Walking into the warehouses from the east side is always unfamiliar. Grief lived in this neck of the woods for so long, and he never got used to walking down the tracks to get back home. Maybe it’s just from a habit of ignoring the kids across the tracks. Maybe it’s some kind of memory he’s holding back from a bad night at the Broken Heart. It doesn’t really stick, anyway; he knows his way back to the old place, even if the debris in the road is different.
The Crude Sprawl is a cluster of mostly apartments that never really recovered from the First Outbreak — so it’s quite far from a miracle when he found out housing was opened up after the cure was handed out and people were getting vaccinated. It’s still too close to his old haunt, but he reminds himself it’s the only place he’s going to afford for a while. It’s quite different, living in brick and wood again. It’s been so long living in a place that echoes every stone you kick or cough you hear that Grief almost couldn’t bear the silence of his first night on the old couch he managed to cop.
And, hey. Burakh is down the tracks, if they’re serious about facing the future together. Andrey Stamatin made it out alive, and the Heart’s going under renovation, so there’s another old haunt coming back. It could be worse. He knows it could be worse.
The door creaks open, which is different. He imagines someone falling against it, dislodging the metal from its hinges. Grief swore he wasn’t going back, and he was serious — but Lara told him the food banks were drying up again, so here’s hoping Barley didn’t clear out stock once Grief found himself born again on the other side of town.
The place looks like shit. Stjepan’s old chair is missing from the door. Some of the wooden boxes that used to carry twyrine are missing. The table is broken and there’s blood on the floor. He can only imagine the way Artemy cleared the place out when he had asked, and feels a sinking feeling of pride.
Grief walks over the broken clock, once upon a time generously liberated from the Kains, and avoids the largest pieces of broken glass. His old chair still has the blanket he cast across it, so he pulls it free to bring with him. There used to be a crate of twyrine behind his seat, and he’s certain that’s missing, but he wonders if the canned food stuffed behind there might still be buried. All manner of curiosity runs through his thoughts up until he sees the little pair of legs scurry away, and he stops before he brings the entire crate tower down on the kid.
It’s definitely a kid. And he has a feeling he knows just who before he leans down into the cranny the kid scampered into, casting a shadow down from what dirty light remains in the warehouse.
“Come on out,” he grunts, “It’s just me.”
Notkin, dirty faced and frowning, stays tucked underneath the various crates and boxes stacked high. If even a couple came tumbling down, Grief can’t imagine the boy would be able to dig his way out. “I’ll go when you screw off.”
“Well, you’re going to be out of luck, ‘cause I won’t be leaving for a while.” The lie comes easy and he doesn’t think anything of it. Notkin looks like a cornered cat when he’s got him cramped like this. “You cleanin’ house, is that it? Were you urchins even getting anything to eat?”
“Everything we got, I made sure the others get,” Notkin says, earnest and noble, like he wasn’t trading secrets. “Burakh got rid of your men. So I sent my own to check.”
“Then you followed.”
“You haven’t been here in a week.”
“Can you get out from there? My shit’s back there.” Grief shuffles back, slowly, as he crouches on his heel. “Don’t care what you got your hands on, I just want to move things before you get yourself crushed.”
It’s unclear if Notkin even heard him at first. But soon, the boy comes crawling out from between the cranny. The kid always looks like he’s swimming in his clothes, but he definitely has things crammed inside — possibly bullets, likely canned food. Tough luck; seems like the kid found the stewed meats before he could. Notkin gets up off the floor fast, quick and without waiting, as if he needs to keep his back away from Grief. He shakes his head and gets on his knees, reaching into the nook Notkin initially sat in. He pulls a small box from behind a narrow crate, and is relieved to hear the sound of silver.
He can see the question on Notkin’s face out of the corner of his eye. Grief pops open the lockbox, knowing he’s better off not letting the kid see his remaining savings, but he isn’t planning on staying for long. Notkin’s eyes light up at the money and finally asks his question. “What do you have there?”
“None of your business,” Grief says. Notkin frowns. “You missed out on it, crawlin’ back there. Finders keepers.”
“I was about to open it,” Notkin mutters.
“Sure.” Grief tucks the box against the blanket after he sticks the coins and folded bills into his pockets. “You still know if those candy wrappers are good?”
Notkin shakes his head.
“Cool. Take ‘em off my hands for me?”
Grief sees Notkin is frowning at him again. It’s his turn to shake his head. “C’mon. You can’t act up when you’re the one breaking into places you don’t belong.”
“You haven’t been here since the Inquisitor came ‘round. Where did you go to?”
He takes a pause from dragging out another box, one that used to support his throne. He snorts, disgruntled. “Spendin’ my time with the Inquisitor herself. Dragged around until a little birdy told me to be born again. You won’t see me ‘round these parts much anymore. Just getting my things.”
