet! I know I'm always early anyways, but that is not an excuse—"
"Please, I can't—" Wheezing, flailing,"—breathe—"
The tickling stopped. Dmitri shoved Niko away halfheartedly, slumping as he tried to catch his breath. He might have miscalculated the outcome of this particular prank just a little. Just a bit. Dear god.
A hand appeared in his vision. Dmitri looked up to a smiling face, and as he took Niko's hand he couldn't help but smile back. He pulled himself out of the river and fell face first into the grassy bank. Niko was sitting down beside him, sobered from their morning spat. His fingers twitched ever so slightly when Dmitri rolled over, brushing against them.
"..so." Niko's voice rang loud in his ear.
"What're you doing here?"
"You know why." Dmitri lifted a hand, waved in the general direction of the statues. They both knew why.
Niko huffed and batted his hand down. "I don't understand why you wanna depress yourself so early in the morning."
"Silly, how can I depress myself when I'm always depressed?"
"'Mitri!" Niko jabbed at his sides again, and Dmitri flinched away, giggling.
They quieted down again. The sun was starting to peek over the hilltops, the mist around them fading away. Dmitri draped an arm over his eyes. Only two months ago, this would've been around the time the village started getting noisy, but while the roosters still crowed, there wasn't a single door creaking open. Nobody rang the morning bell. Two months, and everything had changed.
Hands latched onto Dmitri's arm and lifted it off his face. Niko was leaning over him, blocking out the sun. He looked almost sympathetic, which was ridiculous, because they were all going through the same thing. The same Hell.
Dmitri sighed. "Yeah. ...Sorry for making you come here."
Niko smiled, frustratingly unaffected, and took Dmitri's hand in his. "It's okay. Come on."
The stone statues watched them go. (Come on, away from the garden of victims.)
[..those afflicted with the Medusa undergo what seems to be a genetic mutation, dooming any who make eye-contact with them to a slow petrification beginning from the iris. Research has shown that there is an incubation period of 1-2 weeks, however, wherein onlookers experience only temporary paralysis or randomized muscle spasms.
Citizens are advised to keep on the lookout for these symptoms, as they may be the only chance of detecting the Medusa before it's too late...
...Four months since the outbreak and there is still no sign of a cu-]
Click, as the tinny voice shuts up.
Nikolai found Dmitri curled up in front of the radio. It was crackling quietly, sitting on the drawers some feet across from a mildly beat-up, conspicuously empty couch. Blankets pooled on the floor between them.
“I wasn’t sleeping on the floor,” Dmitri said in a rush, because obviously he definitely wasn’t sleeping on the freezing cold hard floor at all. Nikolai put his hands on his hips and made sure his disapproval was glaringly clear. Dmitri got the message. Looked away sheepishly, but of course he didn’t admit to anything.
Nikolai sighed. Whatever. How did it go again, ‘pick your battles’? The last thing they needed today was a petty argument. “Okay. Put on your coat, then? Let’s go for a walk.”
Dmitri nodded wordlessly, still looking guilty, and scrambled off to his room. The door slammed shut behind him, leaving Nikolai alone with his thoughts.
That boy had been…odd, lately. Odd-er than usual. He’d been sleeping on the living room floor more often than not, leaving the radio on, lurching up whenever Nikolai tried to turn it off just so he could do it himself; his dark circles were record-breakingly dark; his room was messy. Messy. Dmitri was a neat-freak. That was probably the one thing about him that had never changed. What was going on?
(..besides the obvious. But Nikolai knew how Dmitri felt about the epidemic already—this was something else.)
“Geez, dad’s going to come back from work before you snap out of it.” Nikolai blinked back to reality. Dmitri stood in front of him grinning, albeit somewhat hesitantly. There was an apologetic shade to it, and Nikolai knew a truce offering when he saw one.
“Liar. Your dad never gets home before dinner.” He reached up to pinch Dmitri’s cheek, but the jerk ducked away and jabbed at his side instead. Nikolai flinched away with an undignified squeal. “Hey!”
“Revenge for yesterday,” Dmitri said. His self-satisfied smirk was oddly subdued. “Let’s…uh.” A yawn. "Go.”
Nikolai tamped down his worry and opened the door.
It was snowing. Nikolai frowned when a flake landed on his nose, reached to tug Dmitri’s scarf higher. Dmitri huffed at him, but let it happen. He let Nikolai take his hand, too. No protests, no “you’re not my mom, Niko,” no nothing.
They trudged through the streets together, making paths in icy slush and kicking abandoned shovels aside. Little Laura and Christie stuck their heads out the windows, eyes large with envy, but Nikolai—Dmitri, butting him aside—waved them back in. When their parents noticed and called out, stay inside, what are you doing, they ran.
Nobody really knows how the epidemic spreads. Everyone knows that staying outside is just asking for it. But that’s what youth is about, isn’t it? Living for the moment, and regretting only when it’s too late.
For now, Dmitri was laughing, and that was enough.
They came to a stop outside the quarantine house. There was still snow piled up around it, frozen and untouched. If there was anyone inside, they didn’t make a sound. Dmitri stepped up to the glaringly red door, slipping out of Nikolai’s grasp.
“‘Mitri?” They’d come by a hundred times before and only stared from afar. Never approached, never knocked. It wasn’t as if the…afflicted…were dangerous. Just sick. Just…anyways. “‘Mitri.”
