He couldn't remember the drive there. He couldn't remember the call from the nurse. He knew only that it happened, only that it meant there wasn't much time left.
The importance of those facts escaped him as he raced up to the front doors, having to stop only briefly as they slid open entirely too slow. The moment he could turn and squeeze himself through them, he did. His jacket tried to catch on the edges as the front of his chest scraped a bit against the rubber-edged metal. The not-entirely-painful sweep across his front barely registered, falling into the swirling mess of burning lungs and sore legs that had carried him through the full sprint from the parking lot to the nurse’s station.
He crashed into the counter like a force of nature, wild hazel eyes darting from face to face, hall to hall, eager for direction. “Geta Schröder!” He spat it like some abrupt insult, and they did not ask what he meant or needed. They knew. After a brief fit of clacking nails on a keyboard the woman nearest him pointed down the eastern hallway. “She’s in room 104. Are-” She started, already moving away from the terminal. She was equipped with a professional foresight that had her moving almost before he did as he pushed away from the counter and started to bolt down the hall.
“Sir, I have to ask if you’re family!” She called after him, rushing with a clipboard. They both weaved through the sparse afternoon traffic- strangers meandering with a maddening slowness across the lobby and down the halls. The nurse didn’t try to stop him, she just followed as he shouted back at her, “Yes! Grandson! You called me on the phone!”
He took the corner sharp, almost colliding face-first with a woman pushing a rack of spare linens. The room plaques felt like neon signs, glaring numbers back at him. He didn’t look at the linens lady, both hands stopping himself against her cart and pushing back off it in the same breath. She didn’t say a word to him about it, and he realized as he raced past her the check-in nurse was no longer on his heels. If she’d fallen behind or given up, he wasn’t sure. It failed to matter. All he cared about, all he could focus on, was finding the room number. 102, 103.. 104. The sight burnt into him at the end of the hall and he raced to it, wrapping a clammy, sweat-slick hand around the doorknob.
And then he stopped.
They were audible, just beyond the shut door. A myriad of voices. Some crying, breaking, hitching sharp and pained. Muttering back and forth, no doubt sharing memories and regrets. Was he too late? No- hesitating, halted at the door, he could hear too much composure remaining in the weeping conversations. He knew his family, even if he hadn’t seen them face to face in years. Some, decades. If Oma had passed already, there would be screaming and wailing like christ’s second coming struck down the room. This was the preamble to true mourning.
Standing in the hall, breaths heaving against the cheap faux-wood paneling of the door, he stared at his hand. At the white-knuckle grip that trembled but wouldn’t turn. The silvery knob just sat there between his fingers, entirely operational and yet motionless. He knew, physically, that he could do it. Turn the handle. Push forward. Open the door, walk in. But none of it happened. His body remained motionless save for the burning push-pull of his lungs, an uneven pace to his breathing as he stood there knowing what waited on the other side.
He snapped his head to the side, and there was the lobby-nurse, finally caught up to him. She didn’t hold out a clipboard for him to sign anything. She just stared at him, something between worry and pity heavy in her eyes. He could feel the question there, maybe a judgement layered just beneath it as she spoke quietly, “Her condition wasn’t stable. She doesn’t have much time left..” When she glanced to his hand at the doorknob his own attention followed, settling again on his quaking vice grip.
‘I know’, was what he wanted to say. But even that much stayed locked in his throat, scared to advance any further into audibility. What if his family heard? What if his sister was here? Suddenly his hand at the door felt less like an almost-entrance and more a last line of defense, holding it shut against the people inside. He could still hear them talking, muttering words that weren’t audible as anything beyond white noise. He could pick them out just from that, though. The angry, harsh tone of Amalasanda trying not to sound fragile or vulnerable. Her every muffled sentence kicked his fight or flight response, shattering the teeth of his resolve against the curb of trepidation. His mother’s voice was somehow worse. She didn’t sound strong, but he could tell she was trying to. She sounded tired. How long had she been in there crying for her own mother? Surrounded by everyone else, she didn’t need him. She didn’t deserve him walking in and making it worse, driving her other kids out of the room. Or worse, starting some argument overtop her mother’s soon to be deathbed.
His grip shook and loosened.
He was better off waiting out in the hall. Maybe, eventually, one of them would slip out to grab lunch or something. He could wait until then, he could sneak in once they were gone and-
Someone gasped. He could feel his mother holding her breath as he did the same. Even out in the hall there was a roll of visceral tension, slamming into him twice- once as the room fell silent, then again as the flatline sounded.
It did not reach him as a chord, but a gunshot.
A single firing within the sterile hospital gun range. He had no protection, standing on the wrong side of the door. His ears rang until they felt numb with it. A slow bloom in his chest started to build and spread, a heat to the pain gradually informing him he’d been struck by it.
His hand found the doorknob again, adrenaline and an out of body kind of thoughtlessness driving him forward. He put all his weight clumsily into shouldering the door open, staggering steps rushed and scared over the threshold.
All the white-yellow-oranges of the hallway were gone in an instant. The afternoon sun playing off the sterile decor was absent. A distinct, frigid not-rightness remained. Locking up again, he stared into the dark, empty room.
There was not one person inside. The setting sun was gone from beyond the room’s windows. Not even the moon hung in the black, oppressive sky beyond. From the corner of his eye, he could see the hollowness of the room already. The chairs all arranged around the single bed were unoccupied. He didn’t want to turn, something deep inside told him not to move a muscle. But an uncontrollable force left him doing so regardless, slowly creaking his bones in a gradual shift to face what felt inevitable.
He turned. He blinked.
All the chairs facing his oma’s bedside had moved in an instant, and just as quickly his mouth felt impossibly dry. His pulse thundered in his throat as he stared at the mass of empty plastic chairs all now directed at him, instead. There at the center of them all, her bed was not empty. A sheet had been draped, but her silhouette was undeniable. Her body lay perfectly still, no breath playing at the covering left over her face. He felt the force again, compelling him like some morbid siren- begging him to advance, to pull them back, to be sure.
He didn’t move. It had to be her. He knew it did. It was not fear of confirmation that left him rooted, but the sheer wrongness of it all. The hospital room was entirely unlit, the overhead off and not a single machine online. Glancing to the hall, he became keenly aware of the absolute silence drenching the place. There were no wheeling carts, no rushing footsteps, no distant echoes from other rooms assuring him that there was life elsewhere, if not here. It was all dark. Uncomfortably, unnaturally dark. Silent in a way no modern facility ever was. When he edged back towards the open door, his footsteps felt nearly deafening.
Stopping again at the threshold, he didn’t question the heavy door that should have shut itself, staying pinned open on its own. Same as he didn’t consciously question the sharp snap from overhead sun to the dead of a lightless night. All he thought of was the present moment as each came and went, driving him from the doorway to leaning just beyond it. As he looked out, left and then right up and down the hall, sounds finally arrived.
Soft, delicate padding. Bare skin against slick tile. He watched her move- small, moreso than he’d remembered her being. She was tiny and fragile and scared looking, stumbling down the hall intersecting his own. She didn’t seem to notice him as she looked both ways and continued, her nightgown dragging the floor and catching under her feet.
“Amala-” he started to whisper but his sister’s name caught in his throat as she tripped over herself. The sound of her bare knees hitting the floor drove him from the doorway on instinct, but even as he tried to run she seemed somehow faster as she stood and carried on. As the little girl disappeared around the corner and out of sight he followed, just to dig heels in the moment he turned.
There at the end of the hall, she stood. Older, taller, stronger in the shoulders. He watched the distinctive line of her jaw tense as she turned and glared at him. His blood ran cold. The sheer contempt that rolled off her was physical and nauseating. Without her saying a word, he was already rocking back a shaky step.
“Amalasanda..” He started, unsure what he’d meant to even say. As she continued to turn on her heel to face him properly, his attention dripped from the hard line of her jaw and the stern set of her shoulder further down. Down the line of her arm, to her hand. Her fingers wrapped in a fierce grip around the handle of a blade easily as long as her forearm. “What the f-” He whispered, but she was louder as her jaw opened too far and from her their father’s voice emerged.
“Schorsch!” The old but familiar voice boomed, biting him down to the bone in an instant. “Get over here!” He watched his sister pitch forward, the hollow of her eyes empty and black, depthless yet undeniably hateful and set on him. She sprinted with an inhuman quickness and in an instant his own body was moving. He turned the corner and he ran, sprinting full tilt and gasping in peels that were almost screams. He knew he couldn’t outrun whatever that thing was. He didn’t entirely try- not for the full length of the hall.
One third down the hall, his boots screamed in skidding peels as he dug in and turned. All at once he hurled himself to the side. His shoulder met the solid floor with full force, and he slid some past the doorway. The blur of his sister’s malformed body flew by the doorway, a clattering down the hall sounding her collision against something. Scrambling, he fought to get to his feet just enough to reach out, throwing his whole body in a desperate pitch against the door. For one haunting moment he saw her snap into view, inches from his own face.
Amalasanda’s features were stretched out inhumanly long, the spaces where her eyes should have been now nothing more than a vicious, unending blackness. Her unhinged jaw smelled of rot and wet soil and a scream emitted from the recesses of her throat as he threw the door shut in her face. The noise pierced him even through the door as his hands clamored to hold it shut against her pounding force. In an instant, he felt like a child again. Pressing his whole body against the door, digging heels in desperate and terrified. From the hall he could hear his father’s voice shouting once more just like all the times before, bellowing in thick german, “Open the goddamn door, Schorsch! I’m gonna beat your fuckin ass for this! You hear me? You listen to me! Open the fucking door!” Every blow against it jerked his whole body in place, heels skidding dark patches into the tile. He had to fight and push and walk himself backwards against each hit, staying pressed tight and flush to the one defensive barrier left.
From his periphery, something moved. White and black contrast, striking in the dark. The sound of bedsheets shifting ran his blood cold. The body under the blankets began to sit up, the head beneath turning slowly towards him.
This wasn’t right, but she couldn’t question it. They were about to drop, now wasn’t the time for questions and second-guessing. They had their orders.
Her whole squad was prepared, geared up and approaching the back in pairs. As they reached the open hatch, they dove out into the wide expanse. Newbies always found the air drops terrifying, which was why there were none brought along this time. They couldn’t afford first timer panic, here. They had to be focused, precise, certain. There was no room for mistakes anymore.
As her turn came, she almost wished she could have taken a running go at it. Maybe once they made it back home, she’d enroll in skydiving classes. After her first jump, she’d never felt afraid of it again. It was more than just the adrenaline rush. The freedom, the view- they were things you couldn’t find anywhere else. She loved seeing the world from so high up and steadily heading towards it. Watching the way a bird’s view melded into what everyone else saw, getting to dissolve the lines between the unusual and the mundane- it was captivating. She loved the sky and she loved falling. The only thing that was going to suck about skydiving classes was the lack of her squad there with her.
But, for now, they surrounded her as she leapt into the free fall. A halo of other divers above and below. Steadily they fell into formation together, speeding and slowing descents until everyone was equal. They had their destination in sight, everyone was on point. Parachutes went out in a synchronized chain reaction, a fluid clip round after round of ripped cords, fluttering fabric, and boots hitting the ground.
It occurred to her for a fleeting moment when they landed that she didn’t recognize where they were. She couldn’t recall the briefing before the drop. It was a rookie mistake, to forget. She knew they were there to infiltrate in waves, and that theirs was the first to land. She knew this was important. She knew their strategy for heading in but she couldn’t recall why. Had nerves really rattled all knowing from her, before the drop? Struggling with it, she unfastened herself from her parachute and fell in line with the others. They reformed their lineup, converged on their leader, and with weapons drawn they hunkered low for a slow advance across the marshy terrain.
Clouds overcast above, a storm on the horizon they’d managed to slip in front of aerially, just barely. The winds would make another drop too risky. Back up would be slow to arrive. Whatever they were here to do, it was up to them to get it done. If they alerted the enemy and got wiped out, it would likely turn into either a battle of attrition, or an outright loss.
Unclipping her rifle from the secure fastening and into a proper carrying harness, there was no good moment to break formation or speak up to the nearest soldier. They were moving as soon as they landed, the quiet tension making the air charged and thick. She needed to. She knew she needed to. Looking like an idiot was awful, but it was a better thing to bear than fucking up once they got into where they were headed.
Lips parted as they advanced. She took a breath to steady her voice, to keep quiet but confident. One word started to slip out, and got cut off.
For a moment, she didn’t understand. The world tilted up towards her. Footfalls once quiet but audible against the uneven terrain fell silent. Her squad halted, bodies started to turn. It was all in slow motion, surreal and wrong.
The boom was deafening, as if flush with her eardrums. The world rang in a singular, ceaseless chord as she blinked hard and stared up at the sky.
The sky? What just happened..?
No one was saying anything over the ringing, or if they were she was entirely deaf to it. Trying to decipher which it was, trying to understand what had happened, she fought to sit up onto her elbows. Her rifle was entirely gone, the harness torn away with the violence of whatever had just occurred. The foreign surroundings looked all wrong. Smoke floated in dark rolls in every direction. The ground buckled differently than it had been, dipping where she didn’t recall there being a hole before. Bodies moved through the haze, soldier’s shadows struggling to their feet. She pieced it together easily enough after a moment. Someone stepped on something. A landmine, maybe. IED of some kind? She rolled onto her side, looking for her gun as she moved to get back up with the rest of them.
Somewhere between turning and pushing at the dirt, she slipped. She fell. Face down into the disrupted earth. Not surprising, given how unstable and slick the damp soil already was. But it still felt embarrassing, as everyone else was already on their feet and reforming, batting the smoke away. Huffing, looking around for wherever her rifle had wound up, she moved to stand again.
And again, she fell back against the wet ground.
Everything began to dawn on her, the second time.
The smoke began to clear. Her squad stood still, looking down at her. She didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to confirm it. Looking up, hands shaking, she wanted one of them to lie to her. To make some crass remark at her clumsiness, help her to her feet, and do a headcount for the squad. But she knew. She knew because everyone was looking at her. Not sounding off. Not moving. They stared and she stared back, the surreality of their faces twisting her stomach.
Why were they here? She recognized them all- Reid, Lanner, Sila. She stared up at Cain’s face imposed strangely on the image of a soldier. He looked all wrong in the military gear. There was no room to ask, no space to question it. She had to see what they saw, now. Even when she didn’t want to, her body moved on its own.
She turned back over, from hands and knees to sitting, resting weight on her palms. Her eyes drug slow and reluctant across the upheaved dirt, feeling herself chill as the swirling colors of mud and blood started to mix. And there, at the center of it all, was nothing. A jarring absence where her left leg should have been.
“Oh, god.. Oh, god, no..” The words were barely a whisper underneath the ringing still haunting her ears. They kept repeating, a shocked mantra she barely understood as her own voice. Hands rose, shook, and halted. She needed to stop the bleeding, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch the weeping stump affixed to her body. It felt impossible. Detached, like a movie. This was some prop. A gag one of the guys set up, somehow. Her leg was somewhere under the dirt, right? Somewhere just beneath this morbid stage. Her eyes followed the jagged lines where it cut off, tracing the edges as they ran up from just below her mangled knee to her hip. From her hip to her stomach, stomach to chest.
Of all the things, it didn’t hurt. She didn’t feel pain, she just felt.. nothing. That was proof it wasn’t real, right? Her hands were starting to shake with a violence. It traveled up her arms, reaching her shoulders by the time she turned back to her squad leader. Where Cain’s face should have still been, she found nothing. The last remnants of smoke swirled in his wake and she snapped around sharply this way and that, finding him and the others already several paces away. Again, lips parted to speak up, and again she was struck silent. Though this time the bone deep boom of an explosive couldn’t hold a candle to the force that leveled her. Her squad’s voices clear as day even with their backs turned, moving away.
“We can’t take her.”
“She’ll just slow us down.”
“It’s better this way.”
“We’re better off without the dead weight.”
“Wait..” Her voice remained a whisper. Lost under the ringing. Breaking there, where even she could barely hear it. Instincts told her to stand, to chase, but as she turned the first lance of agony finally hit. The shock cracked and through it seeped the hurt. It stole her breath. Reducing her to gasping, to slipping back down into the soggy dirt.
“Wait..” She half-gasped, struggling to claw back into sitting up. Turning back around, looking at the horror of her incomplete body, hands finally scrambled with some focus. She rushed against the pouring blood and encroaching dizziness. Knowing every second mattered, knowing she was going to die with every heartbeat, she scrambled to shuck her remaining harnesses, breaking buckles and tucking woven fabrics under the surreal wound.
“Don’t leave me.. Don’t leave me..” Her whole body convulsed with the pain and fear and weakness. She aligned the straps, made the loop, grit her teeth. As she tightened the makeshift tourniquet down, there was no stopping the scream that ripped her throat raw. That, even with the ringing, she heard. Her own voice. Torn and wet and wrong. Screeching at the top of her lungs as her vision blurred dark and damp.
There would be no standing, no marching. Even moving was unwise. But looking back, her team was a faraway shadow on the distant terrain. The storm rolled over their heads, darkening the sky rapidly. As the thunder rolled in, the sky flashing in shades of grey-white, she kicked with her remaining leg. Digging into the mud, pushing- she fought. She struggled and squirmed, clawing and crawling. She fought for every inch, dragging herself after them. Carving a rut of blood and sweat and tears through the sloppy earth, tearing her gloves deep into the ever-softening soil, she fought to catch up. But for every few inches she drug herself they seemed miles farther away. Moving rapidly, now that they were without her. She watched their backs, and against all she knew to do, a sob wracked its way up and out. One muddy hand clapped over her mouth. She tried to swallow another back down. Tears welled and spilled and she berated herself for every single one.
Hands drove down deep into the soil once more. She wrenched with every ounce of strength she had. Her body barely drug a few inches forward as the sky broke, the first drops of rain pattering down. Gasping, wheezing, she continued to claw her way through the muck. Even as the rain made it thicken, even as every scrape against it seemed less to move her and more to cocoon her in the mess. She ripped and struggled and pushed, digging her own grave in the mud.
As the mud started to slip and pile back down onto her, her throat tightened and seized. She couldn’t hold it back any more as a new sound- something feral and hurt and terrified -ripped free. “Please!” She screamed, with her team no longer anywhere in sight. It was against the mission, against her pride, against everything. But she had to try. She had to do something, unable to move and stuck drowning in the scent of her own blood and watery earth. “Please help me! Please don’t leave me!” Trying again to crawl, she parted the mud and it tumbled down over her hands, her arms. The weight of it felt insurmountable. Fighting just to free herself, it sapped her strength to throw arms and toss it off. Clawing at the edges of her deepening pit, it repeated. Piling up, crumbling over. Trapping her in her own efforts to escape. As she sobbed and screamed and squirmed, a noise beat under the thunder. A sound like drums, rhythmic.
Panting, fighting just to turn her head, she saw them. The wall of soldiers, a new squad rushing in. Thank god. Thank god. Someone was here. She’d managed to hold on. People were here and-
As the first few reached her, she laughed and sobbed and reached out to them. Their boots splattered the rain-mud slurry atop the ground against her pale face as they charged past. One, then two, then three. She didn’t understand. Why weren’t they stopping? Did they not see her? By the fourth, she reached out, grasping for one man’s legs. But he was too strong. He ripped free of her without even pausing, continuing forward. Continuing with his team, towards the battle she couldn’t reach.
Something in her throat cracked wild and hurt. She screamed. She begged. The soldiers kept coming. Wave after wave. Running around her, over her. Past her. The rain kept pouring in frigid, heavy bullets. Turning the soil to mud, the mud to pools of filthy water. Every fresh squad beat boots through it, deepening the tracks and pits. Steadily, she sank into the mire of their efforts. Losing herself to the ever-growing pit.
As the water steadily rose, mud swallowing her from hips to chest, growing up her body to her shoulders, she leaned her head back into the mess. Sobbing, voice raw and shot, she didn’t so much make sounds or form words as just wheeze in broken peels. There was a finality crushing her chest, pinning her heavier than the mud ever could. A knowing, that she was going to die here. Her body would be lost under the storm. No one would come back for her. This was it. She was going to be left behind to die, and no one would even remember her or care.
Fire like that night. Ravenous and angry. It licked lips up the walls, to the ceiling, through the floor. There was no place that did not burn. The air itself was alight, scorching his lungs on every desperate inhale. Smoke snapped and clawed at his eyes. Tears cut salt tracks down his face.
It felt so real. It was easy to get lost in it all.
He knew what had happened. The distilleries must have gone. No- they had gone. This had all already happened once before. He felt dazed by the jamais vu.
Staggering down the hall, he couldn't recognize his home through the dark smoke and searing tears. The hall warped, the old wood seeming to stretch and buckle underfoot. It felt inevitable, when he tripped. A heat like the devil himself perched on his back, laying over his shoulders. It dripped from him, oozing down in waves with an unbeatable pressure. There was no air to be had. No sight that didn't wobble wet and dark and hurt. Trying to gasp only to cough over and over, he could feel his lungs folding in on themselves.
There was a way out. He knew it. He knew it had been this way, last time. Down this hall, down the stairs, and straight out. It wasn't the promise of an exit that had gotten him onto his feet last time, though. It was the knowledge of what lied between the bathroom he'd been in and the stairs he needed to get to. Fighting his way onto hands and knees, he coughed so violently he gagged and bucked and spit all over himself. Violently choking, his blurred vision faded in and out of darkness. He kept pushing. Until nails bent back against the old wooden floor as he drug himself against it. He crawled, inch by inch. Old iron nails keeping the floorboards down burnt circles against his palms. He shuffled- one hand, then the other. One knee, then the other. Weeping, choking, feeling as if the very water inside him was trying to boil over and out, he crawled until he reached the last door in the hall.
There, just like before, he cried out. Hoarse and breathless. The sound cut out almost instantly and he choked on trying to shout more. His tongue was sandpaper and his throat split as he shut his mouth and swallowed. The door frame was cracked, the ceiling trying to collapse down against it. It would not hold for long. He needed to get out. But as his body moved on its own, as he rocked up onto his knees and pressed hands to the scorching wood of the door, he was reminded of what made him stay the last time.
The sounds of unbridled human agony ripped through the air. Beyond it where he couldn't see, a familiar voice screamed. It broke dry and raspy then reignited, wetted by what he could only imagine in the worst of nightmares.
Was this a nightmare?
He'd been here before.
He knew these details intimately.
He knew how it always played out.
The burning air chewed at every part of him. The walls spun from the lack of oxygen, the smoke and flickering firelight turning his childhood home into a kaleidoscopic hellscape. He felt like a passenger within his own body as limbs quaked and clawed and by some miracle, he stood. He stood and staggered back and with what strength he had, he slammed himself against the door.
“Aar-!” He started, but could not finish. His throat cracked into shards of white hot agony, and as he tried again at the door, embering splinters peppered his shoulder with burns. Recoiling, too dry to cry anymore from the pain and smoke, his body shook in uncontrollable waves. Fingertips to shoulders, lungs to knees, he quaked. And yet still, he staggered back. He fought for even half an inhale against the tatters of his shirt. From beyond the door, the voice wailed and broke and cried out in wordless, nigh indescribable fear and agony. It felt hauntingly impossible, that they were still screaming. Still alive. Still suffering, for this long on end.
For a third time in the hall, he threw himself against the door. A shower of sparks and creaking wood greeted the effort, but nothing else. Bouncing back, hitting the floor, he watched through bloodshot squinting as the ceiling trembled and cracks converging just over the door grew deeper and farther out.
He knew the solution to this problem.
Aaron could not be saved.
The exit was just down the stairs, then straight out the door.
He knew what he had to do. He'd done it once before.
Dragging himself to the stairs, the landing was engulfed in flames. But just beyond, just out of sight, he knew there was an escape.
Aaron's screams beyond the door continued. He drug himself to the first step, and forced his legs over and down. It wasn't so much standing as weakly propping himself up, pushing and sliding a rough descent. One step, then two. Aaron's cries seemed somehow louder with every bruising slip down the crumbling stairwell.
One, then two, then three..
The front door didn't seem to come into view, even as he slipped several stairs down and felt his hip explode into vibrant pain. Collapsing in a heap of trembling bones and burnt skin, he looked in horror down the stairs at an angle that remained unchanged. Glancing up, desperate to mark progress in one direction if not the other, Aaron's door hung impossibly inches from his face. Gasping, choking on it, he flinched back from it and tensed in preparation for the slip to send him down the stairwell. Nothing moved. Turning back, the stairs were feet away and he, as if he'd never moved at all, remained sat as a burning heap before his brother's door.
