A thousand and one 'thank you's go out to JennaLouise for her invaluable help with this chapter. She's a marvelous beta and an excellent writer, and it would serve you well to check out her fics.
AN: It took a little longer than I said it would to finish this chapter, and I apologize for that. I'll do my very best not to keep y'all waiting again, gentle readers. Let's say May 10th for the next chapter, okay?
I have a little thing for T.S. Eliot's work, as may be apparent by the end of this. 'Ash Wednesday' is public domain and happens to be fantastic.
It was later, and the void had become a restless place.
Leviathans stirred in the endless black, their sinewy forms swift and darting, dagger mouths wide open and hungry. Seeking out the core of once-was-and-might-be, they shredded the stillness into fragments of sensation and bits of half-remembered speech, proving peace a liar.
"-help you find your way back," one of the dark forms chittered. "Stay with us now. Stay with-"
"Where are you, Leo?" another hissed. "Where did you go that we-"
Curling inward was the only recourse, spiraling down and away, fleeing deeper into a place that should have been a perfect refuge. The fear that nipped and chased behind felt like betrayal.
"Ecio's Stockpile and Trade. I can't know-" whined another. It was too close, far too close, and through the core, desperation lanced. "-in case I-"
"Everyone get outta here! Get out NOW!" one screamed, and never had madness seemed so wise.
...opened my eyes to discolored wallpaper and the feel of a cool breeze against my skin. Something deep in my soul rose up in revolt, and my hands clenched spasmodically, wadding the scratchy comforter in my fists. A familiar paisley pattern. Hideous. I'd never understood why Casey liked...
Running had proven to be worse than useless. Creatures crowded in above, unseen but suffocatingly close, filling up the black with endless whispering.
"Just don't bail on me anymore, bro," one giggled, its hide a shark skin rasp against the core. "It's getting too hard-"
"The party starts at midnight," the other sobbed."-in case I-"
Oblivion had been earned, a place of respite both created and craved, but now monsters wheeled in an ever-shrinking gyre, and there was nowhere left to go but down. A nightmare Coriolis Effect leading to a place so much worse than this.
Something flared, then, a sodium flash of emotion so consuming it felt like hate.
"-in case I-"
...goosebumps prickled over my skin, with the doorway an open maw behind my shell and a nameless panic clawing up my throat. The hallway stretched out on either side of me, oppressive in the gloom of the windowless expanse, while fragments of memory flickered behind my eyes too quickly to fully grasp. This place was pain and laughter and Christmas tree lights, and the smell of long grass at midday. Not home, but something almost as precious. The farmhouse. Sanctuary.
Some of my terror faded, enough so that I could focus on the sounds coming from the room at the end of the hall. Music and human speech, combined together in a way that should have been familiar.
I didn't remember moving, but suddenly I was at the door, the old wood rough against my forehead as I pressed my face against the jam. Through the narrow crack, a woman slept restlessly, trapped by pillows and washed out in the light that strobed from the television set. Troubled dreams had drawn lines of tension around her mouth and eyes, and her gloved hand with its delicate, scarred fingers flexed once in a blind reach for help. The sight squeezed the breath from my lungs, weighing down my ribs with lead.
Her name was April, and I knew that I loved her. I just couldn't remember why.
The end began as an old story, with the prey cowering and cowed, while the monsters circled inward with the rolling ease of carnivores that know their prey cannot escape. The core had nowhere left to run, and all that remained was a gibbering hyena chatter, which wailed and chittered and laughed in ways that had nothing to do with joy.
"He'll be okay, Leo. He'll be okay," one jeered.
"Just trust me, okay?" another mocked, dagger claws raking lines of sudden agony over the core. In a paroxysm of delight, the monster brayed, "I need you, damn it! -in case I-"
The will to flee was gone, and the will to fight had never been. No help. No appeal. Surrender had become a forgone conclusion, almost a relief.
And then another spoke in tones of wicked glee, and the core lunged with sudden, explosive fury, intent on razing it all to the ground and salting the ashes.