Dmitri raised a fist to the wood, then stopped. Wavered. His head turned a fraction of an inch, before snapping back determinedly. Fist drawn back—
Dmitri put his hand down. It was quiet for a moment. Then, “Nobody ever asks these people how they’re doing, do they? It’s like they don’t even exist anymore.” He sat down with a crunch, hands pressed to his eyes. If Nikolai didn’t think something was wrong before, then he certainly did now. “It’s not fair.”
“Well,” what to say, what to say, “I—they have family! I’m sure their family visits.”
“What if they don’t have family? Or what if their family isn’t ever home? Actually, what’s the point, anyways? What are they going to say, ‘I’m sorry you’re probably stuck here for the rest of your life’?.” Even with his back turned, Nikolai could hear the agitation, how Dmitri was spitting his words out with an uncanny venom.
“…‘Mitri, what are you trying to say?”
“I bet they’ll stop visiting after a few weeks, too, ‘cause they’ll be too busy feeling sorry for themselves and theirloss, like the guys in quarantine aren’t suffering more.” Before Nikolai could stop him, Dmitri gave a vicious kick to the door.
“‘Mitri!” Nikolai rushed forward and pulled Dmitri to his feet. The door shivered to a stop; there was a soft shuffling, and the handle started to turn. Dmitri was frozen. “‘Mitri oh my god what did you just do come here, come on,” Nikolai tugged again, an indescribable panic rising in his chest, “come on.” They caught a glimpse of a pale face, blindfolded with black cloth, and then they were running again.
They ran through the empty village square, ran past the free market alley, ran all the way into the barren fields and out again. Dmitri was crying.
In one way or another, it was back to the riverside. They sat at the top of the slope this time. There was a longboat being ferried across to the other side, with a cloth thrown over the top; the statues on the opposite bank were covered in a thin layer of white. As they watched, the ferryman dragged the newest addition onto land and stood it up in front. He went around and wiped the snow off every one of them, but stopped and lingered at one. Laid a hand on its cheek.
“That’s Mr. K, isn’t it? Trust him to get sentimental over a month-old corpse.” Dmitri’s voice was dull and scratchy, and Nikolai didn’t have the heart to reprimand him. He was tired, too.
“What’s wrong, ‘Mitri?”
“Why are you being so weird?”
“I’m not being…” Dmitri probably heard the lie in his own voice, then, because he slumped and said, “never mind. It’s not a big deal.”
Nikolai leveled a look at him. Not a big deal, his left foot’s big toe. Dmitri resolutely did not make eye contact.
“We’re turning 18 soon, you know.” Nikolai had a feeling he knew where this was going. They’d talked about it many times before, but never followed through, and probably never would.
“We could leave it all behind! My dad doesn’t care, my mom is dead, your parents left last week and you don’t even know if they’re coming back,” Nikolai winced, but didn’t say anything, “and—” Dmitri stopped. He scrunched his face up, opened his mouth, closed it again. Scrunched his face harder. His eyes wavered over to Nikolai, but then he blinked and straightened up. “There could be a cure out there. Or the beginnings of one, I don’t know, I just…”
Nikolai swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ll think about it, okay?” He’d said it a hundred times before; a promise they both knew was empty. “But let’s go home for now.” The sun was rising higher into the clouds. “We should eat.”
Dmitri got up without another word.
They took the long way back, trailing along between the riverbank and village outskirts. Dmitri was quiet, and kind of petulant if Nikolai had to guess. He was kicking rocks all over the place and avoiding eye contact like the plague, so. Anyways.
“‘Mitri, really, are you okay?”
“Yes.” Dmitri punted one into the river.
“Really?” That was an annoyed face if Nikolai’d ever seen one. And a curt response if he’d ever heard one. “Really, really?”
Dmitri squinted (petulantly!) back at him, and walked (petulantly!) faster. “Yes.”
“Really, really, really—”
“Niko, seriously!” Nikolai stopped. They took a left into the village, between two houses he couldn’t quite recall the owners of, and then they were at Dmitri’s door. He made to go in, but Dmitri barred the way. Nikolai frowned. While he did live on the opposite end of the street, they usually ate lunch together. Last time he checked, this was lunchtime.
“‘Mitri? Are you mad at me?”
“No.” All the same, Dmitri refused to look up. His voice was tiny when he continued, “but could you leave?”
Something was definitely wrong. Nikolai didn’t want to fight, though, because it wouldn’t do any good, and Dmitri would probably cry again, and then he'd cry too, and it just didn’t sound like fun. “Okay. Um, see you tomorrow?”
“See you.” Dmitri pushed the handle down and disappeared into his house. The door swung shut behind him, and Nikolai turned to go back home. He looked up for a moment, then hurried along; the clouds in the sky were darkening.
The door swung shut behind him and Dmitri dropped to the floor. The house was dark, curtains drawn shut, his blankets were neatly folded on the couch, and as he tore Niko’s scarf off and clutched it to his chest a whimper tore itself out of his throat. His knees ached. His fingers wouldn’t stop twitching. He couldn't stop twitching.
“Stop it…!” As if he could keep pretending that it wasn’t happening right in front of his eyes, as if all the tears in the world could bring a miracle cure to life. Dmitri crumpled over himself, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling again. Twitching.
They had to get out of this place.