Her back crashed into the wall. Her hands trembled. Footsteps sang in a chorus. She cracked one eye. The blurs of what seemed like a million monotone black suits advanced past her through the darkness. Breeze after breeze puffed against her own suit. Pressure squeezed her like a stress doll. One person stepped out of the line.
Her neck almost snapped to face him. He flashed a reassuring smile and sauntered over. She peeled herself back onto her feet. Her trembling legs begged to give out. He rested a hand on her shoulder. She looked up. Their eyes locked. The light from the doorway brightened his smiling face. He gave a little nod. Her shoulders relaxed. He nodded again.
Her legs trembled a little less. He furrowed his brows and gazed toward the doorway. “Are you alright?” He whispered.
“I-I’m fine.” She could barely squeeze out a voice from her constricted throat.
“Do you need a minute?” He asked softly, turning back to face her.
“I know this will be hard.” He stated, pushing up his glasses “Just keep your composure. You won’t fail, XiuYing.”
He stepped back, still holding that smile. His encouraging eyes left hers as he faded back into the line. XiuYing swallowed hard. She looked at the last woman. She glanced back. She then motioned for her to follow. XiuYing filled in behind her. Her feet heaved like blocks of cement. The light burnt her eyes. She stepped into the room. Her guts twisted into a thousand knots.
The buzz of industrial lights murdered the silence, even if it seemed to only be nestled in the back of her head. Her heart thundered in her ear. She followed the woman and took her seat beside her at the end of a long table. She slid a hand into her pocket, twirling her wedding band around her finger. An even line of people sat across from them.
The woman beside her pulled a cigar from her pocket. She lit it and rested her elbow on the table’s dark oak surface. “Nikita Lebedinstev.” Erupted a voice from the other side. Every word they said was flooded by contempt. Nikita stepped forward. He sat down at the head. He met eyes with person across from him. All the eyes scattered around their face stared back as well.
“You’ve called us here because you want to make an arrangement, correct?”
“Indeed.” Nikita returned, slow but stern. “I want a ceasefire.”
The person gave a slow nod. They stared straight down their nose at him. “I see, Lebedinstev.” They said as they leaned forward. They slid their crossed arms onto the table’s surface. “Could you go more into detail about.. this proposal?” Nikita cleared his throat. No one at the other side of the table turned to face him.
“Deming, this fight is empty.” He pieced his hands together on the table. “We can end it here and now, simple as that.”
“Indeed, Lebedinstev.” A little smirk wandered across Deming’s face.
Deming’s stare burnt through Nikita. Nikita held on tight to his composure. “We’re no violent agency. If there’s anything we can do to avoid your needless bloodshed of citizens, by god, we’ll do it.”
“I understand. You’re awfully persuasive.”
“Now, if we both agree to this ceasefire, we’ll have peace.” Nikita stated, raising his brow. “Is that what you want, Deming? Or must we negotiate something better?”
“If we lay down our guns now, all our ammunition will be wasted.”
“But if we come together, there will be more on the table.”
The woman puffed on her cigar again. “We won’t only have more ammunition, we’ll have more money, more reach than you and I could make separately.”
“There are more dangerous forces than we could possibly imagine. Together, we can take them.”
Passion fired every one of Nikita’s words. A grin crept across Deming’s face. “I see, I see.” Deming nodded. Their once harsh demeanor melted a bit. XiuYing couldn’t help but to breathe a heavy sigh. Deming’s grin grew a bit wider. They leaned back in their chair. They crossed their arms loosely and threw one leg over the other.
“I do have on request—…” Deming’s voice shed any speck of light they once had. “Er, I thought we talked about smoking in the establishment.”
XiuYing jerked to face her. The woman’s eyes went wide. The lights died. The cigar fizzled out. Ice crawled up XiuYing’s spine. Her own trembling breaths echoed in her head. She tensed. Seconds twisted to what seemed like hours. What the hell was going on?? Just as her eyes adjusted, the lights snapped back on. The chair beside her was empty.
She stared ahead, only to be meet with her own horrified face staring back from the mirror behind the chair. The other side. A man gazed back at her. His eyes were ungodly wide. Raw terror clutched his face. XiuYing’s heart plummeted to her stomach. It seemed almost as if the walls were closing in. Thought after thought whizzed through her head like bullets.
She turned to Nikita. There he was. He sorted through a thousand emotions in a split second. The lights went out again. Her gut screamed to run. Her head bellowed to hide. Thud! The chair crashed to the carpet. The tablecloth dragged over her back as she crawled under the table. Someone shuffled beside her. Her racing heart counted the seconds. She shut her eyes as tightly as she possibly could.
The lights switched on.
Her lids fought a war to stay shut. She peeked beside her. There was the man. His eyes darted in every direction. Her ears rang. She looked around. More chair legs met her gaze. Her eyes shot wide. Her heart stopped. She snapped to face Nikita. She stared at herself in the reflection of a pair of perfectly shone oxfords which strolled toward him.
The lights went out.
The man beside her. He had to be there. He couldn’t not be there. She outstretched her arm. It threatened to give out as she fumbled around for him. Cloth met her fingers. She clasped his shoulder and scooted a bit closer. They would make it out. Her knuckles went white. She peeled open her eyes. Everything inside screamed and begged to just go.
She knew where the door was. She knew every twist and turn of those god-forsaken hallways. She was yanked out of her thoughts the moment the lights cut on. There was the door just behind the newest set of empty chair legs. It was so close she could touch it. She furrowed her brows and lifted her head. It would just be a straight run.
She gripped the cloth a little tighter. She bit her lip. She swallowed hard. It was now or she would forever hold her peace. Her eyes darted to face him. More than fifty stared back at her. She opened her hand. The tablecloth swung back into place.
She turned back with a dull face. For the first time in forever, her head was quiet.