A/N: This story will have much less of a flow than Choices did, since it won't be following the game storyline. In a similar spirit, it will be one-shot-based and explore the different aspects of Booker and Elizabeth's changing relationship. Unlike Choices, I have no idea how long this will go for-I've got a list of chapter ideas that gets a little longer all the time. There's no set end-point like last time, so really, I'm as much on this ride as you are. Hope you enjoy it!
"The Lord fills our lungs with water, so that we may better love the air."
He could barely hear the preacher's voice over the sound of his own sputtering, but the words were as true as Scripture. The sun kissed his skin, drawing out the wetness just as the baptism had drawn out the wickedness. "Thank you," he cried hoarsely, marveling at each sensation—the celebratory cheers of the crowd, the blinding reflection of sunlight on river, even the heaviness of his drenched clothes weighing on his frame.
"Go, Zachary," Preacher Witting commanded kindly, gesturing to the bank, past the line of souls awaiting their own absolution. "Know that you will never walk alone again, now that you are in the Lord's keeping."
He obeyed as if in a daze, wading toward the shore like a stumbling drunk. When he reached dry land he felt compelled to kiss the grass beneath him, each blade an undeserved gift from the Creator. The sounds of the crowd faded in the distance as Zachary pushed past the trees—he didn't know where he was going, but he was certain in his direction. His gaze was drawn up, always up, to the harsh, glorious blueness of the sky. Why do we remain down here, so far from God's embrace? he wondered desperately, leaning against an old oak to catch his breath.
"Excuse me, are you all right?"
The sight of the young woman stole his breath as readily as the river had. She peeked at him through the woods, looking more amused than concerned at his sloppy appearance. Her clothing spoke of fashionable taste—a cream-colored blouse and forest green skirt that swished around her ankles—and her poise suggested some level of social standing, so what could have brought her here, so far into the countryside? Zachary raised his hands, eager to show he was no threat to the lady, and she merely laughed at the gesture.
"I'm not afraid of you, sir, just for you," she called out with a giggle. That sound could turn any man's head. "You're soaking wet, you could catch a cold out here."
"I'm fine, my lady," he promised earnestly, stepping toward her cautiously. She was a vision, an undeniable sign of the Lord's blessing. I've finally done something right, he thought in relief. "Are you…without an escort?"
"I'm afraid so," she answered, and it pleased him when she didn't retreat from his advance. "And I assume you're in need of one as well."
The banter flustered Zachary—he'd never been one to rely on his words. Women had certainly…appreciated him before, but none of her caliber. "May I ask your name, my lady?"
She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. It was cut short, not even reaching her shoulders—a style too modern for his taste, but she was still quite gorgeous despite it. The delicate features of her face softened the harsh cut of the brown bob. The sun glinted off the small metal thimble that covered her stunted pinky finger, yet even that flaw made her seem no less…perfect. "Annabelle. Annabelle Watson. And you are?"
"Zachary Comstock." His first proper introduction filled him with pride. This must be His will, for me to meet her so soon after redemption. "You are a…truly welcome sight today."
Her head cocked to the side prettily. "I suspect there's a story behind that," she quipped, shooting him a grin that warmed him through his drenched clothes. "Would you kindly take a stroll with me, Zachary? I'd love to hear how a man like you ended up in this state."
"And what sort of man do you take me to be?" The reply came more smoothly than it should have—perhaps she was already rubbing off on him. He matched Annabelle's stride with ease as they moved beyond the woods and through a small clearing. Such a strange turn of events should have put him more on guard—but the very same paranoia that kept him alive through Wounded Knee felt out of place around someone like her. This encounter is God's gift, he told his soldier side, willing himself to enjoy it while he could.
"A man who knows what he wants. I can't imagine you'd be soaked to the bone if you didn't want to be, isn't that right?"