"-stay at the farmhouse and watch over Leo," the other had laughed, right before the void filled up with screaming, "in case I get myself killed."
…I landed badly on the other side of the window, my heel rapping hard against the windowsill an instant before my shoulder dug into the damp earth. Weapons rained down around me in a tangle of sheathed blades and leather strapping, and I caught one sword instinctively, cradling it against my plastron. Its weight on my chest felt like an anchor, and I clung to it with all my strength.
My free hand curled reflexively around the hilt as I blinked up at the pale blue sky. I felt suddenly dizzy, disconnected again, as if I was spiraling up to be lost in that endless, devouring blue. Screwing my eyes shut in defense, I arched my feet and ground my toes into the loose earth. I was desperate not to be here, and for a long moment, swelling blankness rolled around in my soul, beguiling me with the promised absence of feeling.
But then I knew, and a moment later I was tearing a path through the grass, buckling on my swords as I ran.
I remembered brother. Brother was in trouble.
A piece of my sweater was torn away, wrenching the cloth violently as it was pierced by a bramble spike. I checked my hood automatically, making sure it was still pulled low to hide my face. It was important not to be seen. Someone I once knew had told me that.
Despite the urgency that spurred me on, I'd barely made it to the road before exhaustion slowed me, lactic acid spiking through my weakened muscles like knitting needles. Gasping, my lungs stuttered in my chest as I leaned against the rough bark of a twisted oak tree, my throat aching almost as much as the scars on my shoulder, rubbed raw by the sweater. Grass seeds tickled in my nostrils, and the nearby sound of birdsong grated across my overwhelmed senses like sandpaper.
Things were different now, but so much was scattered and missing from the wreck of me that I couldn't begin to piece together the fragments. Bits of memory and the rags of thousands of conversations tumbled through me like discarded newsprint, making my hands tremble and my lips peel back from my teeth. A distraction. A penance.
Something was very wrong with me.
I gripped the tree with both hands and buried my face against the bark. The rough wood scraped a line of fire across my cheek, and a sudden, hazy memory slipped through my brain like smoke. Brother, much younger and sporting fewer scars, who carefully drew a line of silk thread through a slice over my cheekbone. His eyes were clouded with some nameless irritation, but those blunt fingers with their knotted, granite knuckles were gentle and sure against my cheek. I remembered how relaxed I felt, safe with brother, until he finished with the stitching, surprising me with a hard clap on the shoulder and a barbed warning against further stupidity. I remembered laughing at him, even as my shoulder ached.
My caustic, grim, funny brother, who could sometimes give even Mikey a run... for...
A whine bubbled up in the back of my throat, thick and choking, and I rammed my head hard against the wood until the sound died away. No time. Never enough time for this.
The memory eventually faded, and I found enough strength to lift my head and turn watery eyes toward the dirt road. Urgency was a chitinous, many-legged thing that scurried around under my shell, drawing lines of cramping anxiety though my gut. I was far from where I needed to be, but brother was in trouble. He was. He was. The only thing more unbearable than this walking nightmare would be failure.
A splinter of almost-familiar verse bobbed momentarily to the surface, bringing with it the memory of candlelight and a beloved, leather-bound book.
"Because I do not hope," I hissed, repeating it like a mantra, like a prayer. "Because I do not hope to turn."
My fingers began to unclench from the wood, slivers of bark sliding out of my skin with little stabs of discomfort. "Because I cannot drink," I said, gathering my will. "There where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again."
Shuddering hard, I clutched the harness strap in an instinctive attempt to anchor myself and began to jog down the dirt road. I kept my hood pulled low and face down, staring at the grass and pebbles that passed too slowly beneath my feet. A small part of myself, in a voice that sounded like someone I couldn't bear to recall, warned me that I was compartmentalizing. I didn't care. I couldn't bring myself to feel much beyond my own small universe, because I was needed, and I couldn't bear to fail again.