The screams were unending. He felt every raw peel unravel his mind a little further. His brother's voice wailed and broke, choking and begging wordlessly for it to stop. And there he was, trapped helplessly on the wrong side of their bedroom door, trying to cry and failing at even that.
He moved again for the stairs. And again, the screams pounded louder and louder in his ears as he slipped and slid and crawled down inch by inch.
It never ended.
The screaming never stopped.
The front door remained perpetually just out of sight.
No matter how violently his lungs seized, they wouldn't collapse.
No matter how badly his eyes burnt and boiled in his head, they never burst.
Every scrape, burn, break, and bleed compiled but brought him no closer to the relief of it ending.
Even as the fire began to seep through the stairs, searing his every touch, he remained awake. He remained alive. Suffering, endlessly, as his skin puckered and grew tight. As it shined soft pink then furious red. As it cracked and blackened and dark blood boiled over and out- he lived.
He lived and crawled and every time he looked back, the stairs were gone. He was left in front of the same door, listening to the same screams. Undying but suffering still as every burn was as fresh and visceral as the very first.
If it was the third loop or the thirtieth, he couldn't tell. It was ceaseless and all-consuming. But he knew when it changed. When it became unlike before. He knew when his brother's voice changed. When the screams behind the door stopped. For a foolish moment, he assumed it was relief. He assumed it was one final mercy before the end. A promise that eventually he, too, would be allowed to die.
Then the new voice rose from the inferno.
Something older. Rougher. He sounded shocked. Confused. Hurt. There was a clatter. Banging. Horrified, agonized wails ripped anew through the thick air, and he knew immediately there would be no escape. He knew with a sudden, vicious clarity what this was.
Laying down against the stairs, closing eyes tight against the agony as it adhered his burnt skin to the wooden staircase, he listened to the sound of his husband's terrified, agonized screams as he burnt to death in the nearby room.
Knowing there was nothing he could do, knowing it would never end, he surrendered. Unsure how he even died to begin with, he resigned to the agony of Hell.
“They should have been back out by now.” Grimm grumbled around the filter of a menthol light. Checking the timer on her phone, the number slipped from ten to eleven minutes. Her eyes narrowed accusingly at it, a hissing sigh sending a cloud of smoke up from between her teeth.
Humming agreement, Cain said nothing right away. Every so often, it was nice to see her stressed like this. She would call it a dozen other things. Pragmatic, professional, just business sense. But he knew the look of her when she was worried, the well and true kind, for them. As a team. As people. As friends.
She took another deep drag, and he stood up off the front of the parked truck. “We can officially confirm it's a field, then.” He offered calmly, making sure to direct his crooked smile forward towards the outside face of the years-abandoned church. Whatever glory days it had once known, age and the decline of the ghetto around it had stolen it's function and caretakers long ago. There was always a hollow quality to a church no longer worshipped in. He could feel that even outside it, staring at one of the dusty busted windows on the front.
They’d all had warning there was some kind of field active- even the windows busted open, with afternoon sun leaking in, betrayed an inky, depthless dark inside the building. Wherever they were while standing outside it, and wherever his team went when they walked through the front doors- those were two very different realities. Communications had been dead static since the other three had gone inside, and the agreement had been to give them ten minutes. As much a sign of good faith as a need to keep the risk down. Ten minutes came and went however, and none of the three told to walk in then back out to report had returned.
In their wake the half-open double doors teased an unchanged darkness, a wall built on the church’s threshold. Periodically, streams of Grimm's smoke broke the view of the motionless, silent depths. The sun was well on its way to setting, and with the dangers of the night promising unknown complications, they had no real options left. A fact they both well understood without discussion.
“Yeah.” Grimm agreed bitterly, flicking her spent cigarette to the pavement. As she ground out the remnants under her heel, she waved one hand in unwilling permission. “Go on, then. Try not to make it any worse.”
Cain stepped forward smoothly, only to be stopped partway up the church's worn front steps.
“Mat.” His boss called from back near the truck. He knew what to expect, but stopped and turned back to her with a curious looking smile all the same.
“Technically our job is just to clear the place out.” She spoke cold, factual. His expression remained unchanged even in the face of what was intended as a warning. “If you're not out in ten more minutes, I'm calling a disenchanter.”
“Right, right.” Waving her off all too easily, he turned back towards the worn down house of god. There was still a certain kind of beauty in the cracked paint of the bricks and faded graffiti. At least to him. But their client had cleaner, more loving plans for the place. Those came first, even above the health and safety of whatever magical source was creating the entrapping field.
As he entered, he was sure both he and Grimm knew the reality of the situation. His paid job was to secure and clean out the location. But the job he assigned himself was to ensure a happy ending, for everyone involved.
Passing through the front doors of the church lead him somewhere familiar. As soon as he crossed one foot over into the darkness, it became compulsion to continue. A kind of morbid gravity drew him into the nothingness, refusing to let go until he was entirely enveloped in the bleak space. The double doors left his grasp, his feet trailing further into the dark. It felt like a dream, hazy and surreal. It was only once he was helplessly stranded in the void that it flickered into colors and shapes, taking the form of a place he knew by heart but hadn't been to in years.
The foyer sprang to life strangely- all at once, yet it felt slow and hypnotic. There was a dreamy quality to the sunny sprawl of polished marble flooring and filigree railing leading up the stairs and around an overlooking balcony. Golden drape curtains framed a grand piano off to the side, an oil painting of a parliament from ages ago framed in gold and set at the fork in the foyer. To one side, the marble staircase opened up and wrapped around out of sight. To the other, the flooring bled into rich hardwood and the heavy smell of the smoking room promised an open bottle of whiskey waiting somewhere farther in.
For a time, he stood at the split, staring at the painting housed in a frame almost equal to it in size. As a child, he'd assumed the depiction was a modern thing. He'd thought if he searched long enough he would find his father's face in the crowd of white-wigged men. He'd spent so many afternoons stopping before it and now, as he stood looking into it again, he heard the sharp click of dress shoes and knew what to expect.
Of all the things, a laugh bubbled out of him.
“You almost had me, there.” He mumbled to himself, foreign accent lilting the edges of his words. Backing away from the painting, listening to every footfall hit like distant thunder, Cain shook his head softly. His grin crooked, a huff of a laugh coming from him still as he looked around. The place was well-made. Too accurate to be a mock up. It had to be coming from him, then. An amateur mistake. Making the space born of him could make it nigh inescapable, if it succeeded in pulling him into the illusion. That must have been what happened to the others. But it being of him made it his. With that knowledge came a certain power- one he had to exploit swiftly, to avoid getting lost in the mire of his own subconscious.
Nodding to himself and turning around, he faced the entrance doors of his childhood home. They were perfect, down to the small chip near the bottom where he'd tripped once and cracked against it clumsily. A wonderful trap to lay. But it had a grave weakness. This space, born of his memories, his energy, his fears- it was constructed of him, and thus could be bent by him.
Reaching out to the panel of one tall wooden door, his fingertips stopped just short of contact. The footsteps closed in behind him, loud and threatening but never fast. His father never ran, never rushed. He was a cold, patient man and in the moment the figment of him went ignored as the surface of the front door rippled softly. It waved and oscillated like the fluttering surface of water under a breath.
“It'll take more than good old fashioned daddy issues to keep me at bay.” He promised whatever force had erected this grand design. He was clearly the fuel, but he wasn't the core. Whoever or whatever had caused this field, it was clearly young. An amateur. There was no finesse, no twist, no dangerous knife held just under the silk sheets of memory. The only threat here was the one he made on his own, as evidenced in how the snap of his father's oxfords seemed perpetually trapped at just about to enter the room, but no closer.
“Are you scared?” He dipped fingertips into the wavering surface of the door. It rippled in soft waves, wet and depthless. Of course it had to be water.. He tried not to think about it, to not give the space more ammunition to throw back at him. Breathing slow, timed, he spoke up over the sound of footsteps. Every word echoed in the lavish, empty space. “It would make sense, to be scared in a place like this.”
In a way beyond the physical, he could feel the atmosphere bristle. Defensive and angry, there was a nervousness to the energy of the space. A cornered animal's kind of violence, jumpy and chaotic. The unseen force beared fangs in warning, the intensity of the room pressurizing around him. It was likely a mistake then, to turn around. But he was drawn to it, a certain curiosity and yearning. L’appel du vide, perhaps.
At the balcony looking down on him, his father's image was cut from marble and onyx. Pale skin and dark hair framed sharp features. Compared, they looked nothing alike. Cain had taken his mother's face for the most part, carrying only the sharpness of his father's eyes and teeth. Looking up at the older man, instinctive fear chilled his every pulse. But beneath it, defiant humor seeped out. A bitter, defensive laugh left him.
“He should be grey and sallow by now.” Cain joked. It didn't change the image of his father any. The man was still a sight of contrast and severity. But it took some of the pressure out of the room, to see him and laugh. In the end, as striking as the sight of him was, Cain knew this ‘him’ was no more than a memory. The real man was far away, undoubtedly different now. This was the memory of fear. Not the source of it. He understood the difference keenly enough to resist getting lost in circles around it.
“Cain.” His father called stern and foreign and just like he always remembered in his nightmares. His words rolled and hissed, a bite to the southern french dialect that more than anything, made the blonde smile to hear. “Are you done studying? Where's your mother?”
Backing away a step, it was instinct to laugh at the unique pain the words unearthed in his chest. A bit like digging up a time capsule, he felt unsettled and relieved all at once. The dirt of his chest shifting again after so long left dormant was as unnatural as it was alluring. A part of him wanted it. He wanted that hurt, that guilt, that fear. It was cold and sickening but it was still familiar. A safer place than bravery had ever felt.
He rocked back another step. Back towards the front door. The yearning remained- the want to reply, to engage. To see and hear his father one more time, even as a dream. But he knew better. He still remembered why he was there, what was at stake. It felt all wrong to turn his back on the man, and lo and behold as he did his father boomed a singular, hateful shout, “Don't you turn away from me, boy!”
Cain flinched. He paused. After a moment, hands trembling, he marched forward towards the door. There was a sorrow to his smile, a wounded weight to it as he tried to laugh again. “Fucking terrifying, isn't it?” Once more, he pressed his hand against the front of the door. Pushing against the surface, he watched himself sink past it like a dip into dark waters.
“You'd be crazy, if you weren't scared.”
His father shouted his name again, sounding closer behind him. A childlike fear lanced through him, begging him to turn and brace and guard his head for the blow that had to be coming. But he remained still, slowly sinking his forearm further into the rippling door.
“I get it. I do.” His promises turned to whispers. It took real nerve, to edge forward a step. To press his face closer to the water’s surface, to keep his back to the sharp advance of shoe soles on marble stairs.
“We're not Tutores. We're not here to hurt you. I need you to trust me.” The pushback lessened. He pressed his other hand through the door’s wet surface. “We don't have much time. I need to get to my friends. Let me reach them, and I'll show you why we're here. I'll prove we can help you.”
Sucking in a tight, tense breath he shut his eyes as his father's footsteps thundered up behind him. As they neared, he pushed forward. Orientation slipped. The room, like some miniature set, tilted as he pressed further. The control slipped free of his hands, the change tipped into motion on its own. He surrendered to it, trying to relax into the world turning like a dollhouse shoved onto its side.
He heard the feet of the grand piano start to slide. He heard the painting slip free of the wall and clatter against the floor. A dozen different glasses and bottles slid and shattered in the other room. As the whole of it all pitched forward, the water rose up against his front. His father's hands pressed to his back, the scrape of his touch against the fabric of Cain's jacket the last audible thing before he fell into the swallowing maw of the lightless waters.
Trying to inhale, his lungs took in nothing but water.
His body seized. Tensing, clawing, pushing. Shoving abruptly, until he tilted. Where once there had been a dark, depthless nothingness he found sudden purchase beneath himself. Forcing himself over from his stomach onto his back, he gasped. As his face drew out of the thick water collected in trampled hills of mud and muck, he breathed deep and frantic.
Overhead, heaven was breaking down. The sky was a rolling sea of greys, outlined in sharp, bright light. A heartbeat flash prefaced a great and terrible roll of thunder. It roared angry and mocking and he felt in his chest a defeat that was not his own. He could feel her, here. Saturating every drop of rain and leaden breath. He felt exhausted by her presence in the air, weighed down and pinned into the sloppy earth by her despair. The taste of her surrender was stale and aged. She’d given up long before he’d gotten there, and it had been left to rot and fester in the time it took him to find her.
“Red..” Her alias pressed from his lips to the open air with a heavy intention. But he felt no quake in the space, no recognition in the charged atmosphere. This landscape born of her mind, her heart, her fear was deaf and distant. As he sat up, the damage was obvious. The ground was boot-tracked and sullen, washed out in shades of brown-grey and caving in on itself in pockets and whirls. Small sinkholes formed seemingly on their own here and there, the earth collapsing in on itself and rain-thinned mud eagerly pouring to fill every new pocket.
Looking around, he did not see any trace of her in the churning, sinking field. There were no bright smiles, no cheerful waves as she rocked onto her toes to be seen. Her voice did not chirp from some far corner to draw his attention, and no flash of fiery hair and freckles bounced into his view. Larette as he knew her was not in this place. Rather, the murky shards of her hopelessness were all he could sense, littering the battlefield like hollow shrapnel. This place was not her. It was not all of her. Fighting the crushing weight begging him to lay down and give in, he dug nails into his knees to pull and sit up. Brushing mud off the shoulders of his jacket made him feel pounds lighter, and as he fought his way to standing tall, the air felt a little lighter once off the ground.
“Red!” He called out to her again, and again no answer came.
It was sad, but it was fine. It wouldn’t be his first time talking to someone that didn’t want to listen. Dragging one boot up and out of the mud, he took his first labored step forward into the heart of the mire.
“I know you can hear me!” He shouted across the desecrated field. He waited for a response only out of habit. No sound came, but the air shifted. A subtle relief, an ease to the stale scent hanging around. Some of the thick smell of stagnant water seemed to clear, letting more of the fresh rainwater scent fill the space. It was a sign this place could be affected, if nothing else. A flicker of hope drove him to bending down, to pressing a hand against the sludge underfoot. It did not heal, or bow, or change. This was not his terrain to manipulate.
“We have a job to do.” He reminded her softly, sighing to himself as he stood back up. The air shifted again, seizing and crackling strangely. A relief chased by a snap of jaws. He flinched a bit at the harsh bite of thunder that rolled overhead. She didn’t like the reminder? But why? Carrying forward slogging step by step, he followed the slick mount and dip of the ground to its center. And there, at the heart of the greatest pit, her hair was caked in muck, her vibrant complexion speckled with dried on filth and paled out unhealthily. She was a shadow of herself at best, desolate and unnervingly motionless. Instinct drove him to half-slipping, half-racing down the ever-growing crater consuming her, sliding through the uneven bog to her side. Up close, the state of her was clear.
Her head just barely turned, looking at him with vacant green eyes and only partial recognition. Something like confusion flickered weak in her gaze as she stared up at him. Even if he knew it was a kind of illusion, a projection of a mental self, seeing her covered in filth and barely moving sent ice into his heart. The mud was over her ears, her body half-consumed from waist to shoulders. His hands rushed to her shoulders but rather than pushing into the viscous mud around her, he found no easy purchase. Despite its glossy look the muck was solid and impenetrable, a hard casing keeping its hold on her.
“Cain..” She mumbled up at him, voice barely a whisper. He grimaced on reflex, and while part of him remembered the protocol to use their work names, the rest of him didn’t care. The slip was a testament to her state. She believed in this reality too fully, she’d surrendered to it too completely. Again, his chest buckled with an ache for her. As awful as it all was just to see, the idea that for her it was not a bad dream but a perceived reality was heartbreaking.
He shook his head at her, expression pained. Even if it was useless, his hands scrabbled and clawed at the casing around her shoulders all the same. “You left.. You left me here.” She whispered, her voice a raspy crackle. It arrived to him like needles under the tongue, lancing enough to make him stop and pull back just slightly. He stared down at her, confused and questioning, and as she looked up at him her distant eyes welled and flooded over. A sob hitched her throat sharp and wrong, the noise bubbling up desperate and hurt and somehow, painfully, it was thankful. More than he could hear it in her tone or see it on her sobbing face, he could feel it. Coming on hard in the charged storm air, her absolute relief was tangible. He could taste her frantic, mounting yearning on every breath and while the surface didn’t shift any he could feel her want to squirm desperately to try to reach up and out to him, to grab hold and make him stay.
Whatever version of himself had left her here like this, he wanted to destroy it. But there was no room for wrath in the moment. Instead, knowing she couldn’t reach him through the hard shell separating them, he grabbed onto the front of her uniform at her shoulders. Balling fists in her gear, he tried to jostle her just slightly as physical reassurance of his truly being there.
“I’m right here. I’m right here, Red. I’m not going anywhere this time. Okay?”
Her lips quaked as he poured comfort readily. She smiled but it faltered, and in a shattering moment rather than relief he felt nothing but a cold wall of hurt. She shook her head at him- what little she could, half-consumed into the earth as she was.
“No.” She whispered, the word breaking in her throat. She fought to speak around the involuntary blubbering, a roll in the space between them telling him how badly she was trying to recoil away from him. “No, you have to go.” She insisted, closing eyes tight to not have to see him. To not have to watch him pull away and leave her behind a second time. “I’ll only drag you down, you have to go. You’re better off..”
Simultaneously, he wanted to crumble and he wanted to tear her from the earth. It was a whirlwind conflict, making the illusion around them all too easy to fall into believing. Yet for as awful as it was, her words painted a picture. Her feelings feeding the energy in the air betrayed her. It was enough for him to work with as he kept his hold on her, jostling her again so she could feel him there even as she closed her eyes.
“Did you not hear me?” He nearly growled back at her, trying to sound stern and half-succeeding. His voice wavered somewhere between stubborn and just about to break. “I said we have a job to do. We, Red. Both of us. I’m not leaving here without you.”
“You have to!” She shouted back, desperate and aching. Her agony rippled out from herself, bringing a slide of fresh mud down from the edges of the crater. As it slipped down the widening edges she sank deeper, and despite his hands anchored in her clothes Cain watched the earth take her further in. Stubbornly, he kept his grip, even when it meant the mud closed in around them both.
“Stop!” She begged him, wailing the word like a child. Her voice was weak, strained and torn and tear-slick. She couldn’t move to pry him off, she couldn’t even shake her head against his efforts anymore. A prisoner entirely, all she could do was shut her eyes in defiance of his presence. “I told you! I’ll just weigh you down! You have to go on without me!”
“No means no, Larette!” He argued almost viciously. She flinched under the weight of her real name and as the mud kept running down to encase his knees and her chest further, he bent down. Not surrendering to it, but pressing against her, forcing their foreheads together as he growled against her face, “There is no job worth doing at the cost of leaving you behind. If we go down here, we do it together. We climb back up together. We try the fuck again, together.”
Wordlessly, she sobbed against him and he stayed rooted, pulling with all his strength against her body even as she sank and the whole earth seemed ready to shut over her head and bury her once and for all. He did not let go. He did not leave her. Staying there bent over her, the rain came down against his back, it ran from his hair into her face. Slowly, flecks of mud once caked across her pallid cheeks started to wash free.
“Get the fuck up, Red.” He muttered low against her. “I’m not gonna take you laying down and feeling sorry for yourself anymore. You’re not gonna weigh me down, so long as you get your ass up.”
“You don’t understand! My leg!” She protested overtop him as he tried to continue. “Did you not see?! It’s gone! It’s gone, I can’t walk, I’m useless! You all left- you had to leave- You have to go, Cain!”
The mud drew up to his wrists. It locked his legs in place, binding him to her. To her protests, her fears, her recoiling from all he offered. He knew the feelings, even if the ones in the immediate were not his own. He’d felt the vice grip of resignation before. He knew the contradictory hurt of craving something and denying all opportunity to have it. Feeling those things roll off her, knowing how deep those types of aches ran, knowing she had to feel the marrow-deep hurt of it all now.. He could hardly bear it.
“Goddammit, listen to me!” His voice broke. Strained and scared for her. Desperate for something, anything, that could fix this- he had nothing left but words and a weeping wound in his chest. Rainwater poured over him, onto her. Lightning flashed overhead, framing his torn expression in a blinding sea as his words rose stubbornly over the thunder. “I know it hurts and I know it’s scary and I’m so, so sorry. But you have to get up. You have to. If you can’t walk on your own I am right here, and I’m not going to leave you, okay? I don’t care what it costs. Just fucking listen to me, I’m not saying this shit just to make you feel better or for my own sake. I want you to hear me and I want you to understand. You are my friend, Red. I’m scared for you and I want to help you but I can’t do this for you. If you don’t want to get back up I can’t do jack shit, here. But so help me god if you try, I will do everything I can for you. I will be right here to help you climb out of this and if you’ve only got one leg or no legs or fucking- I don’t know, I don’t care! We will figure this shit out. We will get out of here. But I need you to let yourself have this. Just take the help. Fucking trust me, and take my hands, and let me help you.”
Tears met the rain at the slope of his cheeks, pouring down onto her face. He was begging. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t graceful. There was a panic in the air that they shared, breathing it into and out of each other. He couldn’t force her. He couldn’t even help her, unless she wanted it. It remained the most horrifying, and most heartbreaking part of interacting with others for him. The end of the line- where his ability to do anything meant nothing. Where it was all up to the other person. Their strength of will. Their want to keep going, even when the world was cold and cruel and unfair. And now, he was asking her to fight and win against the hardest enemy she could face. Herself.
She choked on a sob, swallowed too thick, and cough-cried up at him, “B-But what if- What if I just- I can’t, though. I can’t walk, I don’t- I’ll just drag you down, Cain. I can’t do that to you, you don’t deserve that, I can’t..”
“That’s the shitty thing about love, Red.” He tightened his grip against her in the mud, rearing back as useless as it felt with all the strength he had. “You don’t get to decide how far people are going to go for you. All you can control is what you do with it. Now are you going to let me drown here with you in this or are you going to get the fuck up and let me help you get going?”
Her face contorted. Trembling lips and puffy eyes. Swollen, sobbing, flushed. There was more color in her in that moment than had been since his coming there. All freckled and pink, she wailed in one final decisive sob before a sharp crack busted the caked ground around them.
All at once, her body pitched forward into him, clumsy and careless. Cain fell, and Larette followed, tackling him onto his back. Both her arms wound around him in an ironclad grip, a new roar of thunder losing out entirely to the sheer volume of her sobbing. For a time, all he could do was let her stay collapsed atop him, a bit stunned and a bit amazed. The world had left him too jaded, too prepared for her to recoil and refuse and let them both go under. But she was, as she always had been, the brightest member of their team. And as the sky broke open and the light once only rimming the clouds shined in a nearly unbearable cascade down across the field, Cain smiled. Flecks of drying, busting mud fell from both of them as he squirmed his arms free of her pinning embrace in order to hug her back.
A certain wanting remained- an urge to find whatever ‘him’ she’d constructed here that left her behind, and fight it. Leaving any trace of such a perception of himself there stung, but it wasn’t really about him, so he stayed put. This was right where she needed him, and this was what she needed him to be doing. The rest didn’t matter.
“I want to go.” She eventually whined, somewhere between sad and desperate and a slow kind of healing. The sorrow and the insecurity wasn’t gone. It was just joined, by more of her freshly unearthed. More than just the difficult and downtrodden parts. “I want to catch up to the others.”
“Red..” They shifted in unison, Cain sitting up and letting go to allow her to rock back into a similar position. Around them, the crater was drying out and cracking into a tiered slope of half-busted clay. Cain shook his head. “There’s no ‘catching up’ to be done.”
Instantly, she looked down to her missing leg as he spoke. She was so ready to argue, to cite the wound as proof. He looked too, at the muddy and impossibly still bleeding stump of her once-limb. Before she could even start whatever poor counter there was to be made, he reached out and laid a ginger hand over the wound. She flinched, but there was no pain to be felt.
“Look at me.” he beckoned soft, and as her eyes drew off herself and onto him with a soothing amount of focus, he smiled. “How many times have you had to bandage one of us up on the fly in the field? You think we could do that ourselves? You think Reid or Sila would make it a fuckin’ day without you? We need you. Half the time because we run ahead like idiots and get fucked up for it.”
“But I don’t want to be the team mom!” Larette protested, her tone frantic and the air around her snapping with a vibrant insecurity. Cain couldn’t see it, but he could feel it. Years of brothers and fathers and uncles, friends and soldiers with their broad shoulders and cut jaws. A dozen ‘sweethearts’ and ‘sugars’, demeaning pats on the head and dismissive comments. A lifetime of never quite measuring up to someone a little taller, a little stronger. Cain went quiet, expression faltering. It wasn’t like he could say he understood that. It wasn’t his life, it wasn’t a world he’d had to grow up in. Looking down, he moved to take her hand, squeezing it slightly.
