Gwen stirred as she felt something dripping on her face, and she forced her eyes open against a small, bright light from a small window from which water had been dripping. She groaned quietly and, to her surprise, found that she was not tied up or restrained in any way. Next to her, Bryce had already sat up as well and was digging the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. His face was bruised - it appeared that he, at some point, had already been beaten by Christie. She moved over towards him and reached out, placing a hand on his forearm.
"Bryce?" she asked hesitantly. "Bryce, are you -"
"You've been staying with him in that cabin? With Will Caster?" he spat angrily, struggling through an obviously aching head to look at his best friend in the dim light. "That's why there had to be all this secrecy and -"
"It's not like that -"
"Then what?" Bryce snapped hoarsely. "You've got my undivided attention, Gwen, so here you go. Stop lying to me. What the hell is -"
But Bryce froze slightly when he saw the hurt on Gwen's face upon hearing him raise his voice at her like this for the first time - he felt his anger soften slightly, at least for the moment, and his back slumped slightly. "Gwen," he said, his voice now relieved of its enraged edge from moments ago. "Just - no more secrets. Just tell me -"
"I have a few questions for her myself."
A door at the top of a stairway opened just enough for Christie Duggan, pregnant belly and all, to appear, still wielding a gun in one hand, She made her way down the few stairs and first struck Bryce across the head, knocking him to the side before entwining her hand in Gwen's hair and pulling the young woman to her feet.
"What happened to my husband?" Christie hissed, jabbing the barrel of the gun into Gwen's abdomen so abruptly that she let out a piteous yelp.
"He's gone, Christie."
"What happened?" the woman cried shrilly, giving Gwen's hair another sharp tug. "The tapes went missing - you know what happened and you're hiding something. If you don't tell me what happened, then I'm going to kill you, and your friend."
Gwen's eyes darted towards Bryce, and her heart sank as she saw hesitation in his eyes. He could overpower Christie easily enough, sure, but she knew he couldn't bring himself to do it. She was a woman carrying a baby, and Bryce was too kind, too gentle. Their eyes met for only a brief second before Christie gave Gwen another harsh jerk, throwing her to the floor so that her cheekbone hit the cold ground, momentarily stunning her so she could not avoid the kick aimed at her lower back. Bryce was immobilized - but, for good measure, perhaps, Christie stared at him for a moment before raising her gun and firing a shot, just enough to graze his side. He clutched his side and toppled to his knees and, upon hearing him, Gwen attempted to roll over and see if he was alright. Seeing that he was quickly losing consciousness, unaccustomed to such pain and fatigue, she tried to crawl across the floor to him.
"Not so fast," Christie snarled, reaching out and yanking Gwen up by her hair again so that she was on her feet. "Did you kill him?"
"No!" Gwen cried shrilly, raising her hands in a vain attempt to break free. "Let Bryce go, please - he has nothing to do with this -"
"What did you do?" Another sharp tug, this time causing a sharp pain along the side of Gwen's neck. She felt her eye beginning to swell from hitting the ground, and she gave a quiet groan before attempting to explain as best she could - she could feel herself growing less and less lucid by the moment.
"I - I was trying to help him, but it didn't work - I turned him into someone else," she stammered, knowing that it was outlandish. Christie's grip seemed to loosen as she stared questioningly at the younger woman. There was so much desperation in Gwen's eyes, however, that there almost seemed to be no other option but to believe her.
"Is there a way to get him back?"
Gwen's eyes again betrayed the truth - she couldn't say with confidence that their wasn't, and at the presentation of such a possibility, Christie's resolve seemed to return as she twined her hand even more tightly into Gwen's hair.
"Do it. Tell me how -"
With surprising strength, Christie shoved Gwen hard against the nearby wall, so hard that she was already growing dizzy when she heard Christie demand to know how to bring Milford back. Gwen managed a weak whimper before a loud noise echoed through the room - through vision that quickly was fading, she saw Christie Duggan crumple to the ground in a growing pool of blood, and behind her, a familiar figure wielding a smoking gun.
Even as she leaned against the cold stone wall, she felt her knees weaken beneath her, and as she fell to the ground, Will dropped the gun with a clatter to stop her. "We're gonna get you out of here," he said - but Gwen lost her long-held grip on consciousness before she could reply.
