"He is expendable. Remove him."

The angry boom in his voice sent shudders down her spine as Kidman instinctively took a step back. The suited form seemed to flicker in and out of focus and, at this point, she wasn't certain if he was a physical body or a mere shadow again. Regardless of which one it was though, she had a feeling he could still harm her and she didn't want to take the risk of it.

He was angry at her already, but... she couldn't do what he was asking.

Joseph didn't know about what was going on- he didn't suspect a thing.

He was innocent.

"Kidman!"

There was no reason for her to remove him- other than to prove that she was truly focused on the assignment at hand. And she could prove that in other ways, but murdering her partner was not going to be one of them.

That wasn't part of the plan!

"Kidman! Where are you! I can't handle all of them!"

At least... at least it wasn't a part of her plan.

She knew that both Sebastian and Joseph would be dragged into this, into STEM, and... she had been fine with it. After all, they were all trained; they could handle themselves and they could handle whatever situation might arise from this. But, how naive she had been in thinking that this would be an easy job- that all she had to do was find Leslie and bring him out.

The horrors here...

She had been chased down again and again by that lighthouse-headed creature; the thing shrieked at the very sight of her and made her head feel as though it would split apart. The very presence of that monster around her made her body ache and feel as though she was on the verge of collapsing.

At the very least, she was safe from Ruvik.

But they weren't.

"Juli..."

The call of her name finally snapped her out of the grasp of the shadowed man and threw her back into the blood-filled basement of the asylum.

She could hear herself gasping as her eyes darted around the dark room, not entirely sure what had happened or how she had managed to get back here. She remembered opening another one of those phantom doors on the wall next to her and... mindlessly walking in while Joseph went back to investigate whatever noises he had heard down the only corridor.

Joseph had been adamant about going back to look for Sebastian, but before either of them could make a solid plan, the tunnel in front of them echoed with the faint shrieks of the Haunted. She warned him to be careful and he assured her that he would and told her to stay put until he returned... And then he left. She remembered watching him carefully descend into the tunnel until the darkness erased his form.

And now, she was back in the original dead-end room and there was no evidence of that door ever existing in the first place.

She wasn't certain why she was startled by it- if anything, she should've been prepared for it.

This wasn't the first time a transition like that had happened and, it was just best to not question it. Part of her didn't even want to know if it had been STEM or the shadowed man who had thrown her back here.

Her mind was still scrambling to piece her ruptured memories back together before her eyes landed on the two men standing in the center of the room. They were standing amongst the fresh carnage of the Haunted who had followed them all the way into this dead end. It was good to see the two men alive and well still, but... something about this didn't seem right.

It felt like she had been here before, but it just wasn't playing out correctly.

That couldn't be right.

Kidman moved to place her gun back into its holster, before realizing that the weapon was still safely tucked in.

It had never been drawn out in the first place.

Christ, she didn't even try to assist...

A sick feeling welled up in her stomach at the realization of it.

Joseph had been calling her for help and... she didn't even answer.

More than likely, if Sebastian hadn't arrived when he did...

She flinched briefly as she caught Joseph's eye and watched as he said something to Sebastian before he started towards her; she was expecting him to be angry at her for outright abandoning him. He had needed her assistance and she just... she ignored him- she had walked away. Instead of helping him take down the oncoming Haunted, she just stood still in this corner and made him shoulder the responsibility of keeping them safe. She made him take every hit and strike that should've been shared between the two of them.

He had every right to be angry and to demand an answer from her.

But he didn't.

Instead, he walked towards her with a look of concern and worry.

"Hey, are you alright?" Joseph asked, as he slipped his gun into its holster. His shirt was mildly stained with blood splatters- no doubt from the defensive shots that took place between him and the few Haunted who had gotten too close. She could only imagine how, for someone who kept a strict watch on his appearance, something like that would be unnerving to him. But, for now, he didn't notice.

There was a cut that split over the curve of his cheek and an already present bruise underneath his left eye, no doubt both of them resulting from a nasty swing.

And the guilt of it tugged at her.

She managed a brief nod and tried not to look as detached as she felt. Her heart was still racing from everything that had happened and she wasn't entirely sure she had a solid grasp on what was going on now.

One minute, she was in close quarters with Ruvik... and the next, she was desperately trying to keep water from filling her lungs. It was a lot to handle and right now, it felt like her mind was on the verge of cracking.

But she had to be stronger than this, she had to complete her assignment... she had to regain focus before something bad happened.