“I won’t say I get it, cause I don’t. If you wanna be stronger, get stronger. Hit the gym and bust ass and bench press a fuckin’ fridge. Go for it. I’ll spot for you. But you shouldn’t be ashamed for being good at stuff that isn’t always masculine, either. There’s nothing wrong with being the team mom and taping our dumb asses back together. But if it doesn’t make you happy, and something else does, then absolutely do that instead. Either way.. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change your worth any. Running as our medic or our frontman doesn’t make you any different. We don’t like you cause of what you can do, and we don’t measure you based on your skillset. You’re our friend, Red. I mean, do you think less of me just cause I can’t sew for shit?”
She huffed a noise like an almost-laugh and shook her head. Her lips curved just barely, but there was still a reluctant weight in her eyes. He locked onto that, watching her intently as he carried on, tone lightening up. “Exactly. And if I did pick up sewing, and got decent at it, it wouldn’t suddenly make me just the best damn thing to ever happen to this team.”
“You could do stitches in the field better.” Larette teased, a bit half-hearted. It was a joke as much as it wasn’t, and he could sense the train of thought lacing the comment with a kind of nervousness. If he learned how to do what she did, what would they even need her for anymore? Too much of her was put on display, here. She couldn’t hide the flickering thoughts with a smile, even though she tried to.
“Okay, you know what I mean.” He sighed, smiling back and joining her in a soft expression that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You’re not less than any of us. You’re not falling behind. We’re not going to leave you. I know you put in more work than anybody to stay fit and ready for whatever job comes our way. It’s honestly insane you see that as you not measuring up cause personally, I’ve always considered that as proof you’re the best damn one of us.”
Abruptly, she laughed. It was the signature deflection of ‘you’re full of shit’, but he kept going anyway. “I mean it! I’m not just flattering you. I really mean it. You put so much time and effort into this. You give a shit, more than anybody. And when one of us needs help, you’re the first one there doing anything and everything you can. We tease you and call you team mom not cause you’re a girl but cause you’re just.. You’re there. For a lot of us you’re the closest fucking thing to an actual supportive family we’ve got. It’s a different kind of strength than Sila busting in a door or Reid knowing every car part to ever exist, sure. But that doesn’t make it worth less than those things. Maybe we need to show it more, we’re all shit at that, it’s no secret.”
“Cain, no, I don’t-” She started, wanting to protest the very idea of anyone making a big deal out of things and giving her attention. Even if she did seriously deserve it. Again, she didn’t want to let herself have the things she needed. And again, he wasn’t taking that for an answer as he moved to hold both of her hands in his firmly and continue.
“Hear me out. Please. I’m not trying to tell you that you shouldn’t keep trying to be.. Masculine or physically strong, or anything like that. But I can feel it. Don’t try to bullshit me. I can feel how ashamed you are that you’re good at sewing and first aid and looking after people. Those things don’t detract from any other part of you, they don’t make you any less strong. I still remember when you beat Reid’s ass in arm wrestling, and how hard you hit when we boxed once before. You are all of those things. Not just one or two, not just a certain gendered half. All of it. You can be the cool team beer mom and still kick some serious ass. It’s not an either or thing, and it’s not a competition.” Finally, he shifted forward onto his knees.
The storm had broken and parted. The skies were clear. Overcast clouds still hung around the edges, but in the bright light of the aftermath the mud was drying and breaking all around them. Cain rocked up onto his feet, still holding her hands as he stood and pulled her up with him. Predictably, her balance was off. She tried to put weight where there wasn’t a leg to support it. As she tipped, he was there. Wrapping her arm around his neck and holding her steady, rather than picking her up. He held her tight and safe, and as she wavered slightly in place on her remaining good leg, he held her close.
“I know I can’t magically make it all better no matter how much I talk. And I won’t stand here and keep trying forever. Promise.” He winked playfully, and that time when she laughed it came genuine. Weak, after everything she’d just survived. But it was real, and it could be felt as it draped off her in a sheet of gold sunlight and easy breathing. With every shard of mud that cracked and flaked off them, massive weights released and fell away.
“But I want you to hear it. To have me on record, telling you, that you are good enough. You are worth it. You are my friend, and when you need me to help you I will always be here. Same as you are for me. No questions. No judgement.” He shifted forward some, and her knee shook. She watched the ground, scared and quiet. Her arm around his neck and shoulders tensed, hand balling up against his jacket. It was more a stumble than a step, but as he moved forward and she drug her good leg in a hop to follow, she made it. She tensed and struggled and mostly drug herself along using her weight against him. But she stepped- one, then two, then three. Bit by bit up the sloped incline of the hill. With every step, the mud cracked and parted more and more. The sound grew and spread. One defining buckle spread, followed by a dozen smaller pops. It washed across the crater then rippled further, until they made it to the top of the hill it had made, and looked out.
As far as the eye could see the trampled field was giving way, crumbling in on itself. Where the mud busted and opened, flowers bloomed. Reds and whites and pinks. A sea of buds and young petals, weak but opening up to the sun. For a moment they stayed still at the top of the hill, watching an ocean of fresh growth turn skyward to the sun. Cain turned, watching Larette soak it all up with a soft awe. Leaning in, he murmured to her, “Do you remember where we are, now?”
She turned just slightly, mud falling free of her tangled red curls. When she looked up at him there was a soft ebb to the confusion. The sun shined in her eyes, gold on glittering emerald. Color was back in her cheeks, red-orange freckles dancing across her features just like the flowers in the valley around them. He couldn’t help but smile wide at the sight of both, a fond knowing glowing in him as he watched her think about it. Realization dawned and she gasped, looking back out at everything.
“This is..” She shook her head just slightly, disbelieving as much as still unsure. It was magic. She knew that much. Cain laughed soft at her side, helping her forward down into the growing field of flowers.
“This is you.” He finished for her along the way.
“But-” She looked back at him, all the more confused.
“I told you we had a job to do.” He laughed. “Current working theory is some kind of mage is at the center. It’s definitely a projected field, some kind of reality marble. Seems to be triggering fear predominantly.”
Red turned away sharp as it all sank in. Her face colored a soft pink, eyes averting down onto the flowers. “Okay..” She mumbled, trying to follow along as they kept going, off towards the battle she’d once known as important but forgotten why. “Let’s pretend I’m caught up on all the magic lingo. That would mean.. What’s happening, exactly?”
“Uh..” Cain hummed, looking up at the sky as they shuffled forward slow but sure.
“Simple version? Magic field is eating your emotions and shitting out your worst nightmare.”
Cain shrugged, and Larette looked back around at the surreal landscape. More and more as everything started to make sense, the colors dimmed. The smell of summer rain and fresh grass started to fade away.
“Okay- I’m not doing that. Am I doing that?” She stopped walking, looking around in concern. As much confusion as a worry, a fear. Was the battle about to come back? Some deeper-buried inner demons about to pop up? Was this all a trick and Cain wasn’t real and she was about to collapse again and-
“Don’t worry.” Cain reassured at her side, squeezing her hand at his shoulder. “Calm down. It’ll feed off you if you get too panicky, so try to stay calm. Keep reminding yourself it’s an illusion. You’re not doing anything, it’s just sort of letting go since you’re not giving off enough negative emotion to work with anymore.” The flowers around them started to fade and wither. The sky went dim, the sun fading into a pale shimmer before even that dulled out to a flat, darkened moon. The new night sky felt darker than was natural, rolling with waves of pitch black clouds.
“I asked whoever’s at the heart of this to help me find you guys. You were gone for ten minutes with no word back.” In tune with their surroundings, the once easy lilt to Cain’s tone bled somber and focused. He stopped walking, looking around slow and careful as things changed from the rolling fields to flat, dusty ground. Every direction felt empty and dark, a void still building itself into a new shape around them.
“The church! Right!” Larette chirped, everything at last catching up to her. She gasped, one hand partly covering her mouth. “Oh no, I’ve been saying your name this whole time! I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine.” He reassured quickly, shaking his head. “There’s no telling how much of our subconscious the person at the core of this is actually aware of. They might know all our names, already. Besides..” Carefully, he moved to unwind Larette’s arm off his shoulder. She wobbled anxiously for a moment before looking down and realizing her body was complete again. It felt like waking from an abrupt dream- she knew it should have been fine, but there was still a wash of relief as she reached down and touched the solid existence of her leg. Feeling jeans under her touch rather than the bulk of military gear was a welcome detail freeing her from her previous nightmare.
“I get the feeling they’re not a malevolent person. It’s okay if they know my name. Just don’t tell Grimm.” A bit distracted by the churning surroundings, his voice came partly distant as he moved forward, trusting Larette to walk on her own at his side.
“Where are we?” She asked as they went, falling easily in line at his side, looking at every blind spot he didn’t have covered along the way.
“Not sure. Somewhere made by either Cetan or Cavall.”
Far on the horizon, light at last bloomed. A single beacon in the dark of the night, a neon glow in the middle of a flat expanse. As they walked gradually closer, more of the void seemed to take a proper shape. The ground became a rocky dirt road, winding up a slight hill. Trees swayed in the dead of night, a breeze rolling by carrying the smell of tobacco fields from somewhere else. It was faint and easy to miss, as more and more the only thing in the air around them was the thick scent of a house fire.
Red gasped, covering her mouth and staring wide-eyed at the blaze. Both of them couldn’t help but stop, briefly struck by the immense destruction laid out ahead of them. The massive farm house was entirely engulfed, the front porch already a collapsing skeleton of black rafters and sheeting. From somewhere inside wood creaked and popped and crumbled further, and beyond even that the piercing sound of a grown man screaming in agony was unmistakable.
Before Cain could say a word, Larette was sprinting up the road towards it. Cursing to himself, he pitched forward to follow, catching up to her and wrapping a hand around her arm. Not to stop her, but grab her attention as they carried on side by side.
“Don’t forget, it’s an illusion! If you get lost in it, you’re just going to make it stronger!” He reminded her, the damp of their clothes from her thunderstorm battlefield drying out rapidly as they neared the house.
“Right!” She called back over the screams and roaring flames. “You don’t think- I mean- This is probably-”
“Cetan’s.” Cain agreed, nodding singular and sharp. It wasn’t a hard thing to assume. Anyone with sense could piece together the teammate half-coated in burn scars would have a raging inferno as his worst fear. Or, they realized in tandem as they approached, his worst memory.
“How do we get in?” She stopped just in front of the house, the fire making her squint and fight not to rock back a step.
“If you’re okay with a fuckton of pain, I’d say the front door.” Cain shrugged as she shot him a disbelieving look. It wasn’t like they had a plethora of options, nor time. She didn’t need more reason to panic though, so he kept their ticking deadline to himself. He’d already spent so much of it getting her back on her feet, quite literally. Focusing on the current moment now was more important.
“See if you can find a different way in around back.” Cain pushed at her shoulder, sending her forward. “I’ll find Cetan.” For just a moment she looked ready to argue, but the words never came. She looked to him, stern but certain, and nodded once before sprinting around the side of the house.
As she went, he shrugged his jacket off, leaving it in the ashen front lawn as he strode forward. It was an illusion. A mental construct. It had no real physical bearing. He had to remind himself of those things on loop as he resisted obeying a more natural protocol for approaching the fire. Covering his face and staying low to the ground would mitigate some degree of discomfort, but it wouldn’t make a difference in the long run for living or dying. Staring down the burning skeleton of the porch and sagging front door, he repeated it all internally one last time. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t actually kill him. He just needed to find Lanner, figure out what hiccup had him trapped in this, and help him out of it.
A few final, quick breaths to psych himself up were all he allowed further before hurling forward and sprinting towards the inferno. Clearing the front steps in two strides, the wall of heat didn’t entirely register as he practically threw himself over the threshold. Embering splinters fell from the frame as he went, dotting his hair and shoulders. Shaking off what he could, he tried to understand the layout of the home around the thick smoke and chaotic flames. An entire hallway was falling through the floor, the boards gone and the fire climbing hungrily up the walls from downstairs. To his right, an open doorway that should have lead somewhere else was nearly impossible to see beyond. Heavy black smoke stayed trapped in the room, rolling across the ceiling in waves. As best he could tell, there was no one inside. Which left only the most obvious direction as where to go.
A crumbling staircase laid directly ahead, the wood busting and buckling, the landing at the top just out of sight from his spot by the door. It was from somewhere up there the screams were emanating. He wanted to believe the sounds weren’t Lanner’s, but it was hard to recognize the voice of a mute, especially in a time like this. Rushing forward to the first step, Cain tried to crane forward and get a look at whatever was possibly waiting ahead of him. The smoke billowed upwards, burning his eyes. The heat felt impossible, suffocating and burning just by being in it. As painful as it all was, he took it as further proof none of it was real. If this fire was real, there wouldn’t be a single soul alive in the space anymore. Not within this black smoke oven, where even the ceiling groaned and dipped in an ever-weakening state.
Trying to stay as rooted and focused in the truth as possible, Cain took to the stairs two at a time. The wood whined and bucked, trying to cave in under his weight every few steps. It made his rush all the more nerve-wracking, every step uncertain and hurried. As he half threw himself into the upstairs hallway, the screams reached a deafening fever pitch. A door to the left was cracked, pinned shut by the collapsed frame as the ceiling looked just a breath away from caving in overtop it. Instinctively, Cain stepped back away from it warily, looking the worn wood over top to bottom. It was clear even just a touch stood a chance of bringing it all down, and yet from behind it nearly unimaginable sounds arose. Human beings in true agony made noises like wild animals- raw and guttural, peeling and wrong. There was no composure, even on a primal level. It was just agony, distilled to a horrifying clarity. He knew this place was a memory then by the sounds alone, things hauntingly feral and beyond sheer imagination.
Lurching in place, he wanted to try and bust down the door. It was an inherent compulsion he caught only after it started, digging heels in and just barely catching himself in time.
“Cetan!” Cain shouted, trying to raise his own voice louder than the agonized screaming. It carried on unbroken, a stream of panicky, audible suffering. Cain called out again, the alias breaking as a fit of coughing drowned it out. The smoke burnt acrid and sharp in his throat, making every inhale scrape and every exhale catch and stutter. His eyes watered reflexively to the assault, casting smoke and shadows in stranger lines all around until deciphering his surroundings felt virtually impossible. All the while the heat stole every bit of moisture his clothes had retained from Larette’s landscape, going further to draw from his throat what it could. Baking and boiling alive were not things he’d ever wanted to experience, but the sensations assaulted him regardless, skin drawing up tight and terrible. It felt like a fight just to move, having to struggle with his own body for the simplest of motions as he pitched forward involuntarily in a coughing fit. All of it was a kind of battle, an anger to the air trying to take him to his knees. It, like the field before this place, had a kind of sentience. A spiteful, cruel pressure that drove black smoke into his lungs and stole water from his eyes. As he struggled just for air it all but begged him to give in, to give up. To just lay down and die.
It was within that malice the first giveaway was hidden. He could feel it, as he coughed and bent forward, practically gagging over his own fight to breathe- beneath the viciousness of the atmosphere, there was a knowing. A bleak acceptance. This suffering was warranted. It was deserved. He needed to be crushed by this place because it was only right, it was only fair.
“Cet-!” He tried again, choking and shuddering. He was just about to try at the door with a shaky but regained focus when abruptly, his body jerked. A hand at his arm pulled him from it, aside and away. Cain stumbled, almost falling into the figure that jerked him off his path.
Half-crumbled on the ground, Lanner was nearly unrecognizable.
The half of his body normally painted in red-pink burn scars was blackened and cracked, weeping in rivulets over the twisted terrain of puckered and melted skin. His body carried on in waves from the edges of the most severe- blending from sharp, blackened patches to unnervingly shiny spans of vicious red and raw pink. The plains of his body buckled and bubbled, swelling in places it shouldn’t have and stretching taut over the framework of his bones. The dark-skinned, rich-eyed man Cain knew was not present. Whatever sprawled before him in the hall wasn’t Lanner. It didn’t even look human, mangled and melted, running together all wrong like a wax figure in the sun. He almost couldn’t process the horror of it, the sheer detail that no movie or make up could recreate. It was too visceral, too much. Even with all the things he’d seen it took an active effort to tense and keep in the urge to recoil, to shout, to gag. But worse still than any imagery was the movement. The knowing. The tangible energy in the air, crackling and raw, telling him that this was in fact no prop or figment or falsehood. Not at its core. This was his friend- how Lanner saw himself, how he felt, how he believed he deserved to be. Feelings and layers of emotion across decades all distilled into a single state of being.
Cain couldn’t move for a moment, he failed to react at all beyond stunned, horrified staring. He was a doll in Lanner’s mangled, too-small hands as burnt skin flaked off and a melty ooze stuck behind where he let go of Cain’s sleeve.
“Don’t.” The malformed figure spoke, in a voice that ran Cain straight through. Because for all the physical differences, his voice sounded exactly the same. Even years and years after whatever event similar to this had stolen his skin and proper voice, the fire-raked and wounded crackle of Lanner’s voice in that moment was the same as it always sounded on the rare times he was forced to talk.
For all his endurance in the face of the physical suffering, Cain couldn’t stay upright before this. His knees went weak, and as one gave out from under him it was all he could do just to catch himself with the other, kneeling in front of Lanner desperate and wild-eyed. What could he do for this? How could he help, how could he fix this? It felt hopeless, watching the charred corpse of his friend still moving, still speaking. Still suffering.
“It’s no use.” Lanner rasped at him, before turning away. Cain moved slow and numb, looking towards where Lanner turned. Sick and shocked, he stayed there useless as Lanner drug himself across the floor. Parts of his body were left behind- too burnt and crisped, chipping off against the uneven flooring, or too slick and wet and sliding, oozing in streaks and sticking thickly to everything he touched. It had to hurt. It wasn’t a pain Cain could even conceptualize. He watched Lanner move despite it, ever forward. He drug himself to the top of the stairs and seemed to struggle for a moment with how to lower himself onto the first step. His arms were too thin, too small. Skin burnt and reduced and caked onto just bones with a severity that seemed impossible. The unique, pungent scent of cooking flesh and burning ash perpetually assaulted him. Yet all he could do was watch, stuck on the knowledge that this was born of Lanner. Cain was pinned under the lancing conviction that mixed in every breath of smoke and flickering ember in the air, that he believed he deserved this. This hellscape. This degree of agony. To exist past the point he should have died, to be chased through every step by the ongoing wails of horror and agony in an unreachable room. It wasn’t hard to decipher the metaphor and meaning in play. But understanding it did not equip Cain right away with how to deal with it. Larette and insecurity and reassuring speeches were one thing, but this? This guilt, this soul deep wound left to rot under the years- what could he do for this? What would Lanner even allow?
“Stop.” The word clawed its way out of Cain’s throat as he finally found the strength to move, momentarily crawling after Lanner. He was too scared to touch him, too unsure of what pain it would cause. Without laying hands on him to physically force him still, Cain could do nothing but watch Lanner continue forward, slumping down the stairs even as more of him was left behind on every step.
“God, you’re killing yourself..” Cain whispered in his wake.
Curling up at the top of the stairs, he watered and coughed and struggled to form any idea of what to do, how to effect the situation. It felt beyond him. Something so insurmountable, a pain so deeply run as this, what could mere words do in the face of that? He couldn’t just pick Lanner up and carry him to the front door, this wasn’t something Cain could save him from. At best he could only offer to help him through it, but how? How was anyone supposed to handle exposure to such a sight, to such knowledge as this? To not just know but feel the burns, the seizing lungs, the self-loathing and sick resignation. It swelled in time with every scream, the acidic guilt at the back of his throat bubbled and popped harsh and sharp. For a moment, watching Lanner burn down alongside the house crumbling around him, it wasn’t hard to lose the dividing lines between them both.
Cain knew the taste of self-hatred. He understood the indescribable weight that came with carrying forward when others more deserving of the path could not. It was the memory of the worst nights spent trying to cope that plagued him, chewing at the back of his mind, painting images of Lanner in his place alone and choking on a vengeance directed only ever inwards. If there was a salve for that, Cain hadn’t found it yet in his life. Which left him paralyzed in the moment, watching his friend drag himself through the fire, losing parts of himself to the suffering but carrying on all the same. How could he help in a struggle he himself had never won against? He had no solutions, no answers, no words that felt strong enough.
There were no speeches to give. No inspiring monologue to launch into. He reached out and stopped himself as Lanner slipped, and tumbled, and banged down several stairs. Something fragile busted in Cain’s chest, weeping between all his internal organs at the sight of Lanner, crumpled and shuddering, struggling for the strength just to continue.
“It’s not your fault.” Cain choked over himself, quiet. Too quiet. It burnt his throat and quaked in tone but he fought to speak up, to call down the stairs as Lanner even still continued to crawl. “It’s not your fault! What happened w-” As if alive, the air felt sharp and full of purpose as it fled from him. In its place there was only smoke, only pain. His lungs felt hollow, his skin felt alive with the white hot flair of burns sinking deep. Trying to inhale left him choking, taking every would-be word from him with a violent force.
Left to gag and sob and seize under the pressure of it all, Cain was deaf to the sound of a thundering break. Wood splintered and scattered. Something somewhere in the house started to collapse. Consecutive sounds thundered overtop the softer cave ins of embers and ashes. He didn’t recognize them as footsteps until the sight of her whipped around the corner, into view at the bottom of the stairs.
It must have looked something like a horror movie, from her angle. Larette stared up wide eyed at the shambling, burnt husk of a body slipping and sliding down the stairs. Far behind at the wake of the flesh and blister trail, Cain was crumpled on his side, desperately trying to find some purchase with his lungs. A darkness spun around the edges of his vision as he kicked and trembled and choked. And there, facing it all, Larette was struck still by the realization of what was happening and what it meant. Her eyes drug, from Cain to the mess she didn’t want to believe was Lanner.
Staring him down, the inferno around her swayed the tips of her hair in the whipping current. The edges of her clothes were singed, parts of her arm covered in black ashes and angry red burns. Her arms trembled in what had to be as much pain as fear. For a moment, one foot shifted like she was about to turn and run.
Her weight transferred to her other foot. Her jaw set.
She dug in her heels on the spot at the bottom of the stairs, and even with tears streaking against the smoke and her own voice going hoarse, she spoke strong and loud over the crackling flames. “The exit is clear!” She shifted, pointing back behind herself to a front door Cain could no longer see. “Who else is in here?” Her gaze snapped up, towards the screaming. As before when Cain had tried, Lanner’s familiar weary rasp lifted from the blackened body as it carried forward, “Don’t bother. You can’t do anything.”
He drug himself almost to the end. Larette seemed to hesitate for just a moment, before snapping herself into a sidestep directly in his way. She stood firm, coughing slightly through grit teeth as she shook her head at him. “That isn’t what I asked.” She asserted, flickering attention briefly between him, Cain, and back again. Lips parted from a stern line, but before more words came she stopped herself. In a surreal kind of horror she watched as Lanner reached out for the next step, and in time with the extension of his arm, the stairs seemed to grow. Stretching and shifting, churning like an escalator as he neared the end. As he crawled, it continued, an endless loop teasing him with salvation while still barring it. From upstairs, the ceaseless screaming turned to words. A name. His name. The frantic voice screamed for Lanner, desperate and hoarse. Larette looked up the stairs, watching Cain finally managing to push himself up onto hands and knees again, then back down to Lanner as he ignored it, stuck in his endless cycle.
“We have to do something!” She shouted dryly, not entirely trusting the stairs even as she leapt up to start taking them two and three at a time. Lanner called after her without looking back as she went by, “It’s no use.”
For all the panic and rush and focus in her, the words were enough to stop her dead. She whipped around, halfway up the stairwell, and shouted raw, “Don’t you even dare say that again! We’re not leaving anyone behind!”
As she wheeled around to climb the last of the stairwell, Lanner’s outreaching limbs stilled. He stopped, going motionless as she cleared the stairs and grabbed Cain’s arm. She pulled him to his feet as she went, marching herself straight in front of the crumbling door. The structure was buckling down onto itself, the actual frame the only thing keeping it all from tumbling down. Odds were good that busting the door in was going to bring it all down, but what other options were there? Larette and Cain both surveyed the massive fissures in the ceiling as best able through the smoke, trying to gauge the best course of action. It was an illusion, so even if it came down they’d be okay.. Right?