Gwen stirred again and immediately felt beneath her a decently soft bed, as opposed to a cold cement floor. "Christie…" she muttered, remembering the last glimpse she had of the woman, bleeding on the floor in front of her.
"She's… she's dead, Gwen."
Gwen opened her eyes the rest of the way and saw both Will and Mr. Waters sitting next to the bed, back in the cabin in Capay. She forced herself to sit up slightly, staring back at both of them until Will managed to explain. "Really dead - not… like what happened to Milford. But thankfully, there was at least one thing left from Mr. Duggan."
Will hand up his hands matter-of-factly, and Gwen took a moment to realize - fingerprints. For at least a few more days, he would still have Milford Duggan's fingerprints. Gwen let out a heavy breath and slumped gently back down into bed at the realization that they had killed both Christie Duggan and her unborn child - hot tears began peeking out from the corners of Gwen's eyes as she realized that because of her, an entire family had been killed. They were gone, and Gwen Buchanan had been the cause.
"I…" she said weakly, shaking her head and looking down at her hands in shame. "I can't do this."
"Yes, you can. You have to," Mr. Waters said, his face contorted into a slight grimace as he spoke up, his arms still crossed over his chest. "We've come too far in this - if RIFT or the Gatekeepers get a hold of your work, if any of this gets out, who knows what could happen?"
"Would it be worse than what we've already done?"
Gwen seemed to crumple even farther into herself at the realization that they had all come too far for anything to become normal again. She wrapped her arms around herself, still feeling slightly weak and tired, but she sighed and attempted to draw herself upward as she asked the men in the room, "Where's Bryce?"
"He's… he's outside. He's fine," Mr. Waters said, unable to stop at least a shadow of a smile at the expression of relief that crossed Gwen's face. "He - he just wanted to talk to you in private. Should I let him in?"
When Gwen nodded quietly, Max glanced at Will, and the pair bowed out of the room, where a gaunt-looking Bryce was waiting in the living room on the sofa, right here he and Gwen had been been sitting before she'd rushed out to see what had happened to Will. Now, Bryce eyed Will with extreme distaste as he stood and entered the room, shutting the door behind him.
Now alone in the living room, Max too turned a questioning eye on Will, who had clasped his hands over his mouth so that the heavy exhale he release seeped through his fingers in slight hiss.
"I - I ruined her life," he said in disbelief as he finally unclasped his hands to make proper eye contact with his old friend and colleague. Max, in what was perhaps more painful than anything, made no sign of disagreement.
"You've wrecked them both. Gwen and my son," he said flatly, taking a few steps closer to Will. "You have a way of doing that, ruining people who get close to you." Max choked through a mirthless laugh before gesturing his hands out to his sides. "Gwen had someone who cared about her to the bloody stars and back - and she's been so blinded by this… this obsession with you -"
"What are you saying, Max?"
"You don't see it? She's just a girl, she's been dreaming of something like this her entire life, doing something this spectacular! Of course she'd spare no expense in protecting you!" Max practically spat. "You shouldn't be here -"
"You sent her into the garden to find me -"
"Please, Will!" Max hissed. "Did you think that when I sent her into your garden, I hoped she'd find you? That I wanted to bring you back?"
And Will froze in the realization that the answer was no.
"Bryce, please talk to me -"
"About what?" he asked, but rather than anger, his voice was laced with sadness and resignation as he sat in the old wooden chair pulled up to the side of Gwen's bed. "You… I don't know what you want me to say. He was the secret? He was the reason for all of this?"
"I had to protect him, Bryce," Gwen explained weakly. "I brought him back, he's only here because of me."
Gwen had slowly been leaning closer to Bryce, but recoiled upon hearing the skepticism in his voice, the way the lines in his face hardened now that they were talking about him.
"It's not what you think," Gwen pleaded reaching out for his hand and squeezing it before he could think to pull away. Now, for a moment, is looked almost as if she had toppled his resolve, the way she had a way of doing. "You know I've been wanting to do something like this for a long time - something that makes a difference. And I brought him back. Most people never even come close to discovering something like this in their entire lives!"
