Notes: this fic was inspired by today's Inktober prompt ("ripe") and serves as my annual MFU Halloween fic. Like the others, it does contain some otherworldly elements.
Being an agent on the run from THRUSH meant that any shelter was to be appreciated and accepted, regardless of how comfortable it looked. This included sketchy, abandoned mansions in the middle of nowhere, such as the one that Napoleon and Illya happened upon one in the middle of a stormy night.
"I really don't like the looks of that," Napoleon said, not wanting to admit how it made his skin crawl just by looking at it.
"Nor do I, but either we stay out here in the rain and risk being found by THRUSH, or we seek shelter there," Illya returned.
The rusted front gates of the old mansion had long since fallen off of their hinges, allowing the duo to slip inside into the sprawling front garden, which seemed to be a cherry orchard. Bizarrely, the cherries on the trees looked perfectly ripe, as though they had been maintained and tended do, despite no one having been here in years—if the state of the house was any indication.
"I noticed it, too," he agreed, for once, not interested in the prospect of food, despite not having had a chance to eat much during their escape. "Something is very odd, Napoleon. This fruit is pristine and untouched."
"Are we really the first ones to come by here?"
"Whether we are or not, fruit as inviting as this should have had flocks of birds coming here to partake in it. There are no birds, not even ones taking shelter from the storm in the cherry trees."
"This has to be the first time I've ever seen you turn down food, but you make excellent points as to why." Napoleon regarded the house with suspicion. "I'm beginning to wonder if we should take our chances with THRUSH."
"We are unarmed…"
"…Right," Napoleon sighed. "Guess our best bet is with the house."
Illya nodded, though he had gone slightly pale; this had all the signs of another otherworldly happening—something he despised. He didn't want to believe in such things, but he couldn't deny them when they happened—and around this time each year, they seemed to happen without fail.
The front doors of the mansion were also off of their hinges, allowing Napoleon and Illya to slip inside. There was rainwater everywhere, blowing in from broken windows. Inside, it was eerily silent.
"It doesn't look too bad in here," Napoleon commented. "Just years and years' worth of dust. Not even a cobweb."
"No birds in the trees, no spiders in the house…" Illya commented.
"What are you getting at?"
"This place should be overrun with pests," Illya said. "It should be a haven for insects, spiders, mice, raccoons, and bats. But there is no smell to suggest that there are mammals here, and no cobwebs, as you say. I doubt there are any insects, even if proof of their presence is harder to tell."
"So, let's see; we have an orchard of cherries that no animal wants to touch, and we have a cozy, warm interior that the local wildlife is also choosing to ignore," Napoleon assessed.
"Da. And I do not like it. Something is driving the animals away; they are far more in tune to things than us—you have seen the way Baba Yaga reacts to things before we can even see them, like the time she knew there was a mouse in our apartment before we did."
"Yeah, I just wish she hadn't left it on my pillow," Napoleon said, with a wince.
"She was gifting it to you."
"I understand that it was of great personal worth to her, but finding a dead mouse on my pillow isn't my idea of starting the night off great." Napoleon sighed. "Well, if your prediction is correct, there won't be any mice on any pillows here. I say we try to rest for a while—one at a time, in case THRUSH ends up catching up with us."
"I'm not feeling very tired; you can rest first."
They found a bedroom, with dusty sheets and pillows; they stripped the bed of the sheets and pillows, lying on just the mattress. It had a musty smell to it, but it would do for the time being; they wouldn't be staying here long.
Napoleon was soon asleep, and Illya assessed the room. There wasn't much else to it—a framed painting hung over the bed—what looked like a wedding party in the cherry orchard out front. The wallpaper was typical of an old mansion, though peeling and having signs of years of dampness. And beside them on the bedside table was a bottle of cherry wine…
Illya did a double take as he stared at the wine bottle beside them.
That had not been there when they had entered the room.
He sat up, bolt upright in the bed as a lightning flash illuminated the room. There was no sign of anyone having come in or out, aside from them—only their footprints were on the dusty floor.