Larette looked to Cain in questioning, the concern unspoken but understood. Unfortunately, the best he could offer was a wet-eyed shrug as he continued to hack and gasp into the crook of his arm. “G-Go for it.” He choked aloud. Larette nodded and backed up as much as the hall would allow, tucking her shoulder down and bracing. Before she could start the charge, Lanner’s voice rose over the chaos of the fire, “You can’t. It won’t break. I tried. I tried before, it won’t..”
Both of them turned to see him at the top of the stairs, crawling back up the way he’d come. If that was a good or a bad sign, neither were sure. But when he reached for Larette’s ankle to try and hold her back, she didn’t hesitate to kneel down. Even when he looked more like a caricature corpse than a person, she didn’t hesitate to gingerly take his burnt and trembling hand in hers, stopping him from holding her back as much as trying to reassure in that small touch.
“You didn’t have us here, before.” She offered quietly, squinting through tears and fighting to smile. The burnt, malformed dome of his head tilted, looking up at her with one good eye, the other peeled back and glossed over all wrong with burns. It wasn’t an easy thing to remain steady in the face of. But Larette smiled, and cradled his hand soft, and nodded with a confidence that outshined every white hot flame in the building.
“We can do this. Now are you going to get up and help, or not?”
As she stood slowly, his hand in hers tightened. She was careful, not quite pulling him but just remaining steady, letting him push and pull himself up against the strength of her hand. As she rose her hand, his body lifted. There was no magical transformation, no reclamation of skin and flesh. Lanner remained a mangled, unrecognizable amalgam of charred flesh and battered bones. But he stood, with her help, and faced the door slowly. The wariness wasn’t decipherable in his melted expression, but it was felt thick in the air as he stared motionless at the crumbling doorframe.
“What if it collapses in on us?” He questioned nervously, to which Cain waved one hand almost dismissively in the air- either at the words or the smoke, it was hard to tell which. He drug in new breaths just slightly easier now, released from the pressure as Larette coaxed Lanner to his feet.
“Then it collapses.” Cain half-coughed. “We’re stubborn assholes. We’ll survive it. We can crawl out from under the mess.”
Lanner seemed uncertain still, but as Cain offered a shaky thumbs up and Larette smiled even against the bite of black smoke in her eyes, he nodded weakly. It was a small, fragile thing. But there was a hope and a trust in him that dared form, cool and soothing in his chest.
“On three!” Larette announced, returning to her position, far back and braced with her shoulder down and ready. The air seemed to shift as she called out.
“One!” An infectious energy spread from her, anxious and excited in equal measure.
“Two!” Inhales came sharper, easier. Clear like a draft was sucking the smoke elsewhere.
“Three!” All at once as she charged forward, the heat subsided. For a striking moment the space felt cool and easy. The shadows of firelight and pitch smoke seemed to lift, the path forward across the hall was steady and resolute.
Her shoulder met the door and a shower of embering sparks erupted from the edges. The ceiling groaned a loud, warning wail. Wood popped and splintered out of sight, and the screaming behind the door hiccuped and halted.
Larette bounced off the face of the door, staggering back a step from the force.
The moment she was clear, Lanner lurched to reclaim the space. Both Cain and Larette flinched, the very image of Lanner’s worn and weakened body hurling at the door instinctively terrifying. It looked like enough to break him in two with finality- but as his body met the door a deafening crackle of fire and bones snapped and showered. A sea of ashes and embers kicked up, hailing down around him as he busted through the doorway. Wooden shrapnel flaked and flew, scattering in a hundred small splinters. He carried past it, through the doorway as it whined and sagged overhead. His body fell forward in a heap of crisped bones and exhaustion. Larette and Cain both surged after him, just to stop short once over the threshold.
Inside, the room was disjointed. A piece of something else, from somewhere else, stitched onto the fiery hallway. The discordant strangeness of the grassy lakeside field stood out strong against the two crumpled bodies laying in it. There among the knee-high grass and humid afternoon air, Lanner’s ravaged body stretched out towards another. The shoulders were thicker set than his, though it was hard to outright tell when they were both so burnt and shrunken it seemed inherently inhuman. Neither Cain nor Larette could recognize the other person in this state, but Lanner knew. There wasn’t a second’s hesitation or questioning in him as he reached, dragging himself the final few inches forward towards his husband. Robert’s body was shriveled and still, no motion to his lungs or flesh left undamaged on his bones. But he was there. And as Lanner drug himself through the grass towards him, his head turned. Even like this, Robert’s eyes were just as soft and blue as they ever were.
“I’m so sorry.” Lanner rasped, the last of his strength poured into reaching the man, weakly winding fingers through his. Their touch was an overlay of blackened bones and trembling limbs. Their bodies curled, matting down the tall grass as they collapsed in towards one another. It was macabre and surreal- there was no mass healing, no storybook ending where they turned back to something healed and whole. But they were together. Mangled and tired and hurt. But together.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t.. That I took so long.. That you..” Lanner struggled for words and found himself at a loss. He’d never been the speaking type, to begin with. But wounds and time and the fire stuck deep in his throat burning every word to ash on the way up made it all the worse. Laying there, he wasn’t sure what to say. Apologies and sorrow waited just under his tongue but there seemed to be no way he could move to free them quite right.
Looking out hazily with his one good eye, all energy to move finally evaporated. Laying still, he felt for the first time a kind of relief. Something cold and soothing drew near, the lakewater overflowing and running up through the grass. As it surrounded them both, Lanner let it take him. Easing into the rising waters, he watched golden lightning bugs drift strangely through the air above them.
At the doorway far behind him, Cain and Larette moved slow and quiet. As they crossed the divide the house gave its last sigh of exhaustion before wood came down in burning layers, collapsing into nothing at their backs. As the doorway vanished a final shower of embers blew out over the field, showering down harmless and fading on the wind.
Right away, Cain sank down to the ground, letting himself pool tired into the rising waters and swaying grass. A breeze rolled through as he coughed and cleared his lungs on the clean country air. Beside him, Larette lowered herself slowly, watching Lanner from afar. They both smiled soft, letting the moment go on without a sound.
All around, cricket song bubbled up. Farther out in the ring of trees closing the lakeside clearing off from the rest of the world, cicadas hummed in rise and fall waves. The sun set, far out over the lake, disappearing over the distant treeline and painting the evening in a final, distant fire of reddened sky and golden rays.
As the cool waters rose up overtop their bodies, the charred remains of Lanner and his lover started to dissolve. Larette jerked, startled at the sight, but Cain laid a hand soft on her forearm to stop her. She looked back to him, scared and uncertain, but his smile remained steady. Tired, streaked in soot and sweat, but steady all the same.
Without a word he shook his head, encouraging her to ease back into place before nodding back to where the bodies had been. In their place the flaked remains swirled and stuck together, forming something new beneath the water’s surface. As the shape took form into something stronger, colors found every darkened shard and scrap. Gradually, the Lanner they knew reformed from the ashes.
The tan of his skin churned from a rich dark on the right, to the usual red-pink scar tissue of his leftside burns. Dark hair fell down past his ears, jeans and flannel taking shape from the water covering him. When he finally moved it all seemed to pour from him, the edges of his clothes themselves dripping and running over him, staining the waters in greens and blues, mixing into the waist-deep water and waving grass. He coughed as he rose, hair dripping and sticking to his face as he sat up and looked around, dazed.
There was barely time for him to sit up straight before Larette was there, throwing herself through the waters and at him, tackling him back down into it. She had the awareness (only after a moment) to pull back and let him sit up rather than drown. Lanner sputtered as she wrapped arms around his shoulders, squeezing him tight.
“You made it! We made it!” She celebrated, practically bouncing in place.
Cain moved far slower than her, weary and dragging himself over to Lanner. He made it all the same though, and as soon as he was within range, Larette unwound one arm from Lanner and leaned, dragging Cain down into the pile.
“That was terrifying! I knew it wasn’t real, but I still felt everything! I can’t believe you went through that! Oh-” Larette pulled back as rapidly as she’d surged forward into hugging them, letting both of them go just to clap her hands atop Lanner’s shoulders. Cain was happy for the chance to lean back some, sitting next to Lanner and watching his confusion as Larette’s face twisted up into trembling lips and shiny eyes. Her nose reddened as she sniffled tight, trying not to and losing the battle to tears. As the first few slipped free she looked Lanner over, assuring he was well and truly safe before throwing herself back against him into a weepy hug.
“I’m so glad you survived!” As she cried into his shoulder Lanner slowly rose both arms, clearly confused and concerned as he patted her back somewhat awkwardly. As best he could, he turned to the side, trying to give Cain a desperately questioning look.
“Uh.” Cain half-laughed, raising hands then pausing. It took him a moment to dredge up memories of the right motions, ASL a skill he’d learned in depth for Lanner’s sake but not one ever actively in mind. It was clumsy then, as he signed mechanically, ‘Long story’.
“Hey, Red.” Cain spoke up as Lanner looked up from his hands to his face, still hopelessly confused but trying to roll with it all. Lanner patted Larette’s back even as she pulled back finally, sniffling and fanning her face in stubborn attempt to make the relieved crying stop. She didn’t so much look at Cain as turn towards him, eyes directed skyward with her efforts to calm down.
“I think we might need to explain, a little bit.” He offered carefully, nodding to Lanner. As she turned back to him, Lanner quirked one eyebrow. They didn’t need the distinct sensation inherent in the space to understand him. After so many years even his relatively inexpressive gestures felt clear.
Larette swallowed thick and nodded, keeping one hand on his shoulder even as the other disengaged. “I’m okay.” She reassured him, wiping at her face. “Explain what, though? He was there.” She turned to Cain, watching him groan with the effort as he pushed himself back up onto his feet. When he offered a hand out she took it, stumbling up herself and helping Lanner along the way.
“How much do you remember?” Cain asked readily, looking to Lanner.
Still visibly unsure what the hell the two were on about, Lanner shrugged a little before looking down. As he dwelled on it his hands rose, signing swiftly. ‘We met for debrief, then went to the job location. Grimm sent me, Red, and Cavall in first. Then..’ Lanner paused, squinting a bit before looking up at Cain with a certain suspicion across his features. ‘I woke up face down in the water, here.’
Cain hummed and nodded, as Larette looked between them both in confusion, half-following the signed explanation.
“Wait.. What? You don’t remember yours?” She asked Lanner, then turned quickly to Cain. “How come I remember mine, then?”
All Cain could offer was a shrug. “No idea. I don’t know every rule of these things, I’m not a mage. All I know is the rough basics for how they work. If I had to guess, ‘something-something subconscious depth and mental ability to retain information without having a breakdown’. Maybe?”
“I don’t get it.” Larette said immediately.
“It’s weird brain magic.” Cain sighed. “I don’t think anyone ever really ‘gets it’, honestly.”
Lanner rose one hand to get their attention, looking a mix of tense and wary.
‘What exactly is going on?’ He signed, as Cain started to wade through the water towards the treeline. Larette fell in step at Lanner’s side, trying to explain as they followed along.
“So do you remember how Grimm was like ‘it’s obviously some kind of magic field’ before we went in?” She started, to which Lanner nodded attentively. “So I totally forgot all of that, I guess, cause as soon as we walked in I was in a plane with my old military squad. And we did an air drop and-” She stopped short, realizing as soon as the actual details came up how deeply she didn’t actually want to share it. It was nothing against Lanner. She wouldn’t have wanted Cain to hear about it, either. But he’d been there. He’d already seen. There was nothing to do for that, now. Getting through it together didn’t suddenly make her eager to recount the weird representation of her insecurities.
When she went quiet for more than a moment, Cain glanced back and continued for her, “A mage made the field. It’s some type of mental projection magic, using the energy of whoever walks into it. This one was made off of fear, I think, since that’s what everyone’s lost in so far. We need to find Cavall, get him out of wherever he’s stuck, and make our way to the center of this thing.” Again, he chose to leave out the part where they were on a time limit he couldn’t accurately gauge while inside the field. All he could do was turn back and carry forward after Lanner nodded in slow attempt to soak it all up.
Back turned, Cain didn’t see as he signed to Larette, ‘Should we expect hostility?’
“Uhh.. Good question, actually.” Larette mumbled, looking ahead to Cain. “Hey, do you think whoever set this up will like.. Attack us, when we go to the center?”
Without looking back, Cain shook his head. “I doubt it. There’s no inherent malice to anything, so far. All the fear has been what we put into it, nothing directed or dangerous outside of that. I think the field itself is an accident. Something defensive, maybe.”
Larette made a soft noise of acknowledgement, nodding mostly to herself.
As they crossed the boundary into the treeline of the woods, she spoke up again.
“For someone who doesn’t know how these things work in specifics, you sure seem to know a lot about what’s going on.”
Cain kept walking, expression and thus any potential reaction obscured. His voice came level and calm when he explained, “I don’t know the rules of function from a casting side of things. I just know the behavior of the landscape from being in a few, before.”
Larette paused a step as Lanner and Cain kept going, having to lurch to fall back into their loose formation. “You’ve been in stuff like this before?” She was quiet, somewhere between stunned and a kind of empathetic sorrow. In her experience, the whole thing wasn’t exactly pleasant. She’d never want to go near another one of these ‘fields’ again, if she could help it.
“Yup.” Was all Cain offered back, the curtness of which told her there was far more to the story than just that. While she didn’t push it, Lanner beside her didn’t hesitate to sign towards her, ‘That doesn’t make sense’. Keeping quiet, she scrunched her face up at him in questioning.
‘If only mages can make fields, and every family only has one art, how has he been into them multiple times?’ Lanner wasn’t really suspicious about it, but there was a certain keenness about him as his hands moved. He trusted Cain with his life, as well he should especially after all of this, whether he remembered it entirely or not. But Lanner and Reid were the two chiefs of calling out Cain on his dodgy bullshit, and with Reid presently absent, Lanner was intent to pick up any and all slack.
Which, in the moment, left Larette in the awkward position of having to speak up for him as Cain carried on with his back turned, perhaps on purpose.
“H-Hey, Cain..” Larette started weakly from behind, nervous at broaching the topic after his clear want to drop it. Just barely, Cain walked a bit faster through the underbrush as he hummed in questioning acknowledgement to her getting his attention.
“Do you.. Uh.. Have you met the family that does field magic before, then?” Larette did her best to sound casual about it, which mostly just made it all the more awkward. Lanner looked a bit exasperated by the attempt, but kept going along otherwise silent, watching Cain for any giveaway hint as he lead them through the trees and worn terrain. Autumn leaves fell down from on high, scattering the golden sunset light in different patterns. It was an intense amount of detail for a place that was supposedly not real. While he wasn’t thrilled at apparently not remembering something important happening, he could understand how easy it was to fall into believing the trick of the place. Every inch of the woods looked spot on to how he remembered the sprawl back behind his house from childhood.
“House Arbor. No, we’ve never met. They’re local, though. Their estate is up with all the high end new money folk, under a glamour. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s one of their kids at the heart of all this.” Cain offered back, something serious and focused in his tone, strange if only compared to the normally relaxed and lighthearted way he tended to chatter with people.
“Ahh.” Larette didn’t press further, unsure how to without making things even more overtly awkward. Lanner at her side was annoyed with the whole situation, signing a fast ‘He’s avoiding the question’. For just a moment, she looked at him wide eyed, shrugging and gesturing in what (clumsily) conveyed a wordless well what do you want me to do? She almost told him to say it himself if he cared so much, before remembering it wasn’t an option so long as Cain stayed not looking at him.
For just a moment Lanner stared at her entirely deadpan, doing and saying nothing in response. She was worried she’d offended him for a moment before he looked back forward at Cain, sighed roughly, and surged forward to catch up to him properly. As soon as Lanner was at Cain’s side, his hands were moving, giving the blonde no time to make an excuse for not catching the motioned words, ‘You’ve been through this before? How?’.
Cain’s expression stiffened, lips forming a hard line as his gaze flickered from Lanner’s hands to his face, then forward again. It was obvious he wasn’t thrilled at being cornered on the topic, but he didn’t turn it into a whole scene. Pressing out a frustrated breath, he shook his head just slightly as he stepped over a massive tree root.
“Demons can do it, too.” He muttered, though not low enough that Larette behind them both didn’t catch it. Almost instantly, she stopped walking.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Demons? As in, you could be wrong and there could be a demon at the center of this thing?” She questioned, voice pitching tight and high in immediate panic. Cain stopped a moment after, casting Lanner a heartbeat look of exasperation that made it clear why he hadn’t wanted to elaborate, before turning in full to look back at the woman.
“Trust me, Red. There’s not a demon at the heart of this. If there was, I’d never have reached either of you.” There was a solemn, unwavering certainty about that statement from him that she didn’t like. The panic melted off her, but in its wake something too close to pity for Cain’s liking remained.
“Cain..” She started, but he turned back around before the pause could really turn into a full moment. As he carried on, Lanner seemed content to drop the subject for all their sakes, signing back to Larette as he started walking again, ‘Alias. Don’t forget’.
Larette huffed, making a stubborn, frustrated face at them both. Only Lanner caught it, not that he seemed to care, and in a new awkward quiet the three of them carried forward.
Around them as they went, the woods slowly started to break down. Red-Orange leaves floating overhead began to disappear in midair, fading away on the wind until even that left. One by one the trees thinned, the ground smoothed out, and the woods around them cropped away into a linear path. As the last foothold of any anxieties to prey on seemed absent, their surroundings churned and changed again into what little source was left to build on.
The natural dirt underfoot smoothed and turned hard. The crunch of dry leaves under their collective footsteps went sharp, turning to clicks and scuffs of boots on tile. Beyond the trees closing in on their sides, there was nothing but an impenetrable darkness. The void writhed, half-forming around them as they went, turning the heady scent of cicada shells and tree sap to the assaulting bite of alcohol and plastics. Afternoon sun dimmed more and more, enclosing them in a nighttime dark that brought with it indescribable tension. It invaded, silent and invisible, saturating everything in an inherent discomfort. Every inhale felt static and stolen, their very existence in the space feeling forbidden and unwelcome.
As the flat walls of a hospital formed around them, the group stopped.
Plain white floors and plain white walls were only periodically interrupted by beige crowning, looking an unhealthy greyish in the unnatural dark. Every other light was out, casting the long, narrow hall in alternating strips of illumination. Shadows cast strangely between them, too long and too dark to feel void of something lurking just out of sight. Not a single sound arose- no footsteps and no voices, no distant heart monitors or other machines to mark life in the closed off rooms. At the far end of the hall a double doorway hung open, framing a single water cooler and half of a dark colored couch.
Larette gravitated closer to Cain and Lanner as everything settled in around them, hands feeling useless and uneasy at her sides with no gun on her hip to draw and rest around. Likewise, Lanner reached instinctively over his shoulder for the fletching of arrows that were not present. Dressed in casual day clothes, they had no weapons and no protection against whatever awaited them.
More than ever before, their surroundings felt aware. As if every wall and door were parts of something greater, jaw and teeth to an unseen maw just waiting to snap shut around them. Looking both ways, the three fell into an anxious formation, watching one another’s backs warily. Cain took the first step forward, continuing to lead their path deeper into the sterile-scented abyss. Lanner took up a pace behind and beside him, Larette further behind watching their backs as they went. Despite the location being the most mundane of any yet, there was a feeling in the air that made it the most nerve-wracking. A sensation like eyes hung in their periphery, a mounting paranoia infecting them as they went, convincing a small part of the back of their minds that surely those watching eyes were closing the moment they looked over and reopening as they turned away again.
Hyper aware of everyone’s breathing and footfalls, Cain proceeded slow and quiet.
At the end of the hall, he stopped, raising one hand to signal the others to follow suit. As the sound of their motions went still he leaned around the corner, looking left past the couch and down the intersecting hall. There at the end of it, something moved in the dark. The shape was humanoid, hard-shouldered but thin-bodied. It walked on two legs, slow and smooth. He held his breath as he watched it pace, back and forth in front of a closed door.
Checking the other direction and seeing nothing, he leaned back out of sight and motioned in silence to Lanner and Larette, indicating one target, hostility unknown. Gesturing, he signaled for Lanner to take a long way around and see if the hallways connected in a wraparound, as most hospitals would. Sidestepping, he had Larette take his place watching from around the corner. It was a weird game of charades, conveying his intention with just hand movements. But it worked well enough to get the point across as he relayed in so many points and waves and choppy ASL, the plan. He would check if the figure was hostile, and if so, try to lead it away. Lanner would loop around to get in from behind if a fight couldn’t be outrun, and once the figure was pulled away or otherwise detained, Larette and Lanner were set to focus on seeing whatever was inside the room the thing was pacing in front of. Odds were it was Reid in there, hopefully, and his extraction was going to take precedence. Again, Cain reminded them it wasn’t real. No one could die. They needed to stay focused on Reid, no matter what happened.
Eager not to waste time, as soon as the two nodded in focused understanding, Cain sent Lanner away to loop around, and patted Larette’s shoulder in quiet ‘go time’ signal. As she stayed obscured around the corner he walked out, quiet but hardly creeping. He wasn’t trying to sneak up on the thing, as seemed a good move as its head snapped to the side the moment he came into full view.
“Who the hell are you?” The figure called out, tone distinctly female, and almost familiar. Cain couldn’t place if or where he’d heard her before, but as he walked down the hall and she turned to him, it was clear more and more she was.. human. Plainly so, actually. All the tension and crackling nerves provided by the atmosphere seemed to lighten as he got a good look at the young woman. She had long brown hair and narrow eyes, with a thick jawline that managed to suit her muscled, sturdy build. Raising eyebrows at her in surprise, having expected something more inherently malformed or terrifying, a crooked smile came easy onto Cain’s face.
“Just passing through.” Cain offered casually, approaching gradually. She didn’t give any sign of defensive hostility, almost seeming to forget the pacing focus she’d had on the door just a moment ago. Cain shifted as he neared her, angling her back towards the door at the far end of the hall.
“That doesn’t answer my question.” She fired back, eyes narrowing. The full of her lips pressed firmly together, arms crossing over her chest, reminding him for as human as she seemed, she was a far cry from weak or waifish. There was a threat in her posture, her raised jaw and strong shoulders. His smile remained easy and fearless as he rocked back a step, hands sliding into his jeans pockets. Making himself smaller wasn’t an easy thing- he was taller than most, and easily hung a full head’s height above the woman. But he did his best to seem passive, putting on submissive body language as he kept her attention on him and away from the door.
“My apologies.” he offered, bowing his head to her. Leave it to a figment of Reid’s subconscious to call him out immediately. He almost wanted to laugh, if nothing else than for the distinct tension that remained in the air. It felt wary, yet measured. The unique sensation like muscles held taut and quivering. The shake in a breathe trying to be kept silent. Cain couldn’t decipher the root of it from the feeling alone, but he understood enough not to trust the harmless veneer the stranger wore in the moment.
“My name’s Mat.” Smoothly, he reached out with one hand, mindful of the way she bristled at him like some wary dog, watching his extended hand as if expecting a trick. When all he did was hold it aloft, she eased only just enough to unwind her own arms and grab him in a rough handshake.
“Yours?” He prompted, focused on the slight shift in her eyes as he did. She was full of mistrust and veiled hostility through and through, and as her lips parted he hoped for answers. What he got instead was a soft click. Almost inaudible. She went still instead of responding, hung there for just a moment as behind her the door to the hospital room started to open. She seemed aware of it, wide-eyed and alerted in an instant. Cain watched as simultaneously she started to turn and the door parted enough to reveal Reid, deathly pale and absolutely terrified looking. He peered out into the hall some mix of confused and horrified as the woman wheeled around to face him.
Cain pitched forward, practically tackling the woman as he wrapped both arms around her. Reid made a sound- some kind of startled shout, partially soaked in a tone of warning. But it was too late to do anything about the situation. Cain grabbed the woman and threw his weight back the instant she was locked between his arms. As their collective weight shifted, she threw her head back hard into his face. Vessels burst. The scent of blood hit the air hard. Her whole body writhed in his grip, turning too fluid and too far. She twisted to face him all too easily, mouth opening wide and a furious screech loosing from deep in her throat. Cain staggered back, and all at once the hallway erupted into chaos.
Reid tried to lurch out of the room to intervene, all for Lanner to whip around the corner from the close end of the hall. Cain barely saw, too focused on keeping a hold on the thrashing woman as she used her new position facing him to try and bite at his throat. He jerked back, slamming into the far wall and giving Lanner clearance to halfway tackle Reid to keep him from jumping into the altercation in Cain’s defense. Grabbing him and running still, Lanner damn near hurled Reid down the hallway once he had him. The two of them less than gracefully started to stagger then fully run, their footfalls almost deafening in the silence of the hospital.
“Wait!” Reid protested as Larette pulled out from the intersecting hallway further down, waving him and Lanner on to keep going. “What about Cain?!” He tried to twist back and look, but Lanner kept dragging him along, with Larette quick to wrap a hand around his other arm to help force him further.