Zachary laughed for the first time in a very long while. She was clever, he liked that. "Aye, it was by choice." He shot what he hoped was a subtle glance at her neck, but there was no cross, only a lace choker with a strange emblem of a cage fixed to it. Annabelle caught his gaze and brought a hand to her throat, and his attention was drawn to the way her thimble brushed across her collarbone as she did so. He coughed and looked away, hoping to hide the redness he could feel burning across his cheeks. "Are you a, a God-fearing woman, Annabelle?"
She cocked an eyebrow at the question, then realized the connection to her neck. "Of course. Life would be so dreary without the Lord and His blessings, don't you think? I usually wear my grandmother's cross—bless her soul—but the chain snapped earlier this week."
His heart leapt in excitement—most of the women his age cared little for faith, preferring to seek more worldly entertainments. Annabelle was his age, wasn't she? Perhaps a year or two older. She moved with the grace of a woman grown, but there was a youthful energy in her face that time had yet to diminish. Her steps were confident as she led him through another spurt of trees, yet every few minutes she would meet his eyes with a look of something near…deference? A proper lady, Zachary remarked silently, noting the bare fingers of her left hand with pleasure. She can lead, but knows how to follow. Perhaps he was getting ahead of himself—but it took him sixteen years just to be truly born, and he was done waiting to get what he wanted. Annabelle was certainly right about that; he knew exactly what he wanted.
"You'll understand why a man might be a bit damp after his baptism, then."
Her eyes lit up and her pace grew quicker, and he was beginning to struggle to keep up. "Really? Just now? Well, this calls for a celebration! It's your birthday, in a spiritual sense. Come on, I know the perfect place up ahead!"
He pushed himself forward, eager to match her enthusiasm. Zachary felt quite clumsy in his movements compared to her—his broadness caused a crackle with every step, while her feet barely made a sound on the forest floor. Annabelle stopped suddenly at the end of trees, and he almost let his own momentum take him over the sharp cliff before them. He caught his footing just in time and peered past the edge cautiously—it was a steep drop of at least a hundred feet, and the treetops below shrouded everything beneath them. "Why…why did you bring me here?"
"So your body wouldn't be found." Her voice was cold, so cold it sounded like someone else entirely, colder than the river itself. The soft features of her face had hardened into a mask of fury—he'd never seen anyone that upset with him, not even the savages he took his trophies from. How had he wronged her so suddenly, so ignorantly, to cause such an abrupt change? "Booker DeWitt had his flaws, but he was a better man than you could ever be. You shouldn't have given up on him."
Zachary was overcome with rage at the sound of that name, and wanted to demand where she'd heard it before. If anything, he wanted to strike her on the spot for uttering it—yet her hand was already raised in the air, fingers spread wide to expose her palm back toward the trees. She stared intently at him, the anger in her expression mixed with a trace of…satisfaction? He lunged after Annabelle, to grab her, to scream at her, but the bullet that seared through his temple knocked him off his balance and over the edge of the cliff.
Zachary Comstock lived for twenty-four minutes before his corpse was swallowed by the trees below.
Booker lost his focus in the middle of reloading the sniper rifle, his head spinning with new memories that both were and weren't his own. Annabelle—no, Elizabeth—Anna?—Elizabeth had played through her ruse with startling expertise, luring the newly-born Comstock to his death. Hidden as he was among the trees, Booker wasn't able to make out their conversation, and he merely waited for the signal to fire. Within minutes the entire ordeal from the would-be prophet's view engulfed Booker in an overwhelming flood—it felt real enough to leave the taste of river in his mouth for the second time in twenty-four hours.
"Your nose is bleeding." Elizabeth hadn't wasted any time getting back to him, much to his relief. As edgy as he now felt around her, Booker preferred it when she was close by. He shifted his weight against the tree he was leaning on and tried to clear his head. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up."
"Should I expect this to happen every time, then?" he asked, touching his fingers to the blood above his lip.