Notkin looks troubled, like he’s trying to piece together the words in his own head. Grief keeps himself busy with unloading what tins he can pull free from the forgotten crates. Maybe it’s best he uses the blanket as a travel poke and get Artemy to loot the place with him, if he’s even home. God knows where he is, healing the wounded.
“So you’ve given up?” Notkin clarifies, as he tentatively walks over to one of the crates by the shattered table. Who knows what’s in there. If it’s food, then Grief will bargain.
“By the long and short of it, yeah.” Grief breaks open another box, popping the top panel. The smell of wood and dust is thick in the air. “Chin up, kid. You’ll find another set of ankles to scratch at.”
Now, the boy looks frustrated, like he’s learned he’s lost a bet. Notkin turns to dig through the crate, shifting scrap together to the same tune of Bad Grief. The older of the two feels that same haze from before settling over him, but he makes a bet with himself that it’s just conscience. It took a long time for him to end up on the streets, while the kid’s been trading straight razors for as long as he could walk. And he’s annoying. What else is a rival meant to think?
Grief finds a box of shells, buried in the bottom of the crate, forgotten like a toy left behind in the move. He thinks about the old gift he gave to Cub. He thinks even farther back, of the evenings they’d head out as children. Might not be much older than Notkin and his boys.
He looks over and realize Notkin is staring at him. The shells, specifically. Grief shakes them, making them rattle inside their box.
“You want ‘em? It’ll cost you.”
“You don’t have a gun anymore,” Notkin observes, “I saw Burakh using it.”
“Three bottles of the green stuff you’re not old enough to drink yet. I know we left some in that box.”
“Andrey Stamatin said he’s buying all of the twyre people can find.”
“Twy- rine. Why the hell are you talking to Andrey Stamatin? You want your bullets or not?”
Notkin stares at him, like he’s thinking of running forward to snatch it out of his hands. But the distance between them is just far enough that he wouldn’t be able to move that fast. He reaches into the box and pulls out the bottles, dusty but in fair condition. Notkin puts them on the floor, lined up line decorative pins.
Grief closes his hand around the box like he has an idea. “How much food you got?”
“I’m not giving you my rations,” Notkin replies.
“Not what I mean. They’re sending a train.”
Notkin lifts his head with a look brighter than the sky used to be. “Really?”
“Donations,” he suggests, like they’re a bundle of thieves. “Relief. They’ll be handing them out. You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you? You know you take whatever’s free?”
Notkin stands up fast enough the tins he’s crammed into his coat rattle. “I’ll go.”
“Knew you had a rascal in you.”
Save for the sandbags that never got torn and some garbage left by soldiers, the train station isn’t much different. Seems like it was much longer than a week ago when he marched out here with Gravel and Stakh. He guides Notkin to the same spot at the Basket, just far from the tracks that the dust won’t kick up too far near them once the train comes.
They’re some distance from the station, but Grief can see people from here, crowding on the platform as if they were planning on running. No quarantine means no delays. The shipments are going to the main bulk of the station, but there’s always prospectors waiting by the old civilian station as they wait for workers to unload rice, meat, and produce from the train cars.
The two of them get a clear view of both stations from the Basket. Notkin sits on the old wooden log that has sat by their even older fire pit for as long as Grief can remember, with a tin cup of water. He holds it between both hands as he watches Grief kneel by the tracks, shotgun shells in hand.
“Is that going to mess with the train?” Notkin asks, as curious as curious can be.
“Like little fireworks,” Grief responds, leaning back on his heels. “Just wait for the beast to come rolling in.”
Grief takes his place on the log. Notkin shuffles away, as if he had just realized how close they’d be. He doesn’t expect the kid to approach him any different. He knows how the mind twists into survival mode. He knows Notkin doesn’t believe he’s living in an apartment now.
So he drops the blanket carrying his looted groceries, tinned meats and twyrine and glass bottles of water spilling over it. He finds the pack of cigarettes Artemy gave him on the thirteenth day in his coat pocket and pulls one out. Notkin pretends to look like he doesn’t want one while pointedly hiding that he does, in fact, want one, but Grief doesn’t take the bait.
“Used to do this all the time when I was your age,” Grief begins to reflect, snapping open his lighter next. “Came out here with old Burakh and our friends. Stole the shells from Stakh’s uncle.”
“Who’s Stakh?” Notkin asks.
“Bald monk that used to sulk around my place,” Grief says, pausing for a smoke. “The old man kept a gun in the house, so we’d steal his ammunition and come out here.”
“You should have taken the gun. Awfully valuable.” Notkin takes a sip of his water.