“I’m fine!” Cain shouted, barely keeping up with pushing the woman away then pulling her back against his chest as her attention whipped from tearing him open to trying to get free and go after Reid. “Just keep moving!”
Knowing actually separating Reid from the thing forever was impossible in this place, Cain waited until she threw all her weight into trying to break out of his arms to grit and twist. Putting all of their joined momentum into picking the woman up at the height of her struggle, he outright lifted her off the ground and turned in place, unceremoniously slamming her down onto the floor. She hit with a booming crack of flesh on hard tile. Cain rushed a step backwards, intent to turn and run while she was stunned- only to watch her snap up onto hands and knees unnaturally fast. Somewhere down the hall, Reid half-screamed at the sight, the rush of everyone’s footsteps at last picking up with no longer having to drag him along.
Cain kept his focus on the woman, watching as she lurched forward to start sprinting after them. For a moment, he shifted out of her way as she came near, starting to run parallel with her path only to throw himself into her from the side as she went by. Shoulder checking her into the far wall, she again gave no sign of even slightly stopping. Rather, she threw him off herself as if he weighed nothing at all. As she charged forward again Cain clattered into the opposite side of the hallway, crashing into a linen cart and hitting the ground in a shower of towels and bedding.
“Cav!” He shouted after Reid as the rest of the team sprinted down the hall. “She’s not real!”
Rolling to get back on his feet, Cain expected argument and denial. What he got instead as Reid skidded around the corner and out of sight was a frantic, “I fucking know!”
Confused, but with no time to really dwell on it, Cain pushed back into running and threw tangled bedsheets off himself as he went. Ahead of him the woman was full forward-tilt sprinting, shoes screeching loud against the tile as she took the corner turn too hard. In her wake, jagged scores like animal claws were gouged into the flooring. Cain looked back at them as he followed, only to turn forward and find the woman stopped dead in the center of the hall.
Cursing aloud, he threw his shoulder low at the last moment, and tackled her at the waist from behind. Reid and the others were nowhere to be seen, leaving him to take the woman to the floor in a clattering heap of limbs slamming into the smooth floor. Her head bounced off the tile, a smear of blood following a booming crack as her nose busted open. Even if it was just an illusion, Cain couldn’t deny the satisfaction at breaking even with her for his own blood-drenched face from earlier.
Entangled, they both slid slightly. The woman thrashed and shouted wordlessly, trying to get free as Cain squirmed to stay at her back, hands slipping and fighting for purchase against her arms. As he half-succeeded at forcing her arms behind her back, she kicked and threw her weight around in feral pitches. All along the floor as they wrestled, deep claw marks formed where her hands and feet kicked and threw themselves around. Smears of their blood overlapped along the white tile floor, painting violent mosaics as they twisted and fought.
“Cav!” Cain called out again, assuming the group had ducked into a room, to disappear as swiftly as they had. “The fuck is this lady?!” Straining audibly with the effort, he finally managed to keep both of her arms behind her back, long enough to roll them both over and press her body face down into the floor. Pinning her there, he kept all his weight focused on her arms as still she tried to roll and buck with an inhuman strength.
After a moment, from some room further up the hall Reid shouted from behind a door.
“She was my sister!”
“Was?!” Cain cried back, more confused than winded, though he sounded both.
“Yeah! She- She was, and then.. I don’t know, she turned into that!”
Cain looked down at the woman. She was wild-eyed, red-faced. Furious and feral and clearly out for blood. But beyond the disposition, she looked the same as she’d been. Strong, but no less a lady and no less a human in terms of appearance.
“Turned into what?” Cain barked, sounding incredulous.
Abruptly, a door down the hall swung open. Cain fell forward as Reid poked his head out, nearly but not quite getting bucked off the frenzied woman as Reid returned to her line of sight. Even at a distance Cain could see the washed out terror on Reid’s face as he stared at the scene of them fighting one another.
“Into that!” Reid cried back, gesturing.
As he did, Larette’s head poked out from around the doorway, too morbidly curious for her own good. Lanner at least remained out of sight, leaving the two of them to gawk- one in horror, the other wincing in confusion.
“She looks normal to me, Cav.” Larette muttered apologetically. “I mean, she’s pissed, but..”
“What? You don’t see that?!” Reid looked down to Larette, then back up. At the woman, then Cain, then the woman again. “It’s- She’s- She looks inhuman! Like some kind of.. Rugaru ghoul beast thing!”
Just to be sure, Cain looked down again. The woman was just as plain and murderous as before, though the halo of claw-marked flooring surrounding them did help explain some.
“Cavall, she’s not-” Cain started, and all too readily Reid shook his head and waved at him to stop. “I know!” Reid cut him off. “Not real, it’s a field, I know. But you get chased by that fucking thing and try not to instinctively run!”
“Wait,” Larette piped up at that, looking up at him. “You know it’s not real?”
“Well, yeah.” Reid shrugged. “We were sent in with like half a dozen warnings, little hard to forget. Especially when everything turned into a fuckin’ horror movie.”
Larette’s face scrunched up at him as she stood up straight, crossing her arms.
“Fuck you, man.” She grumbled at him. “It’s like, super easy to forget.”
“Wh.. Did you..?” Reid started, at which point Larette bristled, moving to swat his arm.
Before they could devolve further, Cain shouted from down the hall, “Guys!”
Beneath him, the apparent woman-creature bucked hard, nearly throwing him off again as he fought to keep a white-knuckle grip over both her arms. “Much as I love it when you bicker, kinda still bullriding a lady-beast fear monster, here.”
“Right. Sorry.” Both of them called in unison, as Lanner pushed his way between them to get back out into the hall. Expressionless, Lanner had no issue with striding over and kneeling down, pressing one knee into the figure’s back and helping Cain bear weight into pinning her down.
“So, what now? If he knows it’s not real, how come we’re still here?” Larette and Reid were more hesitant to get close, staying back near the end of the hall as Larette spoke up from the distance. Reid stayed more in the room’s doorway, focused on the monster he saw as she thrashed and shouted, staying fixated on him so long as he was visible.
“It’s not about conscious realization.” Cain grunted, finally trying to catch his breath as Lanner took most of the physical effort over. “If it has negative emotion to feed on, the field will stay going even if the source is aware of it.” Sitting up and back, he breathed a bit easier, letting his weight passively pin the woman’s legs.
“Hey,” Larette looked back to Reid after the explanation, laying one hand on his upper arm. “Think happy thoughts?” As soon as she said it she realized how bad it sounded, trying to smile through a wince. As she shrugged, Reid cast her a flat, unamused stare. “Gee. Thanks.” He grumbled dully.
“Red.” Cain called, waving her closer. “C’mere. Take over for me with this.”
He waited as she hesitated then eventually edged down the hall, eyes glued to the still-feral woman. Lanner didn’t seem to have much trouble at all keeping her pinned, and very carefully Cain kept a grip on her ankles as he stood and motioned for Larette to take over. Once he was settled and everything was clearly secure, Cain patted her shoulder reassuringly and backed off some.
“If anything else shows up, just bail and hide.” He instructed as he walked down the hall, joining Reid where he remained watching from the room’s doorway. Nodding further inside, Cain waited for him to give up his post watching the supposed-monster. Once they were both in the dark but otherwise empty hospital room, he shut the door behind himself.
“Are we about to have an uncomfortable heart to heart about deep seeded emotional issues?” Reid half-whined, posture turning tense and guarded as he moved to the far wall. He feigned an interest in inspecting the outside sky, the pitch blackness of it giving nothing to really look at. It was a better alternative to eye contact however, as Cain crossed his arms and leaned back against the door, providing Reid no avenue of escape.
“Oh, how the tables turn..” Cain sighed, more to himself than Reid, as he tried to relax and ride out the awkward tension filling the room up. Reid was pacing, and trying poorly to hide it, with his focus glued to virtually anything else but Cain.
“Listen,” the blonde started properly after a moment, making no move to disrupt Reid’s nervous back and forth in front of the windows. “There doesn’t have to be some dramatic reconciliation, and I’m not going to give a sappy motivational speech.” He let that hang for a moment, watching Reid slow down but not really stop in all his fidgeting. Taking what he could get, Cain continued when Reid said nothing in response right away.
“I just need you to calm down. Tell me what happened when you walked in.”
“That’s supposed to help me calm down?” Reid asked sharply, finally stopping just to turn around and look incredulous back at the blonde. Casually, Cain shrugged.
Reid sighed harsh, the tension in his shoulders dropping out of exasperation more than anything. There was no avoiding it forever, as Cain’s position up against the door reminded him. Looking away yet again, he turned to the moonless sky and squirmed in his own skin as he began half-murmuring, “I forgot, for the first few minutes. Don’t tell Red.” He glanced back, catching the sight of Cain fondly scoffing and shaking his head. Lips quirked in an almost-grin on instinct, before he looked away again.
“I thought.. There had been some call. I couldn’t really remember it, but I knew it had happened. The way you know things in dreams, like it just is, and you don’t question it. Someone from the hospital called and said Oma wasn’t going to last much longer. So I rushed here and I guess.. The first part I really remember clearly was running through the front doors and the lobby. After I got her room number I booked it all the way there, but..”
He trailed off, to which Cain gave him a solid minute or so of silence. When he didn’t continue and seemed to space out and lock up, Cain cleared his throat just slightly in prompting. Reid glanced back at him, face scrunched in an uncomfortable wince. For once, his gaze was unsteady and dipped to the floor, a brittle core of shame wrapped up beneath everything else. Unfortunately for Reid, while he was doing his best to posture and straighten up and hide it, there was no smothering out the traces of the feeling saturating the atmosphere itself. Secrets were hard things to keep, in places like this. Especially when they were consciously on the mind. Reid didn’t seem aware of the feelings seeping out like osmosis between him and Cain, which made it easier for it to all be taken in and chewed on for a few moments without resistance. Eventually, Cain nodded a little to himself and spoke up to fill the newborn quiet.
“So you ran all the way to her room. Did you go inside?” He tried to ask as neutral and casual as possible, but even still Reid stiffened and turned away further, partially keeping his back to the taller as he rocked on his heels and bit the inside of his mouth.
“Not.. Not right away.” He admitted quietly, crossing arms tight over his chest before adding even lower, “Not in time.”
Again, Cain nodded to himself in slow understanding. A sense of things was starting to come together in his mind, but he kept it all to himself, instead letting Reid stew with his feelings for a moment. At every passing second he expected chaos out in the hall to interrupt them, and every heartbeat that slipped by without incident made him both more grateful and more pressured to continue swiftly. Balancing their time limit, the rising tension as Reid struggled with himself, and the care needed to do this gingerly- Cain focused with an ever-calm tone as he continued.
“What stopped you?”
Reid’s shoulders rolled up, hands balled to fists against his arms. When he inhaled it was slow, tight. Like the words were some sucker punch blow he had to tense and ride out for a moment. His hands fluttered as if he expected his pockets to be empty, but when he slipped them into his battered jacket, he retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a flip lighter. It wasn’t until he had one out and lit between his lips that he turned rigidly, offering Cain one and entirely expecting the soft shake of the head given in return.
Slipping the pack away, Reid fidgeted with the lighter idly as he took a deep drag and sighed out smoke and reluctant words. “My family. They were all in the room, I heard em from out in the hall and I just.. I just couldn’t go in. And I know! I get it, okay! I’m scared of seeing my family, message received, I need to get over it before it costs me something important. I fuckin get it.” The words pitched from defensively ashamed to outright bristling before dying out into something weak and uncomfortable. Clicking the lighter top open and shut repeatedly, he snapped it closed sharply before raising one hand, juggling the cigarette in and out of his mouth as he stole deep breaths of smoke to try and calm down.
Much as he wanted to, Cain didn’t move to stop him any as he worked through the anxious feelings on his own. Rather, he waited until Reid had a few more drags in his system to offer up quiet and smooth to the other’s crackling energy, “So who’s that out in the hall?”
That seemed to be a bullseye all its own, as the moment the words registered Reid went fully rigid head to toe. His eyes locked onto the floor, seeming distant and wide as his cigarette burnt itself down slowly but surely between his fingers. Cain gave him time, watching the tip slowly turn to ash and eventually fall away. It was a minute that felt like an hour before Reid finally moved, swallowing thick and rushing back for a fresh lungful of smoke and nicotine before responding weakly, “My sister. Twin, technically.”
“Technically?” Cain canted his head just slightly.
Reid grunted, not looking at him. “Yeah. You can’t tell that well anymore. She’s done everything she can to ruin the resemblance. Got her nose busted when she was younger in some bar fight, didn’t set it properly. When we were young we both had shaggy hair. Soon as I joined the military and had to cut it she started growing hers out, hasn’t cut it since. I think it’s all the way down her back, by now.”
“Mm.” He drew until the ashes hit the filter, staring off at nothing with such a focus he didn’t even notice. The smell of burning cotton joined the haze of tobacco as he spoke rough and distracted. “Haven’t seen her in years. Not since I came back from the last tour, went to see mom.”
Sounds arose, distant and almost watery. For a moment, Cain thought it was chaos out in the hall, all of Reid’s tension mounting into trouble for Larette and Lanner. But after a moment the voices were all wrong, feminine and angry. It took Cain a bit to parse the thick german accented english as a match to the woman in the hall’s voice. She hissed and shouted, one sentence overlapping another like people talking over each other in another room. It was hard to pick anything out, but the intent was there clear as day. Hostile, hateful. Cain watched as Reid curled in on himself just slightly, and rather than any bitterness or anger what rolled across the room alongside the last of the smoke was a deep sense of wounded shame.
Cain let it be for a time, letting Reid dwell and process things on his own while considering the best avenue for dealing with it all. The conscious awareness of what it all was made things difficult. Help was easier to resist when it was recognizable. When it wasn’t disguised or lost in the frenzy of a life and death situation. The way people reflexively jerked away from doctors reaching to touch an open wound- that was the response of the conscious. Recoiling from help automatic and often violent. Reid was clearly not going to be an exception to that. Despite their surroundings, as he was now it was closer to trying to help someone face to face in the real world. It wasn’t so easy as walking up and hugging someone and saying pretty things, Cain knew that. Even if that remained all he wanted to do as Reid’s years old hurt layered heavy in the room beneath the ongoing shouting distantly filtering in from somewhere else.
“Do you love her?” Cain eventually broke the not-entirely-quiet of the room, regaining Reid’s attention in a snap once it sank in. He jerked his head up, eyes narrowing confused and offended. He jerked again as his cigarette burnt down to his fingers and he finally noticed, dropping it and flinching away before grinding it out under his boot. This place wasn’t a real hospital, he doubted it mattered. (It wasn’t a real cigarette, either, but he hadn’t seemed to grasp that part as easily.)
“Of course I love her.” Reid shot back, audibly upset at the mere suggestion otherwise. “She’s my sister. Even if she hates my guts, that doesn’t change anything.”
“Then why do you see her as a monster, out there?” Cain gestured over his shoulder, where as if on cue at being remembered a roaring noise of anger sounded from down the hall. Just barely, Cain could make out Larette cursing with a renewed effort to help Lanner keep the thing back from hurting anyone.
Reid grimaced, just barely flinching again as he rocked back to lean against the window sill. For a moment, his hands fidgeted with the lighter again before he moved to outright cross his arms over himself once more. He looked away, half-glaring at the far wall and chewing the inside of his mouth anxiously. It took him time, before he was able to spit out a guarded, “I don’t fuckin know, man. This place is some weird brainpan bullshit, I don’t know how it works.”
Cain almost argued on reflex- because it was his brain, so nothing could exist that he couldn’t conceive and on some level understand. But the argument wasn’t worth it. So he stayed quiet, easing himself back down and letting Reid stay bristled and defensive for a moment longer as he rearranged his thoughts to try again.
“Cavall.” Cain sighed eventually, waiting until his friend looked up at him tensely to continue.
“I’m not going to stand here and play shrink all afternoon. Especially when you clearly don’t want me to.” It stung to admit. But at the end of the day, he didn’t have the time to spend on whittling Reid down into something raw enough to talk honestly. It wasn’t something Reid wanted, so it wasn’t going to happen on its own. Past that, Cain saw the man almost every day. Looking at it all pragmatically, they had a target on a time limit that if he didn’t help now, wouldn’t get helped. He could come back to Reid. Slowly, over time, stubborn but sure. Whoever was at the center of this didn’t have that luxury. So, regretful as it was, Cain did what he had to.
“But none of us can get out of this until you get your shit together. So I need you to calm down, pack it up, and get a grip on all this. It’s your space, you control it. If you march out there and tell that thing to fuck off, it will. So long as you mean it and don’t spiral into panicking and running.” At last, he moved to draw himself off the door, walking further into the room then sidestepping to clear the path entirely.
Reid looked at him, nervous and hesitating to move. Cain couldn’t manage a smile in the moment, feeling guilty for telling his friend to effectively smother his emotions so they could all just do their damn job. It wasn’t like him- not who he wanted to be, anyway. But it was what he did, and what he had to live with doing as he watched Reid stare down at the ground-out cigarette for a bit before nodding slowly. In time with the grim acceptance, the flow of emotions in the room started to recede. Cain felt it like a weak tide, pulling steadily further and further away out of his reach.
When the space felt sterile and empty, cold and hollow, Reid moved at last for the door. Cain forced his expression to stay neutral until the man’s back was turned, only then allowing a small slip of an apologetic grimace to show.
“Yeah..” Reid muttered as he moved past him and to the door, pausing there with his grip wrapped around the handle. “Yeah, you’re right. My space.. My space..” The words faded out, progressively more to himself as he tried to whip up some sense of confidence. If it worked or not, Cain couldn’t tell as Reid kept his back turned and finally pushed the door open. As he slipped back out into the hall, Cain hesitated before following, trying to swallow his own sense of guilt down lest it provide a new inescapable hell for them all.
By the time Cain stepped out into the hall with the others, Reid was halfway between him and the thrashing woman. His every step halted and nearly drew back, but steadily he forced himself forward, staring at the woman and her furious eyes. Cain could see the resemblance now, around the stocky, bent line of her nose and sea of hair obscuring her face. It added a distinctly surreal sense to everything as Reid faced his twin down and forced out words that sounded more stern than confident.
“Get out of here!” He barked at the thing, which screeched back immediately in response.
When he flinched back a step Cain moved, joining him halfway down the hall and gently pressing one hand onto Reid’s shoulder in reassurance.
“You got this. We’re all right here, she can’t get up and come after you anymore.” He offered quietly, enough so Larette looked curious but didn’t say anything at whatever was too low to overhear from her position. Cain patted Reid’s shoulder slightly, staying by his side. “Do what you need to. I’ve got your back.”
Reid swallowed thick, nodding and unclenching teeth from the inside of his cheek. Taking in a deep, shaky breath he coughed a little and exhaled a breath of tobacco and nerves. Hands at his side clenched and unclenched as he worked himself up to another, louder attempt. “Go on, go! I don’t have time for this!”
As he continued, the figment of his sister writhed and recoiled, trying to curl in on itself beneath Lanner and Larette’s hands. It twisted and bent and squirmed, and when Cain motioned discreetly they eased their grips, giving it leeway enough to thrash more like a wounded animal now than a furious predator. Cain didn’t say anything more, instead just squeezing Reid’s shoulder to encourage him as he took a sharp step forward, shouting at the thing, “I’m not scared of you!”
It howled, sounding wounded and wild, before new deep set claw marks tore into the floor where her hands scrabbled in the other direction. All at once, as Lanner and Larette pulled back, she shot with an inhuman speed down to the far end of the hall away from them all.
There, for just a moment, everyone saw something all wrong. Her limbs were too thin, too elongated. Her face was gaunt and inhuman, jaw practically unhinged in a permanent scream. The hollow of her eyes was pitch black, the darkness of the hospital and a flickering ceiling light casting her in grave, haunting shadows. Her head lifted, facing them all with the monstrous features, and from her mouth a voice echoed, entirely not her own. It was deep, masculine. Saying something in a closed off German no longer understandable like the faraway conversations from earlier had been.
Reid stood his ground, watching it for the final moments stare back at him before it skittered on all fours around the corner. In its wake a dark, collective bundle of nerves seized for just a moment, before Larette rocked back and sat on the floor.
“Holy shit, that was fucking horrifying.” She sighed in a dawning relief, before turning back quickly and wincing at Reid. “No offense.” She tacked on swiftly.
If there was upset to be had, he clearly lacked the strength. Cain stayed close, ready at a moment’s notice to grab him as Reid weakly drug himself over to one wall and leaned against it. As soon as it held his weight he slid down to the floor, visibly exhausted. Just barely, there was a tremble about him, as much residual fear as an adrenaline high starting to ease off. Cain stood at his side, watching over him as Lanner helped Larette up and the two of them trailed closer.
Larette, naturally, was the one to crouch down in front of Reid with a wide, encouraging smile.
“Look at you, champ. You made it.” She batted at one of his knees playfully, and despite himself Reid smiled tiredly and huffed an almost-laugh. Lanner offered a low thumbs up of encouragement, and as Reid relaxed and caught his shaky breath, Cain turned to keep a lookout.
Slowly, lights started to flicker back on up and down the hallway. When footsteps sounded everyone tensed, and Cain watched as a nurse came around the corner, rushing with a stethoscope in both hands. She passed them by with a momentary glance, stopping a few feet further down the hall.
“Sir?” She spoke up, looking at everyone gathered around Reid in the floor. “Are you alright?”
Reid looked from the nurse, up to the rest of them, then groaned loudly.
“No.” He grunted, stubbornly giving them all a dull look. “I’m not having some stupid hallmark ‘yeah I’m okay cause I have friiiiends’ moment. Fuck you guys. You’re all assholes.”
Cain laughed loudly, while Larette gasped in mostly faux-offense and pitched forward, punching Reid in the arm. “You jerk! Why can’t you just have a moment?”
If it was from Reid, or just their little gathering, a lightness started to take over the last dredges of the grim tension. Around them, the fluorescent whites of the hospital started to fade and ebb, blending out into shades of half-lit grey. The worn once-colors of old graffiti took over the sterile walls, the smooth tile bleeding out into dusty flooring and scattered wood scraps.
Gradually, the abandoned cathedral reclaimed it’s shape around them, the weight of reality settling back in, alight with their laughter. Late afternoon sun dripped through the busted stained glass, painting them all in patches of red-violets and green-blues, with beams of golden sunset piercing in between. Larette looked around, a frame of dusty blue light beaming around her messy hair. Her ponytail was falling undone, her clothes were twisted lightly from writhing around in the floor. But otherwise, she was no worse for wear. A state that Lanner and Reid seemed to match, covered in dust and small debris but otherwise all in one piece.
Lanner reached down, comfortingly back to normal with his smooth dark skin and pink-red burn scars undisturbed and decades old. As he helped Reid up off the floor, Cain looked up at the high arches of chipped stone pillars. Even in disrepair as it was, there was a beauty and a draw to the space. A comforting allure he could entirely understand someone coming to in desperation. Even abandoned, forsaken and abused as the once-church was, it was still a bastion to someone in need. The proof of which rested in its center.
A small, depthless black orb remained in the very center of the aisle, just in front of where an altar should have been. It floated, a foot or so off the ground, perfectly round and void of all color. None of the soft lights from the windows seemed to pierce it at all, as if it rested as a vacuum to all else around it. Just barely beneath the surface, it felt like things moved wet and wild and indiscernible. From deeper within, a smell like wet stones and sweat emanated.
For a moment, they all came to stare at the looming source of everything.
Abruptly, when a beat of silence came and went, Larette groaned and tipped her head back.
Reid nodded tiredly, grumbling, “I second that. We barely survived walking near that thing. You mean to tell me there’s still more?” He turned back to look at Cain, who sighed and shrugged. It was what it was, and he was prepared for as much.
Behind them all, the front double doors creaked slightly as one pulled open and through them slipped Grimm. Everyone save for Cain straightened up a little despite their exhaustion, facing her as she strode in briskly. Despite her painfully short stature, she knew how to command a room. Chin up, eyes dead set forward on the remaining core of the field, there was an indescribable power about her presence. It served as motivating as it did chilling, a sternness and a sharpness to her porcelain doll-like features that contrasted in an oddly fitting manner.
“Everyone still have their fingers and toes?” She asked, looking each of them over as they nodded back and muttered weak confirmations. Inevitably, her gaze came to lock onto Cain, who said nothing but looked firmly down at her.
For a moment neither of them said or did anything, some unspoken exchange either of agreement or debate going down before abruptly the girl with the short brown hair looked away from him and waved for everyone else to follow her.