Elizabeth gestured down a slope that met the water. Booker followed her uneasily—Preacher Witting and his congregation were far out of earshot and nowhere to be seen, but he'd just as soon never set foot near this river again. "The memories, probably. I'm not sure about the physical side effects."
"What do you mean you're not sure? What about the doors?"
She perched herself gracefully on a large rock embedded in the bank. He hadn't said so, but Booker quite liked the clothing she had pulled out of another version of the hotel room in Paris. The loose blouse had to be more comfortable than the corset—and thankfully was much more modest. The green skirt hung from her waist elegantly, and she traced the embroidery as she answered. "I can't just see the future of whatever reality I'm in. The doors show me what's already happened, and what will happen if things are left…untouched. But once we cross through a tear, it's like the door shuts."
Elizabeth waited until he began washing his face to look at him. She was fatigued from staying up all night and had used the brunt of her energy on the ploy to lead Comstock to the cliff's edge. She lacked the stamina to be bothered by the awkwardness that had settled between Booker and herself—but she knew it wasn't the same for him. He had barely looked at her all day, and every word he muttered was centered on planning the first of many assassinations. With the first one complete, he rubbed at his face more fiercely than necessary to endure the tension. The fabric from a skirt she wore a lifetime ago was still wrapped around his palm.
"Have you even checked that wound?" Elizabeth asked pointedly.
He curled the injured hand into a fist. There was a dull ache, but it was nothing like the sharp stinging he first felt…five days ago? Booker unraveled the dirty material to reveal a thin red scar down the center of his palm, somewhat obscured by dirt and congealed blood. Booker wet the strip of skirt and scrubbed it against the skin to clean it, wincing more from the expected pain than the actual.
"The Lutece infusions really worked miracles."
Booker jerked uneasily at the sound of her voice so close to his ear. Damn her nimbleness, the girl could sneak up on a cat if she had the mind to. Elizabeth took hold of his hand to drag a finger lightly over the wound, inspecting it for any signs of infection. He tried to maintain a neutral air, but guessed that she could see right through it to his discomfort. He wondered if she even cared. She grabbed the soiled fabric to dab at the scar gently, with no apparent regard for the hem of her new skirt being soaked in the river.
"Does it hurt much?"
"No," he muttered gruffly. Booker bit the inside of his cheek when he heard the hard tone in his voice, but Elizabeth didn't seem to take it personally. She coaxed his fingers apart to wash between them, always so thorough in everything she did. Even Annabelle wasn't this tender, where does she get it from? He immediately regretted making the comparison and forced his mind elsewhere. "What was the point in drawing it out back there? Why not just have me shoot him as soon as he came out of the water?"
"You want to cause a panic?"
"It's not like we're sticking around for very long."
Elizabeth sighed and traced the healed wound one last time. The Luteces' warning still haunted her—how could she make him understand the value in limiting their interference? "You got this because you didn't shoot first at Battleship Bay."
"I didn't want to scare you."
It sounded ridiculous, even as he said it. It took less than a day for Elizabeth to go from screaming at him as she ran away to falling into a neat system of corpse-looting at the end of every firefight—and that was before he learned about her knack for tearing holes in reality. The idea of trying not to scare her made him snort. Elizabeth caught his eye with a smirk, apparently finding it as funny as he did, and a giggle slipped out of the girl. God he'd missed that sound, he hadn't heard it since…yesterday morning. In bed. Sometime between her first and second climax.
Booker ripped his hand out of her grasp and smashed it to the bottom of the river, squeezing one of the stones hard in his fist and letting the dull ache sharpen. I didn't know, if I had known I never would have touched her, he thought desperately through the pain. Christ, was that his best defense? Ignorance? The Luteces had brought them together so he could meet the daughter he sold, and like everything else in his life, DeWitt had managed to fuck that chance up beyond repair. I didn't know. I didn't know. He didn't want to know. AD shimmered back at him through the water's surface, now separated by his latest scar.
"Booker, what is it?"