He laid back down, wide-awake now, searching his gaze all around the room. Some more time passed, and when the lightning flashed again, Illya looked up above him, and froze. The bride from the painting had, somehow, emerged from the painting partway—more alarming than that, she was completely skeletal—her leering, empty face was visible behind her veil, and her boney hands were holding another bottle of cherry wine and two glasses.
Illya didn't look away as he furiously shook Napoleon's shoulder.
"What is it…?" Napoleon trailed off as he looked up and saw the skeleton bride. "…Coffee… I need coffee…"
"No such luck," Illya said. "Judging by her insistence, cherry wine appears to be the only drink on the menu."
As if to prove his point, she pushed the wine and glasses even closer towards them.
"Well, we've got ourselves a bit of a dilemma here," Napoleon said, quietly. "Drinking that wine would be a terrible idea."
"Truly the worst possible idea," Illya agreed, recalling how the birds had avoided the fruit like the plague.
"But I feel we're also asking for trouble if we insult a skeleton bride," Napoleon added. He winced. "Please tell me I didn't just say that sentence."
"You have no idea how much I wish I could," Illya said. "As for the problem itself, perhaps a tactical retreat from the skeleton bride will help us avoid her wrath."
"If this is you saying that you'd rather we take our chances in the storm with the THRUSHies, I'm all for it," Napoleon said.
Without another word, they leaped out of the bed simultaneously and ran out of the bedroom; they were heading down the stairs and into the entrance hall when they froze again. Bowls and baskets of cherries lined the hall. And sticking out of a portrait here was a skeletal groom, holding up another bottle of cherry wine and two glasses.
"…Let's see if there's a back way," Napoleon said, grabbing Illya's hand.
They made their way through the foyer, the sitting room, the dining room, and the kitchen. Each room had the same painting of the wedding party in the cherry orchard, and each painting had a skeletal member of the wedding party sticking out of it, offering them cherries or wine.
There was no back way out; it appeared to have been covered over by construction done long ago, when the house was in its heyday.
"I sense a negative energy in this house," Illya murmured.
"The wine-toting skeletons give that away?" Napoleon deadpanned, as they fled to a corridor.
"I mean, in addition to them; I sense that this house was the sight of great cruelty and greed."
"Well, let's go here to the study and see what we can find out…" Napoleon trailed off as they entered the study to see the same portrait on the wall. Without hesitation, Napoleon glanced at one of the barred windows and stuck the painting through the bars just as another skeleton was beginning to exit through it; there was the sound of glass breaking as the wine bottle hit the ground outside.
"Did you just…?"
"I'm sleep-deprived and haunted; forgive me if I fail to reach the usual levels of charm and finesse that I normally have," Napoleon intoned. He gave a start as a drenched and rather upset skeleton rose just outside the window, and Napoleon responded by closing the drapes on the curtain.
Sighing in relief, he sat on the old chair in front of the desk, and he paused as he found himself glancing at an old diary.
"Well, maybe we can get some answers in here…" he said, and he began to page through it. "I think this belonged to the groom—this was his house."
"It makes sense that he would want to get married in his sprawling estate with its numerous cherry trees, sitting upon his wealth while ignoring the plight of his less fortunate neighbors…" Illya scoffed.
"…Actually, you're pretty much right—listen to this… 'April, 1861—they say war is upon us, but I will not let something as foolish as that ruin the wedding I have planned with my beautiful Magnolia. We will throw the grandest wedding, grander than any that our neighbors have done, and still manage to keep out the rabble that will, no doubt, be vying for a free meal from us. No peasants will ruin our special day with their unwanted presence.' It keeps going about everything he had planned—obsessed with outdoing anything his neighbors had done in recent memory."
"So, not only are we being haunted by ambulatory skeletons that pop in and out of paintings, but we are being haunted by the ambulatory skeletons of greedy capitalists!?" Illya exclaimed. "…If I believed in fate, I would suggest she is laughing at me now."