And Bryce, in an instant, snapped back to his anger from moments earlier, drawing his hand away as though electricity had just run through it. For the first time, Gwen realized, he was looking at her with disgust. Disappointment.
'Was it worth it?" he asked. When Gwen looked down at her hands rather than immediately answering his question, he gave a sad, humorless laugh that made him sound unusually aged, unusually like his father. "Maybe you two are made for each other."
"Bryce, no -"
"No, please!" he said, getting up from his seat and drawing away as Gwen attempted to reach out for him again. He hesitated briefly when the light caught a glint of tears in her eyes, but continued taking meaningful backwards steps towards the door. "Don't let me get in the way of your work."
He stormed out the door, leaving it wide open so Gwen, as she sat up in bed, could see him storm out the front door of the cabin completely without so much as a word to his father, or to Will Caster. Only moments passed before the two men returned to the bedroom, finding Gwen again with her arms wrapped around herself, holding back tears.
"Gwen, come on," Max said, approaching the younger woman and taking the seat next to the bed first so Will would not have the chance too. He placed a hand on her back, rubbing consolingly but finding that the quivering only seemed to intensify. "Don't - you need to rest."
"No, I don't," she said - but the instant she managed to speak again, she found that the action sapped the energy she had been using to hold back her warm tears from rushing down her face. "Mr. Waters," she said in a shaky voice. "I'm so sorry. I didn't want any of this."
Gwen looked up in surprise at the fact that Max Waters, too, seemed to be speaking in slightly choked voice. He cleared his throat and crossed his arms, maintaining eye contact with the young woman for only a few moments before looking up at the ceiling. "You and Bryce will be alright. You always are," he said with a forced smile. "He needs time away, but -"
"No," Gwen interrupted. "I don't deserve for him to be my friend - my anything."
Max cleared his throat gently, drawing away slightly - there was a part of him, indeed, that wanted nothing more than for his son to have nothing to do with all of this, but he also knew that avoiding danger was no path to happiness. Gwen, her face still stone with shame, seemed unable to hold her head up anymore. Will finally took the opportunity to step forward, but went unnoticed until he spoke.
"I'll turn myself in if it ends all this -"
"No," Gwen interrupted without hesitation or wavering. "That's the last thing I want. Wherever this goes, we're not going to resort to that." Even Max seemed surprised at the fire in Gwen's eyes when she spoke this time - the strength and the fearlessness had certainly not been there before. "I owe you my life, Will. If you hadn't me -"
"I owe you my life," Will said, shaking his head and scratching the back of his neck. "And you don't deserve this."
"I'm - I'm going to give you both a while. I need to make sure Bryce is alright," Max spoke up abruptly, excusing himself from the room and shutting the door behind him. There was a brief silence gain between Will and Gwen, left alone for the first time since the entire fiasco, before Gwen - more to break the silence than anything else - gave a sad, tearful laugh, rubbing at her eyes again.
"Don't feel bad," she said with forced levity - the kind that came from someone who lost all sense of feeling entitled to what they were feeling. "I did all of this to myself."
"No. No, you didn't," Will said sternly. "Max sent you into the garden because he wanted you to find someone, but that wasn't me."
Gwen, who had buried her face in her hands yet again, looked up with an expression that was initially questioning, but quickly morphed into understand and surprise. Max Waters had sent Gwen into the garden with a word of advice, that the home had once belonged to someone who she reminded him of - someone he often compared her to, sometimes without realizing. Max had sent her into the Casters' home to find her.
So, the next chapter will be after a time jump and a few things will have changed within a few months. For any of you who have been rooting for Bryce, he will be a big part of the action in chapters to come.
I also received a message from one of my reviewers asking about a "fancast" of the original characters to know what they look like, and to be honest, I haven't put thought into casting Bryce and Gwen. So, I decided to throw it out to the readers. Who, if anyone, do you see in those roles? I'll put some thought into it as well and reveal my picks in the next update.
And – last thing – I wanted to share with my readers here that I received my first professional review of my original novel, Portraits of a Massacre, and want to do something for my readers to celebrate! So, I want to ask you what you all would like to see – a one-shot of a particular interaction? A fluff scene in this story? Send me some ideas!
Until then, cheers!