He swallowed hard, unsure of what her reaction would be if he confided in her. She'd already seen every atrocity he committed—the ones against her being the worst of them—could anything else truly shock her at this point? He could feel her expectant gaze on his face and pulled his hand out of the river, the rock still clenched in his fist. Sharing his feelings was a concept completely alien to DeWitt—but if Elizabeth was asking it of him, he certainly owed it to her.
"I did this to myself so I wouldn't…so I wouldn't forget," Booker hissed shakily, focusing on the way the water dripped down the initials on his skin. "And I did anyway. For the last week, there was no…there was no baby." Had he ever even questioned why the branding existed in the first place? Or why Comstock knew about it? "I didn't remember my own fucking daughter." His voice grew hoarse, and he half-expected her to open a tear and leave him, right then and there—god knows he would deserve it.
Always one to surprise him, Elizabeth roped her arms around his shoulders instead. Her lips pressed against the side of his head, just above his ear, and her words carried an earnestness that hurt worse than if she abandoned him. "It's not your fault you forgot about Anna," she whispered, squeezing his frame tightly. "You…you've made a lot of mistakes, Booker, but you couldn't avoid forgetting her. It's just what happens with trans-dimensional travel."
Why was she doing this to him? Booker trembled in her embrace, wishing she would shout at him or slap him or do something that made sense. Being forgiven, being loved, with all his sins taken completely into account…it was terrifying. She wouldn't be like this if I'd raised her, he realized numbly, letting the stone slip from his fingers so he could clutch at her sleeve. She wouldn't have…Anna wouldn't have taken my shit like this. He would have taught her better than to let a man treat her like he had.
"Then why do I remember her now?" Booker asked weakly. Unshed tears stung at his eyes when her fingers grazed through his hair—god damn it, this girl was destroying him, one act of affection at a time. "We keep going through tears, and…and she's still there…"
"I suppose…it's different, going through my tears instead of the Lutece contraption," Elizabeth theorized into his temple. "It's not as artificial, so more of you is preserved." Her arms loosened around him and she cupped her hand around his jaw, turning his face to look at hers. "Do you want to forget her again?"
Booker wondered how she managed it—treating him like a good man while constantly reminding him that he wasn't. Was it possible for her to have asked a more damning question? Was there even a point in lying to her? He had spent two decades chasing hangovers to try and blur selling Anna from his mind, when all it took was a quick jump into a different reality under the supervision of two ginger devils. Of course he longed for the simplicity of earlier this week, when it was just him and Elizabeth and there was no baby. A lump had formed in his throat, and Booker barely managed to wheeze an answer past it. "Yeah."
Elizabeth ached for the broken man in her arms. Maybe she shouldn't have pushed him, maybe she was only shattering him into more pieces—but he was talking to her, letting her hold him, and wasn't that a sort of progress? She felt a surge of warmth overcome her when he responded—he'd done so with an honesty she wasn't sure he was capable of—and planted a quick peck against his mouth. Booker jolted back, not entirely out of her embrace but enough for her to see the fear in his face. No, too much, too soon, Elizabeth recognized sadly. She wrapped her fingers around his branded hand and pressed another kiss along the healed wound. He only shook a little at that.
"I understand," she replied softly, slipping her fingers through his to give his hand a gentle squeeze. Booker stared at her with a doubtful desperation, so sincere it took a conscious effort not to kiss him again. God, Elizabeth just wanted to fix him, to feel him laugh against her skin and see anything in his eyes besides guilt. There was a hollowness in her gut—even with the tears and the doors, she wasn't sure she was up to the task, but god damn it she would try to help him, one act of affection at a time. "A part of me wishes we never destroyed the siphon, that we just got Songbird off our backs with the whistler and left Columbia behind." She offered him a small smile. "You would have taken me to Paris, I know it."