"Well, whatever they are, we need to find a way to stop them; if they end up following us back, we'll find ourselves surrounded by this crowd of skeletons once we make it him," Napoleon said.
"But there is one thing I do not understand," Illya said. "Why are they offering us wine? Well, rather—why are they offering me wine? You are just the sort of upper-class guest they would have approved of, whereas I am part of the rabble they would be trying to keep out."
"For one thing, you're with me, and secondly, you're not part of the rabble—"
"We can argue about that later," Illya said.
He was cut off by a skeletal hand sticking through the curtain with a new bottle of wine.
"Will you give it a rest already!?" Napoleon fumed. "We don't want your wine!"
"…Napoleon, the diary," Illya said, wondering if they could get their answers there. "Keep reading it."
Napoleon nodded and resumed flipping through it.
"Well, well…" he said. "It seems the wedding was interrupted by a Northern invasion. The couple were incensed at all of their plans having been in vain—no one saw their grand wedding after all since the entire area had fled; it was just them being wedded by a local preacher who bolted soon after."
"But that makes no sense; the painting is of a large wedding party, and it isn't just for show; look at this…" Illya indicated the skeletal hand, still holding out the wine. "This isn't the bride or groom—it's a different person."
"…Wearing a Rolex watch…" Napoleon said. His eyes widened.
"What is it?"
"This wedding was held in 1861. Rolex didn't exist until 1915. How is a 20th-century person in a wedding party from the 19th century!?" Napoleon asked. Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Illya's hand in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, running to another room and investigating the painting—for there was another copy here. "Illya, look…!"
"…The wedding party, aside from the bride and groom, all have styles of dress from varying periods of this century," Illya realized. "Somehow, they were forced to join the wedding party…" They both backed away as a skeleton in a 1950s-era bridesmaid's gown emerged from the painting, holding out more wine to them.
"…The wine," Napoleon realized. "The cherries on this property are probably all cursed with the malice of the bride and groom—they didn't get the grand wedding party they wanted when they were alive, so they're getting it now, when they're dead."
"That would explain why the animals are avoiding this place," Illya realized. "Whoever eats the cherries or drinks the wine is cursed and joins the wedding party. Napoleon, we must get out of here at once!"
"We could do that. We probably should do that…" Napoleon said. "But…"
"Nyet…" Illya groaned, knowing exactly where Napoleon was going with this. "Napoleon, breaking the curse on this place is not our business!"
"I know, but how is it any different from us going out of our way to stop THRUSH? If it saves the next innocent person who comes by here, thinking nothing about picking a cherry from that orchard, it'll be worth it."
Illya groaned, but knew he would find it impossible to argue that point.
"What do you suggest we do about it?"
"Find the source of the curse," Napoleon said. "We both felt the negative energy when we came in here—let's follow it."
Illya groaned, but followed Napoleon. They found a secret passageway to the back of the manor's sprawling grounds, hesitating as they found themselves at the edge of a small, family cemetery.
In the center of the plots were two large tombstones—no doubt those of the bride and groom. Judging from the dates, they hadn't lived long after the wedding—the dates of death were only a year after the wedding in 1862.
But what caused the duo to pause was a large cherry tree growing over the two graves, the roots sinking deep into the plot and twisting around the gravestones as the tree rose up from them. The tree was full of fruit like the ones in the front orchard, ripe for the picking. But a shadowy aura also surrounded the tree, drawing up from the roots and spreading it from the tree, permeating the property.
"…Bozhe moy…" Illya murmured.
"I'm, ah… willing to guess that this is the source of the malice," Napoleon said. He looked to the right and saw a gardening shed, and took Illya's hand again, leading them there.
"What are you looking for in here?" Illya queried.
"Well, for one thing, this is the one place that stupid painting isn't hanging," Napoleon pointed. "Secondly… this is what I wanted!" He pulled an axe from the wall.
Illya's eyes widened.
"You aren't considering…?"