“Come on, then. All of you out of here, let Mat work.”
“Wait,” Reid piped up, halfway to following her to the front doors before stopping and looking back over his shoulder. “You’re doing it alone? Can’t we just call someone in?”
Grimm answered before Cain had a chance to, somewhere between professionally curt, and bordering on impatient. “I was going to, but he’s adamant about taking care of it himself.”
Staying put, Cain looked both tired and unapologetic, shrugging a little and offering the group a half-smile. “A disenchanter forcing the field down could cause a lot of mental strain and damage on whoever’s at the center of it. It’s safer for them if it’s eased from the inside, like what happened with all of you.”
Reid and Larette shared worried glances, uncertain about who to follow as Grimm kept heading for the door. In the end, it was Larette who edged a step back towards Cain nervously. “Are you sure you want to do this? Aren’t you tired?”
“I’m fine.” He lied, waving a little dismissively and smiling wider. “I knew it was a field going in, so I didn’t get caught up in anything like you guys did. I’ve still got plenty of stamina.”
“See?” Grimm called from the front doors, irritation growing as she moved to push one open and wait on everyone still lingering between her and Cain. “He’s not going to listen to anyone else. Just let him handle it. You’re all too tired to be anything but in the way if you try to go with him.”
Larette winced at that. Even if it was true, Grimm was hardly gentle about it. Lingering there, she looked at Cain guilty and worried, wishing he’d ask her to come with him but knowing he wouldn’t. Grimm was right, unfortunately. The best thing any of them could do at this point was get out of the way. But still..
“If you get stuck in there we’re all coming to kick your ass, y’know.” Larette warned weakly, unsure what else to do. Cain just laughed, bridging the gap left between them to hug her and pat her back.
“I know.” He offered, warm and reassuring before pulling back and trying to nudge her towards the way out. “Don’t worry. I’ve done this before, remember?” He looked confident and calm. He didn’t want her to worry. Even if it was dicey at best if he’d survive this. “Survived it then, with worse odds. I’ve got this.” He said as much to her, as himself.
He nudged again and that time she went, hesitating after the first step before finally trailing back, looking over at him constantly. Reid fell in line beside her as they moved to the doors, patting her shoulder as he looked back towards Cain.
“Don’t fuck it up.” Reid called, waving over his shoulder. Cain laughed a little and nodded, trailing back towards the lightless orb as Lanner waited by the door. As Larette and Reid slipped out he and Grimm remained behind for a moment, both casting Cain very different looks in silence. While Lanner was brief, encouraging in his own expressionless way, Grimm was focused and stern. She waited until Lanner was out and away a bit before calling out calmly across the hollow church.
“I expect a job well done.” She said it like a warning, but they both knew the truth.
She couldn’t persuade him to not do this. There was no point in asking if he was sure, no point in reminding him he was an idiot for it. They’d outgrown those habits years ago. Now, she knew what he responded to the best. Expectations. As much a placement of faith as a cornering demand. When Cain had no options left but to succeed, he would. So she left him no room for failure.
He smiled, easy and crooked, masking his own exhaustion even when he knew she had to be aware of it on some level. She narrowed eyes at him, keen and uncaring for his play at seeming fine. All the same, she did nothing to shatter it, glancing outside to where the others were before looking back at him one last time.
“Five minutes.” She told him sternly, before slipping outside and letting the heavy old door creak shut on its own. As the beam of fading light from outside shrank and died in its wake, Cain was left to turn back to the hovering ball. It looked like a hole, punched out of all of existence itself. He walked towards it calm and steady, reaching one hand out once close enough.
If it had a texture, he wouldn’t know. Any sense of temperature or tactile existence was lost on him. But he could smell it. He could see it. And while it made no sounds of its own, he could hear the unnerving absence of all noise grow as he moved steadily closer. His every step across the dusty, debris-strewn ground faded further and further out. The smell of damp rocks and human sweat built. The lights faded as he neared the darkness, and once to its edge, he reached out and let it take him.
Pitch black. Nothingness.
He’s been here before.
The absolute emptiness of nothing.
No perception. No lack of anything, because a lack of something was still perceiving anything at all. It simply was, and was not. A void of existence. An internalized consciousness with no end, no beginning. No time. No birth, and no death, because those were all things.
Here, there was nothing.
And then it came like a great and terrible split in the sky, a crashing wave, thundering echoes. Light too bright to be anything but blinding and painful. A rush of sounds too loud and many to be anything but drowning. There was still no perception, not really, just an overabundance of everything so great he could do nothing in the face of it.
He retched- but there was nothing to throw up.
He slammed eyes shut but there was still the red veiny flesh of eyelids.
A rush of sounds- heartbeats, his own hammering, fabric on skin on hair on wood, things moving, breaths in and out, booming and quaking in his ears.
"I'm here for you." A voice, another booming noise among it all.
The voice of God, deafening and deep, overpowering all else.
"I've got you. It's alright."
The comforting went on long after he stopped shaking, crying, trying to puke and getting nowhere. They had to take it slow- put the blindfold back on, leave just his ears, no sense of smell allowed. With just that he calmed after several painful, uncountable eternities.
"Do you know how long you've been in there?"
A shake of the head, a pained whimper.
"Are you going to disobey me again?"
Another shake of the head came. There was no resistance.
In another life, another version of him perhaps would fight back against even this.
He liked that far flung reality, that version of events. But it was not his. It was not the truth.
In truth, he whimpered and shook his head immediately, weak and wracked with fear.
"I'm all you've got. Don’t forget that."
The words had a weight to them. A crushing, spiraling heft. Like iron blocks in sand, sinking down, impressing its shape into everything beneath, with no way to resist.
"I'm all you've got and all you'll ever have. And I love you."
Things tilted, moving again. A sickening wave of fear clawed up his throat.
Hands scrambled blindly, trying to navigate by sound alone to understand when and what he was touching, grabbing, holding on. Clinging like a child and sobbing with a desperation he hadn't felt since the day Ana killed herself.
"Please-" he choked, his own voice hurt his ears.
"Please don't, I- I don't- please-"
The sound of lips, a kiss, somewhere- his forehead? Hard to tell.
"I'm sorry. I have to. You need to learn a lesson." The voice said low, mourning.
"No! No no no, please!" He begged, frantic.
"Let go of me." Another order, pressing down hard.
The inhuman curl of black magic and absolute power was unbearable.
His hands released, and fell limp.
"I'll come get you again as soon as I can. I'll always come get you. I'm all you've got, after all. I love you."
The words repeated on loop even as he sobbed, even as the laces pulled taut and all perception faded away again. Back to nothing, for what felt like forever, until time lost all meaning again.
The bindings came off slowly, with his eyes still covered so the sound wouldn’t be too much to bear on top of the sight. Every clicking belt and slide of leather felt like thunder and ocean waves. It all fell away. Packed back into the box. He sat up, propped against the bed. The blindfold stayed on.
“Tell me honestly. Do you believe me when I tell you that I love you?”
“No.” Came readily. Tone dead, but intent there. He was weak. Tired. If he’d slept or not, even he didn’t know. The lines between reality and not, the world and the inside of his head, were wearing down. It was hard to keep up with anything when his means of discerning existence were so limited and easily controlled.
Vito scoffed a laugh, amused and arrogant. Not surprised.
“I figured as much. You know, I’ve toyed with a lot of people..”
Movement. Footsteps- hard soled -on hardwood. A drag of something. Creaking wood. Chair?
“It’s very easy to make someone do what I want. Say what I want. Enough so that just compelling you to do it.. It’s.. boring. Very boring. Too easy, you know?” Fabric shifted. Wood creaked. He sat down, in front of the blonde left blind and numb in the floor.
“The same as how leaving you in that garish little box is boring. It could break you, I’m sure. Ruin you forever, until you’re no more than a drooling mess in a mental home. I could leave you there. Forget all about you, move on to someone else. The whole world would forget all about you. It has already, really. Except for me.” A pause, thoughtful almost. “But there are more practical things. More fun things. And if you won’t tolerate the easy decline, then I’ll have to be more.. Hands on, in my approach.”
Things went quiet.
He heard breathing, slow and smooth. The longer the quiet drug on, the more he heard.
An ongoing breeze outside. Soft waves, distant and constant. His own legs shifting against hard flooring, bare skinned. The creak of leather still on him, protesting some movement he couldn’t feel himself making. The sound was.. behind him. Lower. Wrists, then? He tested, shifted. A chain clicked against a metal foot of the bed. Arms chained back around it. Vito hummed at his small movements.
“Quite the strange creature, you are. Just watching you is interesting sometimes. How you crawl around this world, trying to understand it. Watching and listening and smelling everything. Reminds me a bit of some odd little forest animal, scurrying around and digging in the dirt.”
Another dip of quiet. Cain didn’t move anymore.
“You know,” Vito started again, after a time. “I’ve grown to rather like you. Not really you as a person, I couldn’t give a shit about that. But you as an object. You’re surprisingly useful. A good product, a decent cook. You’ve noble blood ties that could be convenient, later. But more than that, you’re just a dog. Obedient. Eager to please. You were born and raised for this kind of life, weren’t you? I can tell. I can tell that you’re happy, deep down. That you like this. It’s comfortable for you, isn’t it?”
The first nights. The long nights. Confusion bleeding out into denial as he refused to accept what he’d walked into. Unwilling to swallow the reality that the salvation he’d been promised was a lie. That there would be no freedom from this. He’d walked from empty streets into a cage, believing it was kindness. But there was no kindness in the world. Not really. He’d been a naive fool to believe cruelty only existed in his father’s house. In fighting to escape it, he’d only dug himself deeper. Into this strange new hell of strangers with wanting hands and hungry mouths. Touching, pushing, demanding. Taking what they wanted in order to feel less alone. Hollowing him out to fill themselves back up with whatever they could take from inside his body. He’d hated it. At the start. Now.. Now he wasn’t sure what he felt, anymore. Did he feel anything? Had he ever, to begin with..?
“Initially I just thought it meant I could hurt you as much as I pleased. Use your body as roughly as I wanted. Which, I could. Still can. But then I realized, there’s so much more to you. So much I can say to you, or do to you. You know-” he broke pace in his words, laughed a touch, sped up into an inconsequential story. “-I used to make a game of it, out there. Telling people things then telling them to forget it. I’d have such fun, watching their faces curl in horror them smile again. Stupid fucking creatures, the lot of them. All plastic and false and empty. You’re all so easy to change, so easy to sway. I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering if I’m really a god, instead. I can control anything, if I bother to. I could cripple the whole country. I could make the president kill himself just with a few words. I could start a world war that would change the face of the planet for decades, centuries!”
Grandiose words crested then cooled. He took time, to settle back down.
“Where do you really go after that, though? What do you do, when you can do anything? It’s so frustrating. Nothing really matters, not when it’s all a word away. Nice cars, nice food, nice houses.. I say a word, there it is. All mine. Quite lacks a point then, don’t you think?”
He paused like he expected an answer.
Cain kept his mouth shut.
“My point being,” Vito sighed. “I could tell you to forget ever knowing me. I could tell you to forget your family, your friends. Anything you’ve ever loved or hated. I can push and pull your brain like dough, into anything I want. And I will. Trust and believe, I will. But not that way. Not instantly, not simply. Because you see, I like talking to you, Cain Croix. I like the fact I can tell you anything and I don’t have to erase it. I can talk to you for hours, about anything I want. I can tell you how I want to strangle that pretty little cunt that works the bar, and watch her foam and cry while I fuck her bloody. And you can’t do a goddamn thing. You can’t hurt me when you’re chained down. You can’t go protect her, when I keep you here. You can’t do anything I tell you not to do. You’re perfect. Strange and mortal and oh, so fun to control. You’re better than any common stray mutt. You’re my dog. A purebred. A wonderful, ideal little thing all for me. And I’m going to use you.”
Wood creaked. Vito stood up.
“I am going to use up every drop of you until there’s nothing left. And then, when you’re empty and hollow and gone, I’ll put more in you. I’ll make you believe anything I want, fill you with memories and ideas and build you back up. Just to tear you down again. You’re getting too old to work the floor, but that’s fine.”
He took to pacing, back and forth, in front.
“I’m going to make you tell me every little detail about yourself. Every memory you can recall, everything you’ve ever done or said or thought. I’ll collect you Cain, like no more than scattered letters. And when I have all I want, I’ll tear you apart. Piece. By. Piece. Until you’re nothing.”
The pacing stopped. Vito made a pleased humming noise.
“And then I’ll pour all of who and what you were back into you. I’ll remind you of every emotion you ever felt. Every heartbreak, every fear, every love. I’ll tell you all about how you made the brave choice to run away and start a new life all on your own, and trusted people who said they’d help you make it to America. I’ll put back into you every warm night spent feeling safe and free and protected, and every nightmare you’ve had on this boat after getting fucked senseless all day.”
He stepped closer, one foot at a time.
Cain pressed back into the bed. Still mute. Blind. Not cowering, not meek.
Closer to disgusted, wary, on edge. Vito stopped between his curled up legs.
“And then I’ll tear it all back out of you again.”
Hands moved. Sounds of buckles and laces clinking and sliding.
He fitted the hood back over, until there was no more sound, no smell.
With senses gone, the nothing returned. Cain couldn’t tell if he fought it or not, in the end.
He came back, after an unknown period of time. Said it had been a few days.
Cain wasn’t sure if he believed him, but it didn’t matter.
What mattered was the bottle of water pressed to his lips- not something he felt or could see, still blindfolded. But he heard the plastic pop between fingers, heard the liquid shifting, knew it was close to his face. Vito pressed and told him to open, and he did. He told him to drink, and he tried to, slowly.
After some time, the water was gone. The sound of it pulled away, hollow container recapped.
Then it all started again.
“Tell me,” it began, bottle set aside on what sounded like the bedside table.
“Honestly. What do you think of yourself?”
Lips pursed, but he couldn’t resist forever. He knew that, but it was the small fight that mattered. The spark of resistance still there. He had to hold on to that for the sake of its own existence. The day he lost that one tiny detail was the day it started to unravel. He knew it, because he’d seen it. He’d seen people lose the small details. Small slips of footing in a great and lengthy war where the end was always a new body to be disposed of and forgotten about.
He wasn’t yet ready to die. To have it end. To know that peace.
Something in that resistance felt all wrong, but he didn’t notice fully.
In the moment, he resisted. Then he obeyed.
“I hate myself.” A simple answer.
Vito sat, the chair creaked.
“Why do you hate yourself? Answer everything I ask you honestly.”
A new pause, shorter, still fighting. Magical compulsion was not a request, however.
So he caved, again. And again, the fight felt misplaced. Surreal. Misaligned, almost.
“Because everything I do is wrong. I’m an idiot. I’m a fuck up. I hurt people.”
His words were the truth. Why did they feel so strange rolling off his tongue?
Why did this conversation feel so unsettling, so malformed? Why did he not feel like himself?
Vito kept pressing.
“Where were you born?”
This time again, the answer was slow to come.
Everything felt undeniably off. More than usual, more than it always did.
Cain felt misplaced. Off-center like all this wasn’t how it should have been. Cain struggled to place the feeling as he fought the compulsion. It felt like trying to remember something he’d just forgotten, grabbing at the shadows and smoke of an explanation. This moment as it was playing out didn’t fit into the slot the memory should have filled.
“Lyon, France.” He eventually caved, having to surrender to the oppressive force as it drew the answer up and out of him. As it left him, he felt closer than ever to the truth. To realization. To understanding the situation he was in. It dawned on him sudden, and hard. Memories came crashing over him in a flood. A certain hollow understanding that this was indeed not how these things had happened, in the past. His answers were all wrong. The resistance was new and too steady.
He had not been this brave, back then.
He had not resisted. He had not fought, even in the small ways.
Cain breathed in hard and deep as Vito tried to continue his probing interrogation.
“Who are your parents?”
This time, Cain didn’t answer. Not after a few seconds, not after a minute.
Everything slammed into him in looping waves, and he felt frustrated with himself for forgetting where he was. What he was facing. All at once the blindfold and the bindings felt nostalgic rather than threatening. This place was no more than a ghost of something greater, and his fear simmered readily in the face of that understanding. If he was haunted by anything, it wasn’t the place or the person surrounding him. Memories of who he’d been, then- what he’d done. Those plagued him. But he couldn’t change the past.
Of all the things, as he came to understand the situation, Cain laughed softly.
When he opened his eyes, there was no blindfold and no pain. Just exactly the scene he’d expected. He was naked, exposed and vulnerable before an older man sitting in a plain wooden chair. The man rested elbows on his knees, leaning forward fascinated and attentive. The sharp lines of his suit were crisp black and white, matching the rest of him perfectly. His eyes were entirely white, without pupil or iris. His hair was short and black, slicked back and permanently wet looking like molded ink. His skin was a deathly pale, without even veins visible underneath. When he smiled wide and excited, all his teeth exposed were pointed canines.
“I was wondering when you were going to wake up.” Vito hummed, pleased to see him.
Cain sneered a smile in return, eyes narrowing on the sight of the demon.
“I swear,” Cain sighed, “Every time we meet like this I think you get a little bit fatter.”
There was a cold quality to the smile Vito returned as he stood up, advancing in slow, deliberate steps. When he kneeled down in front of Cain, it was instinct for the blonde to lean back away from the man. Vito liked that- as much his widening smile evidenced as he loomed close and reached out.
Cain couldn’t feel the touch of Vito’s fingertips tracing a line down his jaw, at least not in any physical sense. But the sixth sense chill it birthed under his skin ran deep, filling every fluid part of him with ice water and nausea.
Cain lost his smile. Vito kept his, watching Cain try not to squirm with a sick satisfaction.
“Is that the best you can do?” He eventually asked, voice quiet and soft. One could mistake it for fondness all too easily, out of context. As it was, Cain knew better. He jerked both hands against the restraints around his wrists, feeling surprised and yet not when the chain held firm and he remained fastened in place.
“It’s been so long, and the best you can offer me is a pittance of a defense, like that?” Vito tutted his tongue against his teeth and shook his head. “I’ve missed you so dearly, my love.”
“You’re not real.” Cain spat, a little too bristled to seem aloof or in control. It was a rushed tip of his own hand. He was scared. Vito didn’t waver or weaken any in the face of the words, he just laughed.
“As if something like you can tell reality from not, to begin with.” He chided, affectionately continuing to trace unfelt patterns across Cain’s face with his fingertips. Despite his lack of iris and pupil, there was something piercing and direct in Vito’s gaze. An unnerving attentiveness as the lavish quarters around them paled in color. The wooden floors bled from black to grey, the decor lost its vibrancy. Everything turned to greyscale shades and among it all the only things of true color were the two of them. It was a pointed implication. The rest of the world fading away, leaving only them together. Cain grimaced at it, barely turning his head as he glanced away to look it all over.
“Knock it off.” He did his best to order. It took conscious effort, to push out a sense of himself back into the room. To fill it by force of will with liveliness again. The more he focused and forced it to change, the more the room returned to what it had been in the reality the twisted memory was referencing. Still monochrome, decorated in Vito’s likeness like the rest of the cruise liner was. But it was at least true color and not the drained, lifeless husk Vito’s presence had made of it.
“My my, you’re so demanding today.” Vito sighed, hiding his displeasure at losing control of the room behind smooth words and a sly smile. When he stood, there was no real time between his one step back and the snap forward of his other foot. The hard toe of his dress shoe drove full force into Cain’s stomach, immediately sending the blonde forward gasping and gagging. As he seized and lurched in place, Vito retreated back to his seat. A singular chair sat in the center of the room beside the one bed, a clear position of audience to the show Cain put on just by being there. It didn’t fit him very well now, he’d grown since the time he’d actually been in this place. The perspective was skewed and strange, the reach of his legs towards Vito’s chair much closer now as he slumped loose across the floor.
“If you keep misbehaving, I’ll have to remind you of your place. Is that what you want? Did you come for another round of discipline?” Vito delighted at the mere idea, something wicked in him alight as he straightened and smiled eagerly. Cain grimaced up at him, bent forward as best able against the binds wrapping him to the metal leg of the bed.
“I’m not here for you.” Cain coughed, shuddering slightly through the last fleeting waves of pain through his stomach. “You’re just in the way. Fuck off already.”
“So cold.” Vito sighed, feigning a brief pout. There was too much malicious glee in his eyes to sell the downturned set of his lips. He gave up on it after a moment, returning to a smooth smile and manicured posture. Crossing one knee over the other, he interlaced fingers in his lap and sat straight-backed in order to stare down his nose at Cain. “I like you better when you’re drunk and self-loathing. You beg me to do all kinds of things to you, then. Haven’t I told you before, defiance just doesn’t suit you?”
Cain’s jaw tensed. Eyes narrowed. He fought the urge to look away, keeping his gaze set hard on Vito through every word. It stung, to be reminded of his own weakness. Enough so he didn’t argue, he just tried to forcibly push through it. “Get out of my way. I’m on a time limit.”
“Oh, I know.” Vito remarked airily, shrugging. “But why should I care? You came in here earlier and didn’t even come to see me. I was so hurt. Don’t you care at all that you hurt me? Say you’re sorry.”
For a flickering moment, he felt the pressure of compulsion. It was brief, a phantom pain sensation. The memory of the pressure, the choking force, the inescapable control- he shuddered even without it being real in the moment. Bristling more for every drop of discomfort leveled his way, Cain tried again to pull free of the restraints. And again, the chain held strong.
“Fuck. Off.” Cain repeated through grit teeth.
At that, Vito laughed, delighted. “Oh, anger! How rare, for you! Does it feel good? Do you feel strong, like your father?”
Instantly, all the vitriol and defiance drained out of him.
Cain felt cold, empty, guilty. Even realizing that had been the intention, he couldn’t mount himself back up into justified upset. His chest remained hollow and shaken, his blood ran chilled and numb. Just doing so much as trying to cast Vito a hateful look felt drained and weakened.
“You’re not even really you. I don’t have time for this.”
Cain shut his eyes, trying to focus. On somewhere else. Someone else. Some other memory or time or place. Anything to get away from here, to give the field something else to feed on and build off of.
He didn’t get far in the effort before Vito’s voice was closer, back in his face. The sound of it just begged him to open eyes and look, but he kept them shut, fighting the distraction as it loomed over him steadily closer. The sound of skin brushing skin telling him there was a grip somewhere against him, likely his face. Vito had always adored forcing Cain to face him. To look. To watch every moment of every thing he did and know without doubt or escape what was happening to himself.
“You don’t really believe that.” Vito taunted in a low murmur. “We’re bonded, after all. I’m a part of you.” His grip moved, letting go and clamping down over Cain’s forearm instead. Where he grasped, a burning pain erupted. Cain hissed a startled inhale before gritting his teeth together. Still, he kept his eyes shut, still trying to ignore it all. Vito’s tone grew tense and angry as he carried on, “This is where we had most of our fun. How could I not be real, here? If anything, this is where I’m the most real. What’s to stop me from manifesting here every time you think of me? Hm? You let me in. You keep me around. You want me to be here. You want me to be real. Admit it. You miss me.”
“Stop it.” Cain hissed, hands balling to fists, nails biting crescents into his palms, not that he was even aware. Vito seemed to be though, as he thrived on the hate and pain and fear, like always. Inhaling deep, reveling in it, Cain didn’t need to open eyes to know the particular sensation of Vito straddling his lap, grabbing his face with both hands, looming so close they were almost one.
“Don’t pretend like it isn’t me you’re looking for in every stranger you fuck. I’m why they’re not good enough. Why they never will be. You fell in love with me, first. None of them will ever love you like I do, Cain.” The wet pops of skin on skin betrayed the kisses he couldn’t feel. His stomach soured, his heart faltered hard and cold at the thought of it. Ideas and memories collided, a thousand bitter contacts and forced kisses erupting at the back of his mind, flooding the moment with them all, with every sensation of loathing and fear and sickness. Beneath that- the wanting. The desperation. The knowing that he was right. It was all right. No one would ever love him like Vito had. Nothing would ever fill that jagged, misshapen hole in his chest. Nothing else would ever feel the same, would ever feel as ‘right’ as that wrongness. All it had taken was one person. One ill-fated collision in his life to turn love into something dangerous, to turn this pain into comfort. To make every drop of hatred and cruelty feel like a home too comfortable to leave. He needed this. He needed this pain and loathing and sickness. Vito had replaced all his blood with rot, hollowed his bones to deadly fragility, carved his name on every rib and filled the crawlspaces around his lungs with thorns that pierced when he breathed too deep of clean air. Cain was ruined, and he knew it. This love was the only love he could handle. The only love he deserved. He needed it. He did miss it.