"I... I don't know what happened. I just..." Kidman stammered, almost feeling her teeth chattering now. Christ, it was so cold down here. Then again, she had just been released from a water death trap and she was absolutely soaked. Her white shirt barely covered much now, but... she was hardly bothered by it.

"It's fine, it's fine." he whispered, as he moved to rest his hands on her shoulders and briefly squeeze them. Almost immediately, it was him simply trying to comfort and reassure her that it didn't matter. Despite the possibility that her freezing up could've killed him... he didn't care. "You just survived an incredibly traumatic situation, it's understandable to freeze on the spot. Don't worry about it, Sebastian and I handled it just fine."

She wanted to believe him, she did.

But this situation could've turned out so much worse.

His hands moved to cup her jaw and it was impossible not to fall into them.

"How are you feeling?" Joseph questioned. "You were completely submerged before we got you out..."

Her fingers numbly moved to tangle in his vest as she tried to muster up more words; she needed something to distract herself with and his vest was the usual target for that.

"Fine, I... I'm fine." she answered, as best she could. "A little light on my feet, but that's it."

"He is expendable. Remove him."

The way his thumbs lightly caressed her cheeks told her that he didn't necessarily believe her answer- at least, not entirely. And he wasn't wrong not to. "We'll just have to keep a close eye on you. It's possible that there could still be water trapped in your lungs, and we can't risk losing you to something like dry drowning."

Right.

Always the cautious, concerned one, no matter the situation.

A heavy sigh escaped her before she leaned down to rest her head on his shoulder. She just... she needed a moment to catch up on things and get her head straightened out before anything else happened.

She felt him hesitate slightly before he slowly moved his arms around her and pulled her in against him.

"You're okay. We got you."

...

But she should've known that it wouldn't last.

She should've known that she couldn't choose her own fate here- not in this world, not in STEM.

And when that high-pitched ringing set off, she could only watch as it destroyed the two men from the inside. There was absolutely nothing she could do- nothing she could even try to do to alleviate the agonizing pain that was going off inside of them.

She could only watch.

...

"I know who you are, Agent Kidman."

His voice came out in distorted syllables when he spoke.

His tone was sharp and all she could hear in it was the absolute hate he had for her as he slowly circled the small, medical room once more. Those dark eyes of his were infected, plagued by the disease STEM created, and they searched everywhere for her.

And only her.

Kidman held her stammering breath as Joseph slowly walked past her hiding spot once again.

He moved with steady, methodical steps, as though he already knew where she was and he was just playing her. He was just easing her into a false sense of security until he could put his hands around her throat again.

This wasn't the same man...

Not the same one from before who had pulled her up from the ruptured water tank the first chance he got. The same man who had tried to mask the scared trembling in his voice as he spoke quietly and slowly to her, desperate for an answer from her; the same one who had gently brushed the wet hair from her face while he did so.

This was just a trick, an illusion...

She was losing focus and Mobius wanted her to remember what her purpose here was; they wanted her to remember what her assignment was...

"He is expendable. Remove him."

That shadowed man, he was making her do this...

...

All she had to do was convince herself that this wasn't real.

It couldn't be.

Kidman waited until he stepped behind one of the curtains before she pushed herself up and slowly eased herself out of the room- praying the door didn't make enough noise to garner his attention. It shouldn't be like this. She shouldn't have to be running from room to room desperately trying to avoid him and trying to find a way out of this place. If she could escape though... she could avoid the possibility of having to hurt him.

It was sickening how that was the last thing she wanted to do and yet, all he wanted to do, in this moment, was kill her.

From the medical set up, there was a circular hallway with a few hiding spots and doorways that branched into other rooms. One of which was an odd-looking projector room that linked directly into a small lab area with white counters and bookshelves, as well as odd looking devices sitting out. She almost made the mistake of activating one to see what it was before she noticed the small, hastily scribbled diagram next to it. It looked to be some kind of light trap... which would more than likely draw his attention to her if she had activated it.

From that lab, an opened doorway connected it to a larger lab with more countertops and more of those light devices. When she cautiously peeked out of the doorway at the far end of the room, she noticed that it only circled back around to the medical room. Perfect.

There was literally no escape.

She was trapped here.

She panicked as she spotted movement in one of the windows before she ducked behind one of the counters, desperately hoping she had gotten out of sight in enough time. He didn't say anything and she swore she heard his footsteps slowly pass by the room... which only meant that he would eventually be here soon. And she couldn't spent the entire time crawling around behind tables.