Booker's mouth went dry at the idea of a happily-ever-after with her in the world's most romantic city. He loathed the way it excited a part of him; there wouldn't be any mission in Paris, they wouldn't be partners, they would have been lovers, living in the worst kind of sin known to God or men, without even being aware of it. "Why would you want that?" he asked hoarsely, doing his best not to be tempted by the notion. "The siphon just held your powers back—"
"I never wanted my powers, Booker," she reminded him pointedly, tracing the thimble with her thumb as she did so. "I know they helped us in Columbia, but if we never destroyed the siphon, if we never went to the sea of doors and saw...what we did, then I wouldn't feel like such a…"
Booker frowned when she trailed off. The air of certainty Elizabeth had carried when she comforted him was jarring enough, but the way her expression now twisted with shame was even more troubling. "Like what?" he prodded gently.
"I'm…I'm an awful person, Booker."
That caught him by surprise, almost as much as the tears that suddenly flowed down her cheeks did. They poured from her eyes with a haste that spoke of a long-standing guilt—from what he could only guess. Booker dropped all sense of propriety and self-disgust as he pulled her halfway into his lap and folded his arms around her petite frame. "Hey, hey, why would you go saying somethin' like that?" he muttered anxiously.
Elizabeth winced when his forearm brushed too harshly against her hip, pulling at one of the fresher welts in her skin, but buried her face into his shirt to hide the pain. It was too new and clean to smell like blood. For now. The sobs were bubbling up inside her—maybe if she had gotten some sleep she would have been able to force them down—but Booker's arms contained her shaking, even if he couldn't control the wisps of silver twinkling around them. No, the tears seemed much more like a curse than a blessing.
"I didn't let them drown you," Elizabeth groaned, more to his chest than to Booker himself. "I-I see everything you and Comstock did—and will do—and I-I still wouldn't give you up, and doesn't…" she broke off again, squeezing his broad build hard enough to break a smaller man's rib, while a song she'd never heard of poured from an open tear. Booker kept a light, steady pressure up as he rubbed her back, mindful of the dressings he'd applied two nights ago. "D-Doesn't that make me worse than either of you could ever be?"
DeWitt grimaced into the top of her head. Of course Elizabeth would wind up kicking herself for sparing him; he should have been more insistent on taking him back to the baptism. "You regret saving me."
"No, Booker, that's the point!" Elizabeth hissed into his shirt. She took a moment to compose herself through the spasms that wracked her tiny frame—Jesus, how long has this been weighing on her? he wondered helplessly—and finally dried her face with her sleeve. "If I was a better person, I would, wouldn't I? Because it doesn't matter how many times we do this, how many Comstocks we kill, there'll always be more out there! All those worlds, and…and all I can think about is how none of them are worth being without you! I don't…I don't know if I've always been this selfish, or…"
"Awful people don't trouble themselves much with thoughts like those," Booker crooned into her ear as he smoothed back her hair. "Consider me an expert." A strangled sound burst out of her, something between a sob and a laugh, and he hugged her tighter for it.
He supposed there was a kind of logic somewhere in her argument, but in the end it simply didn't add up—Elizabeth could never be a bad person. "A decent enough sort", he'd called her in the Hall of Heroes—now that was an understatement. And selfish? Hell, even if she was, she had every right to be after what she'd been through. Booker might not agree with her tastes—"You're a liar, Mr. DeWitt. And a thug!" It was certainly one of his kinder descriptions—but if her heart was set on his company, then every prophet-infested reality could go to hell, she would have it.
Elizabeth looked up at him with red cheeks and bleary eyes. "It was just…it was easier not to know. It was simple."
Booker sighed as he pecked her brow warmly—maybe the gesture was inappropriate, especially with her in his lap, but the way she relaxed against him in response made it hard to give a damn. "Yeah. It was." His heart clenched at the implied preference of her over Anna, and then again at the distinction. Her name is Elizabeth, he reminded himself firmly. She called him Booker, after all. Now that he remembered Anna, though, he also had to mourn her, the sweet baby that she was.
But not now. Elizabeth needs me now. I'm sorry, Anna.