"You have a better idea?"
"Yes, we leave this place this instant," Illya said. "But I know you are insistent upon this, so, by all means, fell the tree and let us be done with this."
Napoleon grinned and opened the garden shed door—and then promptly closed it, his grin vanished.
"Don't tell me…" Illya groaned.
"Yeah, that skeleton with the Rolex I threw out the window? He opened the passageway and let the others out. We're surrounded, Illya."
Illya responded by grabbing a garden rake from the wall.
"Know that I would not do this for anyone other than you," he said, firmly.
"I know it. And there's never been a moment that I haven't been grateful for it."
They kicked the door of the shed open, Napoleon wielding the axe, but Illya was using the rake as an impromptu bo staff, knocking the wine-bearing skeletons out of the way first.
"Napoleon, go—I'll hold them off!"
Napoleon did not like this idea; it was written all over his face. But he also knew that if felling the cursed tree would solve everything, then the skeletons would also stop attacking.
As the storm continued to rage, Illya kept the skeletons at bay, and Napoleon hacked away at the tree. The aura around the tree surged with each strike of the axe, and though the majority of the skeletons did not react to this (most of them standing dumbly—perhaps they were slowly regaining their free will as the cursed tree grew more and more damaged?), the bride and the groom did, becoming seemingly infuriated.
No longer focused on trying to push the cherry wine on Illya, they made their way towards Napoleon now. Illya, naturally, did not stand for this, and he broke away from the other skeletons and ran ahead to block the bride and groom's path, shaking his head at them.
"You will not touch him," he quietly vowed.
He jabbed at the groom, and the bride chose the opportunity to slip past Illya and head for Napoleon.
"Nyet!" Illya snarled, hurling the rake at her like a javelin. It struck her on the back of the head, knocking her over.
But as Illya went to retrieve the rake, she got up, lunging at him; now the groom was slipping past towards Napoleon, but before Illya could go after him, the bride had seized his throat with her skeletal hands.
"Napoleon!" he gasped. "Behind you…!"
He shouldn't have been loud enough for Napoleon to hear him over the wind and rain—but Napoleon did, his eyes widening in horror as he saw not the groom heading for him, but the bride trying to strangle his partner.
He ran towards them, knocking the groom aside with an offhand swing of the axe and arrived in time to remove the bride's hands from Illya's neck—then swinging at her with the axe, as well.
"You don't get it, do you!?" he snarled at the bride and groom, as Illya massaged his neck. "The reason you're cursed to this afterlife is because you got married for the wrong reasons—not because you loved each other, but because you wanted to show off how rich you were!"
He stood back-to-back with Illya, who had recovered the garden rake; as Napoleon stared down the advancing bride, Illya stared down the groom. The other skeletons in the wedding party stood and watched, realizing that their fate rested in the outcome of what transpired.
"On 'three?'" Napoleon asked.
They quietly counted down and then both attacked, simultaneously knocking the bride and groom off of their feet. At the precise moment they landed, a bolt of lightning struck the cursed tree. Already weakened from Napoleon's hacking, it fell over with a resounding CRACK.
The skeletal bride and groom, who had been attempting to get up again, now fell back, limply; as Napoleon and Illya watched, the lifeless bones sunk into the solid ground.
The other skeletons also collapsed, disappearing into the Earth, taking their bottles of cherry wine with them.
The property seemed to change before their eyes; the grand manor looked more and more dilapidated, and as Napoleon and Illya ran to the front orchard, all of the cherry trees withered away before their eyes, the fruit disappearing.
"…I think we should forget resting and keep going until we find civilization," Napoleon said. "Suddenly, I'm not so tired anymore—adrenaline really works wonders, you know?"
There was no way to explain how or what they had just experienced; it would be left off of the mission report—it would save everyone's sanity that way. And Illya would be content to forgot the whole affair, as well—except, deep down, he knew he wouldn't. For it was because of his partner that they had both made it through this otherworldly encounter.
That would be something they would never forget.