Despite my attempts to conserve energy, my heart was soon pounding, my breath wheezing around the words that had become my world.
"Because I know that time is always time, and place is always and only place." My hands were chilled from the afternoon air, and my breath was hot in the hood. There was nothing beyond this. "And what is actual is actual only for one time, and only for one place."
Salvation came with a sound that drowned out even the thunder of my heartbeat in my ears; a low knocking and an almost inaudible whine that spoke of an engine well on its way to the junkyard. My steps faltered and my head snapped up, the light stabbing into my eyes in a way that felt like panic.
Hunching my shoulders in preparation for a blow that never came, I cast a wincing glance over my shoulder and saw the truck ambling its way down the road toward me. Its dark green paint was peeling at the bumper, exposing a layer of rust that gleamed a malignant burnt orange in the sunlight.
"Because these wings are no longer wings to fly," I murmured uncertainly, as something rose up in my brain and began to clamor for attention, "but merely vans to beat the air."
Seemingly unconcerned by the jogger taking up space by the road, his formerly brisk pace slowing to a crawl, the ancient truck with its rounded wheel wells calmly closed the distance between us. In moments it was almost flanking me, and over the dull roar in my ears I began to hear the faint strains of music. Something low and almost mournful, buried beneath the distracting clatter and wail of drums and guitar chords. I didn't know why, but it set my teeth on edge and drove a wedge through the brittle chaos of my thoughts.
A moment of clarity, just a moment, but it was enough.
"Teach us to care and not to care," I said, stepping into the middle of the road. "Teach us to sit still."
The driver slammed on his brakes, and I felt an odd amusement as the truck skidded to a halt less than a foot from my plastron, the grill looming large in my down-turned vision. I heard a deep voice curse, saw the vehicle lurch as the driver pulled at the emergency brake, and then a worn, thin-faced man leaned out of the opened driver's side window and shouted, "What the hell are you trying to-"
The man's tirade stumbled to a halt as he began to sense that something was amiss, and when I looked up to meet his eyes, I could see the blood leech from his face. I had just broken a cardinal rule, but it was effective at freezing him in place for one crucial second. Through the jumble of fear in my heart, a small piece of me thrilled. Rebellion at last. Brother would be proud.
The name of his god was still on his lips when I surged around the vehicle and grabbed a handful of his shirt. Rough flannel was crushed in my grip as I drew one of my swords and plunged it through the window. The seat belt was severed instantly, and the man's scream was a straight razor slice across my psyche as I pulled him through the window and dumped him face first onto the gravel. For a moment that I knew would visit me when I next closed my eyes, he lay unmoving; a balding, lanky man heaped on the road like refuse.
And then he stirred, groaning fitfully, and I remembered to breathe again.
I climbed awkwardly through the window, settling into the cab as the man staggered to his feet and began to run back in the direction he had come, his hands protectively cradling his head. "For what is done, not to be done again," I called out to his retreating back. The guilt that visited me then seemed like an old friend. "May the judgment not be too heavy on us."
The whine of the engine wasn't nearly as loud inside the cab, which smelled vaguely of motor oil and warm leather. It took a moment to adjust, the man a dwindling speck in the rear view mirror, but I was soon able to reach up and grab the steering wheel with white knuckled fingers. Strangely, it was easier to think here, wrapped securely on all sides by metal and glass. Open spaces were the enemy, it seemed.
Another memory briefly surfaced, and I hurriedly popped the brake and shifted the vehicle into gear, my feet working the accelerator and clutch with a deftness I knew would disappear as soon as I attempted to analyze it. Best to leave things be. All that mattered was that brother was suddenly a lot closer.
"Wavering between the profit and the loss," I said, taking a deep breath as the truck began to roll again. "In this brief transit where the dreams cross."
There seemed to be nothing more to say, so I let the strange music carry me onward. It calmed my fractured soul as the gravel blurred and the sunlight glinted diamonds off the window, and soon all that was left was the memory of my brother's voice, making a promise to me that I intended to keep:
"See you soon."