It hurt. It was fucked up. He was fucked up, and he knew it.
Gagging, Cain shuddered and fought to twist and turn his face away from Vito’s lips. He didn’t look, he didn’t want to see it, but he knew it was happening. He could hear it, slick and traveling all over, taking from him what it liked. Leaving him hollow and cold and ill.
“Stop..” It wasn’t a shout, it wasn’t angry. It wasn’t even strong. He sounded small and tired and half-hearted as he squirmed and whimpered the word, leaving it meaningless and empty. “Just stop it..”
“You belong here.” Vito reminded him, quiet and possessive, fond in all the worst ways.
“Stay with me. Stay here with me. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll love you.” The distinct sound of kisses trailed to the side. Down his throat, following the set of his shoulder.
Just at the cusp of giving in, Cain trembled. The click of another kiss popped against his shoulder and as it did, pain erupted just beneath. Flesh split. Bones cracked. He felt the searing explosive agony overtake all else, and in a rush eyes opened and his body seized.
Around him, snow fell soft and slow.
The night time sky kept the monochrome colors, everything sharp blacks and whites in all directions. The woods were a dark mass of trees, offset by the blanket of undisturbed snow coating the rolling hillside. Far in the distance, he recognized the sloping hill and raised mountainside as the base which obscured his father’s hunting cabin. No smoke rose from its chimney in the distance. There was no life here, tonight.
Looking down, he was bundled up tight in layers of hiking clothes, with one gloved hand wrapped around his shoulder. Pulling it back slowly, the sight felt somehow expected. A massive chunk of his shoulder was missing, and in the dark with only moonlight to illuminate, the blend of flesh and blood looked glossy and glittering.
“I’m so sorry.” Someone sobbed from beside him.
Flinching, Cain turned sharp to find something wholly foreign.
She was small. Not young-small but almost stunted looking, short and wide-hipped with a mop of dark curls around her head. Her bangs were an unorganized ebb and flow around her face, half obscuring eyes which were torn up by a sea of tears and hurt squinting. Her hands were lifted, half-covering her mouth as she looked at him.
Cain just blinked, entirely unsure of what he was looking at.
The girl sobbed, one hand reaching out towards him then recoiling back to her mouth. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry..” She repeated half-hysteric, sitting there in the inches-deep snow in shorts and a tank top. Her dark skin was paled and reddening at the joints, shivering both with the tears and the cold.
Cain didn’t even think about it. Seeing her like that, he moved automatically to start unzipping his coat. The girl went still, watching him confused and mortified.
“What are you doing?” She rasped slightly, to which Cain shook his head to discourage any potential argument.
“You’re going to lose a leg, running around dressed like that out here.” He sighed, words turning taut in his throat as he had to fight with his wounded shoulder to peel his jacket off.
“Wh- Stop. You’re hurt.” The girl argued, hands raising as if to stop him herself but halting partway, scared to touch. Cain didn’t pause for so much as a moment, hissing as he peeled the torn patch of jacket off his wet shoulder and coaxed the rest of the sleeve off with his good arm.
“Sorry it’s torn, and bloody, but..” He finished working the jacket off and pushed it into her hands with a force not about to take no for an answer. “It should keep you alive, at least.”
She looked dumbfounded, numbly holding onto the jacket as he stood up on his own. Where he’d been sitting, a pool of blood-blackened snow remained. How long had he just been sitting there, bleeding?
Logistics for survival started to run in the back of his mind before he shook his head.
He wasn’t actually back home. These woods weren’t real. This illusion at least was far easier to shake off, which brought his attention back down on the girl crying over his jacket, now.
“You’re..” He started, but paused there. The girl looked up at him with swollen eyes and tense posture. A wave of something slammed into him, heavy and hard, jerking between guilt and fear. He stumbled a step back from the sheer force, having to catch his breath after a moment. Clearly, she had no idea how to control what she was doing. Which readily explained everything, and then some.
Staring down at her, understanding she was waiting for him to likely blame her or get mad after the realization of who she was, Cain sighed a visible breath out into the cool air.
Reaching down with his good arm, he offered her his hand.
“C’mon. Put the jacket on. If you can walk, there’s a cabin nearby. I can start a fire there to warm you up.” He waited, but she didn’t take his hand. She recoiled onto herself, staring up at him still confused and wounded looking.
“Why?” She eventually half-whispered, shaking her head. “After what I just.. Everything I’ve done.. What I caused, for you and your friends..”
“To be fair,” he rebutted all too easily, “We knowingly walked face first into it, so. Not really your fault.” Still, he kept reaching for her. And still, she kept withdrawing, shaking her head at him.
“But that man! Who was that? Why was he here? I- I caused that, I put you in there, didn’t I? There was so much pain..” She doubled forward slightly, pulling his jacket against her chest and wrapping arms around herself. Cain wavered, wanting a bit to pull away and deny all of it, avoid thinking about it. His knees went weak, and he took a step to steady himself. Blood was starting to drip off his fingers, seeping through his sweater and all down his arm from his shoulder. Despite it and the roaring ache coursing out from his shoulder with every heartbeat, he kept one hand offered out towards the girl.
“That’s my bad, actually. I messed up, didn’t have a lid on things. Forgot this shit’s stronger when there’s not other people to divvy it up among. Now come on, kid. You’ve got to be fucking freezing, let’s get you somewhere safe.”
“But you don’t even know me!” She shouted up at him, the fever pitch of her emotions and all of his finally whipping her up into enough of a frenzy to push her onto her feet. Even as Cain tried to draw into himself and pack everything up neatly, she still moved away from him, staggering several steps back before turning.
The girl bolted in a whirlwind of snow and fluttering hair. He reached, trying to catch her as she rushed by. But she floated between his fingers, the colors of her unraveling on the wind like no more than a breath exhaled against his hand. As she vanished, he stumbled, catching his footing in the snow if only barely.
Looking around, the woods felt darker. The trees seemed taller. He knew it was a trick, but he could feel eyes in the dark. A breeze rolled through, and amidst the flurry of snow he swore he heard Vito’s voice. Readily turning away from the forestry, he could see his father’s cabin not far out. It had a fireplace, and a power generator, and if he was lucky, game meat from the last hunt. It would be safe, and warm, and he had no more reason to stay here with the girl having vanished.
Yet still, he stayed standing in the snow for a long moment. Staring out into the dark, knowing there was salvation just a walk around the lake. Sighing heavily, he turned back to the dark treeline. Overhead a full moon shined, framed by constellations and vibrant stars. None of them offered any illumination to the woods themselves, and as he looked into the spiraling expanse strange shapes wet and wild writhed in the shadows.
He didn’t want to go.
Even knowing what this place was, knowing it wasn’t real, he had to put serious effort into lifting one foot and forcing it in front of the other. Practically dragging himself forward through the snow, he fought for any lingering trace of the girl. She was close. He could feel her on the wind, a certain weight to everything as was always the case in this place. Fields, in his experience, were always leaden. Held down by the sheer baggage of emotion and meaning, turning every step through it into a slog. To be here was to be acquainted with one’s own mind in a fashion people were never meant to be. There was a reason consciousness processed things linear and sensical. There was a reason why the mind only ever let itself stretch out in sleep, where people could close everything up in a box, call it ‘just a bad dream’ and cope with it accordingly.
Dreams. Fields. They were one in the same, and he knew this place well as much from the rare nights slumber found him, as from the old traversing done at demons’ sides. He could walk through the weight of the space better than most, if only barely. But that endurance did not make him immune. As he pushed himself forward on strength of will alone, he tried to reach out in a sense beyond physical. Something intangible and twisted, trying to push the internal out further, to let himself seep into the faux-world around him. There was a danger to that. But without his teammates around to see, it came easier to let the magic in and let it feed, to let it spread out from him. Sharing was a two way street- every drop of himself donated to the sensory flood around him granted that extra bit more awareness of the girl. Where she’d gone, what she was doing, what she was feeling. The trick was just surviving his own head enough to get to her, based on that.
Dipping past the outer border of the treeline, Cain stepped over roots without even seeing them beneath the snow. The ground was a perfect, flat white sheet hiding all manners of pitfalls and uprisings beneath. He knew where to step, not from any childhood memories but just an inherent sense. He knew his flaws. He knew his weaknesses. Knowing made it all survivable, but it wasn’t the same as them not being there. He navigated it all accordingly, choosing to dwell instead on the feint sense of ‘otherness’ fluttering on the breeze.
The girl was soft, and distant. There was a certain connection there, though. One she’d left behind in her momentary reaching out to him. She’d pulled him from his memories, and even though her touch retreated he could feel the route she’d taken like a divet carved through snow, lined now with the residual sorrow and fear keeping her tangled in her own web. Magic was a temperamental beast like that, something beyond humans and most creatures above them. It wasn’t meant to be used, but people did it anyway, and it was situations like this that served as reminder. They were both dabbling in things far greater than themselves, just by being here. Not being consumed by it was a feat they took for granted. Cain understood that much, at least- that she had no more control over it all than he did. She was just as lost, just as much a victim to the whims of her own anxieties. As he followed the faded trail of her desperation and terror through the woods, it all came alive more and more.
On the fringes of his vision, strange shapes danced and played. Antlers dipped through trees, painting shadows of limbs suddenly coming alive. He could feel the eyes he couldn’t see, watching from all directions. Waiting for something, hungry and curious. They stayed only ever almost-visible though, toying with his periphery. He stayed focused. Eyes forward. No distractions. No chasing memories and minor demons through the dark forest of his thoughts. All that mattered was the path straight ahead, the inherent tug guiding him step by step through the girl’s fleeing struggle.
“You’re not even trying to outrun me.”
Vito’s voice called from just out of sight. Cain started to turn on reflex before slamming eyes shut and halting, tense. It took no small effort to recenter himself. To face forward again and continue, not opening his eyes for several long strides. His jaw grit as if stubborn but his heart raced with an undeniable fear. The woods around him seemed to delight in the fodder, sounds playing strange and excited in far off directions. Animal chittering layered over distant ocean waves. For all the trees, the air smelt of sea salt and blood. He kept pushing. One foot in front of the other. Conscious attention devoted anew to what sense of the girl remained. She seemed stronger, now. Closer despite no active trace of her showing. He understood as he went, the implication. It was misery that connected them. Pain. Fear. A loss of control. His suffering layered against hers just right, rungs aligning into a bridge built of their mutual horrors.
Gradually, Cain’s steps slowed and stopped. He went still, feet sinking into the snow, burying him halfway to his knees. Standing there, staring down at the soft sheet, understanding soaked into him in time with his blood in the snow. For every drop that fell and sank and spread against the white ground, he knew with more clarity what he had to do. What it meant. What it would cost.
Eventually, he tipped his head back. Turning skyward, there was no sky to be seen anymore. The trees were too thick, here. The stars were gone, the moon was unwelcome. All there was in every direction was an endless, entangling forest and beguilingly smooth snow. Sighing into the open air, he watched his breath fog and fade and listened to the slick noises of things moving closer in the dark.
“I know where you’re at. I know where to find you.” He spoke up, aloud at last. Putting the knowing to words made it stronger. It made the air seize slightly, the girl’s anxieties felt in his every breath as he continued, “But I’m not going to go there.”
It would be easy. To flee his own mind, his own inner demons, by invading hers. To puncture whatever enclosed space her fear and panic built. This field was born of magic she’d beckoned, and while she had no finite control, she’d still given her will to it. She’d wanted this dangerous landscape. She’d wanted this defensive wall, built on the bones of any stupid enough to come near. It was painful and horrid and labyrinthine. But it was protecting her. Not from herself, unfortunately. But from anyone else who could dare to reach out. It was the mistake everyone had to make, eventually. Confusing isolation for safety. Mislabeling the lashing out at others as the defense of oneself. She was, as he’d seen, a child. Her growth was no different than any other’s. She just came equipped with more chaotic methods, via magic.
As he looked out into the dark, the shadows writhed. Just barely visible through the inky depths, the outline of Vito loomed among the trees. Watching from a distance. Waiting. Smiling.
Cain looked away, trying to ignore the racing of his pulse as malformed animals of thick black ooze dipped between trees and circled their ways closer. Staying put as promised, he accepted their advance.
“That’s not.. my place to go.” He told her, speaking calm if not apologetic. A new mountain air breeze rolled through the trees. Branches and leaves made no sound as they rustled and drifted against one another. Instead he heard only scraping, misplaced and strange. It was rough, rhythmic. A rocky, steady kind of dragging that carried on until the wind was gone and its whispers faded out to nothing in its wake.
Looking around again, he saw no sign of the girl still. Only further nearing figures. Things too big to be real deer, their antlers massive and branching wild like thorns. Lower to the ground beasts in the shape of hackle-raised wolves prowled, perpetually crouched and slinking in poses just about to pounce. They circled him and wove through trees and snow, leaving no disturbances across the surface. Unless he watched them, they were untrackable, uncountable. His eyes followed a too-fluid creature as it came to a stop no less than ten feet away. It was a depthless black, and while it had no definition and no eyes he could see, it’s stare was something deeply felt as it sat and watched him.
“You made that place because you’re scared. You’re hurt and alone and it was all you could do, wasn’t it?” He turned away from the creature. Its existence, his issues, were not the focus here. He’d said it before, but it was time to show it. He had no time for this. It wasn’t why he was here.
Moving to the far edge of the treeline, the monsters in the dark did not retreat to his coming closer. While it ran his blood cold to near them, he forced himself forward until he reached a wide tree. Turning his back to the shapes gathered close, Cain leaned back against the tree. As he did, his shoulder burnt, an ache spreading further out from the edges of the bite. Looking to it, he grasped just below the wound somewhat gingerly, the hold turning harsh as he watched the fringes of the wound sizzle and spread. The pain was detached, there but not demanding of him the attention it should have. It was just something happening, as expected as the continuing wet sounds of things moving in the distance and the breezes carrying more sounds of dragging over rocks.
Looking into the wound, blood bubbled and moved. It was difficult to make out at first in the dark of the dead night, but as the hole in his shoulder ran over with blood he reached into the well of the wound. Something caught against his fingers, writhing and white. As he pushed against it, it rolled, another fingertip sized ball rising from within just beside it. Cain watched, stomach revolting, as the maggots rose from somewhere deep in his shoulder. They lifted on the stream of blood and as it ran down his arm they overflowed with it, tumbling down into the snow. Gagging slightly, he recoiled, turning away from it only for the pain to mount and lance him through. Choking on it, it came as reflex when his grip returned, clamping around his upper arm just beneath the growing damage. As it spread, the maggot filled blood rushed down impossibly fast and thick, soaking his sweater through and through. As the mess coursed quick and hard, he watched things snap on the sides of his open flesh. Tissue pulled taut began to pop and tear, his arm sagging more and more as his grip turned desperate in trying to keep it held up and on.
“It’s.. It’s yours.” He fought for the words around his souring stomach, unable to pry his gaze off the sickening wound. It was all he could do just to speak around it, to struggle through the balance of what his mind wanted to fixate on and what he knew he needed to see through.
Holding himself together, his voice turned tight and shaky. “I don’t need to see it.” He watched his shoulder falling wide open, flesh limply hanging half apart. It looked like the inside of a hunt shot and lost, found again later, rotted out and useless. The meat of his body was surreal to see. His blood pumped rapid and dark, churning ever-darker as red turned to black. It thickened almost to a goo, maggots squeezing out of veins impossibly. They writhed and dug their way free of him, more and more until he wasn’t sure if he was bleeding or exuding years-old rot.
“I don’t need to see it to understand..” He panted even still, trembling with sickness and chill, a sense of blood loss and nausea making his head spin wild. The woods around him felt distorted and tilted, the figures and faces in the treeline all coming closer, walking down tree trunks and prowling across open air. Everything swam and as it did, the rushing crash of ocean waves grew louder in the distance.
As the smell of sea salt mixed with blood and fetid decay, Cain surrendered his weight almost entirely back against the tree. It kept him up as from the wild menagerie springing from the woods, a single human shape emerged. Vito strode out, sharp-tipped shoes digging deep in the snow as he walked. He advanced with a smile, smooth and welcoming, fond and sly. His snowy, empty eyes narrowed with satisfaction as both arms rose, hands lifting to invite Cain near.
The want to run crawled up his throat and nested thick in the center of his windpipe. Cain choked on it, on himself, on the acrid scent of old blood and rotting flesh. Pushing with what little strength he had back against the tree, he tipped his head back, weakly shouting into the dark, “You’re in pain, and I’m sorry!”
It wasn’t her fault. None of it was real. He wasn’t going to die here, for better or worse. Even if it felt that way. Even if he wanted to, just to be free. The cold swirl of helplessness closed in around his heart, constricting his pulse into short, maddening bursts. He panted at the edge of a panic attack, tears of pure horror budding at the edges of his vision as he looked to the canopy of pitch black.
“The people you deserve to hear that from may never say it.” He whimpered to her, knowing. Knowing the want for it. The desperate, painful longing for someone at fault to realize. To acknowledge it. To say they were sorry in a way they meant it. “Fuck knows, I hope they do. But life doesn’t give us those reassurances. That the good things always happen to the good people, and the bad to the bad.”
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t her fault.
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t her fault.
With a cresting rush of snaps and pops, his arm fell free with a wet slop. It splattered into the snow, sinking deep into the pool of black rot. Readily, creatures emerged from the dark, closing in on all sides until the trees themselves seemed to shift and move, part of the encroaching blackness framing the morbid scene. One towering deer edged closer than the others, dipping low and opening its mouth. Pure, visceral red almost glowed from within, rows and rows of razor sharp teeth sinking deep into the flesh of his fallen arm. The sounds were deafening, trying to drown his very thoughts out as it smashed and squished at his bloated flesh. Where it bit, even detached, he felt every pricking tooth and tearing chew. As it ground against his soggy meat he dug heels in and pushed against the tree, trembling and gasping sharp. The need to scream hung just out of reach, burning at him but refusing to come to fruition.
Cain shook in place, head tipped back and mouth open wide. Not a sound left him as the creature chewed his lost pieces, every white hot lance of agony tearing him apart from the inside out. His vision blurred in dimming waves, overwhelmed and awash with biting tears. Salt water tracks tore his face raw on the way down, and finally as his throat broke open and the path to screaming in agony cleared, he made words from the hurt.
“A-And I’m sorry!” He wailed, over the sounds of the pulpy chewing and Vito’s low laughter. “I’m sorry it’s like that! I’m sorry I can’t fix it all!” Cain sobbed, barely understanding through the haze and watery vision as Vito pet the side of his face affectionately. It was an almost sickly nostalgic imagery even through the chaos, as Vito caught tears against his fingertips and rose them to his lips. The neon red of his tongue stood out harsh and blinding in the monochrome dark. Knees weak, Cain let his body start to slide down the tree, sweater catching in the wood grain and skin raking raw against the bark.
“I can’t make the bad people and the bad things in the world change. All I can control is me.” He whimpered it like an apology as he sank. “The here, and the now. All I can do is try to put some good back for all the bad that’s out there.”
She was stronger than ever, here.
Her fear, thick and heavy in the air he choked on.
Her sorrow, burning at his shoulder and down his face, aching where Vito touched.
Her helplessness echoed in the weak of his knees and her desperation screamed in every scratch and splinter along his back as he sank down into the snow.
It hurt. It all hurt. The pain was eating away at his every thought, consuming him in all he was until the agony was all he could be. Frantic, desperate parts of him knew he could escape it, still. He could run. To her. From her. But he swallowed the instinct. He surrendered to the moment. Lowering himself to the ground, grasping the empty stump where his arm should have been, he watched the monsters peel themselves from the dark and start to fight for the remains of his arm. As they did, the deer which first partook turned to him, it’s featureless face impressing onto him the sense of a smile as it dipped its head down, sniffing at the open wound left of his shoulder. Its hunger remained unabated.
“I can’t promise I can fix all the things going wrong for you..” His lungs pumped hard and constant, trying to keep up. With the pain. With the fear. With the blood loss. Everything crashed into him, too much all at once, and it was all he could do to survive it. It was beyond what he could do, to speak. But he did it regardless. Even when the words came breathless, when his voice cracked and failed in places. He fought for every breath, every syllable, every intent put to words and pressed out onto her.
“But I’m here, right now.”
It wasn’t the fear he wanted to send. It was what connected them, it was the path to her. But it wasn’t the only way, it wasn’t their only common ground. Sorrow and panic lead him to her feet, but he knew the things she needed were not his terror-bloated remains. Through all the suffering and horror he saturated his words as best he could not with commiseration over agony. But what came after. The things protected beneath that surface. The flowers that would regrow once the snow melted and the season passed. The parts of him still functioning. The heart still beating. He hurt and he bled, but they were both signs he was alive. It was as such, his pain was strength. Every agony, an inspiration. If he could still feel pain, if he could still bleed, if he could still suffer- then he could still love, and hope, and fight back. For people like her. For people like himself, who needed someone stronger there in their darkest hours.
It was too late for him. But for her..
“So if you want to come out.. I’m here. I’ll do what I can.”
Vito knelt before him, finding home between his legs. As he leaned in close, Cain remained still, weakly facing him as the demon pressed lips at the hollow under his jaw. Vito trailed kisses across his jawline, over his cheek. The sharp skewering of a tongue penetrated his shoulder as the deer lapped at his open wound. It drew back after the taste, and across its dark shape eyes started to open. Human eyes swelled and burst across its face, oozing ichorous rot in thick streams.
“Even if that’s just to say I’m sorry.”
Cain faced it without flinching. He watched the deer weep liquid decay, he listened to Vito’s lips dotting soft touches up and over his face. All the while he spoke, tired and pained and stubborn.
“To keep you company for a while.”
Vito pulled back after a final affectionate pop against the height of his cheekbone. Cain turned back to him, watching his smile split inhumanly wide. He knew, in the way people always knew the worst things soon to come in dreams, what was about to be done to him.
“To listen to you, and anything you wanna say.”
Vito’s mouth opened wide, then wider still. As he leaned closer the neon red of his mouth burnt Cain’s vision half-raw. There was nowhere to go, no avenue of escape, as Vito’s tongue reached out, dragging a long trail up his throat and jaw and cheek.
“Or say nothing at all. That’s.. That’s okay, too.”
Cain flinched on reflex as the demon’s tongue drug over his eye.
All around them, the creatures halted and lifted their heads. Maws rose towards the absent sky and as they parted bright red mouths wide, a chorus erupted from each. Infants wailing. Children sobbing hysterically. From the deer nearest him, Cain heard his mother’s voice, singing old french lullabies from a room away. The sounds overlapped and mixed, warring for attention, fighting to be the loudest more and more until his ears ached and his head split with the pain. As he tilted forward Vito’s mouth split wide and enclosed around his eye socket, tongue dragging slow and acidic against him.
Cain kicked and thrashed and whimpered, but there was no way to turn and no force he could apply that would stop it. He knew. He knew, and he fought, and he sobbed again as furious agony tore his eye from his head.
“This is a space you made!” He cried. To her. To himself. To God, if one was even listening.
“You control it! You own it! So if you want to come here, I’ll be here!”
It was a promise. Made with love and a reaching heart. From the depths of a self-made hell, seeped rich in agony and chaos. “And if you don’t..”
His eye made a slick, gut-turning pop as Vito’s tongue coaxed it from his head. He felt every nerve burn with exposure as the demon held it in his mouth, cupped on his tongue. Everything was a swirl of hungry red and consuming black. White teeth bared against an unseen sky. The stars were gone. The moon had turned away. Abandoned in the snow, Cain bled and sobbed and shook as Vito’s teeth slowly pressed down to sever his optic nerves.
“If you don’t..” He wept. Choking. Struggling just to gag and whisper the words.
“Just know that it’s going to be okay.” He promised. He believed.
“I’m here to make things okay. However I can.”
Slamming his other eye shut, Cain listened to the wet bursting pop of his stolen eye between Vito’s teeth. As it broke with a deafening sound, the world went still. Everything stopped. Every song, every sob, every screaming drop of agony coursing through his veins. It all came to an abrupt, sharp end.
She wept. It wouldn’t stop, no matter what she did. Trying to bite her lip did nothing but split skin and make her eyes water more. Trying to steal frantic, deep breaths just made her hands feel shaky and numb. Trying to rub her eyes made them ache and trying to push through it left it unending. No matter what she did, the tears remained ceaseless and unstoppable.
So all she could do was crawl. Ever-forward. Fighting to believe there was a light just around the corner, time after time. She pressed raw fingertips into the uneven rocks and she pulled. Nails chipped, skin scratched. She drug herself forward even as the walls of the constricting tunnel scratched her raw and open. Blood smeared down the sides as she kept going, panting tight-lunged. So sure every new breath would be the last draw of air in the tight space.