Letting out a hesitant breath, she moved to peek over the top of the table before she noticed the axe that was half-embedded in the countertop next to her.

Her stomach dropped as the realization hit her...

She knew what she had to do.

She knew what Mobius wanted her to do- what they were going to make her do.

...

He wasn't real- this wasn't the real Joseph.

The words were forcibly repeated over and over again in her head as she shakily reached for the axe and pulled it free.

Taking a second or two to regain her composure, Kidman pushed herself up and started out of the room before she caught sight of one of the light traps. Right... she could utilize this, she just had to be careful. He would eventually circle around to this room, so she just had to wait and set up an ambush. Easy enough- she just had to make sure he came in the way she wanted him to.

Grabbing one of the glass beakers that had been neatly arranged under one of the counters, she tossed it into the smaller lab and cringed at the loud shatter that followed.

"Are you done hiding like a coward?"

She cringed at his sharp voice and briefly stepped back around the counter, keeping one hand on the trigger of the light trap. A cold chill ran over her as she watched him slowly step into the next room. While his uniform was still in strict condition, his skin... it was split open or decayed or something; it was almost completely white, as though the blood underneath it had completely drained out. He didn't have the peeling skin or barbed wire like the other Haunted did, but that didn't change the fact that he was one of them now.

Just like Connolly...

And when he turned and spotted her, she had to resist the urge to run.

Those weren't the same eyes that had looked at her in concern and coaxed her to find comfort in his words and hands.

He wasn't the same man...

He charged at her just like any Haunted would- he was faster though, more agile and in control of himself; he knew what he wanted and he was going to wrap his hands around her neck.

But she was quicker as she activated the trigger and immediately shielded her eyes- hoping to God she did this right. The mechanism gave off a warning pop before it illuminated the room with a bright light.

The brief shout of mild pain and confusion confirmed that it had worked.

The effect would only last a few seconds, but it was enough for her to get herself around the counter and pull the axe back for the first swing.

He would get hit, get knocked down and... fade away to ash like the others had.

He would disappear, because he was nothing more than an illusion- he wasn't real.

And yet...

There was a sickening crunch as the axe came down hard on his chest, splitting through clothing, skin and muscle until it struck solid bone. For a sheer moment, she was certain she had shattered his sternum with the blow.

But that... that wasn't supposed to happen.

She immediately released the axe and nearly fell back at the screaming as the swing knocked him into the shelves behind him.

Christ, there was so much blood spilling out of him...

One hand kept to the counter next to her for balance as she fumbled backwards, watching as he moved one hand to the axe still embedded in his chest. He screamed again as he ripped it out of him, causing blood to spray out with the blade before it was dropped to the floor. Leather fingers touched at the raw wound that was visible through torn clothing and there was almost a sense of disbelief with the touch- as though he couldn't believe that she had hit him in the first place.

Her heart was in her throat as he looked up to her... and there was nothing but pure, utter hate in his eyes.

"Fuck you Kidman!"

She fell back a few steps before she made a break for the nearest door.

In the back of her head, she knew it wasn't him. There was no way in hell Joseph would curse at her like that- no matter how angry he was.

And yet, there was still some doubt in her mind that this wasn't as much of an illusion as she thought it would be. That this was going to be harder than just... getting rid of an image of him.

Gunshots rang out from behind her and she watched as the doorframe next to her erupted into splinters from one of the bullets as she barely got out.

He was going to kill her.

And yet, despite the danger he presented to her, she could barely convince herself to pull the next axe out of the wall.

Why? Why was that shadowed man making her do this?!

Was this some kind of punishment?

Why this...

Please... anyone but him...

She ducked into the medical room and practically threw herself behind one of the monitors to keep herself out of his line of sight. Her hands were shaking so hard she could barely keep a firm grasp on the new axe. Part of her wanted to throw it away, because she couldn't... she couldn't hurt him again. Not like this.

But she would have to. If she wanted to live, she would have to.

"... Found you."

Those two words sent a cold chill down her spine as she looked up in time to see his fist come down on her.

And he struck hard- knocking her to the floor and knocking the axe out of her hands. The hit left her dazed for a few seconds, but she still messily tried to pull herself away from him, only to have him grab her by the arm at the last minute. He jerked her to her feet as he wrapped his hand around her neck once again, before he slammed the back of her head against the monitor and pulled her to him.