“You dumb kid. Where were we gonna sell it?” Grief fishes for the twyrine. He can see Artemy’s glare from behind his eyes. Bad example for kids, and he’d say it just like that. It’s the same kind of indulgence the city doctor took when he and his architects were in mourning. Why can’t he? “Didn’t want the gun, anyway. The train’s going to run over the shells. Then they’ll pop.”
Notkin’s eyes grow wide. “Brilliant… I’ll tell my Souls. Make it into a game.”
“Ha, now you’re getting the hang of it.” Grief takes a drink, holding the cigarette in his hand and resting his arm down his knee. “Fuck around long enough and you’ll find out what you want to do.”
“I know what I want to do,” Notkin says, keeping an eye on the shells, watching that that don’t roll in the wind. “I’ll protect my men, and when we grow up, we’ll listen to Capella.”
“She‘s Olgimsky’s girl, ain’t she?”
“She helps all the children in town.” Notkin finishes his cup. “She’s going to tell us what to do when we’re older.”
Grief grunts into his bottle. “Seems like you’ve got your shit together so long as she’s around.”
Notkin looks down the tracks towards the horizon. “She’s very kind. What kind of person were you growing up with? I don’t believe you were a kid. Always an ugly old man.”
If Grief didn’t have a cigarette in his hand, he thinks he might have pushed the kid over. “Ferocious. Didn’t need anyone, ‘cept who I wanted.” A plume of smoke. “Longer hair, too.”
“You’re not much better, kid. What’s the scar from? Scrapped with the Kain kid one too many times?”
“Jester got mad at me,” Notkin replies, mournful. “He didn’t want a bath.”
“And Jester is?”
Grief wonders how long the train might be. “Course. Of course.” He drinks the twyrine and finds it doesn’t sting like it should. His mind tells him it’s age, buried so far in a musty warehouse that it mulled and soured. One of the Stamatins, fuck if he knows which one, says bad twyrine makes your head go wooden. He pulls on his cigarette again, feeling the warm flush of ash sink into him.
Notkin looks distracted for a moment, reaching for something against the log that isn’t there. “Everyone can get one. Even you.”
“Not sure I need one,” Grief mutters. “Could do without the idea I’m not whole.”
He frowns. “It’s not like that.”
“Comes close to it. Guess it’s not something that’ll work with me.”
Notkin mirrors his posture; knees bent, right arm hanging down against his knee and his left hand supporting his chin, elbow on leg. The only thing he’s missing is the cigarette and drink. Grief’s not sure if he intends to, but it makes him acutely aware of how he’s sitting, where he is. There’s people not too far from them, but he feels like he sits with one of the other three, on a day without the rest of their company, waiting for a train to come.
Grief reaches his hand to scratch begins his ear, mindful not to tap cigarette ash into his hair. “So. You and your kids thinking of taking over Bad Grief’s old place?”
“Your men still sulk around. The ones with the knives.”
“Burakh took care of them.”
“There’s stragglers. Like the flock that got left behind. They’ll disappear once they hear you’re really not coming back, but we’re fine, our side of the tracks.” Notkin looks at the horizon again. “... Speaking of.”
In the distance, they see it: the train, bounding towards them. It’s certainly some time away. Far behind them, the chatter and cheer on the platform cannot be mistaken.
“Could tear up, seeing the sight of that,” Grief says, flicking away the cigarette. “Hope someone’s still got a camera.”
Notkin bounces his leg. “I’ve never robbed a train before.”
“And God willing your never will, you brat. We’re pickin’ out lunch, not scaring the conductors blind.” Grief pauses to tip himself back, drinking the last of his twyrine. His hearing feels sharper already. “You walk you, you nudge a couple of women past, and you give ‘em your best boy smile.”
“I’m not an accomplice in swindling.”
“Who said that? You’re getting too fantastical, kid. Quiet down and watch the tracks.”
Notkin looks towards the train, as it screeches along the tracks. The wheels rotate and stall, adjusting the speed at which it approaches. Grief starts to grin so hard his jaw aches as it bounds towards their station, enough that when it crashes over the iron tracks, he almost doesn’t notice how Notkin jumps in his own skin at the loud CRACK! of each bullet erupting. They pop like little firecrackers and match the deafening sound of the stopping train. Grief sees Notkin’s smiling.
“And they pop every time?” Notkin asks.
“Every time,” Grief repeats. “Great to wake yourself up with.”
Notkin stands up. “We’re going to earn some share. Why are you sitting?”
He begins his march without waiting for Grief. Grief finds himself hiding the rest of his grin begins his hand, waiting until Notkin is long past him before he closes his blanket wrap of scrap and salvage, brings it over his shoulder, and gets off the log. The screech of the train gnawed into his heartache in a familiar way; grounding and honest. Following the trail of a boy and his cat towards a station hits the same kind of way.