There was no light. There was no end to it.
She crawled and crawled and crawled, as people screamed and wailed in far off distances. At one point, she screamed back. She crawled faster. Thinking maybe she could reach them if she hurried. Maybe she wouldn’t be alone, if nothing else. They could be trapped and scared together. But the voices came and went. The tunnel never ended, and it never converged with anyone else. She was alone. Dragging herself forward forever, tearing herself apart against the walls that closed in more and more the further she went.
Steadily, the temptation to just stop began to grow.
It started like a whisper somewhere in the back of her mind. But every time it got harder to keep going, the voice got louder. It was never a shout. It was always soft, gentle coaxing. Reminding her delicately that she could stop. She could give up. She could just lay down, and take a rest. A rest would probably feel good. She’d never have to hurt again. She wouldn’t have to crawl anymore. She could just lay down and sleep forever..
But then he spoke over it. His voice smothered out the ginger whispers. Calling to her. Shouting for her. Screaming and wailing in agony like the others but where they called for help, he.. didn’t. His words echoed from somewhere just ahead. Always just barely out of sight. Even when she could barely move, she kept going. Desperate to cling to that feeling that just a little more would bring her to him, wherever he was. She was drunk off the hope, frenzied by it as his cries called to her in shades of comfort and concern. He asked nothing of her. He only offered. He laid bouquets at her feet of sorrow and encouragement. Promises and primroses abound. She could almost smell her mother’s garden somewhere further ahead. But where home was soured aconite and old perfume, her generous stranger bore spring air and seas of gladiolus.
As she went, his pain reached her. A sharp tang. Metal on her tongue. It hit hard, the taste cutting her as she caught it on the stale air. Her heart skipped. A fear invaded like she hadn’t felt before, driving her forward with a newfound desperation. This time his fear did not echo through the walls in tones of beckoning and encouragement. It came cold. Freezing the walls, turning the air to ice. His presence made her joints stiff, the sense of him felt distant for the first time. He was drifting. Carried further and further away on sea salt currents. She tore through the tunnel, even as it closed in and ripped her skin into stripes of raw red ache. Her throat thickened. His pulse hammered all around her, every beat making the walls flinch. She couldn’t breathe around it. Around him. The sheer force was like nothing she’d felt with the others beforehand. Their fear was far off and swelling, raising and lowering, fevers that came and went like springtime illnesses. But this infection was not stopping. It spread and compounded and drove her frigid, hands sticking to the rocks she pressed against. As he pleaded and sobbed somewhere far out of her reach, she felt something tender snapping and shattering in her chest.
Abruptly, she screamed.
She wailed and reached and kicked, a seizure and a tantrum, drenched in frantic heartache. She reached for him and as the tunnel shifted and she squeezed herself through the jagged bend, there he was. Her hands found him, wrapping tight and pulling. Even if there was nowhere to pull to, even if his being there meant she couldn’t advance any further. She pulled with a desperate need to separate him from the things she’d felt. Knowledge came like dreams long forgotten, renewing in her memory. Names and faces, people and places. Feelings hit her hard and deep, driving a blade into the soft of her stomach and tearing in all directions.
She gasped against the hurt, against the sickness. She fought to breathe and realized only as the world wavered that her eyes were overrun with tears. Realization hit her full force.
What this was. What she’d done.
This was her fault. His pain- all their pain -was her fault. She’d made this. She’d caused it all. And there he was, the one person who had shown her kindness even in the pits of fear and danger- and all she could think of was what she’d caused him to go through.
“I’m so sorry.” Was all she could offer.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry..”
He was gentle. He was wounded.
She watched him bleed and have eyes only for her own state of being. He shelled his jacket, and that tender spot in her chest broke again.
Why? It was all her mind could do to repeat and fixate and run in circles.
Why was he being so kind to her?
Why was he here at all?
Why wasn’t he cursing her, attacking her?
He knew what she’d done. He knew it was her fault.
So why was he delicate and caring, concerned and calm?
He offered her his hand.
She didn’t understand.
It made no sense. He made no sense.
She barely understood what was happening anymore, and realizing it all was her fault, it was all inside her, it was all because she left home and got lost and let her feelings run rampant- This was all her fault, and still he reached out to her.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
He was soft and sweet and hurt and it was her fault. What right did she have to take help from him? She needed to disappear. She needed to get away. Far away. Somewhere he couldn’t reach, somewhere he’d be safe without her and her powers around to hurt him.
She ran. Not thinking, just feeling it- herself, him. Everything colliding and mixing and becoming one. She ran from it, terrified and guilt ridden. She ran from him and his outstretched hand and his promises to take care of her. She ran until she fell, until the world crashed into her, until she was crawling again.
Back in her tunnel. Back in the constrictive quiet where there was nothing but the soft, small whispering. Reminding her as she sobbed that she could give up. She could just stop. It would be better for everyone if she just stopped, and took a nice, long rest.
As the sounds all stopped, he was left to wait for a sign.
Too afraid to open his eyes, too afraid to move and alert the things eating him alive that he was still there- he waited. After a time, he even waited for a signal Grimm had called the disenchanter after all.
A signal that he had failed never came, however.
Instead, after moments that passed like hours, he heard sobbing.
There were no more songs, no wailing and screaming of children from animal mouths. There was no more pain, and as he opened both eyes there was no more Vito, and no more forest.
All that met his gaze was damp stone walls and crushed in the center of their enclosing presence, a girl. The girl. The House Arbor girl, he was fairly certain. Though it seemed a bad time to ask as she laid there on her stomach, trapped and sobbing hysterically. Her nose ran, her face was red and swollen, and as she bawled unruly curls of her hair stuck to her mouth. She was doing all she could just to ball one arm up and swat at her face, looking more effective at smacking herself than actually wiping the tears away.
Cain looked slowly from her face to her other hand, where she reached out and locked an iron grip around his wrist. Staring at the point of contact, at her white knuckled grasp around him, his smile birthed slow and wide.
“Looks like you saved me again.” He finally spoke up, voice rocky and raw, quiet but feeling loud in the cramped space. The girl’s wails hitched and sharpened in response, her sobs pausing only for a heartbeat before they intensified.
He almost laughed, weak and fond, but kept quiet to let her ride it all out.
Eventually, through all her weeping, she choked over frantic words.
“Why?! Why are you doing this? Why are you- through so much- for me?! You don’t even know me!” She blubbered and gasped, barely able to look at him through all the crying. He just watched her, tired and barely able to move, but no less soft and happy for it. He was exhausted. But he was here. With her. Because she’d let him in. It was hard not to feel perfectly at ease, in the face of that fact.
“Don’t I?” Cain laughed softly, measuring his own worn out voice to a delicate whisper in their shared space. “I know you’re kind. You want to help others, though you’re not always sure how to. You’re trying to get away from people who hurt you. You want to escape things that feel far out of your control.” As he went, her sobbing both stilled and rose, pitching strange in rises and falls as she oscillated from stunned to confused to purely overwhelmed over and over. He kept going, sure if she couldn’t always hear him, she could certainly feel him letting every word send soft rolls of comfort and pride in her through the small gap dividing them. “I know you’re a mage, so you probably grew up with a lot of strict expectations and unfair pressure put on you to carry on your family’s arts. And I know all of those things could have made you bitter and hateful and mean. But they didn’t. So I know you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a good heart, and more resilience than you realize. And,” he paused, daring to reach out in return, happy to see his arm reattached as he used it to help brush tangled hair from its stuck places across her eyelashes and mouth. “I know you’re going to be just fine, now.”
She hitched into sharp, keening cries and he let her. When she fumbled for his hand he helped guide her to it, letting her cling to him and sob wildly. He made no effort to calm her down or stop it. Even as the space filled with the warm smell of carnations and hydrangea. Letting it all build and fill the tunnel they were effectively trapped within, Cain had a hard time feeling overly concerned by it. For all the weeping and wailing and claustrophobic tension of the space, it was a far cry better than being eaten alive or rotting away from the inside out. Relaxation rolled off him smooth and cool, easing every ache in the girl as the cuts and bruises along her arms slowly healed. Swelling smoothed, reddened skin relaxed back into soft tan. She seemed oblivious for a while as she rode out the feelings that crashed into her as entirely too much, over and over before more than anything she lost the energy to keep crying.
It was only there, at the bottom of a shared exhaustion, that she was able to look at him for the first time without panic or guilt clouding everything. Her eyes were a vibrant green, glittering raw from all the shed tears. When she finally looked across at him, it was as much with curiosity as a softly spreading affection. He smiled, feeling her calm down and ease, and in return to it she couldn’t help but bubble a gentle, sudden laugh. After all the fear and terror and heartache, she had never imagined such a brilliant, mutual compassion could be shared just as strongly in the surreal space.
“Ready to get out of here?” Cain asked, as things finally seemed settled and at ease.
The girl nodded, looking around at their encasing walls. “Sure, but..”
Before she could ask, Cain tightened his hand around hers where she still held him.
“Hold on tight.” He told her.
Trusting him without question, she did.
He reared back, pulling her, and as she let him take her their weights both shifted.
The world seemed to spiral around them both, though Cain remained steady through it, rocking back a step and never once losing his grip on her hand. As she let that force carry her forward, she staggered, finding herself upright and falling into him.
Cain didn’t hesitate to catch her, holding her up firmly as her whole body tried to drop a moment later. Even after realizing she was upright on her feet, exhaustion hit her in a singular wave, nearly slamming her to the floor if not for Cain’s hands snapping to her sides to help steady her into him. He supported her weight in full as she gasped and shuddered, catching breath and acclimating to a physical body for what felt like the first time in days.
Looking around, she squinted slightly against the soft light.
The last rays of golden sunset peeked through the cracks in the stained glass. All around them seas of color danced, once-pictures now splayed as strange mosaics of kaleidoscopic nothings. Dust motes floated through the sunshine, reminding her of the snow in his mind. It was cool here, drafty and quiet. She watched the light catch dust and dirt and turn it to softly drifting glitter in lazy waves. For the first time in a long time, she found it easy to just be still and breathe.
“What..” She started after a long moment, turning to look up at the man. He turned down towards her with a battered yet steady attentiveness. “Um.” She couldn’t help but almost-laugh the question a touch awkwardly, “What’s your name?”
His smile bloomed warm and wide, something melting in his ice blue eyes as he laughed along with her. “Cain. Cain Croix.” He answered readily, and while she couldn’t place it something rang in the back of her mind, a feeling like he shouldn’t have said that. Unsure what, if anything, to make of it, she chose to simply nod.
“You?” He returned, helping her keep her balance as she shifted to look around at the hollow church. When she turned back to him, she looked pale. Drained but still putting in the effort to smile.
“Amaryllis Arbor.” She told him.
Cain huffed a short almost-laugh. “How nice. It suits you well.”
Flushing slightly, she looked away, smiling sheepish and trying to hide it behind a mass of her hair. For a time more, she was glad to just stand there, letting things be as they were. Soft. Quiet. Calm. She couldn’t remember the last time her life had felt so at ease.
“Well,” Cain sighed after a while, that last breath seeming like the final big effort he had for the day. “To my knowledge, we don’t have any jobs from the Arbor family.”
Suddenly nervous, Amaryllis looked up at him warily. As her eyes flinched with wary confusion, he simply smiled, patting her shoulder as a sign not to worry.
“So now that the church is safe again, our work is done.” He looked down at her, gaze turning playful as he winked. “So no one needs to know you were ever here, right?”
She took a moment to realize what he was implying, and after all the stress and fear and struggle it came easy to just laugh. The sound was light and joyous, echoing in the empty space all the way up to the ceiling. Somewhere in the celebration the bells of her laughter hitched, and when she erupted into final exhausted sobs again Cain was there, not hesitating to pull her against his chest and hold her close, keeping her on her feet as she wept in well-earned relief.
Cain wasn’t surprised to find they were the only people in the parking lot.
He felt certain he’d taken more than five minutes to wrap the job up, yet all that waited for him as he helped Amaryllis out was Grimm and the team, loosely collected around Lanner’s truck.
As he shouldered the church door open and held it for the girl, Grimm hung back with an unblinking stare locked on her. Everyone else alerted immediately to their emergence, and within moments they were all drifting closer as Cain had warned Amaryllis to expect.
The group parted for the two of them and rose hands to help, though most seemed unsure how to, right away. Larette took the lead the most easily of them all, offering a hand to help Amaryllis along. This time, the younger took the help without hesitation, smiling meekly up at the woman who beamed at her and didn’t hesitate to launch into casual conversation.
“I’m Red. It’s nice to see you safe and sound.”
“Oh.. Uhm, thanks.” Amaryllis looked mainly to the ground, hiding behind her hair.
“You must have been through an awful lot, today.”
Amaryllis nodded slightly, not looking up as Larette helped her over to the scratched and aged red truck. By the time she was opening the door and no further comment was offered, Larette carried on easy and warm.
“Do you like tea, or coffee?” She asked, opening the door for her.
At that, the mage paused, glancing up first at the truck, then Larette. When she just offered a confused, if slightly wary stare, Larette bubbled a laugh to cut the tension.
“I know an amazing cafe, we should go. My treat. After you see a doctor, of course. You’re looking pretty drained.” Larette smiled wide and fond and Amaryllis seemed entirely thrown off by it, glancing back hurriedly to find Cain among the scattered strangers.
Further back, Lanner had stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, coaxing him to slowing down and letting himself rest as Larette took over. As the girl looked back for Cain, Lanner hopped in the truck and turned the engine over surprisingly smoothly.
Cain smiled weak but warm, nodding Amaryllis’ way in encouragement. He’d warned her they were soon to part ways, so she didn’t dig her heels in. Too much. But there was a nervousness in her eyes he understood.
“Wow, Red.” He called after the two. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you not going for beer after a job.”
Readily, Larette looked to him and huffed, crossing her arms. “Shut up! Us proper ladies are going to go to a nice cafe together, to be sophisticated and relax.”
As she postured in faux-offense at him, Amaryllis laughed in a soft, mild chime.
Right away Larette seemed thrilled, looking down at her bright-eyed. At last the girl met her gaze, timid still but smiling more naturally through it.
“I’ve never been to a real cafe before.” Amaryllis offered up quietly, at which point Larette was quick to snap from surprised to excited, covering up a half-second sorrow between the two expertly.
“Then that settles it! After we get you checked out and taken care of, it’s girls’ night out! Do you like dogs?” She practically bounced beside the open truck door, offering a hand to help Amaryllis step up and into the cabin. As she went, Cain caught the tail end of their conversation fading in a layer beneath Lanner’s radio playing some native folk music.
“I’ve never been around dogs, really.”
“Oh, you’ll love mine. They’re all sweethearts.”
As the truck shifted into reverse and pulled back, Larette leaned her head and arm out the window, waving. “Hey, Grimm! You wanna come? Girls’ night!”
Having moved from the truck to Reid’s car further away, Grimm resumed her previous posture, leaning on the trunk and smoking idly. Larette’s wiggling and calling out to her rose her attention, but her flat expression didn’t change any.
“I’m good.” She offered flatly, taking another drag.
Larette, entirely used to exactly that response to all her offers, just smiled and waved and dipped back into the truck. “Suit yourself!” She called out just before the window rolled up and Lanner drove them away.
In their wake, the parking lot felt suddenly empty.
Reid and Cain moved slowly over to Grimm’s place around his car. She was working on the last half of her cigarette as they settled beside her, and as soon as the menthol smoke clouding around her registered to him Reid was reaching to pull out his own pack and lighter.
Cain rocked back a step as Reid lit up, discreetly huffing against the warring scents of mint and straight tobacco. Reid at least had the decency to blow his first long exhale away to the side, which left Cain drifting more towards him than Grimm.
“Her family would pay a fortune to have her back.” Grimm commented after a minute, looking off to where Lanner’s truck had vanished down the street. Reid tensed a little, side eyeing her but keeping comments to himself. He let Cain handle it, feigning more interest in his cigarette as the blonde shrugged casually.
“Do we really need the money that bad?”
“No.” Grimm admitted, pulling in the last lungful she could before flicking the remainder down onto the ground. When she sighed, her words came in a flush of smoke that did nothing to block her sharp green-eyed stare leveling up at him. “But the favors they’d owe us could be useful later.”
Cain didn’t balk or hesitate, smoothly countering with, “She can owe us a favor just as easily. And she’s more likely to keep her word.” Despite their tones both staying calm, and in Cain’s case perfectly casual, there was an undeniable tension in the moment when things fell quiet. The two stared at each other, Grimm looking stern and Cain half-smiling as per usual. Reid looked between them both and suddenly found a new interest in pulling his phone out and fumbling with something on the screen.
“Fair enough.” Grimm eventually conceded, sounding distinctly annoyed at the fact Cain was right. As she shrugged and shook her head, his smile twitched a little wider. She pretended not to notice his satisfaction, stepping away and drawing her phone out as she went.
She called someone and headed back towards the church. Cain listened to the start of the conversation between her and the man who had hired them to clean out the place, until she disappeared inside. In her wake, Cain settled into her place leaning against the car’s trunk next to Reid.
“So..” Reid started after a moment, closing out the news feed on his phone and putting it back in his pocket. He looked uneasy, in that pale and distant-eyed way he got when he was trying to hide it. But Cain saw the slight shake still in his hands, the worried vacancy to his hazel eyes. Where normally the short grown out crop of his hair looked charmingly messy, now he just seemed rattled and frayed. The beaten quality to his old fashioned military jacket didn’t help. Cain alternated between staring at the old sewn on army patches and the five o’clock shadow across Reid’s jaw as he slowly worked his way up to real words.
“How you holdin up, after that?” Was what Reid eventually settled on, and Cain almost laughed.
“I’m fine.” He replied smoothly.
Reid’s mouth twitched into a heartbeat long grimace at that before he took another long hit.
“Mmhm.” He grunted back, entirely not believing Cain.
That time, the blonde did laugh, around a soft shake of his head.
“Why do you even ask if you’re not gonna believe my answer?” He mused, smiling wry and watching Reid out the corner of his eyes.
Reid glanced over to him, casting Cain an unamused look as he blew smoke out to the side.
“It’s important to give you the chance to tell the truth, if nothing else.”
“Wow.” Cain chirped right away in response, half-laughing the words still. “I think I liked it more when you were freaking out and I was getting to call you on your bullshit for a change.”
“Yeah, hope you enjoyed it while it lasted.” Reid grunted, displeased. He worked his cigarette down just a little bit faster at that, and Cain watched discreetly as he looked away and squirmed in his own skin.
“Hey.” When Cain stood up straight and turned towards him, his smile was gone. A rare and brief seriousness rested in its place as he looked the other up and down. “You got plans? Wanna get drinks, after this?”
Reid smiled. There was something almost bitter in it, guarded and uncomfortable. Cain knew better than to take it personally. Reid was one of those old fashioned americana guys, raised on the mantra that real men didn’t cry. Just the idea he was in need of emotional support and it showed made him tense up and straighten his shoulders subconsciously.
“Nah.” He responded, to which Cain was not remotely surprised. “Probably gonna head home. Check on Oma, y’know.” He shrugged, like it was no big deal. Cain nodded, understanding entirely what he meant and why it was more important than their usual celebratory rounds at whatever dive bar was closest.
“Besides,” Reid snuffed out the last of his cigarette and pulled the pack back out, eyeing it in debate of another. “Your girl is gonna want to grab food, right? Always does.” He nodded towards the church, where Grimm had vanished inside it.
Cain grimaced a little. “Okay, one- you’re always welcome to come along for that. Two- it is super weird when you call her that. She’s not ‘my girl’.”
“Right, right. You just take her out to lunch and dinner all the time, tease her constantly, and spend your off-work hours with her half the time cause she ain’t ‘your girl’.” He muttered around a new cigarette pressed between his lips. As he lit up, Cain rolled his eyes and shifted his posture aimless and uncomfortable.
“She’s not.” He grumbled partially under his breath, hunching shoulders and shoving both hands deep into the pockets of his jacket. Things went quiet for a beat before Reid abruptly snorted, shoving an elbow into Cain’s ribs.
“Dude, calm down.” He laughed. “I know you’re queer as a two dollar bill, y’ain’t subtle. I’m just giving you shit.”
Cain looked to him sharply, huffing a breath and turning away again. As soon as Reid noticed the slight flush to his features, he broke out laughing all too loud even for the outside space.
“Man!” Cain protested, flustering and squirming. “Fuck off with that!”
Reid practically howled with laughter still, driving Cain to shoving his shoulder lightly.
“Suck my dick, Cav.” Cain hissed, looking away stubbornly.
Reid half-choked over a laugh. “You fuckin wish I would.”
“Yeah, maybe sometimes.” Cain turned back, still flushed but falling into their usual routine. Upping the ante, driving things further until one of them cracked. It was a weird sort of social-chicken, and usually Cain won out after long enough.
Reid was confident though, unwinding and finding it easy to scoff and grin.
“Too bad, pretty boy. You ain’t my type.” He pressed back, a look in his eyes just daring Cain to keep going. It was an easy, comfortable habit to fall into, built up over years and probably a few too many shared late night drinks and weirdly personal conversations.
“Right, I forgot you’re mister vanilla through and through.” Cain rolled his eyes.
Reid gave him a look, somewhere between amused and wry. “And you’re mister ‘fuck anything that moves whenever Sila ain’t around’, but I’m not giving you shit for that, now am I?”
At that, Cain groaned, slumping further against the car.
“Don’t make it sound like we’re a thing.” He sulked.
Reid snorted, his turn to roll his eyes. “Aren’t you?”
“No.” Cain grumbled, a little too immediately.
Reid just hummed, watching the church door crack open and Grimm slip out, tucking her phone away as she did. “You’re so full of shit.” He half-laughed to Cain, draining his second cigarette down to the filter. “Well lucky for you and all of us that have to be around your grumpy ass during his vacations, I heard he’ll be back soon.”
“Wait- really? Where’d you hear that?” Cain straightened up to face him almost immediately, and it took a serious effort for Reid to not point out the excited-dog look on his face as proof of his point. Instead, being gracious, he just smiled and almost-laughed, “From Red. They’ve been texting a ton while he’s been gone. Surprised he ain’t told you, first. Don’t you two talk when he’s away?”
“Not really.” Cain muttered, sounding vaguely bothered by it.
As he shifted weight from foot to foot uneasily again, Grimm came up and stopped just beside the two of them. Reid nodded to her in limited greeting as much as goodbye, and she returned the motion before setting attention wholly on Cain.
“Let’s go. I’m starving.” She announced impatiently.
Looking down at her, Cain caught Reid smiling suddenly in his periphery.
“You sure you don’t wanna come?” Cain offered one last time, looking over.
Reid shook his head, already pulling his phone back out. “M’sure.” He rocked back a step, moving to unlock his car. “You two crazy kids have fun.”
As he waved and slid into the driver’s seat, Cain waved back and lead the way from his car to further aside in the parking lot. As Reid pulled back and out, all that was left behind was Grimm, Cain, and his parked motorcycle several spaces down.
“Most everywhere good is closing by now, I think.” Cain mumbled, checking the time on his phone and glancing at the sky. The stars were blotted out in the face of the city lights, the moon barely visible around a sheet of heavy autumn clouds. Yet even in their absence, the night was anything but dim. He lead the way over to his bike, picking up the one helmet left on the seat and twirling it between his fingers. He hesitated to get on, to start the motor.
At his side, Grimm waited without comment, watching him.
He stared pointedly at the helmet, not her, even as he spoke half under his breath.
She didn’t say anything right away. They were alone. It was safe to use her real name. But a tension remained despite that. A seize to the air that felt uneasy and dangerous. Maybe he was the only one that felt it. Maybe it wasn’t even real. Not like he could tell, either way, right?
When she waited and he didn’t continue, the brunette at his side canted her head just slightly at him. “Yeah?” She prodded, one hand coming to rest on her hip as she stood there idly. Patiently impatient, in that weird way only she could look.
Cain stared down at the gloss of the plain black helmet for a moment more before abruptly shaking his head. When he looked over and handed it to her, he smiled as warm and wide as ever. If it hadn’t been for the lingering awkwardness in the air, it’d be impossible to tell anything was or ever had been wrong.
Ash took the helmet slowly, staring at him unblinking and neutral-faced.
She knew something was wrong. Something was on his mind- unsurprising, giving the afternoon he’d had. But she didn’t ask. He didn’t tell. She slid the helmet on as he threw a leg over the bike, starting it up and waiting for her to climb on before knocking the kickstand back up and pulling away.
As they left the church behind, all mention of the things they’d seen and done there were left with it.