She didn't even see his other hand until it was too late.

He struck her again and again and again.

She tried to suppress the short screams that escaped her between each hit, but it was near impossible to as she eventually felt her lower lip split open; the fresh wound had blood spilling out of it, which caused some of the blood to flood back into her mouth. Hands fumbled to get ahold of something before she gripped them onto his shoulders and managed to fit her leg between the two of them. About that same time, she heard her own nose break under his fist and nearly blacked out at the hot pain that resulted from it. Sinking her heel into the soft portion of his stomach, she mustered as much strength as she could before she kicked him hard- managing to break his hold as she knocked him back.

Part of her was certain that her heel had actually punctured his skin, but she didn't stick around to find out.

Wheezing heavily, she stumbled and ran out of the room in a heavy daze and tried to find her way around with spotted vision.

She pushed herself out into the circled corridor and went in through the back of the lab before she nearly collapsed in the projector room next to it. It wouldn't buy her much time, but the heavy shadows could give her enough cover to work with.

Hands hastily tried to wipe the blood that had dribbled down her lips and chin, before she spat out whatever amount had gotten into her mouth- leaving behind a lingering, metallic taste.

"You can't keep hiding, Kidman!"

She froze at the words and edged herself closer to the open doorway, keeping herself low and in the shadows.

Fingers quietly grabbed the axe that had been placed in one of the chairs before she slipped out.

She managed to catch him through one of the stained windows and watched as he slowly walked through the larger lab- absolutely determined to find her again. Despite having fired at her before, his gun appeared to have been holstered for the time being... but she had no doubts that it would come back out if he caught sight of her.

Ducking down out of sight, she slipped into the same room and slowly followed him- careful to mimic his footsteps. She cursed to herself at the soft, audible clicks her heels made with every step; she swore he could hear them and that that was the reason he stopped every now and again. He was probably counting on her to make the mistake of clicking them and giving away her position. Hell, she barely even breathed every time he stopped- there was no telling what he could or couldn't hear from her.

He was smart, so she knew that the light trap wouldn't work a second time...

So she would have to ambush him the old-fashion way.

She held her breath as she waited for him to step into the next room and eased herself into the doorway to watch. When she was certain he had only his back to her, she rushed him.

But he must've heard her at the last moment because he ducked out of the way of her initial swing. She cursed and barely managed to avoid his arm as he swung it back and made a grab for her. There was no room for hesitation, no room for mistakes... She gritted her teeth as she brought the axe back around and swung harder.

This time, it hit.

And there was more screaming as the blade cut through the thick portion of his back and split down between his ribs.

The axe clattered to the ground as she made a run for it- not even bothering to stay long enough to see him push himself away from the counter he had been knocked against.

She didn't stay to watch the blood spill out of him or to watch him tend to the injury.

"I'm going to find you and rip you apart!"

How much longer was she going to have to do this?

How many more times was she going to have to hit him before this was over with?!

Was Mobius expecting her to just... hack him to death?!

She darted out into the corridor and down to her left, stopping just long enough to pull yet another axe from a nearby bulletin board, before she ducked behind the roll away curtain in the corner. Her heart was in her throat and she was shaking so badly she wasn't sure if she'd be able to keep herself balanced.

This wasn't real...

No matter how much screaming or blood there was... it wasn't real.

She needed to calm down, refocus and finish this.

She needed to complete her assignment and make this nightmare end...

She needed to set him free from this world.

But if she wanted to get any of that done... she couldn't risk standing around any longer. She had to take control, she had to take action now- no more fucking around. Taking in a deep breath, she briefly checked to make sure the corridor was clear, before she darted out and headed towards the medical center. If she could pin him in there, at least momentarily, then she could set up another ambush in one of the other rooms again- the lab seemed to be doing her a favor with that.

And then, hopefully... this mess would be over with.

She didn't even get to the doorway before she felt his hand grab her by the arm once more.

How the hell did he already find her?!

Growling, he used her arm to throw her into the wall behind her- throwing her hard enough to knock the air out of her chest. And it was only seconds before he caught her by the throat and squeezed hard, forcing out what few breaths she had left in her. She didn't even have a chance to realize what was going on before he pinned down the hand that was holding the axe in it.

She didn't scream when he twisted her wrist hard enough to make her drop the weapon.

But she did when he bit down hard into the side of her neck.

His teeth were blunt and dull, but he still managed to break her skin.

She tried to break herself loose as warm blood began to spill down her neck, but he was stronger and kept her pinned. Her free hand fumbled and pushed against his shoulder to no avail- and she didn't have the room needed to kick him off this time. There were already black spots in the corner of her vision as she moved to dig her fingers into the open cavity of his chest. And despite the pain it caused him, it only made him bite harder and tear into her skin.

Fingers pulled at his ripped vest before they managed to stumble into the pocket on the inside of it. She could feel where his notebook was still present... and the pen he always carried with him. There were hot tears in her eyes as she pulled the pen free and briefly readjusted it in her grasp before she stabbed it into the soft flesh under his jaw. And she held it for as long as she could, forcing it against bone before it finally made him let go.

She broke herself out of his grasp and hauled off once more.

Not again... she couldn't let him catch her again.

"You put us here- I deserve to kill you!"

... He was right.

She did... she lead both he and Sebastian to Beacon with the knowledge of what was going to happen- she didn't even try to protect them.

She was given her assignment and told that a call would pull them into Beacon and that things would happen from there. She was told that they would be dragged into this, but that... they would be expendable at best- that she was to do what she needed to, regardless if they stood in her way or not. And she still went with it.

And yet, by a cruel twist of fate, she wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for Sebastian or Joseph.

Without them, she would just be a corpse with lungs full of water.

Joseph did deserve to kill her... but, at the same time, this wasn't real.

He wasn't real.

Darting back into the medical center, she scooped up the previous axe she had dropped and ducked behind one of the curtains.

She was going to end this... she wasn't going to deal with this anymore. It was just an illusion, she had to remember that.

And when he walked into the room, wiping away at her blood that had spilled out of his mouth, she knew what she had to do.

She barely waited to edge into his blind spot before she rushed forward to strike.

Just like last time, he turned around at the last moment to catch her, but even with a brief struggle, he couldn't stop the axe from coming down.

And there was the same, sickening crunch as she embedded the axe into his chest once more- nearly striking in the same spot as the first swing. The crunch of flesh and muscle being spliced open and the hollow thud of the blade connecting with his sternum for a second time. Up close like this, she actually felt his warm blood splatter across her shirt and face.

But she had to do it... it was the only way.

Repositioning her grip, she ripped the axe out of his chest this time, determined to strike twice if she needed to. But his hands immediately shoved her off and distorted her aim as he slowly stumbled back- one hand going to his chest once again.

She wasn't going to run this time- this had to end here.

Raising the axe once again, she moved towards him but stopped as she watched him reach towards one of the monitors for support. Blood smeared against the white material as fingers clung to the edge of it before his body partly collapsed against it.

...

She watched in horror as the distorted plague that ruptured his skin slowly began to disappear.

She watched as blood spilled out from his chest and dripped to the white tiles below; while his black vest hid the stain of blood, it was easy to see how soaked the material had become with it instead. A heavy gasp rocked his entire body as he kept his hand against his chest before he slowly looked up at her.

There was blood staining over his lips in steady streams.

And the white haze in his eyes was gone...

"Juli...?"

Her name stumbled from his lips before he quietly collapsed.

No...

Please, God no...

The axe dropped from her hand and it sounded like a grenade going off when it hit the ground. Her legs just about buckled underneath her before she forced herself to move to where he was. And she numbly dropped down next to him; part of her was almost in denial- there was no way this was happening.

Blood sparked out between his lips with every choked breath and his chest shuddered as fingers continued to grasp at the gaping wounds that had split it open. Wounds that she had give him.

...

Nothing would come out.

She couldn't convince or force words to leave her; it felt like her throat had closed in on her as she slowly moved one hand to hover over the wounds. She had felt and heard every strike that landed and yet... the ultimate damage she had done to him didn't come to realization until now.

The white tiles underneath him were slowly being covered by blood.

Christ, there was so much of it...

Her hands shakily moved to cup his jaw as she leaned down and pressed her forehead to his. She could hear herself gasping as tears slowly began to trickle out; they were hot and uncontrollable as they fell against her cheeks.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

She didn't- even if it wasn't real, she didn't want to see this!

She didn't want to see him like this...

And the sound of the quiet sigh that escaped him hurt her far more than his hands around her neck ever did.

...

She wanted to scream.

She wanted to scream and break things and escape this hellhole of a world...

She wanted to know that he was okay- she needed to know that this wasn't real.

"I'm so sorry." Kidman whispered, all too late.

"He is expendable. Remove him."

"... Please be okay."